October the 17th, Friday evening, one of my plays in development was part of a Scratch event for SEA Arts Fest 2014. It was performed by a group of talented actresses.
In this day and age in UK theatre there are several extra-ordinary USPs about my piece.
- It’s an all female cast
- There is not one role that I have written that is under the age of 40 years old
- Two out of the three roles performed were for East Asian actresses – in the completed piece, one will have to cast fifty percent of the play with East Asian actresses
- The subject matter of the play had nothing to do with Restaurants, Take-aways or Martial arts
- No East Asian accents were required other than those that the actresses might naturally have had
- It was written by a British East Asian
- It was directed by a Female British East Asian – Jennifer Lim
Some, perhaps many will say, ‘so what?’ Life in the Theatre is precarious at the best of times, it’s an occupational hazard.
True, unemployment is endemic within the arts. Low to no-pay is almost seen as de rigueur in some creative circles and creative minds. However that does not mean that one has to agree or put up with these attitudes. In a similar vein I don’t have to put up with the lack of female roles, especially for those of us over the age of forty. Neither do I have to put up with the lack of roles for East Asian actors – the mere fact that I have to write that there is a lack of roles for British East Asians, to me says it all.
I’m British, I hold a passport that tells me I am a citizen of the UK. But artistically I feel as if I don’t count. As if I am not allowed to join in. So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m writing. The characters that I’m writing about are predominantly British. They come from anywhere and everywhere in Britain. My canvass uses the palette of reality. The landscape of modern 21st Britain in all it’s cultural and ethnic glory. My topics are not confined to the wok or the heavily accented East Asian.
My stories take place in average British homes. In the corridors of industrial power. Behind the shiny glass façades of Corporate UK and in the snugs and ancient hallways of Parliament.
I’m looking at British people, delving into the hidden histories of some of Britain’s forgotten citizens. Picking up the off cuts from the cutting room floor of history. Fast forwarding to the future – a future that includes people like me, or as in Conversations With My Unknown Mother – uncovering a damaged past and exploring the legacy of that past, trying to understand why we as humans do what we do.
As a writer to see your work lifted off the page and brought to life – there is nothing quite like it. (If you’re a well-known writer then I’m sure that this happens as part of the routine writing process. But as a relative unknown female writer of colour finding significant platforms with a real audience is yet another challenge.)
It’s the moment of truth. The moment when your work is held up to the light for all the world to see. It’s the moment that you see the entire script – hopefully there aren’t too many faults or blemishes.
Conversations With My Unknown Mother was a side project that I was writing. An extension of my one woman play that I wrote and performed back in 2011 at The New Diorama.
It was a response to some of the feedback that I’d received, requests to know more about some of the characters and the subject matter of transracial adoption. So I thought why not, I’ll kick a few ideas about. Since 2013 this piece has come on in leaps and bounds. It was first publicly shared via Theatre Exchange in Birmingham. Then again in London earlier this year at a show case specifically for East Asian artists held at The Hospital Club and again as the best of Theatre Exchange back up in Birmingham at The Old Joint Stock Theatre Pub.
Conversations is so completely different for the original idea I had. A series of performed letters, the type of letter that you’d write to someone whose dead, knowing that you’d never get an answer; to a play that explores the unspoken truth of our hidden personal histories. A play that opens up the soft underbelly of failed familiar relationships, of un-bonded daughters and Mothers. Of class, identity and being British.
Scratch nights are invaluable to writers (yes you can gather mates, actor-friends and do a reading but it isn’t the same.) Having a real live audience watching reacting to what you’re written, seeing the interaction between the audience and the actors – there is no substitute.
That’s when you also find out if what you’ve written “works.” Thankfully for me and with some inspired and empathetic direction from Jennifer Lim, it worked. It worked in ways that I could not have begun to think or hope that it might. It’s a hell of a thing to ask actors and a director do – usually for nothing. That part of the scratch night process I loathe. It sticks in the back of my throat. Artists should always be paid – but in a system that favours the “famous” and appears still to be biased, supporting of predominantly white privilege and cultural dominance. The likes of me – a female over thirties, non-white, not really heard of actor/writer, still struggles to get support and funding. I digress – Scratch nights like this are extremely helpful. As a writer I now know exactly what I have to tweak, what more I have to add to the piece. The evening helped me to finally decided how the piece will end. Though that is not set in stone as knowing from past experience as you write things do change. It means I go away from the scratch night with ideas and notes on how I complete the piece. All thanks to the SEA ARTS Fest. But it’s a double-edged sword. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a loud mouth when it comes to fighting for greater visibility for East Asian artists in the UK. But must it always be left to the likes of the SEA ARTS Fest to present these opportunities? We will never fully be integrated within British culture or be perceived as British until what we do, the stories that we tell and the work that we create is treated equally. That in turn means society and the arts sector have to start seeing us the BAMEs not as a sub-section of society, but as British. As people who are part of British culture and society.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to present at this scratch night. Also it was a “success.’ I certainly wouldn’t be writing this piece if Conversations With My Unknown Mother had not been received so positively. But it wrankles the hell out of me that these types of opportunities still seem to be being corralled into the “ethnically” specific tick box. When all about us in the Arts we’re hearing “diversity” and questions are being asked about the ability for BAME artists to get involved, to be included.
There is a paradox here – greater diversity is needed, it’s being screamed for. But until the gate-keepers and artistic guardians recognise that East Asians are not confined to kitchens, the back of refrigerated lorries or the counters of Chinese takeaways, realistic representation of British people will always fail. And the presentation of complex East Asian characters will always be either misunderstood or rejected because mainstream society is still so unused to seeing “real” portrayals of British East Asians.
As for Conversations With My Unknown Mother, unexpectedly, but very welcome, it looks as if this piece may go on and actually get to “grow up.”
So keep your eyes and ears open for updates. None of this of course would have been possible without the support, help and encouragement from a great many people. There are so many that I cannot name them all but the following deserve a mention:-