On Empty Theatre: A New Film by 30 Hong Kong Theatre Artists During Covid-19
In response to Covid-19’s hard hitting impact on the local performing arts industry, 30 Hong Kong-based actors come together in An Invitation: On Empty Theatre, an online film project to explore one question: how does it feel to perform in an empty theatre?
Back in March, local actress Rebecca Yip Lai-ka gifted Edward Lam––the Hong Kong playwright and director and founder of Edward Lam Dance Theatre––with a portrait as a late birthday present. “The meaning surrounds a story long time ago, when a girl drew a portrait of her lover before he left for the battlefield,” Lam says. “Portraits convey the concept of missing someone.”
For Kearen Pang, winner of the Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Director in 2017, this resonates well with her sentiments of missing the audience. The outbreak of the global pandemic since December last year has had a major impact on the performing arts industry worldwide and in Hong Kong. “Filmmaking is a risky job [during the pandemic] for it involves a team of people,” Pang says. “It’s impossible for actors and actresses to wear face masks while they’re at a shoot. There was a colleague who got infected while dining at a restaurant. We immediately stopped the production.” Veteran stage actress Rosa Velasco adds, “I graduated [from the HKAPA] in 2006. In my experience, we only cancelled shows because of typhoons or road closures during sport events, but cancelling a show way in advance is unprecedented. We all don’t know what to do. I witness my [acting school] juniors giving up their dreams and changing industries, taking up jobs like sanitising minibuses in order to make a living. Originally, I had shows in April, September and December, but now they are all cancelled.”
The empty theatres and cinemas inspired Lam to create An Invitation: On Empty Theatre. Co-produced and co-presented by Freespace of the West Kowloon Cultural District, the project is a collection of 30 short films featuring Hong Kong-based actors responding spontaneously to the universal confrontation of an empty theatre. Participants come from various backgrounds, including Yip, Pang, Velasco, Sean Curran (Artistic Director of theatre du pif), and Candice Yu (known for her films with Shaw Brothers Studio of the 1970s and 1980s), among others. They performed an unrehearsed 4 to 5-minute-long monologue to revisit their relationship with the audience, the meaning of theatre as a space and art form and reflect on their personal and artistic lives.
“I invited the actors and actresses to stand in front of an empty auditorium and let them ‘draw’ a portrait of what they see,” Lam explains. “I didn’t want to show their faces which would reveal their facial expressions. I wanted to leave room for viewers to image their feelings, so that they would understand these theatre artists better.”
Velasco observes that not a lot of people in Hong Kong know much about the theatre industry, and she hopes to make a change with the film project. “This is the chance for people to realise that there is the performing arts industry in Hong Kong,” she says. “The stage is my life and blood. I’ve been ‘living on the stage’ since my graduation in 2006. Every year, I have two to four shows. With Covid-19, my life has been turned upside down. I feel very lost. There is a close and intricate relationship between actors and audience, and people may not be aware how much of an impact Covid-19 has brought us.”
Yet simultaneously Lam suggests that there can be a more optimistic take on the desperate times. “The project is more a celebration of bringing together theatre workers than lamentation for our helplessness,” he says. “The West Kowloon staff and I invited colleagues that we knew. It opened my door to getting to know 30 theatre workers, some of whom I had never met before.”
To Lam, the project also poses a chance for him to pause and reflect on what he might have missed as a theatre artist. “Before the pandemic, there was the assumption that going to the theatre was about entertainment or socialising with friends,” he explains. “Now when you walk into the theatre again, it’s about the relationship between you and yourself, or you and the empty space. Since the lockdown around the world, there have been productions made available online which one can watch alone. This cultivates a stronger awareness of how I can make performing art available not only within theatres but outside.”
With the successful launch of the film project, Lam plans to expand his initiative in late August. “It’s not only the theatres which are empty,” he says. “I will collaborate with HKU students to explore the experience of empty classrooms.” Perhaps there’s a silver lining even in the troubled times as Lam and his colleagues get innovative in the wait for Hong Kong’s performing arts scene to brighten up.