Organised by the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Malaysia and produced by INXO Arts & Culture (L) Foundation, Tea Philo is a series of sharing sessions revolving around the discussion of philosophies and humanities. Luminaries from Taiwan are invited to share their experiences and engage with the Malaysian audience to encourage cultural exchange. The latest Tea Philo E-Talk session titled “The Journey to Inclusiveness” featured guest speaker Liu Yi-Ruu, General and Artistic Director of the National Theater and Concert Hall (NTCH) located in Taipei, Taiwan. The talk was held in English and was moderated by Malaysian dancer Lim Hong Jie, Assistant Artistic Director from Dua Space Dance Theatre. The E-talk was broadcast via Zoom Meeting and Facebook Live on June 25th, 2022 and will be available for rewatch in the future on Tea Philo Facebook Page.
Completed in 1987, NTCH is a leading international arts centre and iconic landmark in Asian performing arts scene, where a wide variety of arts, ranging from traditional, contemporary, local, indigenous, to foreign, experimental, and collaborative works, are showcased throughout the years. NTCH holds inclusiveness as one of its core values, aiming to become an arts and cultural space that always strives to improve accessibility in order to welcome and include as many people as possible in its theatre experiences and beyond.
Before returning to NTCH as its current General and Artistic Director in 2018, Liu Yi-Ruu had worked as the director’s secretary and Deputy Artistic Director, helping to establish NTCH as Taiwan’s first administrative corporation and promoting Taiwan through arts. Liu had also worked with performing arts groups and educational institutions in Taiwan, including Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Ju Percussion Group Foundation, Taiwan Art Administration and Management Society (TAAMS), and Taipei National University of the Arts. Having spent many years in the public relations and media fields, Liu is one of the few artistic managers with comprehensive experiences in arts, enterprise, government, and academia.
“NTCH’s journey to inclusiveness is also my personal journey in search of an answer to the question: what is the true meaning of a theatre?” said Liu.
Liu was in the position of Deputy Director of NTCH in 2013 when the question of “the purpose of a theatre in a society” arose in her mind. “I used to think that art is the most important thing in a theatre, [therefore it’s natural that we focus on hosting and producing programmes]. In reality, however, not everyone has the chance to enjoy a show in the theatre. Why, then, does NTCH get to use tax dollars from everyone to run the theatre?” Liu could not find an answer to this problem back then, and chose to quit the job.
In 2018, Liu returned to NTCH with new experiences, ideas, and determination, this time as the General and Artistic Director. During the New York 2014 ISPA Congress, she was inspired by a theatre consultant’s sharing on the concept of the “life cycle” of a theatre. “A theatre must go through three stages: survival, maintenance, and becoming inevitable,” explained Liu. “‘How can we become inevitable?’ That is the most important question a theatre must answer.” This revelation prompted Liu to start researching and taking action more actively in the direction of inclusiveness.
“An artist once told me that ‘inclusiveness is not social welfare, it is human rights.’ People with different conditions and difficulties should be entitled to the same chance of enjoying arts as people without disabilities have. Inclusiveness should not be considered only as an afterthought when ‘we have enough to spare.’” stated Liu.
In the beginning of the journey, she started by incorporating inclusiveness into the core value of NTCH and setting up a cross-departmental team. “Instead of assigning a special department to work on it, we decided to have a cross-departmental team so that everyone has to get involved, contribute ideas, propose plans, and be conscious of being inclusive in their daily operations,” explained Liu, “It’s everybody’s job.”
Over the years, NTCH has constantly been challenging itself to push for improvements on existing services and to develop new approaches. The team, comprising experts, consultants, artists, and frontline staff, asks itself questions regarding all aspects: “For example, our front of house is equipped with a lot of facilities, can we do the same for backstage areas? We have worked to improve our hardware, can we do something about software? Apart from serving the audience, can we provide services to artists in need too? We might know how to deal with visible difficulties, but how can we help with invisible difficulties?” Liu added that one of the first changes they made was just enlarging the font size and colours of printouts to make them more readable. “It doesn’t have to be a grand, revolutionary project. Pay attention to your audience’s needs, start small,” emphasised Liu, “and as these small changes succeed, you can gradually push for more challenging ones.”
Today, NTCH offers a variety of accessibility facilities and services to its audience, including discounted tickets for senior citizens and people with disabilities, audio description, real-time captioning, sign language interpretation, barrier-free guided tours, medical assistance, childcare service, easy-to-read booklets, and more.
Another highlight of NTCH is its relaxed performances, a term for shows adapted or designed for people who cannot stay in the theatre for too long or require a more relaxed environment when watching shows. During relaxed performances, people are free to step out any time and come in again; special props, gadgets, and medical assistance are also provided to help those in need feel more comfortable in the theatre.
Liu added that the journey to inclusiveness is never without resistance and challenges. From both the public and internally, she still receives questions like “Why are you still spending resources and time on this?” or “Can we stop now and go back to focusing on the programmes?”. “I make sure that our team understands that this is what NTCH will continuously work on for a long period of time, and we are not letting go of these values,” she said.