Heidi Lee, Executive Director of Hong Kong Ballet, has committed herself to the performing arts for over 20 years. She has been involved in the management, planning and marketing of numerous arts groups, artistic and cultural organisations, and institutes of higher education in both Hong Kong and the mainland. She is recognised by the industry as a highly professional and innovative leader. Heidi enrolled in the Academy after graduating from secondary school. She majored in stage management and underwent vigorous training that grounded her solidly in the basic skills. A year prior to graduation, she made up her mind to become an arts administrator. "First and foremost, if you want to be in this field, you have to love the arts and believe that they have a real role to play in the community. You want to bring their truth, kindness and beauty to others." Standing on the stage in the Academy's Lyric Theatre, looking back at the path she has taken, Heidi's eyes were unwavering. "Truth, kindness and beauty is not a slogan, but a belief, a desire to let others feel the power of the arts that you feel, to give hope and enrich the spirit."
As a secondary student at St. Mary's Canossian College, Heidi was involved in the school's theatre activities from Form 1. She worked behind the scenes and enjoyed the gratification that came from "pulling the strings" out of sight. She was interested in film scoring then and being a "rebellious teen always on the lookout for a good challenge" as she puts it, gave up the chance of studying at university to major initially in Sound Design in the Academy's School of Technical Arts (now School of Theatre and Entertainment Arts). However, she soon found that the long hours in the recording studio that Sound Design requires clashed with her outgoing personality. So after completing the diploma course, she contacted Lena Lee, then Head of Arts, Event and Stage Management of the School, and transferred to degree studies in Stage Management.
"In my first year, the School invited American director Travis Preston to direct a production of The Balcony. Diana Pao, one of our teachers, was the Stage Manager and Deputy Stage Manager. I missed the first day of rehearsals because of a part-time job. The next day, I was reprimanded for it. It really shook me up and I quit the part-time job right away. From then on, I made sure to be extra careful and vigilant." To make up for her misstep, Heidi tripled her dedication to her studies; this changed Travis and Diana's view of her. "They thought highly of me and would delegate important tasks to me. I worked extra hard for the production, which caused me to lose a lot of weight, but I wasn't in agony at all; I just wanted to regain my teachers' trust."
Touching Lives with Life
Stage management covers many professional areas. Not only do stage managers need to be versed in theatre, music, dance and other forms of performing arts; they must have a basic knowledge of lighting, sound, sets and carpentry. Heidi considers herself lucky to have had teachers at the Academy who upheld high professional standards. "Lena, Diana, Ben Sumner (present Dean of Theatre and Entertainment Arts), Mark Taylor...were all extremely detail-oriented and impeccable professionals. Take the making of theatre set models for instance. Mark wouldn't even allow the glue on toothpicks to show! The meticulous attention I pay to detail now, I learnt from these teachers."
The stage in the Lyric Theatre was where Heidi practised what she learnt as a student. Reminiscing offstage about time spent with her beloved teachers and classmates brought back a lot of memories. "We attended classes, studied, took exams, worked on productions together. Our schedules were packed. We had to work extremely hard, but our teachers worked even harder. For example, Diana was a resilient, industrious, and principled person; she always arrived before us and left after we did. But she had to give up her career in Hong Kong and move to England for family reasons. It was a pity. I am very proud of having been her student."
Teaching is a job that touches lives through life. Even though Diana left Hong Kong, her teaching changed Heidi's life. "A year before graduation, Diana taught us arts administration, and it inspired me to make arts administration my career. It was Lena who referred me to my first job after graduation – as the Performing Arts Organiser at the Fringe Club. Besides the Club's regular shows, I was tasked with the scheduling, venue booking, marketing, brochure publishing, rehearsals, and ticketing of the 100-plus productions of the three-week Fringe Festival. It was a one-woman band; I worked from 7:00 in the morning to 1:00 the following morning, and went for three weeks without a break. It was tough, but it taught me so much."
Lessons through Accidents
After the Fringe Club, Heidi went on to work for the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Hong Kong Dance Company, PIP Group, and the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design at Shantou University. Whatever her position, the theatrical knowledge and technical knowhow she acquired at the Academy came in useful. "As students, we learnt that an important duty of those working behind the scenes is to ensure the safety of everyone on stage. We had to preempt problems and have the sense of responsibility like a mother. We had to be good communicators and mediators. We needed to scrutinise every detail. Even if it was just a prop cake, we had to know its ingredients to ensure the actors wouldn't choke while saying their lines; we might need to find a cake sponsor because one cake a night racks up expenses. We couldn't just think horizontally, because behind every decision were five or six factors requiring thorough consideration. This intricate, far-sighted and all-encompassing way of thinking enabled us to plan and make appropriate decisions in any situation."
One thing Heidi learnt is to expect the unexpected in live performances. Heidi was producing The Smiling, Proud Wanderer for the Hong Kong Dance Company, when a dancer fell during one of the performances. "If I hadn't studied stage management, I would have been lost. Fortunately my experience as a stage manager taught me how to respond to crises in theatre." She realised she had to protect the dancers, solve backstage problems, and manage the audience's reaction. "Luckily, I received advice and support from a wonderful board of directors, especially Chairman of the board, Dr William Leung Wing-cheung, who had previously been the Academy Council Chairman. The show was able to go on. Every experience is an opportunity to learn. That accident was an unforgettable lesson in crisis handling and responsibility." Teamwork is crucial in the performing arts. Heidi says she is fortunate to have worked with excellent bosses and colleagues throughout her career, from whom she is still learning.
An Agent of Change for the Performing Arts
In 2014, Heidi went on an Asian Cultural Council fellowship to New York for cultural exchange. It gave her a lot of insight. "Compared to the US, the performing arts sector in Hong Kong receive a lot of government sponsorship. However the US is far more advanced in terms of public support and sponsorship for the arts and their integration into daily life. It got me thinking – how can we improve Hong Kong's performing arts ecology? I'm not one to be complacent; I want to explore possibilities, to raise the level of acceptance of the performing arts in all sectors of society."
Beyond her official work capacity, Heidi has propelled the development and reform of the performing arts in multiple public capacities. "I have a sense of mission to be an agent of change in every area I come into contact with. If more is done in every aspect, some changes will have been made, even if these changes do not always amount to a full reform." Recently Heidi has been engaged in contacting individuals from different sectors in Hong Kong to gather opinions and form new ideas for arts development and collaboration. "There are many who don't want to see change in the industry. People who enjoy status and reputation for their achievements may want to maintain the status quo. But this may hinder the growth and expression of those who come after them."
Managerial Thinking Stimulated by the Pandemic
In 2019, Heidi left her job at Shantou University after eight years to return to Hong Kong. Last year, she joined Hong Kong Ballet as its Executive Director. Her assumption of duty coincided with the pandemic, which on the one hand led to plans being shelved, but on the other expanded the space for innovation. "Artistic Director Septime Webre is very creative and our colleagues are good at bringing his ideas to fruition. We wasted no time launching HK Ballet@Home, which posts programmes on social media three times a week. Content includes Barre Classes Online, Ballet-Blah-Blah-Blah, Ballet 101 and Ballerina Chef. The response has been great."
It has been a few years since she last worked at a performing arts company, but Heidi took to her new position at Hong Kong Ballet like a duck to water. "Members of the board of directors have visions, and provide us with much needed support. Septime and I get along swimmingly as professionals; we are constantly exchanging ideas. Colleagues in all departments are full of energy, always putting ideas into action and solving problems as they arise. It's a great vibe. We are all willing to try and bring changes in these unusual times."
Heidi has this to share with the younger generation: "The pandemic has caused many theatres to close in Hong Kong and the world. We live in the digital age – we certainly have the means to do something for ourselves. Don't sit about waiting for the opportunity; make use of all the free-of-charge online platforms to show the world your talent and creativity. There are so many possibilities in the world. Rather than wait, why don't you own your fate? That's how true artists should be."
(The article was published in the February 2021 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)
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