Program - Public Lecture Series     printer-icon Print

Ong Keng Sen (TheatreWorks, Singapore)


Ong Keng Sen (TheatreWorks, Singapore)
“Brecht in Singapore”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010, 8pm
Art Auditorium

Brecht’s influence on me has been immense, beginning with the recognition of my own culture in his plays. Reading The Caucasian Chalk Circle, one immediately sees the parallel with Chinese parables (such as The Circle of Chalk), which were passed on through TV melodramas and street opera performances to the descendants of Chinese migrants in South East Asia. In Singapore, Brecht's plays provided a bridge between the fiercely separated universes of Chinese-language and English-language theatre. Only in productions of Brecht’s plays would English literary circles and Chinese theatre artists (led by my teacher Kuo Pao Kun) ever meet.

As my thirst for Asian theatre developed, I began to see how important political theatre groups in the Philippines, India, Thailand, and elsewhere employed Brecht and Augusto Boal to expose the problematic political imbalances of their respective societies. For a young practitioner of theatre trying to reconcile his Urban experience with Asian traditions in Singapore, Brecht provided formal strategies for how to look at text and the body in performance and politics. These strategies allowed me to artistically articulate my estrangement from Chinese tradition, my deep empathy with it and ultimately the contradictions of identity that I experienced growing up speaking English as my first language while performing vernacular Chinese opera on the streets. I was able to employ fragments of Chinese opera, martial arts, and puppetry as Verfremdungseffekte (“estrangement effects”) and regarded tradition as a distantiation device that could reveal the larger social factors engineering and manipulating the position of the individual within the political structure. Chinese dialect, domestic relationships, ancestral worship became like my tailbone—vestigial but always there—so the stage was set for me to enter into an intercultural theatre platform where I experimented with Asian traditional performance as an arena to draw the audience into discussions on tradition, modernity, and contemporary life in Asia, appropriations and counter-appropriations.

Since my work with Brecht has taken so many different directions, I may also discuss “Brecht” as a process of cultural negotiation (as opposed to the notion of theatre product); as a device to historicize Asia and to interrogate the complexities of contemporary Asia and Asian diasporas; and as a starting point for a discussion of the politics of intercultural engagement through performance. In the fall 2009 production of The Good Person of Szechwan at Landestheater Linz, for example, we tried to create a “new” Brecht by approaching his German “oddities”—such as his notions of Chinese acting—through a process of collaboration between Chinese artists and German/Austrian actors.

Ong Keng Sen is an internationally celebrated director of intercultural performances and theatre productions. He is the artistic director of TheatreWorks in Singapore and an active contributor to the evolution of an Asian identity and aesthetic within the context of 21st century performance. As a theatre director, Ong has created many critically acclaimed productions. He is especially well-known for his Asian Shakespeare Trilogy (Lear, Tokyo 1997; Desdemona, Adelaide 2000; and Search: Hamlet, Kronburg Castle/Denmark, 2002) as well as his “docu-performances” (The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, Rotterdam 2001; The Myths of Memory, Vienna 2003; and Sandakan Threnody, Melbourne 2004). Ong himself considers The Flying Circus Project, which he started in 1996, as his most important work. This experimental project brings together traditional and contemporary Asian artists from the fields of visual arts, video, documentary, and performance as well as philosophers, literary specialists, and artists of new media and “new rituals.” In 1999 he initiated a network for Asian artists to encourage inter-Asian engagement, known as the Arts Network Asia. This project recently received an endowment from the Ford Foundation for its sustained collaboration across borders in the arts and cultures of Asia. Ong is also very familiar with Brecht’s work: in 2005 he directed The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Vienna Schauspielhaus, and just last fall he staged The Good Person of Szechwan at Landestheater Linz (as part of the Linz 2009 European Capital of Culture festival).

[The Outreach College at UHM will host a second presentation by Ong Keng Sen—a lecture on his intercultural Shakespeare productions—on Thursday, May 20 at 9:45am at Castle High School.]

Haiping Yan (Cornell University)


Haiping Yan (Cornell University):
“Sphere of Feelings: Theatricality in Chinese Aesthetics and Beyond”

Saturday, May 22, 2010, 2pm
Art Auditorium

Bertolt Brecht’s engagement with the Chinese traditional theatre is a noted instance of how theatricality is constituted in modern intercultural theatre. In his well-known essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” of 1936, Brecht documented his exposure to and understanding of this unfamiliar aesthetic tradition from “a precapitalist classical civilization” (Jameson 1998, 3). The essay articulates his key ideas for a definitively modern project—gestic theatricality—that aims to rupture mimesis and its apparatus of empathy.

