It’s been another momentous year for the company and for British East Asian Theatre.
Yellow Earth staged two major productions this year. Opening in March we had the epic Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok by In-Sook Chappell directed by Jennifer Tang. It was co-commissioned and co-produced with the Royal Exchange Manchester and toured with Black Theatre Live. The production sold out at the Exchange a week before we had even opened. In total we played to 5582 people, touring 10 venues and garnered 4 star reviews and enthusiastic responses from audiences all around the UK. It was an enormous step forward for the company in terms of its ambition, size and scale.
Audience for Mountains at Stratford Circus. Photo: Ikin Yum
This continued with our second production, Daniel York Loh’s new play Forgotten遗忘 directed by Kim Pearce, a co-production with Moongate Productions bringing to light the little known story of the 140,000 men sent by China to help behind the front lines during WW1. An epic and beautiful piece, it was thrilling to be able to stage it at the Arcola during the Armistice centenary weekend with sell-out performances and an overall 80% audience capacity over a four- week run in London generating a genuine buzz amongst the BEA community and beyond.
Audiences for both productions reflected those on stage – British East Asian’s came in their numbers proving (as alas we still need to be for some) that there are BEA audiences who are willing come to the theatre.
Zachary Hing and Camille Mallet de Chauny in Forgotten遗忘. Photo: Jack Sain
The summer saw a new Yellow Earth Academy opening in Birmingham in partnership with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. It felt fitting that Mei Mac, one of our first students at the Academy when it opened in 2010 was back in her hometown of Birmingham teaching a new cohort of BEA actors. This proved a resounding success with a showcase attended by over 50 people. Darren Henley the Chief Executive of the Arts Council (our principal funder) spent an afternoon with the students and Mei to see the kind of work we have been up to. We now continue to search for sources of funding to be able to sustain the Academy both in Birmingham and in London, with plans to open a new one in Manchester in the next couple of years.
YEAcademy students, Birmingham 2018
I was also able to squeeze in a couple of trips to Asia – first to Japan and not only to teach mask, I also got to spend an extra week taking my sons around on their first trip ever to the ‘motherland’. I was also able to visit Beijing for the first time and spent an intense and rewarding four days working with a company of incredible actors, directors and writers looking at aspects of children’s theatre as well as attending the ASSITEJ International Theatre gathering and meeting a range of playwrights, directors, actors and companies.
Actors from my workshop in Beijing
In September we went straight into a four week, Japanese play-reading festival Winds of Change, Ashita No Kaze 2 with Stone Crabs, bringing over a writer from Japan every week and having the rare and relished opportunity to work on the translations with both the translator and writer present prior to a sharing to a public audience. Again over 80% attendance and a great way to bring together the artistic community.
Introducing Ashita No Kaze 2 with Kwong Loke at Marylebone Theatre
Our two year Professional Writers Programme (PWP) is now nearing its end and the four writers: Kyo Choi, Joanne Lau, Amy Ng and Julie Tsang have continued to work on their scripts with programme leader Caroline Jester. This year the writers were able to meet and attend workshops with Indhu Rubasingham, David Edgar, Kaite O’Reilly and Nina Steiger as well as attend productions at the National and RSC.
PWP Writers: Amy Ng, Joanne Lau, Indhu Rubasingham, Julie Tsang and Kyo Choi
We were delighted when the National Theatre Studio invited two of the writers for a week at the studio in December to work with a director and actors on their scripts. There was a very well-attended sharing of the extracts at the end of the week and the outcome has been an offer from the National of a four-weeks attachment for each writer prior to a full public rehearsed reading at the end of March 2019. A very positive outcome and I can’t tell you how excited I am about all four plays that will have full readings 22 and 29 March at Soho Theatre (more info to follow).
Of course it’s not all been plain sailing – one of the most challenging moments came at the start of the year when out of the blue we were informed by the Cutty Sark that our actor interpreter character, James Robson, who we had been commissioned by the Maritime Museum to create, was no longer going to be needed on the ship. We had been told by the volunteers who work there that he was the most popular character on board and we had been supplying actors for the character since 2013. No real explanation was forthcoming except to say there were changes in management and programming.
Then we got wind of auditions that were being held for actors to play a new role of ‘James Robson’! I couldn’t believe how we had been treated nor any thought given to the four actors who over five years between them had covered this role. Needless to say this wasn’t being run by a BEA company but a white middle class Oxbridge educated man who happened to also supply all the other actors on the Cutty Sark and play one himself. James Robson is the one and only permanent BEA actor interpreter character in any museum in the UK. I wasn’t going to give this up without a fight.
Auditions were already arranged by the time we managed to secure a meeting but amazingly we succeeded in winning back our contract with the Cutty Sark, together with more performances per year and a slight hike in pay. It was a great result and one worth fighting for.
This feels like a marker of how far the BEA community has come, if this had happened even 2-3 years ago we might not have had the same result or I might not have felt emboldened enough to demand the contract back.
Three of our James Robson: Johnny Ong, Jay Oliver Yip and Vincent Fajilagmago
Finally I have been working together with blind director Maria Oshodi and her theatre company Extant on Flight Paths exploring integrated audio description, surround sound in a piece inspired by the Goze and Biwa Hoshi of Japan (blind itinerant musician storytellers). It has been fascinating, challenging, always interesting and immensely stimulating. Extant have been successful in procuring funds for a tour in February 2019 so rehearsals have begun and will continue in January with the production opening in Harlow on 5th Feb. Strangely enough I have had an eye problem that came out of the blue just before Christmas leaving me for the time being with one eye to navigate with. It’s improving slowly and having spent so much time with Visually Impaired artists it has felt far less dramatic than it might have been if I had not had this opportunity with Extant. It’s taken me a step closer to an understanding of life with a Visual Impairment and how challenging that can be.
Flight Paths from L-R Victoria Oruwari, Takashi Kikuchi and Amelia Cavallo. Photo: Christopher Andreou
I look forward to an exciting new year. British East Asian theatre is going from strength to strength with CAN’s fabulous new programme of contemporary Chinese art kicking off in January, followed by Flight Paths, then Under the Umbrella, Amy Ng’s new play which we will be taking on tour to Poole, Dorset, Unity Liverpool and Tara Arts London in March. We also will present the four new PWP plays as script in hand performances at the end of March. Then Pah-Lah and White Pearl will be at the Royal Court (I’m very excited to see the Court pick up White Pearl which was first presented in the UK as a rehearsed reading as part of Typhoon 2017) and Tuyen Doh’s Summer Rolls at the Park Theatre. We will return with our autumn readings festival Typhoon 2019. No doubt more productions will appear.
Last but not least a big thank you to all the brilliant BEA artists: actors, writers and directors, the funders and audiences without whom none of this would be possible, and to team Yellow Earth: Chris Corner, Tammie Rhee and Shuet-Kei Cheung and the many volunteers, placements and interns who have given their time and expertise.
I look forward to seeing audiences for BEA theatre growing, the work continuing to flourish and our confidence remaining buoyant. Our stories matter and we will be heard.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year,
31 December 2018