Director Edward Lam: It’s because of the pandemic that we were able to free up space for this. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened. Performance venues in Hong Kong are generally booked up.
As for the “freedom” of Freespace, I asked the Freespace team if we could invite actors to create individual portraits of an empty theatre. We gave them two minutes each. Some were more emotional than others. With Chu Pak-hong, who reflected on his years of experience and observation, I didn’t have to explain much. The venue said it all.
Chu’s performance was the first to be filmed in one take. He didn’t force it. I feel like he shared his most honest feelings. I sometimes wondered what it would be like if we’d filmed again, more in-depth. But this wasn’t a workshop or a rehearsal. He expressed his emotions genuinely, so I decided we should take it as it is.
Producer Bobo Lee: It’s just the actors, the theatre and their voices. But it’s very powerful.
Lam: Yes, the view of their backs and the sight of the auditorium are also very compelling.
This production sets an interesting example. Most performing arts venues in Hong Kong function only as a site provider. They have no production strategies or artistic directions. If all these venues had their own artistic direction, things could still be happening, even during this period. As it is, they’re managed according to standardised protocols and stage performances for the sake of it rather than for creating art, communicating ideas, creating a better future. Shows are staged, but afterwards it’s over, there’s no space for meaningful dialogue or connection.
I think what we’ve done is very interesting. We rarely have the chance to block out six days and bring together so many actors. One of them, Sung Boon-ho, described the process as a game and said it was a luxury for him to take part. During the interviews, many actors didn’t just reflect on the filming process, they also talked about their feelings for Hong Kong and the theatre. It’s not just a performance project. It’s also an exchange between people and the site, and a reflection on the current situation. Some actors came out crying. I think it’s difficult to put yourself in this position if you’re not a performer.
Dramaturg Low Kee Hong: I think this project transcends communication and approximates toward placemaking. We are hoping to build relationships with actors and audiences who have never been here before. This is our goal at Freespace, but it’s also the hardest to achieve.
Lam: Lots of museums use YouTube to introduce their artists and maybe entice people to visit. I think this series we’ve created is not just about performance, but also about communication. It records a time and an emotion.
Freespace Editor: Some feel performing arts should be enjoyed live. That the nature of performing arts means performers draw energy from a live audience. Ticket revenue is another concern. So, unlike museums, some in the sector are less keen to embrace online productions. Has the pandemic forced you to explore this potential?
You also mentioned museums using online platforms to introduce artists and offer virtual tours. It reminds me of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura. In the world of visual arts, it’s impossible to avoid the discussion about whether viewing a replica is the same as looking at an original. But what about performing arts? Are works presented online just a by-product of live performances, or an art form in their own right?
Lam: I take virtual museum tours every day. To me, they’re like a preliminary guide to the exhibitions. I can’t go in person, so why not take advantage of the internet? Most important, in the past, I wouldn’t have been able to learn all of this even if I’d wanted to. It wasn’t feasible to call museums every day to find out who their youngest artist was or what they were working on. Now I can get this information from the museum website or The New York Times’ online programmes and map out the landscape of the contemporary art scene. This is a vision. For example, the National Theatre in the UK is doing more education than other theatres. If you visit their website, you’ll find a whole section dedicated to education with content covering topics from different methods of breathing to how to produce stage sets.
I don’t think live performances and online content are in conflict. The online content helps set the scene for the audience. Seeing something online doesn’t make me not want to catch the live show, unless the performance itself isn’t good.
Editor: Some people think, why pay to see a live performance if the content is already online.
Lam: We need to change this mindset. We should focus on how to offer different perspectives, so that when audiences come to see live performances they are surprised.
Lee: This is another way of curating.
Lam: Ideally, anything can be transformed into a theatre, and this flexibility can influence the audience. As part of a creative team, if you refuse to accept change your audience will behave the same way. Their response will reflect the attitude in your work.
Low: I hope we can present this project not only to local audiences in Hong Kong but to audiences and artists around the world given that we are experiencing similar lockdown conditions.
Editor: It seems like An Invitation: On Empty Theatre is actually a love letter to the audience.
Lam: I didn’t want the actors to express themselves with too much language. That would somehow weaken the performance and limit how we view the actors.
Lee: Actors usually follow scripts. But what are they like when they simply express what’s inside them? It’s exciting to see that side of them.