Interview with British Chinese Playwright Naomi Sumner Chan

Emmanuelle Khoo – Film and Entertainment Editor 

Last week, Alex Chang talked to Nee Hao about his journey and the challenges of a British-Chinese actor. In this third part of Nee Hao’s exclusive interview series on British-Chinese talent in the entertainment industry, we would like to introduce Naomi Sumner Chan, a playwright whose works is inspired from her own particular background as an adoptee.     

For Naomi, a Manchester-based playwright, theatre-maker and performance poet, most of her thought-provoking plays are highly autobiographical, inspired from her personal experiences as a transracial adoptee. Born in Hong Kong but adopted into a white-British family, Naomi brings her personal experiences into her projects as a means to express and come to terms with herself. She is also unafraid of creating new and even controversial narratives to get a dialogue going. 

As an active member of the National Theatre’s Step Change Programme and as one of 30 BAME artists chosen to the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme “Leaders of Tomorrow” programme, Naomi is not only driven but also extremely passionate about providing support to those under-represented in the arts, namely people of colour. Naomi is also the Creative Director at Brush Stroke Order, a creative enterprise based in Northwest England that provides workshops and opportunities for those who write for performance. More recently, Naomi has been selected for BBC Northern Voices, a 10-week course for theatre writers giving them the opportunity to learn about writing for television, film and radio. 

How did your interests in scriptwriting and poetry begin?

I always enjoyed writing stories and poems at school. At secondary school, I discovered my passion for drama and theatre, thus steered me towards a Performing Arts degree at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). After graduation, I worked as the Education Officer at Oldham Coliseum Theatre. My job was coordinating a playwriting group led by award-winning playwright, Billy Cowan. I once sat in on a session and enjoyed it so much I signed up for the next course! This led me to write a script that was successful in small local competitions and festivals. Its success led me to signing up for another but in advanced playwriting run by Studio Salford. Through this course, I wrote my one-act play, “Pass” which was selected for the Manchester 24:7 Theatre Festival. It was at this point I thought, “Oooo maybe I could be good at this.”

Tell us about the recurring themes and subjects that your works explore.

I have been writing a lot about adoption and identity. Much of my work has focused on complex identity and intersectionality, e.g. being an Evangelical Christian and LGBT or, being ethnically Chinese but raised in a White British family. Christianity and torn loyalties are also recurring themes in my work.

In YOURS (2016) and MY LIFE AS A BANANA (2016), you channel much of your own experiences as an adoptee to explore the themes of identity and belonging. Would you be able to tell us more about your ongoing project, SAME SAME DIFFERENT, and the underlying myths / problems it seeks to highlight?

SAME SAME DIFFERENT is a new verbatim play which I hope to tour in 2018 subject to funding. Verbatim Theatre is when all the words or dialogue in a play have been spoken by real people in real life, sharing their stories in their own words. Material for the play was gathered via face-to-face interviews and an anonymous online survey.

I wanted to provide adopted children and adults the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words – often adoption narratives are Adoptive Parent centric and focus on the parent’s story or the process of adoption. This play is different because it explores what everyday family life is like in an adoptive family. The aim is for adoptees to speak honestly about family life and explode some of the myths or misconceptions around adoption – especially the idea that everyone lives “happily ever after.” I hope the play will be helpful for adoptive families struggling with cohesion to feel less alone by knowing other people are going through or have experienced similar situations.

What is your most memorable interaction with a member of the audience after a performance?

It was after the performance of “One Flesh” – a play about an Evangelical Christian woman, Ester who has fallen in love with Natalie and seeks the blessing of her church pastor/brother, Caleb. I was approached by a church pastor, who walked up to me and said “I’m Caleb, my daughter is Esther. Thank you for making this play and telling my story.” Caught in a similar scenario, what he liked about the play was that it didn’t condemn either side.

What does the word “diversity” mean to you?

Oooo this is difficult because “diversity” is massively important to me but I feel like that word has been hi-jacked by certain cultural institutions who see it as a tick-box exercise – their aim to get one-of-every-kind-and-colour through the door. This is not diversity. There is still that feeling of “us and them”, and difference where one group is in power over the others.

Diversity is about equality of opportunity, being given chances to lead, be involved in decision-making processes, seeing your face or story reflected in “mainstream” culture. For decision-makers and those in power, it is about making different choices and actually giving yourselves MORE choices when it comes to where you recruit from and the content you make. Diversity is about representing the full range of people’s lived experience. I was recently talking to my mentor, Ola Animashawun who said, “Currently the story of our society is not being told.”

Tell us about the challenges you face as an East Asian female writer in the British creative industry.

While Manchester has a thriving independent theatre scene, I have struggled to have some of my work produced in the city where it has a stronger East Asian presence, as producers have found it difficult to cast these roles. Also, I feel a lack of peer support as an East Asian artist – it feels like there is very few of us up here. In London, there seems to be more of a network of East Asian female writers and theatre-makers. However, I know Anna Nguyen, who recently arrived at The Dukes in Lancaster, is hoping to get a network of Northern British East-Asian artists going.

Also, as a writer of Chinese ethnicity working within a British context, I have found that often producers want a certain kind of story that fits with their idea of what is “Chinese” or “Asian”.

Based in Northwest England, Brush Stroke Order provides workshops, mentoring, and performance opportunities to support writers at the start of their career. What were the driving forces behind the establishment of your creative company?

The company’s name refers to Chinese calligraphy and the idea that writing is both an art and a craft. Like any craft, it requires time and dedication to master it as well as the guidance of those more experienced than you. I set the company up to help writers work on their craft and receive feedback on their writing in a safe, supportive environment aside from public performance and review. I particularly enjoy working with new writers and building their confidence. I especially want the female writers I work with to feel confident to submit their work to competitions, scratch nights and theatres or to perform at open mic events. While the majority of my workshop attendees are women, majority of scripts I see are still written by men. I say this based on my experience as a reader for several organisations.

As a writer myself, I understand the frustration of waiting 7 months for a few lines of not always useful feedback. Our script reading service provides writers with more detailed feedback in a much shorter time frame than when submitting to theatres and the big writing competitions. I hope the writers then use this feedback to strengthen their competition scripts and work they send out to be read by theatres.

Would you like to share your upcoming projects with us?

I am itching to start writing a new piece that is born out of my own experience of Christian youth organisations and ministries. I also hope to be involved in Foreign Goods 3, a showcase of British East-Asian writing at The Arcola in January 2018 produced by Pokfulam Road Productions. This event will also launch an anthology of plays by British East-Asian writers published by Oberon books.

One Flesh

What advice would you give to East Asian writers who are keen to enter the industry?

The same advice I’d give to any writer – read as much as you can, see as much as you can including things you think you won’t like. Get a writing mentor. If you are an East Asian writer, I would recommend that mentor be a person of colour – it just makes some conversations easier.

To find out more about Naomi’s projects:

(Ongoing-) PRESENCE PROJECT – a local history project co-ordinated by Identity on Tyne which focuses on Black, Asian and ethnic minorities in WWI, part of Beyond The Western Front project

(Ongoing-) SAME SAME DIFFERENT

(Ongoing -) MY LIFE AS A BANANA: autobiographical account of Naomi’s life as a trans-racial adoptee

(November 2016) YOURS: was in a showcase for British East-Asian writers called Foreign Goods Last Forever at Theatre 503.

(March 2016) ONE FLESH: about Evangelical Christianity and same sex marriage

(July 2014) PASS: a one-act play which was selected for the Manchester 24:7 Theatre Festival

Brush Stroke Order

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