Reflections on an Asian Australian practice

Over the weekend, I participated in the Lotus Playwriting Workshop, organised by Playwriting Australia in partnership with Performance 4a.

The initiative is a fantastic one, and I’m looking forward to what this experience brings for the participants, as well as for the theatre ecology.

There were many things to reflect on for myself though.

I am not interested in plays. I enjoy reading them, and I appreciate a good one being produced. But I will admit it is not in my aesthetic as a maker, nor really in my taste as an audience member. So why did I go?

The workshop is basic. And it did remind me of drama 101 back in first year. Which was probably what I really enjoyed from it. A refresher – a reminder of some of the basics of drama and storytelling – that while I make contemporary performance and performance art, I do inherit a theatre tradition that has an immense history, and a continued longevity.

The fact that I have Saltwater at the top of my head (in EVERYTHING I do these days) meant that I was constantly asking myself – how could I apply this towards this work?

There was a big part of me experiencing a whole lot of resistance. I kept repeating in my head: I don’t write characters!

But silly Jamie, you have conversations with your audience! You’re the fucking queen of dialogue!

So shut up, and use these exercises!

So there, revelation one, processed.

The initiative was in response to the lack of representation on the main stage. I suppose like TV, the main stage is by proportion, the largest pie, and the largest platform for representation. But I suppose, I struggled as a contemporary performance maker to fully grasp that – as the main stage was never quite my goal.

Perhaps this needs to be contextualised – what would be the equivalent of the main stage be in Singapore, seeing that we don’t have a State Theatre company? The Singapore Repertory Theatre? Wild Rice? I’m talking companies who have a subscriber base of similar proportions, and therefore influence towards what audiences see as theatre. And they never really interested me much by the time I was in my third year of college.

Without any distinction of independent artists or not – to me, it seemed everyone was an independent artist, freelancing with various theatre companies, balancing teaching, corporate gigs, community gigs, as well as TV, etc; independent, driven by their own artistic vision and goals.

That was the world in which I became an artist, and it didn’t seem that different when I first moved to Melbourne.

You either form your own collectives and companies, or join in projects with another company, big or small. You chased auditions, or you wrote your own applications, towards presentation, funding, and festivals.

You do the work towards the work.

I don’t aim to present work in the main stage companies like the State Theatres, or the Repertory theatres. But I do want to be programmed in the main festivals.

I suppose “main festivals” used to mean festivals like the Singapore Arts Festival, or the Melbourne International Arts Festival – but having been a part of Junction Arts Festival in Launceston last year (though small, and of a small city), and Next Wave Festival back in 2012, I reckon I am at a pretty good place. I am quite content at the moment.

These niche festivals have very strong curatorial focus, and the artistic vision of the works and the festival aligns. More than that, the staffs on board are truly supportive and ready to enable the work.

Which leads me to the matter of opportunities, which came up in a few different discussions over the weekend.

Part of the equation with the lack of representation is the lack of opportunities. If there aren’t enough Asian Australian stories, or any other culture for that matter, then there aren’t as many roles for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse performers. But again, this seems to describe the circumstances for Actors, be it stage or screen.

Someone mentioned, during the weekend, that he started to make more unconventional work as a bit of a strategy and response – if he wasn’t going to be casted, then he may as well make his own work.

Again, I never tried to be an actor, to be casted and all, so I don’t have first hand experience of that discrimination. But I have certainly always been interested in making innovative, interesting, theatrical experiences.

I wonder also, what is the statistics of Asian Australians pursuing the Arts professionally, and the factors behind those who do, and those who don’t? Is that statistic also shifting?

I wonder about the focus towards the main stage. While Asian Australians have fantastic stories and potential, I’d like to imagine what Asian Australian theatre making might be. Not to further segregate, but to investigate the intercultural. Having Asian influenced/informed content in a Western structure such as the Play, is still in many ways, saying yes to the Western patriarchy, is it not?

Which is why I think works like Performance 4a’s The Serpent’s Table, or Motherboard Productions’ 지하 (Jiha) Underground, work so well. They have interrogated their cultural collaborations within themselves, and among themselves as collectives, and made work infused with the inherent relationships and dynamics of the cross-cultural, into a form that is innovative, interesting, and best convey the stories they are telling.

I am going in circles. I guess what I want to say really – is that I acknowledge the systemic discrimination that exists, and Performance 4a and this Lotus Playwriting program is a great platform, along with the Theatre Diversity Associate role that Chris Kohn held in the past year in Brisbane, as well as the efforts of many others, artists and cultural leaders.

I also imagine that my being Singaporean was a factor in being selected for the Singapore<>Brisbane Exchange back in 2012, as well as in this recent grant application, where I pitched to develop a work in collaboration with a fellow Singaporean producer, keen to work in both countries.

But at the same time, I’d like to know that I have been afforded these opportunities because I did write a rigorous proposal, with strong and clearly articulated investigative ideas, is forward looking and entrepreneurial, and that my body of work shows for it. And not because I helped a bureaucratic body tick a CALD box.

Because you know what, maintaining an artistic practice, is at the core, hard work; a combination of talent, discipline, and a good grasp of every thing else you can possibly learn in the world, and a lifelong interrogation of the craft you call yours.

Lifelong.

The participants I met over the weekend all have really interesting professions, as well as dabbles in the industry in various ways. With a few, there were already conversations initiated and creative relationships to be explored, which is extremely exciting!

And for all of us, I sincerely hope we work towards mastering our crafts; let us not fail the great stories we carry with us.

Also, keep the conversation going: what are your thoughts with regards to your practice in relation to being Asian Australian, and the arts ecology here in Australia?

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