The Artwork and Its Audience 
Siu Hei Chung on his performance “In Search of Our Common-ground”

Frederike: Hey Siu Hei, nice to be here with you today. I’ve invited you to talk about your performance “In Search of Our Common-ground”, which was your thesis project for your dramaturgy degree at ZhDK. In your project you dealt with the Hong Kong protests of 2014 telling how you experienced them and also how you reflected on them in the aftermath. On the one side it was really informative, I got a better understanding of the protests. On the other hand, what really struck me about the story you were telling was that it seemed very intimate, even more so because you also performed it yourself. Maybe you want to start telling a bit about the process behind it: Why did you decide for the subject? And what did you want to find out by telling your own story to the audience?

In Search of our Common-ground, Diplomproduktion Master Theater, Dramaturgie by Siu Hei Chung, Foto: Regula Bearth

Siu Hei: As you’ve mentioned I came to Zurich to study Dramaturgy, before I’ve studied in Hong Kong. My first degree there was in Sociology and my second was theater directing. Starting from that point I was always quite aware of the social function of theatre and I always tried to relate my works in theatre to what I’ve learned in my first degree. But then there is also a personal story behind it: When it came to 2014, I had just graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. That time was really rough… seeing people being violently assaulted during the demonstrations. So as an artist I doubted what I could do to help. Sometimes we would make jokes like: those people in the street, when they shout the slogan, they don’t know how to use their voice, we have the training we should teach them. But that kinf of joke was just comforting us. We didn’t do anything in particular, but we just joined the protests when we had the time. That was my first encounter with the question of what it means to be an artist in a political situation. After the demonstrations nothing really happened, but there were these huge lines of divide within society, also along family members, of who takes what side. At that time a friend asked me to do Les Justes by Albert Camus, which tells the story of a group of terrorists in Russia and how they deal with concepts of justice. It was an important piece to create at that moment because it really aroused people to discuss their own experience of 2014 from another entrance point. I remember once there was an audience member who came up to me after the show and said thank you. In the play there is this character who leaves the group because he’s scared. He feels like a coward, but in the end he has the courage to come back. The person who came up to me had made a similar experience: He was a medical volunteer during the umbrella movement. After the police had shot tear gas at him, he got quite a fear and dropped out of the protests. He didn’t even want to watch the news anymore… So in the show he saw that character who had made a similar experience and that helped him for his own process. And when he shared this story with me I felt that maybe as an artist I can do something. I felt like in reality you have to suppress so many emotions in order to function. So it’s important for us as artists to create something where you can connect to these emotions again and reflect on them. Theatre can help to detach from the emotion without suppressing it, so that maybe people can see their situation from more of a distance, more clearly.

F: I would like to understand more how you create an emotional experience for the audience. I assume that the emotions shown on stage play a big part in that. Therefore, I think it was an interesting decision that you performed the show yourself. As a viewer I couldn’t make the difference anymore: are the emotions enacted or are they real? And because I knew the story you’re telling is your own, I kept thinking that I am seeing real emotions. That made it quite intense as a viewing experience. Why did you decide to act yourself and not let an actor tell your story, which would have created more of a distance for the audience?

In Search of our Common-ground, Diplomproduktion Master Theater, Dramaturgie by Siu Hei Chung, Foto: Regula Bearth

SH: So the practical reason is that I could not find anyone, who could reenact that story. But secondly, I made this decision to come to Zurich two years ago because I felt detached from my own work at this point. I felt like there wasn’t a personal engagement with it anymore. And you know, being an artist it is hard to make a living. So what you do is hard work and you don’t really make money from it, and then when you don’t even have this personal connection – why do it? This is why I put myself into this corner: I wanted to experience the performance myself. I wanted to make it personal. Already in Hong Kong I was always more into this smaller scale indie-theatre, where you are close to the audience. It is really important to me to have this first hand encounter with the audience.

F: I thought that performing yourself was courageous – and also radical in a way because it really made me question the concept of art. As I said, it was an emotionally intense viewing experience, sometimes I even wished for more distance. And I think this idea of distance is central to the tradition of philosophy dealing with aesthetic experience. For example, there is always a distance created by art as a medium: A painting is showing a person, but that is never the person, it’s always just a painting. So you have this division between what is real life and what is art, which is based on distance. And this distance comes through the mediateness of the content of artworks. So what was radical about your work for me was that it put into question this separation of art and life by using a personal approach where the emotions felt sort of very direct, unmediated.

SH: Well I feel like somehow, no matter how intense a performance is, it is still theatre. I mean, there is some sort of contract we believe in. The white paper I stood on during the show, for example, is a symbol of the stage, so there was a separation: here is the stage and here is the audience. But at the same time, I also generally question this idea of creating distance because it might make things too safe for the audience. When you’re looking at something which is far away, it’s too safe and it thereby becomes even more difficult to reflect on it. For me, theatre is a medium to reflect on life. So I really want to punch the audience – a bit this idea of in-your-face-theatre. But in the end, when I punch you in theatre, even if I punch you hardly, it’s clear that you won’t die from it, you might just feel the pain. And then you start to engage. Because we human beings, we are not as rational as we think. A lot of western philosophy and art, wants to create distance to enable rational thinking. But then what they actually do is suppress emotions. But these are also important for reflection. That’s why I want to put the rational and the emotional experience back together.

