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On the Road to Multiculturalism
The Cry of Asia Experience

"Multi-cultural" is today's buzz word in the global arts scene. Multi-cultural is in like herbal medicine and bio-degradable shopping bags. It is in with arts funding agencies and international festivals. On the internet, there are 183,001 web sites featuring discussions, articles, books, videos, workshops, conferences and performances on multi-cultural arts. They even say it is synonymous to "globalization". But despite the possible pitfalls resulting from creative movements developing into free-for-all bandwagon rides, multi-culturalism is indeed causing a resounding impact in the arena of international arts. It is engendering enormous possibilities towards expanding the creative visions of artists and enlarging the space for artistic innovations. It allows artists to cross borders, experience other cultures, and in the end re-discover the path that leads back home.

We were looking for visions across nations which parallel our own, new inspirations, familiar tones playing unfamiliar symphony. We were raring to cross borders in search of a common ground for Asian artists to come and work together.

It is this experience of coming home that, we were to discover, is at the core of our 10-year old theatre project Cry of Asia.

The beginning was 1984, in New Delhi, India, where a pioneering interaction workshop brought together young artists from all over Asia. It was a momentous event for most of us as we were a group yearning for experience— fascinated by the Korean madang theatre movement, intrigued by the resilience of India's street theatre tradition, challenged by the vibrancy of protest theatre in the Philippines, and disillusioned with the Chinese cultural movement which seemed then to have sounded the death toll for Asian social realism in the arts. We were looking for visions across nations which parallel our own, new inspirations, familiar tones playing unfamiliar symphony. We were raring to cross borders in search of a common ground for Asian artists to come and work together. The year after, in 1985, we founded the Asian Council for People's Culture as a network of theatre artists, musicians, dancers, community arts workers and popular educators in the Asia-Pacific region.

Within 3 years after ACPC was formed, sixteen countries participated in a series of cross-cultural workshops held in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The workshops researched, studied and explored traditional and contemporary performing arts, pursuing the dynamics of Asian culture vis-a-vis history, society, development and change. Artists exchanged ideas, compared styles, learned music and instruments, fans and finger movements, acting techniques South and North East of the continent, tai-chi and butoh, tradition and modern. But always with the view of discovering the functions and intentions of Asian arts and culture. Gradually, the workshops evolved an approach to multi-cultural collaboration. Thus was born the idea of Cry of Asia.

In 1989, we thought we were ready for the first Cry of Asia production. We made an announcement, and the responding companies and partners of the network chose their representatives. There was no script to begin with so there were no auditions or casting to undertake. Nevertheless, the gathering was an exciting harvest of versatile and talented peformers—17 in all from 12 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them were actress Nacco Kiritani of Japan's Black Tent Theatre and actor, director and pansori master Kim Myong Gon of South Korea. There was Filipina Grace Amilbangsa who learned the Southern Philippine dance pangalay from her mother Ligaya, and Indonesian Gusti Putu Alit who learned Balinese dance at age 4 also from her mother. The late Orn Anong of Thailand's Maya Theatre group and Foo May Lyn of Malaysia's Five Arts Centre joined with their traditional dance and theatre background. South Asia's representatives were Shashi Adapa of India, Kumar Sithamparanathan of Sri Lanka, and Musadiq Iqbal of Pakistan. Musician-actor Hemi Rurawhe represented the Maori community of Aotearoa or New Zealand. He was also the shaman of the group, offering chants before performances, quick to mediate during moments of intense conflict, always gentle and ready with healing acts and rituals for those in pain or injured physically or emotionally.

On the third week, improvisation was the order of the day and the language of theatre prevailed as the company's universal means of commmunication. Each one spoke in his/her native language until
we almost thought
we actually spoke with a common tongue.

On the very first day of rehearsals, with a multi-national cast of diverse backgrounds, looking somehow alike but speaking in different languages, we realized the gravity of our situation. Rehearsals started without a script and only with a clear intention: that we were to conceptualize, create and improvise the play together. But that was not the most challenging part. Almost half of the group were non-English speakers! One member, who was absolutely non-English speaking, brought along a Japanese pocket electronic translator and threw it away after 3 days. He was always 2,000 words delayed. By the second week, however, we began to develop a kind of "English" communication—single, simple, concise words along with gestures and precise movements—our practical lesson in direct action. Drawings similar to a storyboard also came in handy, particularly when we "discussed" scenario and play structure. On the third week, improvisation was the order of the day and the language of theatre prevailed as the company's universal means of commmunication. Each one spoke in his/her native language until we almost thought we actually spoke with a common tongue. The play was in fact performed in 10 languages. On the fourth week, we were off to the French Alps for the final part of our rehearsals.

