Postcards from Hong Kong: Interview with Black Sheep Family

March 26, 2014 / by / 0 Comment



(Left: Shane Sakrani; Right: Wilson Chik)

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shane Sakrani and Wilson Chik from the Black Sheep Family about their inaugural project, Postcards from Hong Kong - a ten minute play festival featuring 9 dramas, 9 writers, and 9 directors. The project is sponsored by The University of Hong Kong’s Creative Writing MFA Programme, and all writers of the plays are graduates of the programme.

Hi, I’m Karen and I’m currently the editor-in-chief of hKUDOS. Thanks for sparing the time for this interview today. Could you tell me more about the project – who you are, how it came to be, what you’re envisioning and so on?

Shane Sakrani: My name is Shane and I’m a playwright and I’m also a lecturer at HKU at the Creative Writing MFA Programme. All the writers in this festival, I’ve had them in my class. I write drama, and just writing the whole script isn’t enough. (Sort of like you wanting to see the story come to live by putting it on?) It’s that, and also the process of working with actors, and directors, and even the design people – it’s amazing, one of the writers was actually going to buy the fabric for the costume, and when you’re a novelist you don’t think about things like this – it takes time to get to that level of detail. Whereas in a play, all these questions come at you, and you have to make a decision. (Yeah, it’s like as opposed to something going on inside your head, you’re actually working with people to make it happen.) Yeah, and it’s something they know people will come see, so they have that pressure as well, and my hope is that the students will continue writing after this. The thing about writing programmes is once it’s finished you don’t actually go on writing, and when you stop it takes a long time to start again. I think for a lot of writers it was a real challenge for them this time, just to start writing again, coming up with new stories. The theme is Postcards from Hong Kong, and it’s all writers who’s lived in Hong Kong – I feel like Hong Kong is definitely underrepresented, and they’re all works in progress as well – they’re Hong Kong stories, so I think it’s something that interests our community.

Wilson Chik: And I’m Wilson Chik, I’m one of the students who graduated from the MFA, and I just finished from this batch – Class of 2013.

I read that the Black Sheep Family is made up of students who are all graduates from this programme. Are you guys mostly a diverse group from different nationalities or are you mostly from Hong Kong?

WC: I can’t speak for all of them, but for my batch – we have people from Australia, India, England. Some are accountants, some are lawyers, and some are teachers as well, so it’s definitely a diverse group – it makes the learning and the workshopping very interesting. You gain a lot of different perspectives. I was born here, but I left when I was 5. I moved to Philadelphia, and I came back 92/93, and this is home now.

I think with such varied backgrounds – you’ll definitely have different takes on what Hong Kong means to you. Could you perhaps share a little about what your feelings are towards the city and how you’ve incorporated that into the play?

WC: When Shane was asking me to write a couple of lines about the play, what I end up writing is something along the lines of – Hong Kong, my birthplace, is rewriting me. Because I left here when I was really young, I have certain memories, but it’s not until I return to Hong Kong after relocating to the States – you see things very differently. It’s like you have one foot here and one foot in another place, and yet it’s all part of what Hong Kong is – this transient place with a lot of in-betweens. We used to be part of England, and now we’re going back to China – we’re looking for our own identity as a culture, and also as an individual.

I really relate to that experience as well – I’ve been in Hong Kong all my life, and I definitely identity as a Hong Kong-er, but on papers I’m Singaporean, I have family there, and I also have loads of Singaporean friends from when I used to go to Singapore International School here. There’s definitely that confusion and sense of displacement. There are so many different ‘worlds’ in Hong Kong, and I think this is a topic that’s coming up more and more in artistic work. Just this week I saw Filth, which is the first English play to be commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and it’s about expats in Hong Kong. So Shane, having put this things together as the coordinator and having all these students – was there in particular any scene in the play that you really enjoyed, or are there any moments that struck you, something you took away from these students out of the experience, any new perspectives?

SK: I don’t think there was any one particular moment – it was just hearing from the students what their rehearsal process was like, how they have a different appreciation of their writing – when you write a novel, you don’t have characters that talk back to you, they don’t ask you questions like ‘Who am I?” And when they do that, the writer has to have an answer. And they hear how the rhythm is going as well – when there are lines that don’t work, or certain passages that seem repetitive, and they see the actor speak it out loud, they know it has to go. Good actors understand character really well – sometimes even better than the writers – so it gives writers a stronger sense of their own character, and it’ll help them in whatever they want to write after that. The process is really what I care about – I haven’t even seen the finished product yet!

