Stage plays break taboos to encourage students to talk about their problems

Theatre groups are portraying sensitive issues in their work to encourage teens to communicate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 9:04am

David Andrews, the founder of Chunky Onion Productions, often finds himself answering tough questions from his fiancée's young nieces and nephews. He has become very close to the children, all Hongkongers, and "a lot of them come to me to ask for advice and ask stuff they probably should ask their parents or teachers, but don't", he says. So Andrews decided to address these youth issues through drama.

An American who has lived in Hong Kong for about 18 years, Andrews says the culture here makes it difficult for young children and teenagers to openly and honestly discuss problems they face, such as academic pressure, addiction and bullying.

It was interesting working with teenagers because they were living a lot of these things
Lindsey Mcalister

His role as director at Chunky Onion, which stages performances for schools, as well as providing entertainment for corporate and private clients, meant that he was well placed to create what is a new kind of show for the theatre company.

"We wanted to offer a theatre-based learning experience that talks about issues that teenagers and pre-teens are facing," he says.

The result is Life Choices, a production "targeted at children who are starting to make difficult decisions and face their own life challenges".

It's an interactive show, Andrews says, which means "we get the audience to suggest actions that can be taken during a particular scene to change the course of the outcome".

"At the end of each little sketch, there is a wrap-up and open forum for discussion, where students can converse with our performers. They can talk about what they thought of the show and maybe talk about their own experiences."

Chunky Onion briefs the school in advance about the format and subject matter, and provides information on where schools can seek assistance or counselling if necessary.

The show, which focuses on the issues of bullying and addiction, made its debut at Lok Sin Tong Ku Chiu Man Secondary School in Kwai Chung in July. Although neither bullying nor addiction are big problems at the school, a Fifth Form teacher, Y.Y. Chan, says the drama is a good medium for her students to learn more about the issues so they are better equipped if challenges arise.

That has also been the experience of Lindsey McAlister, founder and director of the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation, which provides art experiences for young people free of charge.

Drama helps "break taboos, it gets people talking. It makes issues that maybe you wouldn't normally talk about acceptable to address," she says. A couple of years ago, McAlister produced and directed Spring Awakening, a teen musical exploring issues such as abortion, suicide, incest and homosexuality.

Not only were some topics controversial, the approach could seem a little in-your-face. For example, there was an explicit scene which depicted a young man masturbating, but "that is what happens, that is what teenagers do," she says.

"It was interesting working with teenagers because they were living a lot of these things," McAlister adds. An example is the young character in the show who takes his own life because the pressure to be an A-plus student becomes too much. "Our kids in Hong Kong are under a lot of pressure to achieve," she says.

McAlister put a lot of time and effort into informing the parents of her young cast and schools about what they would be doing. But she was still apprehensive about how the show would be received.

"I was expecting after the first night we would get a lot of angry e-mails from people who thought it was shocking," she says, but the response was the opposite.

Parents wrote in, describing how their children raved about the show on the way home and talked about the different issues it highlighted. This provided a perfect opportunity for parents to be part of the discussion, McAlister says.

"They were able to talk about things they would never have been able to talk about in a million years had it not actually come up on the stage."

That's also been the experience of Chunky Onion, whose next issues-based production is due to be performed in mid-October at the Victoria Shanghai Academy, an international school in Aberdeen.

The company has performed at the school in the past and the students enjoyed their shows. "So when we saw they were doing an issues-based drama production, we were interested," says Linden Nazer, a Year Five teacher .

"Drama is a fabulous way to explore issues," she adds, noting that it gives children the skills they need to deal with difficult situations and to explore different ideas. "The children often end up resolving problems themselves."

Because students at Victoria Shanghai Academy had some drama activities in class about conflict resolution and touched on bullying, Ross Dawson, the primary deputy principal, thought the Chunky Onion production would make "a good follow-up to the unit".

The flexible format means that the company can tailor performances to specific needs, so Dawson has asked Chunky Onion to address issues such as peer pressure, and gaming and social media addiction, to complement discussions in the classroom.

Chunky Onion plans to add new modules to its issues-based repertoire, and human rights and discrimination are next in line. Andrews says the show is very personal to him because he loves Hong Kong.

"This is my way of trying to make this place better for young people in Hong Kong," he says.