Interweaving cultures


A contemporary Thai theatre actress and her traditional Chinese counterpart reflect on their first collaboration with “One Table, Two Chairs”

The basic stage set up of traditional Chinese dance theatre Kunqu, which predated the more popular and less refined form, Xiqu, or Beijing opera, for centuries, one table and two chairs turn an almost bare stage into many different locales in accordance with the dramatic situations.
Inspired by this, Hong Kong’s most celebrated director Danny Yung, founder and co-artistic director of Zuni Icosahedron, has been organising “One Table, Two Chairs” series for decades. For these, he invites artists from various countries and disciplines of performing arts, to create a performance lasting just 20 minutes with only two actors and one table and two chairs. Yung’s Toki Project which continued from the collaboration between Kunqu and Noh artists in the Shanghai Expo and has also included research and archive on both traditional arts as intangible cultural heritage is also using this format, and has in recent years included artists from other Asian countries.
After watching Silpathorn artist Manop Meejamrat’s collaboration with Kunqu artist Sun Jing at the Toki Festival in Nanjing in 2013 and accompanying National Artist Patravadi Mejudhon to the same festival two years later, I did more than watch and discuss this year. Yung suggested I create one work with Zhu Hong, who specialises in “wudan”, the martial arts female lead role, and a Thai artist. I chose to pair her with physical theatre actress and long-time member of B-Floor Theatre Ornanong “Golf” Thaisriwong, whose solo work “Bang Lamerd” was critically acclaimed locally and became famous internationally due to the military junta’s special attention and attendance. 
With this year’s general theme of Shakespeare, we chose “Hamlet”. Our research questions for the work titled “#Gertrude #Ophelia” were: “If Shakespeare were a female Kunqu artist from Nanking or a female physical theatre artist from Bangkok and working today, would the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ be written and performed differently?” and “How would this change reflect and affect our societies?”
During our six days of workshops and rehearsals at B-Floor Room and Thong Lor Art Space, we decided to create a performance in which both characters have a story to tell. How they tell it, however, depends on the interaction between the two and with the audience as well as the relationship between them and the performance environment. In short, they would focus on the here and now and the work would not be repeated for the next audience. 

Interweaving cultures

Golf and Kunqu actress Zhu Hong in "#Gertrude #Ophelia" right in front othe audiece rows at ZaKoenji Public Theatre, Tokyo Photo/Katsu Miyauchi

“#Gertrude #Ophelia” premiered in August at the black box theatre at Centre 42, Singapore as part of M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, organised by The Theatre Practice, in the same “One Table, Two Chairs” programme as China-born Singapore-based director and latest recipient of National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award Liu Xiaoyi’s “Descendants 600” and “Descendants 400”. 
Reviewing “#Gertrude #Ophelia”, Straits Times’ critic Akshita Nanda wrote: “Thai actress Ornanong Thaisriwong and China's Zhu Hong pair off in graceful, even acrobatic, movements. They pop out of the audience and play games of hide-and-seek and discovery. They get the audience to join the mirror mimicry, reminding them that they, too, are part of the performance. They are Gertrude and Ophelia of ‘Hamlet’, the female characters so overlooked that, at the painful height of their act, the other two actors [from the previous two works by Liu] come onstage to take a bow.” 
She closed her critique by noting “Nicely done, even if the table and chairs remain largely superfluous to the performance”.
“Each ‘One Table, Two Chairs’ experience is always different; it’s truly special this time”, Zhu reflected after her Singapore experience, through interpreter Li Sichen.
“This is a full improvisation and it’s my first time. In the previous experiences, the hard work and complications lay in the creation and rehearsal process; it’s the opposite this time. We’re very relaxed in the rehearsal and the real hard work is in the actual performances. Plus, there’s more possibility for making use of the set props, the one table and two chairs.
“Performing Kunqu year-round, I have little exposure to contemporary performance, although ‘One Table, Two Chairs’ has been exposing me to more. Kunqu performers are generally passive as we perform only what and how our masters have taught us. In ‘One Table, Two Chairs’ we’ve learned how to be more active in putting our thoughts and creativity in our works. My colleagues tell me I changed significantly after my ‘One Table, Two Chairs’ experiences but I still feel the same. Maybe it’s flowing in softly and subtly,” she told me.
“I hadn’t known what Kunqu was before I met her,” Golf explained. “Working with someone from a totally different background for the first time was both fun and challenging. Performance creation techniques, like [American director Anne Bogart’s] Viewpoints didn’t work at first and I had to explore on how to use its variation to make our collaboration work, and that was also fun and challenging. I learned from her Kunqu background and greatly admire her concentration, perfection and stillness. But improvisation is not part of the Kunqu vocabulary.”

