Interview with Shax Theatre Group: Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost
(From left to right: Rosalind Wong, Ho Fung Tang, Celeste Wong, Simon Sharma, Annabelle Chan, Winnie Wang)
For the past 7 years, Shax Theatre Group has performed Shakespeare’s plays for local youngsters to enjoy, ranging from comedies like The Two Gentlemen of Verona to tragedies like Hamlet. This year, Shax is performing Love’s Labour’s Lost at HKU. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in a rehearsal session and chat with Rosalind Wong (Founder of Shax, Artistic Director), Simon Sharma (Production Manager, plays Berowne), Celeste Wong (plays Katherine), Winnie Wang (plays Maria), Annabelle Chan (plays The Princess) and Ho Fung Tang/ Tangy (plays Rosaline). I found them a fun-loving and passionate group. The session was filled with jokes and laughter as they prepared for their upcoming performances.
Hi, I’m Vanessa and I write Feature Stories for hKUDOS. Thanks for letting me watch your rehearsal today. To start off, what is Shax, and how did it become what it is today?
Rosalind Wong: My interest to create Shax started from my love for reading literature in general. I wanted to create a platform for people who want to act, get away from their studies and from reality. Being in Shax is fun; I want everyone to become a Shaxbie. We try to provide diversity. While there seems to be many arts and law students, it’s not necessarily so. In Shax, we may have defined roles, but we all work together. New people come into the team every year, and they learn from older Shaxbies to accumulate experience.
Shax is a pretty unique name. How did you come up with it?
RW: It reflects our identity, we have a strong Shakespeare background, but it would be weird to call ourselves the Shakespeare Theatre Group – it would be like not having an identity. We call ourselves Shaxbies; I think we coined that term in our 2nd year.
Nowadays, Shakespeare is perceived as difficult to understand. I read that your aim is to promote Shakespeare to local youngsters. How do you guys see Shakespeare, and how have you changed the original Love’s Labour’s Lost to make it more accessible?
RW: It’s difficult if you simply focus on analyzing Shakespeare. You have to watch it being performed. Then you realize everything is very simple, like his plots. In Romeo and Juliet, two people fall in love, they end up killing themselves, and that’s it. For our play, we’re including dance and music to make it fun, to appeal to younger students. We have 2 live bands this year. We don’t do modern contextualizations all the time because we want our productions to differ from one another. A few years ago, we did Hamlet set in 1920’s China, so we try different things, try to be original and refreshing even though it’s very difficult.
Celeste Wong: There was a new theme put up last year, the 50’s, and it attracted me to watch. From an actor’s point of view, the difficulty is figuring out what Shakespeare said, so we can get the message across. There aren’t a lot of words that are plain English. But researching helps me understand my character more. Our play is also set in the 60’s, so it could be easier to understand. I do appreciate Shakespeare better through performance. Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of his earlier comedies, so you can see where his later plays stem from. He has many repetitive themes and motives, like play within plays. Anyone can do Shakespeare; it’s not as hard as it seems.
Winnie Wang: The trick is to emphasize the key words to get our message across. We’ll also be dressing up in costumes, with music and singing, so it’ll be fun.
Simon Sharma: Shakespeare is meant to be performed, so you understand it better when you perform it rather than read it. I watched Love’s Labour’s Lost at Shakespeare’s Globe, and their interpretation was completely different. I had to help with directing Scene 5.2 (the last scene, which is very big) so I watched Much Ado About Nothing to help out. Annabelle also watched The Princess Diaries to help her get into her role. Shakespeare’s plays are social commentaries as well, so other plays like Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew gained more popularity as the audience was more in line with them. Love’s Labour’s Lost kind of got lost. Other plays have fully translated scripts into English, but you can’t find that for Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Annabelle Chan: I actually had some doubt before entering Shax. I thought why not change the lines into more accessible, modern day English? But I’ve come to realize from Ros and appreciate that Shakespeare’s verses and prose are not Shakespeare’s if you change them. I play the Princess, who is quite playful on the inside, but with manners on the outside. It’s quite a task to figure out how to portray my character, but it’s also fun to create a character for yourself – perhaps by adding a bit of Hong Kong-ness to make it more relatable. We definitely don’t sing any Cantonese songs or anything like that, but by acting, we can put a bit of ourselves into it.
SS: Shakespeare’s plays are about hearing, as opposed to seeing, like how we “see” the television today. His plays are enriching to the ear; delivery is very important.
WW: Yes, there are many embedded jokes and puns to catch on (laughs).
