Yellow Earth are a theatre company renowned for their championing of diverse voices from the East Asian community. In their 22nd year, they continue to blaze the trail, broadening the range of characters represented on stage. Having worked with original Yellow Earth founding member Kumiko Mendl to develop her piece, ‘Zen’, Joyce Lee discusses how she’s crafted the show, the importance of speaking out about mental health and whether there are enough strong female protagonists represented on stage…
Zen has been chosen to take part in this year’s Typhoon Festival. How are you feeling ahead of the showing?
I’m really excited to see ‘Zen’ performed as part of Yellow Earth’s Typhoon Festival. I’ve worked on the play for a while with Yellow Earth’s Artistic Director, Kumiko Mendl, and their Dramaturg, Drayton Hiers, and so I’ve been immersed in it. Now, a director, Ailin Conant, and a fantastic group of actors are coming to it fresh, so it will be amazing to see them bring it to life, and see where it takes us!
You started creating Zen at Yellow Earth’s Writers Surgery with dramaturg Drayton Hiers. How was Drayton able to support you with crafting the show?
Drayton, Yellow Earth’s Dramaturg, has supported me so much, right from the beginning. I turned up at the Writers’ Surgery with just an idea of a play and he encouraged me to keep searching for more: a deeper story, bolder themes, sharper characters. It kept me going through the process to know that he was on my side, and I think the play is better for it!
Zen places focus on the theme of mental health, why look at this particular theme?
I’ve had my own experience of mental health, and it affects so many people’s lives that I was keen to try and give an impression of what the experience of psychosis can be like. It can be frightening, but I was hoping to try and show that people shouldn’t be afraid of it. I think if we discuss mental health without stigma, it helps people feel less afraid to share their own feelings. I hope the play might be something that sparks discussion about it, especially within the British East Asian community.
Inspired by your own experience with psychosis, how have you found creating a play around this?
It’s been a really positive experience to try and make sense of my own experience of psychosis. I hope that I’ve managed to create a story that communicates what it can be like to experience auditory and visual hallucinations, and show that people who experience psychosis are no different from anyone else.
Yellow Earth’s Typhoon Festival seeks to develop and produce plays by East Asian writers, in terms of diversity within the industry, do you feel enough is being done to create shows reflective of the wider population?
I think things are improving in terms of the diversity of plays as well as actors on our stages, but it’s something worth continually fighting for. Theatre companies like Yellow Earth are doing a great job of nurturing new talent on a grass roots level, and luckily, people like them are taking a chance on different stories that reflect the diversity of the country. Initiatives like ‘Act for Change’ are also making a big difference, so I think things are improving gradually.
What would you like for your audience to take away from the show?
I hope people will come away from ‘Zen’ with the feeling that even if you go through problems in your life, that there is something beyond those challenges and fears. Life may not pan out as you’d hoped, but there are people out there willing to listen, and we are always more resilient than we think!
Zen places focus on a female lead. At present, do you feel that there are enough strong female characters portrayed onstage?
There are more and more female protagonists on stage, but I think fewer female protagonists of colour, and that’s the next glass ceiling to be broken. Plays like Therese Ikoko’s ‘Girls’ and ‘hang’ by Debbie Tucker Green, prove that it’s possible to have a powerful play with a female lead of colour, so I think we’ll see more and more on stage. And I’m really proud that ‘Zen’ has a British East Asian female lead, still with universal themes. The actress playing the part, Mia Foo, brings a lot of heart and emotion to the role, so I hope the audience will identify with her, regardless of their ethnicity and gender.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The best advice anyone can really give to an aspiring writer is just to try and write. I’ve really benefitted from doing lots of playwriting courses: I’ve the done Soho Young Writers, Royal Court’s Unheard Voices, and an MA in Playwriting. You probably can’t do enough! So practice can’t really be beaten, you just have to keep writing and eventually something will come of it!
Questions by Lucy Basaba.
Zen was shown at Yellow Earth’s Typhoon Festival on Thursday 23rd November 2017. To find out more about Joyce Lee, visit here…
To find out more about Yellow Earth, visit here…
To find out more about Typhoon Festival, visit here…