Kearen Pang

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As a producer, playwright, director and actress, Kearen Pang’s popularity has been slowing soaring through the ceiling thanks to her deeply personal one-actor plays. Edmund Lee catches up with the Hong Kong theatre star ahead of her latest production, Tiffany. Portrait by Calvin Sit.


Kearen Pang cried a lot for her role in Hansel and Gretel, the English school play that marked her first-ever theatre performance as the only Form One student in the cast. And it’s a whimsical irony that the actress, now in her 30s, has made a distinguished career by producing, writing, directing and performing in a series of sentimental one-actor plays that are delicately inspired by her own memories and emotions.

In 29+1, Goodbye But Goodbye, Laugh Me to the Moon and the upcoming Tiffany, an unshakeable sense of solitude seeps through the façade of humour and lyricism, striking emotional resonance in a mature audience which can’t seem to stop coming back for more. The work 29+1 – which was based, perhaps paradoxically, on Pang’s own experience of approaching 30 – has enjoyed seven runs so far and the actress is not, as yet, ruling out more.

And why should she – especially when the Hong Kong theatre scene has been crying out for long-running original works to conspicuously little avail? It’s not like the concept of a repertoire is any stranger to Pang, who reveals during our interview that she, as a primary school kid, used to frequently perform during birthday parties two 10-minute mini-plays which she’d devised with a pal. “They were the first creative works in my life,” she enthuses.

After finishing high school, Pang applied for the then-newly established degree programme at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts – by mere coincidence. “I only learned about the existence of the APA’s acting school in a background search in the tabloids on Athena Chu, an APA graduate who took part in the film Fight Back to School [II] and was romantically linked with Stephen Chow. I was like ‘so there’s a third way out for actors besides the TVB actor-trainee programme and the Miss Hong Kong Pageant!’”

Pang then joined Chung Ying Theatre Company in 1998, where she honed her skills in a range of Cantonese adaptations before leaving the comfort of her fun-loving colleagues and founding her own company, Kearen Pang Production, in 2004. There she reinvented herself as a theatre artist and began to stage productions which function as vehicles of self-expression – and that alone.

“I’ve also learned from Ho Ying-fung about the way theatre can serve as a means to explore humanity,” says Pang of her acting parts in two of the experimental theatre director’s plays: Picnic on Top of Central Plaza, which was inspired by the work of artists Francis Bacon and Rene Magritte, and The Seventh Drawer, a music theatre work where she co-starred with Elaine Jin, Sam Lee and Josie Ho. “I realised then that every performance is different. [The theatre] is a game which continually looks for something new.”

Pang likes to base her works on her observations in life. While Goodbye But Goodbye, a play about humans’ vulnerability, stemmed from the many separations she encountered in 2007, Laugh Me to the Moon was the playwright’s reflection on the intricate line between reality and dreams. Her new work Tiffany, which runs from October 12 to 21 at Arts Centre’s Shouson Theatre, tells the story of a wedding planner who must once again face up to the important decisions she made in the past.

Hi, Kearen! Let’s begin with Tiffany. Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind your new play?
How about letting me be your interviewer this time? Is that okay? It’s always you asking me the questions!

Aight…
Well, you’ve seen some of my promotional materials so far – there are the MTR advertisements, the leaflets and the press releases. Since you’ve also watched my previous shows, what’s your impression of the new work?

It feels like you’re at a stage in your life where you want to look for and affirm something about yourself – and the play is a way you work that all out.
[Laughs] That’s the case for every one [of my plays]. To put it generally, the greatest trouble for humans is their own stubbornness. At the end it’s always about the process of letting go. Life is very much about that. To me, this play is of course a process of exploration and problem solving. I’m not telling a story about marriage this time. Perhaps there are many viewers who want to see [a play] about marriage but how could I do a marriage play by myself alone? Rather, it’s a story about making choices. When you’re young, you’re unaware that you have to make choices unless you’re forced to – and a lot of your decisions are the result of self-indulgence. You think you have youth on your side and so you try everything. But, in your current stage, you’ve become more careful and you ponder whether you’ve made the right decisions in the past. The origin [of Tiffany] is based on these sentiments. Ultimately, I’m asking questions about our pursuits in life.

