Liu Xiaoyi’s Creative Revolution

Liu Xiaoyi is a man on a mission. His juice is an imagined world where artists are in the driver’s seat of creative institutions and the ecosystems that support them, but the day to day grind to prepare his revolution is a beast.  At the moment, this Singapore-based director, actor and arts educator is just trying to keep his theatre company, Emergency Stairs, in the black, ever since he opted out of renewing its funding from National Arts Council Singapore five years ago. Now he’s on the road most days, and the company’s Facebook page trumpets his whirlwind schedule as if he were a head of state on a diplomatic tour: 

Liu Xiaoyi arrives in Ningbo today to serve as the convener, judge and mentor for the first Xikou Theatre Festival.”

Liu Xiaoyi has just returned from conducting a week-long, intense Creative Laboratory in Guangzhou.”

Liu Xiaoyi, graced with an invitation from Guangdong’s esteemed BrewPLAY troupe, shall be hosting an Art Without Work Workshop at the RUI Youth Performing Artists Incubation Center in Foshan.”

When we catch up with Liu, he is in the same Shenzhen hotel room where, the previous evening, he had moderated a sympathetic online discussion with Singaporean journalists for the International Association of Theatre Critics. During his visit, he would also give a workshop and sit on a jury for a theatre festival

Liu is looking a little more harried than when we met on Zoom in January.  That was to discuss his involvement in A Director Sitting Still 2.0, a commission by the Hong Kong Arts Festival which he was co-creating with the director Wang Chong. A month before the Festival cancelled the production, Liu played comic relief to Wang’s straight man in a discussion about the responsibilities and tensions of the project which examined the life and death of Hu Bo, a rising Chinese filmmaker who took his life under mysterious circumstances in 2017.  

This time the topic is Liu’s role in the latest production by Hong Kong’s Zuni Icosahedron company, Xiqu-Startup of Wusheng, directed by Zuni co-Artistic Director Danny Yung. His return to Hong Kong promises to be more like a homecoming: Liu has been learning from and collaborating with Yung for over a decade, most recently as an artist in residence at Zuni from 2021 to 2023, during which he researched creative ecosystems, naturally. 

I always joke that my main task with Zuni is talking to Danny because both of us are strong believers in having conversations with people from different backgrounds,” he says. “Some would say that maybe Xiaoyi is the one who can translate Danny into concrete things.”  

Startup of Wusheng pairs two young wusheng artists from Beijing and Nanjing with an actor and a dancer trained outside of China: Liu and Japanese performer Makoto Matsushima. The idea is to use the acrobatic martial artist of Chinese opera as a starting point for discussions between traditional and contemporary stage performers about training, formal education, and how to translate their deep knowledge for a neophyte. 

This follows from a nearly 30 year tradition of Yung’s own, wherein he invites two actors or dancers from different cultural backgrounds to create a short performance on a minimal set that will demonstrate something of the essence of what they do, how and why. Under the title One Table Two Chairs, this research and performance study looks cross-culturally at the origins of human movement and its role in the development of performance traditions, from Asia to Europe to Africa. Most importantly for Yung, these exchanges should encourage dialogue between performers in the hope of examining the challenges they face as artists and developing cultural ecosystems — there it is again — that ameliorate those needs and nurture their crafts.  

Liu, who is 40 years Yung’s junior, is happy to reap the harvests of his teacher’s wisdom and experience; as he likes to say, “They are the Danny in me.” For Yung, who rejects the suggestion that he is Liu’s mentor, Startup of Wusheng will be an opportunity for his former student to show what he’s got: “What Xiaoyi is doing [in Wusheng] is the summary of his 12 years of work with me,” he tells us in a separate interview. “What interests me  most about Xiaoyi is that he’s always ready to explore and there’s always such openness in the theatre making.” 

However they pitch their relationship, it began in Singapore when Liu, a relatively recent immigrant from Jieyang, China, participated in a master class that Yung was leading. He was noticed by the venerable director and for the next six years participated in Yung’s intercultural exchange projects around the world, serving as his informal assistant while acting, directing and researching. Not uncoincidentally perhaps, around the same time, Liu won the National Arts Council of Singapore’s Young Artist Award. He also opened a guesthouse in Yunnan.

