Lungs: fringe theatre in macao and how a successful play comes to life

04 2015 | Issue 4

Text/Si Wong

Johnny Tam is the head and director of Macau Experimental Theatre. The plays directed by him, like Dear Yelena Sergeyevna, The Golden Dragon and M. Butterfly, gained good reviews, and Lungs was a box-office hit. In this issue’s Chit Chat, Tam shares with us his views on the future of fringe theatre in Macao.

L: Cultural Commentator, Lei Chin Pang

J: Johnny Tam

L: Lungs is a long-running theatre and it’s quite unusual in Macao. There are a total of 13 shows. How many audiences are there totally?

J: The venue in the Old Court Building can host 120 people, so altogether there are 1,200 people attending the shows.

L: It sounds quite a lot to fringe theatre in Macao.

J: Yes. Thirteen shows were run. Through word-of-mouth recommendations the play started attracting more audiences. It’s a full house for the last eight shows. I believe that if we run the shows three times in a 400-seat theatre, we cannot create such impact. It’s because if there’s 70% of ticket sales for the first show, and even if we get good reviews for the first two shows, potential audiences will no longer have chance to see it.

L: In Macao, if 1,000 people buy a book written by a local author, it’s considered a best-seller. Lungs has got excellent reviews. Will this lead you to develop something else in the future?

J: We had such discussion among ourselves, that is, is it possible to continue to run the show without any grants or subsidies? The producer did some calculation. We found that unless the venue can host 200 people rather than 120 people, it’s impossible for us to become self-sustained.

L: What do you mean by “self-sustained”? Do you mean that the creative team and the actors will be remunerated?

J: Yes, but still, the remuneration won’t be attractive. The Old Court Building is under the management of the Cultural Affairs Bureau. We don’t need to pay the rent, but for each show we have to pay for the auditorium and lighting rentals. We need to set aside some money for these rentals.

L: Do you think that theatres in Macao can go professional?

J: If a theatre stages four plays a year, and two of them are repertory, with one of them experimental, then it’s possible for such theatre to become professional.

L: From the case of Lungs, that is, there are more than 1,000 people out there willing to spend more than MOP100 for a ticket to see a good play, and the venue of the show is in the conveniently located Old Court Building instead of some factory buildings, do you see the pattern change in the theatrical consumption in Macao?

J: A number of audiences are young office workers, just like the audiences I saw in the UA Cinemas. They are different from the usual “theatre aficionados” I met in performing venues in factory buildings. This time, we successfully attracted a group of entertainment consumers. They usually go for movies and concerts, but now, we discover that if a play gains word-of-mouth recommendations, these people are willing to buy tickets and watch the show.

L: Are you positive about the growth of this new consumer group?

J: A production company in China once shared an observation. They discovered that those theatregoers are also café-goers, with similar age groups and occupations. In Macao, cafés have sprouted up everywhere and attracted an emerging group of people who pursue a “bourgeois bohemian” lifestyle. What I am thinking is, is theatre a consumption option for them? A few years ago Edward Lam’s Design for Living was staged in Macao. All 5,000 tickets sold out. Look, 5,000 people in Macao were willing to pay for the show!

L: 5,000 in Macao is like 60,000 in Hong Kong. It’s like staging in the Hong Kong Coliseum! Now a lot of cities around the world have designated cultural and creative precincts. You’ll find not only galleries and performing venues there, but also fine-dining restaurants, cafés and shops. These precincts can facilitate cultural consumption and provide mutual support to different cultural industries. What do you think about it in the context of Macao?

J: If the precinct is for the locals, I am sure we will like it. However, very few places in Macao are for the people of Macao. For some reason or other, such projects are usually treated as tourism development. And it may not be the cup of tea for local people. In fact, it all depends if the authorities can take the guts to develop a “tourism-free” cultural precinct, or to strike a balance between the two.

L: This leads to another question: how can tourism support the development of the creative industries but not encroach on the industries? Mainland visitors have been “storming” Macao. How can Macao attract more high-quality visitors? Take Taipei as an example, visitors from Hong Kong and Macao will go visit the flagship of Eslite Bookshop and see that everyone has the right to enjoy the place together, but not to “occupy” or to “destroy” such place.

J: I participated in the Wuzhen Theatre Festival not long ago. There are a lot of guesthouses in Wuzhen. Unlike Macao, where one night of accommodation in a hotel equals what you pay for an air ticket to Thailand, accommodation is very affordable in Wuzhen. It would be great if we can use the traveller-friendly Wuzhen as a model when we consider developing our own cultural precinct. We need to provide more options for cultural travellers.

L: The Old Court Building has hosted some really good exhibitions and staged excellent plays. One can go for a coffee before the show starts. When it’s finished it’s easy to look for dining options nearby. Also, there’s a carpark not far from the building. Do you think the Old Court Building would be the potential cultural and creative hub in Macao?

J: It’s the best candidate so far. In fact a lot of space in the building is yet to be opened. Now we only use the former court room as the theatre. The rooftop of the building offers really great views. And there is a basement. If all of the space is used, I believe that it will eventually become an art centre. This will attract overseas artists and there will be enough space to accommodate artists-in-residence. This will facilitate better art and cultural exchange with overseas art communities.