It took a single Facebook post to change the trajectory of Auckland’s biggest theatre company, writes Sam Brooks.
Red lanterns and fairy lights hang on the cavernous stage of the ASB Waterfront Theatre in downtown Auckland. A few large boxes inscribed with hanzi characters serve as makeshift tables, to clue us into where we are: a Chinese restaurant. The lights go down on the chattering audience, and come up on the stage.
Kat Tsz Hung struts on stage. She’s Pearl, a Chinese migrant from Hong Kong. A chintzy instrumental version of ‘I Will Survive’ plays, and then we begin to hear Pearl’s story, as Hung looks us dead in the eyes.
This is Single Asian Female, a comedy about a Chinese family in New Zealand, written by playwright and journalist Michelle Law. It’s the first time Auckland Theatre Company has programmed an East Asian work as part of their main programme. It’s also the first time a show of theirs has had predominantly East Asian leads, and the first time the company has collaborated with Proudly Asian Theatre Company, whose goal is to serve Aotearoa’s Asian community and theatre practitioners.
Pearl is a divorcee who has no love lost for her ex. She runs the onstage restaurant, which she alternately loves and hates. She rages against all the things that she could have had but didn’t: a better man, a better job, a better life. For a full five minutes, we’re watching a Chinese woman on the stage of one of Auckland’s biggest theatres tell us her reality. Though irreverent, it’s a history-making moment.
The audience isn’t thinking about history in that moment, though. They’re just head over heels in love with Pearl.
Just a few years ago, this would have seemed unimaginable to Chye-Ling Huang, the co-founder of Proudly Asian Theatre who can also currently be seen playing ambulance officer Theo Chang on Shortland Street. She remembers the night in September 2019 when she wrote a fiery Facebook post calling out ATC’s dearth of diversity. Huang had just seen ATC’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which featured two non-white cast members out of 12, and had an all-white creative team.
Taking to Facebook when she returned home from the theatre, she voiced what has been said in green rooms, whispered in theatre foyers, and screamed in group chats for years:
“I cannot begin to express my absolute rage that this is still a conversation needs to be had, and something I feel the need to make a statement about on a public platform. What else is there to do? Surely ATC knows the role it plays, how influential it is, how much resource and responsibility has as the largest and most well funded theatre company in Auckland. … It’s beyond frustrating to see an easy opportunity to be inclusive go to absolute waste. What can be done? We are not their target audience, and if the monetary value on diversity doesn’t stack up, why change?”
Huang’s anger had built up over years, understandably. Auckland Theatre Company, established in 1994, is the holy grail for many theatre makers in Tāmaki Makaurau. The perception? If you’re in with ATC, you’ve made it. It’s also a company where the wheels of change appear to turn very slowly, at least from the outside. For example: this year marked Colin McColl’s resignation as artistic director after 18 years, one of the longest theatre tenures in the country.
Huang had seen the company’s production of The Crucible back in 2007 and held it up as the gold standard to meet. She says, “I remember wanting to be there. I thought, ‘I want this to be my home. I want to be enveloped in the fold and do something of this calibre.'”
Five years later, she and James Roque formed Pretty Asian Theatre (pretty as in ‘kinda’) after graduating as actors from Unitec. Roque, who is also a stand-up comedian and part of Frickin’ Dangerous Bro, describes the formation as a means of survival. “In our third year, we would talk about how hard it was going to be in the industry once we graduated. We knew there wouldn’t be many opportunities for us if we waited for things to be given to us.”
While the company started out by putting on pre-existing shows – David Henry Hwang’s FOB, Renee Liang’s Lantern – the big turning point was Huang’s first play, Call of the Sparrows. It was the first time they’d run open auditions, and for a show in a venue larger than any they’d had before. Their community came out of the woodwork to audition and then see the show. It was then that Roque and Huang realised that Pretty Asian Theatre wasn’t about them anymore.
With that production came the rebrand – they weren’t Pretty Asian Theatre anymore, they were Proudly Asian Theatre. Roque says, “For Chye-Ling and I, it was symbolic of our journey with our relationship with our own identities as Asian artists. We didn’t want to sound self-deprecating any more, we knew we had to grab people’s attention because it was the only way to get the systemic change we wanted.”
And so it went. Alice Canton, an award-winning theatre maker whose project exploring Chinese identity, Other [Chinese], has toured around the country, has worked with both companies. She praises Proudly Asian Theatre’s commitment to change. “The company’s way of showing others a new way forward, is by simply doing it. They leave other theatre companies in the dust when it comes to how they service the needs of the Asian community here in Aotearoa, in a way that is meaningful and truly authentic.”
Huang considers PAT a company that serves the community, rather than community theatre, a kaupapa that is constantly being revisited and reassessed. It serves the Asian community by creating professional works, and developing artists to a professional level. The company has put on several productions since Call of the Sparrows in 2016, including Marianne Infante’s Pinay, Aotearoa’s first play in English and Tagalog. Roque has stepped back from the company, and they now employ Infante as creative producer, in addition to two other producers.
