By NIDHA KHAN
“What is Chinese? What is being Chinese? What is not Chinese?”
These are the conversations which creator and director Alice Canton aims to spark in her upcoming documentary theatre, Other [chinese].
Unlike most shows, it doesn’t include actors. There’s no filter placed on somebody’s ideas or journey. It’s just real people with real stories.
Together, their stories span across eight themes from migration, assimilation, racism, inter-generational conflict, trans-national tension, family politics, community and national politics, and power.
To get a real sense of what experiences people had, what their concerns were, and where the common barriers to understanding were, Canton held several workshops across Auckland for community members to attend. There, she found the 15 people who now form her core cast.
There were many others who wanted to be involved, but couldn’t commit because of family or other reasons. She thought, if we perpetuate this idea that to be included in the documentary, you need to be all of these things, then we’re cutting out a whole range of people: mothers, people who don’t have a car or work at night, and more. So, there’s an open invitation for up to 100 Chinese voices every night. This means that people can just show up on the night and she’ll weave them into the show!
As you would have guessed by now, this is a response to many social, political and emotional issues. “It’s responding to a need to create space for multiplicity to exist, for Chinese identity. It’s a response to misrepresentation and the invisibility that we have around that identity. It’s also a call to action for people, whether they identify with Chinese identity or not, to encourage that within other identities, whether that’s gender, ethnicity, culture, or something else.”
Canton explains that a show like this could have arguably been made 10 years ago because the issues that Chinese people are facing have largely remained the same. However, it’s still “a really good time to have this conversation now.” There’s mounting pressure relating to the increasing number of migrant communities coming to Auckland, the push for Auckland to be seen as a super diverse city, that it’s election year, and the number of racist events that have taken place in the past 18 months in NZ.
For example, the Labour Party’s ‘Chinese sounding names’ comments and the New Zealand Herald constantly focusing on how someone’s ethnic identity is a cause for discriminatory policy making. “When you line up all the times in which Chinese people are in the Herald, it’s because they’ve either done something wrong or criminal.”
You can catch the rest of the interview, which has been edited and condensed for length, right here:
When did you first start having conversations around race, identity, and art?
Working for a social purpose has always been a big part of my practice. That’s my background; my dad worked for the Department of Social Welfare, my sister worked for corrections, everyone in my family has been engaged in that way. But, in the last three to five years, it’s become more explicit. Maybe that’s because I’m coming into a state where I feel more courage to make work about this. I’m aligning much more closely with other practitioners [who] want to talk about this too. No artist of colour wants to make work about being of colour for the rest of their lives, though. That idea of “You’re like this, so can you write about this thing?” I want to make work about Shakespeare and other texts, too!
Can you tell me more about your background and how you think this has influenced your work?
I have a Bachelors in Fine Arts (Sculpture). I was very lucky, because in high school I got into a company in Christchurch working for The Court Jesters, a professional improv company. At 16, I was exposed to professional theatre making. When I finished my studies, I became increasingly frustrated. The only work I could get in that capacity was kids’ shows or being a corporate entertainer. So, I went to the NZ Drama School, then I realised it’s not because I didn’t have training, it’s because there’s no face for me in this industry.
When I auditioned or got cast for roles, it would always be this stereotypical bookish nerdy, sexy, deviant character. Recently, I tried to be the voice of a character and it was like, “Can you do it with an accent?” I was like, “Why?” I tried it, it was terrible. It’s a virtual reality; why is it important that we ‘other’ this character by making me speak broken English?
No-one will ever say explicitly that you didn’t get the part because you’re Asian or Chinese. I think it’s an amazing indication of NZ’s weird, hidden, racist attitude. I’ve always been a maker though, I’ve always made work. In the last five years, it’s been about getting really clear about the kind of work I want to make instead of being an actor working for other people.
Why do you choose to have these conversation through art and theatre? Why is that your medium?
Part of me thinks, why don’t I just go into international diplomacy and get my Masters in Policy and be done with it. How much change do I think I can genuinely make through art making? Maybe it’s because I’ve had this really privileged upbringing. My parents introduced me to visual arts, performance, ballet, non-verbal storytelling, and the way my own mum tells stories has been passed down generationally. For me, I respond to symbolism, metaphors; that stuff resonates a whole lot stronger with me than public policy. I think there’s something in the experience. I think, if we’re trying to evoke a sense of empathy between two humans, art is less scary.
How do you choose to have these conversations in the theatre?
I have a post-modern idea of storytelling where emotion is one part of a story. I think when an actor is crying and being emotional, the audience can get like that too. Other times it can be really divisive, it can create space. I think emotions are important to factor in, but it’s never something I actively think about. If anything, I tend to direct in a way that takes people away from emotions. Don’t tell me the emotions, tell me the story.
I think that can help people tell really emotional stories. Otherwise they feel really vulnerable and I’m not into that, like bleeding for the audience. It’s about taste; don’t cry about it, just tell me about it, and I can cry about it myself.
How did you choose the name Other [chinese]?
It’s inherently suggesting that Chinese people are ‘othered’. Also, when you tick boxes in a census and ethnically identify yourself for statistical reasons, Chinese people tick the same box. But that box is so homogenising, it suggests that we’re all the same. Sometimes you can’t tick Chinese and Pakeha or Chinese and Malaysian, so you just tick ‘Other’. It’s relating this idea of homogenisation to the work, that yes we are all that Other Chinese. But, what does that really mean?
What have the stories been like so far?
Everyone has a story, even if [it’s] super domestic and doesn’t go anywhere. I think it’s a really radical thing to do, for example, by making room for a NZ-born Chinese boy to talk about playing video games on the weekend. In some ways, people may not tell stories about being Chinese, they may talk about fishing or lunch. For me that’s the greatest act of subversion, that you come to a show expecting Chinese people to talk about being Chinese and they just talk about anything because anything they talk about is Chinese. Some stories that people have are really funny, and some are really sad where they’ve felt really excluded or had something happen to them. It’s trying to find the balance between the comedy and tragedy.
What’s it like for you to hear their stories?
I’m lucky people tell me stories, I just want to record all of them! I mean, I definitely put myself in a vulnerable position, I want everyone to be heard and feel like they’re heard. That probably makes me a bad documentary maker because, when making a documentary, you need to be like, “What did you mean? Can you say that louder? Can you say that again?” I don’t have the capacity to do that. I get emotionally invested in everyone, I think that everyone is special and unique, and I’m really sensitive to people feeling like they’re participating in a meaningful way. It just means that everything takes twice as long. Also, I’m Chinese-Pakeha, my journey in this is having mixed identity. I’m also trying to figure out how I’m Chinese. I think we’re learning from each other.
Other [chinese] will be playing at 7 pm from September 6-16 at Q Theatre Loft, Auckland CBD. Grab your tickets here!
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