Daniel York Interview
By: PP Wong
Daniel York is a successful scriptwriter, director and actor who is passionate about championing equal rights for creative East Asians.
Born of mixed Chinese and English parentage, the talented British writer was selected as part of the Royal Court’s Unheard Voices initiative for emerging East Asian writers. As a result of this, he was invited on to the Royal Court Studio writers group. His short play Song Of Four Seasons (四季歌) featured recently in Tamasha Theatre's Music & Migration Scratch Night and his other full length play Fake Chinaman In Rehab was given a rehearsed reading by 3rd Kulture Kids in New York City.
As an an actor, his feature films include Rogue Trader, starring Ewan McGregor, The Beach (directed by Danny Boyle) opposite Leonardo Di Caprio and the action film Doom starring The Rock.
Theatre work in London includes Mu-lan’s award winning production of Porcelain at the Royal Court and Forinbras opposite Alan Rickman's Hamlet at the Riverside Studios. He has won the prestigious Singaporean Life! Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Pangdemonium’s production of Dealer’s Choice and Freud’s Last Session.
Daniel is currently starring with Katie Leung (Harry Potter) in the play The World of Extreme Happiness.
He is also challenging racist stereotypes of Chinese people through his hilarious play The Fu Manchu Complex.
In an exclusive interview with BW Daniel took time out of his busy schedule to share his wisdom about scriptwriting and what it really takes to get a play to the stage.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Probably The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. I was lucky enough to actually portray C.S. Lewis in a play called Freud’s Last Session at Singapore Esplanade last year. He gets a lot of stick for being a Christian propagandist but I honestly wasn’t aware of that as a child. His ability to create a whole other world is extraordinary and properly “magical” (horribly overused word). I remember wishing that my wardrobe would take me to Narnia.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Something that flies probably. An eagle, maybe. Though swimming might be quite cool as well. Apparently there are creatures in the depths of the ocean we know nothing about so it might be quite interesting to check some of those out. Without getting eaten of course!
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Inanimate things as opposed to my wife? My guitar definitely. It’s tempting to say my laptop but that’s probably cheating. I’d want to hear the football scores so a radio I guess.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
I’d love to say clever, charismatic and confident but nervy, neurotic and nerdy is probably closer to the mark
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
This is tough but if I had to choose one I’d go for Franz Kafka. He’s famously doomy of course but there’s also a wonderful eccentricity and sly sense of humour running through his work. His ability to create outlandish and surreal situations and characters but at the same time comment so tellingly on humanity is astounding. The passage in (the unfinished) The Castle where the father of the family tries to apologise to the people in the castle is one of the most profoundly moving things I’ve ever read. And The Trial has my favourite closing line ever: “Like a dog!”
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
Bananas really are pretty awesome, aren’t they? I’d take any of those in a heartbeat but I guess the plain banana is the healthiest.
How did you end up writing scripts?
I’ve been an actor since 1990 or something. People had always told me I should write but it looked too difficult to me. I’ve immense respect for writers and as an actor I’m probably over pedantic in trying to follow the writer’s words all the way down to the punctuation they use. Anyway, the further on I got as an actor the more frustrating it seemed to be. I’d worked at the RSC, Royal Court and played in Hamlet opposite Alan Rickman (on his recommendation). Yet I couldn’t get many auditions apart from terrible Chinese parts on TV which I wouldn’t land because I wasn’t considered “Chinese” enough (How Kafkaesque is that?). So I decided to try and do other things.
The first things I wrote were films. My wife (Jennifer Lim, also an actress & writer) suggested a topic for a BBC short film competition which I wrote a script for. I didn’t get anywhere with that but I kept going. Eventually I got within a (fairly lengthy) stone’s throw of getting a feature made and was then commissioned by the BBC Writersroom to make my short, Mercutio’s Dreaming: The Killing Of A Chinese Actor which was later nominated for four awards at a film festival in America. You can watch it here:
I still didn’t think I could write a play though. With a film you can just cut from scene to scene quickly. With a play you have to keep people on stage more (though theatre is probably becoming more and more like film these days). I applied for a course at the Royal Court (probably the premier new writing theatre in the world) for East Asian writers and was accepted. I was fully expecting to be the worst writer there to be honest and the standard was indeed very high. I wrote a spectacularly mad play for them called Who’s Afraid Of Lily Chong which they saw some potential in which led them to invite me onto their Studio writers group. The Studio group is basically for writers which the Royal Court are actively looking to work with so it’s immensely flattering.
I still had to get a play produced though and I ended taking the last scene from Lily Chong and extending it to a full-length play The Fu Manchu Complex which is currently running at Ovalhouse, London. Please come and see it. It’s irreverent, funny and tons of fun but it also has something very pertinent to say about way East Asians are portrayed in Western media. It’s directed by a really phenomenal up and coming director called Justin Audibert and the cast, design and music are all stunning. Go!
