A Bright Stage for Actress and Administrator

College alumnus Crystal is Programme Officer of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre.

It did take some time to set up an interview with College alumnus Miss Crystal Li Ching Chi. At the beginning, she meant to come back to her alma mater for the interview and yet the appointment was rescheduled a few times due to her work commitments. At last, the face-to-face interview was changed to a phone chat. Having finished preparing for a drama and handled an emergency, she settled herself in a café near her workplace and was spared the time to talk to us about what is fun and unpleasant to be a theatre administrator.

“There were some ticketing problems this morning. The troupe is going to perform this evening too. To deal with too many things at the same time, I was all tied up,” said Crystal. The drama to be staged in that evening is entitled Le Père which is the theatrical production of the movie gem The Father. Released by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, it is already the third local re-run of the play. Since its debut, it has been receiving rapturous applause from audience and critics. The protagonist of the drama is Mr. Fredric Mao, a well-known actor.

Since secondary school, Crystal has accumulated experience in theatre and knows how the industry runs. At school, she started to participate in inter-school troupe. At university, she chose to study BA Programme in Cultural Management and joined the CU drama competition as an actress. After graduation in 2016, she has worked full time in a troupe.

The Journey from Secondary School

Crystal said, “Actually I was already a freelancer in theatre before graduation. When I completed my studies, I started to work as full-time which is uncommon in the industry. Oftentimes we are paid based on the number of performances we are engaged to. When I had finished my last show in Dionysus Contemporary Theatre (where Anthony Wong is the Artistic Director), I joined Hong Kong Repertory Theatre.”

“Many classmates of my cohort have gone into fields like exhibition, museum and publishing. Some of them may be interested in performing fields, such as drama, dance, music, just like me. But all of us work backstage to organize performances.” It is a bit interesting to find that Crystal shifts her role from onstage to backstage. Why so?

Crystal replied frankly, “I would prefer acting if this is for interest. As a career, production is a different role. It can be quite exhausting. In spite of this, when I was determined to be committed to this industry, I found that I am more sensitive in organizing rather than acting. To my surprise, it also brings me a lot of satisfaction. As a student, I already knew people working in the industry. I accompanied them at work to see what the industry was like. I gradually figured out that if I plan to make a living and stay in the industry, administration guarantees a better future. I have to make my choice.”

Theatre is a Place for Creativity

Crystal’s official title at work is Programme Officer which is more or less an executive producer. Crystal said, “Each colleague has his or her own work title but all of us are producers in functioning roles.” Producers have to take care of many details. Starting from scratch, a drama needs administrative support of the producers, such as crew recruitment, auditioning of actors and actress, issuing contracts, planning rehearsals, costume fitting, looking for props, controlling budget, ticketing etc.

Administration often gives people an impression of rigid and boring routines. However, Crystal told us this is not the case in theatre. She described, “Our industry is full of creativity and imagination. Basically, when you ask me, ‘what do you do?’, I would say we go through similar steps in each production but we do encounter unpredictable situations every time.” These variable scenarios bring up changes at work and push her to think out of the box.

“There was a play with only two major performers. We had to recruit more than a hundred extras, dividing into five to six groups, to participate in the show. Each group only performed once. How could I recruit these extras? How could I tell them what was happening? Sometimes, it is about technical problems or a show in which performers stained the stage. For the latter, we had to restore the stage back to its clean condition after each performance. How could we keep this practice for two weeks?” These crazy ideas all sprout from the creative team. Crystal’s work is to make sure the creation is down-to-earth by balancing the ideas of the team and the actors, and controlling the budget.

People is the Basics

If there is no performance, Crystal’s working hours are similar to those of her office colleagues. However, theatre operation is not confined to 9:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. and team members are allowed a certain extent of flexibility in working hours. To handle emergency or the evening show, Crystal usually needs to stay a bit late. She has not returned to home earlier than 8:00 p.m. for some time and she would be happy if she could be home before 11:00 p.m. that day.

“In my university days, College students may stay up overnight, perhaps for entertainment but they usually stick to the common daily schedule after graduation. I think the sharpest difference between us is I still work and rest like what I did at university. Having said that, I am not getting tired of this pattern. Instead, I am still energetic. Probably, it is because I love my work. My job gives me certain flexibility though new things happen all the time.”

Apart from flexibility and creativity, Crystal also realizes that administration should be people-oriented. One cannot follow the same principle all the time. “If I am an artist, I just need to focus on my creation and that is all my responsibility. But I have to face 60-70 people at a time. I cannot tell them “the mechanism is like this. There is just yes or no”. This industry must consider people but how could we strike a balance between this goal and reality? If you ask me, I would say I am more skillful at this now. But I am not perfect yet.” Crystal explained.

It is not easy to strike this balance. From coming up with a rehearsal schedule to the end of a performance, every decision involves people who do have differing expectations and emotions. Administrators need to be sensible and reasonable.

