THEATRE British theatre's unseen East Asian playwrights

A source of great drama is missing from the British canon. A conference next month aims to open the treasure chest of work by South East Asian playwrights and theatre-makers, as Cheryl Robson, founder of the publisher Aurora Metro, explains

The aim is to bring playwrights and theatre-makers in the UK and from South East Asia together for conversations and collaboration.

The conference, on April  26 and 27 April 2018 at Goldsmiths College, organised by Aurora Metro in conjunction with Goldsmiths and Tara Arts, will tackle challenging issues facing British East Asian writers both in the UK and in Southeast Asia.

For example, there is a real need for dialogue within the UK about multiracial casting and the whitewashing of roles. Too many plays still present BAME characters in stereotypical ways across the media, and there is marginalisation of the British East Asian community. I’m hoping that this conference will provide a platform for those voices to be heard and for their work to be valued and explored, and I’m also co-editing with academics Amanda Rogers and Ashley Thorpe a collection of plays from British East Asian playwrights which will be launched at the conference.

Playwrights like Stephen Hoo, Yang-May Ooi, Lucy Sheen, and Daniel York Loh offer theatre-goers an experience of worlds they have rarely encountered on topics such as trans-racial adoption and the Chinese diaspora in the Caribbean.

Having spent five years based in Singapore where I collected around 70 plays from playwrights in the region and published the first ever collection of plays from South East Asia, I realised that there is limited exchange happening between South East Asian theatre companies and those in the UK, even though many of those SEA companies have long been touring to countries such as Japan and Australia.

While Brexit is already reducing the opportunity for artistic collaboration in Europe, the ASEAN common market will be far larger than the European Economic Community, with greater opportunity for cultural collaboration than ever before. British creative content-makers need to wake up to the possibilities of collaborating with countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and the giant that Indonesia is becoming. How many people in the UK know that Indonesia’s economy is predicted to overtake the UK economy by 2021?

English is an important carrier-language in the region, enabling theatre and other media to be shared across borders. In countries like Singapore where good education and a love of the arts is valued, the quality of dramatic and literary writing is high and the writers’ perspectives on the world are often smart and international. The image here comes from Joel Tan’s play Tango which deals with homosexual parenting in Singapore where LGBT rights are limited, and playwrights like him, Alfian Sa’at, Jeremy Tiang, Dang Chuong and Floy Quintos have a backlist of plays never produced in the UK on topics such as what it means to be a Muslim, political corruption and homophobia.

This conference is not aimed purely at British East Asian or South East Asian theatre-makers. We welcome practitioners and students, academics and the general public to attend and investigate the ideas that will be shared. There is a rare opportunity for those with the willingness to discover great playwrights and collaborate with non-UK companies to take part in something extraordinary and to help make change happen. We’re grateful to Tara Arts and Goldsmiths for hosting the two day event and to East15 and Royal Holloway, University of London, for their support too.

Cheryl Robson is a publisher, writer, editor and filmmaker who 1988 founded Aurora Metro Books, an award-winning publisher of fiction, non-fiction and plays, with a commitment to publishing the best in international fiction and drama.

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