Tisa Ho, Executive Director of the Hong Kong International Arts Festival
Drama Lab. Quite a grand name for a tutorial room with windows blacked out. Like the eyes of Oedipus, Vicky Ooi said, watching the panes being darkened one by one. There was an End Stage which was little more than a demarcated space. A few lights. Lightning effects done by switching the standard fluorescent tubes on and off quickly to produce a short sharp flash of white light.
Inside the little Drama Lab, there was infinite space for exploration and creativity and trying out ideas. I remember working on a dead man’s hand made of putty in a plastic glove, which gave a most satisfying thud when dropped; and sloshing paint on a backdrop of writhing bodies since we had insufficient live ones even for the little stage. Both for The Duchess of Malfi, my Drama Lab directorial debut.
Inhabiting the Drama Lab was Jack Lowcock, wearing the space around him like an old coat and a friend to all of us who would hang out there. He might suggest a different way of reading a role: more menace, she is not a nice person. That was when I auditioned for Lear’s daughters and got Cordelia, the role with the wonderful ‘nothing’ line. I suspect that Alvaro Ribeiro, as Lear, was hoping for a less substantial daughter to carry as a dead body in the final scene, but he never said an unkind word and bore his burdens well.
Drama Lab productions had to be small. George Beau’s Krapp’s Last Tape was about right – one actor, one desk, one tape recorder. Lear was performed in City Hall. In stiff, scratchy, smelly costumes of painted canvas, the same stuff used in the minimal set comprising banners. So the cast smelled the same as the stage, no worries about paint fumes. We used Loke Yew Hall too – for The Seagull and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The Drama Lab was a focus for my undergraduate years. A series of remarkable people came through its doors or loitered in the corridor outside, all part of an amazing peripatetic cast of characters. Whoever was there, being part of a production drew you into a group with a shared purpose and a common love. Working through a script, taking cold words from the printed page to play with and maybe to spit out. Grappling with plot and character, and confronting your own values and assumptions in the process. Learning to live in someone else’s skin and in their head. And everyone around you doing the same. The cast becomes a very special kind of family. To continue name dropping most outrageously, Kevin Spacey said as much in a private session with students when he was in town for the 40th HKAF’s presentation of Richard III in September 2011. I have witnessed the same in many productions, and continue to feel very privileged to have had the experience for myself all those years ago in the days that I spent in the English Department’s Drama Lab.