Innovating Through Artistry

My Asian Vision Quest

In Author: Jim Hart on November 18, 2009 at 7:42 pm

Mythic Balinese Barong Dragon

Following graduation from Yale School of Drama, I received a grant to study ritualistic mask dancing with village master teachers in Bali and India, via a Fox Foundation Fellowship. That was a journey that absolutely changed my life. Prior to going on this trip, I worried, having just graduated from Yale and having entered the market, if it was the wisest thing for me to go on an overseas travel, to leave the city and go frolicking in Asia. What auditions or opportunities might I miss? I felt tremendous pressure—most of which was imagined—about what my classmates and faculty expected from me. It took me a good amount of time to get over that nonsense.  

I figured, “Well, I got the grant and really want to go and have to return it if I do not complete the grant within a year”, so I decided I would blow through for a couple weeks, see what I needed to see and come back—a whirlwind through Indonesia and India in two weeks! However, when I landed in Asia, my mind was so completely blown, that I felt compelled to stay, to take in this world that was so very foreign to my consciousness and see how I might develop as an artist. Two weeks turned into a year. I was definitely on the unconventional path.

Again, I was, at the time, terrified that I was not playing the game and following the path, as I should be. I had great anxiety about that for the first couple months. But at the same time, there was something else driving me. I was on an adventure. I had just undergone a transformation—from student in a highly structured environment, to being out of school for the first time in my life and…finding myself in a strange land. I had no idea what might happen next, what opportunity might arise, what experience my alter my perception, what surreal event I might stumble into (and believe me there were many). I felt a calling and, despite my great anxiety, I committed and stayed.

I traveled through Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong and India, observing ritualistic theatre, throughout.

I had the time of my life and experienced things, to this day, which I marvel to have experienced. It has served as one of the great moments of the “shaping of my life” and forever altered how I view theatre and art.

The bulk of the year I lived in Asia was spent on the surreal land of the Antipodes, otherwise known as Taiwan. I love the dualistic nature of Taiwan. A close friend of mine, on a second trip there, said that being on the streets of Taiwan was like being on a prolonged acid trip. A complete assault on the senses. The sounds, smells, food, traffic, people. They say La Formosa (The Island a.k.a. Taiwan) went from sandals to Mercedes in fifty years, literally. It went from being an Aboriginal culture, 50 miles or so off of the coast of China, to a refuge for Chiang Kai Shek and the 2,000,000 Chinese he brought with him, in losing China to Mao. They figured they would retake the mainland, after they reconfigured on this aboriginal island. Consequently, their construction was built with impermanence in mind. Often, I felt that I was living in the movie Blade Runner. In typhoons (hurricanes), the sheet metal they used as make shift roofs would blow off and fly through the air like a spinning razor blade.

The country is pulled between its ancient Chinese and Aboriginal traditions and its drive for all things modern, contemporary and capitalistic in nature. Generally speaking, I found the Taiwan to be a very spiritual people, but very aware of the value of finance and hard work. They are, generally speaking, a good people and I fell in love with the culture.

It was in Taiwan that I first perceived what “theatre of necessity” is. This sort of theatre is one that is vital to the needs of its community, culture, religious beliefs and practices. As a function, art has, basically forever, served to educate a populace, give its people and youth a sense of belonging, cultural identity and community. It is through such theatre that youth gain insight into the symbolic dream world of myth. There is a populace in Taiwan, who follow this theatre, as it is meaningful to them and addresses their spiritual needs. Note the key word “needs”.

Theatre there, typically erupts on the streets. I would know something was afoot when I would hear the firecrackers or gongs. If I followed the music and street dancing, I would typically run into twelve foot tall marching puppets, with face paint inspired by their mythic characters in Chinese opera, their long, hinged arms, swinging as they marched down the streets. At other times, I would see Taoist priests flogging themselves in a ritualistic self-sacrifice. These entranced monks would, with a club covered in triangular-shaped razors, whale upon their own naked flesh. Another priest might blow a dust, of nature foreign to me, into the entranced priests face. The priest would pause, grimace, and continue his entranced dance and then Pow! Another blow. It was an elaborate ritualistic celebration and street passersby’s would become captivated and enthralled by this dramatic self-mutilation, and would then follow the procession.

I was so inspired in Asia, that I began writing. I wrote an original one person show, backed by a five piece, multi-cultural band. I traveled with this show throughout Taiwan, generating much-needed cash, at the time. Also, I assisted in establishing the largest theatre festival in the history of Taiwan, a multi-cultural, multi-day event called The World-wide Art Collective (Wacfest). This festival’s principle goal was to draw theatrical and dance artists from varied countries of the world, to share their work and lay ground for potential future collaborations. I believe sixteen countries of the world were represented in that first year. The festival continues to have a life, these many years later and can be learned more about at wacfest.org.

The experience of Asia, absolutely opened my mind, as to what theatre is, has been forever, and what it might become. My Stanislavski based training and traditional theatrical upbringing was turned on its ear.

I did not know what I would get out of Asia, but in retrospect, I see it was a vision quest.

In another post, I will speak about the beauty and surreal ness of Bali. It is no wonder that so many truly great and legendary theatre visionaries/directors have spent time on this enchanting Bali. Truly, Bali is one of the more beautiful cultures and islands of the world. From personal experience, I believe Bali to have a special energy about it—what I describe as a spiritual gravity. Perhaps some places in the world have more than others. More on that later…Shamans and cremation ceremonies, Topeng mask dancers and monkey forests with six-foot wing spanned bats flying overhead.

I have since traveled to twenty countries of the world, typically participating in or studying theatre or dance in each.

Jim Hart is the founder of The Hart Technique   www.harttechnique.com and   The International Theatre Academy Norway  (TITAN Teaterskole)

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