The shows must go on
Times are tough and may well get tougher, but Hong Kong's theatre folk are determined the show will go on.
'I don't know which way it is going to go for us,' says Adam Harris of Stylus Productions, which will stage Sir Peter Shaffer's Equus at the Fringe Club from April 21 to 25.
'It is hard to predict [how it will go]. Either people will be saving every penny and not spending money on nights out - like theatre - or they could be not going away on holiday and looking for escapist entertainment, which theatre obviously is,' he says.
Harris says that although this is the first play he has directed under the present adverse economic conditions, he is optimistic about ticket sales.
'In recent years Hong Kong has become more accepting of new material and edgier stuff. It's a very heavy piece, and not everyone's cup of tea, for sure, but it's a very high-profile play at the moment,' he says.
'It has been in the West End and is now on Broadway with the Harry Potter actors [Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths]. I would think Hong Kong might appreciate a chance to see it.'
Petra Fairweather of WAG Productions is producing Cosi by Australian playwright Louis Nowra, which follows Equus at the Fringe Club from May 6 to 9, and is similarly upbeat.
'We're pretty optimistic that we'll sell out. We made a conscious decision that we'd do a comedy. There being such a large number of very serious plays around in recent times, I think it is important when things are a bit grey and bleak that people have something to entertain them,' Fairweather says.
Sponsorship, which is not easy to obtain at the best of times for theatrical productions, is another matter. Harris and Fairweather confirm that companies are generally unwilling to open their cheque books. 'We haven't found anybody who is willing to sponsor in a cash way,' Fairweather says.
'A lot of our assistance comes in the form of barter. We give a plug in the programme, and, for example, Adelaide Cellar Door donates some bottles for us to give away as lucky draw prizes. They get the business cards and that helps us and helps them, and we're very appreciative of that kind of support. ... But cash hasn't really come our way.'
The Hong Kong Singers' last production, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, was sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, but no title sponsor has yet stepped forward for its forthcoming production of The Wizard of Oz, which runs from May 20 to May 27 at the Sheung Wan Civic Theatre.
'We've people who are willing to book ad spaces for our house programme. But nobody has jumped up and said, 'I want to be the title sponsor for this show,' and we're still on the lookout for one,' says producer Vanessa Lee.
'We're hoping to be able to do all the technical elements such as flying and pyrotechnics for the show, so we do need quite a lot of budget to be able to do that. We are expecting ticket sales to be OK, but we don't expect them to cover all of the costs.
'Ticket sales were still all right for South Pacific, which we did around the time of Sars, so we are hoping that people will still come out. We haven't raised the ticket prices.'
Jodi Gilchrist, who is mostly affiliated with bigbox theatre but is co-producing Misery for the Wordybird Theatre Company from May 27 to May 30 at the Fringe Club, also found sponsorship hard to generate for bigbox's 2008 production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
'Despite huge efforts to get sponsorship there was nothing coming forward. People are happy to give HK$1,500 or HK$1,800 for an advert, but are just not willing to cough up HK$20,000 or more - they just haven't got it - so these shows are really having to survive on just ticket sales,' says Gilchrist.
Because most people taking part in small company productions here are paid either very little or nothing at all, and venues such as the Fringe Club charge a percentage of ticket sales rather than a fixed rental, the major expense, she says, is usually the set.
'With Streetcar we had an incredibly elaborate set, but we sold out two weeks before the show. The company made a little bit of money - not a vast amount, but we were able to give our actors a token [amount] that wasn't really expected,' says Gilchrist.
'With Misery the set is quite adventurous, and is going to cost about HK$26,000. Wordybird is a tiny company, so we're really hunting for sponsorship, but nothing is coming back.'
Lack of sponsorship, however, does not seem to be deterring theatre companies from mounting productions they believe in.
Andrew Burt is directing Tom Stoppard's Arcadia for Orpheus Theatre at the Hong Kong Arts Centre's McAulay Studio from May 5 to May 10, and has also been relatively unsuccessful in eliciting sponsorship, but is going ahead with the production because of a passion for the play and a belief that he has the right actors for the roles.
'If I can get around 80 per cent to 90 per cent sales, which is in the realms of the possible with the McAulay Studio, then I think I can cover most of my costs,' the director says.
'I'm not paying my cast although about half are professional. They're willing to do this because it is Stoppard.
'Yes, in terms of sponsorship the bottom has fallen out of that. But I've wanted to do it for so long that if I take a loss on it, so be it,' says Burt.
Although auditions continue to be well attended, as employers cut back on staff, amateur members of some casts are finding it impossible to balance their involvement in productions with increased commitments to day jobs, as Lee, Fairweather and Clare Stearns - who is directing Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music for Perilous Mouths at the Fringe Club from June 7 to June 13 - all attest.
Stearns says her cast is now stable, but she has had to recast one leading role three times because of people dropping out. Perilous Mouths, she says, has never relied on sponsorship and she too is 'very optimistic' about ticket sales.
'One thing that history teaches is that in times of recession ... people still have to be entertained.'