Life for Macao’s talented theatre companies can be challenging and survival can be tough but the directors and actors behind these troupes say it’s worth all the hard work. After many shows were cancelled during Macao’s brush with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to tread the boards once more…
Macao is proud of its theatrical traditions. Over hundreds of years, countless shows and plays have hit the stages across the city, from performances in the native Patuá language – which still take place and are listed as government ‘intangible heritage items’ – to recent expressive dance and contemporary pieces that explore both local and international themes. Cantonese opera has enjoyed a fond place in the city, as have the extravagant Western shows at the Dom Pedro V Theatre, which was built in 1860 and is protected on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But due to the modern age of the internet, glitzy shows in the gaming establishments and – sadly – the COVID-19 pandemic, some theatre groups in Macao have been faced with challenges. What does the future hold for these local groups who just want to keep entertaining the crowds?
Macao is known regionally for its excellent theatrical output over the years. Almost every genre is covered and there’s always been a passion for plays, shows and operas, particularly ones that mesh the East with the West or hold historical value. Take the Dóci Papiaçám di Macau drama group, which was founded in 1993. For nearly three decades, this troupe has presented an annual production packed with humour and wit in the Patuá language. After 2000, it added Cantonese into some performances and also introduced multimedia techniques. It has changed with the times and this is indicative of Macao’s theatrical groups. However, this still does not take away the challenges they face in the modern age.
Behind every amateur or professional theatre company in Macao is a team of dedicated, hard-working and passionate thespians who usually try to keep their troupe treading the boards not for money but for the love of performance and community. They receive ample help from the government to do so – groups can receive subsidies from the authority which they can use to hire staff, buy props and generally keep their company afloat. But it’s nevertheless costly to run a group, put on a show, promote a performance, hire a space and organise education workshops – and if the gate receipts go down, then companies eventually must face closure. So what are Macao’s companies doing to survive? We speak to the organisers of five groups about how they keep managing to tread the boards.
The famous troupe
When it comes to staging hundreds of shows in Macao over nearly half a century, one name stands tall: Hiu Kok Drama Association, one of the jewels in the city’s local theatre crown. This troupe has entertained audiences both at home and across China – even performing in Portugal – ever since it was established in 1975. It’s done so well over the years, it even has its own ‘black box’ experimental theatre base – the Hiu Kok Laboratory, which has regularly staged performances for local crowds since it opened in 1999. When it comes to the performers themselves, more than 60 people make up the acting side of the company and they put on fascinating and exploratory original shows – using original scripts – that are in Cantonese and are often expressive or, at least, contemporary in nature, although the group has also staged some Chinese classics over the years too.
Hiu Kok, which is named after a pseudonym that was used by famous Chinese writer Lu Xun and refers to a bugle that’s used to summon comrades in an army, is an independent and non-profit drama association which doesn’t always act alone. It has continuously been inviting dance troupes from across the globe – from Australia to Costa Rica – to participate in exchange performances in Macao over the years. And it is also responsible for training some of the best stage directors and actors in the city, thanks to its popular courses and workshops. It has hosted successful radio dramas, published plenty of homegrown plays and organised rehearsals for local arts organisations and shows for troupes from across Asia at its 80-seat Laboratory.
A range of contemporary pieces are staged every year by Hiu Kok but there’s always one big annual performance featuring about 20 actors – this year, that will be, in English: ‘I Have A House Dream: 24 Hour Gate Open’. The company’s artistic director Hui Koc Kun – also known as ‘Big Bird’– says that in recent years, the troupe has introduced ‘serial projects’, which are plays that are run over a number of days or weeks. Box office takings from the serials and the annual performance, says Hui, can be high. “We try to survive on the box office income,” he says. “In fact, we hope we can survive on this income in the coming years. We appreciate the government’s subsidies, of course. They are extremely helpful. But it’s not good to just survive on subsidies, so we try to do as much as we can to stage quality productions and take good box office income as a result.”
Hui says that surviving as an independent theatre association in Macao is challenging, so the group is always looking for new ways to create ‘opportunities’. One such way was launched last year: a three-year performance training project. Basically, writers at Hiu Kok reworked one of their own past productions – ‘Someone in Outlaws of the Marsh’ – adding classic Chinese novel and opera elements. They then took in full-time actors, singers and dancers of all ages and backgrounds from Macao and they are now in the midst of training them for the big production of the show in 2022. “The performers all pay to be trained by us over three years,” says Hui. “To be an actor from Macao is really hard – you usually need long-term work experience overseas and the money to fund that. We’re offering an alternative with this project. We’re helping to train our homegrown actors and actresses here in Macao, with a final product for everyone in the city to see.”
