Tony Wong and Billy Sy, faculty members from the Academy's School of Drama, were both initiated into the theatre as secondary-school students. Ever since, they have been exploring the artform itself and themselves via that medium.
"I believe that every theatre major is seeking the self, scrutinising life and society, and expressing their take on these subjects on stage," Tony says. This endless self-interrogation may seem almost masochistic; yet for an actor, it is a fundamental skill. Tony Wong is an Academy alumnus; Billy Sy received his master's degree in drama from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
The two became involved in Hong Kong theatre via different paths, yet both see teaching as a method of self-improvement. Tony observes in jest, "From actor to drama teacher, we have never let our guards down!"
Speaking of the pull of theatre, Tony quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet, a character who explains that the purpose of playing is to "hold as twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Tony repeats the quote twice to emphasise the key words: nature, virtue, scorn her image, age, and time.
"I've always been tremendously fond of theatre," he notes. "And it is largely because theatre holds a mirror up to the good and bad in human nature, and to the ebb and flow of our times."
A Century-Straddling Career
Tony's professional journey has been closely tied to the Academy. As a student, he majored in acting, and received both the Outstanding Actor Award and scholarships. After graduation, he joined the Chung Ying Theatre Company and subsequently founded his own company, 2 On Stage. In 2008, he went to the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney to study for a master's degree in movement. In 2010, he founded Performer Studio to practise physical theatre, and also joined the Academy as a guest lecturer at the School of Dance. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in Acting and the Discipline Leader of the Movement Curriculum.
Tony's path from actor to lecturer originated in the urge to find the self. "While studying in Australia, a teacher suggested that I share about Hong Kong's theatre culture," he recalls. "I was dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say! I frantically looked for information. In the process, I discovered that without people like Mao Sir (Fredric Mao) and King Sir (Chung King-fai), there would have been no School of Drama in Hong Kong. That realisation gave me a strong sense of mission. I wanted to share what I learnt in Australia with Hong Kong."
From a student in the 20th century, Tony went on to become an actor, teacher, director and choreographer in the 21st century, his various identities reflecting transformations in theatre.
"We may notice that stage actors in the past projected a kind of staginess in the way they presented themselves," he points out. "But as the School evolved with the times, it introduced into its teaching new ideas, approaches, and developments in acting, art and creation."
In recent years, the School's direction has been to groom dramaturge, stressing cross-disciplinary and cross-sector studies as well as enabling students to achieve mastery through comprehensive approaches. Tony recalls that while compiling his resume, he had written that he could both act and direct, dance and choreograph. While it might have seemed like he was "blowing his own trumpet," what theatre needs today is precisely that kind of versatility.
"Today's market requires actors to be multi-functional," he notes. "Sometimes the stress is not on the actor's acting but how the actor helps to expand the audience's imagination by introducing experiences that reflect different visions."
Learning Modes for the New Era
Billy Sy, who learnt his craft mostly in the United Kingdom, used to feel that theatre was more advanced in Europe and the United States. But after becoming involved in Hong Kong's theatre development, he has revised his opinion.
"I spent eight years away from Hong Kong," he notes. "When I came back, I reacquainted myself with my home and its theatre. I realised that in terms of vision, artistic pursuits, and the concepts of theatre education, we are not behind the West at all. More importantly, we don't need to compare ourselves with other places. What we need is to find a theatre that belongs to us, to think what kind of students we hope to nurture on our own soil."
It was Billy's high-school drama teacher who introduced him to the theatre. "Meeting the right teacher is essential," he explains. "A teacher can have lifelong influence on a student."
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Nottingham, Billy got into the University of London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to study for a master's in acting. He managed to sign with an agent right after graduating, and stayed in London to build his acting career. However, the financial crisis in Europe made him return to Hong Kong.
He played in the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's musical Scrooge. In the same year, he participated in a production by the Actors' Family, The Passage Beyond, a work that was revised in different formats and regions over the course of seven years. Eventually, Billy became involved with different repertoires.
"During that same time, various institutions from primary and secondary schools to adult drama courses offered by art groups invited me to teach drama," he says. "My network grew. Five years ago, I joined the Academy as a part-time instructor, becoming full-time after one semester."
Billy is currently Lecturer in Voice/Movement as well as Academic Project Coordinator at the School of Drama. He attributes this evolution to synchronicity. "When online classes were first held during the pandemic, I resented them, but slowly came to realise the world of possibilities they were opening up," he explains. "For example, students developed web theatre and performed on digital platforms, using their creativity to turn the impossible into the infinitely possible. As we adapt to circumstantial changes, a whole new universe becomes available to us."
But technology is a double-edged sword, ushering in huge changes in modes of learning and exchange, even social formations. Billy points out that current students are extremely efficient in the way they learn and work, but want to see results right away, so he often reminds them to slow down. "We can get information by making a few clicks online, but self-seeking does not come from a Google search," he exhorts. "It's a slow process of observation and contemplation that takes time, experience, and interaction with others."
A Salve for the Soul
Practice is the best form of learning, even for teachers. Recently, Billy has been engaged in voice training. He is enrolled in the Estill Master Trainer programme with the aim of obtaining certification within this year. "As a performer and art educator, I am consolidating what I've learnt all these years," he says. "The process of self-discovery is still ongoing. It never stops. I learn every day, and every day I make progress. I am really enjoying this."
Earlier this year, the ever stage-active Tony collaborated with Candace Chong Mui-ngam, alumna of the School of Drama, to direct the play We Are Gay, which was supposed to debut two years ago. Shortly after this, he teamed up with Sunny Chan to direct Table for Six on stage. Even Billy admits that he admires Tony's energy and time management.
When asked how he balances teaching and stage, Tony makes light of it. "As long as I am enjoying myself, and stage projects do not affect my teaching, I like to fill my time outside the classroom with work," he says. "The important thing is self-discipline and health. Whether creating or teaching, I hope to be able to maintain a young mindset, mature technique, boldness in exploration, and accuracy in calculation."
The times, they change, sometimes drastically. Learning and growing need to speed up to keep up. Tony feels fortunate that his experience of self-development has been relatively simple. Teachers nowadays need to concern themselves not only with knowledge, theory and technique, but the heart and soul of their students.
"Young people today need a lot of love," Tony notes. "The times they live in are far more complex than mine. Society changes, the world changes, the way information spreads changes, which inevitably brings shock. It's a worldwide trend that impacts the individual but is not about the individual."
No one, neither teacher nor student, can escape the current of the times. What teachers can do is to give students their care and time, listen patiently to their needs, and help them to voice their feelings. "We are all in this together," Tony concludes. "Just because I am aware of a problem doesn't mean I can solve it. But I can share my thoughts. It's the least I can do. This is what makes education meaningful."
(The article was published in the May 2023 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)
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