By Aubrey Mellor OAM
The extraordinary growth in both quality and quantity of Asian arts education arrived with a distinctly new edge in 2017. After more than 15 years of identifying needed aspects of Western contemporary arts and arts training, the last decade has been focused upon catching up, on inviting Western experts to teach, sending staff abroad, and in establishing conferences that allow arts training to be discussed within Asia. There is now a wealth of quality arts colleges and universities across Asia, and activities and publications on arts education now surpasses Australasia. Both undergraduate and postgraduate arts training have taken the place of traditional apprenticeship-learning in almost all Asian countries; and governments have often been shrewd and generous in recognising the importance of an arts education.
Where there were only three theatre schools in China a decade ago, theatre can now be studied in more than 136 drama departments of Universities. Further, the number of arts management programmes far outnumber the vocational arts training courses. Where there was previously one school devoted to the training of xiqu (erroneously known as ‘Chinese Opera’), the government has encouraged traditional training in all the major schools, as well as several new schools. Like Vietnam, China has consciously addressed the endangered art forms, despite decreasing numbers of audience and interested students. However, attractive scholarships ensure provincial students will eagerly apply themselves, even to programmes that train only the physical skills and not the mental ones. Even the great Central School of Drama in Beijing (once the stalwart of Soviet-style naturalism, and the alma mater of Gong Li) has started a xiqu programme, following the examples of Shanghai Theatre Academy and Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. A feature of all Asian universities is some responsibility towards their country’s traditional art-forms, together with an interest in contemporary art. Most modern art in Asia tends to be obviously Western-influenced, though some, like the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (SENI) in Yogyakarta, have found ways to be modern without being Western or related to traditions. It is the eagerness to modernise and create contemporary art that gives energy to the Asian universities and colleges; and this common interest results in another admirable feature: their willingness to share all knowledge, discoveries and innovations.
Significant in Japan is the new association of Tokyo Schools of Drama bringing together five universities: Nihon, Toho, Oberin, Tamagawa and Tama Art University. They share guests, seminars, workshops on new arts pedagogy, and are planning some collaborative productions with their students. Leading the knowledge-sharing is the newly-formed Asian League of Institutes of the Arts (ALIA), modelled on the European League. These are multi-disciplined Colleges similar to Australia’s Victorian College of the Arts, and the 31 member schools include 26 from Asia. In 2017, ALIA directors met in LASALLE Singapore, and are next to meet in Istanbul this year at the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.
Collaboration and information-sharing are the aims of the Asian Theatre Education Centre (ATEC) which meets annually, every second year at Central Academy in Beijing. 2017 celebrated the 10th year of ATEC, hosted on Central’s impressive new Changping campus and officially opening their four-theatre performing arts complex with dance productions from Korea’s Chung Ang University, Mongolian University of Art and Culture and Georgia’s Rustaveli State University. Membership is now international and includes some US, European and South American Arts Universities. ATEC is now a prime international conference for the delivery and publication of academic and pedagogical papers (in both English and Chinese), meeting next at Chung Ang, Seoul.
2017 also celebrated the 10th anniversary of APB, the Asia Pacific Bond (originally ‘Bureau’) of theatre schools, founded by UNESCO ITI with over 26 member-schools, the most western being Tehran University, the most eastern is Toi Whakaari, in Wellington, NZ. In 2017, APB met at the highly active Shanghai Theatre Academy, with student performances from 19 schools, including West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Wollongong University, and Victorian College of the Arts. APB gatherings include directors’ meetings, workshops and performances and meet next in Yogyakarta.
International exchange of staff, which is common amongst these organisations, has recently been extended to include; student exchange and placements to meet university member schools growing requirement for industry and community engagements. LASALLE hosts Tropical Lab, an annual event for Masters students in Fine Arts, immersing them in culture of South-East Asia and resulting in an exhibition and publication. ASEAN countries are active in regular meetings: the China-ASEAN Arts Conference in 2017 was held in Nanning, the green capital of Guangxi province, where a number of new Arts Universities revealed their strengths. Especially impressive is the Guangxi Arts school and the relatively new Shenzhen Arts School, with its many European staff members.
In addition, others actively engaged with international activities include the Mongolian University of Art and Culture; the Kyoto University of Art and Design, the Chulalonghorn and Srinakharinwirot Universities in Thailand, Ateneo University in Philippines, Taiwan National University of the Arts, National School of Drama, India, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Aubrey Mellor OAM is Senior Fellow, Lasalle College of Arts, Singapore. He has been studying Asian theatre since a Churchill Award in 1972. Director, teacher and dramaturge, he is also an advocate of new writing. Previous positions have been Dean of Performing Arts, Lasalle - where he designed a program to bring together the best of European training with Asian - Director of NIDA, AD of Playbox-Malthouse, Queensland Theatre Company and Nimrod (now Belvoir). He is visiting professor to arts colleges in Mongolia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and India.