Writers WAKE UP!!
am going to argue the importance of British East Asian writers telling their stories. If you feel that your East Asian heritage is only there in theory, that you only reluctantly tick ‘that’ box on the Equal Opportunities form and that you do not see yourself other than British: please read on, I dedicate this to you. Also, if you are an East Asian or South East Asian writer I hope this piece encourages you too.
A few years ago, I would never have thought that I would be the person to write an article on a behalf Papergang Theatre, a new writing company for British East Asian artists.
There are three reasons why I am an unlikely candidate to argue the importance of British East Asian writing:
1. I am not British
2. Until two years ago, I did not connect to ‘being East Asian’
3. I did not set out to be a writer.
Firstly, I am Dutch. I grew up in a small town in the Netherlands to Chinese-Indonesian parents who raised my sister and me under the banner of integration. Yes, there were some school taunts about looking Chinese but it was the only thing that stood out. Bullies are not the most imaginative of people. Apart from the odd hiccup, it was a very happy childhood indeed and I was given the feeling there was nothing I could not do. That was until I wanted to follow my passion into the theatre.
This brings me to point two.
Having grown-up in a white society, in a small village, that meant that our family of four made up for 40% of the non-white population, it never really occurred to me that I might have trouble getting a job because of the way I looked. I performed exactly the same as my peers: I got good grades; I went to university; I got accepted to drama school; I started to audition and I, who never even realised I was East Asian, was rejected because I wasn’t "East Asian" enough. I looked East Asian but I wasn’t “East Asian” enough. That was a problem for the roles available.
It was frustrating and it led me to an identity crisis. I dealt with the confusion by writing. I wrote a one-woman show that I performed at the Camden Fringe Festival in London. The experience taught me that I loved the writing process but dreaded the performance part. I am still unsure whether this is the result of losing my confidence, auditioning for the wrong parts or whether I am just a bit shit – ha!
Yet, this is not the time or place to muse on that...
As I diverted from acting to writing, an opportunity arose to become part of a writing course at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre in the UK. I did what I have never done before: I played the race card.
The Unheard Voices writing course at the Royal Court Theatre was created to give writers from a minority group an opportunity to develop their writing-skills. When I applied and got accepted, I felt like a complete fraud but to my surprise I discovered a community that was very similar to myself: East Asian heritage, born and bred in western society and interested in theatre. There were different levels of experience and different levels of frustration but there were recognisable similarities. At the end of the course, I had connected to people with a common experiences and it strangely felt like a relief.
Maybe I was not just shit!
Then in 2012 came the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Orphan of Zhou casting debacle, in which only 3 British East Asian actors were cast in the 17 roles available. The Orphan of Zhou has been often touted as the “Chinese Hamlet” and this oversight by the RSC triggered a movement. It became clear that British East Asian actors and artists had to make a stand otherwise we would just be overlooked and not ever included in the media of culture, theatre, film and television. I understand that is a common problem for all East Asian artists living in western countries. We all have to make a stand.
Already connected by a common interest, the graduates from the Unheard Voices classes of 2011 and 2012 decided to not sit back and do something. We created Papergang Theatre: a platform for British East Asian artists – with as focus to tell British East Asian stories.
If as Robert McKee tells us in Story, ’…the material of story talent is life itself’: than EVERYONE in the UK with an East Asian background (this is why I can include myself in this) lives the British East Asian story.
This is why it is important that British East Asian writers take a chance as only we can express our own story.
The stereotypical East Asian in the theatre, on film or on our television screens is frustrating because this simple portrayal is too often written by others and doesn’t fit us.I think you will find it hard to find any British East Asian who associates themselves with the negative stereotypes to do with East Asians. This fact doesn’t stop people who see these false images, viewing us in that light. If we ourselves don’t open the eyes of the audience and society, how can we blame them for believing the two-dimensional characters of take-away owners, businessmen and mail order brides they are fed?
Writers, this is your wake-up call: unless we make people aware we are more than stereotype, that is all they will see.
Papergang Theatre wants the British East Asian story to break these old images: we are already greatly represented in other parts of the working world and we need to create more equal opportunities in the creative industry to reflect this. My short stint as an actress showed me the lack of relevant roles and by writing a British East Asian story more opportunities will arise for British East Asian actors.
I am not saying that as a East Asian writer you should just write stories that consider East Asian families or neighbourhoods: in fact, it is even better if you are resistant to this notion. As I argued before there are many shades to us. If you, as an East Asian writer, create characters without specific racial casting you should understand that there is no reason why at least one of these characters cannot be East Asian either.
We live in Britain and why would we limit ourselves to parts that people are used to seeing East Asian faces in?
Yes, there is a place for a monologue from the waitress in a Chinese restaurant struggling with her English but surely there is place for a monologue from the account manager of an advertising agency struggling with her mortgage too?
The British East Asian artists are a minority among the minorities: it is no secret that a life in the arts is not an encouraged career path in a culture where often money still equals success and respect.
We make our own bed if we accept to be kept back in minor roles and don’t create our own opportunities to take the lead. If we really want to succeed in this creative industry, we cannot let the preconceptions of others or even our own holds us back.
Papergang Theatre puts the focus on the writers because they offer the material and the medium for other British East Asian creatives to work with. We have just started our first scriptwriting workshops and aim to organise more readings for playwrights to polish their work. We also recognise the importance of connecting people and creating a supportive network. Hopefully, we will be able to produce a modern British East Asian play soon and in the long run, get rid of the old stereotypes. We want to create more opportunities for British East Asian artists and inspire new generations who wish to pursue a creative career.
The arts will always be challenging, but there is no reason this should be more so for us than for others. If you would ask me on a personal note whether following a passion so troubled is all worth it, the answer would be: YES!
There is nothing as satisfying as working for a cause you wholeheartedly believe in. Our work that we create together will be worth it for me, you and for others. So do come and support or even join our Papergang! BW
Clarissa Widya is one of the co-founders of Papergang Theatre, a new writing company for British East Asian artists. Papergang Theatre is a collective formed from graduates of the Royal Court Unheard Voices writers’ program. With the aim to produce new writing that addresses contemporary issues from a British East Asian perspective, Papergang is facilitating their first set of scriptwriting workshops.
Keep up to date on: www.papergang.co.uk or follow us on