The Bard has flown
Wynne Penelope Wong, a Primary Five student at St Paul's Co-educational College Primary School, used to be afraid of attending English lessons when she was younger.
'We have native speakers teaching us English at school. While my English wasn't that good, I used to be very intimidated,' the 10-year-old says.
Then she received intensive dramatic workshops organised by Shakespeare4All for this year's gala production of As You Like It. Sixty students from 10 schools appeared in the play, which will be repeated today at 3pm at the Kwai Tsing Theatre in Kwai Chung.
The joint performance has allowed students with an interest in drama from all over Hong Kong to meet and do something together.
But the play marks the last gala joint performance by the students, as Shakespeare4All is adopting a new teaching philosophy that will emphasise more learning and participation than performance. 'I've met so many new friends since joining Shakespeare4All,' says Wynne, who plays Phebe, a shepherdess. 'I've learned to overcome difficulties - including [the fright of] performing alone on stage - and I'm very confident now in acting and speaking English.'
Founded by veteran English teacher and theatrical director Dr Vicki Ooi Cheng-har in 2003, Shakespeare4All is a charity which aims to promote confidence and fluency in English for students by performing Shakespeare's plays.
Over the years, Ooi has produced eight full-length productions in English, adapting their settings to Asia. For example, Julius Caesar was set in Bali, Romeo and Juliet in Japan and The Merchant of Venice in Shanghai, and all performed by students from Hong Kong.
Schools have signed up to offer Shakespeare4All's year-long course to students as one of their extracurricular activities. It features 10 hours of learning the script and 14 hours of acting for a group of 25 students before they do a school performance, and the feedback on the enhancement of the students' English has been positive.
Nothing could be more gratifying for Ooi, a Malaysian-born former professor of theatre and English who taught at the University of Hong Kong for almost 30 years.
'I'm afraid I've to say the English standard of Hong Kong students is going down. It's going down because the Education Bureau is not paying enough attention to upgrading present teachers' standard of English,' she says.
'If you go into some schools, they teach English in Cantonese. Students don't have an English environment.'
That is why Ooi has been trying harder to promote the potential of education through art even in her retirement.
'One of the best ways of teaching English is through drama. It's one of the best ways of teaching anything because the kids enjoy themselves and have fun,' she says. 'The problem with teaching kids how to pronounce a word correctly - or to get the intonation right - is for them to repeat it several times. But they get bored if you ask them ... to repeat a word many times in class.
'That's why drama is a very good way of teaching language. It's constant practice. This is what we do in rehearsals - constantly practise. Repetition and confidence give you fluency. If you're able to stand up and say your lines in front of the audience, you go back to your class and you have confidence and fluency.'
Regan Chan, 17, of Rosaryhill School agrees: 'I play the role of Oliver, the evil brother, and the lines can be difficult. I have to practise every night - the phrase 'practice makes perfect' is what I literally learn from preparing for the show.'
The romantic comedy As You Like It, set in rural Vietnam, tells the story of Rosalind (Christina Wong Lok-ming) who flees from the persecution of her uncle, an evil duke who deposed and banned her father in an attempt to take over the throne. Accompanied by her cousin Celia (Yuen Kam-ling) and the court clown Touchstone (Nicholas Cheung), she finds safety and eventually love in a forest.
The change in philosophy towards learning and participation is also a bid by Shakespeare4All to widen its influence. Members of Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London, a replica of the 16th century original that opened in 1997 in Southwark, will arrive this month to help launch the Shakespeare4All Learning and Participation Festival for primary and secondary students.
'Performance is when you put your emphasis on putting a production together. But learning and participation is when you try and teach the kids more about the play, how they can learn [from] the play, rather than [just] how to act,' says Ooi.
'We'll try to talk about the meaning behind the play and relating it to their lives so that Shakespeare is always relevant to their life.'
Instructors from the Globe will come to Hong Kong and train teachers and Shakespeare4All's tutors. The workshop will still have 24 one-hour sessions, and students will still be doing short scenes of a play, but the focus will be more on guiding students to analyse different relationships and themes in the play as well as interpret and relate the play in a modern context.
'This is also what liberal studies in Hong Kong should be. It's about how ... they can do their expression of different viewpoints,' Ooi says.
Students' appreciation of drama - by using music, costumes or the set - is also something Ooi would like to increase in the workshops.
'In order to keep the kids interested, we'll have competitions. But I don't like competition between schools because in Hong Kong there's a big difference between, let's say, a school in the New Territories and what we called a 'brand-name' school,' Ooi says.
'It's cruel to put them in the same competition. So what we're doing is we try to have the competition within the schools.'
At the end of the workshop, the students will present a showcase followed by a meeting with the adjudicators, when they will be assessed on their understanding of Shakespeare and their own production. Prizes will be awarded not only for their acting, but also for their knowledge of the play.
'We're the first to get in touch with an international organisation to start this interest in learning and participation and a competitive way to approach it,' Ooi adds.
'Now we've shifted the emphasis. We're going wider - not better, because I think we've done our job well, only we've focused on a narrower goal.'