Director brings drama back to life in North District
Hardy Tsoi wants to make theatre accessible to all with his plays performed with, for and about the community
In a deserted school in Cha Kwo Ling, which Hardy Tsoi Sik-cheong jokingly describes as "a far cry from culture", he and his team are rehearsing All Quiet in the New Territory, a play about local resistance to the lease of Hong Kong to Britain in 1898.
Tsoi, a veteran director and playwright, wants to democratise theatre in Hong Kong with community theatre - that is, theatre made with, for, and about a community.
Having spent three decades in drama education and production, Tsoi is now chairman and artistic director of Hong Kong Theatre Works (HKTW) - "works", he emphasises, being both a verb and a noun.
A venue partner of the North District Town Hall, HKTW focuses on staging plays about and for the city's northernmost district, which has not been known for its drama scene.
"Drama is an age-old communal activity for all," Tsoi likes to say. One of his aims is to dig out hidden stories through conversations and workshops with North District residents.
HKTW co-organised the first North District Winter Drama Festival in December and presented interactive plays about the area, such as Shallow Water, about parallel traders across the border, and Exile, about a homicide in the Choi Yuen housing estate.
"It has to be about issues affecting the community," Tsoi says. "By participating in drama about themselves, people gain a way to think about the other side of those issues and become more open-minded. It is a kind of empowerment."
The concept of community theatre caught Tsoi's attention in the early 1980s, after he returned from studies in the United States. "Why do we have to go to Wan Chai or Central to attend the theatre?" he asks, referring to the Arts Centre and City Hall. "Can theatre exist at a grassroots level, if drama stems from life?"
At the time, he had just started work as manager of the Sir Run Run Shaw Hall at Chinese University, a post he would hold for 29 years until 2010.
In 1985, he founded the Sha Tin Theatre Company, which had two to three amateur productions a year and organised the annual Sha Tin Drama Festival and youth theatre productions. Top local playwright Paul Poon Wai-sum was the community arts officer and went to Sha Tin secondary schools to train pupils, starting the city's first generation artist-in-residence programmes.
In 2006, Tsoi wrote The Days of the Soldier Crabs, a play about the days of Sha Tin before it was built on reclaimed land.
After a successful first run in Sha Tin Town Hall, the play went on to a secondary school in Sha Tin City One, where 30 students were trained to perform as the chorus in the play.
The Legend of the Amah Rock, a landmark overlooking Sha Tin, was re-enacted in a promenade-style performance with parents and teachers.
"That was a model of my present-day community theatre idea," Tsoi says. "A parent came to me and said he never thought his son could act, or even understand the transformation of the area they live in."
Sha Tin was one of the city's new satellite towns and its residents had no strong sense of belonging, which was why Tsoi wanted to interest people and help them understand the history of the area through drama.
"Getting the community involved in the production is the first step," he says.
Tsoi conceptualised his plan for the North District in a chart in which HKTW's student arts ambassadors play a central role in joining schools and the community through Theatre-in-Education productions, the Winter Drama Festival and a summer youth theatre.
The history of the Liu family, who came to the northern New Territories from Fujian 600 years ago and founded the first of a series of Fung Kai schools in 1932, has caught Tsoi's imagination and will be the theme of his next major project.
Leung Hok-po, chairman of the North District Arts Advancement Association's drama committee, says Tsoi has already made more local people interested in drama since he arrived in April last year.
"North District retains both urban and rural traits - many young people leave to work elsewhere and new immigrants arrive," says Leung. "I see Hardy really engages with all that. He has achieved [the adage] 'drama reflects life'."
Tsoi is not simply aiming for larger numbers of theatre-goers, but for theatre to have an effect on the audience's thinking and livelihood. "That's the kind of theatre that to me is valuable."
But it will be no easy task without a proper drama curriculum at all levels of education and a perceptive cultural policy. The Arts Development Council has had its recurrent funding cut from HK$97 million in 2007 to HK$82 million last year, and only 1 per cent of government spending is on the arts.
"It is an uphill fight and we still have a very long way to go," Tsoi says.