Forget Aquarius. Ours is the Age of Technology.
Technology, both digital and analogue, lies central to the operation of almost every profession, and the performing arts are no exception. Viewer experiences made possible by the technical arts are giving rise to a plethora of novel creative approaches.
Teresa Wong, a former engineering major and music minor who furthered her studies in Theatre and Entertainment Arts at the Academy, founded JAM Island Theatre in 2018 with a few Academy alumni. The group specialises in marrying technical engineering with theatrical arts. Candy Lau, Communications Director of the JAM Island team, is also a cross-disciplinarian, having worked in both stage management and public relations for years. As the brains behind this young creative troupe, Teresa and Candy hope to present Hong Kong's original technical-arts theatre to international audiences through cross-disciplinary works that incorporate different expertise and perspectives.
As a child, Teresa loved math and science; she also loved piano and cello. She majored in Automated and Computer-aided Engineering while minoring in Music at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. After graduation, she joined the railway sector, and was involved in projects with the Mass Transit Railway in Hong Kong, the Taiwan High Speed Rail, and the Metropolitan Rapid Transit in Bangkok.
"After several years of that, I began to think about developing other interests," she recalls. "On a visit to the Academy on Open Day, I met Professor Gillian Choa, Director of the Academy, who was then Dean of the School of Theatre and Entertainment Arts. We had a chat, and her words strengthened my interest in stage production."
Master's degree programmes have fewer students than undergraduate programmes. This allows greater flexibility in course arrangement; instructors can tailor programme content and practical opportunities to meet the needs of individual students.
"I am a railway engineer, while one of my classmates is a doctor," Teresa notes. "We have our own professions but we are also interested in theatre and music. For example, I was a member of the Academy jazz band, and teamed up frequently with students from the School of Dance and the School of Drama."
The Academy has never been an ivory tower. Pedagogical learning is but one component of a student's experience here. There are also internships, travel, participation in productions, getting to know the industry and its people, and other important components.
"One summer, the Academy recruited an instructor from London's West End here to teach," she says. "Later when I went to England for internship, they arranged for me to observe at the local theatres to learn the ropes of running a musical in the long term."
A Bit of Bling
Driven by passion and a sense of mission, Teresa has always strived to apply her professional expertise to her creative practice. "My graduation project was Bling Imagine, a non-verbal children's musical that merges technology and art," she explains. "I chose the non-verbal format to enable the piece to travel to different parts of the world."
That was in 2014, before the STEM and STEAM trends had reached Hong Kong. So in a way, Teresa's graduation musical was a pioneer in the promotion of the technical arts. In 2017, Teresa applied — successfully — to the Arts Development Council for sponsorship; the following year, her new production, Bling — Be Yourself, debuted at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. At the same time, she recruited several Academy alumni friends to establish JAM Island Theatre. Crossing disciplinary boundaries is the group's feature, defining everything from its actors and behind-the-scenes crew, to its production themes and methodology.
Going from campus to community, Teresa is thankful for the solid foundations laid by her practical experiences at the Academy. "I was in charge of sound design, and the School provided abundant opportunities for me to practise and learn what a professional production is all about," she says. "Of course, students enjoy more time and space, and teachers make allowances for mistakes and revisions, unlike in a cut-throat professional setting. But the productions definitely gave us more than a taste of the actual process."
The success of the group's first musical has led to the creation of more works. That in turn has consolidated their status in the industry. At present, their focus is the three-pronged development of performance, story theatre, and corporate collaborations.
Taking Hong Kong Tech Arts to the World
Candy Lau, JAM Island's communications director, studied Stage and Event Management at the Academy. She then obtained her master's degree from the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University.
"Teresa's original intention was to recruit me to be the production manager," Candy recalls. "I was doing PR for sporting events at the time, so I joined JAM Island as a PR consultant with a background in stage production."
The group's core members are all Academy alumni. Candy jokes that having all been trained at the Academy's "Alley of Wooden Men," the mythical test at the Shaolin Monastery where spring-loaded wooden dummies attack would-be monks, their goal and pursuit of excellence is the same, although they may be engaged in different lines of work.
Candy recounts the multifarious exposure she enjoyed while still a student at the Academy. "One of the courses was community art – we went to Discovery Park in Tsuen Wan to promote art," she remembers. "For my internship, I travelled to Dubai to be a stage manager for a West Side Story musical. I was also involved in the production of large evening galas and fashion shows in Hong Kong. These experiences had had a huge impact on my subsequent development."
Does her background in stage management give her an edge? Candy believes it does, because a stage manager needs to have both soft skills and professional expertise.
"A stage manager serves as a bridge between members of the team," she notes. "They need professional knowledge, some of which they acquire on the job, as well as interpersonal and communication skills. Their familiarity with stage operations may also come in handy. For instance, PR people may not be acquainted with things like 3D projections or immersive experiences. My basic knowledge in such areas facilitates the transmission of messages and ideas to the media and the public."
Candy started learning ballet at 4, and at 7, performed on stage. She thanks her mother for bringing art into her life, and she wants to pass the torch down by nurturing the next generation through novel theatrical experiences. "Everyone encounters challenges growing up," she points out. "Art helps us to face them."
This coming June, JAM Island will showcase its new theatrical art installation, The Mysterious Laboratory, at the storied Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. Viewers and artists from all over the world will be able to see this crossover of lab experiments and performing arts, and exchange with its creators.
Candy says that presenting their art globally is one of the troupe's objectives. "We hope to do more international exchange, and share Hong Kong's original art with international audiences," she concludes. "In the long run, we want to establish an arts festival, and show the world this art-festival brand from Hong Kong."