Beating the Classroom
Having recently stepped down as the APA’s Dean of Drama, theatre veteran Tang Shu-wing talks to Edmund Lee about Beating the Classroom, his new non-verbal comedy.
It is purely coincidental that Tang Shu-wing’s first post-teaching show – after leaving his job as the Dean of Drama at the HKAPA in August – should be an extreme display of classroom anarchy. The idea of staging the non-verbal physical comedy actually came to him in 2008, when Tang directed a Cantonese adaptation of the French farce, Georges Feydeau’s Le Dindon, with a large cast of APA students. “It was a great time doing that play, and the next thing I thought was: can we do a comedy with less actors and no dialogue?” the celebrated theatre director says of the roots of his latest work. “I’ve been wanting to do a comedy for some time, because I haven’t done many of them in the past decade.”
An energetic mix of clowning, acrobatics and Stomp-like percussion sessions, Beating the Classroom may be seen as something of a novelty in Hong Kong’s relatively conservative theatre scene. This type of dialogue-free performance – to be distinguished from mime (which involves the creating of illusion through imaginary props) – is indeed no stranger to Tang, who performed in a two-actor, non-verbal play, the Ho Ying-fung-directed Two Civil Servants in a Skyscraper, back in 1993. Seven years later, Tang would take the director’s seat in another speech-free drama, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, by the Austrian playwright Peter Handke. “It was quite a challenge to the audience,” says Tang of those performances at Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium in 2000, “because not a word was spoken throughout the show.”
You might be tempted to say the same about the director’s new work, although having sat in a run-through in late November we are relieved – or sorry, depending on what you’re expecting – to report that Classroom will prove to be the least challenging watch that Tang has created for quite a while. Set around an after-school detention session in which three naughty boys are joined by an adorable female classmate and a fiery teacher, the show offers a series of spectacles where classroom mayhem is played out in comically exaggerated manners. The unusual nature of the show is fully reflected in the casting.
“I have quite a lot of requirements when it comes to picking the actors,” Tang explains. “Some of them need a great musical sense for the percussions, and some have to be really good at doing acrobatic flips.” Apart from guest performance segments by the award-winning B-boy Monkey J, Classroom revolves around a five-actor cast that includes three APA graduates and two rather special athletes: while one of the students is played by former Mr Hong Kong finalist Zico Hau, now an instructor at Trickstation (a studio specialising in martial arts tricking and the Brazilian art form of Capoeira), the class teacher is played by the inimitable Lisa Cheng, a habitual winner in speed climbing and bodybuilding competitions who was named the World Women Model Physique champion last year.
After all those pure adrenaline rushes, Tang will next be returning to more intellectually challenging, if no less physically intense, territory, when rehearsals begin in January for his widely acclaimed minimalist adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Primarily based on the drama-oriented version featured at the 2008 Hong Kong Arts Festival (with elements of 2009’s narration-based 2.0 version added in), the ‘new’ production will be presented at April’s HKAF, before taking the stage at Globe to Globe, the World Shakespeare Festival of the Globe Theatre in the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad. After that, Tang will lead the same cast of actors on a tour for Titus Andronicus 2.0, to London, Norway and Beijing.
Already with performance engagements running up to mid-2012, Tang says, very much unsurprisingly, that he’ll continue to develop his craft in minimalist and physical theatre in the foreseeable future. For now, though, the theatre veteran is merely enjoying his new-found liberty as a full-time artist. “I’d been working at the APA for more than seven years, so it’s probably time to take a break. It’s never good for an artist to stay in the same organisation for too long,” says Tang, when asked about his decision to vacate his teaching position. “At the end, I realised that I was more interested in creating new works. I mean, I could handle the administrative tasks [at APA], but when I thought about it, the creative process is still what I love most.”
Beating the Classroom 打轉教室 is at Arts Centre’s Shouson Theatre from Dec 15-18. Titus Andronicus 泰特斯 is performed at APA’s Amphitheatre on Apr 20 & 21, in Cantonese with English scene synopsis. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.