All the world’s a stage set
What kind of eccentric mind builds an innovative stage set? Winnie Chau meets three of Hong Kong’s most in-demand set designers to learn about their craft.
A little distraction always does us good. As my conversation subject gets sidetracked by a question on reading habits, it immediately becomes clear how the far-out role of a set designer is all about multi-tasking. “When I read, I open five books simultaneously. After I read this book for a bit, I read that one, then that, and then come back to this,” says Tsang Man-tung matter-of-factly.
Ninety percent of the books on Alex Tam Hung-man’s bookshelves, incidentally, are also text-based. “Though I’m a visual person,” says Tam, “I’m afraid of absorbing too many visuals and getting suffocated by them.” Yuen Hon-wai, meanwhile, is also a jump reader, but has been reading less lately and is clear about his aversion to art references: “I realised art isn’t something to be described in words.” That said, let’s meet these three one at a time…
Tsang Man-tung (39)
Tsang didn’t choose a multifarious career; he simply can’t live without one. “I can’t stop at one position. That would bore me to death,”
he exclaims. “Looking back, I had done over 30 – no, 40 – different [part-time] jobs during my secondary school years.” He tries to list them out – from cleaning toilets, selling nuts at Jusco, as a locksmith to finance and insurance – as if recalling a shopping list, unwittingly amusing himself in the process. Currently, outside his roles in the theatre, he’s an instructor for yoga and Tai Chi and a sound-healing practitioner. Well, his five-book principle says a lot.
Tsang has equal interest in acting and design. It’s little surprise that, after he was accepted by HKAPA’s Set and Costume Design course (he and Tam were classmates and he later became Yuen’s teacher), he volunteered to do acting demonstrations for his design assignments. “Say I’m designing for Romeo and Juliet. I can have this Juliet or that Juliet,” he says while enthusiastically demonstrating two actor choices with a coffee table. “It’s different [when it’s done with a table] and actually it’s something about what the set designer does that will alter the [actor’s] gesture. So, it’s really important!”
“The recent [local] theatre scene is adopting a certain approach, or formula even. That formula could be quite safe. [But] we’re narrowing our mind,” comments Tsang. “The wealthier we are, the less creativity we have.” While having once been involved in a HK$200 million Mainland production, he also did a set for a Taipei production, Diving in the Moment (to be re-staged here in March), with a $200 budget – he turned a blackbox theatre into a white-tiled swimming pool with sheets of A4 paper. “As a designer, you have to be rebellious. Being rebellious doesn’t mean you are reckless. You have to subvert yourself. You have to subvert the theatre,” says Tsang.
Alex Tam Hung-man (38)
When Tam hears his juggling among the roles of stage director, playwright and set and costume designer being described as ‘unusual’, he fails to take it as a compliment. (He should have, for he can only name one other theatre worker – Ho Ying-fung – who is taking the same path in Hong Kong.) “Is that unusual?” he asks, mulling it over. “To me, it’s a way of complementing.”
For artistic integrity, or cost efficiency, it’s not rare for Tam to take up both design and directing in the same production. Since new plays nowadays come with few written stage directions, Tam’s nonlinear, associative mode of thought, or what he calls ‘theatre-oriented thinking’, comes in handy. “I think about directing and characterisation from a designer’s point of view,” he says. “Simply said: I’d be more fastidious [as a director].”
Tam’s recent work includes a realistic Ikea showroom set in True Man Show in Showroom. Scripts by Tam, often themed around the neglected past of Hong Kong, are always triggered by an image that soon grows into an inventive story. His upcoming play, Searching for Da Vinci, will look at the contemporary world from the perspective of the great Renaissance master.
Yuen Hon-wai (36)
“The strength in visual [presentation] among Hong Kong’s stage directors generally lies in their ability to utilise objects they can actually see. They can’t tell you what they want out of nothing,” asserts Yuen. Like many local set designers, he has plenty of creative freedom in his job. “I could tell you this is a mug at the beginning and make you believe it. But what makes the theatre interesting is that, as the drama proceeds, it could no longer be a mug,” he explains. “We can build up something and then bring it down.”
Yuen’s time is mainly divided between photography and set designing; recently he has also been wishing to retire from his role in costume design to become more focused. “Productions are now more frequent, yet we sometimes lack the space to digest [ideas],” says Yuen who, at one point, took on five design projects simultaneously. Like Tsang, he also designs for dance productions. His upcoming set design can be seen in the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
“It’s very exciting,” Yuen says with irony when detailing the technical tasks squeezed within the short run-through period, due to increasing competition for performance venues. “It’s a pity to stage a work over just one weekend. The set makes an appearance once and afterwards everything goes to the landfill, whether it’s worth thousands or hundreds of thousands.”
Searching for Da Vinci 搜索達文西 is at HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity’s Multi-Media Theatre Feb 23-26. Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Contemporary Dance Series is at Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre Feb 24-Mar 4. Diving in the Moment 潛水中 is at Sheung Wan Civic Centre’s HKRep Blackbox Theatre Mar 17-29. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.