Producer and actor at Hiu Kok, Ben Ieong, agrees that ‘training courses’ featuring workshops are a great way for the group to both support itself financially and to ‘provide opportunities’ for theatre enthusiasts ‘to work in a production and to inspire them to consider performing arts as a career’. He says that the company has teamed up with veteran local actor Pak Hou Wong, who trains people in ‘all aspects of theatre’. Wong, who has worked with many local companies over his years, says: “When I began many years ago, the local theatre industry was mostly supported by enthusiasts who kept their day jobs. They usually worked in a couple of productions every year and had an insatiable love for theatre. Nowadays, companies can create up to seven productions a year, so some actors have become full-time and must juggle different roles at the same time to keep the wolf from the door. It’s hard for them and the companies but at least at our workshops we can help these actors through tough times.”
‘Tough times’ don’t just apply to actors. Hui says the local theatre scene in Macao has been tough for ‘many years now’. “The entertainment complexes have put on bigger and more glitzy shows every year,” he says, “and this competition does hurt the local theatre scene. And then there’s the internet and more easily accessible TV – I think this has hurt theatre in general worldwide. Plus, there’s been COVID-19 this year, meaning our shows had to stop – and that then meant no income. But, despite this, we remain optimistic. We’re seeing that, after a period of falling box office numbers, people are coming back to our shows. Perhaps the fast food nature of online viewing combined with the new community spirit we have seen and felt during the pandemic means that local community theatre is about to have its day once again.”
The contemporary troupe
Two people who share the sentiment of local theatre about to ‘have its day’ once again are May Bo Wu and Ka Man Ip, the co-artistic directors and driving force behind Dirks Theatre. These two creatives – who were both taught at Macao Conservatory school for theatre before they joined forces in 2009 and created Dirks, a company that stages an array of original and adapted contemporary plays and shows in both English and Cantonese – say that, apart from this year due to COVID-19, they’re seeing audiences growing for their productions. Wu says: “It’s true to say that audience sizes for some theatre productions have been falling over the years but I have seen them grow over the past few. We think that local theatre is entering into some sort of renaissance and we really hope that will be the case worldwide once COVID-19 is over. It could be boom time for local theatre then as people look to spend time together over a local show.”
Dirks performs often in the Black Box Theatre in Macao’s Old Court Building – a popular stage for up-and-coming contemporary companies. Ip says he’s pleased that the company uses the venue and he also thanks the city’s ‘funding departments’ for the ‘helpful subsidies’ the troupe receives. “We’re lucky,” he says, “to have money and a space to perform in so we can explore and create theatre. But there are big obstacles when it comes to our survival. We don’t own a space so creating and rehearsing shows, as well as running workshops, can be costly. Renting a space can often cost too much so we rely on public resources and other companies who have spaces. Thanks to the funding departments and those other companies, however, we do survive and we always hope that Macao’s arts industry will grow and develop sustainably over the coming years.”
Wu believes that performance art should ‘carry resonance’ and also provide ‘a therapeutic experience to the audience’. As a result, Dirks holds two regular government subsidised workshops that also provide ‘that kind of therapeutic experience’: drumming and the Feldenkrais method, a form of exercise that’s claimed to reorganise connections between the brain and body for improved movement and psychological state. Wu says: “I was surprised that the workshops pulled in such a wide range of people, including teachers, civil servants and social workers. These workshops show we are not just a performance group but we can also hold useful workshops in music and movement. It’s also a good source of audience for our shows. It all helps us to go on and grow.”
Last year, Dirks teamed up with the Drama Box theatre company from Singapore and presented ‘The Lesson: Macau’ to the Fai Chi Kei community. This was a new type of theatre to hit Macao due to its immersive and interactive qualities. Real audiences showed up and took part in a made-up government public consultation meeting that saw the audiences ‘voting’ on what social or historical monument or area should go and be replaced with new transport links for the future of the city. “This was real interactive theatre,” says Ip, “and the parallels to real Macao life are obvious. But it was great to see real residents expressing their opinions openly with the actors and there was this whole real and unrehearsed feel to the whole thing. We hope to do lots more projects like this in the future. I hope people can come to these shows and reflect on the issues and challenges we all face in the real world.”
