Enticed by the promise of a free concert, Shek Kip Mei resident Tang Loi expected to see Cantonese opera classics at the recently opened Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Instead, she was treated to a piece of contemporary theatre combining dance, mime and masks. 'I hadn't seen this kind of show before, but I liked it because their movement was very lively,' says the sprightly 90-year-old. Titled Love Life Death, the performance by All Theatre Art Association (ATAA) is part of a community festival being staged at the new arts venue until Sunday. The aim is to promote performing arts to residents in the largely working-class districts of Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei through a series of free shows and workshops, says festival co-ordinator Gus Mok Chiu-yu. 'We want to let the people know they have the right to enjoy the arts. It should be an integral part of their daily lives,' says Mok, a veteran community artist. The festival is among a flurry of community art programmes to have emerged in recent years, fuelled as much by funding for outreach projects from the Arts Development Council (ADC) and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) as by the passion of promoters such as Mok. But how effective are such schemes at boosting neighbourhood interest and participation in the arts? Cheung To, a housewife who brought her three-year-old daughter to see ATAA perform, enjoyed the experience. 'The style is refreshing. The theme about love, life and death is something I can relate to,' she says. 'I hope there will be more free performances like this.' As Mok sees it, community theatre offers a channel for young people and less privileged groups to take control by expressing their hopes and feelings. That's why 'a community artist is more than just a performer: he also serves as an educator and social worker who knows the community he is serving,' he says. ATAA co-founder Choy Kam-chiu takes satisfaction in building a village-like atmosphere through his show, drawing workers in flip-flops and housewives to the arts centre, which is housed in a converted industrial building. 'Theatre shouldn't be just for the elite few. There's no excuse for not bringing arts to the general public just because they're not regular theatre-goers,' says Choy, better known in theatre circles as Hoi Chiu. Community arts events are usually free and staged in modest venues, but that shouldn't mean sloppy or amateurish programmes. People want and deserve something better than mediocre clowning and sleight of hand, says Choy, whose troupe has performed in spaces ranging from public playgrounds and walled villages to busy malls. 'Community theatre should be artistically stimulating. You really have to give the audience a 'wow' factor - something they haven't seen before,' he says. ATAA co-founder Maggie Blue O'Hara says artists shouldn't underestimate their audiences. 'The arts should be open to interpretation. That's what's so beautiful about it - everyone can have their own emotional connection,' she says. Contemporary dance company Unlock Dancing Plaza says its outreach programme, Phoenix II: Read the World with Your Heart, went down well with audiences. Combining dance with excerpts from interviews with chronically ill patients, the show's uplifting message prompted some people to congratulate the dancers after performances last month in malls attached to public housing estates such as Lok Fu. 'We don't just want to perform a stunning piece to please the crowd,' says Elise Chau Kam-ngai, Unlock's producer. 'What's more important is to inspire people on a spiritual level.' To promote interaction between audience members and performers, theatre collective Class 7A Drama Group has been staging a nostalgic play about life in old-style tenements on street corners across Hong Kong - from Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei to the waterfront promenade in Sai Kung - and inviting audiences to join post-performance discussions. An LCSD-funded effort, their Tree in My Home production ended with a final performance in April in the back yard of the Blue House in Wan Chai that drew more than 200 people, says Class 7A programme manager Alex Lam Pui-lek. 'Some new-town residents who used to live in old districts talked about their childhood memories, and young people joined in because they wanted to know more about the disappearing heritage,' he says. Lam says it's unrealistic to expect people to develop an interest in theatre after just one performance, but he hopes the troupe's shows will give folk a better idea of what it's about. 'We want to show that there are other options apart from watching TV and shopping,' he says. Given the emphasis on promoting participation, neighbourhood performances are typically accompanied by workshops to give locals a chance to learn about theatre techniques and, hopefully, to join in. Anson Yiu On-shun, a 21-year-old film graduate, was sufficiently captivated by Choy's mask-making workshop last year to sign up with his group and take part in several performances at the Shek Kip Mei arts centre. 'I didn't expect to have the chance to go on stage and I'm glad to able to perform alongside a professional artist,' Yiu says. 'It's exhilarating for me to express myself through mask and movement.' Although participants such as Yiu say community arts schemes are off to a promising start, theatre critic Cheung Ping-kuen says they have a limited effect because most are one-off projects. Without sustained programmes, performing groups won't be able to form long-term ties in neighbourhoods, he says. Mindful that existing community arts projects lack continuity, ADC executive director Louis Yu Kwok-lit says the council plans to work with district arts committees to launch an annual city-wide community arts programme next year. 'Only a sustainable project covering all districts can create a bigger collective impact on the public,' Yu says, adding that the ADC is studying the demographics and needs of each district before drawing up a framework for the programme. But Cheung says public funding alone isn't enough to nurture a thriving community arts scene, and urges the government to relax regulations to allow more street performances so activities can be held not just in LCSD venues but all over the city. The private sector, including developers, can also contribute by providing low-cost venues with minimum facilities and give more opportunities for small troupes to stage performances. The growth of community arts is as important as the West Kowloon cultural project in terms of audience building and enhancing Hongkongers' involvement in arts activities, Cheung says. 'Community art is a kind of arts education for the public,' he says. 'Overall development of the arts in Hong Kong doesn't rest on a single project [like West Kowloon], but relies on the participation of the whole community.'