My parents both grew up in Shanghai and left China in the wake of Mao’s victory over the Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the aftermath of the war of occupation with Japan.
They settled in Seattle in the early 1950s and started a family, their memories and hopes as gifts to their three children who often heard about the world left behind, while growing up in America.
As a Chinese-American boy growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, all of the tumult from the Vietnam war, Woodstock, Watergate, the moon landing, Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, the Sex Pistols, computers and the rise of OPEC proved a heady mix when combined with Bach, Shakespeare, Cezanne, Picasso and New German cinema.
Later came Tarkovsky and Arvo Part, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, the Musee D’Orsay and the Tate Modern, all the canonical and the anarchic aspects of Art that might reflect back something unspoken yet true about life.
In 1987 I was admitted to the California Institute of the Arts for graduate study in directing for film and theatre under the tutelage of the Scottish director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick.
During our first week of study, Sandy wondered aloud how he could teach us anything about art, because we had grown up in the plenty of post world war two America, handicapped by having what he called “the souls of peanuts”.
As a case in point, he challenged any of us to demonstrate a knowledge of Art in the classical sense by reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. He was very confident that all he would get would be guilty, indignant stares.
However, I raised my hand, rose and recited the speech from memory.
I was quickly named his graduate teaching assistant for the remainder of my time at Cal Arts.
One day, Sandy brought us a news article that described the eminent arrival of Tadeusz Kantor to America. It was 1988, my second year of graduate school.
Sandy simply declared that any student who imagined a life connected to art in the 20th century had to journey to New York to see Kantor’s work.
I and a couple of adventurous classmates promptly went to the financial aid office, took out student loans, bought tickets and went to New York to witness what would be a life changing event.
Kantor had brought his Cricot 2 production of I SHALL NEVER RETURN to La Mama.
There in that humble space, Kantor’s work transformed the way I thought about how the theatre could describe the human experience in total. There, I encountered a vision that shook me to my core, left a resonating impact still with me today.
Since then, over a twenty-some year career as a professional director of film, television and theatre, I have never once considered a creative work without thinking of Kantor. Over the past eight years of my life as a university professor, I have returned again and again to Kantor’s work through books, videos, archives, articles and his own writing.
At this point in my life, the work I make now for the theatre that is deeply personal. I have had some success in the profession of director. However, the notion of achieving “success” has been replaced by a desire for exploration and meaningful encounter with what the theatrical experience is all about.
Interestingly enough, the further down the road I go towards unknown artistic destinations, the closer I feel I am getting to Kantor.
His “total art” where history and memory, object and space, image and utterance, disappointment and hope along with the discarded and the precious exist all at once remains for me the summit of achievements in the space we sometimes call the theatre.
Kantor destroyed borders between fine art and dramatic art, creating a world where each and every element contributed to an indescribable profundity where every moment was fraught with a terrible and beautiful Truth.
Coming to Edinburgh to me meant coming to where Kantor first encountered the world beyond his native Poland. It meant meeting Richard Demarco, the man whose courage and vision made it possible for people like me venture further into the world of the European avant-garde. Demarco has shared his memories, views, archives, writings and images with me that are the culmination of over sixty years at the very center of the beating heart of European arts.
Bringing a theatre work to Edinburgh from America is no easy task: the costs, the logistical and creative difficulties, the awful crassness of what the Edinburgh Fringe has become, all conspire to degrade and demean the work.
However, presenting a new work before Richard Demarco, one of the original founders of the Edinburgh International Festival means I am presenting new work to the world of Kantor and the integrity of a vital, important history.
To have a man like Richard Demarco offer me his heartfelt congratulations and admiration, as he did to Tadeusz Kantor, means that the work I am doing belongs somewhere in the world, somewhere between Shanghai and Edinburgh.