Take a beat. No, his foray into tourism wasn’t a lark. Instead, it is another example of Liu putting his money where his mouth is. “If we can be open enough, everything is actually related to everything,” he insists. “Being a cultural worker is not easy. People always say they don’t have enough money, they don’t have a platform, they don’t have enough resources, but you can kill two or three birds with one stone,” he continues, referring to the time he spent making theatre for tourists at his guesthouse. The important thing is to have “a method to how you leverage things.” 

That thinking propelled him to create Emergency Stairs in 2017, an obvious move for a young director with ideas and energy. But Liu is ideas and energy on steroids:  in the company’s first three years, Liu launched and operated an annual festival on the model of One Table Two Chairs; negotiated and executed a three year commission to create a trilogy of immersive productions at Singapore’s biggest arts venue; founded and led a weekly artists training programme; and, according to the company’s website, built networks with 70 arts institutions in 39 cities. 

Liu sighs deeply before getting into why he pulled the plug on Emergency Stairs’  Major Company Scheme grant, which immediately jeopardised any further activities, not to mention his paid staff, then continues: “I had the feeling that I was not the artistic director of the company; [National Arts Council Singapore] was my artistic director.”

He explains: “When you want to get funding from the government, what you are trying to do is dig yourself into the mission agenda, the framework set up by the Council.” So he dissolved the company structure, leaving himself as its sole employee. His new job of “proactively looking at other possible sources of funding or resources or connections to make things happen,” is a challenge, but he’ll take it:  “When you are not in the system, you have more freedom.” 

Another upside is the lessons he takes from his travels. To prove the point, he draws different size squares in the air representing the weight of institutions on artists in Hong Kong, China and Singapore. Describing the arts ecosystem in Hong Kong, he finger sketches a box that hovers over the top half of his Zoom screen. He elaborates: artists in Hong Kong “are constantly thinking about their relationship between their own safe structure and the bigger environment, the relationship between Hong Kong and China, which causes them concern and anxiety.” 

Turning to China, he makes a box that fills the whole screen: “For Chinese artists, it’s another case; they know that there is this very huge and very stable structure and they can’t do anything about it, but inside the bigger structure it can be very chaotic.” This chaos gives them more room to create, he says, “as long as they are reading the structure.” 

To represent Singapore, he draws nothing. The box is invisible, he says: “They’re not aware of the structure, the boundaries. They’re quite safe and they are ok with being content providers.”

Even using NAC funding, Liu’s work in Singapore could not be described as KPI-driven content. Examples abound from his production history both with Emergency Stairs and other partners like The Theatre Practice, but the most telling may be his Postdramatic Trilogy:  three productions each based on a major experimental work by Peter Handke, Robert Wilson and Sarah Kane, and which gradually unmoored audiences like an incoming tide from the Malacca Straits, floating them out from the auditorium to the stage, then to a carpark and finally to the whole of the Esplanade, where they could be the creators of their own stories and experiences. 

At least that was the intention. Even the independent Singaporean press that understands and champions his work called some of these attempts to challenge the relationship between actors and audience “frustrating” and “irritating” at times. He followed up with a fourth work which invited audiences into the team’s rehearsal and development process for six weeks — the public could also email Liu with questions, and liberally availed themselves of the opportunity — but excluded them from performances; the actors played to themselves. 

Without getting too much into wonky discussions of performance, agency, reception, gaze, negotiated meanings and the like, suffice it to say that Liu’s theories about audiences are just about as disruptive as refusing the safety of a long term grant. From his over 50 years of experience, Yung’s view on these explorations is perhaps explanation enough: Liu is “very enthusiastic and very committed to searching for the definition of theatre,” he says.

Liu’s precipitous ambitions could invite a parallel with Icarus from Greek mythology, who learned the secret of flight from his father but flew too close to the sun. Liu’s dream collaboration, he says in all seriousness, is to cast a member of Singapore’s censorship board in a version of One Table Two Chairs to find out what drives their decision-making. We giggle over this Orwell-on-ecstasy idea, but Liu laughs a little less than this reporter. In other words, it may very well happen.

 “A stage is just one of my stages, theatre is just one of my theatres,” he says, then extends an invitation to his cultural leadership training programme which he is planning to run again later this year. As always for Liu, the sky’s the limit but the going is tough.

Startup of Wusheng is performed on June 14 and 15, 2024. For more details visit here

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