Playwright Daniel York talks about his latest production, Forgotten, to play at Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Arcola Theatre.
Starting life as a 5 minute play, Daniel York’s Forgotten has been many years in the making. A response to the lack of acknowledgement given to the tremendous effort aiding Britain’s and the Allies’ WWI victory, Forgotten places at the forefront the 140,000 Chinese labourers who sacrificed their lives in the hopes of escaping their current regime. The title, Forgotten speaks of many who have disgracefully been written out of the history books, a common thread often witnessed within significant Western texts. A much needed historical lesson, the production looks to highlight an alternative perspective of an event we are so often used to being presented in a particular manner. November 2018 marks the centenary of the war’s ending, making this a very timely piece. Daniel tells us more about the show’s creation and what to expect!
Hi Daniel! Your play Forgotten will be performed at both Theatre Royal Plymouth and Arcola Theatre from mid October. How are you feeling ahead of the show?
Excited mainly. It’s been a long journey. I started on this about four years ago. There were some dark dark times when I honestly thought it would never see the light of day. I had other stuff (I’ve been acting virtually non-stop in that time and I’ve worked on other writing projects) but this felt so important. It’s a story that needs to be told. Not only because of the 140,000 Chinese labourers that played such a vital part in winning the First World War. But for all Chinese diaspora and all Asian diaspora and all migrant workers-who are so often stigmatised at the moment. Go back through history. Migrants have contributed enormously to every country they’ve gone to. And in many ways, in the UK at least, East Asians are the most invisible and least considered of the lot. We often seem to be regarded as silent workhorses with no emotions, no aspirations, no hopes, no dreams, no inner life at all. And this is the way we’ve been traditionally portrayed on stage and screen. Our current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose wife is Chinese (though he notoriously referred to her as “Japanese” recently), openly expressed the wish that Britons could learn to “work like the Chinese” – ironic in its idealising of passive labour but poignant in our case for its lack of recognition or acknowledgement.
Forgotten is a play placing focus on individuals within the Chinese Labour Corps. What inspired you to create a piece on this?
The labourers themselves. They came from a particularly difficult period of time in Chinese history when the country was literally toppling on the point of collapse/colonisation or both. They were mostly dirt poor, they mostly couldn’t read or write, they worked ridiculously hard, helped massively to win a war that was nothing to do with them, then literally vanished into the mists of time. There was a giant mural created at the war’s close, the Pantheon de la Guerre, to celebrate all the contributors to the war effort and the Chinese were literally painted out of it (replaced in the picture by Americans). As I researched further though I also learned that a lot of them were incredibly artistic. They carried musical instruments with them, they told stories, they sang songs, they performed for each other and their white officers, they made trinkets for sale, they painted wall and ceiling frescoes, they made engravings on bomb shells. Many of them actually learned to read and write thanks to an effort made by a Chinese Christian (or follower of Christ as he termed himself) who created a new thousand-character writing system which is still used today. And in amongst that were also criminals and unfortunates who met some very tragic ends. My characters in the play are an amateur Chinese theatre troupe. It often seems that we’re brought up with the idea that arts and culture are the preserve of rich, educated people. But arts and stories belong as much to the poor people and if anything they need it (and need access to it) more. Because art redeems us. My play is about people who want to leave a story behind. But everything is seemingly combining for their story to be lost.
How did you approach creating Forgotten?
I first wrote a 5 minute play for a short play festival run by Angelic Tales at the Bush Theatre. One line from this 5 minute piece is in the finished full length play. Angelic Tales is run by Rikki Beadle Blair and John R Gordon. Afterwards they were saying “you’ve got to write the full-length version”. I was nervous if I’m honest. I very much thought of myself as a novice playwright at the time (I still do in fact). This is a full-scale “history play” with the onus to get details right. The first thing I decided to do was not actually write for 6 months. Instead I just read and researched. I didn’t just read about the labourers. I read about the politics around them, about Chinese history up to that point, about the war itself, I read novels of the period, I read Chinese plays and learned about Chinese theatre and Chinese intellectuals. Later I read classic Chinese novels like Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh. Then I wrote. The first version was about 300 pages long and had about 20 characters. It was huge. Moongate, the company Jennifer Lim and myself formed, applied (successfully) for an Arts Council grant to do an R & D process at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was a different cast and director (Rikki Henry) then and I can’t speak highly enough of them. It was a phenomenal process, then I went away again and kept reading and kept writing, paring it down, distilling, simplifying. Then I met with Kumiko Mendl at Yellow Earth and discussed a co-production. It’s no secret in the East Asian theatre community that I’ve been massively critical of Yellow Earth under a previous regime. I don’t like the name and I think the previous artistic directors stifled talent rather than platformed it. It had been a very self-serving regime in my opinion. I was impressed that Kumiko was prepared to collaborate. I believe in bridge-building and I believe in people overcoming their differences. And this story is too big and too important for pettiness and grudges (that probably mirror the state of Chinese politics in the period of the play ironically). We’ve worked together really well since and the production wouldn’t be possible without this collaboration.
The show is produced in collaboration with British East Asian companies Moongate and Yellow Earth. How have both companies supported the final product?
