ACC Case Study: Ko Tin Lung & His US Cultural Exchange Trip2023-05-18
The ACC fellowship program provides unparalleled opportunities for aspiring artists to take part in artistic exploration that is both impactful and life-changing.
Art critic Damian Cheng (ACC 2009) received a commission to write about cultural exchange in Hong Kong in the 90’s. He has used the late Ko Tin Lung as a case study, who travelled to the US with support of the Lee Hysan Foundation in 1987 to observe contemporary theater in the US. His article profiles the late Ko Tin Lung as he practiced Hong Kong-US cultural exchange through an ACC grant, which enables readers to have a more thorough understanding of the ACC fellowship program.
*This article was originally published online by Artism Online in October 2022. Also by courtesy of International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC).
Ko Tin Lung: His US Cultural Exchange Trip -- Damian Cheng
Apart from the commercialized theatres of Broadway, through the assistance and arrangement of the ACC, Ko Tin Lung had the opportunity to participate in the avant-garde off-off-Broadway La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club’s dance-opera Mythos Oedipus. His original plan was just to watch a rehearsal of the production, but artistic director Ellen Stewart asked him why not to participate in the performance. Ko Tin Lung’s intention was to learn about the commercial theatre production on Broadway on his New York trip, but he took advantage of this opportunity to enter the rebellious, artistic world of the New York avant-garde theatre. He quite enjoyed this “expansion of (his) artistic horizons”. The experience of participating in this production of Mythos Oedipus was probably quite impressive to Ko: he spent three instalments of his column “On- and Off-Broadway” in The New Evening Post to describe his experience and share what he had learned.
Since its establishment in 1980, the Asian Cultural Council (hereafter ACC) has been advancing US and Asian cultural exchange through fellowships and grants to artists and organizations. It was formerly the Asian Cultural Program of the JDR 3rd Fund, founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd in 1963. Soon after the ACC’s headquarter was established in New York, offices and partner foundations were set up in Tokyo (1983), Hong Kong (1986), Taipei (1995) and Manila (2000) towards the construction of a network of cultural exchange between the US and Asia.
Hong Kong was one of the first cities to benefit from the ACC, but long before the ACC partnership foundation was set up here, artists such as visual artists Hon Chi Fun (1969) and Wucius Wang (1971) were early beneficiaries of ACC grants. The 1980s and 1990s were considered the golden era of Hong Kong-US cultural exchange through ACC grants programmes, with as many as 135 Hong Kong artist beneficiaries. Through the example of well-respected local theatre director, the late Ko Tin Lung, this article will profile a Hong Kong theatre arts practitioner of the 1980s and 90s as he practised Hong Kong-US cultural exchange through an ACC grant.
The First Steps Towards Becoming Professional: Borrowing from Others’ Experiences
The 1980s and 90s was a start-up period for Hong Kong’s professional theatre community. New-style drama had been flourishing in Hong Kong since the 1930s. In the 1960s and 70s, influenced by the theatre movement brought about by the Hong Kong School Drama Festival and Association of Schools Drama Society, it became the trend of the era. But before the 1980s, Hong Kong theatre was made up only of amateur drama societies. Although by the later years of the Hong Kong School Drama Festival there were voices calling for going professional, and both the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and Chung Ying Theatre Company had been established in 1977 and 1979 respectively, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, after the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts was officially established in 1984 that the theatrical community started to welcome more new-generation small professional theatre companies in the early 1990s, and began their gradual move towards the official era of professional theatre.
Like quite a few other local theatre artists who had been through the 1970s theatre movement, Ko Tin Lung was not educated at a theatre academy but became a professional through apprenticeship under the earlier theatre professionals (such as Chung King Fai, who had returned to Hong Kong from studying in the US) and by actually participating in performances. In the 1970s, Ko actively participated in numerous performances in amateur drama societies before joining the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre in 1983 as a full-time actor. During his stint at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Ko directed and wrote some short plays. An example is Between Teachers and Students, the first play that he had written and directed. With that background, we can understand why Ko would apply for an ACC grant in 1987, and starting at the end of 1987, spent over a year in New York, the world’s performance art hub at the time, to broaden his views, knowledge and experience.
According to the application Ko submitted to the ACC, he had worked at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre for four years, and had had opportunities to participate in directing, writing and acting. On more than one occasion during his directing work for Hong Kong Repertory Theatre as well as amateur drama societies, he realized that there was a lack of professional playwrights and directors in Hong Kong’s theatre community. Thus, he hoped for a chance to study in the US to develop his potentials as a professional playwright and theatre director (i). According to Ko Tin Lung’s initial plan, he was to attend Tisch School of the Arts in New York to take numerous courses including 1. Introduction to New York Theatre; 2. Production of Broadway Plays (as playwright and director); 3. Playwrighting; and 4. Repertory Theatre Practical Studies. At the same time, he hoped to work in a local professional theatre in New York to gain related knowledge and experience through participation in productions.
On- and Off- Broadway (ii)
According to the report Ko submitted to ACC after his return, although he ultimately did not take any of the courses at Tisch, he still gained a lot of valuable experience and knowledge through acting in a production of professional theatre companies, participation in workshops and observing on- and off-Broadway productions.
Regarding the professional theatre companies, Ko Tin Lung did practical studies and performances at Broadway company Circle Repertory Company and off-off-Broadway company La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. He believed the style of Circle Repertory Company to be more realistic and Americanized, while La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club was more avant-garde and international. Circle Rep was one of the numerous commercial Broadway theatre companies. While in New York, Ko worked as an assistant at Circle Rep Lab, a creative space for theatre artists to freely create and develop their new works, especially in the “Project-in-Progress” programme. Ko was at the same time Assistant Stage Manager for “Project-in-Progress”. He stated in his report that Hong Kong theatre needed a programme exactly like “Project-in-Progress” to let playwrights, directors and actors, the creative elements in a play, receive useful comments from a “professional audience”, to improve their works-in-progress.
Ko also participated in Circle Repertory’s performances, playing the role of Assistant Director in Borderlines. In addition to performing onstage, the theatre company also worked with public radio station WNYC to produce radio shows. During Ko’s stay in New York, he also played several Chinese characters on those radio shows. Before Ko, the company seldom had roles played by minority actors, so it more or less stimulated Ko’s thoughts that he expressed in his The New Evening Post column about the situations of racial minorities in America (especially Chinese).
La MaMa: Avant-garde, Diversity and Liberation
Apart from the commercialized theatres of Broadway, through the assistance and arrangement of the ACC, Ko Tin Lung had the opportunity to participate in the avant-garde off- off-Broadway La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club’s dance-opera Mythos Oedipus. Originally, he had planned just to watch a rehearsal of the production but artistic director Ellen Stewart asked him to participate in the performance. Ko Tin Lung’s intention was to learn about the commercial theatre production on Broadway on his New York trip, but he took advantage of this opportunity to enter the rebellious, artistic world of this avant-garde New York avant-garde theatre. He enjoyed this expansion of his artistic horizons. The experience of participating in this production of Mythos Oedipus was probably quite impressive to Ko: he spent three instalments of his column “On- and Off-Broadway” in The New Evening Post to describe his experience and share what he had learned. (iii)
To begin with, in contrast to the Caucasian-centric Broadway theatre community, the cast of Mythos Oedipus was a virtual mini–United Nations: the dance-opera was performed in Greek language. The actors hailed from South Korea, Japan, US, the Philippines, the USSR, Greece and Hong Kong. The lead role of Oedipus was played by a Korean man. La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club was formed in the midst of the civil rights movement and counterculture movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart herself was African-American. That mini-United Nations cast of Mythos Oedipus can be seen as a mark of a certain era. And from Ko’s columns in The New Evening Post, to a certain extent we can see his ruminations on issues of cultural diversity and racial issues.
The free, unrestrained style of rehearsals and performances at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, as New York’s avant-garde theatre stronghold, probably caused a certain culture shock for Ko Tin Lung, whose background was in traditional plays. He mentioned that Mythos Oedipus had been invited by the Greek government to perform there, and the first performance venue was an open-air stage in a town. At the time, Stewart requested the audience to move around according to the development of the story. At first, the audience thought she was joking, but she really asked them to move, so that the original seats would be the performance site. The audience was understandably annoyed, and a riot ensued. We know that during the 1960s and 70s European and American small theatre movement, these spatial experimentations were not unusual, while Hong Kong had to wait till the 1980s and 90s for the advent of its first small theatre.
In addition to its spatial explorations, Mythos Oedipus’s bold explorations of nudity and sex also made deep impressions on Ko. According to his description, Ellen Stewart requested some actors, such as the actor who played the lead role of Oedipus, and an actress who danced for the gods, to perform in the nude. All the other actors wore long robes with flesh-tone underpants, because Ellen Stewart requested the actors to “return to a time when there was no shame in being naked.” She even requested the actors perform a scene of a mass sexual intercourse ceremony on stage. It was said that after Ko’s return from the US, he had injected some nudity elements into certain performances. Thus, we can see that the freedom and lack of restraint of Mythos Oedipus had made a significant impact on him.
(i) Thanks to the generous assistance offered by Director Josephine Wai at the ACC HK to allow this writer access to Ko Tin Lung’s application file.
(ii) The title of this section was from Ko Tin Lung’s column of the same title in the Culture Hotline page in The New Evening Post in 1988. Ko first began writing his column on December 31, 1987. As its title suggests, the subject was mainly about Broadway plays, but also explored other related subjects such as other American plays and cultural topics. Ko Tin Lung published twenty-one essays on an irregular basis in this column. His final essay was “Who Can Tell if I’m Male or Female: on the Hero(ine) of M Butterfly” (September 1, 1988). This essay was supposed to be followed by a second part, but even after Ko’s return to Hong Kong after his stint in New York, the column did not issue another essay. In addition, according to the report Ko submitted to the ACC after his return, he not only submitted his essays to the New Evening Post column, but also to a journal Media on a regular basis. Unfortunately, until the completion of this essay, this writer has only been able to locate a publication of the same title at The Chinese University of Hong Kong Library; but upon examination of this English language journal whose target audience is the Asian publication industry, in 1988, the name of Ko Tin Lung and any essays related to American theatre or culture were not found.
(iii) Ko Tin Lung, “The Experience and Feelings of Performing in a New York Theatrical Production”, The New Evening Post, April 14, 1988; Ko Tin Lung: “Mythos Oedipus Onstage and Off – Personal Experience in Performing in a New York Theatrical Production, Part 2”, The New Evening Post, April 28, 1988; Ko Tin Lung: “Mythos Oedipus Performance Notes – Personal Experience in Performing in a New York Theatrical Production, Part 3”, The New Evening Post, May 5, 1988.