You have worked in the British arts industry for over fifteen years. Would you like to share your experiences as an East Asian artist?
I could actually write a book on this subject (maybe I should!).
When I first left drama school I was immensely lucky as there was a theatre company called Mu-lan who put on gritty, edgy work that completely challenged stereotypes and was absolutely prepared to risk being controversial (in a good way). I was in plays like Porcelain (about a gay Chinese man who murders his boyfriend in a Bethnal Green toilet) which transferred and sold out at the Royal Court, Take Away (about a Chinese take away family in Hainault, Essex facing the winds of change) and, later on, Sun Is Shining (about a dysfunctional relationship between a mixed-race City trader and an alcoholic artist) which transferred off-Broadway New York.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this, Mu-lan lost its funding and there was literally no high-quality theatre work with challenging roles for East Asian actors. Without that you’re left with the mainstream and the mainstream industry in the UK has a real problem with East Asians.
They don’t know how to write for them and they often don’t know how to cast them. The only roles on TV are ridiculously stereotypical but even worse nearly always ridiculously bland. Plus it’s difficult to land those roles if you’re a mixed race male. If you can’t do TV it’s hard to do theatre. I’ve found a bit of joy in classical theatre but even now, with the CV I’ve got, I generally won’t be considered for Shakespeare or whatever. One theatre director who wanted to cast me in the lead in a play was met with the argument “but he’s Chinese!” from the theatre boss.
Generally with all acting you have to be able to portray a cliché successfully before you can move on. The most successful theatre actor of this generation is arguably Simon Russell Beale. I can remember seeing him early in his career play three camp, portly fops in Restoration comedies at Stratford. Literally the same role three times. But he was so good at it he became successful and then was able to break out.
But if all you can get seen for are take-away owners and waiters and you don’t look Chinese enough you’ve had it.
There was much celebration a few years ago at the Chinese themed BBC children’s series Spirit Warriors. Yet the (white) producers of that actually complained to my agent because I didn’t have a Chinese accent at the audition! I’m not completely po-faced about that sort of thing but the fact is is they never even asked me to do one. They expect you to look at a brief which says Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and get that but the actors in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon aren’t speaking in “accents” and their “acting” is actually very restrained. In a nutshell this is the whole problem the industry has with East Asians. They’re fixated on these antidiluvian notions that we’re a bunch of mysterious, overtly physical, heavily accented, gurning “orientals”.
Scene from The Fu Manchu Complex
We also seemed (for an awful lot of the last twenty years) to be a “third-class” ethnic minority. The industry congratulated themselves on the increased number of “black & Asian” faces on stages and screens. We were never included in that. When opportunities were denied to “black & Asian” actors or when “black & Asian” characters were portrayed poorly or stereotypically there was much liberal hand-wringing. Yet when East Asians complained of the same things we were literally sneered at. Told we were only 1% (a bogus statistic) of the population and we should stop “whining”.
This is all changed literally a year ago and almost overnight.
In 2012 The Royal Shakespeare Company elected to stage the Chinese Yuan era classic The Orphan Of Zhao with only three of a cast of seventeen actors of East Asian descent and all in roles described by critics as “minor”. This prompted mass social media protests from around the world and culminated in the Arts Council/Equity sponsored event Opening The Door which the RSC to their credit participated fully in. Since then there has been a whole glut of “China plays” featuring numbers of East Asian actors all of which have been successful. I’m writing this the morning after the fourth preview of Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World Of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre which I’m lucky enough to be in. The play features a cast of six entirely East Asian actors. Last night we got a standing ovation. You have to appreciate that in the past producers were reluctant to put East Asian characters and actors on stage because they feared the audience wouldn’t relate to them. I’ve long suspected that simply wasn’t the case and I’ve been amply proved right.
The director I’m currently working with on my play The Fu Manchu Complex, Justin Audibert, is on record as saying that this time last year when he was trying to cast a reading of a play set in China he was advised by several industry heavyweights that he’d never find enough good East Asian actors and he’d be better off using Caucasian ones. I’ve got literally reams of stories like this. This has changed irrevocably in the last 12 months because we’ve spoken out and then turned up on the stage and done our job professionally. People are often under the impression that protest is “militant”. In this case it’s simply saying that we want a presence on stage. If you don’t ask you don’t get. We’ve asked for the first time and that’s a powerful thing.
Do you think theatre is an important tool in making positive change in society?
I do. Theatre is a forum of ideas which allows us to reflect on humanity and on ourselves. Why was Freud such a great psychiatrist? He loved dramatic writing, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Ibsen. He contested that great dramatists understand the human condition exceptionally well. Theatre can raise awareness, tackle contentious issues and get people talking and debating.