“Many of us are full-time staff members. I can simply schedule the rehearsal from Monday to Friday, staring from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., eight hours each day. But now I may ask if the performance requires lots of physical work such as running and jumping, the performers may be extremely tired the next day. As we often need to work on weekends, maybe we can suggest that we arrange the rehearsal from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on some days? The result may be better if performers have a full-day rest? I did have these considerations in the past but now I will bring them up before others say so.”

Crystal recalls an unexpected technical incident in the midst of performance. “We had to change the stage by machinery device after the first part. All of a sudden, the device did not work and the second part could not go on in that case. We were facing an audience of around 900 people. Of course, I was not the one to announce what happened but I had to support my supervisor to comfort the audience. At the intermission, we told them we had to wait because of the breakdown of the mechanical device. Fortunately, we could complete the second part at the end. This incident is really rare. It is one of my unforgettable moments in theatre…I really fainted as soon as the performance was through. At that time, my level of epinephrine was really high.”

The bigger challenge comes from the environment. Almost all theatre performances were cancelled last year due to COVID-19. At the initial recruitment stage, there was no pandemic but infection risks aggravated in the course of rehearsal and actual performance. The prohibition on group gathering varied from 10 to 2 people.

Crystal pointed out, “I guess we are not that worried about the pandemic now but everything was unknown right at the beginning. How did we adjust our attitude? We were so panic-stricken that we could not think of any plan. Anyway, my supervisor and I had to figure out a way to let the team understand the current situation. Last year, I was responsible for six performances but only 0.5 performance was put onstage (because the seating capacity was reduced to half) in 2020. Although the regulations on COVID-19 change from time to time, we need to follow the instructions.” Theatre business is shrinking but unexpectedly the backstage staff are still busy. Crystal and her colleagues still need to follow up the refund arrangements with the audience.

We Will Carry On

“Freedom, Creativity and People-oriented” are not the only characteristics of theatre administration at Crystal’s work place, but also the vibes she experienced at S.H. Ho College. Looking back on university days, she thought that a small college can cultivate a sense of belonging. The bonding among College students of the same cohort, or even among different cohorts, are very close. At other places, people may not have a strong feeling about “who we are”. The place suggests merely a name, but Crystal thought that “S.H. Ho People” highly value their identity. It means something important and unique to them.

“When I was still a university student, I thought the mechanism at S.H. Ho College guarantees that we could pursue our studies in a comfortable environment, devote ourselves to organizing activities, and open up our hearts. Now I find that my junior fellows are more open and capable in execution. So far for the junior fellows I get in touch, I think they all want to achieve something but lack the right opportunities. Perhaps they do not come across the opportunities yet or they just do not know how to seek them. Nonetheless, they are willing to do something by themselves and are willing to talk.”

In the last few years, Crystal has been invited to take part in mentorship programme of the College. She would meet her mentees and enjoy meals, movies and chatting with them. From 25 to 26 March, S.H. Ho College Drama Club made their debut at Tai Po Civil Centre Black Box Theatre. Entitled The Crumbled, half of the performance is play reading. In support of the team, Crystal spent a lot of time to coach the crew.

“What impressed me the most is they told me they want people to remember the drama club. They hope when we think of the drama clubs at CUHK and ask which clubs do the best play reading, S.H. Ho College will pop up in their minds instantly. This idea deeply touches me. For a period of time from last year to this March, I would talk to them on phone from midnight to 2:00 – 3:00 a.m. every two to three days. They would raise questions one by one and I would answer the questions like a doctor receiving patients’ enquiries. I was willing to spend time with them mainly because their mission really hits me.”

Crystal is a strict mentor who does not give answers directly. Instead, she prefers pointing out a direction and let her mentees learn by trial and error. “Sometimes, I may scare them. I show them the scenarios I am facing at work. After my blow, they would think carefully again and tell me firmly they want to stand on. They know what they are doing and how hard it will be but still they are willing to carry on as a team.”

After finishing the production in May, Crystal has to work on another one for four weeks from June to July. She said, “There will be a musical performance in January next year. We also have to get prepared for it now. Hope it can be put onstage without any holding back.” Although theatre work is busy, Crystal can really take a break and travel after July. “After getting a good rest abroad, I can keep up my steady, firm and passionate mind. The recharge will be good for me to get on with my life and my production in this city.” 

Rest allows us to walk further. We look forward to seeing a brighter and more colourful Crystal in theatre in the future.

Although the pandemic breaks in in full fury, S.H. Ho College Drama Club still managed to put on their performance onstage in March. College Master Prof. Wong Wing Shing (first right, back row), Prof. Wong Kam Bo (first left, back row), Dr. Victor Lau (second right, back row), as well as Crystal (third right, back row) showed their support to the club.

Crystal went on exchange and joined theatre performance in USA.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is the first theatre production Crystal (second left) took part in after graduation in 2016.