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Developing Community and Sharing Life Stories with Playback Theater: Pataauw Theatre Troupe

The Beitou Patauw Theatre. Photo by HSU Ping

From the Pataauw Lizen Association to the Pataauw Theatre Troupe

The Pataauw Theatre Troupe is composed of mothers who live in Beitou District. They transform the stories of the audience into plays, showing the energy of the community and their empathy for the audience with simple props and music. The troupe’s development has a close relationship with the Taipei City Pataauw Lizen Association,1 whose Playback Theatre courses had offered training for the members before the troupe was established. The troupe was therefore formed, with the name “Pataauw” (meaning “residence of witches” in Beitou Ketagalan language) metaphorizing the situation that the female members of the troupe are able to give touching performances after learning about the stories as the process of casting a magic spell.

Students and teachers of Beitou Elementary School, while working on a local heritage studies program, became interested in the abandoned Hokutō Public Bathhouse in 1994. The bathhouse was built in 1907 as the Takino-Yu Bathhouse and renovated in 1913 by the Ladies’ Charity Society of Formosa. After World War II, the Taipei County Council and the local police station moved into the building, and afterwards, various government departments located the building until the removing in 1989. After realizing the building was an important part of Beitou’s historical hot spring culture, the students and teachers started a petition, but the government did not respond. They next spread the news through the local community, which resulted in the birth of the Pataauw Lizen Association. In 1997, through the efforts of the Association and other involved parties, the Ministry of the Interior declared the Hokutō Public Bathhouse a level three historic site. In 1998, the Taipei City Government renovated the building and the Beitou Hot Spring Museum opened, becoming Taiwan’s first district museum managed cooperatively by citizens and the government.

After the museum was created, the Association continued operation by touring and assessing Beitou’s various historical landmarks; publishing the magazine Peitou (72 issues from February 19, 1996 to December 10, 2014); implementing emotional intelligence curricula at local schools; and by establishing the Seedings Cultivating Camp, which offers day care and after-school activities for children from high-risk households in Beitou, and the Beitou Community Safe Home Comprehensive Service Program. The Association also organized the Pataauw Theatre Troupe, and with its connectedness and passion, has cultivated its reputation as a paragon of community development in Taiwan.

Pataauw Theater Troupe and Playback Theater

The Pataauw Lizen Association established a community theater in 2001. After performing for a number of years, they realized that theater experiences could not be accumulated after the curtain fell, and the creation of props and costumes consumed a lot of resources. At this point, the board of the Association wished to extend the value of the theater and its performances, so they recruited local mothers to enrich the culture and history of their communities with theater. The association got in touch with KAO Yu-Chen, who promoted drama education in the community at that time, and she advised that playback theater would be a suitable way to extend the impact of theater in the community. The courses of playback theater then started from October, and after training the members all agreed and decided to continue and develop it, hence the establishment of Pataauw Theater Troupe.

Pataauw Theater Troupe Director LI Ching-Yu. Photo by HSU Ping

The Taiwan theater community first became interested in Playback Theater in 1998 when the Assignment Theatre invited Vernica NEEDA to hold a workshop in Taiwan. Then in 2000, Assignment Theatre invited Hong Kong artists Jennifer TAM Bik Ki and MOK Chiu Yu to hold a different workshop. KAO Yu-Chen’s involvement with Playback Theater began at this time. Finally, after being supported by Assignment Theatre for three years, some members sharing the same passion formed the Even Near Playback Theatre company in 2003 by opening community theater classes. 2Following KAO’s playback theater courses in 2003, the Pataauw Theatre Troupe was established and became Taiwan’s first community playback theater troupe.3 KAO later graduated from a Centre for Playback Theatre in the United States in 2006, and then left Even Near Playback Theatre to establish her Life Story Theatre, which holds training classes in the playback theater technique. She has also been the long-term mentor to the Pataauw players, focusing on playback theater skills. Pataauw Theater Troupe Director LI Ching-Yu said that she attended three semesters of training at Life Story, and it took her one and a half years before she confidently grasped this performance technique.

Playback theater performances usually include a host, four actors, and a musician. Running time is about 90 minutes and at most ten short improvisational skits are performed. The host must be skilled at leading and balancing the performance, as well as facilitation. To start, the performers share some information as an example to create a safe, relaxed, and trusting atmosphere, and this makes participants more willing to share. Performances are usually closed to protect the privacy of the participants. The storytellers are encouraged to be brave, and their internal perceptions are emphasized in the meantime. Regardless of whether the participant’s experience is happy or traumatic, the actors would listen attentively, never criticizing, and along with the host, grasp the main point, or what they call the “red thread” of the story. The actors then spontaneously perform the main point. Through this process of telling and extemporaneous performance, common understanding is produced, and the theater becomes the site of spiritual cure and resonance between the actor and teller.

