A show of goodwill

Updated: 2017-01-20 07:47

By Chitralekha Basu(HK Edition)

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The HK Arts Festival may not be as elitist and exclusive as is sometimes believed. In fact the organizers have been trying to reach out to the masses all along. Chitralekha Basu reports.

For a quarter of a century the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) team has been quietly working away at building an informed audience for the shows they bring to the city every year. Even as the excitement builds up over the 45th edition of the festival - easily the city's flagship performing arts event which opens on Feb 16 - some of the early beneficiaries of HKAF's outreach program begun 25 years ago are planning to introduce their own students and children to the privilege of having an enhanced experience of the staged events by participating in some of the activities happening on the sidelines.

Since 1992, HKAF has reached out to 713,000 students in Hong Kong's secondary schools and universities, giving talks and workshops, engaging them in fun, interactive games, hoping to get young minds interested in the live shows they bring to the city. Among the numbers they managed to win over, an astounding 153,000 have signed up for a Young Friends membership so far. A Young Friend of the HKAF enjoys privileges like free tickets to a selection of shows, backstage tours, a pre-show orientation and post-performance interaction with the concerned artist and director.

But then one doesn't necessarily have to be a member to get a lowdown on what to expect at HKAF's various shows - some of which, like the Czech composer Leo Jancek's music, of which there is a whole package playing at this year's festival, might seem a bit too high-brow and distant to a young Hong Kong person from a non-musical background. HKAF's school workshops are open to whoever will listen.

A show of goodwill

By now several hundreds, possibly even a thousand, students who attended one of the 41 pre-event school workshops in the lead-up to the festival are familiar with the repressive atmosphere of corruption and moral dilemmas in post-World War II United States against which Arthur Miller's All My Sons - one of the most sought-after productions this year, is set. "The play is about a type of conflict between generations a young person from Hong Kong might find difficult to relate to," says Kenneth Lee, outreach manager of HKAF. "We give them a bit of background, followed up by drama workshops which are more in the nature of a game. So by the time they go to watch the show they already know the story and the themes in the play."

Connie Ngan, a Young Friend since 2010, must have got hooked to the magic created on stage to keep renewing her membership with HKAF for seven consecutive seasons. Now a university student majoring in visual arts education, Ngan remembers how after watching the play Chinese Lesson at last year's festival, she was itching to ask its director Tang Chi-kin if he had a workable, real-life solution to the problematic situation he depicted on stage. She could identify completely with the confusions and the uncertainties that seemed to trouble the young people in the play and wanted to speak her mind, "especially since there are not that many forums where students like us can express their views".

Tang told her while he did not have a definite answer to her question he hoped his play would get more students like Ngan to continue to think about the nature of the education system in Hong Kong and keep raising questions. "I left the theater with a feeling that this was a show that relates to our lives. So I would say HKAF Young Friends program helps facilitate a connection between students and society," Ngan said.

Delightful side shows

Not all of HKAF's outreach programs are geared towards recruiting and nurturing potential future audiences. They also believe in pampering the more mature variety of audiences, sometimes by giving them a little extra, a bit of a side show built around the main viewing experience. For example, the poet Liu Wai-tong, who is a literary advisor to the music-and-poetry presentation Hong Kong Odyssey which debuts at this year's festival, led a tour from Kowloon City to North Point in December, by way of introducing poetry enthusiasts to the upcoming show which is a celebration of the city's journey through history since 1840. "He read some old Hong Kong poems and interpreted them. The participants got a chance to write a few lines themselves which were then compiled together to make a single poem," informs Vanessa Chan, program manager of HKAF.

A lot of these peripheral but no-less-charming activities are nominally priced or even free of charge. In special cases the performers themselves have travelled across the city to meet their audience. Chan recalls Fanfare Ciocarlia, a gypsy brass band from Romania who performed at last year's festival, making a trip to the Vine Church in Wan Chai to play to a group of refugees served by the church. "In the end the refugees started dancing."

The high point of HKAF's community outreach programs this year, however, are two free-to-access installation-cum-light-and-sound shows aimed at just about everybody, including very small children. The Super Pool, designed by Jen Lewin, features circular laser pads that create radiating ripples of light when stepped on and some interesting variations when these come in contact with the rays set off by the next person. The second, called Chorus, coming up in Kowloon Park, is a series of kinetic sound sculptures by Ray Lee which, when activated, look like whirling saucers mounted on giant tripods, conjuring up a futuristic atmosphere with a hint of mystery.

"This one's more contemplative," says HKAF director Tisa Ho. She mentions the contraption will stop rotating and the sound will be cut off completely at periodic intervals. "If you get into that moment it could be very mesmerizing."

Lam Kam-kwan, assistant program manager of HKAF, who is helping to put the show together, is hopeful that the sight of robotic sculptures making strange noises reminiscent of street sounds of old Hong Kong and then going totally silent will pique the curiosity of tourists and passers-by and draw them right in.

"Kowloon Park is an amazingly quiet place bang in the middle of one of the most bustling parts of the city in Tsim Sha Tsui," adds Ho. "There's quietude and just the sky and clouds. Through free outdoor events such as these we want to showcase the diversity in this city."

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A show of goodwill

(HK Edition 01/20/2017 page8)