Blog

25 August 1:03 pm

Welcome to Griffin 2018

Why do you come to Griffin? Why do you climb that ridiculous hill in all weathers? Why do you frantically circle the block looking for parking? Why do you race to Nimrod Street after a long day at work? Why do you cluster around the door and scramble up those stairs to get your favourite seat? Why do you jam in so close to strangers and turn all your attention to that strangely shaped stage?

Because there is a magic inside new Australian plays. The magic of words pulled from our streets, of characters crafted from people we know, of stories that matter to us right now. The magic of Australian playwrights slips past all our defences, making us forget the hill, the parking debacle, the stairs, the weather, the long day, the long week, the long year. The magic of a play written just for us will inspire us, challenge us, comfort us, slap us, and laugh at us. The magic of a new play will make us see ourselves not only as we have been but as who we want to be.

And oh boy, don’t we need that magic these days. In a country and world and a time crying out for vision and values, we are looking to our artists to inspire us as our traditional leaders fail to. In the Griffin 2018 Season you will find the next generation of this country’s artistic voice. These plays have a magic in them, yes, but do not expect a kind magic, because these new playwrights are angry and smart and literate and inventive and funny and they are not satisfied with the status quo. So climb that hill, park that car and elbow your way up the stairs to get your favourite seat because it will be worth the effort. There are extraordinary plays for you in 2018. There will be magic in the Stables. A particularly Australian magic. That’s why we all come, isn’t it?

Love,
Lee

Lee Lewis
Artistic Director

1:01 pm

Sneak peek #Griffin2018

Ahead of launching our full program for 2018 next week, here’s a little preview!

Following the success of The Literati, playwright Justin Fleming and Lee Lewis will reunite to bring you a glorious satire of polite society. Following on from Molière, The Misanthrope is reimagined in a female voice featuring Danielle Cormack in the title role.

“When I pitched the play to [director] Lee Lewis, she said – and quite rightly, I think – ‘I’m not sure I want to hear some middle-aged guy whining for five acts, I think we have enough of that out there already’,” Peter Evans, artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, says. ”I thought that was a marvellous response. Lee is right, it is tiring. She suggested we should swap the genders of the misanthrope and the lover. I think it’s a brilliant idea and Justin has really embraced it.” – Sydney Morning Herald

We’re delighted to be teaming up with Bell Shakespeare again, and this time we’re headed to Sydney Opera House!

Stay tuned as we’ll announce our full 2018 Season on Monday, when subscribers will be able to access discounted tickets to The Misanthrope before they go on sale to the general public.

24 August 4:03 pm

In Conversation with Sofya Gollan (Part Two)

This is the second of two articles written by theatremaker and 2016 Griffin Studio alum Sofya Gollan. Throughout this piece, Sofya situates Australia within the wider international Disability Arts community, and Griffin within the accessibility conversation—highlighting the, regretfully, true point that the Stables wouldn’t able to accommodate many of her friends and colleagues.

We are excited to announce that Griffin will now be providing a live-captioned performance for the hearing impaired for all Main Season shows. This past Tuesday marked the inaugural live-captioned performance at the Stables—of Michele Lee’s Rice. You can book for Diving for Pearls live-captioned performance on Tuesday 17 October 7pm here.

So what has Disability Art got to do with Griffin? I came into the Studio group with a play that I was doubtful was going to fly. Based on a true-life situation of a friend, the main character is DeafBlind and core themes deal with entrapment for all of its characters. I wasn’t sure it was going to be relevant to anyone outside the disability sector.

But a surprising thing for me happened over the year spending time with the other five playwrights in the studio and Lee and Ben, one of our tasks was to read the plays that came in for the Griffin Award. Engaging in the round table assessments of over a 100 plays to winnow down to the final choice (The Zen of Table Tennis), I came to the realization that a healthy theatre culture is one made up of many voices.

This experience made it possible for me to compare and judge if my story was already being told and as far as I could see, it was not. I gained confidence it had a place that was worth pursuing. It was also reassuring that it was not necessary to be dazzling with situation or character, but to tell the story that no one knows, and relevance would take care of itself.

Part of the support at the Griffin enabled me to go to London to work with an actress in her sixties, Jean St Clair, who is deaf, and very much in demand. There is no one like her in Australia, with her knowledge of theatre and depth of professional experience and deep ties to the deaf community. She was a perfect collaborator for the lead character who is DeafBlind.