In short: Proudly Asian Theatre now exists beyond Huang, who has a flourishing career as an actor, writer and director of works such as Asian Men Talk About Sex, The Han Chronicles and Life is Easy. By the time she made that Facebook post in 2019, she didn’t need Auckland Theatre Company.
But Auckland Theatre Company needed her.
A few weeks before Single Asian Female opens, it’s a bustling Friday afternoon in the ATC offices.A runthrough of the show has just finished and the cast are decompressing in the kitchen. Chye-Ling Huang is buzzing, admitting that she bawled her eyes out while watching the rehearsal.
We sit in the boardroom, and Jonathan Bielski walks in. He’s a recent-ish appointee at the company, coming onboard as CEO after a two year stint as artistic director of the Auckland Arts Festival, and many leadership roles at home and abroad. He and Huang banter warmly; both are happy with the progress of the show, and Bielski is particularly happy with Huang’s response to the runthrough.
Things have come a long way since 2019, when Huang’s Facebook post publicly took ATC to task over diversity. “If Chye-Ling is on Facebook saying, ‘I’ve had it, I can’t bear it any more, then imagine what people who don’t feel able to put it on Facebook are saying,” says Bielski. “They probably gave up years ago.”
Bielski is frank about the serendipity of this production of Single Asian Female. “I’m very aware this is an initiative that should have happened years ago. It’d be nice to think that we would have come to this moment had that pressure not been applied, but I think it would be a bit naive of me to say that we would be sitting here if it hadn’t been for some pressure being put on the company.”
Huang admits to having an agenda with ATC: representatives from the company had long been invited to all PAT’s events, and while people would sometimes show up, “99% of the time” they wouldn’t. She says: “I’ve always had a thing for ATC in my own personal journey, and across the years within which I developed as a person, I found ATC to be increasingly disappointing to that kind of naive vision I had of them, and that made me really sad.”
It was a conversation in 2017 between Huang, ATC’s then artistic director Colin McColl and associate director Lynne Cardy that contributed to Huang’s growing disappointment. Although there was talk of collaborating, the conversation ended up going nowhere. Huang came to the table with a bunch of offers that the company weren’t keen on, and the ideas they were keen on were ones that Huang considered dated. She had tried to put everything on the plate to work together, she says, and it hadn’t worked.
After Huang’s Facebook post was widely shared and discussed – which led to Huang emailing the administration at ATC directly – the conversation was picked up again in October 2019. Huang recalls meetings where she communicated the many concerns of the Asian community to ATC representatives. When McColl programmed Single Asian Female, a decision that ran parallel to these conversations without intersecting with them, discussion around collaboration started up in earnest again.
This production isn’t the first time that ATC has collaborated with a smaller, community-serving company on a main-bill production. In 2018 they brought Prayas Theatre, New Zealand’s largest South Asian company, on for a co-production of A Fine Balance, and in 2019 worked with Māori company Te Rehia Theatre on their production of Astroman. Each of these productions had worked on a slightly different model, based on the needs of both the show and company involved.
In Single Asian Female, PAT acts as a safety net for the team working on the show. Says Huang: “We were stoked they had programmed it but worried for the team coming into the space for the first time.”
PAT has worked closely with ATC to allow the director and cast to focus on actually making the work, rather than dealing with the awkward conversations around it. PAT advises on everything: casting, who to invite, what food to serve, what sort of marketing is tokenistic. On the flipside, this makes ATC secure in the knowledge they’ve created a safe space for the team to work in.
Canton thinks it’s a smart move for both companies. “It’s the right thing to do. PAT is an independently run company, so I hope the value of their skills, knowledge and relationships are generously remunerated by ATC, who are an investment client with a fair bit of funding and resources behind them.”
Bielski is aware that the traditional model of working with these smaller companies doesn’t work any more. They can’t invite someone in, dictate the rules and hold all the vetoes – nobody will put up with that now. “These collaborations are about advancing the capabilities of this company. It’s about lifting up and empowering others because when you have the resources and privilege that’s what you should do. That’s part of the deal – you can’t see it through the prism of control and authority.”
Cassandra Tse, the show’s director, was recommended to ATC by PAT. The gig, her first mainstage work, was intimidating, but she felt it was important for a Chinese-New Zealander to direct this work. “It’s been a really welcoming and supportive space,” she says. “It really does mean a lot for my personal self-esteem – as well as the broader social implications – that I can be on this mainstage, I have the authority to stand here, and I’m good enough to do this.”
As the lights go down after intermission at the first preview of Single Asian Female, a Pākehā woman sitting behind me turns to her friends. Sounding slightly exasperated, as though it’s the first time she’s had to ask this question in this particular theatre, she asks “How can I relate to it?”
In the second half, she got her answer, as the waves of laughter of the first half recede into the silence of trauma. One part of the audience is confronted with unpleasant realities, perhaps seeing them reflected onstage for the first time. Others sit in uncomfortable acknowledgment, engaging with the narratives of people they might have walked past on the street without a second thought. The show sits, unblinkingly, in the space between these two groups.
When the lights come up, that same Pākehā woman behind me is engaged in fervent conversation with her four seatmates, where they remain for several minutes.
A few rows in front of them sits an Asian family. They are having a different, but no less fervent, conversation.