28 Sep 2020

Creating NZ's First Asian Cabaret

From Voices, 9:00 am on 28 September 2020

The woman writing New Zealand’s first Asian cabaret is planning a new and possibly confronting look for the genre.

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 Amanda Grace Leo who starred in the Proudly Asian Theatre production of Roots is now writing NZ's first Asian cabaret. Photo: Andi Crown Photographt for Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT)

Amanda Grace Leo likes to sit in Biskit, a sunny central Auckland cafe, to write and create. It’s not far from home and the banana loaf is delicious.

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 Leo said her cabaret will be Asian by virtue of her body being in it. Photo: Andi Crown Photography for Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT)

The 28-year-old is an actor, singer, facepainter and now, thanks to a Creative New Zealand grant, she is having a go at writing a cabaret.

“I believe that the body is political, I love that phrase, and so it is an Asian cabaret by virtue of my body being in it,” said Leo.

“I haven't seen a cabaret in Aotearoa that's completely Asian, so actually, when I say Asian Cabaret, all I really mean is it's full of Asians.”

Leo is Chinese, Peranakan and Singaporean, but she has always called Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland) home.

She was born in New Zealand but returned to Singapore when she was nine years old and stayed for nearly a decade.

“I lost my Kiwi identity and it was really hard, really, really difficult,” said Leo, “The bright trampoline days of my childhood just seemed so far away.

“There was always this longing for Aotearoa and Tamaki Makaurau specifically because I grew up here,” she said.

Leo intends for the cabaret - which is called Motherland - to look at those issues of cultural identity and longing.

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After moving to Singapore when she was nine, Leo missed "The bright trampoline days" of life in Aotearoa. Photo: Ramii Studio Photography

"I am interested in how this cabaret can be confronting and how we can use the mode of cabaret and personal anecdote and all these kinds of things to allow intimate moments,” she said.

“So I would love for people to come and, no matter their background, to have moments where they're like ‘I relate to that’. Because essentially the theme is about our relationship to our mothers and grandmothers or mother figures. And it's also about our relationship to the whenua.”

Leo is writing the text and she has three composers working on a book of ten songs.

“I'm really writing from experience and the interesting thing about writing is you're always like this has nothing to do with X, Y, Z. Then, before you know it, you're like actually this has everything to do with X, Y, Z,” she said.

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Leo said Motherland will be about our relationship to mother figures and the whenua. Photo: Andi Crown Photography for Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT)

And if you’re imagining cabaret as sexy jazz numbers or Moulin Rouge burlesque, think again.

“I'm really interested to see how we can flip, potentially flip the genre or the expectation of only having jazz and cabaret,” said Leo.

“The only rules that I'm aware of, really loosely speaking, are that the cabaret has to break the fourth wall, have some sort of interaction with the audience.”

Amanda Grace hopes Motherland will be ready for showing next year.