First-Hand Memories, Second-Hand Documentation: Constructing the On-Site and Off-Site in the Performing Arts (and Further Insights during the Pandemic)
Text: CHAN Kwok Wai Bernice [General Manager of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong)]
The experience of watching the performing arts live can hardly be replaced by documentation of any kind. After the astonishment of seeing the arts first-hand, our memories are the most powerful links that bring us back to the performance. Even if the show misses the mark, we can justify our feelings for the work by thinking that the “on-site” encounter is the most important, if fragile, aspect of our experience. If we did not feel moved by the performance, or if we missed the show, the re-presentation of it (in different media such as text, painting, photography, publication, video or sound) has the power to build a lasting connection between us and the work. This external framework instills an objective dimension into our encounter with the work; our experience transcends time and space, while it is constantly recreated through the “second-hand” documentation. This “off-site” engagement is transformed in our imagination into the starting point for another on-site encounter, and it is assembled into our cultural heritage.
The International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong) aims to explore possibilities in performing arts documentation and its showcasing through different endeavours, which have so far culminated in more than 150 publications, 1,500 online articles, 800 videos (including oral history interviews and art reviews), and 14 websites on various subjects. In recent years, we have been devoted to creating platforms for international exchange on the preservation of performing arts heritage, which allows us to learn from the experience of overseas experts and bring the efforts of Hong Kong practitioners to light. From the “Archiving Cultures: Strategies, Practices and Development on Arts Archives” seminars and workshops in 2014, the “Archive and Oral History Project on Hong Kong Drama” in 2015, to “A Future in Bloom: Cultivating and Preserving Performing Arts Heritage” seminar/workshop series in 2019, we have sought to inspire and facilitate new vocabularies, further discussions, broader networks and fresh perspectives.
This year, we are pleased to collaborate with Hong Kong Repertory Theatre in organising this international exchange on performing arts documentation and its showcasing—the first event of its kind in Hong Kong. From our featured speakers to the activity formats, we aim to present a broader curatorial spectrum that spans publications and videos, offline and online documentation, community practices and the operation of organisations, funding and commercial operations, archiving and audience participation, as well as internal records and public knowledge. As we venture into documentation, let us comb through history and shape the future.
(The foreword to the international exchange above was written in mid-January 2020. At the time, the world was functioning “normally”. We were working hard on the organisation of the exchange, which was scheduled to be held in March. We looked forward to the gathering with more than 10 overseas guests and our riveting conversations on documentation. While we later decided to postpone the exchange to December, we still planned to hold an in-person event. We thought: “Things will have changed by the end of this year.” Halfway through the year, the situation was still the same. As online arts festivals, live streams of performances and digital learning platforms have reshaped global connections and exchange over the past nine months, I made the decision to hold the exchange online. It also drove me to reflect on performing arts documentation: When the “performing arts” no longer happen “on-site”, yet they happen “on-site” on a virtual platform for global viewers, how should we document the performances? Perhaps what needs to be defined, first and foremost, is how this “off-site” engagement should be documented—its definition is evolving against the insistence on the “on-site” nature of performance.
Some overseas friends of mine who work in performing arts archiving lost their jobs during the first wave of the pandemic, when performances were cancelled and there was nothing to archive. Meanwhile, the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum of Waseda University in Japan has been asking theatres and drama groups to donate leaflets and scripts of performances that were postponed or cancelled. An array of recorded productions has been made available to watch online as a way to counter the pandemic. In Hong Kong, more than 100 productions of different scales have been presented online.
This year is a year to remember, and our guests will certainly touch on the pandemic in their sharing at the exchange. To varying extents, they have continued to bring the impact of documentation to a wider sphere during the pandemic. While I cannot help but feel a sense of loss at clicking “Leave Meeting” the moment an online seminar is over, this format opens up new possibilities, as it may allow more overseas friends to join the exchange on the internet. This will expand the publicness of the discussion on performing arts documentation. I look forward to performing arts documentation becoming the new normal in the future.)
I Picked a Flower along the Way
Text: POON Pik Wan Priscilla [Manager (Theatre Literature and Projects) of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre]
In recent times, Hong Kong theatre has gone on hiatus: most performances and events have been cancelled, so we have only seen the occasional theatre reviews. However, the turn of events has given me a deeper understanding of how important “documentation” is. For all theatre workers and participants, the recent times have been anything but bland or empty. In this moment of “absence”, our thinking about and longing for the theatre has been stronger than ever. It is crucial for us to document it all.
I think it was in 2018. I was looking at the piles of performing arts publications on my desk; some of them were HKRep’s publications, and others were publications from different cities around the world. A thought crossed my mind: I pictured my colleagues who worked in performing arts documentation and for related publications, who spent their days grinding away at massive volumes of texts, images and information, with the mission to re-present the experiences that transpired on the stage. There must be times when they question the value of their work, or when they feel defeated by the strenuous proofreading. What a tremendous passion they must have for the theatre and for their work, that they remain steadfast in their roles, standing away from the spotlight in order to observe and record—with their eyes, their hands, their hearts, and their sharp minds—and recreate the sparks of stage arts through other media.
I would love to meet them, and for them to meet one another. It is not just about having company along the way; it is about inspiring one another to see the beauty of our path in a new light, and to look farther ahead to a broader horizon.
I would like to thank our partner, the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong), for embarking on this venture with HKRep. As a performing arts group, we may not always play a crucial role in promoting the development of Hong Kong’s performing arts documentation and archiving, or its showcasing. But I believe it is a worthy endeavour, and it would only take each artist contributing their share of effort to it for it to blossom over time.
International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong) [IATC(HK)]
In 1992, Hong Kong became the fifth branch of the International Association of Theatre Critics in Asia. Since its establishment, IATC(HK) has been actively promoting theatre criticism in Hong Kong, through activities such as publishing various materials, as well as participation in international conferences and cultural exchange programmes. Over the years, IATC(HK) has been the recipient of a three-year grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Also, IATC(HK) has established partnerships and networks with local and Asian performing arts organisations.
Hong Kong Repertory Theatre [HKRep]
Artistic Director: Anthony Chan
Longest standing and largest professional theatre company in Hong Kong, established in 1977 and incorporated in 2001. Financially supported by the Hong Kong Government, the company employs a team of over 80 full-time professionals including the artistic director, assistant artistic director, resident director, actors, technical and stage management staff as well as administrators.
Presented more than 300 productions, many of which have become classics of the local theatre canon. Produces and develops a high-quality, innovative and diverse repertoire, encompassing Chinese, international, classic, contemporary theatre as well as original new works by local artists. Artistic Director, Anthony Chan and the company are dedicated to develop the audiences’ interest and appreciation of theatre and to enrich the city’s cultural life through its leadership position as the city’s flagship theatre company. Its Theatre Literature and Projects Department provides documentary record of theatre productions, publishes books and Repazine, organises seminars and book exhibitions.