After an enjoyable premiere at the Avignon Festival, we jumped from one city to another. It was a punishing 8-month 9-country tour, which started in summer in the morgue-like basement of the Film Center in Manila and ended in a dramatic ceremony at the cemetery of Kwangju in wintery South Korea. Border-crossing and lining up at immigration developed into a standard company operation. The Australian, Japanese, New Zealander—we came to regard them as the "tourist/ business class" in the group—were always first at the counter. It was easy for them and easy for the immigration officer. Next were South Koreans and Malaysian, the "NIC class" we called them. Then the South East Asians—Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, the "domestic helpers-seamen-entertainers class." The immigration officer, by this time would be wide awake and taking more time with the passports and the persons in front of him. When it was the turn of the Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani, the "illegals and terrorists class," the entire immigration office seemed to be on red alert. This last batch was always the target of suspicion, they were often "called to the office," interrogated, frisked and sometimes ordered to strip naked.

As days and weeks and months wore on, we grew weary and angry. In Europe, we got tired of the breads and the cheeses and felt like we were always hungry.

The company performed in around 50 cities of Asia and Europe. We got good grades from the international press—L' Humanite of Paris ("Extremely touching total theatre experience"), The Independent of London ("An ensemble of first-rate performers"), Asiaweek ("Spectacular mix of myth and politics") offered us glowing reviews. But we kept challenging and questioning ourselves and the quality of our performance. We kept changing and revising our scenes. As days and weeks and months wore on, we grew weary and angry. In Europe, we got tired of the breads and the cheeses and felt like we were always hungry. When once our organizer failed us on our urgent request for Asian food, Grace, Putu and Orn walked across the stage gracefully disgusted with a pot of rice! The Asian threshold had been overtaken.

In December, we came back to Manila in the middle of a military coup. While soldiers sprayed each other with bullets and bombs dropped at the Malacañang Palace, our Cry of Asia performers were hastily packing up for the first flight out. All of a sudden, Cry of Asia was over.

But that was not the end.

Cry of Asia 2, 3 and 4 were produced in the next 8 years. In time, we developed a methodology—a step-by-step training and rehearsal process wherein the artists collaborated on conceptualizing and improvising the production. The first part of our creative experience was spent on building a common vocabulary, like infants uttering their first words and making their first steps. We learned breathing, movement and finger exercises, flexing the toes, finding our balance, walking in the style of Korea, or Japan, or Mindanao. Then we devised our play structure based on a common story. In the first and fourth Cry of Asia, it was the legend of the eclipse. We discovered that Asians have common myths about the eclipse—a dragon, a serpent, a monster, or a giant bird eats the Sun and plunges the world into darkness. This starting point of a common legend led us to even more meaningful discoveries about our similarities (as well as differences) in cultures and historical experiences. The same story of colonization and regaining and revitalizing lost identities became a running theme in our discussions, workshops, improvisations and final production. The Southern Philippine tribe which conducts a ritual of exorcism is the same Maori or Indian or Thai or Indonesian or Chinese community which performs ritual dances and music to force the giant monster to throw up the Sun and bring back light to this world.

In the process of creating the play, the artists improvised scenes which mirror both the social as well as personal dimensions of their experiences as artists, cultural workers and advocates of social change.

Around this story, we constructed our allegory. What do folktales and stories of our ancestors tell about present-day societies and communities? And then we improvised scenes, hundreds of scenes (yes, hundreds) depicting our experiences in our own communities. We tried to allow as much space for each artist to express his/her own ideas, share individual views and analyze situations from the perspective of other cultures. While honing our craft in acting, music, dance and scene improvisation, the participants also experienced collective decision-making, sensitivity, and respect for other cultures. In the process of creating the play, the artists improvised scenes which mirror both the social as well as personal dimensions of their experiences as artists, cultural workers and advocates of social change.

All in all, more than fifty actors, dancers, puppeteers, musicians, poets, visual artists, playwrights and directors from Australia, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Japan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines have participated in the Cry of Asia project. We studied taichi and Chinese martial arts, Korean talchoom, the rituals of Bali, Indian jatra, Japanese butoh, Philippine kuntao and arnis and Thai classical dance. We learned principles and conventions of why and how they came about, who performed what, when, and for whom. Why certain dances and rhythms were allocated for the kings and the royal court, while certain theatre forms and music instruments became popular with peasants and ordinary folks. We trained for many days, and on meagre funds lived on rice and fish, rice and pork, rice and chicken curry, rice and beef stew. Nights were often feasts of beer and native rice or coconut wines stored in luggages for evening sharings. When the mood was good, we began talking about our families and ancestors.

We also talked about Peter Brook's Mahabharata and held in awe Bertolt Brecht's theories of the modern stage and Jerzy Grotowski's experiments with movement theatre. At the same time we complained among ourselves, over rounds of beer, about how expertly the Westerners are able to expropriate our traditions and experiences and translate them into theories and performances that hold us Asians and the rest of the theatre world in awe. Their books, their theories, their performances are discussed, analyzed, studied and dissected in endless books, conferences, classrooms and web sites all over the world. And here we are in our endless search to discover and identify what is Asian theatre, what is Asian culture, what is Asian multi-culturalism.

