Creative forces: Johnny Tan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 6:01pm

Better known as Chan Hong among audiences, Johnny Tan has been steadily making a name for himself on the local performing arts scene after having appeared in a wide range of productions over the past decade.

There were Actors' Family's musicals The Good Person of Szechwan (2003) and The Passage Beyond (2009 and 2010), as well as experimental works such as On and On Theatre Workshop's Hamlet Maxhine (2008) and Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio's Titus Andronicus 2.0 (2012). Later this month, he will take to the stage alongside Tang Wai-kit and Shaw Mei-kwan in Wong Wing-sze's latest play, Smear, a new commission for this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.

"He's one of the very best actors of our generation," playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam says of Tan, who played the lead in the 2011 rerun of her award-winning Alive in the Mortuary. "He looks like he's not acting but living on stage."

But Tan, 37, says it wasn't until recently that he started to feel he was "ready" as an actor. "The longer I've been learning to act, the more I've learned to let go," the Hong Kong-born actor says. "I used to worry a lot. I worried if my performance was good enough and I cared about how people thought about me." He confesses that even today, he still feels nervous before each show, "but I tell myself that's natural. It's a live performance after all".

However, it's this "no take two" nature that makes theatre such a powerful art form for Tan. He is now a core member of local drama group Theatre de R&D. And he made his directorial debut with Bravo Theatre last year in All in the Timing.

So it may come as a surprise to some that Tan had never been to a theatre before he enrolled at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. It was 1996 and he had just returned from the US where he had been studying for a business degree at a community college but found it so boring he quit the year before graduation.

"I heard there's a school in Hong Kong where students were taught to perform," the lean, fresh-faced Tan recalls. "I didn't know what kind of performance it was. I just thought I would enjoy it because I always had a desire to impersonate people and perform … And I loved watching movies and TV."

At the APA, Tan realised he was not acting for the camera but in front of a live audience - and he loved it. Performing in a theatre is more "real" for Tan; it's all about the "moment" to be felt, here and now. "If the emotions displayed on stage are analysed prior to the show, that's fake acting," he says, adding that through learning to act from the heart, he has come to face himself squarely. "Acting in the theatre is a process of understanding myself … and it takes guts and courage to make the leap and get my true feelings out into the open."

Janice Leung

Creative Forces checks out young and promising artists in Hong Kong