Using the community as its base, Pataauw, unlike ordinary theater troupes, is mostly public-service orientated and performs for community, campus, hospital, or organizations for senior citizens and the disadvantaged. Pataauw performs three to five times each semester at Beitou or XinMin Junior High Schools, usually with upperclassmen. Preparation involves an interview with the homeroom teacher in order to better understand the students’ needs, such as issues concerned with worries in adolescence, study stress, bullying, or the generation gap, before deciding on topics for the performance.

The members of Pataauw Theatre Troupe interacted with the elderly during the performance. Photo © C-LAB
The members of Pataauw Theatre Troupe share their experiences in Playful Seniors: the Field Research Seminar of Senior Theatre. Photo by HSU Ping

Sharing Their Dreams—Accompanying Senior Citizens by Teaching and Performance

The Pataauw Theatre Troupe has cooperated with several organizations in Beitou for a long time, such as the Old Five Old Foundation and the Eden Social Welfare Foundation. Both of these organizations encourage seniors to continue to pursue their dreams. From 2014, Pataauw has participated in the Companionship Workshop at Beitou Community College. Volunteers 50 and older were trained to accompany about a dozen subjects between 60 and 90 years old in activities such as sharing old photographs, singing old songs, and exercise, as well as playback theater performance. These activities not only made an impact on the senior citizens, but taught troupe members a great deal. In both the workshop and performance, establishing trust with participants was of paramount importance. LI Ching-Yu also mentioned a performance at Beitou Elementary School that deeply impressed her. Through this performance, the Old Five Old Foundation hoped that children would better understand the senior generation, despite the extremely wide gap between the generations. In this playback theater experience, the elementary school students and senior citizens were able to have a dialog and understand each other better. It turns out that the senior citizens could communicate with and express their emotions to the children while learning how the children actually think. Bridging a generation gap between young and old is a glorious sight to behold.

We Perform Where We Are Needed

The Pataauw Theatre Troupe sees playback theater as an immaterial gift, and neither begs for the troupe’s own survival nor performs for the sake of performing. Teachers are invited to lecture to the troupe every semester, and the lecturers’ fees are paid by membership dues. The cohesiveness and the endurance of the group are impressing, as it is not easy for a troupe like this to continue operating for such a long time. How do the eleven members make time for this? The women forming the group are all married with children right from the start. “Thanks to our husbands’ salaries,” LI Ching-Yu said with a smile. Most of the women are also freelancers, such as lecturers, tutors, or drama teachers, or they are retired. Therefore, it is only possible for them to practice on Fridays, and they leave the weekend for family.

The Pataauw Theatre Troupe has also trained others in the art of playback theater. In 2009, Pataauw performed at a study camp for teachers in Yangmingshan, and prompted the establishment of the Plectranthus Theatre Troupe at Shipai Junior High School. Actually, forming a community theater is not easy and depends on each individual’s financial situation, available time, aptitude for long term learning, and self-discipline.

The Pataauw Theatre Troupe is the result of the drive for community development in Taiwan starting in 1994. From the Pataauw Lizen Association to the Pataauw Theatre Troupe, playback theater techniques have helped participants learn how to listen to others and stand in others’ shoes. This group of mothers insist on being present, participating, and learning every Friday. They support each other and have continued to do so for fifteen years until today.

LI Ching-Yu said, “I feel grateful for the many life stories I have heard.”

The Association’s name comes from the pronunciation of Beitou, the district where the Association is based, in the plains indigenous Basay peoples language, and is transliterated as “Pataauw.”
CHENG Tai-Chiung, “A Community of Understanding and Healing: The Playback Theater of Yu-Chen Kao and Her Friends in Taiwan,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 202, November 1, 2014, pp. 57-58.
KAO Yu-Chen, “Spring at the Beitou Hot Spring Museum: An Alternative Dialogue on Urban Renewal,”Peitou, Vol. 64, June 30, 2012, p. 25.
The website of Taipei City Pataauw Lizen Association.
The website of Beitou Hot Spring Museum.
LO ChienAn art critic, editor and member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Taiwan), , LO’s research covers the issues concerning contemporary images, space, performance, mobility and corporeal perception.
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