Cover Santayana Li (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Tatler talks to the hottest playwrights who offer hope for Hong Kong theatre with their original productions in a series of three weekly articles. This week, Santayana Li tells us how the virtual world is a new possibility for the theatre when the pandemic leaves the world vulnerable to disconnection

Santayana Li sees the theatre as something beyond a sit-down experience. Her latest production, SHH—Virtual Reality, a short play produced in collaboration with VR artist Zhang Daming from Shanghai for the Hong Kong Arts Festival, combines live theatre and virtual reality experiences. Originally set to premiere in March, the show is cancelled due to the fifth wave of the pandemic.

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SHH portrays the life of a family of four during the pandemic: a mother who spends most of her time working as a head nurse on a ward; her father and her husband, who constantly misunderstand each other; and her daughter who yearns to reconnect with her mother after returning from her overseas studies.

The production would have been staged in a mixture of a traditional theatre setting and a VR room where audience members could don VR goggles to watch as the story unfolds. More than simply telling a story, Li wants the show to reflect what human connection means during Covid-19, when life is dominated by digital and virtual technologies. In traditional sit-down theatres, the audience focuses only on what they can see. “But with VR, our sixth sense is enhanced; the entire world of the story being told becomes reachable.”

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Li believes technology can help the audience reflect on human connection during the pandemic. “The physical gaps in the real world are getting wider: faces are blocked by face masks, quarantining has become a norm for travelling, and visiting families is a challenge during lockdowns,” Li says. “Ironically, in the virtual world, which is a fictionally constructed space, we are connected without boundaries. We can see one another; we can be with everyone, even if it’s across a physical distance.”

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Li developed an interest in immersive, multimedia theatre when she was studying acting and playwriting at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, where her graphic design and visual art schoolmates sparked the idea of combining different arts in her work. Two years after graduating in 2014, she got a job as a game scriptwriter in the mainland China office of telecoms company Tencent, writing the plots for interactive “choose your own adventure” games.

She returned to Hong Kong in 2018 and, inspired by her work experience, began collaborating with directors in different forms of performing art. At last year’s New Vision Arts Festival, she adapted Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy for the stage. In the play, an ape attempts to become human to gain freedom. Li worked closely with choreographer and director Ivanhoe Lam to replace some of the dialogue with live videos captured with a Go-Pro camera attached to an acrobat to show the “ape’s” perspective. The playwright considers herself a storyteller who doesn’t only work with words but also technology or body movements that may “offer a deeper, more relatable experience to the audience than words”.

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Li has a few more VR projects lined up, but she is keeping an open mind about traditional theatre as well. “The energy and power of live actors are difficult to replace with technology. As different types of media and entertainment become less separate, the theatre scene can move forward to a new chapter.”

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