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    HKAPA deputy director (academic) Dr Joshua Abrams: When the chemistry clicks

    When Dr Joshua Abrams first headed to university at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his head was set on studying chemistry. But it was once he hit the classroom that he realised his heart wasn’t into the topic. He believes an “incredibly theatrical” high-school teacher and his “shows” in the lab had brought the subject to life. But Josh realised it was the performance more than the test tubes he loved. He closed out his undergraduate career with dual Bachelor’s Degrees in Management Science and in Theatre. Though his career took him into finance and consulting at first, he finally found his way back to the arts. That led to a Master’s Degree in Theatre at Brown University and a Doctorate in Theatre Studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. And it has been arts, and ultimately art research, that has occupied his attention ever since.

    In fact, Josh, who took up a post with the Academy on September 1 last year as Deputy Director (Academic), says he was on stage before he was born. His mother, a director and theatremaker, was a supernumerary on a New York City Opera production while he was in the womb. His first stage credit came at the age of 3, as an infant in the arms of Madama Butterfly. Now, his career has brought him to a city he had visited only briefly as a tourist before. He quickly found an infatuation not only with Hong Kong but also what’s going on within the Academy’s walls.

    “I love walking into the atrium of the main building and hearing the students practicing, being able to hear someone on the cello over here and the guzheng there,” he says. “That might not be strictly by the book, since the students should be in practice rooms. But it’s wonderful hearing really world-class musicians practicing their work here in the open.”

    A Roundabout Route

    Josh’s route to Hong Kong was a circuitous one. He was working in London at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama when he first met Professor Gillian Choa, the then Deputy Director, and present Academy Director. She was visiting in late 2019 on a trip designed to establish future collaborations with other performing-arts institutions. The two got talking, not least about the pending pandemic and the need to stock up on masks and hand sanitiser, which hadn’t occurred to Londoners at the time.

    On the arts, “we talked about possibilities and started to think about possible collaborations,” Josh recalls. “That all had to go on hold once the world closed down.” Josh kept in touch and found himself participating in a HKAPA webinar on the future of arts academies, and conservatoire teaching. Some months later, he was approached by a global search and joined the Academy eventually.

    Josh has some fond memories of time spent working and in conferences at the Central Academy of Drama and Shanghai Theatre Academy in the Mainland. As he learnt more about Hong Kong, he found what was going on in the city, the Mainland, and Asia as a whole very intriguing. Hong Kong blends a wide range of influences. Josh has spent time living in New York, Los Angeles and London, all “world cities” alike, but feels Hong Kong is in many ways the most international of them all.

    “This is a global city that is very much going to be at the heart of the next century,” Josh expounds. “I’m thinking of it as an incredible space for privilege and imagination, because of the incredible opportunity Hong Kong has got, as part of the Mainland, but as so incredibly connected to the rest of the world.” Josh is interested in the city’s cuisine, for its range and novelty. He dubs himself a “neophile,” always searching for new experiences, and has found that in excess for his taste buds. But his academic research in the arts has also caused him to take a greater interest in the city’s food scene, too.

    Over the past ten years, first traveling repeatedly to Chicago’s “Next” and to work with “chef-led” restaurants in Copenhagen, where there are now 14 Michelin-starred eateries, including frequent San Pellegrino world number one “Noma”, he began exploring the connection between restaurant cultures and performance. He is exploring in his own writing how dining and food preparation is a multisensory performance, one that involves the eyes, ears, touch before it ever involves taste.

    Working With Others

    First, though, as the Deputy Director (Academic) of the Academy, Josh says he likes to be in “listening” mode. Not just literally to the charms of students practicing, but in hearing what people are seeking out of their performing-arts institution.

    Prior to the current lockdown, he was also attending as many live performances as possible, and going to classrooms and rehearsals, too. He’s a card-carrying member of M+, which he describes as “truly a world-class museum,” but is finding the smaller spaces equally intriguing, heading to Tai Kwun or out to the Ko Shan Theatre and the Kwai Tsing Theatre to catch shows with alumni networks. That includes the first show he attended once emerging from quarantine on his arrival, when he caught Keep Breathing At Zero by GayBird, which grew out of the Academy performance Breathing At Zero.

    The performance combines sound installations, electronic music, live performance and projected video images in a way he finds imaginative and captivating, interspersed with stage dialogue between humans and a robotic arm that’s manipulating a miniature city. The work explores how machines and humans interact in an urban environment.

    Hong Kong “is an incredibly vibrant scene,” Josh enthuses. “I’m finding myself out multiple times per week. There’s joy on stage, an incredible range of creative work, including from many alumni and students, which shows how central the Academy is to the performing arts scene.”

    But you better catch the performances quick, he has found. “There are a number of things I’ve missed because I’m already going to a couple of things that weekend, and that’s the only time it’s happening,” he laments.

    Many Schools of Excellence

    Like most professionals in performing-arts academia, Josh knew of the Academy from its recent high placement in the QS World University Rankings. The top-rated institution in Asia, the Academy sits 10th in the 2021 ranking in the performing arts category.

    The Academy’s reputation walked before it. “I knew of the Academy more than I knew the Academy,” Josh explains. And he thinks that applies to plenty of other people. “One of the fundamental things I’m really excited about here is to be able to talk more to the world about the great things we’re doing.”

    A point of differentiation is that the Academy has multiple schools of excellence, a very wide span of teaching and performance, whereas many other academies tend to be subject-specific. “We have an incredible breadth of what we do,” he says. “But that breadth doesn’t get in the way of the depth of practice that is going on everywhere. I’m hard pressed to think of a school that can compete with us based on all the disciplines that we do.”

    Enabling Cross-Border Cross-Pollination

    While he has performed, designed, directed and produced theatre, he finds himself drawn to a management and research role that he sees as creative in enabling other people to find their creativity. “I’m at heart a teacher,” he says. “I think the students are the core of the Academy, and the core of what we do, and what we’re all here for.”

    Josh hopes to put his multinational experience to use and would like to see all Academy students offered international opportunities, whether through literal study abroad, or close collaboration with arts students in other countries on co-productions. He would also like to see cross-border teaching opportunities, and even foreign exchange for the office staff.

    “A former director of research I used to work with often said, ‘You can do the best research in the world, but if you don’t effectively communicate it, it’s meaningless.’ I think about that a lot—it doesn’t matter how good the work we do is if we’re not shouting about it.” The broader the Academy’s connections, he feels, the better and the more opportunities for creative development and excitement.

    “It’s a privilege to be part of such a strong senior management team, where I can make the work that our staff and students are doing easier, where I can give them the space to experiment, to help them figure out what they want to do, and how we are going to move forward,” he concludes. “The Academy is at an incredibly exciting point in its history.”

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