Of course like anything it’s open to abuse. All too often British theatre can appear elitist, exclusive and actively snobbish, the preserve of a certain type of person from a certain type of background. But it’s up to us to change that and certainly I think theatre in the UK at the moment is in a very healthy place where it’s actively questioning itself about it inclusivity. Plus I really do think British theatre is the very best in the world when you look at the sheer variety of work on offer.
The most important thing that I think theatre (and screen) can achieve, and which is particularly pertinent to people of diverse backgrounds, is that it can truly teach us to value humanity in all forms. If you look at the world there’s clearly a hierarchical paradigm in terms of whose lives are most valued with Caucasians at the very top. I can clearly remember during the 9/11 aftermath reading a Daily Mail column which literally opined that we naturally value the lives of Americans more than “dusky Middle-Easterners” because we “relate” more to Americans. One of the reasons for that is we see so much American film, TV and stage plays. We see into their lives. We feel their pain, laugh with them, cry with them.
There’s a tendency to almost dehumanize Africans, Arabs, Chinese.
A good example of this is to simply ask how many people are aware that China suffered more World War Two casualties than any other country? When people are seen as “alien” they’re trivialized. You get a film like the second Bridget Jones movie which has a scene where Bridget is in a Thai jail with a group of Thai prostitutes which is played completely for comedy. I firmly believe you can make comedy out of literally anything but I do think you should do so with a sense of the harsh realities of what you’re portraying. Yet too often East Asians are viewed as expendable and joke-worthy. Apparently an awful lot of racist attacks on Chinese take-aways go unreported. We lack a viable presence in British culture and this leads to people subliminally undervaluing themselves. Theatre can change this by creating visibility, telling our stories and providing role models. And when I say “role models” I don’t mean saccharine “examples” of political correctness but powerful, creative artists who portray compelling and vivid characters and stories.
What is the process for getting a new theatre production on the stage?
I’m not going to lie. It’s really difficult. Firstly you gotta write something. Then you’ve got to find someone who’ll put it on. It costs a frightening amount of money and it’s unlikely you can ever make enough to cover that. So you have to get funding from somewhere.
Perhaps the easiest (and only) thing I can do this is talk through the process I went through with The Fu Manchu Complex.
DANIEL YORK'S SPECIAL BW TIPS:
YOUR PLAY NEEDS TO BE COMPELLING & UNIQUE
I had the play. In fact I had four plays. Yet to my mind only two of them were viable for me to produce independently. The reason for this is your play has to be about a compelling issue and it helps if that issue is fairly unique. I see an awful lot of East Asian writers trying to get their naturalistic “living-room” plays which aren’t about being East Asian produced. There’s nothing wrong with that but I think (I could be wrong) this makes things ten times as hard. People could look at my short film and my play and concede that I only write about one thing. Maybe most writers do but the fact is that’s the most authentic and unique subject matter I have at the moment.
TO GET FUNDING FROM GOVERNMENT BODIES YOUR PLAY HAS TO CLEVER IN TICKING THE RIGHT BOXES
The thing you have to remember is that to get the UK Arts Council funding you have to fill out a big long form which has to tick an awful lot of boxes. The Arts Council don’t even read the play because they (understandably) can’t be seen as arbiters of taste. They concentrate on things like “audience development” and enabling access to theatre for people who don’t normally have any. What this inevitably leads to (in the case of ethnic minorities) is what I call “ethnic jamboree” theatre which tends to be “colourful”, “exotic” and a “celebration of culture”. All the things that I, as a mixed-raced British born East Asian, don’t have a particular penchant for. The Fu Manchu Complex is the nearest I can get to “ethnic jamboree” theatre. It is about portrayal and stereotyping. It uses a character created exactly 100 years ago by a white man who was arguably a racist. A character that is a Chinese master-villain written by a man who’d never even met a Chinese person. A racist myth, in fact. But one that still lingers in the imagination of Western media to a remarkably prevalent degree. Just look at the recent Chinese themed episode of Sherlock (The Blind Banker) for instance. I thought The Fu Manchu Complex could be sold as it hits so many bullet points.
IT IS BETTER TO CO-PRODUCE WITH A RESPECTABLE THEATRE THAN GO ALONE. DON'T BE PRECIOUS ABOUT BEING THE ONLY PRODUCER OF THE PLAY. WHAT MATTERS IS THE END RESULT.
We were extremely lucky though that the Ovalhouse were willing to come on board and co-produce with us. You need a venue that’s going to support new work and the Ovalhouse absolutely do that. In order to sell it to the Arts Council though we still had to raise further funding (you have to raise a certain percentage yourself). This funding can be “in-kind”, in other words it can be in the shape of donation of services, facilities, space etc.