Indeed, what is Asian theatre, what is Asian culture, what is Asian multi-culturalism? Is there a "common ground" at all? Is there a "common voice"? Does tradition have any significance in contemporary Asian societies?

...That a common world exists among Asian traditional theatres, where borders blur between time and space, dream and reality, history and folklore, past and future, here and the life after.

Nine years and four Cry of Asia productions later, I wrote to a colleague: Each time we end a phase, I alternately look back and forward and ask myself why I am in this. More and more questions come my way, each time we end a phase. And I wonder about whether we are really moving on or have gotten stuck. I wonder about our aesthetics, about the quality of the creative process we have evolved, and worry about whether we have become too focused and are spending too long a time on a singular direction in this journey of sorts.

In all these processes of collaboration, workshops, performances and journeys, what did we learn? That Asians share things in common: food, religion, arts, culture, history, war and revolutions, etc., etc. That a common world exists among Asian traditional theatres, where borders blur between time and space, dream and reality, history and folklore, past and future, here and the life after. We learned that we have common faiths with different names, we all have shamans and healers to drive away evil spirits. And that the peso, the rupiah, the rupee, the baht, the yuan and the yen have fallen against the almighty US Dollar in recent months.

Most importantly, we learned about our differences. Japanese rice is stout and sticky, Filipino rice is coarse and dry. India was colonized by the British, Indonesia by the Dutch, the Philippines by Spain and the US—and so some of us drive on the left side while others do so on the right. That Korea is one country with one language divided into North and South, while most of Asia are peopled with hundreds of indigenous communities speaking hundreds of languages.

The experience of Cry of Asia taught us why and how culture plays an important role in the lives of Asian people. The ancient beliefs and wisdom of our societies are woven into the fabric of our native arts and cultural expressions. Asian folk theater, in particular, is oftentimes a religious offering, it teaches respect for the environment, and provides narrative accounts of histories of nations. It highlights community involvement and engages the audience to participate in the spirit of performance.

And here, we learned to appreciate the aesthetics and attitudes of our audiences whether in rural villages or urban centers of Asia. We learned to listen to and respect reactions of our spectators so that our aesthetics of theatre may be shaped, not by Western critics and scholars, but by our audiences in Cotabato and Zambales, Yokohama and Taejon, Bangkok and Kaohsiung.

From the experience of Cry of Asia, we learned that multi-culturalism is more than just the "unifying", the "interweaving" and the "juxtaposing" of Asian art traditions into a blend of exotic tableaus. It is not the result of simply "mixing" various arts traditions and cultures into a collage of images. It is not a casting equation of 2 Indians + 1 Japanese + 3 Chinese, or production sequences of 1 Kabuki number + 2 Kathakali scenes + 3 Balinese dances.

For multi-culturalism to prosper...we need to continuously define, challenge, even question our intentions...what insights and experiences we want to pass on to the next generation of artists who most probably will live among nations with lesser borders...

For multi-culturalism to prosper and in return expand our creative vision, we need to continuously define, challenge, even question our intentions: what we desire to achieve, what we want to construct, what we want to present. And what insights and experiences we want to pass on to the next generation of artists who most probably will live among nations with lesser borders and immigration counters, in a world with fewer boundaries.

Multi-culturalism emerges as we begin to understand the wisdoms imbedded in rituals and dances, in the rhythm of drums and strings. It comes to life as we infuse new meanings to ancient symbols in the context of our modern world. It grows larger as we re-enact the rituals of long ago when communities sang and dreamed together and journeyed across boundaries with common stories of heroes and shamans casting away darkness and slaying the evil dragon.

The challenge of multi-culturalism is not only in being able to invent ways of articulating the variety of Asian traditions and languages in a common voice. The greater challenge is in being lost in the sea of diversity and being able to find our way back.

Our story goes simply: one day, a monster eats the sun and plunges the world into darkness. To drive away the evil spirit and bring back light, an ancient ritual of exorcism must be performed.

This is our common story in Cry of Asia, our multi-cultural allegory: our journey of going away and coming home.

----
Writer's Note:

Cry of Asia is a theatre project organized by the Asian Council for People's Culture (ACPC) gathering theatre artists and traditional performers from various countries in Asia. It attempts to express Asian thought, issues, and themes, through theatre and other artistic expressions—traditional and contemporary.

It was first launched in 1989 by around 40 performers from 16 Asia-Pacific countries. The 1989 production toured more than 60 cities in Asia and Europe.

Cry of Asia involves interactive and improvisational processes in theatre-making. It was designed to unite Asian theatre artists towards crying out Asian issues and concerns in one voice and spirit. Performance tours of Cry of Asia productions include popular education and theatre workshops for theatre enthusiasts, practitioners, and development workers.

© Al Rustia

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