Some people spend half their lives seeking purpose; others are born with it. Ata Wong Chun-tat is naturalborn with purpose. Ever since he opened the door to the theatre in Primary 4, he has not spent a day away from it. In secondary school, he became a member of the drama club, and in Form 2, he joined the Fringe Club's Mime and Movement Laboratory. Ata graduated from the Academy in 2005. Three years later, he enrolled at L'Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where he also studied at the Laboratory of Movement (LEM). Ata now wears many hats: director, choreographer, actor, art director, lecturer at the Academy's School of Drama, and physical-theatre instructor. "Drama fascinates," he explains. "Once you're in that world, you can't leave." Ata always talks with a hint of a smile, eyes gleaming yet determined.
His induction into the performing arts started at home, where he experienced early demonstrations of their power. "As a child, I watched a lot of movies and TV dramas," he recalls. "My mother would cry during emotionally charged scenes, and it got me wondering what it is about the power of drama that it would bring someone to tears."
In school, Ata took part in interclass drama contests, and enrolled in special-interest courses at youth centres. Though not yet 10 years old, he would get incredibly excited at the opportunity to perform on stage. When the teacher punished him by banning him from performing, he was devastated.
Real enlightenment came in secondary school, in the form of drama teacher Woo Wing-yin. Ata had joined a comedic monologue contest, and afterwards Woo invited him to join the drama club. "My teacher belongs to the same professional generation as Jim Chim," Ata says. "He would bring me to plays and teach me a lot about drama."
Under his teacher's influence, Ata began taking classes in mime at the Fringe Club's Mime and Movement Laboratory. In Form 3, he was exposed to physical theatre, and performed that genre for the first time. Ata and his teacher were very close through all these years. When Ata founded Théâtre de la Feuille in 2010, Woo became the troupe's director.
From Drama to Dance
Smitten with drama as an adolescent, Ata's greatest incentive for going to school was to attend rehearsals. After school, he went straight to Central for mime class.
"I had my struggles," he says. "The bus fare from Tuen Mun, where I lived, to Central was HK$18.20, almost HK$40 round trip in those days. My mother thought that was too expensive, but my dad said, 'Our son already knows at this age what he likes. We must support him.' Until today, I am stunned by my father's words."
With the support of his family and his teacher, Ata made up his mind to forge a life in drama. But fate had other plans for him. After graduating from secondary school, he decided to study drama at the Academy. He was rejected. The following year, since the School of Dance had a programme in Musical Theatre Dance on offer that embodied the elements of performance and drama he enjoyed, Ata applied to the programme and was accepted. Despite rough patches at the start of the semester, by midsemester, he was increasingly drawn to the modes of expression of modern dance.
"The School of Dance has excellent teachers," he says. "Rob Kitsos was one of them. He infused modern dance with street dance in the most eye-opening ways. Another teacher from the U.S. combined Chinese martial arts and modern dance. What she did was mind-blowing. I didn't know the human body could be pushed to such extreme states."
Seeing the World on Tour
Iconic mime Marcel Marceau has been an important source of inspiration for Ata who, as a student at the Academy, already had plans to further his studies in France. Soon after graduation, he decided to save for tuition by taking on a role as an actor in the Festival of the Lion King, the musical at Hong Kong Disneyland. Three years later, he was accepted into L'Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. After an apprehensive first year, Ata quickly adapted to the learning style in France. "The school wasn't trying to make actors of us, but creators with ambition," he says.
Gradually, through a continuous process of creating andtouring, he developed a vivid artistic direction. "I participated in the Peter Brook film The Tightrope as well as Pan, helmed by his daughter Irina Brook," he notes. "Touring all over Europe got me wondering why European theatre companies can tour but Hong Kong's can't. So when I founded my own company, touring was my objective."
On returning to Hong Kong, Ata joined the Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio as a resident director and researcher, before developing his own company Théâtre de la Feuille. Works produced under his own theatre company include I Want Euthanasia, Zhenghe, Papa, Sonnets, and The Lost Adults.
L'Orphelin (2013) toured for seven years in the mainland, Japan, Korea, the United States, France, Italy, Croatia, and beyond. The troupe's core actors hail from Hong Kong and Beijing.
"When I was studying in Europe, students of different nationalities would gather and share stories with each other," he remembers. "The cultural collisions were very interesting. Actors need to learn through experiences and feel in order to express what's hidden in the depths."
Feeling the Pulse of Time
In 2018, although at one of his busiest times with work, Ata decided to return to L'Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq for the Teacher Education Programme. "Teaching certification had been something I wanted to acquire," he explains. "Thanks perhaps to the influence of my secondary school teacher, I wanted to share what I consider good through teaching."
For him, being an actor and being a teacher are one and the same. "The theatre awakens reflection, while teaching rekindles actors' curiosity about the world and helps them to find hope," he says. "The performing arts are about bringing hope."
Ata has in recent years been nurturing new theatrical talent, both actors and also professionals in other arts. He launched
a physical-theatre programme, as well as teaching at the Academy's School of Drama and the School of Theatre and
Entertainment Arts for its master's degree programme.
"The Academy is going forward with an emphasis on broadening students' vision," he says. "For instance, the
School of Drama is conducting curriculum reform to fortify ties with the profession. This is a good start. I believe the
Academy will continue to nurture performing artists with creativity."
Ata considers himself a strict teacher who believes that, to get 100% from students, he must first give 200%.
"Performance teachers need to concern themselves with students' growth," he says. "A complex family background
can hinder an actor's expression. My duty is to untie the knots and find a channel for expression, to smooth out the
crumpled ball of paper."
Ata often stresses that actors cannot simply rely on observing and listening; they must feel as well. "The students I've met in recent years tend to be quite mature in their thinking," he says. "They know what they want. They have experienced class suspension, so they value the opportunity to learn. All negatives can have a positive outcome. This is the moment
for young people to learn to feel."
The article was published in the August 2021 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)
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