Theatre. Can you make a living out of it?

When we tell people that we are engaged in the art industry rather than banking, law or finance, the question that very often and almost immediately pops out from the other side is the following:

“Do you actually get paid for what you do?”

Being an artist has a lot of difficulties. At times, artists are happy to give their own time and effort to the community just to pursue what they love the most – and, at times, a concerned expression from the listener follows; why would one do something for free when you can get a well-paid job?

The question is: can one make a living as an artist? Maybe. Can one make a living as an actor in Hong Kong? Not impossible, but hard. If you, like me, dread the office life and the 9 to 6 (is it even ever 6, anyway?) routine, then there is some good news: if you are willing to work things around, chances are that you will get paid for doing what you love the most. Will it be all sweet and roses and cupcakes and flowers? No. However, one always needs to balance the sourness with the sweetness. Crap always comes with any circumstances; how much are we willing to handle? If, despite the crap, you still feel lucky and blessed to be doing what you are doing, then most likely you are on the right path. Are you in the situation where you really cannot take your full-time job any longer, and you have an itch to do what you love the most?

Put everything under consideration, and then decide whether a different and more volatile job option would be better for you.

Several artists in Hong Kong from different backgrounds and nationalities are often engaged in the following activities, that pay and that allow individuals to make a decent living:

– Voice over and dubbing.

Usually, the most wanted dialects are American and British English. Voice talents are usually requested to be able to work their voices for a particular character (very often cartoons) with a particular pitch and tone. This is a great chance for native speakers; however, for those who do not have English as a first language, there are companies in the market who need other languages for launches of products or events. A bit more boring and perhaps more sporadic, yet it pays well. Make a Google search for translation and language companies in Hong Kong, and leave your details with a few of them. They might not get back to you immediately, but something always comes up. You never know.

– Drama teaching.

Drama in Hong Kong is becoming more and more popular since it became included as elective in DSE; schools have also understood that it is one of the most effective tools for students to develop and improve their oral abilities. Many schools and institutions, both local and international, have drama departments and they always look for talents who can lead groups of students towards drama introductions or school productions. This option can be both part time and full time; teaching artists can be hired directly from schools, as well as through agencies (Eureka English Centre) or providers (Dramatic English), and usually the money is more than decent enough to make a living out of it. It is a great opportunity for teaching artists, as they get to work in drama and get to spread the word about it to younger audiences, inspiring them and guiding them towards a possible artistic future. Being a drama coach has its charms, and can bring a lot of satisfaction, as well as personal growth.

– T.I.E performer.

Many artists in Hong Kong, myself included, are involved in this kind of activity. There are a few companies around town that are always on the lookouts for talents (AFTEC and Chunky Onion as an example) as they put on shows that tour around schools and theatres. It is a fantastic opportunity for actors to be working in their field of interest and get paid for it. As I have mentioned before, drama in Hong Kong is becoming more and more of a big deal, and schools are not only willing to pay for courses and workshops, but also for shows to come to their venues and entertain the students.

– Movie and camera acting.

This is definitely a freelance, one-off thing; however, there are production companies in town that always search for different types of looks and talents. Your best bet is to contact the various local production companies and drop your contact details, photos and resume. Whenever they have a movie coming up they might give you a call; wage depends on the importance of your role (on whether you are a lead or an extra), and you should take long hours and plenty of sitting around into account (remember to have something to read). In Hong Kong, it is often the case of dealing with movie productions coming from abroad and looking for extras or one-line speaking roles. Therefore thinking about movies as a possible career move is particularly hard. It is still great to do it as it can be a great opportunity and can help you create more contacts for your acting network.

-Extra in Opera and Ballet productions.

With the Hong Kong Art Festival coming up yearly, opera and ballet productions always look for extras to fill the background. Opera singing or ballet training are not requested, as it is more important to have the right look and physicality depending on what part they are looking for.

And ultimately…… do your own!

– Create your own theatre company and put productions on.

Alright, as this is going to be a long discussion, we’ll leave this for another time. Yet, it is something to put under consideration.

As you can see, the choices are multiple. At this point, consider what you value the most in your daily life (stability, security, freedom?) and decide what works best for you. You shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t have a regular job, and you should prioritize what works best for you. Life’s too short to be wasted with the wrong industry, profession, boss, and so forth.