RW: The play’s in its original language, but we did cut some of the lines. We try to keep all the rhyming, we don’t interfere with metrical pattern, which makes the play sound good. We haven’t cut out a lot; Love’s Labour’s Lost isn’t a really long play.
Were there any reasons for selecting Love’s Labour’s Lost? I noticed that you performed The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Twelfth Night previously, so is there a preference for comedies?
RW: I chose Love’s Labour’s Lost because after The Two Gentlemen of Verona, we had great feedback. Some people came up to me and said they weren’t expecting that play, they thought we’d do The Taming of the Shrew or other more well known comedies. They really enjoyed it, so I selected yet another less well known play. I think the story of Love’s Labour’s Lost is very appealing to people; it’s about 4 guys and 4 ladies. I’ve never directed a play like this. We’ve also done Hamlet and Othello in previous years, so we might stage another tragedy in the coming years.
For Celeste, Winnie, Annabelle and Tangy, what got you guys into joining Shax as actresses?
CW: My passion for theatre. Shax is the only English speaking theatre group on campus.
WW: I love performances of all kind. I was in Shax last year as part of the Image Team, so I wanted to join as cast this year.
AC: I was in a production when I was younger, so I was looking for an English speaking production to join. I’m in my final year now, and I learned about Shax a few months ago through Facebook. I found it very attractive that people who like Shakespeare got together.
Ho Fung Tang: I actually did Shax four years ago; I wasn’t an actress then. I’m in my final year now. There’s a lot of stress involved, but it’s always a really good experience. I learn something different every time.
I noticed that both Winnie and Tangy have taken up different roles in Shax in previous years. Which do you find more challenging: being an actress or being part of the backstage crew?
HFT: Because we’re such a small group, we end up taking up more roles. For me, I’m also doing music this year, but I don’t see it as a separate role. At the end of the day, all we want is to make our production work as a team. I wouldn’t say there’s anything that is particularly more challenging.
WW: I was in backstage last year. In the back, we do a lot of work, like costumes, measurements, makeup…so it was like we were secretly helping the cast members. You get to see how a theatre production comes about. For acting, you get to interact with people more when you act, sing and dance. I would say they’re completely different roles and you learn different things for both.
What’s the most difficult part when performing Shakespeare?
CW: I think it comes down to interpretation. There is a lot of reading in between the lines. We need to deliver them without confusing the audience.
SS: Without confusing ourselves first, for the audience to understand the play.
HFT: In Love’s Labour’s Lost, a lot happens. In other plays, there’s usually a study of one particular character, which isn’t done in this play. For me, the difficulty is how there’s very little in terms of characterization, so you need to find a real person from a very small amount of information.
RW: We started to put this play together since October, so we’ve been at it for around 6 months. I think guiding and supporting everyone to be on the right track, and sharing my experience in producing takes up the most time. We have Year Ones and people who are new to theatre productions.
During this production, has anything inspired you or given you a new perspective?
SS: I’ve definitely become more organized (laughs).
CW: I think being part of this production in itself is great. Not just as a pastime, but being together with the cast, in a drama production, makes it great.
WW: Finding a group of people with the same interest and doing things together makes me feel accomplished. We don’t just go to rehearsals and go. People are caring and want to learn more about you as an individual. In theatre, it’s not just about understanding the play, but also the people around you. I feel like this is a big family.
AC: This play pushed me to do something I wouldn’t normally do. I don’t usually dance, but Winnie helps me break down the steps, which is really useful. I really appreciate how we can meet supportive people here. Also, the production encourages you to identify what’s important and to prioritize it around your core responsibilities, which is very important to me. We all feel encouraged to put our best foot out there and make a quality play. I’m really happy that Ros guides us and talks to us that there are new people joining Shax (myself included). We need to take care of them, and I appreciate that. It’s a mature way to keep a group together.
To wrap up, how do you see Shax becoming in the future?
RW: I make it clear every year that everyone is not obliged to stay (for future productions), but I would be happy if they do.
HFT: I hope more people know about Shax. There were five people when I joined in my first year, and three of them were cast members (for Much Ado About Nothing). I was surprised when I saw the production last year and how fast it grew. The network has grown considerably and as it grows, new problems arise, but I hope it will continue growing. I think it’s a very valuable thing to have in our university, for both the people involved and the people who watch it.
Thank you for your time today. I can’t wait to see your production this year!
Shax Theatre Group performs on March 29 – 31, 7:30pm at Studio 303, Chong Yuet Ming Cultural Centre HKU. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/ShaxTheatreGroup/?hc_ref=SEARCH&fref=nf