By Lindsey Kundel, Director of Communications & Marketing
Two TAS employees - art department chair and TAS alumna Michelle Kao ('03) and TAS videographer and archivist Tobie Openshaw - recently headlined the production of a staged reading of the play "After Miss Julie," held at Two Three Comedy Club in late September. Kao starred in the leading role, Miss Julie, while Openshaw directed the play.
Kao is no stranger to the stage, having taken part in several other theatrical and film productions including lead roles in "White Rabbit, Red Rabbit," "TAPE," "Leader of the Pack," and "West Side Story" (at Taipei American School in 2002l, no less).
Kao had been in a year-long intensive Meisner acting class for all of the last school year. When she found out about the Post-Pandemic Renaissance Theater's staged reading opportunities, she jumped at it because her class had just finished.
"I knew it would be less pressure for the actor and thought I could probably actually do that," said Michelle. "I've been trying to find a balance between what I can do while having a job and a family while also pursuing this passion."
She said that she first started exploring her love of acting on a professional level when she was pregnant for the first time. Although she had taken part in drama as a high school student at TAS, she did not continue with it aftercollege, in part due to outside influences that made her doubt whether acting was a worthy pursuit. (She obviously feels quite differently now!).
"When I was pregnant, I did a commercial for Nestle's milk formula brand in Taiwan," said Kao. "They wanted to promote an image that would celebrate motherhood, so for the commercial, they recruited three pregnant women, including me. I was six weeks from my delivery day when we filmed, and I was very, you know, pregnant and hormonal...I started weeping on camera, which worked out perfectly for this commercial."
Kao says that a theater director contacted her after seeing this commercial in a taxi and helped to restart her passion for acting.
In contrast, the play's director, Tobie Openshaw's background is primarily in film; however, he says that he "got his start" in theatre nearly 35 years ago. His first job was with the National Theater of Namibia in South West Africa before shifting over to film.
In addition to his work at TAS, Openshaw is an active filmmaker. "I try to do one short film every year or two," said Openshaw. Most recently he had a project that was canceled due to the pandemic, but his loss was the Post-Pandemic Renaissance Theater's gain.
Openshaw has been involved with the Red Room Association in Taipei, a group that is collaborating with the PPRT. He filmed the production of "White Rabbit, Red Rabbit," that Kao had starred in last spring, and before he knew it, he was being asked to get involved as a director this summer and fall.
Whether he is videotaping performances at TAS, pursuing documentary filmmaking, or directing a theatrical production, Openshaw describes himself as a storyteller first and foremost. "I apply the same principles in finding and telling meaningful stories, whether those stories are inside or outside of TAS," said Openshaw.
Openshaw is excited to get back into what he calls "theater lite," through the PPRT, in part because there is less of time investment and fewer costs associated with the shows - shows that still are gratifying for both the artists and the audience.
"I knew that I was working with some really good actors," said Openshaw. "It was a beautiful process where we discovered the layers behind the text, and we managed to bring them out in front of a live audience. It really just came together."
"After Miss Julie" is a 1995 play by Patrick Marber which retells an earlier classic, "Miss Julie" (1888) by August Strindberg. In this retelling, the location of the play has changed from the estate of a count in Sweden, to the kitchen of a large English country estate in July of 1945. There are only three characters in the play: Miss Julie, a rich young woman in her 20s, and two servants: John, a valet and chauffeur aged 30, and Christine, a cook aged 35. The play is a multilayered examination of class and privilege, with many parallels to be drawn to today’s society, albeit with different tensions between race, class, gender identity, and political persuasion.
Originally, the PPRT leadership team wanted the group to pursue the original script from 1888, but Openshaw, Kao, and the rest of the team quickly realized that major rewrites would have been needed for that play to be produced. For a short time, the team contemplated undertaking those rewrites in order to reset the play in Taiwan with uniquely Taiwanese class problems, but they quickly realized that substantial edits of that type would fundamentally change the play to an unrecognizable level.
