Outside Thinking
In The Box

In just over two years, HKU Black Box Theatre has become a centre for creativity on campus and has started to establish its place as a character in Hong Kong’s rich story.

Officially launched in the autumn of 2014, the HKU Black Box as it is commonly known, is a hive of activity, a curated and creative space which plays host to performances, seminars, readings, screenings, discussions, recitals and workshops throughout the year and aims to help writers, dramatists, artists and students realise the possibilities of their creativity.

Dr Page Richards, HKU Black Box and Creative Writing Director, and Associate Professor in the School of English, is the brainchild behind the theatre and began concept planning and talking to designers in 2008. “I wanted a creative studio space dedicated to writing and drama,” she said. “I grew up in theatre and universities were places we always looked to, where new and exciting arts events were happening – I wanted that for HKU.

“The HKU Black Box is a place for stories to be told, which may seem simplistic. But, while burgeoning stories are everywhere, to develop an original story takes research, wide historical knowledge and immersion with dedicated writers, artists and scholars of all ages. Students can learn here the skills and discipline it takes to create and expand a story, across fields of expertise, across faculties.”

The level of detail needed for Black Box production translates into any project or research of intense focus. They [the students] also discover the beauty of how hard it is. That kind of confidence-building is important to a city’s emerging generations.

Dr Page Richards

Works in progress

Theatre Manager Aarti Hemnani added: “We invite people not just to watch stories but to make stories, and the Black Box gives them both the space and the time – both relative rarities in the creative arts in Hong Kong. Space is famously at a premium; there is nowhere you can develop and explore, and it’s often all about the finished project. Whereas, the concept behind the Black Box is having the freedom to explore works in progress – often it’s where something starts.”

Dr Richards emphasises that this is freedom with responsibility. “There is a fine balance between freedom and self-indulgence. We help students understand that we supportively hold standards high with them in the Black Box, across their studies as well as their active trial-and-error participation.” She cited one experience – Incubation to Publication, the project presented to the Research Grants Council – as important; it offered the opportunity for students and scholars in the arts, architecture and other fields, to showcase work perspectives tested from multiple directions of research.

In addition to students, the Black Box brings the city’s wider community together, and it has already evolved to identify very much with Hong Kong. “We work in creative writing, drama and the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) with writers of often three or more languages,” Dr Richards said. “In no other MFA programme, for instance, is there formal multilingual and comparative study, along with cutting-edge creativity, through the historical prism of multiple languages.”

One of the fundamental aspects they reiterate is that in the Black Box there are blended differences between participant and witness/audience. “When we can see ourselves as both at the same time that offers a greater sophistication,” said Dr Richards. “The act of witnessing needs to get credit as this is what opens up the participants to realise they can create wonder. The pivot between the witness and the participant is crucial in small theatre. It forges the creativity in intimate ways that require the scale of the Black Box.”

One of their recent achievements was a production earlier this year of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, a multidisciplinary collaboration which featured puppetry as well as dance, drama and music, and which involved students and professionals from inside and outside HKU and Hong Kong.

Hansel and Gretel is a familiar tale, so accessible to all, but we wanted to tell the story through Hong Kong,” said Dr Richards. The cooperative local and international production team “brought out surprising cultural and intergenerational contexts”.

"We don’t want simply to hand the audience a story,” said Miss Hemnani. “It also made me think and reconsider stories I was spoon-fed as a child – Western stories, which I enjoyed, but which had little resonance in my own life.”

The production brought different bands of audience to the campus, including members of the public who’d never been to HKU before. “The feedback from that show has been immense,” said Dr Richards. “From students too,” said Ms Hemnani. “For some it opened their eyes to what is possible creatively, and we’re now getting a lot more interest in doing multicultural courses. The process of doing the show opened up whole new areas of research for them – suddenly it pertains to them.”

The logistics of the Black Box also make it an attractive starting-off point for students new to expressing themselves in a theatre setting. “There is a friendliness and a scale of invitation,” said Dr Richards. “It is almost portable, making it less intimidating than a bigger theatre.” Students can discover that creating here gives them chances to test out a work collectively, find weaknesses and strengths, and revisit individual decisions once more with greater knowledge.

On this shifting ground, she added: “If they have done a play, reading, or show in the Black Box they can now, with more raised awareness and expertise, curate an exhibition or shape a research project after they graduate. The level of detail needed for Black Box production translates into any project or research of intense focus. They also discover the beauty of how hard it is. That kind of confidence-building is important to a city’s emerging generations.”

Livy in the Garden, a new play by Ellen Kaplan, Head of Theatre at Smith College, was another piece which engaged the interest of not only HKU but the wider community. Faculty of Arts students were also able to do internships on the play and were involved in its adaptation, research and production from start to finish.

The next major project for the Black Box is a new Hong Kong Festival, anchored at the HKU Black Box but also spiraling to venues across the city and including performance, lectures and global links. The theme will be the proverbial ‘third culture’ − Third Culture Kids, Third Culture Individuals and Third Culture Identity.

“We have chosen this because the whole third culture concept is so advanced in Hong Kong, often more advanced than certain discussions of ‘identity politics’ have admitted so far,” said Dr Richards. “It opens up anew questions such as, where or what is ‘home’ in 21st-century global contexts, and where do our community responsibilities lie? The question of home and culture becomes very complex, and that is where it all comes around again to original voices in innovative story-telling for the future.” 

The installation and exhibition of Incubation to Publication in interdisciplinary research was presented to the Research Grants Council in the Black Box during their visit to HKU in 2016.

An innovative showcase from Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, featuring songs, large-scale puppets, and identity in Hong Kong, in February and March, 2017.

Students participating in the performance in the Black Box for a course focussing on the history of happiness and comedy.

A pop-up installation in the Black Box featuring collaborations between HKU students of Landscape Architecture and Creative Writing for the Island Cities and Urban Archipelagos conference in March, 2016.