Actresses pick up the pen to address personal and social issues in HK Arts Festival plays

Rosa Maria Velasco and Santayana Li channel the personal and the political into their plays at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, writes Edmund Lee

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 10:36pm

WHEN I TELL Lee Chun-chow that he's inadvertently becoming an official mentor for Hong Kong's emerging playwrights, the veteran director bursts out laughing. "I wouldn't put it like that," he says, "but I do believe that for a region to develop its own theatre tradition, the cultivation of quality playwrights is an essential step."

Lee has been regularly directing newly written plays for the Hong Kong Arts Festival since Candace Chong Mui-ngam's Murder in San José (2009).

Having also directed Wong Wing-sze's The Truth About Lying (2010) and Smear (2013), and Santayana Li's Journey to Home (2012), Lee is back again to steer a couple of medium-length solo plays, written by Li and first-time writer Rosa Maria Velasco in the double bill Girl Talk.

"To be frank, it's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride," Lee says of the rehearsal process that started in early January. "The two of them didn't have completed scripts when we began. I'm just glad that we started early, and can afford to revise and develop the plays as we go."

Velasco is acting in Big Girl, her first written play, and her contribution to the arts festival programme. She may have penned it, but don't plan on labelling her a playwright anytime soon. When we meet at a mid-February rehearsal session in To Kwa Wan, she's already certain that the piece will be her only play for some time. "I'll focus on my acting for now," she says.

After early spells with the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and PIP Theatre, the actress has gained recognition in a variety of productions, including the 109-performance run of director Edward Lam's Awakening.

"The starting point of this play is that I had something to share with an audience," says Velasco. "It's not that I have no interest to write; it's more like I don't have the skills yet. I'll only do this again if there's something I must convey by writing a play. It's too lonely a journey."

Big Girl was developed from a shorter solo script ("lamely titled This is Me") that she presented in 2012 at the annual Playwright Scheme, organised by Paul Poon Wai-sum.

While the new play retains Velasco's sarcastic humour, it doesn't shy away from the most painful and pessimistic aspects of her experience: the autobiographical piece was part of Velasco's grieving process following her father's death in 2009.

"I had difficulty dealing with my emotions and was looking for a form of relief," says the actress, her voice trembling. "I wanted to write, because I thought that's one way to help me express myself. The only problem is I had no idea how to write a script or, indeed, anything."

As a consequence, Velasco opted to turn the vignettes and conversations she casually jotted down from her daily life into a complete script. Big Girl comprises eight scenes performed by the actress in a combination of monologues, stand-up comedy and play-acting.

While three of the scenes were adapted from This is Me, which has been streamlined to focus on Velasco's father, all but one of the eight episodes are based on real life.

Santayana Li is another actress who is not satisfied with the playwright tag; she is disappointed that people are increasingly seeing her as "just a playwright". Then again, it's probably a small price to pay for the actress who's already staging her second Hong Kong Arts Festival production at the age of 28. Li was not a cast member of her first work presented at the festival, 2012's Journey to Home.

"I wanted to change," says Li of writing her new play. "I only started writing in 2010 or 2011, and my early scripts were about myself or my family. But I've been feeling more and more connected to society. It's a cliché to say that art is inevitably linked to society, but I do wonder if it's possible to bring the two more closely together."

Paper Duck on the Run, her arts festival contribution, is a solemn think piece about the education system and social environment of Hong Kong. Li was inspired by what she saw at last year's graduation ceremony at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Working as an usher, Li was captivated by the attitudes to students as they made their feelings known to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

"Teachers from different schools had different takes on their students' behaviour," says Li. "Some were in support of freedom of speech, while others reminded the students to 'remember their place', meaning that they shouldn't cause any trouble. Interestingly, the ushers were instructed to be lenient to the students."

Mirroring the emphasis on conformity that Li has observed in the local school culture, her new play follows a theatre student as she is warned, and subsequently expelled, amid escalating conflicts between old and new perceptions of the role of arts education. Although there are politically sensitive subplots in her piece, Li is not overly concerned because, well, "we don't think C.Y. Leung will come to see this anyway".

Aside from its potentially controversial content, Li's adventurous effort extends to the presentation of her play. Unlike the usual solo pieces, this work features surprisingly few monologues.

"I'm only one of the 'characters' - even though I'm more 'alive' than the others," she says, referring to the lighting, music, sound effects and set design as other vital components of the performance.

"I guess this will feel different to the solo plays that Hong Kong audiences are used to seeing, as my play is not as entertaining," Li says with a chuckle. "They may well fall asleep if they refuse to use their brains. Or they can simply watch Rosa's part - the first half of this double bill - and leave for dinner at the break," she says.


Girl Talk , in Cantonese and English with Chinese and English surtitles, City Hall Theatre, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central, March 5-9, 8.15pm, March 9, 3pm, HK$180-HK$320 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2824 2430