Losing your voice and how to get it back.

The gig is on tonight; you have been already performing for a few days whilst juggling other things at once. It’s tiring (we’ve been there). Perhaps you have strained your voice, or you haven’t correctly warmed up before using it, or maybe you’ve just as well been a bit careless. Point is, the performance is on tonight and your voice is gone. Scary, yes, particularly if you think about that you are not 100% sure whether you will be ok by the time you are on stage or not. I know the feeling as it is exactly what happened to me during Shakespeare in The Port last April; after a few performances in a row, little rest and loads of other things going on, I just knew my voice was gone, and I had a performance on the very same evening in the open space with no microphones (nor understudies for that matter). Tough. Yet I managed to go on stage that night and deliver (yes, it does sound like a miracle. After all, no other solution was available…..), without sweating to much to get my voice back.

So what to do to have your voice back as soon as possible?

Here’s a list of suggestions that can help you out a lot if you find yourself in the same trouble.

1) A bit basic perhaps, yet this tip goes a long way: talk little as possible. Are you a teacher by day, taking a day off is not an option and work is mandatory? Then pair your students and let them work together on a task. Are you a drama teacher? Then let them work on a ten-minutes play written by them, and use that lesson to let them concentrate on their work, so that you can rest. You will share their work with feedback on the next lesson.

2) Wrap a scarf around your neck, and make sure you avoid any current or air conditioning blasts directly on your neck/shoulders. If you live in Hong Kong and you take buses or MTR to go around town, then you know exactly what I am talking about.

3) DRINK! Nothing cold of course; once again, hot water with ginger and lemon comes in handy. Put lots of Manuka honey in it, and sip it all day long.

4) Gargle. Tea tree oil, once again, works wonders. Dilute it in warm water and keep gargling every two or three hours. It really freshens up your vocal chords.

5) Drink fresh pineapple juice. Did you know? Apparently it is the number one thing opted by opera singers. It sure worked well with me. Cut pieces of pineapple and put them in a juicer; don’t buy the bottled crap from the supermarket: it’s packed with sugar and it’s nasty.

6) Dead wasps. Yes. Seriously. As we live in Hong Kong we know all about herbal teas and Chinese medicine. Perhaps something to try; those who had said it works wonders; and – let’s say it: if you are in that situation, you are ready to do worse than that. Head to a Chinese herbal store, or send a Chinese friend who can speak the language, and ask for 咸竹蜂  (it stands for salty bamboo bee, or something of the sort).

It is a combination of dried dead wasps, ginger and salt. Put everything in boiled water and filter (no, you don’t have to munch on dead insects), sip it after a few minutes when really hot.

It’s miraculous. It works beautifully. How does it taste? No idea, I haven’t tried yet. I can be brave at times, but not that brave and, eventually, my voice recovered. This is a pearl of wisdom that I share with you, who are, for sure, more ballsy than me 😛

How to protect ourselves against flu.

The cold season is coming, and with it the usual issues: cold, flu, cough, sore throat and so forth. Hong Kong is absolutely cramped with people, and as we know, people carry germs and bacteria. That’s inevitable. I particularly feel for those teachers who spend a lot of time with young children; I don’t know about the rest of the world, but kids in Hong Kong take their time to learn that a hand in front of their mouth must be put when coughing or sneezing (covering, inevitably, the unfortunate teacher or T.A. in sticky snot).

Are you a freelance teacher, or actor, or performer, and getting sick is the equivalent of either a) going to work feeling like crap, or b) taking a day off and losing a substantial amount of cash? Regardless of the job you do, read here.

In Hong Kong, Westerner doctors tend to pack patients with pills and medications that are rarely needed and not so often effective; they often insist in giving antibiotics for a cold – thing that I absolutely despise. Ultimately, the best way – tried, experimented and approved by my former weak immune system – to reinforce your immune system and avoid getting sick five times in a row is to go natural.

  • Sleep!

Yes, sleep. 8 hours at least. Your body needs rest, particularly when weakened by flu. Once you go home, don’t waste time in checking your emails, facebooking, watching TV and whatnot. Go. To. Bed.

  • Drink liquids, particularly hot ones.

