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Connecting the dots! – Notes from Asia Producers’ Platform Meeting in Seoul

2013/03/04

Connecting the dots! 
– Notes from Asia Producers’ Platform Meeting in Seoul 

n an effort to promote the performing arts in Taiwan, the Ministry of Culture initiated Huashan Living Arts Festival in 2010.  The Performance Arts Alliance (PAA) has since organized the festival until 2013.  The festival is focused on performing arts and includes activities such as exhibitions, talks, performances and many more.  The festival also functioned as an art fair with showcases of featured local companies for international curators, festival directors and managers from venues around the world.

Taiwanese arts professionals have gained better understanding of the purposes and gradually opened up opportunities for international collaborations.  The Asia Producers’ Platform, initiated by South Korea, is one result from these exchanges in 2013.  It is a long-term collaboration of four nations that will see the rotation of an Asia Producers’ Platform Camp (APP Camp) among participants traveling to South Korea (2014), Taiwan (2015), Japan (2016) and Australia (2017).  The project is still in progress and has already drawn considerable interest from New Zealand and Singapore.

The 2013 December meeting in Seoul was a preparatory event for the APP Camp.   Taiwanese representatives include theatre producers Pei-Yu Shih and Ren-Zhong Lin and the Performance Arts Alliance team, Po-Chieh Chen, Hui-Ling Huang, and Hung-Wei Chang.   Also present as an observer was Kathy Hong, a veteran Taiwanese arts professional and the current Executive Director of OISTAT- the International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians

Text by Kathy Hong , December 30, 2013

If we were to sum up the theatre scene of 2013 in one word, “momentum” would be it.  There is no high or low season any more.  Performances sprouting and flourishing at every corner, whether it be outdoors, in theatres or unconventional spaces, performances are happening everywhere everyday.

The most exciting – exhilarating even – development is the emerging consensus and joint efforts on the importance of working together.  Our colleagues and us have struggled and fought our fights alone.  While this undying habit continues, we are seeing increasing awareness that the best strategy to face challenges is by forming alliances to beget more resources and opportunities.  In 2014, Taiwanese theatre professionals will see increased access to the international theatre community, and that includes not only artists and designers but also producers who are the linchpins to the productions.  As the Asian Producers’ Platform takes off, Taiwanese arts professionals will have the advantage to establish a global network and engage deeper in cultural exchanges.  The cultural and artistic inputs along with more international collaborating experiences will play major roles in Taiwan’s future theatre environment and movements.

"Why do people continue to dive into cross-national productions when they cost so much and carry such high risks?" Ren-Zhong Lin, one of the millenials’ curator and performance artist based in Taipei with 24-hour performing art festival (2009) and Fable to be or not to be (2008) under his belt, posed the question on our way to the Creative Producers' Forum.  Pei-Yu Shih, Artistic Director of Flying Group Theatre and founder of Close to You International Puppet Festival, has extensive experiences in international collaboration and admitted that such projects did sometimes fail.  As we sped along a South Korean high way, everyone offered their two cents: a cross-national collaboration tends to prolong the lifespan of a production; it ensures that the show will have a chance to tour overseas; while the risks are high, they are also divided among the partners; it provides diverse experiences for the artists, etc.  Depending on our background, we all had something different to say.  In short, working with partners from different cultures allows us to see the world and our works from different points of view.  The impact is not only felt by the artists but also the producers, administration, production team, and most of all, the audience.

During the Seoul meeting, a Creative Producers’ Forum extended invitations to local arts professionals and artists to open up a dialogue for the upcoming Asia Producers’ Platform Camp.   The project aims to establish a platform for cultural exchange among producers in Asia. It is initiated by Kyu Choi, a South Korean independent producer, in 2013 and soon received support from prominent arts organizations from South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and Japan.

The three-day forum included several closed-door meetings, luncheons, dinners and the forum discussion. After lengthy discussions, arts professionals from these four countries and local South Korean practitioners reached a consensus of no consensus: agreeing the role of the producer is multiple varying with scenarios; the definition of “creative producer” is inconclusive. 

