By Noemie Huttner-Koros
“Wandering is my arrival. Departing is my residence.” from Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral by Kuo Pao Kun
This quote comes from the late Kuo Pao Kun, known as the father of Singaporean theatre and a pioneer of Mandarin theatre, who also co-founded the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) in 2000. I was lucky enough to spend a term studying there earlier this year. In 1976 Pao Kun was detained without trial for four and a half years by the Singaporean government on charges of ‘anti- government activities.’
For the rest of his life, Pao Kun worked tirelessly in establishing performing arts schools across the country as well as his plays written in English and Mandarin that worked to bring a country together that had been, and continues to be, divided along ethnic lines. He was honoured later in his life with a Cultural Medallion by the very government which had earlier detained him.
I wanted to speak first about Kuo Pao Kun because the values and generosity of spirit Pao Kun worked towards throughout his life are evident in all the training at ITI: of compassion and interculturalism, of collaboration and open- mindedness. ITI is a small building. It’s simply four studios behind a large white building at the top of Emily Hill near the suburb of Little India but what happens everyday there is incredible.
At ITI students from all over the world undertake three years of full-time training in intercultural acting, merging the traditional theatre forms of Noh, Wayang Wong, Beijing Opera, and Kuttiyattam, with contemporary acting technique, yoga, tai chi and philosophy and cultural studies.
It is an amazing blend of traditional forms that have an incredible lineage and history and the creation of self-devised contemporary works that speak to the world students experience and inhabit.
Along with four other WAAPA students I undertook eight weeks of study in the traditional Japanese theatre form of Noh under the instruction of our Senseis: Yoshimasa Kanze and Kuwata Takashi.
Noh is an ancient form of dance-drama that combines elaborate costumes, masks, a chorus, minimalistic staging and traditional story- telling. In a world obsessed with speed and efficiency, Noh taught me about space and stillness on stage and in life, the discipline and rigour required of artists and the power of gesture.
During my time at ITI I thought a lot about culture and language and identity, and all of this in the context of the performing arts. As the daughter of Hungarian-French-Jewish immigrants to Australia, who worked very much to integrate/assimilate into an Australian ‘way of life’; I thought about all the people, places and languages that have shaped me, my sense of identity, my personal ‘culture’ and how I navigate my way through this complicated, at times messy and yet beautiful world.
I thought about growing up on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country in Canberra and the glorious snow gums that covered the mountains I spent my childhood clambering over.
I thought about my parents’ decision to come to Australia and this dive into the unknown that so many have done and continue to do, both in Australia and all around the world. I thought about the months I spent on Warlpiri country in central Australia; how the mud under my grandmother’s feet at Auschwitz had become this vibrant, red dirt I now walked on barefoot.
ITI taught me to never reduce complexity. Identity is complicated and created at the intersections of different crossroads and that is wonderful. It is to be celebrated and made into poetry and theatre and music and works of art. Or maybe to be sung from the tops of rooftops or to have hours of conversations and cups of tea with people you know nothing about.
I am so grateful to the support of WAAPA and the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan for making this exchange happen.What a gift it was to listen to others’ stories, to create theatre in this nurturing yet excitingly radical environment of cultural collaboration, and to realise that culture is created every single day in the simple interactions between people. Culture and language shift and change.
It is a creature with many heads and limbs all searching in different directions and it is up to us, artists and non-artists alike to gently guide this creature along all kinds of journeys.