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Enjoying the Challenge as She Forges Ahead

Academy Director Professor Gillian Choa

1 Jan 2021

At the dawn of the new year, the Academy welcomes its very first female Director, Professor Gillian Choa, succeeding Professor Adrian Walter who has retired. Joining the Academy in 1992 as a guest lecturer in the Theatre Design Department, Professor Choa became a full-time staff in 1996. She was appointed Dean of Theatre and Entertainment Arts (TEA) in 2013 and subsequently took office as Deputy Director and Provost in 2019. With her Directorship beginning on 1 January 2021, Professor Choa becomes the first Academy Director who has risen through the ranks. Having been with the Academy for over two decades, she has built trust and rapport with colleagues within the Academy and well networked with external partners. As a well-versed administrator and academic, Professor Choa adapts well into her Directorship, amidst the Curriculum Review and reform exercise in full swing. "Although I have been working at the Academy for quite a while," she says, "I earned my experience from different work roles and positions before becoming the Dean of TEA and then Deputy Director and Provost of the Academy. Each time I was promoted, whether it was in the academic sphere or in management and administrative roles, I was aspired to think, grow and innovate. I hope I live up to everyone's expectation as I lead the Academy into the future."


As Deputy Director and Provost, Professor Choa led the Academy's six Schools – Chinese Opera, Dance, Drama, Music, Film and Television, and Theatre and Entertainment Arts to conduct a major Curriculum Review of their Bachelor's and Master's degree programmes as part of the Periodic Institution Review (PIR) of the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications. This process is recently completed with the report submitted end of December 2020. "Over the past year or so, I have spent a lot of time on the PIR. I have found our approach to teaching and learning and academic management in general were in great need of a rethink. I believed reform was a necessity and should be carried out with the six Schools as an entity. Needs of individual Schools were a constant topic of discussion with Deans and their academic representatives. Their ideas informed how changes could be implemented. The Academy's six Schools may be specialised, but teaming up will boost their power and potential for synergy."


Professor Choa stresses the importance of "one voice". "The most ideal mode of partnership is that each School will have academic freedom and flexibility in the design of their new curriculum based on their unique discipline needs, but will also focus on building interaction and exchange with each other, whether in the area of curriculum design, programme management, teaching and learning, staff development or student activities. I hope to see an even stronger culture of collaboration, with Schools sharing their success with each other, and also taking advice and learn from each other. We need to walk together towards a common educational goal with the same rigour and determination."


In recent years, the Academy has adopted internationalisation, innovation, industry engagement, interdisciplinarity, and practice-as-research as core objectives. Applying these to curriculum reform, Professor Choa instigated the reduction of the number of weeks of class teaching per semester from 14 to 12 in order to promote better learning experience for students. "Weeks of class teaching will follow the 4-2-4-2-4 pattern, with two fortnights devoted to the newly added 'Project Weeks'. The Schools can exercise discretion on how to use these special weeks in accordance with the needs of their programmes. They can arrange for students to engage in professional practice, exchange activities, industry placements, research or any type of interdisciplinary collaborations. The key concept is to allow freedom for students to engage in self-directed learning or interdisciplinary creative endeavours and think beyond their imagination towards their creative goals. These should include experimentation and research on new technologies."


"Our students are uniquely positioned in the region being immersed in an East-meets-West culture, allowing them to have a natural display of creative thinking in their work and an artistic style of their own. I am also committed to generating opportunities for students to increase their international exposure through creating an exchange fund. The extensive partnership network established by the Academy around the world will also ensure that students can keep abreast of the latest developments commensurate with 21st Century Performing Arts practices."



Mapping out the Future

The Academy ranked first in Asia and seventh globally in the performing arts category of the 2020 QS World University Rankings. Professor Choa asserts that good rankings are a recognition of the Academy's achievements; and as such, they help to better define its positioning, thereby illuminating the way forward. "The rankings are an affirmation of our leading position. We have to be crystal clear about our strengths, advantages and orientation; and proud too – justifiably so – of our expertise and professionalism. The Academy needs to be prepared, mentally and strategically, to continue to launch innovative and forward-looking programmes while buffing up exchange activities if it is to scale new heights. It should also capitalise on the developments of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area."


