Noticing a lack of diversity in performance, a group of Asian-Australians in theatre from Performance 4A and Playwriting Australia devised the Lotus Playwriting Project. The weekend-long workshop was designed to encourage Asian-Australian writers to develop their skills and bring their stories to stage.
“You should sign up!” said my mate Suzie from Sydney.
“I’ve never written a play in my life.”
“It doesn’t matter. You write. And you’re Asian!”
I figured it couldn’t hurt to learn to be a better writer, so I signed up for the weekend-long Lotus Playwriting Project.
After the ice-breaking introduction activity, it quickly became apparent to me that I was one of the only people in the room who didn’t have a background in performance or film. Oops.
The other participants were producers, screenwriters, university lecturers, actors, filmmakers, theatre programmers. Among us were some well-known faces like multi-skilled media veteran and Performance 4A Executive Producer Annette Shun Wah; actor and circus performer Anna Yen; and writer Michelle Law who recently published Sh*t Asian Mothers Say with her brother Benjamin; and Peril’s own poetry editor Eleanor Jackson.
“Theatre is a cult,” intoned La Boite program manager Glyn Roberts. “People from all kinds of artistic disciplines come together and believe this artistic – thing – is going to happen.”
The first exercise was to pair up with someone, tell them a story about yourself, and get them to re-tell that story in their own way. It could be absolutely anything, as long as it had to do with water.
Water? The stuff that comes out from a tap?
I was paired up with Annette, who told me about growing up in Strathpine where her family had to pump their own water. Her resourceful father built a tank and they’d drive to the middle of town to get the water. Little Annette’s job was to pump the water from the tank into the tank connected to her house and turn it off once it started to overflow. One day, Annette got distracted – as little kids do – and the tank containing their house’s water supply flooded the backyard.
Childhood memories seemed to jog mine. I remembered going to Noosa as a child with my family. One day at the beach, I caught a hermit crab and carried it back to the hotel in a little plastic bucket I decided that it would be my pet and we’d go on adventures together. I fed it bits of crumbled-up biscuit. Later that night, I decided to give it a bath. In hot water. That was the end of my crab friend.
After getting our facts straight, we shared them with the group.
The stories took place in Mullumbimby, Singapore and Strathpine; across beaches, bush and family homes. There were funny childhood memories, accidents, suicides, near-drownings, feelings of tranquillity and fear that the storytellers associated with water. Sometimes the group burst into giggles. Sometimes a chilling silence froze the room as we sat, spellbound, by the storyteller’s words.
These stories stayed with everyone over the whole weekend.
But it was time to get down to business, and the facilitators got stuck into the technical aspects of telling a story – a consistent formula we referred to over the weekend.
“A character who exists in a culture/world. Something is making that character suffer. They want or need something. He or she does something to get what they want, or to alleviate the suffering. This sends them on a journey. They come across opposition. They either succeed or fail, but along the way either we, or they, learn something.”
The facilitators used Romeo and Juliet as an example to analyse this formula, though sometimes hilariously shifting to Harold and Kumar (“they REALLY want that burger – it’s a matter of LIFE or DEATH.”). At the conclusion, they acted out Romeo and Juliet in two minutes. Romeo and Juliet turned into kids with Aussie accents.
“He was a shit dude anyway!” said Cat as Juliet, in response to the news that Ken as Romeo had murdered her cousin.
It was our turn to apply this formula to a story we all knew. Our group picked Cinderella, but from the point of view of the ugly stepsister. I stepped up to the role of the stepsister – a nose-picking, butt-scratching slob who took duckface selfies. It was the role I was born to play. My pretty little sister was making me suffer. I wanted the hunky prince. My dumb sister wanted him too. I went on a journey to the ball, waxing my hairy ‘pits along the way. The prince went for my sister. I failed. I learned that being mean is not very good.
I wished my high school English classes and university literature analysis classes were this enjoyable.
Our homework was to select a picture of a person and respond to questions about them.
I selected a very young, pregnant girl wearing an elegant grey maternity dress and dirty Converse sneakers and tried to figure her out.
Day 2 was about character development. So far, my character was a young girl making a subversive statement about acceptable clothing. I compared notes with Simon Chan, the actor sitting next to me. His character was an impotent, alcoholic banker who just lost his job but couldn’t tell his wife, whom he married for money.
I felt competitive. My character couldn’t be boring! I stared at her for ages, trying to figure out her story.
The day started off like the day before – with a memory. Two people in our group sat in the middle to be interrogated so we could figure out the memory. What can you hear? What can you smell? What does the ground feel like under your feet? Who’s with you?
One woman remembered seeing the sunset on a remote Western Australian beach with her boyfriend at the time and his family, doubts in her mind pushed back by seeing the sunset on the beach for the first time.
A man cheekily reminisces perching naked on the edge of a riverbank in a Swedish forest, hesitating to jump into the cold water where his skinny-dipping lady friend was calling for him.
I feel like I’m in group therapy as the room probes every detail of these memories: deeply personal, but in a safe space without judgment.
The facilitators brought up some prompts for the group to create a character. Elise Ma-Huntington. A 30-year-old highly-strung social worker with two kids. Half Chinese and half Australian. Enjoys getting stoned in the park, Game of Thrones and attempting to recreate her mother’s mapo tofu. But her mother went missing (get it, Ma-Huntington?)! She had an unrequited crush on a woman! She hoarded Chinese cooking books! Was she ridiculous, or are real people really this complicated? Cat played this woman-monster we created in a theatre game called “taxi”, with Teik-Kim as the chatty taxi driver teasing out her story.