The amount of work that goes into putting even a (relatively) small-scale theatre production on the stage is enormous and in all honesty I’m not sure how we’d have managed it all if we weren’t two companies. The main area we’ve worked on together is the marketing. More than practically everything our goal (both Moongate and Yellow Earth) is to get East Asian audiences into the theatre to watch this play. Of course, it goes without saying that we want everyone in the world to watch this play and it’s a play that literally anyone can watch. I’ve quite deliberately written a rattling narrative drama that’s full of vibrant characters that I believe an audience (any audience) can take to their heart and love. This sounds obvious but not all modern theatre is about this. A lot of theatre these days aims at a kind of “high-art” and “concept” which I have upmost respect for but my interest is ordinary people being able to connect with a story and a huge huge part of that is diversity. The play is called “Forgotten” and the forgotten people of the UK diversity conversation is British East Asians. So both companies are working extremely hard on outreach to East Asian community centres and associations, including going out to them and conducting workshops based on the art in the play so that East Asian people can connect with each other and their own personal immigrant narratives because the play is about migrant labour. We’re also creating a website all about the Chinese Labour Corps and a special souvenir programme. It’s an ambitious project but as well as the play we want to create a whole resource together where this vital part of British history can be commemorated and learned about.
Kim Pearce directs, how have you both collaborated to bring the show to life?
Kim’s a phenomenally talented director who I predict you’ll be hearing a lot of in the years to come. She’s also thoroughly committed to getting East Asian work and (crucially) East Asian actors onto British stages and is as knowledgeable about East Asian theatre as anyone outside a small expert field. Our collaboration has taken on so many different elements it’s honestly hard to know how to describe it. First of all we were working on the script together. Then with Moongate producer Zhen Lin and Yellow Earth we were trying to get the show on and then putting together a funding application. Then we were putting together a creative team and working on the design, the music, the movement, the lighting, the sound. Then we were figuring out posters and marketing etc. Then we were casting-there’s a crucial thing here: there’s been this myth that’s permeated around the industry to such an extent that it became almost ingrained. It’s being dismantled now but it still sits there. The myth is that it’s difficult to find good British East Asian actors. It’s led to the theatre mainstream in the past wanting to cast white actors and other ethnicities instead. It’s led to them wanting to fly in East Asian actors from other countries where they get more opportunities (go figure that one, it ain’t rocket science). It’s rubbish of course. I’m always staggered by the sheer amount of talent out there and it’s a struggle to give everyone a fair crack to be honest. We could’ve cast this play four times over. I’d like to create the biggest drama ever and have British East Asian actors literally all over it. Back to Kim: she’s ridiculously clever and impossibly imaginative and she totally believes in having a nice rehearsal room that people look forward to coming and working in every day (this is important and it’s unfortunately not always the case).
What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?
- That this is a phenomenal story about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things at an incredible moment in history that had lasting and far-reaching ramifications.
- That East Asian people are rounded three dimensional human beings that should be at the centre of dramas.
- That erasure is a painful and traumatic abuse.
- That British East Asian actors are amazing.
- That they’ve had a great time watching this play: it’s packed with salty and hilarious dialogue, vibrant and colourful characters, an exciting narrative and the most kick-ass tunes (by our composer Liz Liew) it’s possible to hear. This last one’s important. In many ways it’s a tragic story. But these were remarkable human beings. They had no power, no education to speak and came from the kind of impoverished background we can barely imagine. Yet they made extraordinary and beautiful art (some was featured on Antiques Roadshow recently. They told stories, performed, sang songs and danced. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s sing and dance with them
Have you learned anything new whilst creating Forgotten?
I’ve learned so much I’d be here writing for ever if I listed it all. The main thing I learned was China’s huge (largely unwitting) role in WW1 and the seismic effect the labourers had on the last 100 years of history which is ironic in light of the fact they werecompletely forgotten. Let’s start with the war itself. We’re not educated properly in this country. Most people seem to think that WW1 and WW2 was much of a muchness i.e. “Plucky Brits” vs “Nazis”. There were no “Nazis” in WW1, there were just power blocs vying for colonial expansion. China was a place where a lot of tensions were exacerbated because literally everyone wanted a piece of the Chinese pie with around 71% of the country controlled by different foreign powers. The first major engagement of WW1 was Japan seizing Qingdao in Shandong (where our play begins) from the Germans – something that caused a huge rift when the region was granted to Japan at the end of the conflict. The Chinese government’s deployment of labourers was a desperate effort to gain a seat at the post-war peace conference, win back the Shandong territories, and have the punitive indemnities they’d been paying ever since the Opium Wars relinquished. All of this went horribly wrong though in what has come to be known as the “Betrayal at Versailles” when the Chinese delegation (despite a heroic effort) being denied all of their goals. This immediately led to the May 4thmovement, then China collapsed into the Warlord Era then the lengthy civil war which the Chinese Communist Party eventually won and the rest, as they say, is history. The West fears resurgent Chinese nationalism. But that nationalism comes from a place of near-total weakness 100 years ago which was all the result of colonial domination.
What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Persevere and be brave. If you’re anything like me some of the things you write will make you cringe. It heartened me enormously when I saw a podcast by James Graham who talked about a sign they used to have on the wall at the Royal Court saying “Don’t get it right, get it written”. James went on to say that if you saw his first drafts what you’d see is terrible dialogue and terrible jokes. There’s two tendencies aspiring writers can have (and I’ve done both): 1) write two pages and go “this is shit” and bin it 2) write a long messy first-draft decide that it’s a work of genius and send it out to literally everyone. Neither of those is the way to go. I was in two writing groups-the Royal Court Studio Group and the Orange Tree Writers Collective. Both of them were invaluable because they get you to actually write something and the support of fellow writers is often the only thing you can count on. Get some actor friends to read your stuff round a table. You can learn a lot from hearing things. Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day which is made even more obvious when you learn you can’t even write a play (much smaller than the Roman Empire) in a day. So persevere. But don’t just keep writing the same shit over and over again. By that I mean take account of the feedback you’re getting. You’ll of course get some daft, infuriating and downright insulting things said along with the occasional nuggets of wisdom so I certainly don’t mean do what everyone says. But try and figure out what they’re saying and either act on the criticisms by not doing the thing they’re criticising or (if you know what they’re criticising is what you want to do) do it even more!
Questions by Lucy Basaba.