It’s been a summer season for British East Asian talent on the London stage. The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at the Hampstead Theatre, Chimerica transferring from the Almeida to the West End, Yellow Face at the new Park Theatre and coming soon The Extreme World of Happiness at Royal National Theatre in their temporary space The Shed, The Fu Manchu Complex at the Ovalhouse and Golden Child at The New Diorama.
This might be somewhat surprising to the average person on the street after all there can only be a handful of East Asians on TV, Film and in theatre?
But Lucy Sheen now somewhat of a veteran in the complex and to most, unknown world of the creative arts, begs to differ.
“There are literally hundreds of East Asians trying to make their way in the creative arts and not even a handful are known. Singers, composers, dancers, photographers, filmmakers, actors, writers painters, performance artists, poets the list is endless and their backgrounds cover the broad East Asian diaspora”
Since the controversy with The Orphan of Zhao last year, the question that has been going around most is, ‘where are the British East Asian writers?’
“They are here. They have always been here. But they just haven’t had access to a significant platform. But things are changing. Daniel York see’s his play, The Fu Manchu Complex premier at The Ovalhouse next month”.
Lucy is another East Asian actress hoping to travel along that road. Well Lucy’s already done it. In 2011 she wrote and performed her solo theatre piece;
There Are Two Perfectly Good Me’s: One dead, the other unborn (click here to view).
In March 2012 WAITING another theatre piece written by Lucy was chosen to be part of the new writers festive REDfest 2012. Waiting that’s an unusual piece, you don’t often see that combination of people in a theatre piece as I finish asking the question Lucy is smiling.
“Well no but perhaps we should see this combination more often. Why, why do people comment on this point so much? So you have an elderly East Asian woman, and a Black African-Caribbean. Why wouldn’t you? Two women of a certain age from a certain era both who have split memories of home. What I would have commented on if I hadn’t written the piece was an East Asian in an OAP home. But hey that’s me.”
Waiting is probably indicative of how Lucy sees the world around her. Her solo theatre piece is an intensely personal piece. Lucy explores what it means to be a transracially adopted child. Giving the audience a rare and unique insight into what it must have been like growing up in pre-multicultural 60s UK, as the only Chinese person in the local area. It is this show that is taking up much of Lucy’s time and energy. Even though she somehow finds time to continue working on her independent documentary Abandoned, Adopted.
“Oh don’t if I manage to get a rough edit that I’m happy with by the end of 2013 I’ll be doing very, well. Editing is a slow process – well it is when I’m doing it!”
Lucy is also in the midst of running a crowd funding campaign online via IndieGoGo – HELP GET LUCY’S WORK TO THE KING’S HEAD THEATRE. Lucy wasn’t satisfied with having done her solo theatre piece back in November 2011, she has gone onto further to develop this work. Taking on board the feedback she received after the premier. But why the crowd-funding route?
“It’s the only way if you’re an individual to get funding. Trying to get funding from the Arts Council is a real challenge if you’re a single person. I just submitted my first ever Arts Council grant application and wasn’t successful. I fell short on two minor points. Getting funding to support R&D is notoriously difficult. Disappointing but I will try again and soon. I just need a wee break from the form filling in.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have the support of an arts company behind you, or you can find an organisation willing to sponsor you. Crowd-funding is pretty well the only way to go for an individual. But you can only go so far with that. Realistically I reckon maybe 3k is the max you can expect to raise.”
Lucy will be show casing not only her revamped and re-written solo theatre piece, but also a new play. It couldn’t be more of a contrast. I.C.U. will get its world premier in New York of all places. Then back across the water for a showcase at The Kings Head Theatre.
“Ah yes. It still hasn’t really sunk in. It’s a huge amount of work. And it is stressful. Just for two showcases, but it will be worth while, I hope. If the crowd-funder reaches or exceeds the target (please god) then it means I can cover basic costs. Like the venue higher and deliver quality high production value work. Even though it will be black box.”
Lucy is a unique creative, in that she is the only UK transracial adoptee who is a professional actress who writes about her experiences of being both East Asian and British. How both sides of society view her, or have viewed her. Of the racism that exists on both sides of the fence. But I was surprised, Lucy has also worked some great names. Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Ian Holm and even a an oscar winner George Chakiris. Eamonn Walker and Alexander Siddig two British actors now doing exceeding well stateside. As well as Burt Kwouk, David Yip, David Threlfall, Kathryn Hunter, Benedict Wong and Hattie Morahan to name but a few.
