Thinking inside the box
What in the world is a ‘black box’ production? Winnie Chau charts the myriad of notions characterising the local theatre scene.
You can call an unadorned, confined, black-painted theatre space many things – ‘black box theatre’, ‘fringe theatre’, ‘off-off-Broadway theatre’ or ‘experimental theatre’. Whatever the name, works staged in such a modest physical space often come equipped with edgy artistic ideologies that mainstream theatre can’t afford.
The counter-mainstream theatre movement dates back to 1887, when André Antoine founded the Théâtre Libre (‘Free Theatre’) in Paris that advocated naturalism in reaction to the prevalent artificial acting. With little direct influence of the Théâtre Libre, here in Hong Kong the term ‘little theatre’ (as in its direct Cantonese transliteration) is widely and rather casually adopted to describe small-scale theatre productions that may or may not be truly radical. “‘Little theatre’ is not a matter of the size of the theatre,” says Andrew Chan, artistic director of Alice Theatre Laboratory. “There is a sense of mission behind: a will to bring changes, to break through, be it social conditions or artistic depositions.”
Local theatre critic Kuhfei, who has been scribbling notes in the dark for 22 years, puts it in more pragmatic terms: “The only indicator of whether a work belongs to ‘little theatre’ in Hong Kong is basically [this]: the more a work is disliked by the [general] audience and the more it requires them to think, the more it can exemplify [the spirit of] ‘little theatre’.” Having attended quality ‘little theatre’ productions where there were more people acting on stage than those sitting in the audience, Kuhfei couldn’t help using his personal savings to initiate the annual Hong Kong Theatre Libre awards in 2008 to promote the ‘little theatre’ scene in Hong Kong – as well as to complement the only existing local theatre awards, the Hong Kong Drama Awards.
There is, on the other hand, an increasing demand for small-size performing venues among recent graduates from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts who are keen to act but are yet to have the money and audience. Hence, the government began to convert the Exhibition Halls in major Leisure and Cultural Services Department performing venues into Cultural Activities Halls for small-scale theatre productions and even name the venues ‘black box theatres’. But, inevitably, these venues are also used to stage mainstream, easy-to-swallow plays. “You’d ask if this is going against the spirit [of ‘little theatre’],” Kuhfei remarks on the anomalous phenomenon. “I don’t think so because the market allows them to do so.”
The low-budget nature of ‘little theatre’, while often compelled by circumstances, entails a nonconformist attitude to the genre. It certainly makes for a curious sight as Hong Kong’s largest – and arguably wealthiest – professional theatre company, the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (HKRep), launches a full season of black box productions this year in their own black box theatre, which used to be a rehearsal studio before 1998. “Is HKRep a rich man disguising as a poor man and doing what a poor man does? Not necessarily,” says Kuhfei. “The reason is that every piece of work has its own individuality. From HKRep’s black box theatre productions I saw in the last season, I didn’t think they had put in a large amount of resources.”
Fung Wai-hang, HKRep’s resident director and black box theatre coordinator, confirms the view. She further stresses that their black box productions are a return to technical simplicity. “The most precious thing inside the theatre is the acting of a living person who delivers the director’s ideas,” she says. “There are directions in selecting the works [for our black box theatre]. We focus on devised works by our resident actors, new plays and collaborations with other theatre groups.”
HKRep’s recent black box collaboration was Hong Kong Players’ An Inspector Calls, directed by Candice Moore, who thinks the flexible 150-seat space “served the play well”. Moore founded her own company, Sweet and Sour Production Limited, a year ago. While, like other local English theatre companies, Moore prefers to stage plays in small venues, such as Arts Centre’s McAulay Studio and the Fringe Club Theatre, her company didn’t set out to be experimental. “I wouldn’t specially say it’s experimental but, having said that, whatever texts we do we want to do something different with it. So in a way it’s experimental but it’s not for the sake of being it,” says Moore.
Unlike his more accommodating peers, Chan Ping-chiu, artistic director of On&On Theatre Workshop, resists the label of ‘little theatre’ altogether. “When I work inside [the theatre], these wordings and delineations are in fact not very important,” he says. On&On has staged plays by avant-garde playwrights, such as Sarah Kane and Falk Richter, in its atmospheric Cattle Depot Theatre (a former slaughterhouse) and other larger venues. Chan thinks On&On is doing something ‘marginal’ that embodies values unfamiliar to those at the centre. “It has the potential to influence the centre and it also has the danger of being labelled and misunderstood.”
Chan continues: “It’s not that Hong Kong audiences don’t understand what ‘little theatre’ is; they don’t really understand what theatre is. Local audiences have the mentality of the nouveau riche. Hong Kong’s theatre scene has bloomed in such a short period of time and when audiences learn about the theatre with preconceived notions, they are reluctant to accept anything beyond. When it is something different [from their idea of theatre], they give it another name, such as ‘little theatre’ or ‘environmental theatre’, but they are theatre all the same.”
HKRep’s latest blackbox production, A Hollow Room 吉房, is at Sheung Wan Civic Centre’s HKRep Blackbox Theatre from Jun 24-Jul 10. Performed in Cantonese. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.