Getting in on the act

Getting in on the act

An unusual theatre programme brings Western drama to life for local students

November 04, 2012
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Emma (Michelle Campbell-Jones) and Mr Knightley (Seth Micah Leslie) set the scene for love.
Emma (Michelle Campbell-Jones) and Mr Knightley (Seth Micah Leslie) set the scene for love.
Photo: Bandy Chung
For locals, Western drama often feels slightly inaccessible. First, there's the language barrier and the difficulty of following a piece in a foreign language. Then there's the complication of grasping a foreign culture. And when it comes to period pieces set in earlier times, the problem of accessibility and the ability to relate pose considerable challenges.

The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection (Aftec), a local theatre company, hopes to break down the barriers that often deter local teens from exploring western plays. That's why they've partnered with The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust to create Page to Stage, a programme designed to immerse students in drama - and they are starting at the grass roots level.

Emma is one of Jane Austen's six classic novels, a comedy of errors which is almost as popular among readers today as when it was released. Emma tells the story of Emma Woodhouse, a privileged young woman who dabbles in the art of matchmaking. She meddles in the affairs of her friends and is always keen on finding the perfect match for those around her, even at the expense of finding someone for herself. That is, until she realises love is never too far away.

It has been adapted for film and television many times - the most famous version is probably the 1996 film, starring a surprisingly convincing Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. The story was also taken as the basis of the 1995 film Clueless, in which the setting was moved to Los Angeles, but the protagonist remains a slightly spoiled rich girl, desperate to help her friends find love, but blind to their real needs.

In Aftec's version, the language has been modernised to make it easier for audiences who have English as a second language to understand.

"As part of our agreement with The Jockey Club [which funds the programme], we specifically reach out to schools that are a little bit lower on the English skills level to try and get them into the theatre," says Mimi Mok, assistant manager at Aftec.

"These are schools that may not have the funding to undertake theatre programmes themselves."

The group holds workshops with the student audiences to give them an idea of what life is like as a stage performer.

"I absolutely love going into these schools," says Michelle Campbell-Jones, who plays Emma and conducts the workshops for the production. "A lot of them haven't seen this style of learning before. For me it's how I learned drama. It's the exercises I did at drama school. It's all very interactive and light-humoured and the response has been wonderful."

As with many Austen novels, recurring themes of class, love and self-discovery pop up throughout the story.

"It's about discovering that what's important in life is not money and class, but finding and being happy with someone who loves you as much as you love them," says Campbell-Jones.

Emma is at Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre from March 15. Schools keen to join Page to Stage can contact Aftec. Visit http://aftec.hk for details.

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