Something happened this year to Chinese New Zealand theatre – it broke into the mainstream.
Playwright Renee Liang premiered her opera The Bone Feeder at the Auckland Arts Festival, Mei-Linn Hansen's play The Mooncake and the Kumara toured the country and in Auckland, and theatre-maker Alice Canton brought questions about identity to a big stage with her post-dramatic production OTHER [chinese].
Canton says that while she's delighted by the acceptance of her work, she worries a little bit about losing some of that outsider energy.
“On the one hand, it’s quite incredible to feel like all of sudden there is multiplicity in that voice, whereas in the past, that was a quieter or a lesser heard voice. Now that voice is being heard, and not just that singular voice, but other ones, ones that make the identity more complex or make the voice at odds… or be rubbing up against each other,” she says.
“It’s the first time in my career – I mean I’m only 31, so I haven’t been at it for that long – it’s up until this point, it has felt like desperately you’re trying to make work in that kind of way."
Canton says in the past she felt that if you disagreed with a particular narrative you could not be critical of it.
“You worry that you’re going to erase that voice or that by becoming problematic you’re going to create unnecessary tension. Now it feels like you can say ‘Actually I don’t agree with that’ and feel okay with it. That’s not my story, but it’s not going to affect negatively on that narrative.”
In the current socio-political climate there is an urgency to getting these other narratives heard, Canton says.
“One, I think because of the way the media operates right now, in that entire identities are being homogenised and being vilified, so we have to really take responsibility for countering that negative press.
“Two, I think because of the way policy and policy-makers are, they’re still pretty much largely white dudes, and of course, you want to believe democratically that these policy-makers are making the best decisions for New Zealanders, but that’s not always the case.
“So if we can’t be… in decision-making positions ourselves, we have to find other ways to have our voices heard, so for me as an artist, that is on the stage.”
In OTHER [chinese] Alice conducted a socio-metric experiment to measure and display differences of opinion.
In response to statements like, ‘Fish'n'chips is the greatest takeaway food’, audience members stood along a line that represented the spectrum between ‘strongly agree’ and ‘strongly disagree’.
“What that was encouraging people to do was, even though they couldn’t voice why they felt that way, they could just stand in that place and be seen. There were nights where there were very extreme, polarising – quite literally – ideas about a statement,” she says.
One review of that show described Canton as having “ethnicity on her side”.
“It felt so gross to read that. So gross! Those are the moments where as an artist of colour, or a traditionally-marginalised artist, you go, please don’t mention the thing that is going to tokenise me in this moment,” she says.
“I don’t make every single work about my cultural identity. But I think it’s really important that for this show I was really owning what my identity was, which gave me... not even a licence, but a lens through which to look through.”
Canton hopes that the growing appetite for more stories from outside of the mainstream puts pressure on the theatre sector to put those stories on stage.
“I’m not necessarily talking about Chinese-New Zealand stories. [It] might just mean work that is not traditionally seen in mainstream spaces. Work by people who might not traditionally be seen or heard,” she says.
“But the most important thing from my perspective is the artist development that we’re encouraging and creating space for artists who are either coming up or are in their mid-careers who have never had an opportunity to come forward and make their own stuff.”