The group consequently decided to abandon the term “creative producer” and endorsed that each producer is unique in its role.  The discussions fortified the value of this new platform to bring Asia producers in closer range and all went away with the strong belief that cultural exchanges lie at the center of learning.  

 

Cast Away the label “Creative Producer”
Every Producer is a Unique Role

 

Before the meeting, the open event on the second day was named “Creative Producers’ Forum.”  When all participants arrived in Seoul, we decided to get rid of the term “creative”.  Nowadays the word “creative” seems to have the ability to add cachet to just about anything, but it is not always clear what qualities or qualifications requested of a producer in order to fit into the criteria “creative.”  So the first order of business was resolving this question, “What is a creative producer?”

First of all, to label a producer as “creative” implies that there are producers who are not creative, but what is the point of imposing further hierarchy in which everyone is struggling to make things happen and sometimes even just to survive?  If this label becomes commonplace, will artists and companies demand for this mystified higher creature before they can identify their needs of a producer role.   

Since needs – or demands – generate supply, it has been customary for artists to “demand” assistance and the producers to supply and fulfill those demands.  In the Creative Producers Forum, ten producers from four nations participated in an extensive discussion on the role of the producer with over a hundred audience members, most of them practitioners, students and scholars from performing arts, film, and television. Despite the cultural and geographic differences, instant bonds were created as similar challenges producers face surfaced: work overload with an disproportionate focus on grant proposals and reports and meeting the grants’ requirements, leaving little time for any systematic reflection on the production itself; funding, or the lack thereof; the fact that most artists give little thought to budget, audience, or even their partners in the production team.  

The evolution and anticipation of the producer’s role varied from nation to nation. In Korea, role of the producer is more often referred to as “planner.”  The function of the planner in the organization often entailed writing grant applications, finding resources or objects needed while rarely involving in the creative process. In a sense, the Korean situation is not a far description from those in Taiwan.

Kyung-Sung Lee, a South Korean theatre director, pointed out that a producer should be more than a partner who handles the administrative side of the production.  S/he should also be a friend whom the artist can lean on for emotional support.  Jeff Khan, the Artistic Director of Australia’s interdisciplinary arts agency Performance Space and curator of 2008 and 2010 Next Wave Festival, mentioned that the producer should be the artist’s most honest audience.  S/he is not just a loyal audience member who applauds blindly but someone who offers sincere and realistic suggestions.

Dave Sleswick is the co-producer of Australia’s Next Wave Festival in 2014 and a long-time independent producer, actor, director, and artist agent.  In the past, he has been hired by artists as a contractor and also initiated new projects himself.  He acknowledged the role of the producer changes with the nature of each project.  He emphasized that both the artist and the producer make unique contributions to a work.  All in all, a producer should be responsible for mapping out the entire lifespan of a production and also serve as the catalyst to the production.

The forum spent two hours discussing the definitions and functions of a producer. S/he is the initiator, fundraiser, agent, administrator, marketing consultant, spiritual guru, friend, audience, and much, much more.  In conclusion, the producer’s role depends on the needs of each production, which could be immediate or anticipatory.  There is no hierarchy in this position, only demands and supplies, and the best candidate is the one who can fulfill the demands satisfactorily.

 

Independent Producers Taking Initiatives
Reversing Supply-Demand Dynamics

In this equation of supply and demand, the artist and producer often switch their roles.  “One Day, Maybe,” a performance/multimedia work inspired by South Korea’s Gwangju Democratization Movement, began as an idea the producer Kyu Choi had three years ago.  As the idea continued to grow, he worked with British director Tristan Sharps and developed the site-responsive performance in three different locations.  Kyu, who has extensive experiences in cross-national production, played multiple roles during the entire process.  In the early stage, he focused on funding, hired artists, and served as the dramaturg who helped shape the direction and content of the work.  Once it went into production, he still had to be on top of it and monitor progress, solve problems that came up, and secure further funding.  As all aspects of the production require constant adjustment, he advised any producer to pay special attention to dynamics of the team and the emotional rollercoaster as time rolls by.  We all want our team of director, actors, and all members to remain in good spirits.

