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Features Published 9 November 2016

South East Asian Representation in Theatre: A Roundtable

Foreign Goods Last Forever is a new showcase for work by female British South East Asian writers at Theatre503. Here, its authors talk quotas, stereotypes, parental pressures, and why South East Asian stories need to be told.
Jingan Young, Naomi Sumner, Lucy Sheen, Naomi Christie, Suet Tan Lee and Amy Ng

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Let’s just kick this off with simply: what made you send in your script to ‘Foreign Goods Last Forever’?

Lucy Sheen: As an actor/writer of colour from a minority in the UK that is still marginalised both externally and internally you submit to everything that’s going if you fit the criteria. Being female and 50+ as an artist it’s tough. It has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with lack of viable and significant opportunities. And how East Asians are still mis-represented or just represented in British culture as stereotypical, caricatured ethnic tropes (I’m being polite).

Jingan Young: But there also appears to be a general consensus that it is OK to pigeonhole Chinese/E/SE Asians, for a start, in this country I’ve always found it completely bizarre that the term ‘Asian’ does not mean what it means everywhere else. If we’re not Asians in Asia what are we, the ‘other Asian peoples’ that come from Asia but not India, Bangladesh or Pakistan?’ I strongly feel that ignorance or lack of understanding breeds fear and mistrust (no matter how silly that may sound).

Amy Ng: I was very interested to see the common themes that would emerge from a collective of E/SE Asian women playwrights…

Naomi Sumner: There were many reasons why I submitted a script, but the primary one was it was an opportunity for British South East Asian female writers by a fellow British South East Asian female writer so it was a project I wanted to support and be involved in. I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet and work with other Chinese/South East Asian artists and build up a peer network. I felt this was an ideal platform for my play as there would be the desire and support to get three Chinese female actors on stage at the same time in the same play, which is no easy thing! YOURS was selected for the LOST Theatre’s one act festival in July 2016 but we had to withdraw at the last minute due to struggles with casting. Finally being based in Manchester it is fantastic to be able to show my work in London to new audiences.

OK, here’s the inevitable ‘what are you drawn to as a writer’ question, but also, what is it about this play that, well, in a sense, turns you on, and what made you want to submit this particular work?

LS: ‘Under A Blood Red Moon’ started life out as a short play which was commissioned by The Royal Court theatre in 2015. But I had always planned to make the short play part of a full length work. The entire work is about three families, all British East Asian, and what happens to them on one specific night under a blood red moon. It’s a peek into an alternative British experience.

The extract that’s being used is about two O.A.Ps who meet and in a public park and strike up an unexpected conversations. In spite of their initial reservations they find that they have much more in common than they ever expected. Old age can be a prison, the younger generations can use this to imprison and restrict the very people they are supposed to love and cherish. Whatever our age or background as human beings we all have a need to feel that we belong.

Naomi Christie: My play ‘Lactose Intolerant’ is based on a real incident that happened to my mum. It involved a well-known supermarket chain and the 2008 Chinese baby milk scandal. It was both devastating and hilarious. My play began essentially as a response to the treatment of my mum and has grown since then.

NS: YOURS is inspired by my own status as a Transracial adoptee, adopted from Hong Kong in the 1980s by a White British couple. It tells the story of a Chinese adoptee tracing their birth mother and asks the audience to think about what it really means to be a mother.

Suet Tan Lee: My play The Swing is inspired by my own story. My grandmother left China to live in Malaysia, my parents left Malaysia to live in England, and I left England to live in Singapore. So I just wanted to explore what it’s like to belong to the Chinese diaspora – hopes and dreams, disappointment and loss, and never quite fitting in.

AN: I am interested in how race, gender, and class intersect in terms of political power dynamics and societal perceptions. In my play, I explore the fact that the aftermath of rape looks different depending on the colour of your skin, your nationality, and your class background; in the way rape cases are handled and how society judges the victim.

Do you define or rather want to define yourself as a ‘British Chinese/South East Asian’ writer?

LS: I think of myself as an actor, writer and filmmaker. But sadly others won’t let me do that. I’m comfortable using British East Asian (East Asian is an inclusive label to me cover all parts of Asia that are missed our when using the phrase Asian in the UK). It irritates me somewhat because white actors, writers, directors are not prefixed by their ethnicity but artists of colour are.

NS: 75% of the time no! Usually I only think of myself this way when applying for opportunities or ticking equal opportunities forms. It may be to do with me being adopted and having grown up in a white family. I wrote a poem about it – so maybe I see myself more as “not quite White.”