The physical theatre troupe
Comuna de Pedra explores the human body and examines social issues through dance, physical theatre work and workshops. Set up in 1996, the company, which has performed its shows across the world, also curates and produces arts projects like exhibitions, festivals and cross-cultural collaborative programmes every year. It has performed pieces in English, Portuguese and Chinese – or with no words at all – and has put on productions in locations across the city, from local theatres and parks to closed-down factories and even outside the Ruins of St Paul’s. There have been interactive improvisations, video arts, puppetry and live bands involved in the shows. In short, this is an expressive group that will go anywhere and do anything to convey messages through performance art.
Jenny Mok, the troupe’s director, says that working with the Macao community is ‘satisfying’. She says that last year, the group interviewed construction workers from the Mainland who work in Macao. Their stories were then portrayed by the group’s actors on stage in Comuna de Pedra’s ‘Migration Series 2019: The Labour and I’ show. Mok says: “One of the workers who had not been involved in performing arts before felt comfortable to tell us about his encounters. When he watched our rehearsals, he was moved to tears. Our theatre often takes on tough social issues which we unpack for the audience.” Mok adds that a show performed with disabled people in Macao in 2018, ‘The World and I’, also unpacked tough social issues for the audience while at the same time helping the disabled ‘express themselves in new ways’. “It is important to hear them in theatre,” says Mok. “They are part of our city.”
“We are proud of our theatre company,” says Mok, “but it can be a challenge to run. It costs a lot to organise and perform a live show. Our outreach and education work – where we train students – can also cost, although we can also make money that way. And audience sizes have been going down over the years, possibly because the younger generations don’t seem to be as interested in live physical theatre as they once were. I’m not sure but we are working incredibly hard as there is a strong future for what we do and, thanks to government subsidies and support, we still see a bright future for the performing arts in Macao.”
The experimental troupe
In January 2008, not-for-profit theatre company Macau Experimental Theatre was founded. Ever since then, it has presented scores of dramas, including pieces staged in the Macao Arts Festival, as well as at small theatres and performance spaces across the city. Nearly all of the troupe’s pieces have been performed in Chinese and, as the name suggests, it certainly leans towards the experimental end of the performance spectrum. Former popular self-penned shows include ‘One Good Person’, ‘Martha Does Not Wear a Bra’ and ‘Egg-sized Cockroaches are Rampant’. The company’s artistic director, Johny Tam, says: “When we first launched, we actually had our own small black box theatre for rehearsals and shows. We used to put on seasonal shows. It was a wonderful start.”
Tam, who is also the chief curator of the annual BOK Festival in Macao – a festival dedicated to local theatre that sees shows performed across the city over a couple of weeks usually in August but which was postponed this summer for obvious reasons – says that over the past 12 years, the company, previously known as Horizon Macau, has experienced a number of challenges. He says: “Due to increasingly high rents and a huge workload, we had to readjust our budget in 2015. It meant we had to give up our own black box theatre and use public venues instead – and we stopped working seasonally, focusing on individual productions instead. We’ve moved our base four times since then. It’s not easy but we continue to dig deep, put on quality productions and survive in Macao.”
Macau Experimental Theatre does anything from writing its own pieces to adapting classics or producing the works of local playwrights. Recent original hits include award-winning musical theatre piece ‘Mr Shi and His Lover’ and much-praised community theatre production ‘Migration’, which sees actors working closely with some of Macao’s Indonesian domestic workers. Tam hopes that future works will see more Asian artists brought in to work with those from Macao. He also hopes to ‘shed light on creative insights and social issues’ in Macao. Tam adds that the BOK Festival will also be important to highlight Macao’s local theatre expertise and ‘help interest new people and younger generations’ in theatre. “Through engaging interactions and performances,” he says, “the people who experience festivals like BOK in Macao will discover that they like the theatre.”
The youthful troupe
Forming out of a school theatre group in 2008, the Dream Theater Association has become a major force in Macao’s youth and community theatre scene – particularly as the shows and plays in English and Chinese are original, moving and popular with local theatre-goers. Jason Mok, artistic director, and Joanna Chan, director-general, say that the company’s members ‘explore each other’s artistic expressions and passions in their work and they also work closely with local community organisations’. They pick out the troupe’s work with French theatre company, Le Théâtre de Ajmer, at the Macao Arts Festival in 2015, as a highlight.