While his theory and practice have been claimed by critics as the most consequential theatre innovations in the twentieth century, controversies about the constitutive elements as well as significance of such a radical innovation persist. Informed by such debates of rich theoretical ramifications, this lecture is initiated by an observation that also serves as an organizing question: While the aesthetics of Chinese performing arts do not appear to confirm Brecht’s theory of the A-Effect or his gestic theatricality as many have effectively argued, does this mean that such aesthetics by inference simply reject the cognitive activism that lies at the heart of Brecht’s theatre? If an automatic affirmative answer to this question would likely valorize the binary logic of the modern cogito as it is conventionally understood, a revisit of Chinese music drama, its acting and its aesthetic rubrics seems needed and may prove useful at our present juncture of human history where the problem and efficacy of human agency invites our critical attention.

Treating Chinese artistic tradition and its cross-cultural practice in modern times as a specific locality that can only be articulated globally, this lecture concludes with an attempt to place the question of the potentials of the art of humanity at the center of our intellectual discussion.

Haiping Yan is the Director of the Graduate Field in Theatre Studies and a member of the graduate faculty in the fields of East Asian Literature and Comparative Literature at Cornell University. Her specialties include comparative drama, critical theory, modern Chinese literary and cultural history, as well as transnational and intermedial performance studies. Yan’s book publications include Theatre and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama; Other Transnationals: Asian Diaspora in Performance; Chinese Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1905-1948; and Globalization and the Development of Humanistic Studies. She recently completed a new book titled Imagining China: Tropes of Home in Intermedial Performance. Her accolades include China’s 1980-1981 First Prize for Excellence in Drama (the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S.) for her ten-act historical play titled Li Shimin, Prince of Qin; an entry in Outstanding Scholars of the Twentieth Century, by the International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, UK, May 2000 and CNN’s 1999 selection as one of “six most influential Chinese cultural figures” for her scholarly and creative works in English and Chinese. Yan holds a Zijiang Professorship in Humanistic Studies at East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai since 2003. She is also the founder of the Cornell-ECNU Center for Comparative Humanities in Shanghai, which held its inaugural symposium on “Globalization and Comparative Humanities” in summer 2009.

Richard Schechner (New York University)


Richard Schechner (New York University):
“The Performance Group's Mother Courage in India”

Sunday, May 23, 2010, 11am
Art Auditorium

From February to April 1976 the Performance Group toured its production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children across north India, from Delhi and Calcutta (Kolkata) to Lucknow, Bhopal, and Bombay (Mumbai). In New York, this most unusual production–no wagon, modern dress, supermarket advertisements on the theatre walls, one scene staged outdoors, another with actors serving soup and bread to the audience, no fixed seating: a total environmental theatre approach–caused Stefan Brecht to write that, aside from his father’s productions and that of Giorgio Strehler, The Performance Group’s Courage was the best. In India, The Performance Group adapted to new spaces and different kinds of audiences, and in the village of Singjole, near Kolkata, spectators identified Mother Courage with Mother Teresa, hardly a “hyena of the battlefield.” Using many photographs as well as entries from his journal, Schechner discusses the adaptability and resiliency of Brecht in terms of his own theories of theatrical production as well as in light of the widely different receptions, both popular and critical, that Mother Courage received in India.

Richard Schechner is Professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He is editor of TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies and general editor of Routledge’s Worlds of Performance book series. Schechner's own books, which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, include Environmental Theater, Between Theater and Anthropology, Performance Theory, and Performance Studies—An Introduction. In the 1960s he founded The Performance Group with which he directed Dionysus in 69, Tooth of Crime, Mother Courage and Her Children, Oedipus, and many other works. In the 1990s he founded East Coast Artists, of which he is still artistic director and with whom he has directed Faust/gastronome (Marlowe, Goethe, Schechner), Three Sisters (Chekhov) and other plays. Schechner has directed, lectured, and led workshops in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. He is the recipient of numerous national and international fellowships and awards. He is an honorary professor of theatre at the Institute for the Fine Arts, Havana, Cuba and an honorary professor of the Shanghai Theatre Academy where the Richard Schechner Center for Performance Studies is located. The Schechner Center sponsors research, hosts conferences, produces plays, and publishes TDR/China, a Chinese language edition of the journal Schechner edits. In 2009, Schechner curated the Year of Grotowski in New York.

[The Outreach College at UHM will host a second presentation by Richard Schechner—a lecture-demonstration on his directorial work—on Thursday, May 20 at 6pm in music room 36 next to Orvis Auditorium.]