Jun-Jie Zhan: Making Connections (Stage) Left and (Stage) Right
Jun-Jie Zhan - playwright, screenwriter, and theater director - explores daily life and social issues of contemporary Taiwan.
Since he began writing plays in 2008, Jun-Jie has produced nine original scripts, with themes ranging from daily life to AIDS in Taiwan.
Jun-Jie received a six-month New York Fellowship from ACC and arrived in December 2017. The focus of Jun-Jie’s fellowship—in addition to observing contemporary theater and participating in playwrighting workshops—has been an exploration of musical theater in its hometown. With an openness of mind and spirit, however, Jun-Jie has taken in a vast range of works from experimental theater to Broadway, larger productions to smaller workshops.
Jun-Jie’s own musical-in-progress tells the story of his hometown Keelung, a once prosperous port-city in northern Taiwan, now grappling with economic depression.
A fusion of reality and fiction, the musical centers around an elderly woman and her karaoke bar, featuring a repertoire of songs in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English. This linguistic decision is both a reflection of Keelung’s history—which served as a hub for many foreign visitors, including American soldiers during the Vietnam War era—as well as a strategic decision.
“In Taiwan, the audience for musicals is usually between 20 to 40 years old,” Jun-Jie explained, “for the older generations, ‘entertainment’ means karaoke or TV dramas. Money is spent on family and food, not on the theater.” By using Taiwanese—a language spoken by all ages, but especially by those born before the 1945 adoption of Mandarin as Taiwan’s official language—Jun-Jie hopes to both connect with and expand his local, intergenerational audience. In New York, the diversity of ages—of both audience and performer—has come as a welcome surprise. Seeing actors and dancers in their 60s and 70s left a particular impression on Jun-Jie.
Beyond attending performances, Jun-Jie has explored deeply the behind-the-scenes of theatrical creation. Through its alumni network, ACC has provided access to playwrights producing the next generation of musicals. ACC arranged alumna and human rights activist Catherine Filloux (ACC 2000) to mentor Jun-Jie. Catherine, in turn, introduced him to many directors, playwrights, and composers. As Jun-Jie put it, “Catherine would introduce me to three people, who introduced me to three more.” This domino effect was not just of opening doors, but of warm invitations to step inside. “When I met people, they’d ask, ‘How can I help?’” But, Jun-Jie countered, he simply wanted to talk. In this way, connection and conversation have been the bywords of Jun-Jie’s grant experience.
Jun-Jie with mentor Catherine Filloux (right), and musical playwright Maggie-Kate Coleman (center)
Through Catherine’s introduction to the head of Fordham University’s theater program, Jun-Jie has brought his own conversation to the stage in the U.S.-debut of “Taste-of-Love.” The stage reading, dealing with themes of AIDS and stigma, urban development and economic depression, lies and loneliness, was followed by a Q&A providing both cultural and personal context. Jun-Jie, an active volunteer and advocate for AIDS rights, found that his U.S. audience was unaware of AIDS as an issue in Asia. Even in Taiwan, where HIV medication is easily accessible, continuing stigma and silence around AIDS makes his work essential in starting a meaningful conversation. Jun-Jie explained, “I have no idea how long I will write for. But right now, I have a story to tell.” Through the connections Jun-Jie has made on his ACC Fellowship, the stories he’s compelled to tell has found a new audience eager to listen.
Below: Jun-Jie with director and cast of Fordham University's stage reading of "Taste-of-Love"