Acting out their dreams

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School’s out! Five recent HKAPA graduates talk to Winnie Chau about their prospects of making it in the theatre world.


A dream school to many, a playground to some and the first step to stardom for a select few, the School of Drama at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts is the only institution offering Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama (Acting) degrees and is seen as practically the only path to a stage acting career in Hong Kong. In the face of the industry’s cruel competition, coupled with the school’s recent staff shake-up, students are uncertain about what’s in store for them over their four-year (five until 2010) education and beyond. Five current and past students are, nonetheless, positive.

Subyub Lee, still in his final year at the APA, got a detached response to his decision to study acting from his father. “I wouldn’t object to your enrollment in the APA. Neither would I support it,” said his dad three years ago. “He was trying to say,” clarifies Lee, “you walk the path you’ve chosen and as long as you’re responsible for yourself, that’s fine.”

Lee, now 21, is doing better than fine. He is an up-and-coming musical talent whose recent compositions in the soundtracks of the movie blockbusters Love in the Buff and Vulgaria speak for themselves. But asking him which art form – music or acting – he loves more is no different from asking him if he prefers inhalation or exhalation when he breathes. And he is learning something equally essential in his acting course. “What you learn in the world of an actor, at the end of the day, is how to be a human,” he says.

Lee’s statement should be taken quite literally. Movement classes teach Lee all the proper postures, whereas his voice studies stress the use of the spine. “HKAPA is like an entrance ticket or mu ren xiang [a path installed with weapons to test graduating Shaolin disciples],” he says. “What inspires you in these four years helps you find your core values.” Approaching graduation, Lee is more eager to experiment with music in the theatre than becoming a full-time actor, as ‘being a full-time actor in this society doesn’t always mean you’re passionate about acting’.

Ling Man-lung begs to differ. When he joined the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre as a freshman, his classmates warned him against staying a resident actor for too long, lest his passion would wane. Four years have passed and the 26-year-old can now firmly refute the comments. “As HKRep is rich in resources, we’re given time to refine [our acting],” says Ling, once the youngest in the troupe and, still, free of pressure being on the same stage with big names. “After performing in professional productions, you realise many acting techniques haven’t been learnt [at school]. But the insufficiency doesn’t mean the teaching at school is inadequate, for learning to act is a lifelong pursuit,” says Ling, whose distinctive onstage vigour will soon be seen again in HKRep’s Noises Off.

When most of Kwok Chui-yi’s peers are struggling to make ends meet while repaying their student loans, she quit her two-year full-time post at Chung Ying Theatre Company in exchange for artistic independence. The 27-year-old 2011 graduate felt that she’d left the APA without certain vital knowledge. “As there are no workers’ unions or agencies for Hong Kong’s theatre actors, everything is at your disposal,” she says. “We are our own agents, with 90 percent of us working as freelancers. You actually need to know how to make choices for your career – but the school has never taught it,” says Kwok, seeing many take up acting jobs indiscriminately at the expense of artistic integrity. “It turns out that actors nowadays have no career to speak of.”

Meanwhile, fresh graduate Michael Vong Tin-ian has given himself an extra option by taking an MFA in Directing at HKAPA. Originally from Macau, the 25-year-old didn’t want to study in the government-run Macao Conservatory, which offers only certificate drama courses. Accepted at once by tertiary institutions in Guangzhou, Macau and Taipei, Vong eventually chose HKAPA for its specialised acting programme. “Hong Kong is a place I’d like to develop my acting career in, while what I do in Macau is for interest,” says Vong, acquainted with Macau’s small, competitive theatre scene. “I can’t go back to work without worrying about my livelihood. I’d need to do many other jobs [to survive].”

“The greatest thing I’ve learnt [from acting] is how to show concern for others,” says APA 2011 graduate Santayana Li, 27. “It’s not the how-ya-doin’ sort of solicitude. It’s the ability to read between the lines of what others have said. I’ve become more empathetic.” Her empathy learned at the APA seems to have enabled Li to excel in an area beyond acting. She conceived her debut play Journey to Home in a playwright workshop during her final year, which was subsequently staged in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Li is studying an MFA in Playwriting at the HKAPA and is polishing the script for her acting classmates in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. So what comes after the MFA? “Gonna beg with a bowl,” Li says with a touch of ironic self-congratulation before adding: “I’d rather do something I enjoy than something profitable, though it means I’m doomed to be poor.” Yet, between the lines is a sense of optimism. “I’m optimistic. Absolutely,” Li confirms, in all honesty.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler 如果.在.冬.夜.一個.旅.人 is performed at Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre’s Black Box Theatre, Oct 26-28, in Cantonese. Noises Off 蝦碌戲班 is performed at City Hall Theatre, Nov 3-11, in Cantonese with English and Chinese surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.

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