The workshop was fruitful, as it illuminated that I would be presenting three different languages on stage throughout the play: Auslan (Australian Sign Language), Tactile Sign Language for the DeafBlind, and English. This process made clear to me that I would need to find elegant and simple ways of ensuring that all of it could be understood by the audience. It emphasized something I already knew: professional, deaf actors fluent in the languages would need to be cast in the roles.

These workshops coincided with the biennial Unlimited Festival held in SouthBank, a festival of international Disability Art showcasing theatre, visual arts, film, dance and music. It was an opportunity to place my developing work in the international context, after months embedded at Griffin where the focus is new Australian work.

Unlimited Festival was set up as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and is now an ongoing programme designed to embed work by disabled artists within the broader UK cultural sector, to shift perceptions of disabled people. It is a big fixture in the Disability Arts scene, so I was excited to be seeing the best of what was on offer. Like all festivals, I found the quality uneven, as many of the supported artists are early in their careers, experimenting and developing still. There were standouts, Suicide the Musical, Biscuit, The Fish Police. All presenting their unique thing like no other.

I had expected coming home to the Arts Activated Conference almost directly after would be a jarring comparison, but the segue into exploring what’s happening in the disability arts sector in Australia showed we have a critical mass of artists now producing extraordinary work captivating public enthusiasm. Our work and our artists most definitely rate against their international counterparts.

I’ve taken a broader view than just theatre, because much of what is created in the disability arts scene is multi-disciplinary, and there doesn’t seem to be that many playwrights with disability. Writing a play is labour when it comes down to it, all that rewriting until the inner narrative is distilled down to a theatre-ready piece. It’s not quite the fun and games as say, dancing.

I have wondered if I might see one of my works at the Stables, and I know I would be thrilled to see it play in its intimate, compact space. I have attended many plays over the years but coming back for Griffin Studio I viewed it with a different lens, to find it one of the most inaccessible theatres I have ever been in. No one with a mobility disability could get up the stairs. Perhaps one wheelchair user could fit in, if there was a lift. The Auslan interpreter would probably have to sit in someone’s lap, and the audio-description for the blind would be overheard by everyone.

I am half-joking of course. The theatre is slightly bigger than that. It would be wonderful to put on a play for Griffin, but knowing my peers would be barred from getting in or understanding due to lack of access, would be high hypocrisy on my part. Its not a lack of will or understanding that holds the Griffin back from implementing changes, but rather the doubly high cost of aligning the theatre’s heritage restrictions with the additional complexity of access infrastructure.

I am grateful to Griffin for its dedication to new work, new people, new ideas. My year at Griffin showed me we each hold our universes, and our task as playwrights is to simply unfold them, using all the best words we have.

The requirement of having to meet once a week at Griffin has been a valuable discipline in a time of children, work and enforced writing late at night. Every week was an hour and half of shooting the breeze on all things theatre and writing, in a space that was questioning, warm and companionable. The company of other writers was a rare, life-affirming treat.

Read Sofya’s first article for the Griffin blog here

21 August 4:05 pm

A Note from Lee, 17 August

Marriage equality and the postal vote. If Griffin was a person, they would vote yes…oh wait…Griffin is people…a lot of people…a small number of people here in the office, and a lot of people receiving this email and coming to our shows each night. And it would be awesome if all of these people who love the art and artists on the Griffin stage could vote yes.

Make sure you register to vote, or update your details by Thursday 24 August. You can do that here

The same sex marriage survey forms will be mailed out on Tuesday 12 September.

You are STRONGLY ENCOURAGED to return forms by Friday 27 October.

The ABS will not accept your vote if it arrives with them after 6pm on Tuesday 7 November.

If you want to do more go to: http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/

More dates. You have until August 26th to see Rice. Our first-ever captioned performance is on August 22nd. We are launching our 2018 season on August 28th. You have 130 days until Christmas. Get cracking people. There’s a lot to do before then, including making Australia a place where everyone has the right to marry the person they love. I know there’s a lot more on the list to make this country fairer but let’s take care of this now.

With love from the whole Griffin team,
and Lee

Lee Lewis
Artistic Director

11 August 12:02 pm

In Conversation with Sofya Gollan (Part One)

In this blog series, theatre maker Sofya Gollan offers an insightful commentary on the Disability Arts community and her experience as a 2016 Griffin Studio Artist.