In October, Japanese director Makoto Sato, Za-Koenji Public Theatre and Creative Theatre Network (NPO) organised “One Table, Two Chairs” at their venue in the Tokyo suburbs. Two programmes, each with four works and followed by a discussion with guest scholars, were presented to the public over three days. 

Interweaving cultures Rajanikara "Leng" Kaewdee and Kunqu actress Tang Qin in Danny Yung's "Black Box 2016" (photo by Katsu Miyauchi)

Apart from “Descendants 400” and “#Gertrude #Ophelia”, the audience watched a wider variety of this intercultural collaboration. Classical Thai dancer cum aerial acrobat Rajanikara “Leng” Kaewdee worked with Tang Qin, who specialises in young maiden roles, in Yung’s “Black Box 2016”. Classical Javanese dancer Didik Nini Thowok, whose expertise is comic transgender roles, worked with Sun Yijun, a Kunqu actress trained in both male and female roles, in Cao Zhiwei and Yung’s “To Heaven I Plead”. Japanese master Sato adapted “The Tempest” into his “Station 2016: Prospero” with top Noh actor Kinki Sakurama and Kunqu actress Xu Sijia. There was also a contemporary work totally created and performed by Kunqu actors for the first time ever, as Yang Yang directed “The Time” with his colleagues Sun Jing and Ding Junyang. Another intracultural work was “Ophelia in Java” by Teater Abu’s Titi Margesi Ningsih who worked with veteran actor Yusuf Busro and co-founder of Teater Abu Liswati. 
“One Table, Two Chairs” also worked efficiently in contemporary dance as evidenced in “Being Mad Like You”, a collaboration between Japanese dancer-choreographer Kanya Takeda and dancer Kuriko Saito. 
Zhu and Golf’s work was scheduled third in Programme A, right after an intermission. Golf jumped up from her seat in the audience, ran down the stairs and out into the foyer, while Zhu appeared side stage and yet never really entered the stage. 
After Tokyo, Zhu said, “It’s very different from Singapore. I was very stressed in Singapore but I was more relaxed in Tokyo. I think I’m quite accustomed to improvisation now. I’ve learned a lot from this experience but I still don’t know how to make use of these in my Kunqu performance back home.”
Golf opined, “It’s a different venue and so our work’s different. Our performance space was larger in every dimension and so both of us needed to explore and interpret it. Performing in the audience stand and the lobby and stairways, presented new obstructions in our performance space so video cameras, control panels and staff members became our materials. They added emotions and meaning to our performance as much as the one table and two chairs on the stage.”
“Our work is a loosely structured improvisation, and our shared understanding in performance tools and languages are key to both of us, I wish we’d had more time to explore together. Our work would have been even more fun,” Golf said. 
 “‘The ‘One Table, Two Chairs’ project is an intriguing platform which can bring traditional works to meet with contemporary storytelling, by opening up space and possibilities with arts. I hope this project will continue and involve more traditional artists in other disciplines.” 
Plans are now underway to bring this “One Table, Two Chairs” platform to Bangkok for the first time next year. Stay tuned for more news.


The writer wishes to thank Thailand’s B-Floor Theatre and Thong Lor Art Space, Hong Kong’s Zuni Icosahedron, Singapore’s The Theatre Practice and Japan’s Za-Koenji Public Theatre and Creative Theatre Network (NPO) for their support and Li Sichen for his assistance in interpretation and translation.