Taking stage to the great outdoors at Gateway

Opening Pacific Festival play brings experiences from Hong Kong to the Gateway Theatre

Gateway Theatre is kicking off the second season of its Pacific Festival Sept. 3 and 4 with a production staged in the great outdoors that draws some parallels with Richmond’s current growing pains.

The Will to Build by Hong Kong’s Theatre du Pif views the endless cycle of development and re-development in that city using the impact of verbatim transcripts taken from interviews from those on the front lines: construction workers, architects and residents who live a “caged” existence in homes that are seemingly mirrored endlessly in dense zones in the city.

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The production was brought to the stage by Theatre du Pif in 2008 at the New Vision Arts Festival.

That was a time when questions were raised over development erasing some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks — Star Ferry, Queen’s Pier and other older districts — replacing them with malls and multi-storey car parks, said Sean Curran who co-wrote the production and also performs in it.

“It felt like the heart and soul of the city was being destroyed and basically for the profit of a very small group of people,” said Curran in an email from Hong Kong where he has lived for the past 20 years after moving from Scotland to set up the theatre company with Bonni Chan, the show’s director. 

“People felt powerless, so we decided to go out and interview people from the city and what they said to us became the source material for the production.”

Whole areas with tenement buildings which once had a lively community feel were replaced by expensive apartment blocks, Curran said. 

The result was a generation of many 30-somethings living at home with their parents because sky-high rents in the city made it unaffordable, and home ownership next to impossible.

Jovanni Sy, Gateway Theatre’s artistic director, said the subject draws some similarities close to home.

“Hong Kong, of course, is much more dense and bigger,” Sy said. 

“But the parallels are there. We’re in boom times here, a phase of Richmond’s development where you can’t go anywhere without seeing a crane and construction sites.

“And this production asks those questions about what are the ramifications when there is this relentless urge to build and develop.”

Are there lessons for other cities, and their people, to learn from this production?

Curran said that in 2008, English novelist Ian McEwan was interviewed for the project while he was spending time in Hong Kong and said that if you destroy your past, then your city will bleed.

“A dramatic line, but it has proved to be prophetic,” Curran said, referring to the umbrella movement protests which western media took as a cry for democracy. 

Curran, on the other hand, felt the real protest was one, “against the inequality and an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in the city.”

As for any specific words of advice for communities experiencing similar changes as Hong Kong, Curran said communities are much more than bricks and mortar and potential for profit.

“We found that in Hong Kong people had a very strong emotional attachment to areas and landmarks in the city that unfortunately have now disappeared.”

He added the verbatim interviews also had many moving moments.

“People talked about their love for the city even though much of it has disappeared,” Curran said. 

“And in the past year when we did the interviews for this new version we were struck by how many people now are standing up and saying we have had enough.”

The Will to Build will be presented Sept. 3 and 4 outside Gateway Theatre in the grassy area between the south parking lot and the Gateway Theatre building — a place called Gateway Theatre Outdoor Plaza.

Performances on both nights start at 7 p.m. and will be weather-dependent, to a point. Light rain will not cancel the event, but a downpour will move the production indoors, Sy said.

While the performance is free, there is limited space, and registration on Gateway Theatre’s website is required.

Seating is not provided, so those attending should be prepared to stand for the length of the 45-minute show.

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