Disability Arts: it is a sector of the art world that takes on Disability as its theme. It represents work that explores the conceptual ideas and physical realities of what it is like to be disabled, or concepts relating to the word ‘disabled.’

My relationship with the Disability Arts sector has never been straightforward even though I have identified as having a disability (as a professional creator) for many years now, being deaf, while also being an actor, playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker. I used to say, “I am a deaf actor, deaf writer, deaf filmmaker,” but now I don’t see the necessity to link what I am to what I do. It isn’t the identity I have to cleave to in order to create my work. Disability is one strand that weaves into the other identities of mother, mediocre cook, book reader, filmmaker, seamstress, VR and science enthusiast, and with sneaky appreciation, cats taking down toddlers on the interwebs.

The cultural context when I started out was if you had a disability and wanted a serious career in the arts it was essential to prove it would not impact on the work (or collaboration) and was irrelevant. The common opinion was if you had a disability, artistic practice was seen as a therapeutic activity that alleviated the frustrations and limitations of a small and diminished life. Not a career or a calling to express a unique viewpoint or opinion of the world. It was expected that you not mention it, not let it impact on your collaborations with others, but rather insist: “Look what I made in spite of, I am just like you”.

I understood you were allowed to have every point of view except that of Disability as a valuable and essential contribution to the arts culture. Depicting a life lived with disability was not a world-view that was sought out, cultivated, or more importantly, bought. So I made work that did not directly allude to disability, even though being deaf I identify as disabled because it has prevented me many times from participating fully in society and the opportunities that are contained therein.

But now, ironically, on a professional level, identifying with the Disability Arts movement in recent years has been the re-ignition of my career.

It’s often possible to have a disability (as an artist) and not be part of the Disability Arts scene. But it’s nearly impossible to create art without the disability shaping and informing the work. Disability Art, with its unique perspective has the potential to startle and poke the audience into seeing the world not only differently, but with awe and wonder, as all good art does.

For many it might be a surprising concept that in art, disability is to be celebrated as a new addition to the culture especially when created by those with an insider view i.e. people with disability or lived experience. In 2007, British artist Yinka Shonibare (a Turner Prize Nominee) stated the now famous quote: “Disability Arts can be seen as the last remaining avant-guarde movement”; much like feminism, LBTQ, and indigenous movements once were. Avant-garde is an admittedly over-used term, that is often taken up to describe work by young (energetic) people who believe they are reinventing the world one distressed-white-room at a time. But its simple and original meaning is: ‘the advance guard of people or works that are experimental, radical, unorthodox with respect to culture, art and society.’ I believe artists with disability are occupying that space, living and depicting their lives and experiences. They provide a fresh unique perspective on the fragility of bodies, boundaries and inclusion. Or often, exclusion.

12:02 pm

Lee Lewis in response to Kevin Jackson critique

This blog post is written is response to this critique on Kevin Jackson Theatre Diary

Dear Kevin,

Traditionally artists stay silent in the face of published criticism. However the media landscape is changing rapidly and significantly, and in this age of disinformation and fake news there is an increasing need for fact checking. Normally I’d pick up the phone and call you to organise a coffee and a chat about some of the misconceived notions you have about programming at Griffin, and in the past I have enjoyed our discussions about the challenges of selection and production of new Australian plays. 

Today though, I am worried that my more personal approach might, in the past, have contributed to the impression of the silence and silencing of artists and artistic directors in this country. I find myself in an age and a country where it is necessary to analyse my ‘traditional’ responses in an effort to understand whether they are ‘right’ or lazy, or the product of an institutional structure created to support the cultural status quo, or the product of an inherently patriarchal, white dominant education system within the British empire, or the product of the nuns impressing on me that good girls are quiet. I am also worried that a lack of response posted publicly will add to a spread of cynicism about our funding structures, the likes of which exposed the arts to damage of the Brandis debacle. 

So. A response. Posted for the record on your website. If you choose not to post it as is your right as a moderator, I’ll also post it on the Griffin blog. I will attempt to limit my conversation to what I will term paragraph five of your blog post, beginning (ironically from my point of view) with the word ‘Certainly’.  I will not engage in any response to your critiques of the play or the performances. We have a long history of acknowledging our different tastes in writing, production and performance styles, and I will always support your right to your opinion of my work. 