When asked how the company survives in 2020, Chan admits that hard work is the key. “We have been working on a packed schedule to achieve what we want – namely, many shows and workshops at as little cost as possible,” she says. “We have some excellent subsidies from the government, which we are really grateful for, but we also must rely on collaborations with local organisations who can help us financially and with the workload. When we want something done in Macao, we know how to work together!”
Chan continues: “It’s hard to run a full-time theatre company in 2020. Although our cultural output is tremendous, we can often be seen as amateur groups, run by passionate amateurs. That’s just not true we are dedicated professionals, running a professional company which is helping to nurture Macao’s performers of tomorrow. But we try to rise to every challenge, including the current pandemic. We have not been able to work with young people often and our shows have been cancelled or postponed. It’s not an easy time – and that’s not just us, that’s also those who are paid to help us as freelancers. But, again, we rise to every challenge.”
Mok says that Dream Theater’s youth and community projects are motivation enough for the team to ‘rise to the challenges’. He cites 2017 show ‘The Victory Shipyard’ as a company highlight as it involved shipbuilders in Macao and their stories. “We have done a lot of incredible pieces and will continue to do so,” he says. “I feel, in Macao, that as long as young people are encouraged to enjoy and participate in theatre, it will be around for years to come.”
Playwright, director and critic Sio Chong Mok is the founder of the Macao Theatre Cultural Institute, a group which promotes theatre critics and review writing in the city, and also owns a library dedicated to Macao’s theatrical past. Mok says he understands the challenges that all the theatre companies in the city are faced with. Earlier this year, in the institute’s theatre library, promotional materials of many shows that were cancelled due to this year’s pandemic were displayed in an exhibition called ‘No Where To…’ just so they are not forgotten to time. “It is important to record shows so that people can look back on them in the future,” says Mok. “I hope that theatre-lovers in Macao appreciate our documenting of the city’s shows. As a result, we know a lot about the theatre scene in the city and we understand it is a challenging time for many companies but I believe that soon, the local theatrical output will once again be as tremendous as it’s always been.”
We also rely on collaborations with local organisations who can help us financially and with the workload. When we want something done in Macao, we know how to work together.
– Joanna Chan, Director general of Dream Theater Association
Treading the boards is always going to be a challenge in the modern world, with all of its modern forms of entertainment. With big glitzy shows on offer in Macao’s entertainment resorts coupled with the lure of the internet, cinema and TV, the local theatre companies will probably always face a battle to survive. But Macao is a passionate city with a love for the arts, so with the support of its theatre-going public and its subsidy-giving government, local shows and plays should be an integral part of the city’s arts scene for many years to come. There may be times a crisis like COVID-19 pokes its head through the curtains but the show in Macao must – and surely will – always go on.
Patuá way to do it
Dóci Papiaçám di Macau drama group has been performing shows in the local language of Patuá since 1993
Some theatre companies struggle and some thrive. For nearly three decades, Dóci Papiaçám di Macau drama group has been thriving. This troupe has presented an annual production packed with humour and wit in the Patuá language since it was founded in 1993. Co-founder Miguel de Senna Fernandes, a lawyer who has written most of the group’s scripts, directed them all over the years and plans to publish them in Portuguese, English and Chinese, thanks both the government and local audiences for their continuous support. “Every year,” says Senna Fernandes, “the government invites us to perform at the Macao Arts Festival. It has also included Patuá theatre on its inventory of intangible cultural heritage items. It surely shows respect and recognition.” Senna Fernandes adds that the government is supporting the group’s recent application to become a national intangible cultural heritage item for the whole of China. This sort of status helps protect the art as a cultural asset.
Senna Fernandes, a self-taught playwright and director, says that the group’s annual performances have generated interest from younger audiences over the years. “We’ve seen many new faces from the younger generations in the audience,” he says. “In addition, many linguistic professionals from different corners of the world have contacted me about Patuá. I think our annual performances have been a great success.” Senna Fernandes says that the group is ‘trying to preserve our collective memory through annual performances’. “We want to raise awareness of the social and cultural aspects of the language,” he says. “Like other groups, we do meet challenges, though. Our show was cancelled in May because of the pandemic. However, as we don’t have to manage a space, there has not been much economic loss.”