What is an intercultural theatre: the story of the ACT

When a word is so overused that it can have so many meanings, eventually it becomes meaningless. Take the word Multiculturalism. Or “Asian” as used in Australia. The word “multiculturalism” is bandied around in Australia very carelessly especially by politicians when they are trying to be politically correct. If we are not careful we can end up using the term like these unthinking politicians and be guilty of excluding our black Australians/Aboriginal or indigenous Australians! When we say multiculturalism, unconsciously we do not think Aboriginal Australians. Not that I am advocating that we include Aboriginal in the term Multiculturalism seeing that the label is so meaningless.

Multicultural performances simply mean a whole lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds or countries (and therefore international) coming together and doing an event, as in the show Opera 1938 at the Melbourne Fringe (2012). Brilliant multicultural performance with Anglo-celtic, Italian, Aboriginal and Chinese languages and “historical” snippets from colonial Australia. Wonderful multicultural performance. There are many multicultural performances and events all over Australasia but we are short of an intercultural theatre in the southern hemisphere. The ACT is possibly the first in the world focusing on Australasians and Chinese. (I am still grappling with the term Australasian Chinese or Chinese Australasian! In the USA, they use “Chinese American” which I think is truer to the reality the Americans wish to describe! I.e. they are all American citizens and Chinese in the label describes the ethnicity of the person’s citizenship. But over here in Australasia, we simply use “multicultural”. See what I mean?). The ACT is intercultual notably because it is going to put on performances which are intrinsically “intercultural” in that two cultures or three or even four drawn from Australia and New Zealand. This is a challenge. For anybody. But not insurmountable.

Two plays Happy Ending by Melissa Reeves and my own Our Man in Beijing specifically reveal the cultural elements of both white Anglo Australians and Chinese people. The values intrinsic in both values are revealed if one knows both cultures for example, the Anglo value of egalitarianism and the Chinese value of hierachicalism ( no such word exists in the English language but it is the opposite of egalitarianism and I also believe that heirarchicalism is a value that describes more than half the world’s culture hence it is important that this word is used.)

That is why an intercultural theatre is necessary. An intercultural theatre specifically focuses on two ethnic peoples or cultures, for example, Australian and Chinese cultures. We blend whatever is Australian with whatever is Chinese. This is where the challenges emerge (as pointed out in my earlier paragraph). What is Australian culture? Does it include Anglo-celtic and Aboriginal ? What about the Australians from European and other Asian ethnic backgrounds? And what about the term Chinese? What is Chinese culture and even more challenging: Who are the Chinese? Every question merits a PHd thesis. Yes, these questions are academic but if language constructs realities and it does, shouldn’t we be educating the masses to use the appropriate words to refer to realities. The realities are that underlying the language we use exist feelings of prejudice and racism: twin evils in the world that have killed millions in terms of “ethnic cleansing” and history has shown us again and again that people have gone to war to do horrible things simply by naming and labelling. People are still doing that!

I name my theatre company an intercultural theatre and rightly so for it is narrowly and deliberately focused on Australian and Chinese cultures. It is an intercultural theatre in Australasia (that is, Australia and New Zealand) for it seeks to create opportunities for Australasian Chinese or Chinese Australasians. And now if we unwrap the term Australasian, it includes Anglo-Celtic/Gaelic, European Aussies & Kiwis, Aboriginal and Maori Aussies & Kiwis, and Chinese. This is an unique combo! No theatre company in the world has this combination of ethnicities and seek to create opportunities for these peoples. Come on Aussies, Kiwis and Chinese of all shapes, sizes and colours, let us get cracking and write plays and films that will blend our cultural elements, truly intercultural theatre!

Happy Endings By Melissa Reeves

Review by Moni Lai Storz

Happy Ending by Melissa Reeves is an intercultural play rarely found in Australia. It explores the relationship between an Anglo Australian woman in her forties and a young Chinese masseur. But this alone does make it intercultural. It is so because a number of key cultural issues, for example, the dining etiquette at a Chinese banquet, were satirized in the lines and in the scenes. An intercultural play must have certain issues from both cultures being acted out. In Happy Ending, some of these were in the intercultural psycho dynamics found in the relationships between the main protagonists in the many scenes which involve Chinese masseurs and Anglo Australian clients. Finally for a small portion of the play, both English and Mandarin were used.

In actuality, the play crosses borders on age, gender and ethnicity. Just on those variables, Happy Ending already won me over. In short, the play, wonderfully crafted in the hands of an experienced and established playwright such as Melissa Reeves is a total delight to watch from an intercultural viewpoint. Many of the scenes that move the action along are culturally plausible, and in fact, are derived from the sound and fury of “doing business with the Chinese” in the late eighties and nineties in Australia. Happy Ending replays some of the Australian experiences when dealing with China at the beginning of the globalization that swept the world, taking Australia in its wake.

The main character, Louise, is played by Nell Feeney. She is a character easily recognizable by many fortyish year old married women who are in the audience. Recognition always evokes laughter, nervous or otherwise in an audience. Feeney gave us a Louise that we can identified with: a woman caught in an intercultural situation with nothing to help her but her own ignorance. Ignorance can be a useful tool and in the end, it was a “happy ending,” a euphemism for sexual intercourse at the end of one’s massage session, so I was told. Her desperation led her to seek out a “China expert”. The role of the China expert was played very well by Christopher Connelly. The Chinese masseur, the object of Louise’s obsession was played by Gareth Yuen, an Australian born Chinese (an ABC). I love the way Yuen move his body to show his emotions ranging from fear, mild distaste, confusion, resignation and exploratory acceptance towards the “happy ending.” This is a vast range of challenging emotions to portray in a Chinese. (Chinese are taught not to show their feelings. Confucian ethic embedded in our unconscious culture). Yuen acted well. The role of Jie played by Fanny Hanusin was accomplished not without challenges. One of these was the fact that Hanusin is not a mandarin speaker, yet she had memorized her lines like a true professional. Unfortunately her “memorization” filtered through to the audience. I could clearly tell that she had memorized her lines. Keith Brockett who is half Chinese played the dual role of Wen and Jun. Always challenging playing two parts in one play. Keith was able to execute both his roles with smooth competence. He was a delight indeed! Roz Hammond who played Lilana was undoubtedly that of an artist. I think I like her performance the best in the play. She lived in her role. At no stage was I reminded that she was acting.

The set design is evocative of Zen or Chan Buddhism, and the changes in scenes are reminiscent of a moving meditative dance. Stilllness in motion. Together with the Chinese music flooding the theatre and the creative use of lighting the whole performance managed to retain its ‘chineseness’. All this ‘chineseness’ would have come to naught had it not been for the intercultural literacy of the direction. Director Susie Dee did an interculturally “good” job. A number of the intercultural and bilingual scenes could have gone wrong easily. (As it was, only the subtitles were placed too high and moved too quickly for middle age eyesight. But this was a technical issue, not one of direction). I sat through the whole 90 minutes performance without glancing at my watch. Happy Ending was aesthetically and competently accomplished in the hands of a cohesive cast and crew. I hope to see more intercultural plays such as Happy Ending
in Australia in the near future.