Dave Sleswick, stressed being an independent producer, working with like-minded artists who share a common goal is vital to the success of a collaboration often spanning three to five year. Dave, who is also an artist manager, pointed out that despite their impressive title, independent producers in Australia work under challenging conditions.  Securing the limited resources is almost an art form in that it requires one to think outside of the box and yet also maintain a good reputation, which depends on a consistent output of quality productions. 

“Dramaturg’s duties are (1) to select and prepare play-texts for performance; (2) to advise directors and actors; and (3) to educate the audience… Dramaturgs serve as script readers, translators, theatre historians, play adaptor or even playwrights, directorial assistants or sometimes apprentice directors, critics of works-in-progress, and talent scouts.”

 Bert Cardullo, What is Dramaturgy

 

Urgency to Create the Asian Platform

Why then, are these parties from different cultures and backgrounds, sitting in Seoul now devoting time and energy to create this elaborate five-year project across four countries?
Kyu Choi gave insights to the initiative: “When I was studying western theatre in the UK and Europe more than a decade ago, I realized that we Asians are constantly on an identity search, while the westerners hardly ever do.  I wondered if we in theatre are merely trying to fit our culture into the western theatre module.”  And so, finding the Asian theatre form became a fascination for Choi.

Hiromi Maruoka, the President of PARC- Japan Center, Pacific Basin Arts Communication, has been devoted to building a platform of exchange for Asian artists and performing arts professionals over the years.  She pointed out that there are many platforms for European artists to engage with each other in dialogues.  On the other hand, while Asian artists and arts professional are eager to reach out to their colleagues in other countries, such platforms and opportunities are scarce.  Any cross-border contact requires a long trek over a vast geographic zone.  

The term “trek” describes aptly the geographic and mental distance between individual artists in Asia.  In continental Europe, where the borders are connected, a few hours’ drive is all it takes for a person to visit a friend in a different country.  In Asia, where the ocean separates many countries, the same amount of time only allows one to drive to the airport and go through the security lines, not to mention that the cost for air travel is much higher.  The geographic distance between Asian countries is also a metaphor for the disconnect between individual theatre communities.  Without an effective platform, they find it hard to collaborate, and their experiences cannot be passed down from generation to generation.  Each new endeavor has to begin from square one.  If even a minor logistic detail like travel could be so time and energy consuming, what exactly are the payoffs of those efforts?   

There is a Chinese idiom that illustrates vividly the importance of personal relationships: “when away from home, one has to rely on friends.”  Taiwan’s Pei-Yu Shi and Australia’s Jeff Khan and Dave Sleswick testifies that in a cross-national (co-) production, which comes with higher risks, it is essential that the collaborators should have already established a close relationship and are familiar with each other’s working style.  Otherwise there is a good chance the collaboration could end in failure or, in the least, an unpleasant experience.

If we could form a strategic alliance with our colleagues in Asia and create an intricate network of arts professionals centered in the region, the most valuable asset will be the individuals, not organizations or political entities.  The immediate advantage is the individuals connected will have a wider network throughout Asia.  Their immediate collaborators will also benefit, and so will their local theatre communities. Moreover, through each of these connected individuals, we will be able to connect to a wider network of global contacts.  The spread of the network offers many benefits: least of which is having friends abroad when touring to their region; then it would be easier to find partners in a cross-national production; and a wide network would allow the artist to stay in tune with the latest development in other countries.  In the long run, we can expect that the cultural and intellectual exchange could spark more original ideas, and a wider network would encompass more talents from various countries, indirectly creating more opportunities for Taiwanese theatre professionals.  With Performance Arts Alliance (PAA) as a founding member of Asia Producers’ Platform, Taiwan is not merely a follower but a trailblazer that will shape the future of performance arts in Asia.  As such, PAA’s involvement also gives Taiwan’s theatre community an influential, equal voice in the development of this promising new network. 

