Bernice Kwok-wai Chan*
Theatrical works can now be documented with a range of new technologies; however, photography is still the most expressive and means of recording theatre. This essay reflects the curatorial progress of an exhibition about theatre photography and highlights some images which could illustrate a few memorable moments of Hong Kong theatre.
Keywords: Hong Kong, theatre, photography, performances, decisive moment, performativity
Theatrical works can now be documented with a range of new technologies; however, I believe that photography is still the most expressive means of recording theatre. As a mode of temporal representation, theatre foregrounds ongoing motion, while photography utilizes still images which crystallize movements on stage in decisive moments, moments which are delicate and poetic, yet full of imagination.
It is difficult to judge whether or not a particular still image can truly represent a performance, especially since video recording is so widely used today. However, photography captures the most interesting and memorable moments which may reflect the essence of a show. As theatre scholar Octavian Saiu has observed, “For theatre as an art form, photography is the chance, sometimes the only one, to turn the fleeting pleasure of the moment into the permanence of memory” (2).
During the summer of 2017 and 2018, I traveled through Europe for three months, visiting various performing arts museums, archives and research institutes. At the Arts and Theatre Institute (ATI) in Prague, I came across a filing cabinet filled with black and white stage photos which left a deep impression on me. The visual representations in the photos go far beyond the meanings expressed in written texts; they offer a glimpse into the history of Czech theatre for audiences, who, like myself, may not share the same kinds of memories, yet still feel and appreciate the performer’s energy that penetrates time.
This particular moment of experience inspired the curation of the project entitled “A Snap beyond Borders: An Online Archive and Education Project of Hong Kong Theatre and Performance Photography” (https://asnap-beyondborders.hk/en/). During the entire curatorial process, I studied the expression of time, and, in fact, the project focuses on time. I was once challenged by a cultural researcher who asked how such stage photos could build connections with young theatre audiences or with those who do not attend theatrical performances. My response is that this project not only serves a nostalgic purpose but can also create the same kind of magical moment which I experienced in the ATI of Prague.
Indeed, even though people may not have known Lee Chun-chow, a veteran theatre performer and Associate Artistic Director of Chung Ying Theatre Company, they can still feel the genuine emotion developed through his interaction with a group of young theatre participants watching the school tour of Puppy Love in 1990 (fig. 1).
One hundred photos were selected for exhibition from the online photo archive, which includes over 3,000 photos contributed by six veteran Hong Kong theatre photographers who took part in this project: Ringo Chan, Cheung Chi-wai, Kwan Pun-leung, Tsang Man-tung, Tse Ming-chong and Yuen Hon-wai. Through the perspectives and lenses of these photographers, I envisaged a collage of memories and stories about the theatre of our city. Chung Ying Theatre Company, founded by the British Council in 1979, was the first local theatre company to introduce the concept of Theatre-in-Education to the community and integrate the methodology into its work.
The photo above was chosen for the exhibition as a representation of the founding spirit in the professional theatre company of Hong Kong. People from the community can easily associate the image to their memories of the theatre and the city. Furthermore, the photo expresses a very touching theatrical moment when Lee made young audiences believe that he was a puppy. The performative quality of this image can also create new memories for contemporary audiences.
Another impressive image appears in the photo below of the staging by Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio of Titus Andronicus 2.0, 2015 (fig. 2). Tang was the first Hong Kong director to present Shakespearean plays in Cantonese at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. His physical theatre poetically interweaves the aesthetics of minimalism with the profound expression of the performer’s bodily presence. Having studied in Paris during the 1980s, Tang was deeply influenced by physical theatre, which later became his long-term focus of exploration. The photo below captures the physicality of the performers and the performativity of their gestures while narrating the background of the play. It vividly illustrates Tang’s theatrical aesthetics as a contemporary director of Hong Kong.
As can be seen, stage photographers not only witness an image that sparkles on stage, but they also document a theatrical performance and thus participate in a highly creative process. With this in mind, I must always consider the historical context of the photos with a certain degree of critical distance in order to justify my selections. However, the aesthetics of photography allows for extensive dialog with the audiences in order to create further imaginative projects.
In my work for this exhibition, I tend not to choose photos which express obvious theatrical tensions or focus on close-up shots of performers on stage; such images may easily be adapted for promotional purposes. However, I have found moments and stories which are more interesting as conveyed through non-stereotypical stage photos. Consider photo 3 below, which foregrounds the creative elements of Zuni Icosahedron, a premier experimental theatre company of Hong Kong founded in 1982. In particular, the photo depicts a crucial moment in The First Trial—Awakening, staged in 2013 by co-artistic director, Danny Yung, a well-known experimental art pioneer (fig. 3).
Using numerous mirrors in a black box theatre, the director created a scene which explored and critically examined the individual self. The photographer successfully captured the distorted and multi-layered reflections of the performer, who is unrecognizable in the photo. While this photo may not be suitable for documentation or promotion, it clearly foregrounds the iconic scenography of the production and thus represents a core theme of the work.
Apart from the stirring images projected on stage with their strong appeal to the imagination, a palpable current of energy is also projected among performers and other theatre practitioners, in rehearsal spaces, the backstage area, dressing rooms and outdoor performance areas. This flow of energy may not be easily perceived by the audience, but it is an important component of a performance. The photo below (fig. 4) was taken by the late Ringo Chan for the City Contemporary Dance Company, sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, during a rest break of dancers on an overseas tour.
Willy Tsao, founder of the City Contemporary Dance Company in 1979, invited Chan to participate as a member of the first group of professional contemporary dancers. As a performer, photographer and assistant artistic director, Chan served the company for almost 40 years. He understood the representation of movement both on stage and beyond the stage; he also grasped the delicacy of interactions among different individuals. In the still image shown above, Chan successfully depicted the collective energy of a group of talented dancers, all of whom are currently performing as leading artists in the field. In his photo, Chan focused on the relaxed but joyful postures of the dancers at rest.
Clearly, our experience of the theatre is open to many modes of perception. It is not possible to say which is more impressive, the sparks we see on stage or the sparks we relive outside the theatre. There are also many stages that lie beyond our vision. As John Berger observes in his book, Ways of Seeing, “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are” (9).
Consider the next two pictures, photo 5 (fig. 5), taken in 1989 by Kwan Pun-leung at the Art Fair for Democracy, and photo 6 (fig. 6), taken in 2014 by Yuen Hon-wai for an outdoor play-reading event presented by the Freeatre in Action.
In each of these two images, theatre is clearly defined as a public sphere in which participants can freely express their thoughts and exchange different views in the city. For the exhibition in which these photos appeared, I had invited each of the participating photographers to select one single image from their numerous works—a picture which they thought represented Hong Kong and its theatre—and share it with an audience that might exist ten years later.
In 2021, let us travel through time in photography: bear witness to our theatre today, and extend our hope to the future.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972.
*Bernice Kwok-wai Chan is currently the General Manager of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong) and an examiner for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (Drama Committee). She is also a panel member of the Hong Kong Drama Awards, The Hong Kong Theatre Libre and the IATC (HK) Critics’ Awards, an executive committee member of the International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts (SIBMAS). She received the Hong Kong Arts Development Council-University of Leeds-Chevening Scholarships in 2005 and obtained her Master of Arts in Theatre Studies from the University of Leeds (U.K.). Chan has curated and edited over 50 publishing projects about performing arts. Her recent editorial projects have included Ten Years of A City: Selected Hong Kong Plays (2003–12), which was awarded the 11th Hong Kong Book Prize in 2018.
Copyright © 2021 Bernice Kwok-wai Chan
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