Some Case Studies of 20 Years of Hong Kong Community Theatre
“There are more and more ‘performing arts venues’ in Hong Kong – the many city halls, the Academy for Performing Arts, the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the Fringe Club, City Contemporary Theatre….Nevertheless, we still need people who are willing to perform outside these venues.” (Yu Sau, 1987)
The paragraph above is quoted from the preface of the book “Elections – A Negation” published by the People’s Theatre. It was 1987, an era full of life : the negotiation between China and Great Britain over the future of Hong Kong after 1997 had been completed and Hong Kong’s future was settled. The economy was running well. In the area of the performing arts, the Council for the Performing Arts and the Academy for the Performing Arts had been established. Especially with the former, the resources it made available had generated great impetus for growth in the local theatre. The establishment also grew – both the Urban Council and the Regional Council set up in 1986 also provided much financial resources for the construction of venues and the presentation of programmes. Even more important was the fact that the people of Hong Kong became concerned with various issues which they had never thought of – identity, the question of “root”, local culture and Chinese culture.
Promotional Community Theatre
With respect to the fostering of a local theatre culture, the author began in 1983 to promote a community theatre movement in Shatin. His inspiration came from three sources: firstly, his teacher Mr. Lee Woon Wah once spoke in an open forum the sense of mission of the Chinese theatre artists and this made a significant impact on him. Secondly, the Hong Kong Government commissioned Andrew Leigh, the Administrator of the Old Vic Theatre in England to write a development report on Hong Kong’s theatre. In the report, various issues concerning regional theatre and development of original works were discussed. Thirdly, in 1984, the author was involved in the writing and directing of “ I Am Hong Kong” with the Chung Ying Theatre and the success of this original work and its touring format added to his confidence. So in October, 1985, the author formed the Shatin Theatre Company together with Cheung Ping Kuen and Cheung Yim Cheung, and called it a “community theatre.”
In a newspaper article, the author reflected on the first ten years of the Shatin Theatre Company. The idea then was to set up some kind of “seeding areas” for grass-root theatre as an alternative to the main stream establishment. The way it worked was to tour the production to where the audiences were with dramatic contents relevant to society. This experiment was shelved because of the amateur nature of the company and other limitations. Instead of touring, the company decided to engage full time professionals to do training in the high schools. However, it continued to organise the Shatin Drama Festival and theatre fair, which were still very much community oriented. ( Hardy Tsoi, 1996)
There was not a lot of theory – just a group of theatre enthusiasts seeking an alternative to the current theatre and such was the beginning of the community theatre in Shatin. New development naturally attracted attention. Da Shan, a people’s theatre worker who had attended community theatre workshops had this to say,” The Shatin Theatre Company possessed all the conditions of a community theatre…with the exception of one, i.e. the organic operation, organization and development from the bottom up.” (Da Shan 1987). Da Shan’s criticism was based on visiting community artist, N. Owen’s description of the art form. According to Owen, Community Theatre can assume the following formats: “Firstly, to stage a ‘related’ play by a company from outside the community and the purpose is to provoke thought and discussion among the audience. Secondly, to stage an open-ended play that will allow the audience to finish so as to provide an opportunity for information and opinion exchange and discussion of what they had faced in the process. Thirdly, to help organize a community theatre group for the community. (Da Shan 1987) N. Owen also pointed out that “No matter what kind of community theatre, the most important feature is to allow the community to understand its own situation through theatre. The community will then seek to make changes for the better. The whole process must be based on its own understanding and needs. Therefore the characteristics of a community theatre are discussion, participation and self organization. (Da Shan 1987). Another point considered by Da Shan to be faulty is that the survival of a community theatre should not rely on the funding of government or it would lose its independence.
In actual fact, when the Shatin Theatre Company engaged a full time community arts officer to provide service to the schools, it had also chosen the newly established Shatin Town Hall as its performance base. In terms of the plays staged, although many of them were original works, the community flavour had diminished. However, the author’s faith in the community theatre had not been wavered. He felt that the “From Training to Performance” model as testified by drama training in schools and youth centres followed by the Shatin Drama Festival could be further developed providing more time and money were available. He recognized that it should be professionally run and developed, and professionalisation was the inevitable trend. As good as his words, he founded the full-time group, Prospects Theatre Company, which took over the community theatre work originally conducted by the Shatin Theatre Company in 1993. At the same time, with funding support from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, Prospects was beginning to “export” “community theatre” programmes to other districts in Hong Kong. (1)
The exported format, which usually ran within a period not less than 6 months, had consolidated from the Shatin prototype with the following features:
- Schools and youth and centres in the district were the primary targets;
- Theatre training will be given;
- Related drama activities will be organized as a complement;
- Organising a contest for amateur theatre groups in the district;
- a script about the people and events related to the district will be written and people in the district will be invitedto participate in the performance of the plays
- If necessary, before leaving the district, assistance will be provided in setting up theatre bodies in order to sustain theatre activities in the district.