“Certainly, then, in the present political environment of our Performing Arts industry this play ticks many of the boxes that will take it into serious consideration for actual production from Main Stream companies.”

To be clear, there are no boxes to tick. Neither the Australia Council for the Arts nor Create NSW put any restrictions on our programming decisions. As a company we create our own Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure and acquit our success at achieving the goals of the company. Our acquittals are publicly available in our Annual General Report which is on our website. Our main KPI is to produce three new Australian works every year. That is it. There are no restrictions on that. I have enormous freedom as an Artistic Director to distribute the company resources to meet that KPI.

There are goals within this company that publicly state that we are committed to creating productions which reflect the diversity of the city and country in which we are privileged to work. We create our own KPIs to track our strategies and successes in meeting those goals. None of those KPIs necessarily impact on the straightforward mission of the company to produce at least three new works every year. Note that even while absorbing the Brandis cuts we are producing three new works and one revival this year, and that over the next three years the Girgensohn Foundation is supporting the fifth play in our season.

The goals of the company to reflect the diversity of our population reflect the values of the people working in the company, and I would say the values of many people working in the arts in Australia today. Often we do not reach those goals in our programming. More often than not in the history of this company, the seasons are dominated with plays written by men; the plays are written by white playwrights; and the stories told are dominated by white male protagonists. Historically, educationally and institutionally, the scales are still tipped in favour of the white male playwright and the white male hero, even at Griffin. I don’t deny the excellence of the plays programmed even as I admit the absences their presence perpetuates. 

Every time there is a lack of gender equity in the season, the production or the story, I feel it personally. Every time there is an all white cast onstage, I feel it as a failure keenly. I believe every play is an opportunity to move the Australian cultural identity towards a new normal that includes every citizen in our storytelling traditions. Those are my own values, which are publicly known, and were known at the time I was hired to lead this company. Yes I try to separate my values from the company goals because it is not ‘my company’ but a company belonging to the audience of Sydney and Australia. But of course my values influence the conversations within the company and thus the formation of the goals. They are connected. Inevitably. But to be clear, those values are in no way boxes to be ticked by playwrights desiring production at Griffin. There are no boxes. And for you to perpetuate that language or that myth is incorrect, irresponsible and damaging. 

“A writer of the female sex (tick) from a minority Asian culture (tick), with two roles for women (tick) that will demand cultural diversity in casting (tick) dealing with contemporary issues (tick).”

Let’s leave aside your glib tone that ripples with colours of condescending, patronising and offensive. Let’s instead celebrate all those qualities about this play. Unfortunately Rice is still extraordinary for these reasons. I hope within my lifetime these qualities will become unremarkable. Rice was not programmed for any of these reasons. It was programmed because it is an excellent piece of writing from an emerging playwright that reflects the people and politics of our time. It was programmed because I believed it would speak to our audiences in ways and words they needed to hear. And the reactions from most of our audiences are ratifying that instinct. This is a critically and financially successful production of a new Australian play from a playwright who I believe will be one of the most significant voices in the transformation of the cultural identity of this nation. But the success or not of this production does not fall within the framework of this conversation. Again your opinion is your own.

I am not the only person in the artistic community that has this faith in the potential of this play and this playwright. Michele Lee’s potential as a playwright was identified years ago. She has had a number of plays in development at different companies. Playwriting Australia developed this work. Rice won the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2016-17 and received further development at Queensland Theatre. There has been the freedom in these processes for her as the playwright to experiment with how to tell the story in the way she wanted. Which brings me to your third sentence:

“Plus, the offer by the writer that the two actors, who play Nisha and Yvette will, also, play an extra four characters each, of various sex and ages, thus ensuring that the Producing companies, need only employ two actors – a budgetary consideration of often irresistible attraction (tick) to get one’s work produced by the Professional Company in Australia.”

Yes, importantly, the playing of multiple roles was an offer by the playwright. This was not a directorial idea, or a producer intervention. Griffin is a playwrights’ theatre and as such we strive to present the first productions of plays as imagined by the playwright. Michele Lee’s reasons for asking two actors to play multiple roles included, but are not limited to, an acknowledgement that there is not, in this country, much opportunity for the transformational performances by diverse women. As such, she has genuine interest in exploring the boundaries and possibilities of this challenge in her play. It was my duty as first director of the work to give her the opportunity to see her ideas in front of an audience. 