WC: And for me – because I wrote one play, and I’m also directing another, and I’m even acting – at first I was very persistent on not acting because I wanted to focus on the other two, but one of the actors fell sick so I have to step in. One of my friends, Vincci, her piece – what I see, how I interpret her play, and what I understood from the play, there’ll be times when she agrees, but very often we have different perspectives.

SK: It’s a collaboration, and it’s a discussion about what the piece actually is. That’s what I really wanted the students to learn – the piece is almost bigger than you, and you kind of have to leave your ego aside, for artistic reasons or whatever. (So almost like Death of the Author – you’re opening up the piece to interpretations by the director, the actors, the audience.) That’s right – and you have to make decisions.

WC: Yes – usually you don’t have people pressing you: What’s the motivation for my character? And then I’ll say, okay, let me think about it, let me get back to the writer and we figure it out. We have to be open-minded in that way, because the actor may see something that we don’t – and the director’s not always right – we have to look at all the different perspectives. We can all collaborate and play together, and that’s great.

SK: Yeah, that’s a point I really want to talk about as well. Because the MFA is a programme mainly for adults – they have boring lives with boring jobs (laughs) seriously! Most people have to have these lives – but this programme gives them a chance to play, and connect with a side that most people that have in their lives anymore. And this brings it back.

WC: And in theatre, everything is alive – it’s not like let me film this, let me cut that out – it doesn’t happen like that.

SK: Today we have these two sold out shows, and people keep asking me for tickets, but I have to tell them there aren’t any left – for theatre, you sort of have to arrange your life for that experience. For movies, if you can’t see it today, you can see it tomorrow, or you get a DVD, but for theatre you can’t download it. (It’s like an occasion in itself.) Definitely.

Just out of curiosity – how did the name Black Sheep Family came to be?

SK: It’s actually from a mentor of mine – he’s a Mexican-American playwright in the US, and he says that his students are always complaining to him that their families don’t understand them, so they feel like the black sheep in the family – it’s something Asian artists really identify with. And so he says, when black sheep come together, they become their own family, so it’s the Black Sheep Family. (That’s a really sweet expression.) Yeah, and we’ve sort of formed our own community of writers, and now we have actors and directors part of it as well.

WC: And to be a black sheep, you have to be different from the general collective, you see things differently, and you write about different things. So I think it’s a pretty appropriate name for the community.

I also read that from your Facebook page that the theme connecting the plays is ‘the clock’ – how did you guys decide on that to be the thread that ties the plays together?

SK: Well we just really wanted something that would be there in all of the plays, a prop – so we chose that – some people suggested other things, like a mirror. I really like the clock because in itself it’s an expression of time, and time is so valuable in Hong Kong. A clock itself means so many things – in Chinese culture, you can’t give someone a clock as a present. I really wanted them to play with the different interpretations it could bring, though I don’t think anybody did that – nobody used it that way (laughs).

WC: You don’t know, maybe you’ll see it tonight!

So you haven’t actually seen the play?

SK: I’ve seen the drafts, but I want to leave it to the directors and the writers. That’s where the real development take place. I haven’t seen the changes yet - I don’t know what it’s going to be like and I’m excited.

Were there any particular challenges you faced in the process?

WC: Time, shortness of time.

How long did it take for you guys to put this together?

SK: I got them to start writing around November. It’s tight, but they’re not long plays, just ten minutes.

WC: You start with the drafts, but later you have to modify, some people have the problems saying the lines, the actor drops out and you have to start over, this actor’s not the ideal person so you’d have to work with her – it’s very real and organic, and you see what you can do to respond to it.

My last question is – does the Black Sheep Family have any future plans? Shane you mentioned you really hope they’ll keep writing

SK: Yes – we’ll see how this one goes first, since it’s really the inaugural project, but I’d like to do another one in the future. I’d also like to do staged readings of pieces. That’s what you do in the US, the play has to go through different stages of development, and it’s a bit alien to this part of the world. I had a staged reading in Singapore last month, my friend organised it and he lived in the States as well – we sort of tried to create that atmosphere there about play development, and I want to try doing some of that here. And it’s really very beneficial to the writer more than anything else, and it builds a community as well. So let’s see what comes out of that.

WC: For myself, I definitely want to expand my own ten minute play to something larger – there’s many possibilities. It’s such a embodying process – what a great experience.

Thanks so much again for letting me interview you guys. I’ll be seeing the performance tomorrow – see you then, and all the best with the show!