‘Hong Kong Repertory Theatre has two major missions,’ says executive director CB Chan when I catch him on Skype. ‘The first is to produce and develop high-quality, innovative and diverse repertoire comprising Chinese, international, contemporary and classic works.’ And the second? ‘To develop the Hong Kong’s interest and appreciation of theatre and to enrich the city’s cultural life.’
These are pretty lofty goals, and the second in particular intrigues me. How does one theatre company go about developing an interest in theatre across a city of over seven million people? The answer, Chan explains, is to develop an interest in theatre from a young age and to keep that connection with the stage throughout their education and formative years.
‘We start from infant level, in kindergartens, and this goes all the way through primary school, high school and all the way up to professional training at Hong Kong University where students can study courses in directing, acting and screenwriting.
‘With younger children our work tends to focus on daily life. Students might create short plays – about half an hour long – that look at their social, school or family affairs. We find children respond best to these programmes. Then, once they are older, they can start to work on plays that are influenced by the classics. We might organise a classic play for them to practise, and then they try to create their own work in a similar style.’
The reach of HKR’s work, Chan tells me, is nothing short of astounding. For the last three years they have worked directly with more than 400 kindergarten schools in the area. ‘We have sent our teachers to engage in almost half the infant schools in Hong Kong. Our staff work with the teachers in the schools and show them how they can prime theatre skills in very young children.’
As well as working with very young children HKR also engages emerging theatre-makers in the area, a programme that has already had a notable success – thanks in no small part to the money HKR has put behind it.
‘We actually pay young people as playwrights, which encourages them to be professional,’ says Chan. ‘We invite young playwrights through an open application. Once they have submitted a play we give them instructive feedback and ask them to rewrite their first draft. Usually we get around 30 applications, and our panel of judges select the best. The playwrights then develop them. We pay them in phases, so a small amount for the initial script and then extra if they develop it for our stage.’
And, continues Chan, one of those plays has already gone on to have serious success: ‘The Last Supper [by Matthew Cheng] started in our blackbox, then went to the main stage and the on to tour to mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore, it is going back to Beijing soon.’
He describes the piece as a dark comedy that deals with ‘family affairs among the working class in Hong Kong,’ it was named in the top 10 and top six productions of 2013, respectively, by Time Out Beijing and The Beijing News.
HKR’s current season reflects its interest in new talent, with three shows programmed for its blackbox space. ‘One developed by our in-house artist, and the other two are from young playwrights based here in Hong Kong,’ says Chan. The shows are Sing Your Life: a Musical (produced by HKR actors Pichead Amornsomboon and Kwok Ching Man); Roads to Chicken Pie; and An Unjust Good Fellow.
And a quick look at the main-stage schedule shows that this commitment to home-grown Hong Kong talent isn’t just for the small stage: five of its seven 2016-17 productions are local creations. Even the international shows – Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and West End comedy Whose Wife is it Anyway? – have been translated and adapted by a local team. A blackbox festival, made up of productions from The Netherlands, Taipei, Japan and Korea, adds an additional international flavour.
Getting back to touring, I ask Chan to tell me the role it plays in the company’s mission. What might these improvements look like? He is quick to answer: ‘We would like to develop a continuous touring team. At the moment we cannot have touring all the time because we have to focus on our own work here in Hong Kong.’
Might those opportunities include trips to Europe and America? ‘At the moment we have a language barrier – our shows are performed in Cantonese. But yes, we’d like to tour further away to America and Europe – it is something we’d love to do.’
This article was first featured in the July 2016 edition of IAM. To read the full edition please visit our subscriptions page.