“(A strategic gesture by Ms Lee?)”

If it was, it was a dangerous strategy. The two-hander is an exceptionally difficult form of storytelling. The first one I worked on was Caryl Churchill’s A Number, which was possibly the most perfect meeting of form and content I have ever had the privilege to direct. It also made me very wary of the pressures of that formal choice. In fact, seeing that a play is a two-hander sets off all sorts of resistances in me. Michele Lee’s work convinced me that the two-hander is ultimately the right form for the telling of this story. There is a philosophical offer inside the form that recognises that power is one person feeling entitled to value themselves above another, and that racism is built and deconstructed between two people. These thoughts are not overt but they are being tested by the play. Again, the success or not of the production in realising these philosophical enquiries is not important right now.

I would note that the only other two-handers we have produced in my time as Artistic Director here at Griffin were Aidan Fennessy’s The House On The Lake, and Declan Greene’s 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Prior to that, under Sam Strong’s leadership, I directed Van Badham’s The Bull, The Moon and The Coronet of Stars in 2013. So, in no way could it be said that we look to produce two-handers. Indeed the entire theatre community is aware of the need to keep the numbers of actors onstage as high as possible. Last year Griffin had an average of 5 in cast size. This year, in absorbing the Brandis cuts we have dropped to an average of 4. Next year we will be up to an average of 4.6, again with no two-handers. We do have some physical limitations at Griffin. The eight in the dressing room for Gloria did rely on certain graciousness from the acting company in sharing a tiny space. But I digress.

“In this case the Producing companies, the Arts Funded Queensland Company and the Griffin Company (of NSW origin) need only pay one actor each for this three month rehearsal/performance season (tick tick).” 

This seems like a good opportunity to correct the false impression that co-producing saves companies money. The cost of safely and responsibly supporting a play and its team across companies and states outweighs any ‘savings’ you are implying. One of the reasons companies invest in the extra work and cost of a co-production is the genuine desire to share a story across geographic boundaries. I believe that this benefits both the playwrights and the audiences of different cities. In the quest for a national conversation, co-production is one of the creative tools the arts community has to bring audiences together around a contemporary narrative. The costs are large and that often stops more co-productions from happening, but the benefits to this country are significant in the long term. No company co-produces to save money. Cue laughter from every general manager across the country.

That was my best attempt to contain the anger your paragraph provoked. I hope I have dealt with the parts of your statements reasonably and factually. What I have yet to address is the despair provoked at the sum of the parts of that paragraph. That you would attack the programming of a play for the very qualities which represent the ambitions of the theatre community to be inclusive and representative of the audience it works to serve is devastating. The suggestion that all the work, intuition, craft and creative energy over the years it has taken to bring this work to the stage was expended cynically in the pursuit of political correctness is deeply offensive. At a time when our values as a nation are under attack, this play is programmed with an eye to the best version of the future of this country. That is not a box, it is a belief that our artists will lead us when our politicians fail to.

Lee Lewis

3 August 2:33 pm

A Note from Karen, 3 August

In the Griffin office this week we can’t wait for you to…

…See Rice

Michele Lee’s new play Rice opened last week after a sold-out season in Brisbane. It has been fantastic to receive such great feedback from audiences throughout the previews and first week after the move from Queensland Theatre to our intimate Stables stage. It is terrific having Kristy Best back with us in such a dynamic role—the last time you would have seen Kristy here was in Gloria—and I am excited that we can introduce you to the beautiful Brisbane-based actor Hsiao-Ling Tang. Tickets are selling quickly. Book now and witness the amazing stage chemistry between these two actors.

…Experience 2018!

There is much excitement in the office this week as we sign off on the 2018 Season brochure. This is my third season launch at Griffin and once again I look forward to Lee unveiling what we have in store for you next year. It’s another season of bold Australian work that the Griffin team are eager to sink their teeth into. We’ll launch the season on Monday 28 August and I can’t wait to share this one with you.