CREATE BUZZ FOR THE PLAY BY THINKING OUT OF THE BOX AND ORGANISING INTERESTING EVENTS.
We decided to go the route of trying to get some academic discussion events organized around the topics in the play. This idea came to me after I’d attended a couple of the brilliant China In Britain events that Anne Witchard organized at the University of Westminster last year. The discussions were often around the subjects of “orientalism”, portrayal and the resounding mythology in early 20th Century literature but which still informs Western media psyche. If we could get a couple of discussion events organized it would both bump up the “in kind” funding (space, marketing, time) as well develop an audience and raise awareness of the issues in the play. The people at SOAS and the University of Westminster were unbelievably supportive and without them and Ovalhouse this play really wouldn’t be happening. We also collaborated with British East Asian Artist to hold another discussion purely for theatre practitioners.
BE CREATIVE & DARING WITH YOUR MARKETING
We did also have to look at creative ways of marketing to East Asians which is never easy. We’ve mailed out to Chinese associations and created comic strips (drawn by the brilliant Matthew Leonhart, another mixed-race Eurasian). When we got the funding we were able to engage a press relations company to handle the mainstream marketing as it’s quite a specialist area.
IT HELPS IF YOU HAVE A CAST IN MIND SO YOU DO NOT HAVE THE EXCUSE FROM BACKERS THAT YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FIND THE "RIGHT" ACTORS.
In terms of casting, getting a director etc I suppose I’m fortunate in that both Jennifer and myself had worked in the industry for a while and have a lot of contacts. We got director Justin Audibert because I’d acted in a play reading he did last year. I cheekily sent him the synopsis saying “I’m sure you’ll be too busy” but it turned out he wasn’t. He brought with him a phenomenal designer called Lily Arnold who I can’t speak highly enough of. Her designs for The Fu Manchu Complex are truly spectacular.
Casting: I wrote it for an all East Asian cast but I also wanted that cast to reflect the diversity that exists within us. Too often “East Asian” means “Chinese” or “Japanese” but “East Asia” is an enormous geographical area with an extraordinary mix of races and cultures. Even China itself is far more diverse than most people think. We’re lucky in that there is now an abundance of East Asian actors coming through who are serious about doing serious work as opposed to people who literally just want to sell their ethnicity and appear in TV commercials. We didn’t really do auditions for this as Justin, Jennifer and myself had a very good idea about who fit which roles and indeed I’d written the play with specific people in mind. If I could have a wish come true it’d be that I could write a brilliant part for every single brilliant East Asian actor.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS GO FOR BROKE
The other route you can go is literally just to send your scripts to all the big theatres Royal Court, Bush, Hampstead) but there’s an army of readers to get through and you have to really look at the numbers of first-time writers they’re producing which obviously isn’t very many.
What do you think makes a good script?
Everyone in the world has an opinion on this and the only thing I can do really do is regurgitate clichés. Story and character. The characters have to want something and there has to be obstacles in their way. Why is Titanic the biggest film of all time? It’s not ‘cos it’s the best, it just hits the marks. The boy and girl want to be with each other but the world is conspiring against them.
The only thing I’d add is dialogue. Dialogue is crucially important (though that can be visual dialogue as well). I think in the theatre it has to be either exceptionally funny or poetic in some way. On the stage it’s difficult to get away with the kind of lazy, perfunctory, schematic “info-dump” rubbish that too much British TV and film has. This isn’t the case in America. Even the crassest and worst American films tend to have snappy, sassy dialogue with clever cultural references.
Scene from The World of Extreme Happiness
Any final tips for someone who has never written a script before?
Be brave. What stopped me for a long time was fear. You’re exposing yourself in a very big way when you commit to write something and, yes, I’m afraid some people can be dismissive, unappreciative and plain rude but the fear of that stuff is usually worse than the actual reality. Both of the writing “mentors” I’ve had (Alexandra Wood and Leo Butler) were very encouraging about us not being afraid to write something bad. You can always make it better and that’s the point. If you don’t take the risk you’ll never know and that’s what you have to do as artist. Risk. Again and again.
What is the next Act in Daniel York’s life?
The Fu Manchu Complex is running till October 19th at Ovalhouse. The tickets are very reasonably priced
Please go and see the play! The more British East Asian work that goes on and manages to find an audience the more venues will look to programme more. You can see the work of a great director who very actively wants to encourage writers from diverse backgrounds and a truly stellar cast of (very diverse) East Asian actors-Paul Chan, Chipo Chung, Andrew Koji, Jennifer Lim & Moj Taylor.
At the same time I’m appearing in The World Of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre Shed till October 26th. BW