I’m a bit of a loner, when I want to be. Which is more often than I let on. I appreciate the irony of this when I have studied and worked in a field that is never-endingly described as ‘collaborative’. Writing has always been a solo player game for me. That’s its appeal. Which is why of all the genres of writing I have attempted, I struggle most with playwriting. It requires a level of faith, trust and vulnerability that does not come naturally to a cynic. It’s been an interesting lesson, Lotus, not only as a writer, but as an artist, in that it has shown me there is no use expending energy in doubt, self-criticism or timidity.
In the company of my fellow Lotus artists, who are astute, courageous, mischievous and display 0% ego, it was impossible for my cynic to take hold, though she’d certainly roll her eyes as I tell you now, how Lotus has shown me an authentic community – not only insofar as we are artists who identify as Asian Australian, but how art making and storytelling are essential community and culture building acts. Lotus has also given me a responsibility to keep learning, writing, questioning, declaring. It’s easy to give up in a solo player game. But my work does not sit in isolation. My work will, in fact, commune with my ‘team-mates’. I realise now that our solo efforts will combine to shape and change the cultural landscape of Australia. I write this and scoff a little, because it sounds so absurdly grand or noble or idealistic. Then, I check myself. Tell the cynic to shut up. Why? Because, in truth, I want to live and play in a world of grand gestures, noble pursuits and ideals to strive toward. But if I want it, I must build it. This is why I love the word ‘playwright’.
Darkly, sadly, what incongruously thrills me about Australian theatre at the moment is the staging of works that attempt to show our nation’s shame. Shame for our mistreatment of the traditional custodians of our home, and for those seeking asylum from homes they’ve had to escape. Shame for the disrespect shown to our home’s ecological gifts. Shame for our attitudes of greed and self-interest. It’s a bitter, but I feel necessary, pill for us to swallow. To address these things in a purely political arena is obviously crucial, but for change to be felt, not simply acknowledged, it must soak into the flesh of all our cultural arts. In the current political climate however, where Fear seems to rule supreme, its close descendant, Shame (and anyone trying to talk about it) is met with defensiveness or aggression.
Perhaps I am peculiar in that I absolutely relish the moments when a play or story fills me with the deepest shame or grief. To be enveloped in humility, for me, is strangely liberating and healing. At the risk of sounding spooky here, I can only attribute the sensation as being a means for me to emotionally or psychologically process the trauma of the past I share as someone who calls Australia home.
To be able to taste our terror and disgust at aspects of our history (and present), is very important to me. The journey of acknowledgement and apology – as the first crucial steps towards genuine harmony – is now reaching our ‘mainstage’ and I feel proud of this.
I worry though, that we might not have the collective cultural and emotional maturity to truly sit with our shame, for as long as it takes, before moving forward with compassion and wisdom. There’s hundreds of years of grieving to do – which is at odds with our impatience to ‘arrive’ on the world stage with a likeable brand of ‘cultural identity’. We seem to polish the chip on our shoulder (“Love it or Leave it”) as though it is a fundamental aspect of our national character. This notion bores me to the core. My hope is that new Australian theatre will show that “Lamenting is an act of Love”.
I’ve attended two National Play Festivals before, but this is the first time I have featured as a playwright in the program. This is the first time I’ve stood in this circle – comprised of friends, colleagues, peers, strangers, superiors, idols, elders, and said out loud: “I am an artist”. A small statement and unremarkable given the company I keep – but for me, making that declaration at a national event of this calibre and reputation is equivalent to prying up the bones of my rib-cage and exposing my slippery heart to Melbourne’s wintery winds. I feel…Euphoric. Terrified. Tortured. Blessed. There are somethings I have to be fatalistic about: I will never have enough time to write, or finish the juicy conversations started this week with my fellows. I highly doubt I will get a respectable amount of sleep or have the guts to talk to an artist I’ve admired from afar. Then there’s everything I don’t know – that is what I am most keen for – the experiences, epiphanies, and people I encounter at the festival that I have absolutely no power to predict.