… Meet the Diving For Pearls Company

Katherine Thomson’s beautifully rich play, Diving For Pearls, goes into rehearsal on Monday. We are thrilled to have Katherine, Darren Yap and the rest of the company on board. I loved this play when I first saw it in the ’90s and it is a story that is still sharply relevant to us today. I’m looking forward to seeing what Darren and his amazing team will do with this poignant, heartfelt work.

….Read

This fantastic review for the next work coming up as part of Griffin Independent, Merciless Gods. From this it looks like this show will be another one not be missed.

…Watch

Our Griffin Up Late Video. Who knew that so many of the Griffin staff could double as comedians? Join us for the next Griffin Up Late. If it’s as good as the others have been this year —and from the line up it sure looks that way—it will be a corker of a night! See you there.

Cheers,
Karen

Karen Rodgers 
General Manager

20 July 1:48 pm

A Note from Lee, 20 July

There is an extraordinary opportunity in Sydney right now. Tomorrow night is the first preview of Rice…and then for the next couple of weeks across the mainstages in this city you will be able to experience for yourself the writing of women across centuries. Aphra Behn at Belvoir, Caryl Churchill at STC and Michele Lee at Griffin. They have nothing in common as writers apart from their gender, so probably should not be compared at all—apart from the fact that this week on Broadway there is only one play by a female playwright running.

That play is Paula Vogel’s Indecent, produced by female producer Daryl Roth.

So very rarely will you have the chance to hear the voices of women, written by women, across the 17th, 20th and 21st centuries, and decide for yourself what remains relevant, what is slowly evolving and what if anything has changed in the way we create female characters.

Rice is our coproduction with Queensland Theatre and comes to Griffin after a sold out season in Brisbane in the Bille Brown Studio. Brisbane wrapped its huge heart around this play and I think you will too when you spend time with the wonderful characters created by Michele. This play reminds us why we must keep writing and producing new Australian plays because there is nothing like the feeling of a story written for us right now that goes straight to the heart of how we are trying to grow as a country right now.

At the opening night of Cloud Nine, Artistic Director of STC Kip Williams asserted that Caryl Churchill is the world’s greatest living playwright. Now that may be so, but coming from the little theatre on the hill dedicated to the work of Australian playwrights, I can honestly say that I wrestled with the relevance of that play to what matters in Australia at the moment. It is a great play, a British critique of colonialism that in its time was a powerful voice for change. But we must find our own voices and plays to speak back to the Empire in ways they cannot imagine, otherwise we remain as bound as we always have been. It is not enough to champion Caryl Churchill, we must search for, support and produce our Australian playwrights so that we have a voice on the world stage speaking from the Republic we can only imagine at the moment.

Love,
Lee

Lee Lewis
Artistic Director

 

14 July 11:22 am

A note from Michele Lee

In the lead-up to the Sydney premiere of her award-winning play RICE, Michele Lee shares her thoughts on writing, identity, work and growing up in Canberra in the 90s.

In June, in the balmy Brisbane winter, I watched the opening night of Rice without much expectation. I was distracted. Will, my partner, had missed the flight so he wasn’t joining me and the babysitters were in the apartment with the baby. I had only just put on lipstick and scrambled downstairs to the Billy Brown Studio. Lee Lewis was a little excited, and she bought me a wine.

It is a Very Important Thing to win an award. Winning the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award guarantees a production and that makes it a unique award in Australia. That means I get my first mainstage production, a world premiere.

As the lights went down, I thought: “Holy shit. My play is all grown up.” I’ve been so inside of this play since I began workshopping it. It has been thoroughly dramaturgically thrashed by now. And I think it’s a stronger piece for it. But I’m so inside it, it’s going to be hard to sit back like a regular audience member and let it wash over me. Maybe it’s the wine, and the fact I haven’t really been drinking because I’m breastfeeding. But I relax, and the play — for the most part — washes over me.  Kristy and Hsiao-Ling are fantastic.

***

The Tuggeranong Valley newspaper once ran a story about how multicultural my high school was. They snapped a picture of sample students outside the staff lunchroom. There were representatives from the various nationalities that made our high school worthy of such a story. I was in the picture (for those who don’t know anything about me, I’m Asian. Specifically, Hmong. Think South East Asian golden skin and thick black hair). For some reason the number 72 pops up. 72 nationalities, if I recall.

