As the Vancouver area’s population of Chinese residents continues to rise, arts groups are struggling hard to find ways to bring it into their audiences. The initiatives have been scattered, with mixed success—a Taiwanese troupe brought in here, an English production with Chinese content there. But now a local theatre company is launching what may be the most ambitious, long-term strategy yet.
It comes as no surprise that the company, Gateway Theatre, is based in Richmond: the residents there who identify as Chinese make up 50 percent of the population, according to the last census. “But we don’t have anything to serve them,” explains Esther Ho, producer of the new Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival, which runs at the venue from Friday (August 15) to August 24, speaking to the Straight over the phone. “There are a lot of immigrants from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and a lot of performance groups coming and going, but there’s not that many Cantonese or Mandarin performers and it’s hard to find groups in Vancouver that are Cantonese- or Mandarin-speaking.”
Ho says that, for its 30th anniversary, Gateway wanted to increase its Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking audiences, not just by bringing in shows from Asia, but by eventually building a professional theatre scene in those languages through providing master classes, training, and other initiatives at the festival.
Last February, Ho and Gateway artistic director Jovanni Sy travelled to Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai to scout about 30 groups. Ho says it was a fascinating trip through a thriving contemporary-theatre scene where productions regularly sell out 2,000-plus-seat venues. She says she and Sy got an enthusiastic response to their plan to bring professional artists here to perform and host master classes. “When we let them know we wanted to do this, all those theatre groups felt so excited,” she says. “They felt like it was something new and important, especially when we were talking about the next 15 years.”
The resulting lineup for this year’s festival is just a small taste of what’s to come—by a coincidence of scheduling, all three productions originate in Hong Kong, and are performed in Cantonese. (Ho promises the fest’s first Mandarin production in 2015.)
Detention, which hits Gateway’s MainStage from Friday to Sunday (August 15 to 17), is a nonverbal physical comedy that sold out at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Centring on three mischievous boys after school, the Tang Shu-wing Theatre production incorporates a cast of comedians, drummers, tap dancers, Chinese-opera performers, and even a kung-fu master. Ho says it’s aimed at all ages.
Next up, in the Gateway Studio from next Wednesday to Friday (August 20 to 22), Theatre du Pif presents the dramatic love story The Isle, by well-known Hong Kong playwright Paul Poon.
And Perry Chiu Experimental Theatre’s The Fire of Desire closes the fest from August 22 to 24 on the MainStage. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s classic Reigen (or La Ronde), it finds two actors taking on the roles of five different couples working their way through love, marriage, and sex. It stars its company’s namesake, Perry Chiu, a renowned actor in Hong Kong, alongside Kevin Yun-kin Lee.
Ho says organizers are committed to making the event cross-cultural. Detention was chosen specifically because it was nonverbal and could be understood by all; the other two shows will have English surtitles.
It’s a rare opportunity for Vancouverites to check out the exciting theatre that is being produced across the Pacific—and performances that are contemporary instead of traditional.
“Right now, if Canadians want to see some Asian shows, they have to go to Asia,” Ho explains. “This is meant to be multicultural. All people are welcome: we want to have a cultural exchange.”
Gateway Pacific’s ambitions won’t stop there. Cantonese-speaking people who want to work in theatre are already lined up for this year’s master classes at the fest. Gateway Pacific hopes to start coproducing some shows in 2016. “Ultimately, what we’d like to do is build up our own productions here in Canada,” Ho says. “That’s why we’re holding courses like playwriting workshops.”
Still, the main aim, as it is for so many other arts groups across Metro Vancouver, is bringing Chinese audience members into the theatre. Ho dreams of the day, maybe five or 10 years down the road, when Gateway Pacific shows might draw crowds like the sold-out ones she witnessed in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
After talking to the people who run the theatres there, she knows it will take patience and determination. “I asked them, ‘How did you make it that way?’ ” she says. “And they said, ‘You just need to take your time and build the audience.’ ”
The Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival runs at the Gateway Theatre from Friday (August 15) to August 24.