Do you ever getter bitter that things just haven’t taken off?
Yes you can do – and that way madness lies. Everyone has an if only story or fifty to share. But if you keep mulling over what could have been you will end up grinding your teeth and just expending unnecessary energy on “what might have been” and missing what’s actually going on.
Fore sure it would have been fantastic if my first job the female lead in the first ever British feature film PING PONG had taken off. But it didn’t for whatever reason. That’s life. what I can take away from that experience is being at the Venice Film festival and receiving a standing ovation after the screening of the film at the Sala Grande cinema the biggest cinema that I have ever seen.
I can’t complain, I worked with the best. I’ve seen some of the best work and watched from the wings. I was the last generation that graduated when repertory theatres were still in existence. Equity was a closed show and work was far more plentiful than it seems to be these days.
But what about seeing other actors climbing the ladder, getting the recognition and you being “invisible”?
We East Asians are not very vocal, so we haven’t done ourselves any favours. We complain about not being visible or accepted fully into UK society like other ethnicities, yet we do very little about it. Until recently. We can’t have it both ways. If we want people to respect, value and embrace us then we have to do like wise. We have to engage fully with the wider society in order to be fully part of it, and that includes getting involved or taking an active interest in politics, art and culture. And not being palmed off with enclaves of segregated culture specific provisions that tick the boxes. We need to be up there on the main stages, on prime time TV and feature films.
I am what I am and the success that I’ve achieved is in no small part due to my dislocated identity, my cultural disenfranchisement and cultural displacement because I was a transracially adopted child. When I was flown over to the UK in the early 60s this country was pre multicultural and by no means the ethnically diverse society it is today
What was that like being a person who is obviously not English in amongst all those English people?
Initially it didn’t bother me because I wasn’t aware of the differences. I thought that I was like everybody else. I couldn’t understand why other kids pulled their eyelids back when I passed or started talking to me in a weird accent. I literally had no concept of what it meant to be East Asian/Hong-Kong Chinese.
Have things changed? I mean this is the 21st century. Equality anti-discrimination laws. More East Asian faces on UK streets?
True and still I get spat at occasionally. People still think that it is acceptable to deliver “chinky” jokes on prime time TV. In theatre some people still think it’s ok to participate in Yellow-face and have the gall to tell me that ‘Yellow-face isn’t anywhere as bad as blacking up. It’s benign micky taking’ Yes pick your jaw up of the floor and then let it drop again as I say that I’ve also been told to my face in the past couple of months that there is no such thing as racism towards East Asians . . . hmmmm.
Seriously things at the moment are far from perfect. It’s all relative. But East Asians are at the bottom. We are a minority, within a minority. When it comes to me, it stings even more, as I’m a minority within a minority, who doesn’t belong to that minority. Well it’s not that I don’t belong, it’s that there are some who think I don’t belong. Because they don’t see me as fully East Asian. I’m too English to be Chinese and too Chinese to English.
Which brings us nicely back to your theatre work. Why a solo piece?
Who knows – I had a nutty idea which I said out loud one day to Wing Hong who at the time was Co-Artistic Director of True Heart Theatre. Next thing I know Wing’s only gone and organised a mini festival and I’m having to write a solo theatre piece. But it got me writing. It proved to me and to an audience that I can write and that people are interested in our stories. That I have a voice.
The Kings Head is a massive break in that if all goes well I can invite potential producers, venues and other industry professionals to come and see my work. This is the first stepping stone on the road to touring my solo theatre piece not only in the UK but also abroad to other countries that have significant numbers of transracially adopted adults and children, US, Canada, Australia.
Sorry I have to mention The Mothers’ Bridge of Love a charity set up by author and journalist Xinran. I hope that I will be doing a lot more for and with this charity as it was set up to help western families who have adopted Chinese children to keep a connection with their child’s culture and heritage very important. Something that I never had.
But it’s not just your solo theatre piece is it. Tell us a little more about I.C.U.
No it’s not, I.C.U. um yeah, that’s . . . I guess I will always look at life, situations, circumstances in a bit of skew-whiff manner. From the outside looking in. So I took the premiss of the lovers triangle and gave it a twist, well a couple of twists. What makes people enter into relationships, love , lust or is it something far darker? I can’t really say too much otherwise it’ll give it all away. You’ll just have to come and see the shows.