Outside of this photo op, I didn’t hang out with the other ethnics. Not really. They were clean cut, they played soccer or volleyball. On the other hand, I had a thing for drama. At lunch and recess, I’d keep myself busy volunteering at the canteen or running (badly) the lunchtime radio. Or I’d float between different groups within the high school jungle. But I never hung out with the Asian girls. They knew it. There was an unsaid acknowledgement of my snubbing them.

***

And so some of my early plays and early prose writing deliberately avoided anything to do with race and identity. You could say that this was for the usual reason of assimilation — daughter of migrant parents wants to fit in, all her life, through school and beyond, and just maybe she’ll erase her otherness completely. I wrote a memoir a few years ago. I didn’t focus on being Asian. I wrote about being 29-going-on-30, living in Melbourne, having casual sex. Friends, readers, reviewers all wondered why I didn’t focus more on my ‘culture’. Meaning, why didn’t I focus on my family and my ancestry? Why was I being so white?

Or you could say that I am a bunch of labels. I’m Hmong, yes. But I also grew up in Canberra, in the 80s and 90s. I went to a shitty public school. I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I am what I am.

Aren’t we beyond seeing an Asian woman and expecting that if she opens her mouth, the only thing she’ll do is tell her ‘Asian’ story?

***

Oh, it’s complicated. I see younger Asian people and think that they’re articulating it more neatly than I do. Being Asian, being Australian, being of a certain generation, of a certain point in time. It’s all about intersectionality. I actually began memoir-writing in high school, and it was about my family. But I was only 15. I had less to write about.

Mrs Swift, my teacher, was moved by a piece I wrote, something about playing in the front yard in the commission house I’d grown up in. She urged me to consider writing as an actual career. In another breath, perhaps as an awkward apology, she also explained that her teenage daughter was terribly racist. It’s complicated, the times I grew up in. Canberra in the 1990s. The waves of South East Asian immigration were evident but were now slowing. My high school was multicultural. Pauline Hansen was about to make her maiden speech. Rachelle Gray sat beside me in English and she must have been seething with her confused anger. All these immigrant children in her country, and yet she had grown to like me. She cornered me one day. “Every time I see a gook, I just want to stab them with a machete and put them back into the boat they came from. But I like you, Michele.” You can imagine, I didn’t quite know what to say. I thought we were friends.

There was a general level of aggression at my high school. Battered sports equipment, teachers fleeing the classroom in tears because of agro students, smokers on the soccer field with their obvious plumes of cigarette smoke. Macho delinquents. Pointless detention rooms — as if the students at my high school cared.

With education like this, what would I be when I grew up? I had a thing for drama, like I said. I wrote that piece about my family that Mrs Swift liked. But I didn’t know any writers, any playwrights, any artists. No, not in the Tuggeranong Valley.

***

My first play was workshopped by the local youth theatre company in Canberra. I think I’d been reading Absurdist plays at the time, the few available at the library (no internet back then) and I fancied a bit of breaking the fourth wall. I didn’t think my perfect play needed any more help, such was the certainty of my teenage arrogance. I didn’t participate in the workshopping and only came along at the very end to see what they’d done with it. Meanwhile, in my first year of uni studying Comms, I hung out with the student theatre crowd. We put on American plays. We had house parties. There was even a girl from America in a lead role. In fact, there were students from all around the world. And me from the valley, feeling as if the edges of my world were creeping further and further open. Eventually I broke up with my high school sweetheart, worked in the public service, fell into a post-uni malaise, missed doing theatre, felt an existential ennui. I was 22. I moved to Melbourne.

***

Oh, being a woman. Being an Asian woman. Being a female Asian Australian playwright. It’s taken me a long time to say it with confidence, with a self-assured meaning.

What do you write about? And there is still that little moment of cringe…That Mrs Swift-style awkward and unnecessary apology. I say: “I write about women. About women like me.”

And the reviewers and the readers and the audiences might tell me that I’m not doing this at all, that I could be writing a more authentic version of me.

I did write a piece about Hmong people. It was a dream play that grew into a radio play. At some point, in my later 20s, I became very interested in writing about race and identity and including it in my work. A few of my works are exactly about this. But not all of my work.

I somehow avoided student politics at uni while in Canberra. It was in Melbourne that I had a Marxist awakening. I became very interested in workers’ rights. And all those things, those things embedded from an early age — the commission house, the single income household, the shitty public school, the bogan called Rachelle who held back her machete, the tiny sphere that was my childhood — they boiled up. And a woman like me is someone obviously Asian, someone who worked from age 11, someone who spent her first Austudy payment giving her little sister her first birthday party.