We live in a country where we drink hot water even when it’s 40 degrees Celsius outside. But hot fluids are considered to be more gently on our vocal strings (very precious for teachers/actors/singers). My favourite flu drink is shredded ginger, Manuka honey and lemon in hot water. It soothes sore throat and it’s a real cough stopper!

  • Boil Coke.

Yes, seriously. And no, don’t say it’s disgusting until you have tried it. Take a can of coke, boil it with shredded ginger and lemon, and make sure that the ginger soaks in for a while. Drink it hot, feel the spicy note of the ginger opening your nose and restoring your throat. If drunken in the morning (again, if work is necessary) it’s a great energy drink.

  • Tea tree oil.

My favourite thing in the world! It clears sinus and calms down heavy cough. Here’s what I do: I boil a pot of hot water and I put few drops of tea tree oil in it. I cover my head with a towel, and my eyes with a sleeping mask (a must do, particularly if wearing contact lenses), breathing in and out the hot heavy-scented fumes for 15 minutes, twice a day. I never went longer than 4 days, as my cough/cold ended before!

  • Gargle!

With salt, or vinegar, or tea tree oil in warm water, several time a day.

  • Paracetamol.

Ok, perhaps not 100% natural, but a pill or two a day might be needed, particular if your temperature rises.

Ultimately, it all comes down to relaxation and hydration. Decide what the priority in your schedule is, and try to cancel the rest. Or at least one commitment. It was the beginning of the year and we were a week away from the opening of the theatre production of Den of Thieves. I started feeling sick but I did not want to stay home and leave the cast on their own, so I carried on with as much rehearsals as I could. Two days later our deputy stage manager had exactly what I had before, and it quickly spread among the rest of the cast. The actors put together a wonderful and energetic round of performances, but by the time we had wrapped the production, I could count the people untouched by flu on the fingers of one hand. I have now learnt that it is probably best to cancel a couple of rehearsals rather than going on at all costs.

Learning English through the Performing Arts

In recent years Asian schools, – and I would like to apply this case to Hong Kong as it is the location that I find myself in, have started to include drama and other activities related to the performing arts in their curriculum. This article focuses on how drama, among the performing arts, can improve oral language learning and how beneficial it can be with regards to some other issues faced by Asian students, from confidence building to the prevention of early school drop-out.

If we refer to the country we live in, we can point out one of the main concerns that teachers often refer to in conversation: students being unresponsive, quiet, reserved and passive. Their lack of ability in English is often very obvious, and a consequential lack of confidence arises. The subject is not always enjoyable for students and it is clear that teachers have a big task ahead of them in keeping their students motivated. It is true that if students are engaged in what they are learning, not only they will score higher in their final results but there will be a more relaxed and positive working environment within the classroom. (Tsou, 2005)

However, how to motivate students who are not too willing to participate, and how to engage those students with a poor standard of English who are thus extremely reticent towards speaking?

Performing arts can play a very important role in the second language learner’s life, as students can explore a different experience to that derived from text books. Highly entertaining and beneficial in providing different perspectives, performing arts can help in developing a variety of applications of intelligence, create a positive environment within the classroom and enhance awareness and self-confidence. (Harland, Kinder, Lord, Stott, Schagen, Haynes, Cusworth, White, Paola, 2000)

When learning a language students always face different difficulties; these issues are not only related to the grammatical structure of the language they are learning, but also to the cultural aspect that comes with it. Teachers should not limit their teaching towards an exclusively scholastic approach, but they also should encourage their students to be familiar with the cultural context of the language that they are learning; in Asia and Hong Kong we can understand the issues that students face and the differences between Chinese and English, in both language and culture. Drama approaches these issues and differences in a natural environment where students find themselves experimenting with the language in a variety of ways. With rehearsals and dramatic activities students engage in different situations where characters and possibilities open up to them. Drama offers more than one opportunity to engage in oral activities, not to mention the sheer fun that this discipline is able to offer. (Miccoli, 2003)

As we mentioned previously, children in the classroom may ask questions to the teacher or to other students and they may tend not to start conversations; drama would give an opportunity to use language in order to create situations and use dialogues to create images. Quintessential to this discipline, dialogues are what connect students in a process of social interaction. Stinnson and Freebody, on the basis of Neelands’ study, provide a strong argument for how language can be learned through focusing on the development of dialogue, and how students can develop a better handling of language skills. In this model, Neelands points out that new context and new fictional roles are created through drama; dramatic situations require new language, different from what the students are used to in a traditional classroom. This language leads to dialogues that, consequentially, will bring the students towards a stronger oral development. With this focus on oral communication more opportunities to improve oral language will follow: students will enjoy the opportunity to speak in a “different” way, as well as the chance to experiment with roles and characters in a contest of practice and preparation. ( Stinson, Freebody 2004)

It is fair to add that “Language is the cornerstone of the drama process” (O’Neill & Lambert, 1982)

Drama is a discipline that deals with real life scenarios; therefore, it is easier to relate with it, as people involved in this performing art deal with decision-making and strategy-taking. Whomever experience drama training can feel free to experiment with different levels of communication and take different risks that would be hard to take in real life. (Catterall, 2002)

We have mentioned that dramatic activities have the strong power to lead students towards the development of oral, collaborative, and analytical. The novelty of the language that students encounter in these classes is what enhances cognitive development and gives the opportunity to analyze their views towards their oral abilities; indeed, students are strongly encouraged to communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas. (Bernal, 2007)

However, what other benefits can students find throughout drama and the performing arts, and what would be the most fruitful way to realize those benefits?

Heath, in her paper, points out the fact that extra-curricular activities have started to play a more relevant role in people’s resume, as universities and working places have started to pay more attention to people’s interests. It is becoming more and more important to show that interest in ballet, arts or drama classes can lead to a better attitude towards life and problem-solving. Performing arts can also represent a very valid help to prevent school early drop-out. Very often, there are several reasons that can lead students towards this choice; for many years, research has been involved in trying to find alternative methods to help reducing the percentage of students “at risk” by school and society. Extra-curricular activities can help students distinguish between optional and enforced activities, and can inspire interest in them that would be harder to find in traditional school subjects; their self-confidence becomes stronger as there are a lot of responsibilities and challenges involved in art disciplines. If students are able to perceive a better perspective of life and embrace with enthusiasm this sort of activity, it is very likely that their level of motivation will raise and the risk of school drop-out will be reduced. Heath’s study recommends that extra-curricular activities should not be merged within the classroom, but they should be kept separated. The thought is highly debatable; we have already analyzed in this paper how students involved in artistic activities have a broader mind towards risk taking, creativity and expression, as well as a stronger ability to communicate. (Burton, Horowitz and Abeles, 2000)

Furthermore, Catterall has explored whether other subjects, such as mathematics and history, could be learned throughout the use of performing arts. Having analyzed this question in depth, it is fair to say that nowadays Latin, Greek or mathematics are not accessible to everybody in the same way and not always do they stimulate logic and strategy in students at the same level. In his work Catterall shows us that learning tasks throughout the performing arts offer different effects that break through the traditional conditions of learning, and to support this idea, he refers to what Gardner has mentioned before: first, art, being so engaging and creative, is able to develop different levels of intelligence and abilities in students as it stimulates awareness and judgment. Moreover, they can improve their performance in other disciplines as arts contribute in self confidence building; the “I can do it” attitude can be used in every field and subject.

To conclude this point, we can certainly see that, with all these qualities that drama and the other performing arts can induce into students it would not make much sense to keep this sort of activities away from the classroom, as clearly students can achieve a lot of benefits from them.

Another arguable point in Heath’s theory is that students need to break the monotony of being at school for every occasion; therefore, it would be preferable to conduct extra-curricular activities away from school, in order to give a break from duty and freshen up students’ mind after a long day at school. First, Hong Kong is a city with a vast and dense population, where space is often an issue. The rental of venues is sometimes expensive, and organizing activities within a structure that already exists would cut extra costs and be easier. As students spend biggest part of their time at school, the structure should provide them the possibility for interest classes and extra-curricular activities as all these classes should be beneficial for their learning and not something that needs to be kept separated. Furthermore, as the purpose of these activities focus on the learning of skills that will become useful in the classroom, as well in real life, it is pointless not to include these activities within the school curriculum and have them elsewhere.

To conclude, it would also help students to have a more positive and cheerful vision of their “working place”; school should not be seen just as a place to study but also as a creative space where entertaining and useful activities can also happen.



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