Curtain up on a stage mutiny

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 April, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 April, 1993, 12:00am

WHEN the directors of the Chung Ying Theatre Company decided against renewing the contracts of three of the company's 13 actors, they little realised they were unleashing the dogs of war.

But the move, which one administrator emphasises ''is not a firing'', set in motion a series of protest resignations which has cast serious doubts about the future of one of the pillars of the Hongkong theatre establishment.

As the dust settles, the company is determined to pull off its forthcoming spring programme and international stint despite having to replace two administrators and eight actors.

Tensions came to a head in one much-criticised production last year, The Island That Sings. According to actor Chung Chi-wing, rehearsals were riddled with ''many, many arguments'' between the actors and artistic director Chris Johnson.

''It was clear that she [Johnson] was not in control,'' said Chung, who was in Chung Ying for almost three years.

Then, Chung, Jim Chim an d Mandy Yiu received letters telling them Chung Ying was terminating their contracts from March this year.

Although the company's actors renew their contracts annually, the three had not been led to believe they would be looking for work after March.

After receiving their dismissal letters, they met Johnson.

According to Chung, Johnson complained about the quality of his work, his ability to support the group and his commitment.

Johnson would only say Chung Ying had been ''unsatisfied with their work'' and that it was ''not fair or professional'' to discuss the matter further.

Chim believes it was their questioning of Johnson's artistic decisions that led the director to look for an excuse to fire them.

''[Johnson] said in her letter that I wasn't very supportive in the production The Island That Sings, but I talked to the playwright and he didn't have any complaints,'' said Chim.

''There are always problems with a new production being performed for the first time, but [Johnson] wouldn't accept any suggestions from actors. She was stubborn and would get angry.'' Johnson soon found herself with a mutiny on her hands. Eight actors - including those released - fired off a confrontational letter to the company's governing board protesting against the sackings and complaining about the company's direction under Johnson's 21/2-year reign.

''We wrote to the board to try to communicate the situation as we saw it,'' said one of the actresses who will stay at Chung Ying until mid-June. ''We hoped they could do something, talk with us or with the artistic director.'' Unmoved, the board watched three more members walk. The other two co-signers agreed to stay on provisional 10-week contracts, but have stated their intentions to leave after completing this spring's productions.

Johnson stressed that turnover was a natural part of the business. ''Several of those leaving have left before, returned and now are going again, while some of the new people coming in have also left before to go and work elsewhere or study, and now theyare returning,'' she said.

''Obviously we are not upset about the three we let go, and the company has had adequate time to replace them. As for those who have decided to leave on their own - in Hongkong there is no lack of enthusiastic and energetic young actors willing to take their places.'' In the meantime, the company ploughs ahead with its forthcoming projects, a series of ''studio shorts'' at the Arts Centre, and a performance in the Canadian International Children's Theatre Festival , both in May.