Sometimes I write about women and labour. Production is creative. I’ve always felt that. I’ve always been busy, the girl serving in the canteen and running the student radio (badly).

In this capitalist (post-capitalist?) world, I’ve always been busy at work.

***

A mother now. It took me 36 years. But there is a baby boy in this house. The baby is sleeping. He’s onto his second sleep cycle. And so I write this post, trying to clear my mind of baby-ness and conjure up my writing bones. Really, the last time I did any writing was probably on Rice, for the final week of the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award development. That was mid-2016. I’d begun researching Rice in late 2013, and workshopped it throughout 2015 through The Street Theatre and through Playwriting Australia, before entering into the Award. Now that I’m older, I relish workshopping.

Pre-baby, Will and I went to India. This was part of my research. I joked with people that I was going on a grant-funded junket. Will had been before to India; I’d never been. But researching and writing Rice, where one of the characters is Indian, was a very compelling reason to do a little research trip.

The obvious things about India: it was very hot and humid at that time of year. We had a steriliser pen for drinking water. Poverty is obvious. But so is wealth. Kolkata may be quiet in some neighbourhoods at 2am but other than that, like other Indian cities, there are people everywhere. And of course, the infamous head wobble that may mean yes, no or maybe.

Other things I observed: people who do construction work often wear thongs as safety footwear, as in South East Asia. Hard-working manual labourers are darker-skinned. You don’t have to walk far for street samosas and street chai. There is a ratio of about five staff to one passenger at airport security.

The other part of our short trip was spent down south in Kerala. The waves at Verkala Beach tore through the ocean and I found them frightening and refreshing in equal measure. One day I trained-it to Trivandrum to meet with a worker in an NGO advocating for rights with farmers. The other meetings I’d set up didn’t eventuate. See — this wasn’t just a sham junket. I was researching.

***

Women and work. India and China. Big economies. Rice consumption and rice production. I grew up eating rice every day. My mum had a big plastic tub, probably 200 litres big, and she filled it with short grain rice. And every day she’d go to it, scoop raw rice, and then cook it in the rice cooker. We always had rice.

Of course there is a little part of me in Rice. But for this play I wanted to play with characters that weren’t autobiographical but were still women of colour. Intersectional folk. This is the times we live in. A young woman of Indian background, in corporate Australia, with her nose pressed at the glass ceiling.

She could have gone to my high school.

And an older woman, maybe much like my mother, thrifty with her vats of rice, cleaning the shit off the toilets of corporate Australia.

 

Michele’s play RICE starts previews Friday 21 July and runs until 26 August at the SBW Stables Theatre. Book tickets. 

6 July 2:34 pm

A Note from Lee, 6 July

Enchantment. That’s what great talent offers us. That is what is in the Stables this week as one of the world’s great talents Robyn Archer performs at Griffin. With Dr Michael Morley on piano and George Butrumlis on piano accordion the space is filled with magic. I am so sorry that more people will not have the chance to spend a night in the Stables with Robyn as she takes us on a journey through the French, German and American songbooks. Fiercely intelligent, deeply moving and unashamedly Australian in her worldview, she may not be offering the typical new play you would expect to see on our stage, but Robyn Archer is a great Australian story and so the Stables is her natural home. And that voice. That’s what enchantment sounds like.
 
More Stables magic — last Thursday night Michele Lee’s Rice opened in Brisbane at Queensland Theatre, Suzie Miller’s Sunset Strip was on the Stables stage as part of Griffin Independent, The Witches was playing in Ararat in Victoria and the extraordinary Paul Capsis was performing Angela’s Kitchen (from 2010!!!) in Malta!!! Go Griffin! Go Australian plays! Go Australian talent! Go sun-shiny Sydney blue-sky day! Go all you wonderful people who contributed to our 2017 End of Financial Year Campaign — we hope you can see all your support spreading out through our artists around the country and the world!
 
Thank you to everyone who plays a part in making all this possible. Are we doing too much? Possibly. Are we going to stop? No! Not as long as you keep coming to see the work.
 
Love,
Lee

Lee Lewis
Artistic Director

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