Room to grow

Ken Smith talks to Joyce Y Chiou, National Taichung Theater’s new executive and artistic director about honing the venue.

When the city of Taichung set out to make a name for itself in the cultural world, the first problem was, well, the name. While it was under construction, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito’s strikingly modern performing arts centre was known in English as the Metropolitan Opera House. In late August 2016, seven years after breaking ground and nine months after its opening ceremony, the complex was incorporated as an affiliate of Taiwan’s National Performing Arts Center and renamed National Taichung Theater.

In Chinese, though, the structure is now called ‘National Opera House’, which eliminates any residual confusion with the more established venue in New York but still baffles some of the locals. “People ask me, ‘Your name is Opera House, but where’s the opera?'” says Joyce Y Chiou, NTT’s new executive and artistic director. “And really, opera is very difficult to sell in Taichung.”

Admittedly, NTT’s previous administrators aimed high, inaugurating the theatre with a four-year commitment to Wagner’s Ring cycle in a production by Carlus Padrissa of the Catalan theatre collective La Fura dels Baus. This October, Siegfried will fill its 2,000-seat Grand Theater with a mix of Taiwanese and international singers, for which Shao-Chia Lü will conduct Taiwan Philharmonic (NSO, see page 23).

Repertory opera, though, is still pretty much limited to one Wagner outing per year. For the rest of the time, Chiou is looking to fill the complex with a broad range of spoken drama, chamber opera, physical and music-theatre works and – considering that she also has an 800-seat Playhouse, a 200-seat Black Box and a number of non-traditional spaces to fill – the more experimental, the better.

“We have orchestra pits both in our Grand Theater and Playhouse,” says Chiou, who came to NTT in June after 12 years at the helm of NSO, which she toured to international acclaim under the name Taiwan Philharmonic. “Classical music has been big in Taichung for some time, but our theatre programming has a lot of room to grow.”

Befitting its abundance of names, NTT has also embodied a variety of agendas. For Taichung, traditionally Taiwan’s second city now with a population of nearly 2.8 million slightly exceeding that of Taipei, it was intended both as a galvanising force for local artistry and a bid for civic attention within Taiwan and beyond. For Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, NTT became part of a ‘golden triad’ linking Taipei’s National Theater and Concert Hall and National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying), the latter set to open in October 2018. The strategy was aimed at spreading Taiwan’s cultural life beyond Taipei while sending a clear message abroad that the island was more than just a one-city touring destination.

From its initial incorporation in NPAC, NTT became an integral part of Taiwan International Festival of Arts (TIFA), a springtime series that recently completed its 10th season. Summer is now devoted to family programming and musicals (Korean musicals filled the roster in July), and this autumn NTT presents three months of events loosely gathered under the thematic title “Fall for Great Souls.” Current programming breaks down roughly into 60% local offerings and 40% international – a proportion Chiou would like to reverse, though not simply by presenting more touring companies.

“The most immediate way that NTT can bring Taichung to the world is by commissioning new works,” she says. “This fall, we already have two events that are international collaborative productions.”

By joining four other organisations in commissioning the latest in the Beijing-based TAO Dance Theater’s ‘number’ series – the troupe is now up to 9 – NTT will be mentioned in the same breath as Sadler’s Wells and Arts Centre Melbourne, Chiou claims proudly. As one of 10 co-commissioners of Romeo Castellucci’s Democracy in America, Taichung’s name will travel as far afield as Amsterdam, Bilbao and Montclair, New Jersey.

Although Taiwan’s three arts centres sharing the national label will also share much of their content, Chiou is looking to develop works distinctly reflective of her region, particularly central Taiwan’s burgeoning tech industries. “The local economy is filled with companies involved in robotics and AI,” she says, citing the choreographer/inventor Huang Yi’s work with industrial robots as an example of how these worlds can overlap on stage. “Over the next six months, I plan to revisit everyone who’s previously collaborated with NTT and see if they’re interested in engaging digital artists.”

Nearly half of NTT’s programming, though, will come from Taiwanese troupes that Chiou plans to take on as ‘performing partners’ – a relationship she distinguishes from more traditional resident ensembles. “Any group that performs four to six times a year can apply to be a partner, then we will review each bid for financial stability and artistic quality,” she explains. Partnerships involve no financial outlay from NTT, she adds, but primarily entail access to rental booking before the NTT calendar opens to the general public. “This way, professional groups don’t need to compete with amateurs.”

The full version of this article appeared in IAM volume 14 issue 9.