Wu, Chi-kin (2018) Exploring Dramatic Scenes of Intense Emotion with Student Actors in Hong Kong: Problems and Potential Solutions. Masters thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This thesis is a response to anecdotal evidence that student actors in Hong Kong have particular difficulty in expressing intense emotion. Psychological research shows that such anecdotal evidence can be underpinned by studies concluding that, in general, Chinese and Japanese subjects from all backgrounds, are less expressive than their US and European counterparts. The aim of this thesis is to examine why Hong Kong Chinese student actors find it difficult to express intense emotion on stage and to explore suitable methods of drama training to develop this skill.

The methodology adopted takes a normative qualitative approach with conclusions based on literature review from research psychologists and drama theoreticians and my personal experience training under theatre practitioner and theoretician John Britton.

The first part of the thesis examines what expression of emotion is and whether it is universal/innate or culturally dependent/society specific. A central question addressed is whether Hong Kong Chinese student actors are inhibited in their expression of intense emotion on stage due to cultural factors which may not be easily overcome by simply asserting cognitive control. The original assumption that Hong Kong Chinese student actors are less expressive and spontaneous than their western counterparts was found to be supported by a body of inter-cultural studies conducted by research psychologists on Chinese and Japanese subjects.

Whether cultural factors are the only obstacle inhibiting Hong Kong Chinese student actors in expressing intense emotions is also investigated focusing on the difference between emotion expressed in daily life and emotion expressed on stage. An actor’s natural psychophysical union is broken when she is on stage as people become anxious when being watched. Cultural impediments to emotional expressivity together with the universal challenge of expressing emotion on stage make it hard for a Hong Kong student actor to express a character’s emotion, particularly intense emotion which requires greater expressivity.

Having explored how expression of emotion works, the thesis goes on to address how Hong Kong actors are trained. The only tertiary level theatre education in Hong Kong is provided by The Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Art (HKAPA), an institution dedicated to the performing arts; drama teaching at the HKAPA is predominantly based on Stanislavski’s system. The HKAPA syllabus, course structure and teaching methodology is examined to find out how Stanislavski’s system is implemented. The HKAPA drama teaching pedagogy is largely based on research, script analysis, improvisation based on text, scene work and discussion of scene work.

This thesis acknowledges that while the drama teaching methodology of the HKAPA is rooted in Stanislavski’s system and taught in a highly cognitive way, it may not provide enough assistance to Hong Kong student actors in expressing intense emotions.

Traditionally, Chinese opera actors can express a range of emotions, including intense emotions, through multi-channel coded messages which are familiar to the audience, including costumes, established movements and singing methods. However such encoded messages are strongly linked to a particular performing art form with a base of realism but expressed through a given range of stylized movement and expression. Hong Kong student actors cannot easily translate this theatrical heritage into onstage expressivity when performing modern drama, they need a distilled and simple method to help them express extreme emotions that does not depend on coded messages from any established performing art form.

I was trained under Britton, then teaching Physical Theatre at Huddersfield University, whose work, like Stanislavski’s, is based on a psychophysical approach to acting which focuses on working with emotion via the body. The final part of the thesis discusses my training under John Britton in some detail and concludes with a recommendation that the HKAPA Drama Department adopt Britton’s approach, known as the Self-With-Others Approach to supplement the Stanislavski system currently being taught. This method is in line with the present direction of HKAPA but it is the one that is lacking in its syllabus.

Chi-Kin Wu FINAL THESIS.PDF - Accepted Version
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