Currently playing at the Plymouth Theatre Royal, before transferring to The Arcola Theatre, Forgotten fleshes out the one sided narrative we’re so often used to hearing. Forgotten brings to light the 140,000 Chinese labourers who aided in Britain and the Allies WWI victory a century ago; as a result, educating and celebrating the contributions of the Chinese Labour Corps. Director Kim Pearce talks to us about what drew her to the project as well as the extensive research process that brought this much needed production to life!
How are you feeling ahead of the show?
Excited and inspired. We’re in the middle of rehearsals and are starting to really colour in the world of the play and flesh out the structure of it with music and movement, it’s an exciting time.
Forgotten is a play placing focus on individuals within the Chinese Labour Corps. What drew you to the script?
This is such an important story which highlights a historical event that has been all but erased from the general historical narrative that most of us learn and know about. This leapt out to me as something that needed to be told. On top of that Dan York has done a great job of creating characters that make for a compelling story that really draws you in.
How did you approach directing Forgotten?
In the first phase, pre-workshop and rehearsal: Research! The worlds of the play, both in early 1900s China and World War One France, are so alien to what we’re used to today. The play also inter-weaves a lot of traditional Chinese opera structures and styles, some of which don’t have that much history of being performed in English, so establishing the theatrical language of that was also going to be a big part of the journey.
Between us, Dan and I probably read about over 20 books. I was also very lucky with jobs, and happened to be in China for 7 weeks for the tour of Curious Incident in the summer and it meant I could make trips to certain locations mentioned in the script and do some research on the ground. I also spoke to a lot of theatre artists there and went to see a lot of different types of theatre and performance. I try to include very material and sensory elements in my research so I spent a lot of time in folk museums looking at textures, shapes, smells and bought vintage opera costumes in Panjiayuan Antique Market for the feel of the aged fabric.
In the next phase, we workshopped the show for a week to develop the theatrical language of the play and further refine the script. It’s the type of show that will continue to evolve in rehearsal- I started out as deviser so I am comfortable with that, but you have to keep an eye on everyone to make sure they are not feeling destabilised too much by that journey.
Close prep for rehearsals involves creating strategies for introducing the research to the room in ways that are active and creative. We co-create the world of the play using large rolls of paper to construct life timelines, and take turns in telling each other the story of the character’s past lives and how they have lived together. We use novels set in the period, and image research to help the cast turn dry historical fact into emotive and formative events in the character’s lives.
Then I’m very pragmatic! We have a lot of movement and music material to get through, and I work through the text in detail with the cast to make sure every sentence is played with clarity and to move the story along. So there’s a lot of time juggling back tomake sure certain elements go in early enough to really bed in, and to make sure everything gets the attention it needs. I have the model box or least photos of it by me all the time when blocking, I’m constantly thinking of the few days of tech we have to create the visual aspects of the show.
I’m very careful to support dialogue in the room as much as we can, and that I don’t take up all the space for comment. It’s important everyone feels they are invited to share their experiences and insight, especially the cast and my brilliant assistant and trainee directors. We also have an extremely astute stage management team, and the post rehearsal debriefs I have with them as we tidy up our desks are a very valuable part of the day. At the same time, I muscle through and lead when needed so we keep on track.
How have collaborated with writer Daniel York to bring the show to life?
I’ve known Dan for a few years, so we trust each other creatively, and are comfortable enough to challenge each other with a certain ease. Though I think the biggest thing we have given each other is confirmation and encouragement to continue. As mentioned briefly before, Dan and I shared a lot of our research, especially books we came across but also pictures and films. Before this performance we also had the chance to put on a rehearsed reading last year and explore the show through a week’s R&D in July, so there’s been a lot of space for Dan and I to try out the text, re-draft and explore options. Dan’s also been in rehearsals with us these first couple weeks and that’s been really helpful.
What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?
I hope audiences will be touched and moved by the inspiring and occasionally tragic stories of the characters in Forgotten. Ultimately, it would be wonderful if audiences went away hungry to learn more about the Chinese Labour Corps’ stories and even begin doing their own research and reading into it. It would be a great way to celebrate and perhaps even begin to redress the erasure of this forgotten contribution. More broadly, I’d like them to think differently about the history they think they know. Behind the story of every nation are erased lives, hidden connections and lost insights into how the world really works.
Have you learned anything new whilst directing Forgotten?
Yes, most definitely! I remember doing a whole term on the treaty of Versailles when doing my GSCE history at school ( this was at the turn of the Millenium!) I don’t think the presence of Japanese delegates was ever mentioned, the presence of Chinese delegates certainly wasn’t. That changes my whole view of the war- from there you start learning about the presence of black South African labourers, Algerians and so on. I thought that through various spates of reading and research in my life, seeing films and plays, I had developed a pretty broad overview of geopolitics and the complex interrelations between nations in the 20thCentury. I was also alert to the whitewashing of history. It turns out, that despite that awareness, I’d still absorbed a pretty simplistic version of events and I realised anew the extent to which the version of early 20thcentury history that most of us know in this country is coded by the values of the times it happened in. Paradoxically, we are also very good at glossing the extreme racism of early 20thCentury Imperial Britain out of our narratives. So we end up with this bizarre version of events with huge forgotten lacuna in them waiting to be brought back from oblivion. I learnt that you can’t rely on the assumptions this culture endows you with. I’m so glad we are participating in a time of cultural change.
Obviously, I also learned a lot about the Chinese Labour Corps but also about rural life in China at the time and the local politics of the time. My knowledge of traditional Chinese opera has broadened out from Beijing and Cantonese operas to include Maoqiang- which is local to the region the play is set in, Yuan period drama and other singing storytelling forms. The amount of information, when you begin to look, is quite extensive and I believe we’ll be including small snippets of the research we’ve done in the programme booklet for anyone else interested in learning more too. I’ve met a really exciting generation of young British East Asian actors, and am really looking forward to seeing everything they do in the future.
What advice would you give to aspiring directors?
Read read read, see see see, talk talk talk, listen listen listen. As a director you are a creator of cultural collages and you can’t be exposed to enough different things. Don’t be hesitant to be really geeky and knowledgeable about the things you really like, but remember to look at them from fresh angles all the time. By all means pursue awards, director development schemes and all those marks of prestige that help you believe you can be a director- but you can get distracted and exhausted by it. In the end you’ll be defined by your collaborators, so find some groovy people and make work. Make your network as broad and inclusive as you can. Treat producers as human beings with creative impulses you can work with to further, not money finding machines, and you’ll be alright in the end! Challenge sexism and racism when you encounter it, it’s hard but there are organisations like Act For Change and SDUK who will support you with those struggles.
Questions by Lucy Basaba.