The very term “experimental theatre” may sound dauntingly serious for some. What about physical theatre training or physical senses exploration? Seasoned theatre actor, director and drama coach Andy Ng Wai-shek has just been named a Director of the Year from the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong)’s IATC(HK) Critics Awards.
This is a story about him who was a journalist by academic training and turned his back on his profession for a screenwriting job and later set his foot in the dazzling world of theatre, revealing his journey to life exploration and self-awareness through arts and culture.
Ng studied journalism at the Hong Kong Shue Yan College (currently the Hong Kong Shue Yan University) because of the discipline’s connection with everyday life. It was also because he enjoyed reading since he was a child. He felt that literary reportage, which is referred to as literary journalism, has its special implication. “During my final year at university, the department was planning for a magazine. In my capacity as president of the Student Association, I contributed an article about graduating. To my surprise, it came down very well with praises that said it emanated a literary taste.”
As many university students do, Ng had to foot the tuition bills. During his second year, therefore, he took up full-time employment as a sports reporter for The Kung Sheung Daily News responsible chiefly for football news. The job required that he produce an article or two on a daily basis. He considered that his early training. Then, an internship opportunity at the Radio Television Hong Kong came his way and during the interview he expressed he wish to join the drama production unit. “Drama tells stories and provides ample space for creativity.” For a time, he aspired to become a director. “The internship taught me that a script dictates the context, or in other words, how a story is told.” After graduation, he became a screenwriter for Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) – a job that he kept for the six years.
Ng grew perceptibly weary of the fact that popular interests ruled the roost in the entertainment industry. “I started taking contemporary dance and watercolour painting lessons after work, driven purely by personal interests. I enjoyed them both.” His subsequent choice to focus on the former led him to the next step up.
After his first contemporary dance classes, he was astonished at the change in his senses: “I picked up a glass and I could feel its weight. That was a first.” In the past he relied on philosophical thinking, revolving around the concept of logic, he conceded. “I became aware that I had neglected my physical being and emotional life.” His chance encounter with contemporary dance led him to a brand new realisation: ” Feelings and the senses cannot be explained by logic. Rather, they are articulated through the interaction with life.”
Aside from acquiring dancing techniques, he also looked to develop a deeper understanding of this specific art genre. “At that time, newspapers and arts organisations rarely talked about contemporary dance.” By chance, he discovered a rich archive of dance videos at the American library on the old Shue Yan campus in Wan Chai. “It was like I had stumbled on a gold mine. I spent days on end there watching those videos.” Since then, he started to contribute dance reviews under the alias of Van Gogh to the culture section in Sing Tao Daily and Hong Kong Economic Journal.
Later, he met The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ inaugural graduates Cheung Tat-ming and Chan Ping-chiu in an interview, and was invited to join their experiential performing group Sand & Bricks, which was formed with the support from the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC). Ng recalled that the group’s vision was well ahead of its time – the group did without an art director. “We did not want anyone to take the helm. So, we took turns to become director. We discussed matters as a group. Our performances prioritised ideas over a plot.” At this point, he was approaching his next turning point.
Still a TVB screenwriter and a contemporary dance novice, Ng took part in Sand & Bricks’ performances. “I did not feel fit it though. My physical being was for dancing. I understood the meanings of the movements, but I had yet been able to connect with drama.” Two years with the group without finding any answers, he decided to take a break from performing. He also left his job.
He took a two-year hiatus for a change of pace. It was not until Hong Kong Cable Television Limited was gearing up to go on air, he signed on with one of the international arts and culture channels on a friend’s recommendation. “We were procuring videos and spent days going through programme catalogues.” Taking the opportunity, he looked particularly for dance programmes. One of them was a French production about a century’s development and evolution of dances in the American and European cultures. The programme covered every dance genre from classical ballet to contemporary dance and postmodern dance, and investigated how these art genres responded to social changes from the creators’ perspectives. The programme was an eye-opener.
Ng realised at that time that the performing arts do not simplistically showcase the physical beings but ones that carried everyday routines and the complexities. Then, he made a start in theatre. The year was 1995. His muse was Ho Ying-fung who has a qualification from the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of Houston in the US. They met each other after an interview and hit it off right away.
“He knew me as a dancer and screenwriter and felt that I could give it a try. Back then, we rehearsed at the CCDC studio two, three evenings a week, without a script. I did what he told me to do. He wanted to see how I discovered real feelings from deep within my body.” He said that actors with traditional theatre training do not possess creative concepts. “There are stories and textures deep within our physical beings,” he added. “With feelings and experiences comes creativity. One cannot produce a script just by staying still.”
He joined Ho’s theatre group Theatre Fanatico and played the lead in some of the group’s performances, which allowed him to “explore his own possibilities through his body”. He recalled how he came to trust his own body during his two jobless years. “I was plagued by some personal issues and depressive episodes. But I felt that I ought to balance out my emotional state so I forced myself to go running as a way to rekindle life enthusiasm against emotional distress.” His experience taught him that he needed only trust his body to transform himself. “Your body gives you the power and energy to think positively as well as the self-confidence and power to support yourself.”
In 1997, he went to Middlesex University London in the UK for a master of art degree in East/West Theatre Studies from Middlesex University. In 2000, he signed up for the Theatre Training and Research Programme founded by Kuo Pao-kun at the Practice Performing Arts School in Singapore, spending six months on classical Japanese musical drama Noh, and the equal amount of time on Peking opera, Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam and classical Javanese dance Wayang Wong, while also undergoing training in contemporary performing arts.
The programme, Ng said, led him to realise that one must delve into traditions to find life. “I started dancing at the age of 25 when I would look at myself in dancewear in the mirror and felt out of place. Despite that, I told myself that I had to keep going. Nowadays, I raise my arm and that ‘movement quality’ is there.” It was by letting his body experience that he eventually understood what his craft and even life is all about. “It is very much like the ascetic practices of Buddhist monks. Today, an audience may look at me and think I am some kind of a master who could feel that energy because of my experience. In fact, with my body’s experience, and through traditional training, I prevent myself from acting out the ‘being’ that is already present.” With one look, he could bring down the house.
Back in Hong Kong, Ng was not thinking of making a living. Instead, he immersed himself in the world of theatre. Before meeting his mentor Kuo, he admitted, he was lost. The programme brought him to his senses. “The one thing that can ever influence you is but yourself. One must live a life and have the drive to pursue meaning because you are your only objet d’art,” he stated. “I pursue a life of meaning. Doesn’t everyone? If there’s one, there’s one. If there are 10, let it be 10.”
In 2007, he founded Acting Research Center (Hong Kong) and shouldered the responsibilities as art director and chief researcher. He has completed the initial research on the relationship between Tai Chi and performing arts training (太極與表演訓練關係), contributing his past training, research and teaching experience to the compilation of a psychophysical (心體一技) acting training module which combines psychology and physical moments.
Ng emphasises that his training does not require interpretation. “Your life is in your hands. No one can expect to rely on the help of others.” He believes that arts ask people to keep an open mind: “Seek answers from within yourself because you are the one who will reap the greatest benefits.”
translation ．Charles Mak
editor ． Grace Chan
photographer ． Trevor Tse
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