In Search of our Common-ground, Diplomproduktion Master Theater, Dramaturgie by Siu Hei Chung, Foto: Regula Bearth

F: You also write that you want the reclaim the “social function of theatre”. I am wondering whether what you just said stands in relation to that. I mean: How can theatre have something like a ‘social function’ and what would that be? From what you just said it sounds like the art you create has a therapeutic function. Not just that it creates emotions, but it re-creates them in a kind of safe space where you can experience and reflect on them in a different way than outside of the theatre, where they might have different consequences for you or make you react differently. So what seems to be essential is the context for the emotions which is different in theatre than in everyday life. But you said it shouldn’t be too safe for the audience. It still needs to be dangerous. This might implicate a political level as well. For the final part of the show you asked the audience to build groups in which they should discuss their own ideas for a political manifesto. Do you want to say a bit how these two parts are linked?

SH: To me, what you just asked is related to why I chose to perform myself. And I’ve answered to that but I haven’t answered yet why I also wanted to tell my own story there. I see that characters in theatre can also have this role model function. And I connect this to this tradition of Antonin Artaud. He is talking about sacrificing yourself to the audience. When I first heard of that I questioned: why would I do that, sacrifice myself? But then I understood that, for example, when you’re in a class and the teacher asks you to talk about yourself, share a personal story, everyone will hesitate. But if one person starts, the others might join in. What is always really important to me is the talk after the show and I don’t mean like artist Q and A, but real conversation with the audience. So that’s why I have this structure in the performance that I first talk about myself in order to then encourage other people to talk. But I don’t want them to speak just intellectually with each other – that’s not what I aim for. With the first part I want to open a space for emotions and then I hope that in the second part people might also start to talk about their experience. I want them to have this balance of emotional thinking and discussion.

In Search of our Common-ground, Diplomproduktion Master Theater, Dramaturgie by Siu Hei Chung, Foto: Regula Bearth

F: What you also sacrificed to the audience was in a way your privacy. You were telling a personal story to people, whom you didn’t know beforehand. Weren’t you scared that there would be people who you might not want to tell the story to? Because they wouldn’t get it?

SH: I wasn’t scared that they wouldn’t get it. That’s the life of the performer, you never know how people respond to what you give them. That’s normal. Also, to me when you give a sacrifice, the most important thing is that you don’t know the result beforehand – otherwise it’s just an exchange. Surely, as a performer I will also calculate: Ok, this is a joke and might make the audience feel this or that way. My past experience helps me with this sort of calculation. But in the end, you can’t control how the audience reacts.

F: Centering on the audience, I also wondered how you felt about performing to an audience that is not personally connected to Hong Kong. In the beginning you asked the audience to locate themselves on a scale from 1 to 10 how close they feel to Hong Kong today and most people responded with 1 or 2. How did this fact that the audience will be mostly Europeans who are not related to Hong Kong play a role in your process?

In Search of our Common-ground, Diplomproduktion Master Theater, Dramaturgie by Siu Hei Chung, Foto: Regula Bearth

SH: I mean it wasn’t only about Hong Kong but it was also related to my experience here when I arrived in Zurich. Back then I had this urgency to tell people about the protests. But I doubted if they would actually care. Also, why should I tell them? When I decided to do the show, I knew I had to be conscious that most people are not familiar with Hong Kong. But it’s interesting: I once presented a first draft of the script to other students here in Zurich. That worked quite well. But then I presented the same script to colleagues who are originally from Hong Kong and now living around the world. And that felt really strange to me because some knew way more about the protests than I did. But it also helped me to understand that this show is specifically for this audience here in Zurich – or rather Europe, as I also did it in Sweden.

F: What your performance really made clear to me is that an audience is not just an audience, you have to consider what their identity is and how they can relate to what you show them. Because if you present it to someone who is really involved with the topic, the experience might be quite different than to someone who can’t relate. It’s a bit like making a joke, the experience of it is always community based.

SH: Yes, another interesting observation I can share is that I once had this trial audience. For the discussion part there was one group coming from Zurich, and another one with people also from Taiwan and mainland China. For the first group it was very easy to take decisions: They argued a bit and then made up their mind. The other group couldn’t start so easily. For the first ten minutes they talked about what freedom actually means to them. One girl from China said that when you don’t even have enough money for food you won’t talk about freedom at that moment. So I think that’s an interesting kind of dynamic.

F: This is very related to the title of the play: search for common-ground. The two groups you just described, it sounds that they really had a different kind of common ground. But this can be an advantage in the sense that if we talk about freedom and nobody questions what that means: do we really stand on common ground or do we just imagine that we do? It really seems like you’ve gained interesting insights into cross-cultural dynamics from observing the group work. Now, my last question for you would be... what’s your next project?

SH: Even before the show I was very interested in this concept of participation. But participation doesn't for me mean that you necessarily have to do something. You even find it in what you call ‘traditional theatre’. From the protest I’ve learned that presence is already participation, it helps to strengthen a sense of community. So to me, the theatre maker has to consider this presence of the audience. And this doesn’t mean that you have to make them interact. In live performance, the presence of the audience should be the center. That’s what I gradually believe in. This last year, during Covid, I watched so many live streams of performances – most of them were disappointing. And I discussed that a lot with my friends… the audience is not present there or at least not really aware of itself, because during the show you can do a bit what you want to. That’s why I think the participation of the audience is the most important aspect of theatre. Also from my experience as both theatre maker and goer, I realized that I have learned more as a maker than as a goer. So I wonder how I can let the audience have more of what I experience as theatre maker. For the future I really think about creating something more like an art school than creating art works. We all have the need to express ourselves somehow. I want to empower people to find ways to artistically express themselves – to help them to survive really.

In Search of our Common-ground, Diplomproduktion Master Theater, Dramaturgie by Siu Hei Chung, Foto: Regula Bearth


Siu Hei Chung is a theatre director from Hong Kong, currently studying his master program in dramaturgy at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). In his work he explores how theatre can be a means to bring social changes.

This conversation was recorded on Nov 11th 2021 and has been edited.