In this age of Netflix and 3D IMAX, who goes to the theater anymore? I do, thanks to Brook Hall, founder and artistic director of the LAB Space, a converted warehouse near Qilian MRT in Beitou where his theatre company Butterfly Effect does its own productions. I went to their version of Ives’ Shorts, and laughed myself silly. I’ve been back several times and will again. And I hope to see you there, dear reader. For the show must go on! And after 15 years of dancing, acting, directing, choreographing and producing for theater in Taiwan, Brook Hall’s the player to do it.
Originally from New Mexico and Oregon, Hall studied film and theater studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “I did West Side Story in the community while I was still in high school when I was 14,” he recounts. His parents encouraged his interest in the arts. “There were a lot of creative people hanging around my house, it was at the end of the hippy period.” While other boys were playing electric guitar and football, he was doing dance, singing and community theater. Through university he was involved in many entertainment projects, including summer theater in Birmingham, Alabama. Just before graduation in 1998, he did honors school in flamenco in Spain. This lust for travel was a premonition of his eventual journey to Taiwan. “I’d always thought of joining the Peace Corps,” Hall said. But now it was time to dance on down to big street, the Big Apple!
New York City! An incredibly exciting and challenging place for a young man in love with dance and theater. Hall found loads of work there, although often it was in shows traveling around the country. “I’d audition for shows, get a gig, and then it’s on the road for three months: Iowa, Denver, Florida, or Montana. Or you’d get onto a national show and do maybe 200 shows around the whole country.” When he came back, he’d start looking for work again. And also see lots of shows! “There was so much going on, so many little theaters and artistic scenes, acting classes, dancing, everything you could imagine.” There were also the big shows like Miss Saigon, the Blue Man Group, De La Guarda etc. “I’d be given free tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Squares – the crossroads of the universe – where I was working as on on-site promoter for shows – from gambling addict scalpers who couldn’t sell them by showtime.”
Then the travel bug bit him again. “I had a buddy from college that had settled in Taiwan. He was doing some theater stuff in southern Taiwan, so on July 4th, 2001, I came out to see him.” This led him to a big community carnival type production in an abandoned sugar factory in Ciaotou, a district of Kaohsiung. There were about 100 people, half of them Taiwanese, half from all over the world, including Brazil and Europe. “We did a parade through the small town, with stilt walkers, jugglers and clowns! It was great!”
Following the footsteps of his friend, Hall moved to Taichung, where he found firm footing as a dancer. “I taught tap dancing, did company shows, press conferences, and also taught flamenco and salsa. I met some old guys who were the godfathers of tap in Taiwan!” he said. He also began to notice some cultural differences. “Compared to the USA, people here have a tendency to just wing it when it comes to small shows. I remember one time we showed up for a tap performance and they showed us a grassy area and told us that’s where we were supposed to work! Tap dancing on grass?” He also found that people were kind of casual about wiring, fire in performance, and other safety issues. Furthermore, despite his many skills, he was always known in Taichung as the “dance guy” because he did a lot of tap and flamenco shows, and that’s the culture here. “You stick to one thing and do it as well as possible; you’re known for that one thing.”
“Later on I became the ‘musical guy’,” said Hall, “working with Greenray Theater, Lancreators Theatre, and Paper Windmill Theater doing their touring children’s theater.” Then his career started to blossom. From 2007 to 2014, some productions he worked on as either producer, consultant, director or choreographer at major venues – including the National Theater – were Smokey Joe’s Café, Let’s Broadway, Daylight, and Anything Goes.
One interesting show he co-produced and directed was Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Mandarin, a glam rock musical about a transgendered woman who experiences a lot of pain, frustration and tragedy because of her conflicted gender identity. “Split down the middle, I thought it would be interesting for Taiwanese because it is similar to the country’s own identity issues.”
Another was a Taiwanese play that he directed and choreographed at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and the National Theatre called “Golden Banana History” (Hedwig might have giggled at the title) about a revolt of banana farmers in southern Taiwan during the early years of KMT rule. It was politicized during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, then became a cash cow as DPP organizations around the island paid for shows to inspire voters. The writer and producer feuded over the money, which meant the show was eventually cancelled, the producer went into hiding, and the performers and designers sued for compensation!
It was only one of the times that Hall was frustrated by the way things work in Taiwan. Government regulations were also a problem. “You can only get a work permit for as long as your project was running. If that was less than 6 months, they wouldn’t give you an ARC,” said Hall. He’d had his APRC clock zeroed due to bad paperwork, and getting permits was often a nightmare. This gave him a creative inspiration. In Golden Banana History, “There was a court scene. I made it into a kind of madcap affair with circus music and papers flying around everywhere, my interpretation of the craziness of the bureaucracy here!”
Eventually Hall decided that he had enough of relying on other people. “A contract means absolutely nothing here!” He’d been lied to and ripped off enough. What’s more, he had wide experience, a long list of talented creative and technical people to work with, and a mature understanding about what could work in Taiwan. And as Anton Chekhov would say, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
And so, in 2014, the Lab Space was born and has been rocking on to this day. “We’ve done Tuesdays with Morrie, Wait Until Dark, Santaland Diaries, Ives’ Shorts, the God of Carnage, I, Claudia, and two 24-hour theatre festivals. What we do is special. It’s different when your audience is just 2 meters away from the actors.”
Hall’s excitement is clear when he talks about this theater he loves. But as the Immortal Bard said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Making the bottom line work is a challenge. “We pay our talent, and we manage to break even on the productions,” in part due to the kindness of the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs. But what makes it tough are the operational costs, keeping the LAB Space running between shows. “We’ve applied for money from the national government’s Ministry of Culture for operational costs, but we keep getting rejected.”
This is frustrating, because Hall knows he can be a real asset to Taiwan. He pauses at this point, torn between humility and the need to make a point: “With my skillset I’ve made an impact here over 15 years. Maybe a hundred people I’ve helped shape have become key performers in current major Taiwanese shows. I’ve helped hundreds more by showing them that even if they are a big fish in a small pond, there’s a bigger pond. And when they see that, they step up….I’ve helped funnel several performers directly from Taiwan to New York, writing recommendations for universities, acting programs, etc. The Taiwanese tourism and economic offices promote Taiwan in NYC with some of that same talent, showing off their singing and dancing. So it has come full circle.” Hall is generous in his praise for the people at the Lab Space. “All the people I’ve worked with there have been amazing, every single one of them. But if I had to mention two, it would be Emma Liu, my past administrator, who left this year. She helped get the whole thing going. And her replacement Derek Kwan.” Kwan is also an actor for the LAB’s productions, someone Hall calls “a true renaissance man”.
“I am excited about the future. I’m looking forward to doing The Diary of Anne Frank. We also want to do some New York style cabaret. I’m also planning to bring in some guest directors from here and Europe, maybe New York.”
“We are doing stuff no one else is, and for a cheaper price. We do surveys after each show, and we have a 99% very satisfied rating.” How many shows per year would Hall like supporters of his theater to see in order to help it stay afloat? “Just come to one show. One. After that, I’m confident people will come back.”
Break a leg, bro!