Journey to Home
As young playwright Santayana Li makes it to the stage of the Hong Kong Arts Festival with her intimate family story, she tells Edmund Lee about her long journey home.
For a young woman of few words, Santayana Li has a remarkably long story to tell. Although her first ever script Journey to Home – which has been chosen as one of the commissioned local performances at the coming Hong Kong Arts Festival – is described by veteran director Lee Chun-chow as being constituted of ‘few lines, some completely dialogue-free scenes and rarely any extended monologue’, it’s taken the playwright more than an hour-and-a-half to explain to us how her play ended up being produced. And she isn’t even rambling.
“My script has a special characteristic: it is very short,” Li jokes at one point – not that her mentor, the prominent playwright Paul Poon Wai-sum, has been laughing behind-the-scenes. “The advice Poon has most frequently given me is to ‘elaborate’, which really is a way of saying that my script is still too short. I have a better memory for images than words. Some people think my scripts are too visually-minded and may be more suited for short films. I include a lot of stage directions but very few lines of dialogue.”
“It’s at first a little bit difficult to immerge myself into the script because there are so few words,” recalls Lee Chun-chow, who is assuming the mentor/director role in the production, much as he’s previously done for a few other playwrights, such as Wong Wing-sze and Candace Chong Mui-ngam. “But when I spent more time on the script, I realised that [Li’s thoughts] have all been in there; it’s just that the script calls for a sense of tranquillity of the heart. You can’t arrive with presumptions; it’s only then that you can get into her characters’ world. Li is a very sensitive playwright. She’s very sensitive to the world, to relationships and to the subtle gestures of people.”
As a virtual unknown in the theatre scene, Li’s rising star has surprised even herself – and not just as a rhetorical form of modesty. Not nearly a top student when she was in secondary school, the 26-year-old had since worked as a receptionist and studied both hotel management and business very briefly before she finally enrolled in HKAPA to study acting, a short series of developments that involves a long line of coincidences – including participating in a church musical, taking part in a recruitment interview as the interviewer, and many others. But the details of those are best left for another day.
At the end, and in any event, it’s still a miracle of sorts for the young playwright, who hadn’t watched a play before she enrolled in APA just a few years back, to take the prestigious stage of the Arts Festival ahead of many of her much more experienced peers. Or maybe she’s just a great talent with an intensely poignant story to tell: it all began when Li’s mother left her family, which also includes her father and two elder sisters, more than 20 years ago. Originally written as a short play of slightly more than a dozen pages, Journey to Home charts the youngest daughter’s actual journey to find her mother in Taiwan when she was 18. That unforgettable experience was also the first time that the mother and daughter spent time together in two decades.
Among the cast of five, Kate Yeung will be playing Li at that age; it happens to be the actress’s first time being involved in a semi-autobiographical work. Having somehow made it sound natural playing someone in the same room as her (Li takes part in all rehearsal sessions), Yeung seems to be having a field day imitating Li’s distinctive laughter. “Working with her every day has given me the chance to observe her closely. She laughs without making any sound.” Yeung mimics the playwright with her mouth wide open, before laughing out loud. “Li is younger than me but she writes really well. It’s not easy to perform in her work, which really grasps the essence of family relationship.”
Just about to begin her master’s programme in scriptwriting this month, Li admits that she’s constantly looking up to her favourite playwrights, including Anton Chekhov, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter (who she sometimes mischievously addresses as ‘Harry Potter’). And though Journey to Home is in no way an absurdist play, Li tells me in a quiet moment that she’s been told by some that the script is, indeed, ‘a little bit odd in places’ – which is just as well, since it’s never been her intention to stage a perfectly likeable work, even to her relatives.
“I want them to come and see the play, and I hope they like it.” Li then takes a brief pause. “Actually, it’s quite impossible for them to ‘like’ it. I just want them to try to understand it from my perspective. That’s how I see my mother.”
Journey to Home 愛之初體驗 is performed at Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre from Feb 10-13, in Cantonese and Putonghua with English surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.