Artist of the Month- April- Susan Lavender




Our April's Artist is theatre actress and yoga practitioner, Susan Lavender. Susan was recently seen on stage as Rebecca Nurse in The Crucible, and the local audience was deeply moved by her performance. Half English-Italian, Susan's vast theatrical experience includes performances in the U.K and Hong Kong. She shares her views on the local scene, together with past performances and future projects. 


Name, birthplace, age:

My name is Susan Lavender. I was born in South London (Clapham), and I’m in my sixties – but please don’t think this means I can’t learn my lines! Some HK theatre companies, like Aurora Theatre for example, are very meticulous in using older actors for senior roles, but, in general, “ageism” (discrimination against seniors) still exists, including in the performing arts. There are very few roles for women over 50 and when these do occur they are sometimes given to younger performers, using makeup and wigs. There are surely parallels to be drawn here with the “whitewashing” syndrome. Give us oldies a break please and do keep me in mind for any old lady roles!




Auntie Rita in Duetto, Aurora Theatre, 2013    



How does where you were raised affect your work?

Although I haven’t lived there since the seventies or even visited since 2003 unfortunately, London is always in my heart. Studying drama and watching some wonderful performances there made me want to be a character actress and taught me that it is beautiful and entirely possible to become someone else and escape oneself through acting if you just truly believe in your character as a separate person. I’m also half Italian, and I have been able to draw on my Italian side in my acting. In productions of Italian work performed in English for the Italian Chamber of Commerce, “Filumena” and “Duetto”, I have used some Italian interspersed in the English to give the piece some of its original flavour without detracting from the audience’s understanding of the text.




A punk witch.

Macbeth, Stylus Production, 2014



Where did you train?

I trained at “The Drama Studio”, a small drama school in Ealing, West London, in the late sixties/early seventies. The school was in an old house, which we, the students, renovated and then also lived in as a hippie theatre commune. Needless to say, there was much marijuana smoking (as well as drama!) going on of an evening and at the weekend! Oliver Foot, the nephew of politician Michael Foot, was my classmate. Oliver set up the theatre company Foot’s Barn after leaving drama school. I was able to see Foot’s Barn perform in HK in the early 2000s as part of the Arts Festival. It brought back memories!



Mother Teresa, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Aurora Theatre, 2013



What is your favourite style of theatre? Why?

I love Shakespeare. I think he has to come first for the richness of the language. I also really like “Theatre of the Absurd”, i.e. the plays of various European playwrights from the late fifties, like Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, whose work was based on existentialism, the breakdown of society and relationships, human life having no meaning and lack of real communication. I think these plays are very relevant to the Smartphone zombie  (“Smombie”) age we live in. At the Drama Studio we performed many of these plays. I like Absurd Theatre because it gives actors and directors unlimited scope to interpret the plays and the roles any way they want and to be as creative as they like. There are no boundaries. 




Master of splits. Filumena, The Italian Chamber of Commerce, 2012




What was the best show you ever saw?

This would have to be “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith. I saw this in London for my 17th birthday. I queued up with my classmates for hours to get tickets. We also waited for Laurence Olivier at the stage door before the show and spoke to him. We had cheap tickets up in the gods, but at the curtain call he seemed to look up high, we could see the whites of his eyes clearly, and we all felt sure he was saluting us! It was my best birthday.




What was the best show you ever saw in HK?

I’ve seen many wonderful shows in HK so I really can’t choose just one above the others. I very much enjoyed “Doubt” directed by Candice Moore which I saw a few years ago. I felt this production really achieved the ambitious objective of the play, i.e. showing that things are never clearly black or white, leaving each person to reach their own conclusion, or even just remain “in doubt”.



What piece of work are you proudest of?

For my HK mature age roles, I’m torn between Rosalia in “Filumena” and Mother Teresa in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”. Both these parts allowed me to incorporate my yoga into my acting. I did the splits (Hanumasana pose) in Filumena to applause which made me very happy. Judas was great fun to be in, especially being carried off the stage in the lotus position by Lester Clark and Julian Gaertner! As for my young roles in London, I would choose Mrs. Martin in “The Bald Prima Donna” by Ionesco. I would love to reprise this role now in my senior years in Hong Kong. I know I’ve picked 3 roles instead of one but I can’t count, you see. It comes from being left-handed/right-brained, so please forgive!




Rebecca Nurse, The Crucible, Aurora Theatre, 2017



What is your process like?

This is the process I go through to prepare for a role First I research the part and the play. Even if the character is a fictitious person, I still find it useful to study the historical and/or geographic context and the accent is most important. I might also watch previous versions of the play or film versions of it - I recognise there’s  controversy as to whether it’s good to do this or not before developing one’s version of the role. I think it depends on the individual actor as to whether he/she finds it useful or not.
I start learning my lines and queues as quickly as possible because you can get so much more out of rehearsals once you are off book. Queues are just as important as one’s own lines. I like to highlight my lines and my queues in contrasting colours. I practise my lines each morning as soon I get up because the only way to be sure of lines is to get them hard-wired. I also like to record myself periodically to gauge progress and listen to my lines while travelling around. 


What is your dream project?

My dream project is just to be in a play where there is a major role for an older woman. These are really few and far between. I’m sometimes given the nickname of Hong Kong’s Judi Dench and I have played a part similar to her “M” role in a local film, but my HK parts up to now have always been supporting. I don’t mind because all parts are important, there are no “small” parts, a part is what the actor makes of it, but it would be nice to have a main role for once. Directors out there: how about “The Chairs” by one of my favourite Absurd Theatre playwrights, Ionesco?



What do you think about the arts and theatre scene in Hong Kong?

I think Hong Kong has a great arts and theatre scene which is constantly developing and improving. As far as theatre is concerned, it has to be understood that there is no full-time professional theatre in Hong Kong as there is in London for instance, but Hong Kong community theatre fills that gap. It is of a very high standard, and it is in fact at least semi-professional since those performing in it are trained actors who have been to drama school or have degrees in drama/teaching drama. Some are also highly skilled singers, musicians and dancers. Hong Kong’s community theatre is not amateur village hall type theatre, and it should be respected and given recognition for its high standard. Sadly, it is not always given the respect it deserves and is sometimes merely labelled “amateur theatre” without cause. This is simply wrong, and it’s something I feel very strongly about. Moreover, community theatre groups here operate on very tight budgets to put on their shows. They lack funds for print advertising and other forms of promotion and have to resort to word of mouth, flash mobs, radio interviews and social media to promote their shows. Sponsorships are notoriously difficult to obtain. 

The government should encourage theatre groups more with subsidies and creation of affordable performance venues (instead of giving us things like a replica Palace Museum!) Community theatre provides a service to the Hong Kong public which the government has failed to provide, despite its considerable reserves of money. Corporates, please consider sponsoring a show. I urge everyone reading this to support Hong Kong community theatre and its performers in any way you can! 


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