Single Asian Female by Michelle Law, directed by Cassandra Tse, is being presented by Auckland Theatre Company. All about Pearl Wong, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, restaurateur and single mother, this funny, moving play is about balancing family, business and karaoke. April 27-May15, ASB Waterfront Theatre.
I was a bookworm child, a voracious reader and very artsy. At school I was also academically bright, so was encouraged to study law alongside my theatre degree. The idea being that I'd have law to fall back on. I only did the first year of my law degree, as it felt like a lot of work to have something to fall back on. I'm lucky my parents have always been supportive and saw the theatre world as an acceptable pathway and my brother kindly became a lawyer instead.
When I was young I wanted to be an artist, possibly a painter, and a dancer, possibly ballet. But being a practical 5-year-old, I thought once I was too old for dancing, I'd have artist as my retirement plan. By intermediate I wanted to be a film director and I started making movies on the family camcorder starring me and my brother.
My family has been in New Zealand so long we've lost the language. It happens with a lot of third or fourth generation Chinese. When my grandparents were kids, it was not okay to speak in Cantonese, it was assimilate or die. Nana used to talk to the dogs in Cantonese, and I would love to learn but it's so different from English, even more so than Mandarin and ideally the ear picks it up as a child.
In the theatre world, it's easy to just dive straight in, rather than sit around waiting for someone to programme your work so I run Red Scare, my theatre company, with my partner James. James and I collaborate in many different ways, so I have to remember when we're trying to be two people in a relationship and when we're two creators. I'm in Auckland right now and he's in Wellington so we had a long video chat yesterday. It was nice to check in, but then we ended up talking about a new idea for a production, which was exciting but sometimes it's difficult to know when work stops and life begins, especially when we're both so passionate about what we do.
I like to have hobbies I don't try to monetise, which sounds simple but when you're working in theatre, which started as a hobby that grew into work, it's really easy to see commercial potential in the things you do for fun. I enjoy cross stitch and embroidery - making things with my hands helps me unwind - but I don't make it to sell. I also like to write and host murder mystery parties for friends. To go to all that effort for just one fun party, that can feel like a wasted commercial opportunity, but it's also giving your mind space to do something outside work. When it's not a job, I feel I'm drawing from a different well of creative energy, and that's enriching rather than draining.
As a freelancer, I have so many fingers in so many pies. Sometimes I think I'd like one of those jobs when you just sit at a desk and do things and, if at some point if I'm not able to financially sustain myself, I might look into alternatives.
I am a typical theatre leftist and a lot of the plays I've put on are political. Although I write to entertain, everything has an underlying message. I don't think there is such a thing as apolitical art and I'm conscious of the need to create work that reflects my beliefs.
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I discovered that I'm coeliac in January last year. I never thought I was allergic to anything, but I started suffering about the age of 16. A couple of years before the diagnosis, it was getting so bad it was hard to get food down. I'd take a nauseous nap in the middle of the day, I was losing weight and generally feeling awful. One doctor suggested antacids so when I finally got a diagnosis it was such a relief. I've heard something like 15 per cent of people might be coeliac but they're undiagnosed. Now I know what to avoid, life is so much better. But being Chinese, there are lots of dishes you don't really cook yourself, like things with soy sauce, which has wheat. Most people just buy those things from a store, but if I get a craving for things like cha siu bao, I have to make them myself.
I've had many rejections but as an artist you become inured to it, and it stops hurting after the first few times. My worst audition went so badly. I went to Christchurch to audition for The Court, but I went to the wrong location, so someone gave me a ride. I made it just in time, but I left my phone, which had my backing track, in the car. It was probably the worst performance I've ever done. I knew I was not going to get a role and at that point I was so stressed I didn't care. Sure, I could've been stoic, I could've knocked it out of the park and this would be a tale of triumph, but I was so nervous and shaky I just wanted to get out of there. That experience taught me to always read the fine print.
If you want to be a professional musical theatre performer, you have to go to Broadway, and it has to be your life. You have to audition endlessly and train and train to reach the heights. I did go to New York for a year. I had a visa that allowed me to work as many approved jobs as I could, so I did a bunch of survival jobs, like working at an Escape Room. I'd give the people the spiel, then spy on them as they did the escape, sending them clues, so they didn't break things. Because most people came in really drunk, and climb over the furniture, I'd have to send them these angry messages on the PowerPoint. I also worked for an aromatherapy company, doing things like helping with the website. The owner kept inviting me to do courses with her but, the funny thing was, I don't believe in aromatherapy - but her website looked great.
The best thing I did was an unpaid internship at an off-Broadway theatre company. Watching some of the best American directors was so exciting. I also got to sit in on cattle-call auditions, which are so disheartening. Because of the unions, they have to hold open auditions but they almost never cast anyone from them. So I was at these auditions; me and the casting director who was a contractor, so I'm the only actual person from the company present, and the lowest-ranked. We'd watch people do scenes, I'd read against them and the casting director would put their headshots on the big "no" pile. A rare few were put on the "maybe consider" pile but mostly we cast through agents. That is one of the reasons I could never act fulltime. The way you have to put yourself out there, and keep going and going in the face of so much rejection.
A lot of my friends got into Dungeons & Dragons when I was overseas. They'd all joined campaigns and when I got back I was feeling left out so when I was asked to join one I said yes. It's quite a low barrier to entry, so long as you have a dungeon master who knows what they're doing, they can print out character sheets and you learn as you go. D&D is hugely popular in the theatre community because it's really just improv with dice in a fantasy world. Yes, it is for nerds, but you get to a point in life you no longer worry about being associated with nerds. I was nerdy as a kid, and quite proud of not being cool, but I've come to really embrace my nerdery as an adult. If you're already in the drama club prancing round in theatre blacks pretending to be an animal, you probably can't ever claim coolness.