Among the aforementioned features, the most remarkable would be number 5. A good example would be when as the Eastern District Community Theatre Programme was conducted, Prospect’s Paul Poon adapted the novel “The Sun Has Set”, which is about the district Saiwanho, by Shu Hong Shing into a play of the same title.
The model described above is directly related to an earlier field study visit in England by the author for a report after the visit. The author wrote:
“I went to Sussex, England in 1987 to observe the Community Theatre there. Famous playwright/director Ann Jellicoe was the founder of this type of community theatre and I was very much inspired. They operated in the following way: professional artists from the theatre company would take up residency in a town for half a year or up to one year. They would help the residents to organize various theatre activities such as training workshops, games, parade and carnivals, etc. At the same time, a playwright would do research with an aim to write a play about the town’s history. During my visit, I was able to catch such a play being performed. Platforms were set up inside a church at two ends. Only the elderly would be seated while the rest of the audience would mill around in promenade fashion. The characters in the play would come on the platform or appear right next to the audience. The actors were playing roles of their ancestors or historical figures of their town. It was obvious that the people loved and supported this kind of theatre and the local bars, restaurants and hotels were providing sponsorship to the professionals. In the evening of the performance, the church was crowded with people. Community theatre has become an important part of their life.”
The “Eastern District Community Theatre Development Programme” by the Prospects Theatre Company was somewhat modeled after what was written above except that, in Hong Kong, people generally did not have very high consciousness about their community or local culture. There were also so many alternatives for leisure activities that the outcome of the community theatre projects had been quite different. However, the viability of such a development had been proven. (Hardy Tsoi, 1966)
By 2002, the “tailor-made” scripting method devised by Prospects Theatre for communities had undergone changes. Under a programme named “Grasshopper Outreach Youth and Children’s Theatre”, an artist facilitator would take a group of young people enthusiastic about the theatre to visit different sectors in the district, e.g. home for the elderly, boys and girls’ dormitories, temporary housing estates, etc. Eager eyes towards new people and things, “Dialogues” would easily be struck up between the young participants with and the various groups of unique life experience. Thus, through observation, interviews, discussion, creating and rehearsing, a play about society as observed by young people’s eyes was produced. It then went on tour in other districts and served as an example for other districts in self-reflection, reviews and further dislogue.
Some Issues Revolving Around Promotional Community Theatre
If an overall review of the community theatre model developed by Shatin Theatre Company and the Prospects Theatre Company is taken, it can be seen that its prime purpose is for theatre promotion. When arts and culture are still not generally recognized by society, this had its value. This is a problem and a challenge. The major difficulty faced by this kind of community theatre is that of the huge size of the community – in terms of the physical area, the size of the populations and its diversity. Therefore, constant adjustment had had to be made in order that the “invisible communities” might be reached. Theatre groups’ reliance on government funding, on the other hand, had greatly affected their survival, the mode of operation and the scale of their plans and programmes. In actual fact, almost all arts organizations require government funding. In tapping resources from the district boards, the proactive programme “Community Theatre Scheme for the 18 Districts” formulated by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council only met lukewarm response from the boards. This not only a reflects the lack of enthusiasm and support for arts and culture by the district boards but also implies that there should be more lobbying and educational work to be done. Apart from that, theatre training in Hong Kong has been geared mainly to stage productions. But the know-how and commitment required of a community theatre worker are quite different. Therefore, human resources and quality control are areas of concern as well.
Community Theatre for Social Change
Apart from community theatre that promotes the art form, there is also community theatre for social change. It has the following features:
- Theatre is considered as a tool that would liberate the creativity, the body and soul of the human kind.
- It tends more to work with minority and underprivileged groups. As the participants have similar background, the impact is usually larger.
- The relationship between the theatre worker and participants is different from the ordinary theatre in that it is more equal. Participants are both spectators and creators.