In fact, Openshaw initially voiced major concerns over directing this play. "I always say that I'm very tired of films and plays about 'white people problems,'" said Openshaw, "and it is, it absolutely is. But then I looked at it closer and began to really understand first, the denseness of the text - and second, I really appreciated the power play between the two main characters."
Openshaw says that the theme of class ultimately won him over. "Many people think that we are living in a post-classist society, but we aren't," said Openshaw. "We do have class, but much of it is expressed in different ways than in the past...so I came around to it."
Kao had not read the play prior to joining the team, but she did play a role in helping the team discover the new adaptation by Patrick Marber, instead of the older Strindberg version.
According to Kao, the Strindberg version of the play has been performed every year since it was first written. "Class just won't stop existing, and the judgments that people put on different classes haven't gone away," said Kao. "As an actor and as an audience, we each have our judgments of the various characters in the play. I think that it's part of what makes the play so relevant over time."
Kao said that ultimately, 'After Miss Julie' explores a "love triangle entangled in a web of class and gender stereotypes." While it is a really challenging concept for some audience members, she is "proud" of what the team was able to bring to the reading and what she specifically was able to bring to her character, Miss Julie, after her year of Meisner acting lessons.
"All of that prep really trains you for acting in the moment and trusting that your co-stars are going to give you things to react to," said Kao. "The idea is that acting should happen organically, that you are in the moment like a free-fall."
Kao says that her Meisner training and outside acting pursuits have also changed her perspective on her teaching and work at TAS. "It's changed my perspective for sure. Having hobbies is a good thing. I don't think teachers should let school life completely engulf them," said Kao. "Before I had kids, I think I was very much a workaholic, thinking about school all of the time. But now, after having a family and pursuing my artist self, I think it's important for all teachers to find a way to nurture the voice inside themselves."
Kao tries to bring this philosophy into her work as a department chair, encouraging her fellow art teachers to pursue their own outside work, but she says it's also important for our students to remember, especially those who are planning their college destination and majors off our campus.
"My advice is if a certain subject isn't your thing, don't force yourself to do it," said Kao. "It breaks my heart a little bit when I hear about students who feel like they have to take a certain number of years of classes that they despise when they know in their hearts that they love a different subject that they don't have room for in their schedule."
Openshaw wholeheartedly agrees with that advice. "I believe that at TAS, we need to prioritize being 'whole-people,' people who actively work to model a work-life balance. I think it's important to love your job (or your studies), but we should still be engaged in the rest of the world and try to make an impact on it."
The original performance date of "After Miss Julie" had been pushed back several times due to governmental restrictions on performance spaces due to the pandemic, leading to additional Zoom rehearsals for the team.
One unexpected benefit that came from the pandemic's restrictions on performances was that the PPR group had to pivot to Zoom rehearsals, rehearsals that allowed actors to participate from locations other than Taipei and that allowed rehearsals to take place in the comfort of actors' own homes with little commute or overhead costs.
The cast and crew live in Taipei, Taichung, and Fulong, and were all able to be physically present in front of a live audience on the night of the performance, with only one in-person rehearsal prior to the performance.
Michelle said, "It was very much a case of, 'Let's see if this works!".
Post Pandemic Renaissance (PPR) is a relatively new theatrical production company made up of both professional and amateur theater artists dedicated to bringing high-quality performances and entertainment experiences to audiences every Friday at two Taipei City venues, the Red Room Rendezvous and Two Three Comedy Club, which is where "After Miss Julie," was staged. PPR was founded by artistic producer Stewart Glen and playwright “Sir” Lewis Jamie Huss, known for his irreverent adaptations of Shakespeare plays.
Stewart Glen also plays a recurring role in the ongoing drama series, Seqalu: Formosa 1867, which stars a TAS alumnus, Andrew Chau ('08).
The 2021 fall PPR season play schedule includes readings of "After Miss Julie" by Patrick Marber, "The Scottish Lady" by James Lewis Huss, "Oleanna" by David Mamet, "Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Readings," and “William Shakespeare’s "Robin V” by James Lewis Huss.