Bravo! award equips students for theatre arts careers - but it's no holiday

The Bravo! award aims to equip students for a lifelong career in theatre arts. But the programme is no holiday, its co-founder tells Oliver Chou

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:50pm

For years I've pondered why we keep losing talent in the arts when there are so many arts programmes for teenagers in Hong Kong," says Lynn Yau, a theatre practitioner turned art executive.

And having observed the problem first hand for so long, Yau believes the reason has much to do with a lack of formal training and recognition of the arts as a lifelong pursuit.

Through training in the arts, we give them life skills, like punctuality and commitment
Lynn Yau, aftec

To her, potentially talented youngsters who lack the opportunity to receive professional training are as underprivileged as those without the financial means to pay for it.

To address this need, Yau and her team at the Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection (Aftec) have designed an ambitious training programme that runs for a year.

Partnered with the Lee Hysan Foundation, the project seeks to offer the financially underprivileged a rare chance to experience theatrical arts in Hong Kong, and possibly in London, free of charge.

"The Bravo! Hong Kong Youth Theatre Award is unique because the programme is bilingual. It's also long and deep, and requires persistence and commitment, and lots of hard work," says Yau.

The awards, which honour up to 50 boys and girls aged 12 to 17, gives priority to those who are on welfare and subsidies. A smaller quota of "opportunity underprivileged" children are also considered.

But all applicants, regardless of background, have to prove they have the resilience and passion for the programme, and show that they will be involved not for the fun of it, but as theatrical practitioners. The top 20 will receive the "Bravo Award I" ("I" for international), which is a four-week training course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, next summer.

"We don't treat them like children; we treat them as young professionals, and that includes the two 12-year-old awardees. They are expected to have a sense of responsibility and commitment," Yau says.

Those who made it to the final 50, either in the Chinese or the English stream, knew the application process was tough; requirements included posting three minutes of acting on YouTube, for example. But that was only the beginning.

"Our programme is not entry level. We offer higher and intermediate training, and we require them to sign a value charter," Yau says.

"Through training in the arts, we give them life skills, like punctuality and commitment. They have to make an effort to reach the bar and raise it higher," she says.

"A big obstacle to learning, in the arts and everything else nowadays, is that young people do not like to feel uncomfortable. I'm not saying I should make things hell for them. But fun should be accompanied by hard work."

To ensure each recipient is committed to the endeavour, signatures are required by a parent or guardian, and a school principal.

"We are not babysitters. We maintain close contact with the parents through parent meetings and interim evaluation reports, which they need to fill in. But there are still a few parents from underprivileged families that I have never met.

"One works from 11 in the morning to 11 at night in a bar, and another works as a dishwasher. They hardly see or talk to their children, let alone meet with us," she says, adding there are 16 from the financially underprivileged group.

The Bravo kids work hard to meet the requirements and challenges of the year-round programme, says Yau. The current programme entailed three theatre workshops at Easter, each lasting five full days, and the same in summer. More workshops will take place next Easter. There are also 90 hours of intensive training, and students must attend up to 150 hours of rehearsal and performance.

They must also undertake 17 hours of social service, during which they join adult volunteers to work with underprivileged primary students.

"Workshops, performances, and social activities are the three key programmes through which I hope to generate a virtuous cycle for the Bravo kids. We also have a continuous performance assessment throughout the entire programme," she says.

All the elements will be considered by the adjudication panel next April at the final audition. London academy principal Joanna Read will decide on the final 20 for London.

Yau, herself a renowned theatre actress, adds that the programme's objective is not to produce actors or actresses.

"We want them to see that they are able to achieve much more than they think. We also want them to be critically reflexive, and to become aware of their own learning as thinking human beings, beyond teachers and their classrooms. We want them to see the amount of commitment anyone needs to succeed," she says.

Midway through the programme, the CEO examines the students' progress. After two workshops and one public performance by the Chinese stream, 10 dropped out for various reasons; some, for example, wanted to take a holiday. But the remaining 40 continue to work hard towards the goal of a London trip.

They had a foretaste of English expertise when John Baxter, a faculty member of the London academy, took part in the summer workshop and the subsequent performance of Hiawatha, the native American legend, by the Chinese stream. Yau considers his remarks that the session was "definitely not a summer camp" as "one of the best compliments on Bravo".

The English stream will have their moment this week with four performances of a Terence Rattigan double bill of The Browning Version and Harlequinade, which are a comedy and a tragedy respectively. Spoken rehearsals began as early as September, and stage professionals will provide the technical backup.

"We don't do crowd-pleasing musicals or stand-up comedy shows to sell tickets. Instead, we choose the great classics, and go through the texts with the young performers in details so that they have to think," she says.

"They are also required to submit reflection sheets at the end of the rehearsal week, just as they do after the workshop and social service sessions. In short, reflections rule the day. That way, we hope to nurture a more mature and critical audience.

"We can't change everybody. But if we can change some of them, I think Hong Kong will not lose as much talent. Even if we change only one person, we hope that person would become a change agent to take forward the arts," says Yau.

"Nurturing artists and critical audiences is especially important in the run-up to the opening of the West Kowloon Cultural District."