Bonni Chan

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12th May, 2010

Ms. Bonni Chan   Co-Artistic Director of Theatre du Pif.

Mr. Tang Shu-wing   Dean of Drama at Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts


Discovery of physical theatre abroad

Though Ms. Bonni Chan claimed that studying abroad was not part of her plan, she went to study theatre in the U.K. It was back in the early 90s when physical theatre was thriving in the U.K. Ms. Chan, then participating theatrical workshops at the Fringe Club, had the chance to observe the performance of her British instructor, and was astounded by how the actors could transform a novel, an idea or even a question into a personal expression. She realised that even without traditional directors and scripts, actors and actresses could be creators themselves. It was thence she decided to leave for the U.K.

Enlightenment by British instructors was crucial, but equally important was the experience of overcoming difficulties with actors and actresses with different cultural backgrounds, from which Ms. Chan felt overwhelmingly encouraged. Instructors were extremely strict in the first four weeks of school. Many students were ruthlessly criticised and demanded to go back to their seats every time they went in front of the class for practice.

‘Rehearsal rooms are meant for failures, nobody succeeds the first day they walk in. If the answer is known in the beginning, the meaning of searching is lost.’ She said. With foreign cultural shock in the U.K., Ms. Chan’s past belief that performing Shakespearean plays in Cantonese is perfectly fine has changed. She realised that language, culture and art are blended into one, and started to evaluate the role and meaning of Cantonese.


Long for Paris, exploration of art forms

It was a dream for the city that brought Mr. Tang Shu-wing to Paris. The Chinese literature lover knew that many writers, artists and politicians used to study in Paris, which in time formed a vague impression of the place. Later when he was exposed to the diversity of art forms from abroad at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, he realised that art in Hong Kong was merely ‘a tiny part of one form’. This motivated him to go all the way to Paris, embarking on his challenging part-time work and study life.


Dance/ Body/ Language

Ms. Chan who has a background in dance constantly asks herself if theatrical messages have to be conveyed so naturalistically and directly through dialogues. The trio share with the audience excerpts of works by Theatre du Pif, discussing more abstract, physical forms of expression through dances. These include Dance Me to the End of Love, E Never Forgets, The Oak Tree—an Odyssey, Fish Heads and Tales—a Tender War and The Overcoat. Ms. Chan says that her passion for dance and theatre is a result of her ineloquence, which makes it difficult for her to articulate her ideas. She therefore seeks to use dance as a channel and the stage as a space to express herself. Yet, she acknowledges the significance of language. She views the stage as an emergence of time and space, with dialogues of actors and actresses functioning as computer windows, overcoming limitations in a specific time and space and capable of bringing the audience back to 30,000 years ago.

Mr. Tang, in response to this, thinks that the body is the foundation of the stage. A life-filled body on the stage can convey up to 60-70% sense of existence without talking, but the remaining 30-40% has to be filled by adding language. Performance is an organic combination of the internal and the external, Mr. Tang points out that some, particularly young actors and actresses, often cannot master such combination from inside to outside because of their lack of life experience. He suggests that these actors and actresses may first let the body lead from the outside, feel the emotions rolling in the body and sense the existence on stage before adding dialogues. He believes that as an actor/actress, the control of time and space is the most crucial, and to produce a flow of body movement is a way to control both elements. He however also mentions that as the body is more abstract and language more precise, language and the body can mutually support each other, but can also resist each other at times. Coordination of the two requires sophistication.

In search for a form of expression, Ms. Chan thinks that the audience does not necessarily need to understand the message of the performance, but cannot be completely detached from it. ‘If someone says: “I don’t understand this scene, I can sleep for a while,” I would panic.’ Ms. Chan says. To involve the audience better, she would sometimes insert movements from people’s everyday lives to avoid being overly abstract. She used excerpts of Sunrise to respond to Tang—that the body does not need to be abstract; she also used the example of Knives in Hens, pointing out that while the story frame is based on direct and basic everyday life experience, the well-connected levels of the story have deep and profound implications, with tints of philosophy and theology.


Challenge to Hong Kong’s theatre

Few of Theatre du Pif’s scripts are based on local literature. Ms. Chan misses performing in Cantonese but since Chinese theatres often require more actors and actresses, it is extremely difficult to gather everyone during practices and rehearsals. Mr. Tang shares her feeling. He points out that many Hong Kong actors and actresses have jobs other than acting, and often they have to finish tasks required by other jobs before practising. He once made it clear before casting that the audition would take three days, and that selected ones must not be absent from any practices and rehearsals in the evening, if they could not commit to do so they should not even go to the audition. Ms. Chan believes that this kind of insistence is necessary to improve the quality of Hong Kong theatre. She mentions that Canadian and British directors and actors/actresses who worked with them had a basic weekly salary, while those of Hong Kong do not, leading to the need for actors and actresses to take up other jobs in order to earn a living and affecting their performance during practices due to physical and mental fatigue. Yet, at the same time, because of such conditions, actors and actresses who are willing to spend time and effort are all incredibly passionate about theatre, they could bring surprises by breaking through limitations posed by costs, making the impossible possible.


From dance, theatre to society

Ms. Chan shares her pain and joy as she moves from practising classical ballet to theatre; she also discusses her experience of teaching drama in a poor community with serious social problems and high crime rate in Edinburgh. The local government’s support for art and the residents’ enthusiasm enable her to realise the power of theatre, which in turn urges her to voice for the marginalised. Some 10 years ago Ms. Chan started drama workshops for women in Tuen Mun, she was shocked to find that participants had very low self-esteem and found no value in themselves. The workshops had no syllabus. Through theatre, Ms. Chan set hurdles for them to overcome and tasks for them to fulfil, so as to help them recognise their own value and capability. As she witnesses the changes in the women and in society, she finds it all very touching. As the end of the sharing approaches, Ms. Chan briefly introduces The Will to Build’s 2010 edition, exploring the interaction of Hong Kong’s property development, residents, space and rhythm through verbatim theatre.

12 May 2010 7:30pm - 9pm