 

Differences Stimulate the Mind
Collision of Ideas Sparks Creativity

Difference spurs creative thinking and triggers curiosity. Being unique or surprising are merely perception differences, they are not standing with the average or norm.  Productions such as The Drowned Man and Sleep No More, both by Punchdrunk, have captured attentions and excited audiences in their converted London TV studio or New York hotel; Kyu Choi and dreamthinkspeak director Tristan Sharps’ One Day, Maybe erected large site-responsive shows in Gwangju (KR), Museum of Arts Kochi and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa (JP); Close to You Puppet Festival occupied tea houses, cafes and bookshops in Taipei; Get a Room performance series by Riverbed Theatre in hotel rooms and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, they all seduced professionals and general public alike for their unconventional experiences.  The common x factor in all of the above is essentially being different. Everyone, including you and me, seeks for different experiences.  Differences stimulate the mind and enrich experiences.   

Individuals from different cultural, educational and social backgrounds naturally form diverse perspectives. Imagine 20 people gathered to discuss their “differences” in a single issue, the amount of fascinating information and cultural understanding will come forth.  In this three-day visit, colleagues from four countries not only traveled far in distance, but also in achieving understanding and respect for each other’s cultures.  One of the interesting smaller details that spurred much discussion is language barrier. While those from Taiwan and Japan preferred future participants to have basic understanding of the communal English language, Australian colleagues argued that to be discriminating against those extremely talented with a disability to language.  Later, I found out from Australian friends that this contributed to the Australian society’s emphasis on inclusiveness and diversity in culture. 

In conclusion, the 20-participant ensemble agreed that the project begins and departs with “people.”  Being able to discuss, share and gain deeper understanding of cultures and creativity are impertinent to the developing project and platform.  The original mentor-protégé structure was quickly overturned. Instead, an inclusive ecology of young and experienced producers is deemed the best method to nurture and cultivate new thinking, new experiences.  The experienced can provide valuable knowledge and foresight with real case studies while the young provide latest technology and insights to the younger audience behaviors.  The general belief is each individual has unique contribution to the group.  A mix of knowledge and cultural understanding benefit all included in the dialogue. 

Ren-Zhong Lin and Pei-Yu Shih from Taiwan as well as Jeff Khan and Dave Sleswick from Australia are among this visit’s participants who carry multiple roles-- producer, curator and artist. The works of both Khan and Sleswick had stellar results instigating arts in communities and developing local engagements with artists.  Within two meals, one coffee meeting and one forum, the artists/producers quickly formed bonds and discussed further possibilities of future residencies or collaborations. 

Ren-Zhong Lin and Pei-Yu Shih shared their biggest takeaway to be the exchange of ideas and learn what others are doing in different parts of the world. The experience had stimulated more ideas and new approaches for future works.  In Taiwan, the seemingly trend of international co-productions have put one and one together.  While some worked and some not, the trust and friendship base formed here may seem to serve as stronger foundation for sustaining collaborations. It only seemed natural for international co-productions to come out of this newly established network platform.  For artists, opportunities the platform continuously creates, will undoubtedly contribute greater understanding of culture and the world, and enrich perspectives that will impact future works.  For producers, it is the heightened opportunities to network across borders, link together resources, experiment with shared knowledge and elevate their own regional theatre scene. 

Six of us from Taiwan had been on high since day one, energized by in-depth encounters with other colleagues from different countries.  We’ve discussed nonstop the scenario in our own theatre scene: for the sake of survival, theatre professionals work tirelessly but often engrossed in our own spectrum of work, neglecting the importance of joining forces.  Then many of our colleagues either drop out or leave Taiwan because of the difficult environment, lack of resources, and/or the insane hours.  It is not only our urgency to form alliances and exchange platforms, but the same urgency seen in other countries.  We see the long-term benefits of creating such a network and platform, to connect individuals and foresee them to grown into vast webs of interconnected professionals around the world. 

Looking back at Ren-Zhong Lin’s question on the first day, “why do people bother with international co-productions if they are susceptible to high costs and high risks of failure?” The reason we can all agree on is none other than making friends.  These friends are indepletable treasures of knowledge that only grow with time.  The collision of ideas sparks creativity, coupled with a strong international talent team, pose infinite possibilities.  What we should least worried about is not our talents crossing borders, but that they do not cross any borders to gain a fuller knowledge of the big wide world. 

 

 
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