Elise wasn’t ridiculous. She was interesting.
We played “taxi” in our groups as the characters we created.
“Come on, come on…” I whispered at my character. “Be interesting!”
I hated that she was pregnant. I didn’t really feel like talking about it.
And suddenly 22-year-old design student Katarina stepped into the taxi, heavily pregnant and snappy with hormones on her way to a laneway art exhibition in Fitzroy North.
She didn’t want to talk about the pregnancy with the taxi driver – how come she has to talk about the baby now? Why doesn’t anyone wanna talk about the band they saw last weekend or the new graff in Hosier Lane? The taxi driver complimented her dress.
“Oh, this old thing? It’s my grandmother’s. She brought it when she emigrated from Germany. My family are really counting on this baby. They think it’ll make me get my shit together. But just between you and me… I’m thinking of getting away from here. I can’t deal with them anymore.”
I hopped out at Fitzroy North. Simon’s impotent, alcoholic unemployed banker got in. He was going to the pawn shop to get back his wife’s jewelry, which he was pawning to pay off his debts. The taxi stopped to let in an old Chinese man, created by a young Singaporean girl.
“Impotent? I have special Chinese medicine for that. Good for you!” He thrust something into the impotent ex-banker’s hands. He was on his way to the West End Markets to play chess with other old Chinese men.
“You should come sometime. Very fun!”
The last part of the workshop is about transitive verbs. Ken, Cat and Teik-Kim demonstrate by showing different ways they try to convince each other to give them a pen. Manipulation. Flirting. Nagging. Sicken.
“Do you know where that pen’s been?”
We write and rewrite a short scene with our character trying to get what they want, using different transitive verbs.
Katarina is arguing with her boring boyfriend about going out for the evening. In my first draft, her boyfriend is mean and aggressive and Katarina is sarcastic and sassy. As the transitive verbs change with each rewrite, more of their relationship is revealed. Katarina’s boyfriend shows an insecure, pathetic side. Katarina is torn between making him happy and, in her words, “a last hurrah before my social life dies and this baby is born.”
At the end of the workshop, we go to see La Boite’s production of COCK – a play all about characters trying to get what they want.
As I wait for the train to go home, I finish Katarina’s story. A flaky, artsy socialite student bouncing between arts degrees, all Katarina wants to do is travel, dream and write a book about her interesting life. But her overbearing family is pressuring her to grow up and act like an adult, so she has a baby with her boyfriend to appease them. As the way she’s treated and her body changes throughout the pregnancy, she starts to regret her decision. Accepting her fate, Katarina decides to live the life she wants before its taken away from her… leading her to meet a mentor who inspires her to have it all.
The compulsion to finish the story of a person that doesn’t exist – is that what Glyn meant about theatre being a cult?
The room was abuzz with discussion about COCK and why it left some people feeling a sour taste in their mouth and dead inside. The facilitators referred back to the storytelling formula to keep our opinions structured.
Talking about COCK segues into the concept of status. In each situation with several characters is the most dominant person, the weakest, and several between. The story develops as these characters fight for the title of leader.
We play a few games. Four people are numbered and treat each other according to hierarchy, trying to guess where they are ranked. Then four other people fight for a position of power, improv-style. The players progress from bitchiness to reckless behaviour to smashing through the fourth wall in their attempts to come out on top. We note that the person at the bottom can win their way to the top after observing the weaknesses of the others above them.
We apply this idea to our scripts. By now, my character Katarina has shown a sarcastic and manipulative side; her boyfriend alternates between abusive and insecure.
The project ends with a Q&A with some key figures in Brisbane theatre: Ian Lawson from Playlab, Glyn Roberts from La Boîte and Queensland Theatre Company’s diversity associate Chris Kohn.
The panel addresses the tricky issues: diversity in theatre and funding. There’s good news and bad news. Chris’s role as diversity associate is going well, but has an uncertain future as his role ends this year. Ian says there’s a demand in the theatre industry – and education – for culturally diverse stories. Glyn, originally from Melbourne, says he is jealous of the close relationships that independent artists have with major arts companies in Brisbane – something not seen so much in the southern states.
However, funding is needed to achieve these goals. One obstacle Chris brought up was that a change in QLD arts funding means that small independent theatre companies are competing with big commercial companies for the same pool of funding. Ian wants to grow Playlab’s Indie program and its artists by digitising productions and distributing them internationally – but needs funding to do so. He emphasises the importance of maintaining relationships and networking with the right people and companies to make your theatre dreams come true – a piece of advice pertinent to most industries at the moment.
The workshop ended with everyone chatting about their projects over drinks and swapping contact details.
We’ve had discussions for years over cultural diversity in performance. But the Lotus Playwriting Workshop wasn’t about that discussion and identifying the issues. It was the next step – making practical steps to solve a problem. And that was to provide a space for Asian-Australians to freely develop and encourage their creative skills and ideas.
After meeting this talented group of Asian Australians and gaining an insight into what they’re doing in the creative world, I went home feeling optimistic. One day, I’ll watch a theatre production, TV show or movie made by and about people who look like me – and we won’t have to say the “d” word anymore.
Registrations are currently open for Melbourne – Friday 16 May – Sunday 18 May 2014 @ Malthouse Theatre. For information visit Lotus Asian Australian Playwriting project