Using personal stories to create an instant art

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 October, 2003, 12:00am

Drama therapist Jennifer Tam Bik-ki sees it as her job to awaken the sleeping artist she believes to be inside everyone in Hong Kong.

The 39-year-old, hired by the Asian People's Theatre Festival Society, helped introduce Playback Theatre to Hong Kong in 1997. The improvisational theatre, in which audiences tell their life stories and watch them enacted on the spot, has been growing ever since.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tam attended high school in Canada, where her interest in drama was sparked. After graduating with a psychology degree in 1985, she returned home to work as a personnel manager and spent most of her free time in either theatre production or going to drama workshops.

'I lived in two worlds then,' she says, one pragmatic and the other creative.

She pondered how to release audiences from their role as passive observers, before becoming aware of the People's Theatre concept in 1996.

Intrigued, she joined the group. They did not have any professional training, but they strongly believed that theatre should be 'of the people, for the people and by the people'.

A year later, she attended a Playback Theatre workshop by Veronica Needa, who is now director of Playback International. Needa helped Tam realise the idea of 'arts for all'.

Since then, she has visited different communities to hear personal stories and perform, using music and personal contact.

'People overly rely on visual things. We have to look pretty, dress pretty. But when you close your eyes, you can sense a lot of things. If you want to know the true beauty of nature, you can feel and touch. It's whole-body participation,' she says.

Tam has since heard many emotional stories from people who have been discriminated against, but her inability to convert the stories into theatre sometimes upset her.

'People gave me the privilege of sharing their stories. They trusted me, so I had to handle them with care.'

Tam says Playback Theatre has expanded the horizons of nearly every person who experiences it.

'My life is a response to all the stories I come across. I just want to make sure today I'm happy and satisfied with what I'm doing.'