On song: Hong Kong theatre group finds that free admission pays off for musical show
Show organiser FM Theatre Power says the decision was taken to ensure access to art for everyone, not just the rich
A career in the creative industries is no guarantee of a steady income, let alone lucrative pay days. But you may be surprised to find out that a musical theatre production with free admission paid off for the organisers.
Billed as a different kind of musical, Time out?! Time’s up! was performed earlier this month at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, using a new admission approach – “pay as you will” – where members of the audience were invited to give what they wanted after the performance to show their appreciation.
Mo Lai Yan-chi, president of organiser FM Theatre Power, says the decision was taken to ensure access for everyone. “We wanted to stress that art isn’t only for the rich and that is why we wanted to get rid of the financial barriers. It is one of the basic forms of communication and it should be appreciated by a diverse audience.”
The idea has long existed on the margins of the economy, being used for tipping and charity, and has also been observed in a number of industries, including performing arts. Those at FM Theatre Power are no strangers to the approach as the group has hosted several street performances with spectators paying as much as they felt like.
Thousands showed up for the five shows between December 15 and 17 and to everyone’s surprise, they were filled with the Christmas spirit and gave generously at the two performances that were billed as pay as you will.
“Playing by our own economic rules doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. Just like our other traditional shows, we broke even. We even saw a couple of HK$500 [US$64] and HK$1,000 bills, which is very encouraging, not because of the profit but it helped to restore hope in humanity,” Lai says.
Providing an alternative theatre experience, the story centres around a young girl’s awakening from her refusal to put memories from her school years behind her as she enters the adult world. The plot also follows a group of other students as they take a step into the game of life, dreams and growing up.
The performers were faced with different challenges in the open-air production. “The show took place under the [airport] flight path so aeroplanes passed occasionally which prompted us to take an impromptu approach and that made the show more lively and interesting,” the artist recalls. “We acted as though the situation was intentional with ad hoc lines as part of the show.”
Although the four-hour show featured 15 actors, the audience also played a vital part.
“Everyone who came stayed for the whole of the show even though the temperatures plunged during the first few days. I remember the observatory issued the first cold weather warning of the winter but the crowd seemed to have put their heart and soul into each of us. It was like they were in the show.”
And some were, literally. Spectators swung from watching the show to featuring in it – because the performance stressed the importance of interaction between the actors and their guests.
“We pushed to enhance their relationship through audience involvement, as willing members were encouraged to go on stage with the actors.” And members of the audience stole the show at each performance, Lai says.
“It was very fun for us too, it was different every time and the show must go on no matter what happens.”
And in another unusual move for Hong Kong theatre, the group asked the audience to BYOC – bring your own chair.
“They were free to sit anywhere, even to move around during the performance. We wanted to offer an interactive relationship rather than a service,” Lai says.
“While there were no designated seats at the venue, guests were welcome to watch the performance up close and personal, even on the ground.”
The shows were performed at the cultural district’s Big Circle, a spot originally reserved as a performance venue, which will close soon to make way for the construction of the controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum.
“The amphitheatre offers a natural open space and both the artists and audience can enjoy the evening breeze with a brilliant harbour view of lights. It is such a shame that politics got in the way of one’s appreciation of art,” says Lai, the head of the group, who recently conducted overseas research on street performances.
While the idea is the first of its kind in Hong Kong, it won’t be the last. Starting next year, the group will host similar shows on the 15th of each month at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei.