- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

HONG KONG

What do “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Chow Yun-Fat, Cannes best-actor winner Tony Leung Chiu-wai and comic director Stephen Chow of “Shaolin Soccer” fame have in common?

They all studied at the same place: Hong Kong TV station TVB’s performing artist training program.

Founded in 1971 amid a shortage of TV talent when the medium was still developing in Hong Kong, the program has churned out some of the biggest names in Chinese-language show business.

Unlike performing-arts conservatories that offer full-fledged degree programs, TVB’s acting program is practical and abbreviated, with a condensed, hands-on curriculum,.

Apart from stage theory and basics on TV production, trainees also learn hosting, makeup, dance and martial arts. It started out as a part-time night program, and the curriculum has never been structured to last more than a year.

TVB production executive Virginia Lok says on-the-job training is the key to the program’s success. TVB provides plenty of practice, too. Miss Lok notes that the station, one of the leading Chinese-language TV broadcasters in the world, produces 16,000 hours of programming every year.

“We produce shows including children’s shows, informational programs, drama, game shows, host-driven shows and music programs. We offer a lot of variety,” Miss Lok says.

In its current format, trainees spend three months in the classroom and three months working on various TV shows, during which time they are evaluated constantly based on testing and grading by directors and producers.

Miss Lok says course work cannot teach real production experience.

“You can’t learn from textbooks how the camera moves. All of a sudden, you need to look at camera No. 1, then switch to camera No. 2. You need to know if your shoulder will block the person behind you, how to deal with the lighting,” she says.

Former student Tavia Yeung, a TVB actress, says instructors prepare students psychologically for the realities of the entertainment industry.

“They will tell you how mean the directors are, how people don’t remember your name and just yell to summon you. They paint a bleak picture so they can tell us that this industry isn’t all about fun,” Miss Yeung says.

However, critics say Hong Kong needs to create an environment that provides more in-depth acting training such as in the West, where conservatories are common and aspiring actors can turn to teachers with different approaches.

Compared to TVB’s six-month crash course, the famous Juilliard School’s program in New York is four years and appears to be more systematic. Students must take part in Shakespeare and contemporary plays. They are trained in movement, voice, speech and the Alexander technique, a method that improves movement, balance and coordination.

Hong Kong has just one conservatory, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, which is just 22 years old.

Sam Lam, an acting teacher at the academy who also has taught at TVB, says acting training in an academic setting teaches students how to better manage their emotions and tackle a wider variety of parts more quickly.

“An actor without formal training won’t know why certain emotions come,” Mr. Lam says.

“Formal training teaches you how emotions are produced, how to stimulate yourself to produce emotion, so when you’re taking risks, yes, you’re taking risks, but there’s a road map,” he says.

Acting students who don’t face commercial pressures also have freer rein. “The teacher will stretch you,” Mr. Lam says, adding that Hong Kong actors tend to take longer to evolve compared to their Hollywood counterparts.

“They have greater flexibility. Be it Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, their range is wide. They can play different characters — good guys, bad buys and whatnot. Their characters have enough depth,” he says.

Still, Miss Lok puts more emphasis on practical training, saying that for actors, “we think three months of class time is enough. … After teaching them the basics, they need on-the-job training.”

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