The representative of community theatre for change is the People’s Theatre group led by Mr. Mok Chiu Yu. Their development might be divided into two stages – the People’s Theatre in the 1980s and that of the 1990s. Influenced by the American radical “Living Theatre”, the People’s Theatre took part in performances, publications, making music cassette tapes and movie making. They did not perform in the usual venues of established theatres. Instead, they performed in the streets and in university campuses. Mok explained the rationale behind such activities,” We merely want to do things that the mass media do not or cannot do. We hope to communicate and act as a catalyst for social changes.” (Mok Chiu Yu, 1997). As to the effectiveness of this theatre operation, Mok had his reservations. He said, “What is political drama any way? Although one starts out trying to communicate, the audience would only endorse what they already believe and thus, only the solidarity of those sharing the same belief will be reinforced.” (Mok Chiu Yu 1997).
In the 1990s, Mok Chiu Yu et al came to know people’s theatres in Asia and Brazil and he revised his thoughts on “people’s theatre”. He wrote,
“What is people’s theatre then? People’s theatre is a kind of cultural action. It is theatre of the people, for the people and by the people. The purpose of people’s theatre is to allow the people themselves to alleviate themselves from two kinds of poverty. The first is connected with the mental and cultural… People’s theatre has empowering effects and is a means for empowerment. It leads to the gain of confidence within the people themselves and it allows them to utilise all the different artistic media to voice themselves, to critique and analyse their living conditions and to do what they feel they need to do, to change the unequal and unjust circumstances. People’s theatre promotes the practice of grass-root democracy and the realization of grass-root democracy will necessarily change the unequal distribution of wealth in society.” (Mok Chiu Yu, 1997)
It therefore should not be a surprise to find subsequently Mok Chiu Yu working for the Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong and founding the Asian People’s Theatre Festival Society.
As speaking out for the underprivileged and encouraging them to voice out are the basic goals of people’s theatre, “Playback Theatre” introduced by Veronica Needa, an ex-member of Chung Ying Theatre, in 1996 to Mok became an additional tool for people’s theatre. Playback Theatre since has grown by leaps and bounds and many names like “Well Drama Club”, “Chosen Power”, “Live @Life”, Michelle Chung, Grad Leung etc. have formed the backbone of the movement. Many social workers and organisations also used the same techniques to assist their work and the clients whom they served include the mentallly handicapped, youth out of school, new immigrants, migrant workers and other underprivileged groups. There are other young adults who have been attracted by the unique appeals of Playback Theatre to be enthusiastically involved, e.g. the Living Stories group.
Some Reflections on Community Theatre for Social Change
Since the Renaissance, western civilization has propounded humanism. Until the advent of the post industrial, post modern eras when society is being overwhelmed by the personal computers, the status of the individual has scaled new heights as society has become even more divisive. The theatre, being displaced by films and television into a minority interest, has gradually lost its educational and cohesive powers. Its justification for existence is further affected by a world of dangerous and unpredictable changes. Thus, community theatre for social change can be likened to social workers, who are always actively searching for soils worth ploughing, which is a rare and honourable act indeed. However, if we were to take the following considerations into account, it might help in the course of community theatre for social change:
- The community theatre for social change is suspect of “preaching to the converted”, as its audience are like-minded. However, the answer lies in the keyword “change” as this is what the theatre aspires. From this, we may be able to relate ourselves to great speeches by political figures at public spaces and rallies. Does Agit Prop have a place in Hong Kong?
- The ideal theatre should have depth, and before depth, focus. Maybe the focus or issues in community theatre for social change is superficially simple and easy to be identified. But as the Chinese saying goes, “You are not a fish. So how do you know the fish’s concern?”, for the theatre worker is to find the issue and offer the right remedy, there must be thorough investigation and research. It is easy to whip up sentimentalism in a theatre, but follow -up action is what matters.
- The idea of empowerment seems to be in contradiction with the “from bottom to top” ideal model of community theatre for social change. Alternatively, if the deprived minority groups have the self knowledge and ability to organize and reform, they do not really need the existence of the community theatre worker. Therefore, the role of latter is rather intriguing; it requires remarkable skills and sincerity and it has to be pursued with humility and should therefore be much respected.
- Finally, there is the question of technique and content. Take “Playback Theatre” for example. It can be used to bring about social change but is also for entertainment. Nowadays many young people like to sing in karaoke and play electronic games, finding satisfaction and gratification of “being in control”. Be it community theatre or people’s theatre, the question of balance between content and technique should be addressed. Such theatre can be simply and economically produced in different touring environment but there is no reason to banish this type of theatre from main houses so that they can be seen by a larger audience under more favourable conditions. Successful examples can be found in Joan Littlewood’s “Oh! What a Lovely War” and the Asian People’s Theatre Festival Society’s “Macau 123” in 1998. Both shows were entertaining and thought provoking.
