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A Silent and Humorous Physical Theater: The Multi-X Night

Author│Chen, Pei-Yu 2015/04/30
Translator│Wang, Sheng-Chih

Entering the dark space in the basement, I saw the names of the viewers who bought pre-sell tickets marked considerately on the seats, just as the reserved seats in a restaurant waiting for the arrival of their guests. The large number of viewers started to order their meals and expected the performance to begin after a flurry of activity and a tumultuous roar.

In Taiwan, the common stereotype of admiring a theatrical performance that requires entrance tickets is that the viewers sit on the neatly arranged rows of seats and concentrate on the performance. When admiring a theatrical performance regardless of its scale, we are not allowed to eat, drink, and move about; otherwise the other viewers would turn a cold stare on us. To break such a stereotype, The Multi-X Night organized by Multi-X Physical Theater this year highlighted three special elements, including a comedy that involves only physical movements without speech, a restaurant-like space where dining is allowed, and the actor-viewer interaction in which the viewers are even requested to throw paper balls at the actors. Founded by Vera Chen in 2011, Multi-X Theater was renamed as Multi-X Physical Theater in 2014. When “multi-” implies diversity, “X” refers to the unknown variable in algebra. The head of the theater claimed that the Multi-X Physical Theater aims to lead the viewers into a diversified, unknown and imaginary world through its performance. “Physical” indicates the visual observation on movements. Originated from Europe, “physical theater” is a theatrical practice that treats corporal motions as the primary creative medium. It integrates puppetry, dance, and mime, thereby inspiring actors’ vivid imagination about their bodies’ power of expression and their innovative ideas about theatrical performance. Vera Chen, the founder of the Multi-X Physical Theater, used to sit at the feet of Philippe Gaulier who treats “Le Jue” and “Pleasure” as the core of his teaching. Gaulier always encourages actors to search for their personal attributes by virtue of performances, since actors may construct distinctive scripts through rehearsals, and thereby highlight their values in performances. Applying a similar approach, Vera Chen treats The Multi-X Night as an interim experimental performance. Although Chen kept stressing that this performance might not be hilariously funny at all before it was staged, the viewers gave her a positive answer with their response. The analysis of this performance focuses on three major aspects, namely actor, viewer, and space.

Actors’ performance is the kernel of a theater, particularly in a comedy. The general impression about a comedy is the touch of humor that the script intends to bring via ongoing dialogues. Besides, the touch of humor and the punch lines in the plots must be amplified by exaggerated facial expressions, jokes and slangs in a teasing or sarcastic way. Contrarily, the actors of The Multi-X Night employed two simple elements – corporal motions and facial expressions - to bring the humor of life’s rich tapestry to the event. Musical rhythms replaced dialogues. This performance triggered pleasant associations of the comic effects created by Mr. Bean and Charlie Chaplin for the viewers.There were two types of actors in The Multi-X Night. One was the moderator who showed up regularly to control the proceeding of the performance. The other was the actors who advanced the plots. The major characters included a dancer, a student, a masquer, and a pregnant woman. These passers-by-like characters instead had more resonances for the viewers since they are all ordinary people and share similar life experiences. The signature style of the moderator also played a crucial role. The moderator did not introduce the actors verbally in the beginning. Rather, he gazed at the viewers and made repeated, irregular and slow hand movements. Together with the physical interaction with the viewers, the moderator helped the viewers “see” the appropriate way of admiring the performance without any verbal instruction. On the other hand, the actors in each act weaved the threads of the viewers’ thinking with imitation, sharp contrast, and exaggerated expression. They also combined their performance with current events and quotidian happenings. The most impressive scene for me was the radical performance of a junior-high-school student when her glasses were taken off by a pregnant woman. The supposedly obedient student became a martial art maniac as soon as her glasses were removed, which made the viewers burst into laughing and therefore alleviated their psychological stress.

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Immersing the viewers in the roles and the plots is the key to a successful theater. The most distinct characteristic of The Multi-X Night was that it allowed the viewers to evaluate the actors’ performance by throwing paper balls at them. The more paper balls the actors receive, the more hilarious of their performance is. Interestingly, this “evaluation” approach involved not so much the viewers’ verbal expression as their physical engagement. What is worth noticing is that, before the performance started, the actors of The Multi-X Night had put on their costumes and interacted with the viewers by either chatting with friends or taking selfies on the stage. The viewers did not notice the existence of the actors until the performance began because the actors behaved just like their friends. The theater’s quotidian nature and reflections on life were therefore highlighted in this way. The positive consequence became apparent in the viewers total immersion in the plots, particularly when the plots revolved around their familiar social milieus and cultural issues such as homosexual complex, body shape, love fantasies, daily stress, and so forth. The actors’ body language even immersed the foreigners in hilariously funny fantasies. The mime-like performance was reminiscent of the nonsensical humor in the American television sitcom Friends without dialogues. Combining current events and everyday-life trivia with the actors’ exaggerated actions and twisted facial expressions, the performance touched upon the viewers’ mind through their vision, and thereby successfully gave the viewers great visceral thrills.

A small theatrical space is a prerequisite for closing the distance between the actors and the viewers, which not only creates a crowded atmosphere but also embodies modern people’s gloomy lives. In fact, experimental small theaters have been operating in Taiwan for years. Since the new theater movement initiated by Lanlin Theater Troupe and its experimental performances in the 1980s, many creators and performers have held rehearsals in small spaces such as an apartment. In recent years, many cafés and independent bookstores in Taipei have also provided their basements or backyard warehouses as the spaces for theatrical performances or video screening on a weekly basis. Moreover, Taipei Fringe Festival and Close to You Festival have become the iconic curatorial teams that look for alternative forms of performances and exhibitions. Such a development encourages greater variations of and more experiments on theatrical performances in Taiwan. The hectic pace of urban life is somewhat slowed down by short performances and small spaces that facilitate closer interpersonal contacts. These experimental performances become people’s entertainments when they go off duty. In particular, comedies can relax people’s mind and relieve their stress. My experience of admiring The Multi-X Night was unprecedented because I was allowed to eat and drink when admiring the performance, which is a scene that can be seen only in Western movies. Live Comedy Club Taipei served as the venue where The Multi-X Night was staged. The quality of this venue evoked my associations that The Multi-X Night might be a resident performance combining theater with singing. Bearing such fantastic associations in mind, I was carried away by the mercurial and charming atmosphere in this space.

I witnessed the quotidian imagination of humorous touches through vision, as if my eyes became part of the interactive performance that immersed me in an ambiguous world constructed with tantalizing plots.

Note: I am especially grateful to Vera Chen for her comments on the earlier draft of this article.