How to bring more people to the theatre? Lessons from ‘I, Malvolio’ at ‘Freespace at Taikoo Place’       

By Ambrose Li

A sobering realisation hits as I look around the ArtisTree theatre in excitement while enthusiastically applauding the spectacular performance of I, Malvolio – the theatre was half empty during a matinée performance in late October. According to The Guardian: “I, Malvolio… stands stunningly as its own piece… [Tim] Crouch is a performer at the top of his game.” As I leave the theatre, I cannot help but be perplexed by the stark contrast between such high praise and the low attendance.

Tim Crouch in ‘I, Malvolio’ premiered in Hong Kong during ‘Freespace at Taikoo Place’ at ArtisTree. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District

In Hong Kong with its British creator Tim Crouch, I, Malvolio is one of the programmes being offered by West Kowloon Cultural District and Swire Properties through  “Freespace at Taikoo Place”. The one-man show retells the Shakespearean play Twelfth Night through the perspective of a minor character, the puritanical steward Malvolio, in the simplest yet the most captivating way.

With no background music and special effects, minimal set props, and one change of costume, the momentum of the hour-long play rests entirely upon Crouch’s virtuosity as a performer. To pull this off is no doubt a feat in itself. Tempering his witty lines with unsettling messages in a highly interactive performance, I, Malvolio is engaging throughout, and a theatrical tour de force.

What a shame it was that there weren’t more people in Hong Kong to enjoy this delightful performance. Why wasn’t there more of an audience? Or, perhaps more importantly, how does one decide whether to go to a show with little prior knowledge about it?

Tim Crouch in ‘I, Malvolio’ premiered in Hong Kong during ‘Freespace at Taikoo Place’ at ArtisTree. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District

A US study dedicated to studying and tracking patterns of audience behaviour – Culture Track – might be able to give us some insights. Having studied 4,000 US cultural consumers, its 2017 report states that the top motivator to consumer cultural participation is ‘having fun’, while ‘irrelevance’ is the number one reason why audiences stay away. Could these two factors explain the reaction towards a show even before seeing it?

To those who have no idea who Malvolio is, using the name of an obscure character as the title is hardly relevant and fun. This makes publicity difficult, which does little to draw in an audience and communicate what the play is about. Naming a show this way could, in fact, be very effective, but it has to be under the premise of a strong public cultural reference, i.e. a famous character.

With I, Malvolio, the cultural reference is lost in both English and Chinese. Among Shakespearean roles, Malvolio is not an iconic character like Iago in Othello nor is he as famous as Lady Macbeth. It is difficult for such a title to draw attention from the public. I, Malvolio, therefore, became a show with little relevance, especially to those who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s plays.

One also struggles to discern the ‘fun’ part of the show, the retelling of Twelfth Night from the title. In the marketing and publicity materials, it is not until the second paragraph of the description does this become apparent.

Adding a subtitle for the sole purpose of promotion in Hong Kong could be a solution, consider I, Malvolio – Twelfth Night Reimagined (十二夜外傳:馬伏利奧大平反). A more substantial solution would be stronger publicity to appeal to the potential audience by informing them of what the play is about.

To those who know enough to recognise the minor character Malvolio, this performance could be both ‘fun’ and relevant, but who really knows about it in Hong Kong? The distribution of audience might be able to give us a clue: of the half-filled theatre, over half were expats. If we make a projection from this observation, it is not difficult to see that I, Malvolio attracted, or is ‘fun’ and relevant to, only a fraction of the Hong Kong population.

There is a myriad of reasons for local people’s interest and attendance. One of the obvious ones is that very few people in Hong Kong had the opportunity to be exposed to English literature and theatre at a young age. These remained inaccessible subjects in Hong Kong since they are only available in a handful of prestigious local schools. According to the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority, between 2007 and 2017, less than 1% of HKCEE or HKDSE candidates sat the English Literature paper each year, with an average of 793 and 316 candidates respectively. The number has dramatically decreased by the year.

Besides, English Literature is often deemed a subject of no practical use since it does not appear to reap immediate success in a results-driven society like Hong Kong, which discourages students from taking it up. The list of such reasons goes on.

Such case studies bring to light the urgency of cultivating not only an interest in the arts, but an environment that allows more exposure to, more engagement in, and the pursuit of the arts in Hong Kong for children and adults alike.

Having a superb show like I, Malvolio alone is not enough to make it a success – the coordination and talents in many different areas are required. Engagement with the audience needs to start right from the beginning – the naming and publicity. Hong Kong does not lack an interested audience, they just need to be engaged more directly. Nevertheless, we should not be satisfied with merely a keen, cultured audience. As a vibrant city, there is still much to do with regards to education and other fronts to cultivate a new generation of professionals in the arts.

With the new cultural landmark West Kowloon Cultural District imminently slated to open, I, Malvolio reveals the vast amount of work that needs to be done for Hong Kong to be a truly world-class cultural centre.

This story is part of CJC x Freespace at Taikoo Place, a CJC learning programme in collaboration with Swire Properties and West Kowloon Cultural District.

Note: Organisers said the evening performances of I, Malvolio had 90 percent attendance. 

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