Theatre show a whole lot of love

Windmill Grass Theatre's founders wear their hearts on their sleeves and it's a winning strategy, writes Kevin Kwong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 11:02am

Edmond Tong Chun-yip, Shaw Mei-kwan and Joey Leung Cho-yiu of Windmill Grass Theatre talk about love a lot. Of their nine-year-old company's artistic direction, Leung says: "We stage works that are filled with love and we want to choose plays that carry a positive message about love."

Adds Tong: "When we set up Windmill Grass, we just wanted to do what we love most, which is acting."

Even their Cantonese stage adaptations are full of love: Joe DiPietro's I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman's I Love You Because; and Christopher Hampton's Treats (its Chinese name translates as "I'm no easy love"). Its upcoming production, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally, is a romantic comedy.

While the theme of love helps sell tickets, especially to their targeted audience aged between 20 and 35, it translates less well in arts funding applications. That may explain why the trio have, until last year, been running their company without any government subsidies.

Shaw, who graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) in 1999, says: "We've been on our own for many years, saving from one show in order to finance the next."

About five years ago, they applied for an administrative grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC) to cope with the increasing workload of the troupe as their productions became more and more popular. But their application was unsuccessful.

"The ADC wanted to know precisely what our artistic direction was. Do we stage musicals? Do we stage comedies? They wanted us to categorise our work but we can't really put ourselves in a box," says the 34-year-old Tong, whom Leung once described as the "CEO" of the company. Leung, 35, and Shaw, 39, oversee the artistic and educational aspects of their venture.

"Our artistic diversity is what makes us interesting. There was a time when we thought about narrowing our artistic focus just to get more funding [from the government] but in the end we decided to stick to our guns," Leung says. "We thought our original mission was fine; we wanted to stage works we believe in; they don't have to be about social issues or induce intellectual discourse. We want to touch the audience with our sincerity and we want to reach as wide an audience as possible."

It turned out their failed ADC grant application was a blessing in disguise as the chance to build a bigger audience came last year when the Home Affairs Bureau announced a matching grant for medium-sized arts groups that only required applicants to secure a cash income of HK$1 million; and for every HK$1 they can raise, the government will hand over up to HK$2.

The "springboard" grant is for an initial two-year period. It's perfect for groups such as Windmill Grass who already have a sound track record in producing quality works that are also box office draws.

With the grant money, the company can now not only have a bigger administration team but also organise extra educational activities such as talks, exhibitions, informal gatherings and summer camps.

"Having a chance to meet your audiences can further enhance your marketing initiatives," says Tong.

Production-wise, Crave, a collaboration with Theatre du Pif in July and this month's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune are both supported by the springboard grant.

But it was at the "My First Time" summer camp in July that the three APA drama graduates did some serious bonding with their following. Held at a holiday camp site in Pak Tam Chung, Sai Kung, around 140 secondary school students joined three days of drama training "to build confidence".

"It wasn't just having barbecues," says Leung, "as we kept the campers really busy by asking them to come up with their own play by the end of the event."

Leung says the local examination-led education system has killed all the fun of learning about the arts: "It certainly has ruined young people's love for the subject; the arts is organic. So at the camp, we encourage people to be creative and there is no right and wrong in the arts."

Shaw says the students' attitude to the subject of love also changed over the two days.

"On the first day, everyone giggled when the word 'love' came up. Then on the third day, they didn't shy away from the topic anymore. We encouraged them to express their feelings … young people in Hong Kong are so used to saying 'okay', 'not okay' … we want them to speak what they feel and think. Part of drama [training] is about self-expression," she says.

The summer camp was an effective way to spread the word about Windmill Grass, says Tong. "Those who participated learned how to appreciate theatre and, with hope, they will share that understanding with their friends. We don't want to train them to become actors but to become more open minded."

With the government grant and private sponsorship, they were able to keep the cost of the camp down to HK$400 per head.

Tong, Shaw and Leung - all top actors in their own right who have either won or been nominated for drama awards - attribute their popularity down to their ability to connect with their audience.

"A live performance is a real exchange between the actors and the audience and a good performance is to create that connection … it's a very sacred moment," says Leung.

And at the end of the day, quality - and sincerity - is what the trio believes will keep their audience coming back.

"Several years ago the local theatre scene went through a phase when theatre companies brought in celebrities or pop stars to boost ticket sales. But if there was no quality, the audience would stop coming and that was what happened. Those shows are gone," Tong says.

"We take our productions seriously, anything from the set to technical support, but most of all, we are sincere and we want to move our audience with our love and passion for theatre."

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune , Thu-Nov 18, 8pm; Sat-Nov 18, 3pm. Shouson Theatre, HK Arts Centre, HK$240, HK$260 and HK$300. Inquiries: 2389 9220