Not Quite White

Sometimes I forget

And I believe I am White.

Then I remember.

I’m very sorry.

How silly of me to think

I might belong here.

Why don’t I belong?

I know the rules of the game

You won’t let me play.

AN: I think of myself as a writer from Hong Kong who has been shaped indelibly by British imperial history.

ST: Haha! I don’t know what I think of myself as! I have lived in Singapore for over 20 years so in many ways I feel very Singaporean, and many of my plays are set in Singapore. However, I have been told that my plays are not “typical Singaporean” plays which is probably because of the British influence. I still have a strong British voice, humour and sensibility, and maybe that is reflected in my work.

Are writers from minority backgrounds being equally represented in British theatre today, particularly those with a Chinese/South East Asian background?

AN: I think it is tough for writers of any background to make it in the current climate. I also think while there is a lot of good will in the industry to discover stories from E./SE Asian communities, there is not enough commitment to make it happen.

NC: Obviously there aren’t enough. For those of EA descent, I’m of the opinion that there are plenty of great writers but they’re all working as doctors or lawyers or other jobs that are deemed more stable/appropriate by many EA families. So it’s about providing opportunities for young people and potential career leavers to explore the idea of writing.

NS: I think it is bloody difficult and particularly so for Chinese/SEA writers as we are still the hidden minority most of the time. However, I am hopeful that the tide is starting to change beyond mere tick box exercises. As more “people of colour” begin to occupy Senior Management roles in theatres e.g. Matthew Xia at Royal Exchange, Kully Thiari at National Theatre Wales, Madani Younis at The Bush, I believe more diversity will be seen both on and offstage within theatre.

LS: Black and Asian (South Asian) writers are far better and far more embedded into the culture of Britain as writers and as performers – though things could and should be better. As East Asians we are chronically under-represented and consistently misrepresented. There is a deal of hypocrisy within the arts – I feel. It is perfectly acceptable for a white writer to writer about China (as any writer should be able to do). But because I was raised in the UK and am by definition a British East Asian the question of ethnic authenticity is often raised.

And similarly, East Asian-born writers are expected to write about nothing but East Asians. If I was to write an historical drama set in 20s England there would I am sure be more than a few eyebrows raised. Theatre is run and controlled by monoliths – white, Oxbridge-educated and predominantly male. Things are getting better but by and large those in power have very little in common with the BAME experience in the UK. Until that’s addressed general diversity and inclusivity will I believe always be problematic.

Do you feel that because this [my company Pokfulam Rd Productions] is independent, with no support from arts funding bodies, demonstrates that fringe/West End theatres with this capacity aren’t actually doing anything to address this lack of Chinese/SEA voices? Are we just ‘fulfilling a quota’?

NS: Are we just “fulfilling a quota” – er, yeah probably but it’s a start, it’s something isn’t it? At least it is a step towards being included in “mainstream” theatre. The thing is that because of the constant rejection to date by the mainstream theatre of ethnic minorities – we have gone away and set up our companies, platforms and networks. In some ways we have said “We don’t need the mainstream” and vacated certain spaces we actually need to inhabit. I recently attended the Black and Asian Writers Conference in Manchester where one panel asked the questions “Is the future of Black theatre outside of Mainstream buildings?” For me I hope not because at the end of the day I want to see an end to Mainstream = White cos that simply isn’t the reality of the world.

LS: It has always been a tick box. Everyone agrees that the lack of diversity in the arts is terrible but very few are willing to actually do anything concrete about it. Very few are willing to invest in diversity and I mean really invest. You say casting opportunities for actors are growing. I’d dispute that. At the moment this country seems to think that there are only about three East Asian actors. Which is not true. And if we can’t get it right with our artists what hope do we have with writers?

On BAMER writing schemes… are theatres ‘ticking’ boxes?

NS: I don’t have enough knowledge or experience of BAMER writing schemes to comment with authority on them specifically. What I do know is that many schemes for new writers BAMER or not appear to be tick box exercises for theatres enabling them to show their “commitment” to new writing via scratch nights, writing courses, workshops etc. BUT NO, if there is no commission or commitment to produce then how can it really make a difference? You’re not giving a person a voice if you never let them be heard.

LS: BAMER initiatives will only ever make a difference if they go beyond the scheme, like the proverbial student. Unless these schemes actively build in a production element and not just a rehearsed reading or scratch then no, I’m now at the point where I see no point in these schemes.