What do you mean by your ‘current stage’? How’s life treating you?
Um, actually, I feel that I’m a happy person. What I’ve gained [in life] is more than what I’ve lost – up to this point. If I got the bill now [giggles] I’d be counting my earnings. What I mean is, there are things that I didn’t expect to be mine but that ended up as mine. That gives me happiness. And I have no regrets. I often ask myself: if the world ends now – or if I am diagnosed with a terminal illness now – am I fine with it? I think my answer is: I’m fine with it. I have no regrets.

Tiffany is already your fourth one-actor play. How do you make up your mind and decide to create each one from scratch?
The truth is that I don’t set out to collect ideas for a work. I take a very long break after creating each of my works and I live my normal daily life during this time. And then… for example, if I witness a car accident when I’m in Causeway Bay and then I witness another in Tsim Sha Tsui, then in Sai Kung, then Sha Tin, I’ll start to wonder why car accidents are everywhere, and my next work will be about car accidents. So I work in this way: I see a lot of things and get a feeling about things – as if I’m being summoned to confront them – but I don’t set out with an agenda at the beginning. I won’t start my play with the idea that ‘speeding is wrong’. I’ll instead wonder ‘why are there so many car accidents in the world?’ I start with a concept – a question at the back of my mind – and then I go out to find the answers.

So what are your thoughts about doing one-actor plays?
You know, it’s very difficult to tell a linear story with a one-actor play. When people ask me what my play is about, I tell them that it’s – and this sounds quite trite indeed – about life. When I write these plays, the writing process is very different from that of a [conventional theatre] script. If I want to write a scene about a romantic dinner between two people, it’s a very difficult task, because one person doesn’t exist. From my point of view, it’s my small determination to insist on the narrative side of my one-actor plays. My stories are what separate me from, say, the talk shows and some of the solo performances. My works are very much story-oriented. I construct my stories so that the audience can immerse itself in the scenes. That’s also why the topic of solitude has involuntarily become an important part of my plays: because all you see [on stage] is this one person.

The box office at your shows is an issue you sometimes bring up during interviews. How would you describe the relationship between you and your box office?
It’s [built up with] blood, sweat [and tears]. Speaking from the bottom of my heart, it’s not easy. [Pauses] I think we are no match for mainstream entertainment [in terms of popularity]. We’re in different leagues – be it the promotion budget or the audience’s readiness to come and watch the show. However, for my play Tiffany, we had already received quite a lot of advance bookings from the start – when we had neither promotion images nor a story synopsis to show for. When I went over these bookings, I knew that they must have seen my works before and I knew that I’d built up a confidence in them.
Sometimes I’d ask them ‘why do you want to see my show?’ They’d say ‘because we want to see what you’re up to this time. What you address is unimportant; we’re there to find out’. I think this is a very interesting relationship [between me and my audience]. This pool of audiences is still relatively small in number. It’s a bit like the case of [stand-up comedian and theatre veteran] Dayo Wong: people will rush [to buy tickets] irrespective of what his show is about. They think it’s worth looking out for. I hope I can be like that too.

It’s of course a very positive thing to have a regular group of audiences but, at the same time, are you worried they will become an invisible obstacle as you experiment with some things which are beyond their expectations?
Well, this play is a little different from before… To start with, I remember very clearly that I was once posed a question by a Facebook user on whether I would have a ‘breakthrough’ this time and I immediately asked the person what’s meant by a ‘breakthrough’. I can guarantee that I won’t be jumping through a ring of fire; I won’t be going on stage without makeup; and I won’t go down the sexy route. So what’s a breakthrough? Should I stop doing what I’ve been doing? I see it as new that I’ve invited [modern dance choreographer] Ong Yong-lock to take part in this production, and I think the music arrangement I have come up with alongside [composer] Alan Wong for this show is rather different from what we did in the past. His music for me used to be romantic – easy listening – but we’re going for something darker for Tiffany. It’s more cinematic – and it’s heavier [in tone]. I’m fine with that.

Is Tiffany a heavy experience on the whole?
Um… [long pause] I have a feeling that all of my works are heavy. [Laughs] I’ve realised that my story ideas usually originate from heavy topics. Why should [Tiffany] start with a traffic accident? I’m only looking for hope amid the heaviness. This is a mission of mine.

Kearen Pang’s latest one-actor play Tiffany is at Arts Centre’s Shouson Theatre, in Cantonese, Fri Oct 12-Sun Oct 21. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.


Images:
1) Kearen Pang, photographed exclusively for Time Out Hong Kong
2) 29+1
3) Goodbye But Goodbye
4) Laugh Me to the Moon

 

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