Covid-19 was a game-changer for all universities and colleges, but it was probably the worst for performing arts programs. When the pandemic hit, schools scrambled to adjust, canceling long-planned productions at the last minute and moving classes - including movement, voice and dramaturgy - to remote teaching.
"It isn't perfect, but it's the way to continue the education until that particular wave [of infection] has passed," said Michael Bray, incoming program director of the new BFA in acting for global screen at Hong Kong Baptist University, referring to his teaching experiences in London's Central Saint Martins over the past six months.
In Hong Kong, the education bureau had last week closed schools again amid the third wave of local outbreaks. Nevertheless, life and education - just like the show - must go on, and the new program director is positive about the upcoming school year.
"I hope a vaccine can be developed and promoted worldwide as soon as possible and the pandemic will be over by Christmas," Bray said.
Known as one of Asia's best, HKBU's Academy of Film has fostered many big names, including Felix Chong, director of the six-award-winning film Infernal Affairs, and Oliver Chan, who was named best new director for her film Still Human, which bagged the best actor and best new performer awards at The 38th Hong Kong Film Awards.
Yet Eva Man, director of the Academy of Film, believes its curriculum lacked certain courses. "How can a good film school not teach acting?" she asked.
So she launched the BFA in acting - the first of its kind in Hong Kong to be government-funded. To head the program, they found no one better than Bray, who pioneered film screen acting programs in the UK.
The competition was fierce in its first year of recruitment, with more than 300 DSE candidates applying for eight places. Only 158 Band 1A students were selected to submit portfolios for the initial screening, and only 34 were shortlisted for auditions.
Taking advantage of the window between local outbreaks, the auditions, which the two directors said were "delightful," were completed in person over four days, with one overseas candidate joining via Zoom.
Bray appreciated the candidates' versatility, noting that many have learned multiple talents such as singing and dancing from an early age.
Many also participated in drama-related activities in their extracurriculars, which he saw as a sign of passion."If they didn't like it, they wouldn't have learned it from a young age and stuck with it," he said.
But he also encouraged students without any experience to apply, as he learned from years in the industry to look at the actor's "central ingredients."
Bray added: "People talk casually about the word 'talent,' but how can you spot that in a young and emerging actor who might not have that much experience?"
His trick is to try to interrupt and change an actor's performance plan during the auditions, such as asking them to move to another position. While many actors will stick to their original plans, Bray believes that actors who can adapt and overcome have the mindset to do anything.
"The most important thing in my audition is to see if the actor can live truthfully in imaginary circumstances. If they can do that, everything else can be taught," he said.
To live up to the academy's ambition of making the program "the most competitive one in acting," Man invited local veteran film practitioners Mabel Cheung, Herman Yau, Nansun Shi and Tina Liu to join the audition's judging panel. Bray also asked his former student Charlotte Whitaker, a London-based film producer, to join via Zoom.
"The thing that makes this program unique, I think, among other performing programs in Asia, is to give our actors a complete artistic skillset as an artist," he said.
Bray believes that in the future, an actor who only has acting skills but doesn't have the ability to understand or criticize the director and screenwriter will not be able to survive in the industry. "So we are not just training them as actors, but also as directors, screenwriters and producers," Bray said.
The program, which will accept eight local and eight non-local students, will operate major core courses, including performing art, voice and speech, movement, directing, script analysis and acting, acting on screen with technology, as well as individual enhancement workshop. Tailormade exchange opportunities and masterclasses will also be offered.
Applicants are required to submit a portfolio, including a performance resume, two filmed speeches, a personal statement, recommendation letters and one current headshot photo.
Designed for students with cross-cultural and global enrichments, the program's requirements for English proficiency is relatively high. It requires applicants to reach level 5 or above in the DSE English Language exam, 135 or above in the English section of the mainland's College Entrance Exam or an overall band score of seven or above in the IELTS.
Though Man was initially worried about the requirement, she and Bray were amazed by the English proficiency during the auditions. Both hope many more talented actors will soon join the program.