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Off the rails
An unscripted production explores the city's past through its love affair with the tram

7 July 2009
South China Morning Post

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Stage director Wu Hoi-fai and actor Chiu Kin-tong have some good ideas for their new show A Day: it centres on a tram ride - from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan - that stretches over a single day during which the driver contemplates his life and the city's history through colourful anecdotes.

The pair also have plenty of original material to work with, having spent three months trawling through references about local tramways and old street life and talking to retired tram drivers and tram enthusiasts.

What they don't have, however, is a proper script.

"It's indeed challenging and risky not to have a script beforehand," says Wu, a drama lecturer at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA), weeks before the curtain rises.

"But for the stage, literal interpretation isn't the only approach when delivering sentiments and messages."

That is something he learned at the Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London, where he graduated with a master's degree in dramaturge last year. Wu says inspiration for his stage work comes not only from reading stories but observing daily trifles.

As the artistic director of A Day, which will be staged at two New Territories venues over the next two weeks, the 40-year-old wants to generate new ideas during the research and rehearsal process. The piece will be developed as they go along.

With a script, directors are bound by what the playwright has written, says Wu. "Some directors would go as far as changing every line, but I don't do that. As a director, my job is to realise the playwright's vision on stage."

But for this production, he wants to go further by coming up with his own material during the creative process.

"For instance, in the course of our research we stumbled upon an old photo from the late 1960s [or] early 70s. It shows passengers squeezing onto a tram that was already full by holding onto its exterior. That is a very interesting image that we wanted to develop," says Wu.

"What is more challenging is that we only have one actor to create the illusion of a packed tram. With a set script, the playwright might have suggested the scene to be played by a group of actors, but since we only have one actor, we have to think of new ways to realise what we want to do. To me, that is more challenging."

While not having a set script may allow more room for creativity, it puts more pressure on the actor who doesn't have anything concrete to fall back on during rehearsals. And in this one-man show, Chiu not only has to play the main character, but also other roles including passengers and even a tramcar.

"Although I am nervous about how the story will eventually turn out, we insist on keeping our pace without haste. Wu encourages me to develop the performance by trial and error," says Chiu, who was named one of the most outstanding young performers by the Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies last year.

The idea for A Day came from mainland writer Chen Cun 's eponymous short piece, which chronicles a factory worker's day.

"The language is simple and yet powerful," Chiu says of the story.

Wu and Chiu do not have a linear narrative. Their play is made up of vignettes that chart the social changes in Hong Kong over the past century. The old photo showing the packed tram, for example, reflects how the population was growing then - a result of migration and the baby boom, says Wu.

It's also important that the work is locally relevant, he adds. "The tram is a unique Hong Kong icon and an inimitable way to experience the city. It carries not just people, but a sense of nostalgia," says Wu.

This is the second solo piece Wu and Chiu - both APA graduates - have worked on together. Their first collaboration, A Hong Kong Actor's Nightmare, was staged four years ago.

Wu says he first noticed Chiu in a small dance production and was impressed by his fluidity and mastery of movement.

"He also has a passion for the theatre, so we decided to team up," Wu says.

A freelance actor, Chiu spends most of his time teaching "to make a living", although the stage remains his true passion.

"I often remind myself I love acting, especially when I am in a stressful rehearsal," says Chiu, admitting every rehearsal is still "a puzzle" to him.

"The greatest rewards are audience's responses, which makes me feel not lonely on stage."

Unlike A Hong Kong Actor's Nightmare, a comedy that explored the unglamorous life of a local stage performer, A Day will be making use of sound, lighting, props and projections to spice up the action.

Chiu says the play isn't really a solo show because he's backed by a stage crew. "The music from a clarinet echoes my miming, which will help evoke emotional connections," he says.

Additional reporting by Kevin Kwong

Chiu Kin-tong and Wu Hoi-fai - A Day, Jul 17 and 18, 8pm; Jul 18, 3pm, Sha Tin Town Hall, HK$120; Jul 25, 8pm and Jul 26, 3pm, Tuen Mun Town Hall, HK$100 (in Cantonese). Inquiries: 2268 7325
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