Drums echo around the hall, reverberating off the walls and shaking the chandeliers. Sweat-soaked musclemen in red loincloths strike enormous gongs while women in white robes beat bongo-shaped drums, intensely watching one another for the slightest change in tempo. The energy is primal, and infectious. This is U-Theatre, and it’s more than a great night out. One of Taiwan’s premier performing-arts companies, its shows are based on the Buddhist teachings of Zen, and are as much a demonstration of religious devotion as an art form. The company was established by the unusual combination of a New York-trained actress (Ruoyo Liu) and a Malaysian martial-arts champion (Chih Chun-huang) in Taipei in 1988. In training and in their productions, Liu and Huang immerse the troupe in traditional Taiwanese culture, including age-old ceremonies and folk arts. And now they’ve taken that a step further and invited students from China’s world-famous Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center to join the show: think Jet Li meets meditative drumming. The result is “A Touch of Zen,” which will be performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival this month. It tells Buddhist “koans” (teaching stories) using the spectacular moves of the Shaolin students and the traditional drumming technique for which U-Theatre is famous. It’s an uncanny pairing. Getting the project together, however, was a rocky road. It began last year in Shanghai, where Liu and her team were performing “Meeting with Vajrasattva.” While they were there, the director of the Shaolin training center and six-time champion kung-fu master, Jiao Hongbo, invited U-Theatre to visit and work with the students. And so Liu and Huang traveled to the Mecca of martial arts, Shongshan in Henan province, where 60,000 students from all over China devote themselves to the art of Shaolin kung fu. Arriving at 5am, Liu was overwhelmed to find the roads crowded with students, some as young as six years old, on their morning run. “There were so many kids,” she exclaims. They are natural performers. Martial-arts movies starring Jet Li and co. have made Shaolin kung fu popular with audiences everywhere. Not only do the students regularly tour internationally, but they also perform about five shows a day for visitors at the center. The grand finale? Breaking a wooden weapon with their foreheads to demonstrate their qi kung (strength). Suitably impressed, Liu began exchanging ideas with the students Jiao had selected for her to work with. He chose the center’s strongest and most skillful young men. As it turned out, these strong men had equally powerful personalities and didn’t take easily to being directed by a tiny, artistic woman with crazy ideas. “They know kung fu better than us and would tell us how they wanted to do things,” says Liu, exasperated. “If I changed something and they didn’t like it, they just changed it back.” Unaccustomed to the art of improvisation, they were embarrassed when Liu asked them to crawl around the floor very slowly like an animal. “I was trained by [Polish theater director and educator] Jerzy Grotowski. One night, in the training center, I tried out Grotowski’s Technique with them. It is not about tumbling or fighting; it’s about natural movement that changes you from the inside.” The kung-fu boys were not impressed: they are taught to move as quickly and accurately as possible. “When I asked them to move slowly they laughed and looked at each other as if to say, ‘This is too easy!’ But some of them accepted it and when they did, their bodies took on a new form,” Liu recalls. “Their training is very good so when they want to do something, they do it well.” After the initial training sessions, Liu invited 14 students to join the production. But the U-Theatre artists soon found themselves outnumbered by Shaolin students. “We said maybe 14 or 15; they said that wasn’t enough and suggested 18. We said okay, but then they needed understudies so 21 ended up coming. It was a really big group,” Liu says. At the world premiere of “A Touch of Zen” in Taipei in July, the audience was quick to notice the imbalance created by the Shaolin performers. U-Theatre has a very loyal audience in Taipei. In 1997, for example, audience members trekked two hours out of the city, by train then bus then mountain path to sit in the rain and watch “The Sound of Ocean” premiere. After “A Touch of Zen,” audience members complained that the Shaolin performers dominated U-Theatre and were too showy (despite her reluctance, Liu eventually allowed them to break weapons over their heads on stage). Rather than being crushed by the poor reception, Liu simply took it her stride. Many of her productions go through cycles such as this. “I cannot do plays in a very short time,” Liu explains. “‘Meeting with Vajrasattva’ took years to complete and we had two very different versions.” She recognized that kung fu and U-Theatre were very different art forms and that both had to make a compromise. After the premiere, she thanked the kung-fu performers for their hard work and sent them back to the mountains. The power balance between the two parties had shifted. Liu knew exactly what she wanted from the Shaolin students and was prepared to put her foot down - in a very Zen way - until she got it. She met again with Jiao, the center’s director, but this time said: “I don’t want your best students – I want your worst.” Liu wanted the younger students simply because they were more malleable and wouldn’t give her the “Shaolin attitude” she had struggled with the first time. “I said this time I had to be the one to choose the Shaolin actors and I would know which were easy to work with and which really wanted to learn.” She headed for the hills once more and spent some time observing the students. Predictably, it was the younger students who caught her eye. Though some were aged just 15, they had been training since they were eight years old and were skilled kung-fu artists. She invited six of them to learn with her in Taiwan, where they have been undergoing intense training in meditation, drumming, musicality, rhythm and, above all, the way of Zen. They are also learning some basic stagecraft, such as how to stand on stage, and how to speak. “There is a lot of work to do because they have accents from all over China, so they have to learn how to speak properly on stage and be understood,” Liu says. “They study very hard, but they insist they have to do their thing.” She laughs as she mimes breaking a plank of wood over her head. The Shaolin students will come out of the process as changed men and artists and the production that will debut in Hong Kong in February will show the results of this transformation. Also undergoing a transformation is the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center. As a result of its relationship with U-Theatre, the center is incorporating the teachings of Zen into its practices. “The chairman knows kung fu has to change,” Liu says. “There are too many people doing it and they are all learning the same thing and doing it the same way. They need a new challenge – a revolution.” Kung fu has its origins in the art of Zen, but that aspect of the teaching had been abandoned in recent history. “Religion is still not a popular practice in China,” Liu says. “But the Shaolin guys will be allowed to do it because they are so famous.” With their training still underway, there’s no way to tell how the whole process will turn out. Will the disciples learn the way of Zen and become the performers Liu hopes they can be? Or will they still insist on cracking wooden planks over their heads? We’ll have to wait for the Hong Kong premiere in February to find out. Stay tuned: same Zen time, same Zen channel.