Play for today
In 2004 Hong Kong playwright Wong Wing-sze wrote a semi-autobiographical drama titled This Happy Valley is Very Happy. Despite its cheerfully silly title, the full-length play is neither: it charts a period in Wong's life when her relationships and career were floundering. The protagonist in the story wants to end her life.
'Yes, it is a sad story,' Wong says. Her life as a writer had not been particularly happy up to that point: 'There were few opportunities to stage works, and when they did get staged, they'd run for a weekend and that was it.'
But that was then. Life is now looking up for Wong, who has written close to 30 plays since 2001. This Happy Valley is Very Happy, which has been renamed Our Best of Youth in Cambrian, got another run last November as part of the World Cultures Festival organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). The Truth About Lying, a Hong Kong Arts Festival commission in 2010, was named the best script at last year's Hong Kong Drama Awards. It will return for another run at the festival in April. Her collaboration with director Edward Lam Yick-wah, Awakening, inspired by the literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber, will also get another airing when the show tours the region next month. A new play is in the pipeline.
Wong, who is also a stage actress, says more theatre companies are looking for new scripts because more are available. 'Playwrights have become more vocal and visible ... they now even get top billing. The times are changing.'
Much of that change springs from 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Theatre', a workshop programme that offers local playwrights a platform to develop and stage new scripts. The project was launched in 2006 by the artistic director of Prospects Theatre, playwright Paul Poon Wai-sum, in collaboration with Theatre Ensemble and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. They staged 17 plays in the first year and were so successful the LCSD took the project under its wings the next year and made it an annual event. Last year, the programme presented 22 works.
Poon is pleased with the results of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Theatre'. It not only produced a new generation of playwrights such as Wong, Harriet Chung Yin-sze, Wu King-yeung, Yan Yu, Tam Hung-man and Chu Fung-han, but also became the first stop for theatre companies and cultural presenters scouting for original plays by Hong Kong playwrights.
The project has also been boosted by a rise in Cantonese drama productions in recent years, from about 300 between 2008 and 2009 to 350 between 2009 and 2010, according to the latest statistics from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong). With the West Kowloon Cultural District on the horizon, the government has also taken a more active role in promoting the arts.
However, unlike acting and directing, writing plays is the least popular discipline among drama students. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts' school of drama has not offered the course at the undergraduate level since 2004; just 14 students took the subject between 1995 and 2004. The academy now runs a master's degree in playwriting but takes in only one or two new students a year.
Poon says many Cantonese theatre troupes and producers still struggle with a schizophrenic attitude towards new plays: 'On one hand, everyone is looking for something original; they want to stage works that are locally relevant to build up the audiences. Yet they don't want to take any risks because there is no guarantee that a new play will work.'
This is where the playwriting workshop comes in - as a testing ground where fresh material with potential can be tried out.
The workshop programme has worked well for an organisation the size of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, whose mission includes nurturing local talent.
During the past couple of years, it has commissioned plays by Wong (The Truth About Lying), Chung (Recycling Times) and Yan (Pretense), all of whom were plucked from Poon's workshop. This year's new commission, Journey to Home, to be staged next month, is by fellow alumna Santayana Li Wing-lui.
Arts Festival associate programme director So Kwok-wan says he sources works from Poon partly to save time, but mostly because the scripts have already been brought to the stage. 'A script can be something else on paper,' he says. 'It needs to be staged before its potential is fully realised.'
Li's Journey to Home, about a young woman's search for her mother, came from the 2010 workshop. So says that while the final version is different from the original, the essence of the play hasn't changed. He says that part of the festival's role is to provide resources for commissioned playwrights to further develop and fine-tune their works. So says it is not uncommon for local companies to stage a play that is still in its first draft, but the Arts Festival looks for works with a certain level of literary value and depth.
Since the success of Murder in San Jose, a critically acclaimed psychological thriller written by Candace Chong Mui-ngam in 2009, the Arts Festival has been re-running its commissioned plays. So says it's healthy to do this, sometimes with another cast or director, because it gives new life to the work. 'There aren't that many new plays going around, so why not re-stage something that's good? There's no need to stage something new all the time,' he says.
Playwright Wong agrees: 'This is one way I can learn. By running the work again, I am able to look at it with fresh eyes. I'll fine-tune it and make it even better.'
Since 2010, the LCSD has included a series titled 'Re-run Run Shows' in its cultural presentations to encourage theatre companies to re-stage plays with lasting appeal, building a stock repertory as well as signature works of their own. Last year the series included critically acclaimed works such as Chong's The French Kiss (a 2005 Arts Festival commission) and Poon's Cricket in My Life. The LCSD says it will continue the series this year.
Poon is grateful for the LCSD's efforts to promote original local dramas; he says the department is proactive about becoming involved in the playwriting workshop. As all participants - playwrights, directors and actors - are given a fee, it costs about HK$500,000 to run each year. Including the provision of a venue, 'this is pretty generous support [the government] is giving'.
'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Theatre' has attracted writers from every field because it's an open platform with no restrictions on genre, but notably actors who want to try their hand at playwriting.
'There is certainly a trend there,' says Poon. 'Some actors don't want to play roles written by someone else any more, they want to write for themselves.'
Actors Yau Ting-fai and Poon Pik-wan, both from the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, for instance, were able to work on their scripts before taking them back to their company and had them staged at the Black Box Theatre.
Paul Poon, whose works range from the popular Man of la Tiger to the critically acclaimed The Massage King, says he welcomes all kinds of plays: 'The topic can be anything, but the story has to be able to move me. It has to be compelling and meaningful.'
Given the workshop is now including playwrights from the mainland and Taiwan, its future - and that of playwriting - looks promising, he says.
The Hong Kong Arts Festival has just signed an agreement with Publisher Muse for production and international distribution of bilingual e-scripts (English and Chinese) of its new plays after their festival premieres. This initiative is expected to give local plays the opportunity to reach a wider, international audience.
Meanwhile, Wong Wing-sze must be glad that she didn't give up back in 2004. After all, writing plays can be therapeutic.
'Writing is a lonely business, and one in which you lay yourself bare,' she says. 'It is a monologue on sleepless nights, the consummation of an unfulfilled dream, and answering questions nobody asks you. But it is only through writing that I can see my true self and establish a dialogue with it.'