From “Celebration” to “Rebellion”
Famous theatre scholar Professor Robert W. Corrigan once pointed out: “There has always been a continuing tension between rebellion and celebration in the arts. “(Corrigan, 1973) This is also an appropriate comment for the community theatre, which is both celebratory and rebellious. Looking at the experience of Hong Kong, in the short span of the last twenty years, we have experienced community theatre which evolved from political street theatre, to promotional community theatre, people’s theatre including Playback Theatre and even educational theatre in schools. There will be greater and diversified developments in the days ahead.
Talking about future developments, the two-year old theatre group “Ying Sheung Chuk Theatre Company” provides an interesting example. The group is made up of two persons adapting an integration of styles from the physical theatre, masks, poetry, folksongs, glove puppetry, Chinese martial arts and other forms traceable to Chinese folklore. They first performed in the elderly and youth centres, facilitated mask workshops and performed in the community centres. They are educational and community-based as well as touring. Their sources of funding come primarily from the workshops they organise and performances, supported by the Lesiure and Cultural Services Department. Around Chinese New Year this year, the Comapny organised at the Yuen Long Theatre a “Feast of the Supreme Lions”, which included the making of lions for the traditional lion dance, the lion dance itself and percussion workshops. Its promotion took on the form of a menu of a Chinese banquet and was quite outstanding. There were students from two primary schools, one high school and members from a youth centre joining the performance. The audience was also invited to take part. The one hour performance had a great atmosphere and participants were very motivated. It is indeed very meaningful to carry out community theatre activities basing on folklore and traditional festivals. However, it is obvious that, without government funding support, the number of performances that “Ying Sheung Chuk Theatre Company” could do and its impact are necessarily restricted.
Serving the underprivileged and the deprived groups – whether it is to bring theatre to people living in distant places or to awaken the oppressed, has always been the goal of the community theatre. From a macro point of view, giants like Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Shaw and Brecht were just doing the same thing. In Hong Kong, the total number of theatre goers amounts to somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 (3). So even if performances are many, the social impact is not particularly high. Therefore, the theatre may be considered to be a minority which has to work hard for its survival. Take for an example in the Hong Kong Arts Centre forum on “Searching for Hong Kong’s Theatre: Revelations from Kuo Po Kun” on 9thFebruary, one of the concerns with Hong Kong theatre raised was the over emphasis on theatricality and its lack of cultural depth. Owing to the goals and mode of operation of the community theatre, it can definitely contribute much towards this end. Community Theatre in Hong Kong has a history of twenty years. Further formal research and study will be the way forward for this art form.
- Since 1993, the Prospects Theatre Company had for four consecutive years received funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to run “ Theatre Development Programme on Hong Kong Island East”, “Theatre Development Programme at Tusen Wan and Kwai Ching”, “Community Theatre Development Programme in Tuen Mun” and “Theatre Development Programme in Northern District, New Territories.” Apart from the above, Prospect Theatre Company has been repeatedly commissioned by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department to undertake various Cultural Ambassador Scheme and Artists in Residence Scheme.
- “The Grasshopper Outreach Youth and Children’s Theatre” is part of Prospects Theatre’s “ Insects’ Playground – Community Integrated Arts Programme”. The programme came under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department Cultural Ambassador Scheme 2002.
- Hardy Tsoi conducted surveys on theatre performances and audience in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Taking 1991 as an example, there were 82 Chinese theatre groups performing 173 plays in 764 performances. Total audience was 250,000. On average every person sees six performances and the number of theatre goers should be aound 40,000. Separately in a publication “Hong Kong’s Theatre Scene 360 Degrees” edited by Mr. Ting Yu (published by the Hong Kong section of the International Association of Theatre Critics, it was reported that in 1997/98, there were 178 plays with 1010 performances staged. There was a total of 310,000 number of viewers. Calculated on the same basis as before, there would be about 50,000 theatre goers.
Yu Sau (1987) (Preface) [Elections – A Negation – Collected Plays of People’s Theatre] (page 6) Hong Kong People’s Association
Hardy Tsoi (1996) [Community Art and it Space for Survival] (Sing Tao Daily News) 27th March 1996
Da Shan (1987) [A Community Theatre in Hong Kong 1] in [Elections – A Negation – Collected Plays of People’s Theatre] (pages 155m 156) Hong Kong People’s Association
Mok Chiu Yu (1997) [The Political Nature of Theatre and People’s Theatre] in [Hong Kong Theatre – Recordings of Seminars on Theatre 1997] (pages 116, 118) Hong Kong , Hong Kong Section of International Association of Theatre Critics.
Corrigan, Robert W. (1973) “The Theatre in Search of A Fix (pg 348) USA: Dell Publishing Co. Inc.