JY: I didn’t even know there were BAMER schemes or workshop/rehearsal support spaces until someone pointed it out to me down the pub one night! I’d say the most useful thing has been when we are provided with workshop space / support such as the Arcola’s BAMER LAB or the Old Vic Lab (a new initiative I believe) which is incidentally helping this showcase get on its feet!

We’ve been discussing quite a bit about the lack of opportunities but what if theatremakers and audiences are simply not interested in British Chinese/SE Asian stories?

NS: Is it something to do with the Chinese being the “model minority?” Do people see us as boring and only good for making their Friday night take away? Or do they feel that when it comes to theatre, our stories won’t sell so they’re not giving us a chance to prove them wrong?

AN: We are seen as niche. Perhaps our numbers are too small — the Chinese/SE Asian diaspora is scattered throughout the country and throughout London.

JY: And then there are Chinese American playwrights who seem to be the only ones produced on main stages… bizarre.

Do you have advice for British Chinese / SE Asian writers entering the industry?

NS: My advice to BAMER people entering the theatre industry is if you have the ability (academic, financial, whatever…) aim for Senior Management and don’t simply be a “creative.” Strive for positions where you can influence strategy, business plans, recruitment and programming as THAT IS REALLY how you can effect change.

LS: I’m an outcast in some ways because I’m not only British East Asian but I’m a transracial adoptee. So I was shunned by both communities, have experienced racism from both communities – still am on the receiving end even to this day. I write what I write because of who I am and how I grew up in pre-multicultural 60s Britain. I’m interested in looking for the hidden, untold stories. Going into the arts whether your white or BAME is not something you do lightly. It was tough when I first came on the scene in the 80s – now I think it’s even tougher. You need some form of recognised training – it’s really important. For actors then drama school – RADA, Central, LAMDA, Rose Bruford, writers then places like Goldsmiths (other universities and drama schools are available).

AN: It’s really tough! I’ve noticed that many E/SE Asian actors and writers come to theatre as a second profession. My theory is that it is hard to stand up against parental opposition at age 18, and easier in your mid twenties or even thirties. And let’s face it, an arts career is NOT desirable to most E/SE Asian parents.

ST: I am a chartered accountant by training and I think in East Asian communities, parents still prefer their children go into “the professions” because they are perceived to be steady. However, I think that might be changing – I don’t know. But it’s not just family expectations, it’s also about self-perception. When I was growing up I didn’t see myself represented in any of the arts – theatre, film, dance etc, so I never believed I could belong there, so even if my parents had supported me going into the arts, I still may not have pursued it. And that’s why opportunities like BAMER and this showcase must continue.

Do East Asian writers need to work to overcome stereotypes?

JY: The majority of plays that came through to us as a result of the open script call had titles such as ‘Lotus’, ‘Jade’, ‘Orchid’. We need to stop defining/identifying ourselves within this isolated sphere – of essentially, a fetishized version of our ethnicity, our gender, like Yellow Fever (yes, it does exist). We are merely pandering to a media-fuelled identity. It is not reality, and it needs to stop.

LS: I am one of the founding members of The British East Asian Group, a group of academics and actors who banded together in protest at the RSC’s production of The Orphan of Zhao. [Only three East Asian actors were included in the 17-strong cast of this production of a play known as the Chinese Hamlet] It definitely blew the lid of the inequality in working practices and attitudes in the theatre towards British East Asians.

I think amongst the creative artist community as a whole we now have a collective identity that of British East Asian which allows us to come together but still keep our own specific diverse ethnic background and heritages. It also I think forced arts organisations, The Arts Council, among them to perhaps realise that the previous 17 years of only supporting one specific arts organisation to the detriment of all others that identified with being East Asian lead was in fact -probably on reflection not a good thing.

Moving on from this, we are now fighting for a place in British culture. British East Asians still are not considered or represented as British in UK media (film and TV) the default setting for representation of East Asians in drama is the outsider, the foreigner, the heavily accented illegal immigrant. Or the “model minority”, the lotus blossom female or the emasculated leering fiendish male oriental. We have to eliminate those ingrained prejudices and biases affixed to what “they think” an East Asian should be

NC: It’s difficult. Do [write] it. Your voice needs to be heard.

Foreign Goods Last Forever will be on at Theatre503 on November 29. For full details, visit the Theatre 503 website. @pokfulamrdprod #ForeignGoods

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