Editor’s note: Project After 6: Cube Culture, a musical created as part of a Swire Properties’ initiative to engage the local community in arts practice, opens tonight at ArtisTree. Writer-director Lindsey McAlister shares the story of turning non-professional actors into an ensemble.
Lindsey McAlister, Founder, Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Q: Why choose the office theme?
A : When Swire suggested I write a musical for them, they were quite keen for it to be based in an office. I said I would do it, as long as it was a comedy. And then it became a musical about the fun things, the weird things and the unusual things one would find in an office. I wanted it to be snapshots of things that you find in an office. For example, I asked mature people about their millennial colleagues and they, like me, felt sometimes millennials could be a bit too full of themselves. So I wrote a song called, “It’s all about me”. So basically Project After 6: Cube Culture is about finding humor in the office.
Q: Are Hong Kong offices any different from the rest?
A : I think what we created is quite a generic office. It’s certainly got elements of Hong Kong in it. For example, there’s a song inspired by cockroaches, called “Don’t splat me”.
Q: Isn’t it a bit boring to be rehearsing for an office-themed show after a long day at work?
A : Because it’s a comedy and a musical, the actors are learning a lot of things by getting involved in this project. When they come to the rehearsals after work, they’re obviously working with a group of people who are very like-minded and share their interest in the arts. Maybe they’ve never done it before but for the four months that we’ve been working together the performers have been getting more and more into it, creating relationships. I always think that’s a very interesting byproduct of any project.
Q: Was it a conscious decision to go for diversity in selecting the cast and crew?
A : It happened very organically. The selections were made purely on talent. We auditioned over 200 people who live and work in the Quarry Bay-Taikoo area. I was pleasantly shocked when I did the audition. The talent was phenomenal. Originally I was planning to take maybe 20 people but ended up hiring 30.
Some people had quite a bit of experience, and again somebody like Lanre Animashaun, who is naturally incredibly talented, never had any training. At the end of the day it’s all about building confidence.
Q: Wasn’t it a bit daunting trying to produce a musical with mostly amateurs?
A : The thing I was looking for the most in the audition was one’s ability to sing. So those 30 people were chosen because of their natural ability to sing.
In an ensemble piece like this it’s about everybody rising together. We didn’t want one person who was awesome and the rest not-so-great. So my job was to strike a balance.
Q: What is the biggest change you see in the actors, four months into the rehearsals?
A : We spent the first month just working on getting to know each other, because the first thing you need to do with the group is to turn them from 30 individuals to an ensemble.
We have a Whatsapp group. When we started it there’d be about two messages a day.
This afternoon I was in a meeting for an hour and came back to 63 messages on my phone.
Q: You seem to be a fan of the community outreach initiatives taken by Swire Properties...
A : I have never heard of another Hong Kong company being so committed to making the local community feel so special and giving them opportunities. I have worked with Swire for 20 years now on different projects and think they really have a company culture of understanding why the arts are important. The practice of art is also about acquiring life skills. It’s going to benefit the actors as a person in so many different ways — building self-confidence, self-esteem, a spirit of collaboration, empathy with other people. It’s also about creative thinking and creative problem solving. As an employer, those are the attributes you would want your staff to have.
Q: Are we going to see more experimental and immersive theater in Hong Kong?
A : Obviously giving artistes the opportunity to create new, experimental work is very exciting but it’s not very common in Hong Kong. It’s very difficult to get the funding to put together something like this. I feel very fortunate to have written two musicals within a year — Melodia, commissioned by the Jockey Club, being the other one. It was quite enormous with a hundred kids from Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) in it. We auditioned 800 people for it and performed at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium to an audience of 1,000 plus.
Q: Is there a way to inspire private sponsors to step forward?
A : I think if other companies see what Swire is doing, realize the importance of it and look at the impact money well spent makes, they might consider following the model. They should be doing projects that make their employees as well as members of the local community feel special. In fact, in Project After 6, only one of the cast members works for Swire. Several of them auditioned but it was only Natalie Ki who got through.
Q: Any suggestions for the HKSAR Government’s arts funding agencies?
A : My recommendation would be to invest in not only the big companies like Hong Kong Philharmonic but to actually think about all the other smaller projects happening in Hong Kong — the little emerging companies, the people with fresh ideas, the ones who do not just want to put on Mahler’s Fifth or whatever.
Many artistes in Hong Kong don’t have the luxury to put up such shows because nobody’s prepared to give them the money to do it. So my recommendation would be: take away the money from the big players and give it to the upcoming next generation of artistes.
Q: Then the onus also lies on producers of new, experimental work to solicit funds, doesn’t it?
A : I’m a big believer in that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. For 25 years HKYAF has survived because I have no fear of going anywhere and asking anybody for money. Over a 100,000 young people have passed through our doors. Our shows have been attended by crazy huge numbers.
Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu.