Anyone contemplating a full-time career in the world of the theatre should know from the outset that, even with a large measure of talent, dedication and determination, there is no guarantee of reaching the top. Resilience and mental strength are also needed to cope with the inevitable ups and downs that are part and parcel of life in the performing arts. Almost every seasoned theatre professional has stories to tell of the difficult times which served as a spur to redefining their ambitions and achieving later success.
In this respect, David Jiang, dean of the school of drama at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), is no exception. Born in Shanghai, he remembers how, in the late 1960s, he was assigned for several years to the provincial Anhui theatre troupe where there was little to do and few chances to perform. "That was a disastrous period in China," recalls Dr Jiang, "Everything stopped in the theatre and we just had to write scripts which met the political needs of the time. However, it trained the mind as well since we had to learn about 'real life' and it was during that time that my interest in directing first developed."
"Be prepared to start from a low level and build a solid base"
Dr Jiang's earliest memories are of wanting to be a great actor. Strongly influenced by his parents, who took him to movies, music and traditional opera performances as a youngster, he seized every opportunity at school to perform in short plays and concerts. This led to an offer to train for four years as an actor at the Shanghai Theatre Academy where the works of Shakespeare and Moliere in translation were studied alongside contemporary Chinese and Soviet plays.
"That really marked the beginning of my career," says Dr Jiang, who subsequently returned to Shanghai as a postgraduate student before becoming an associate professor able to combine teaching, acting and directing responsibilities. "The experience there brought the chance to travel. I won a grant from the Asia Cultural Council which took me as a visiting scholar to Yale and New York University. New York is a great place for the theatre and for making contacts, even though the competition for work is very tough!" he laughs.
A later spell at Leeds University in the UK enabled Dr Jiang to complete his PhD while he also refined his practical skills by teaching and directing student productions. The move to Hong Kong in 2001 as the HKAPA's dean of drama marked the start of another new phase and a series of new challenges.
"The HKAPA is the only local institute for training professional actors, directors and playwrights," explains Dr Jiang. "My job now is mainly to run the day-to-day work of the school of drama but I still teach and am currently directing the March production of Romeo and Juliet, which will be in Cantonese and have up to 60 people on stage. We have eight or nine productions a year for the public, who expect to see something of a truly professional standard."
A vital task is overseeing the school's academic programme. The HKAPA offers two-year diploma and three-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree courses which guide students through a broad spectrum of disciplines and theatrical styles. Classes in voice, movement, dance, language training and, of course, acting are part of a step-by-step approach. This trains students in improvisation and scene work and builds toward the development of full-length stage productions in Cantonese. Both classical and contemporary works are studied, with Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht forming the core curriculum. Aspiring directors and playwrights initially take many of the same courses but later specialise in their preferred areas.
With an eye on creating opportunities for graduates, Dr Jiang has recently introduced a course in acting for the camera which concentrates on the needs of film and TV work. "We also plan to develop theatre education training," he adds. "Hong Kong schools should provide more teaching about the theatre, dance and drama." Future graduates may find jobs in these fields as well as in the more usual areas with theatre companies or as freelance actors.
In reflecting on what it takes to succeed, Dr Jiang points to the need for a firm foundation. "Young people should realise that they can try everything but they must be prepared to start from a low level and build a solid base," he says. "When I was in the provincial theatre company in Anhui it was not easy but I learned about life. In the performing arts there is a lot you cannot control, so you must be strong, face reality and be ready to accept some disappointments along the way."
There are many film, TV and theatre productions in mainland China and the demand for actors, directors and technical staff is only likely to increase. The field, though, is highly competitive and Dr Jiang suggests that language proficiency in Putonghua is essential for any Hong Kong-trained performing arts professional. However, he believes that, even while the Chinese are keen to know more about the "outside world" and are willing to introduce performers from Hong Kong, the competition will be tougher in the future.