Onnie Chan’s father was a very well-known business and media personality when he died in Hong Kong more than two decades ago.
Chan, only ten years old at the time, was rushed from one public funeral to another with paparazzi trailing her. For further protection, she and her mother left the home she knew for good and Chan became something of a world traveler. She never really connected to what had happened at that turning point in her life.
Until she came to New Haven.
The universal human journey along an arc of love, loss, and hope are at the heart of Chan’s new performance piece being presented at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art on Trumbull Street Friday and Saturday.
A Funeral. A Funeral. A Funeral. A Funeral. A Funeral. A Funeral. A Funeral. A Funeral. — that’s right, “funeral” writ eight times because that just might be the number of funerals Chan had to attend as a traumatized child — is the official name for the work.
The show will involve puppetry, using all the floors and spooky nooks and crannies of the century-old John Slade Ely House, atmospheric lighting provided by Jamie Burnett, and, most of all, audience participation in a game of sorts, or maybe call it a controlled adventure.
The show, selected by the Ely Center’s consulting curator Debbie Hesse, continues the Center’s new direction of attracting innovative, cutting-edge art works, including a healthy helping of performance pieces.
Since the Ely House has re-opened, after protracted negotiations and under new landlord ACES/ECA, the Friends of the Ely Center of Contemporary Art — the nucleus of which are the two historic arts clubs that continue to use the house as their headquarters — are trying to raise money to pay the rent in part by attracting a new audience through more experimental, hot-off-the-griddle approaches to creativity such as Chan’s.
The kind of theater Chan practices is immersive game theater, which she has helped to pioneer in Hong Kong, having learned it in her studies at the University of London Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and at Punchdrunk International.
If you decide to attend, you will not be an observer, but a participant in a journey that will also have an impact on you, said Chan as she set up Wednesday evening at the Ely Center on Trumbull Street for a rehearsal.
“The structure [of this show] will be similar to those in Hong Kong, but the funeral [material] is new to me,” she added.
That’s where the Ely House, with its dark wood paneling, faux Tudor leaded windows, and, yes, its slightly funereal ambiance, comes in. When Chan toured the building at the suggestion of Yale School of Art Professor Sheila DeBrettville, that’s when the idea of addressing her father’s death through the site specifics of the Ely House emerged, Chan said.
The piece, however, will not be funereal in tone, Chan pointed out. It will actually have more humor than is usual in the immersive pieces she has mounted in Hong Kong.
America needs humor now, Chan said, referring to the Trumpian political moment.
The show will be far closer to a treasure hunt than a video game, chimed in Jamie Burnett, the city art scene’s most ubiquitous lighting designer and technical wizard who’s assisting on the show.
Also collaborating are Muxi Gao, a sound design graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, and Roxy Jia from the Yale School of Art. Chan, whose headquarters continues to be in Hong Kong, met them over the last six months in which she has been in New Haven with the Yale-China Fellows Program.
That program, devoted to advancing the careers of Chinese artists, brought over Chan and other artists who will be contributing work to the upcoming International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
Chan was reluctant to give away details of the journey that she and another actor, both in costume but also as themselves, will take the audience on. Suffice it to say that when you enter, you will be given a white lily; then you will be asked to move throughout the house, with the actors, trying to discover along the way black boxes that contain items that might be exchangeable for your lily. It’s up to you to make the transaction, or not.
How many boxes and how many stations? Eight, of course.
Chan said that so far what has surprised her most about this work is that “I’m learning why I do art. There’s something I want to connect with. I didn’t connect at the time [of her father’s death]. They shut down all the news [during the funerals]. I did not connect to my father’s friends. I ran around. We had to move. We never went back to the house any more. Because of that disconnect I am eager now to connect to others.”
Hesse said a $10 donation is being asked at the door, all of which will support the center and its operational costs.
The Ely Center of Contemporary Art is located at 51 Trumbull Street and Chan’s performances will be on April 21 and 22 at 7 p.m., with an artist’s talk on April 23 at 2 p.m.