To meet future growth, the Academy plans to build hostels for local as well as overseas students and visiting artists. "Very often, our overseas guest lecturers' visits are shortened by accommodation constraints to no more than one to two fully packed weeks. Once we have our own hostels, visitors would be able to prolong their engagement and benefit students for more comprehensive teaching." In the meantime, this will necessitate more learning spaces and facilities to accommodate new programmes to be implemented in the future. "I hope the hostel project announced by the Chief Executive in her recent Policy Address will be in place soon to enable us to draw up an immediate plan for the Academy's long-term development."



No Mountain is Too High

Looking back on social events, COVID-19 and other challenges confronting the Academy during her time as Deputy Director and Provost, Professor Choa says, "When you have to face one emergency after another, you learn to think on your feet and be flexible. The process has been most challenging and every challenge has been a precious lesson learnt. Last February, the pandemic forced us to consider suspending classes. However, I realised we couldn't just make arrangements week by week continuously; we had to plan further ahead. We ended up deciding to take teaching online immediately. At that time, the majority of our faculty were not familiar with teaching online, but reality transformed us. Within a very short period of time, we rescheduled class times, adjusted delivery modes and made contingency provisions. Strength does lie in unity."


Professor Choa's quick adaptability and fast responses to changes resulted from her exposure to all kinds of learning from a young age, her rich and varied work experiences, and her passion for the performing arts. "I was obsessed with ballet as a child. I loved being on stage. I can still feel that excitement after all these years. I enjoyed watching black-and-white Cantonese films and classic Hollywood movies. When I was home alone, I would binge-watch TV late into the night. I also went to Cantonese opera performances with our amah." Although her dream of becoming a dancer did not materialise, Professor Choa never left the performing arts – while in secondary school, she actively participated in drama and the school choir and even interned as a production assistant at a television station for several summers. "Although I had many opportunities to work in the television industry after graduating from secondary school, I chose to study theatre directing at the renowned Drama Department of the University of Hull in the UK. While there, I learnt a lot about stage management, lighting and sound design and their operations, front-of house, etc; and the process sparked my interest in theatre design. Subsequently, I enrolled in a professional programme in advanced theatre design at the Croydon College of Art and Design."



Where There's a Will, There's a Way

After graduating from Croydon, Professor Choa worked in the UK, first as a scenic artist and also assisted a renowned opera and ballet set and costume designer. She also had opportunities to try her hand as a stage designer for experimental theatre. Such exposure enriched her knowledge and expanded her industry network. After returning to Hong Kong, she joined Chung Ying Theatre Company as the troupe's first Resident Designer, and later other companies freelancing as a stage designer, scenic artist, and lighting designer. She also worked as art director in television and advertising, set decorator and costume designer for foreign films, image director, and display and exhibition designer for high-end fashion before joining the Academy's Theatre Design Department full-time. With such extensive experience in the performance and entertainment industry locally and internationally, it should come as no surprise that Professor Choa is a person of great competence, drive and adaptability.


Professor Choa first joined the Academy as a teaching staff. She enjoys the interactions, exchanges and communications with students, even if topics are of a sensitive nature. "When you communicate with students, it is not about 'I'm right and you're wrong'. I began reaching out to students as a teacher, Dean and then as Deputy Director and Provost, in the hope always of playing the roles of a listener and an advisor. I want to let students know that, as an educational institution, the Academy has its obvious concerns and perspectives; however, with sincerity and tolerance, we should always be able to rely on constructive discussions towards common grounds and goals."


A straight talker, Professor Choa contends that she indulges in taking the bull by the horns. "The role of the Director is riddled with challenges. It may not be a smooth ride all the time, but there's always a way forward." Over the years, the motto "Where there's a will, there's a way" has guided Professor Choa in life and work. One may think it is common sense, but it is not as easy as it sounds. How does one judge when to charge ahead and when not to? "Don't over worry. If it is something you believe you must do, give it your all sincerely. Tackle problems as they come up fervently. Share your concerns and decisions with colleagues. This can make challenges fun and meaningful. I truly believe that opportunities emerge amidst challenges and in the least expected circumstances. We need to be brave enough to embrace them and act upon them wholeheartedly."


(The article was published in the Jan 2021 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)