Composer and producer Jasmin Kent Rodgman talks about her Instagram Opera ‘nineteen ways of looking’ commissioned by Chinese Arts Now

As part of their continuing commitment to support artists during the pandemic, Chinese Arts Now have commissioned a series of new works as part of their ‘Digital Commissions’ initiative, an initiative encouraging the integration of technology and art to explore pertinent issues whilst reaching wider audiences. Commissioned for her work nineteen ways of looking, composer and producer Jasmin Kent Rodgman tells us more about her Instagram Opera, a production highlighting the experiences of 19 individuals, tackling themes of racism, isolation, media and mental health that will play out over 10 days during November.

Hi Jasmin, your social media opera nineteen ways of looking will play out daily via posts on Instagram from 17th to 27th Nov. How are you feeling ahead of the showing?

Hey Theatre Full Stop, thanks for having me and excited to talk a little about nineteen ways of looking! We’ve just finished final filming and are busy pulling all the music, artwork and film together. I’m starting to feel that pre-performance buzz with the usual nerves, mixed in with anticipation of how audiences are going to feel about an Instagram Opera!

nineteen ways of looking is a response to the prejudice shown towards those from the East and South East Asian diaspora during the pandemic. What does it mean to have had your work commissioned during this unpredictable time?

We’re at a particularly raw, confrontational and often painful time, in light of the pandemic and history-defining moments such as George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. But it also feels like a time where people are speaking up and shouting loud about the systemic inequalities and harsh truths that we have dismissed or wilfully ignored for so long. nineteen ways of looking is both a huge professional and personal moment for myself and the team; it’s our way of coming together to protest against the rising discrimination our community is facing. As with so many other non-white communities, the ESEA diaspora in the UK has long endured antiquated monolithic views, unhealthy stereotypes and an oppressive silence caused by a severe lack of representation within British culture and beyond.

So to have a project of this scale commissioned by not one but two phenomenal organisations is a blessing, with thanks to ACE for additional funding as well. There is so much uncertainty surrounding the future of British arts and culture. To be able to channel my energy into a creative outlet and represent my cultural community means more than I can fully express in words.

The show has been commissioned by Chinese Arts Now (and CFCCA) as part of their digital commission initiative. How have you found exploring tech within your practice?

Whilst it certainly doesn’t replace live performance – and we should rightly be concerned about the life of live in the UK and further – using tech to think creatively about digital releases, remoulding musical and theatrical form, is a challenge I am enjoying. Integrating tech to such a high degree into nineteen ways of looking has been liberating but all at once throws up so many other philosophical questions on human interaction, performance and storytellingI suspect we’ll all be thinking about these questions for quite some time!

Setting a production on Instagram that is online and free has also raised interesting points about audience access and reach. It removes certain barriers that we often face when thinking about equality and representation in the arts. In a way, this production has the potential to travel far wider and faster than anything else I have ever created, and I’m looking forward to seeing who connects with the show.

The show has been filmed entirely on a camera phone – why choose this format to create your work?

In the run up to, and in the early months of the pandemic in the UK, I was seeing so many social media posts documenting and discussing racial attacks and abuse from ESEA friends, family and colleagues. So nineteen ways is set on Instagram and captured on cameraphone to embody the very topics and experiences that have inspired it.

It’s also a comment on how we consume media and share our lives today. The show is designed specifically for where we are right now – especially as we head back into varying levels of national and international lockdown – capable of being performed and captured by whomever involved and with whatever means available… which for most of us, is our phones. By doing so, we’ve been able to put together a production that includes artists in the UK, China, Belgium and Denmark!

The production’s witnessed you team up with writer and poet Chen Si’an, choreographer and dance artist Si Rawlinson and dramaturg Jude Christian. How have you worked together to realise the show?

It was important for myself, Si’an, Si and Jude to speak early on in the project’s R&D phase. Before we began any writing or working on choreography, we had several conversations where we would just share our own thoughts and experiences of the project’s wider themes, and get to know one another. It was incredible to see and hear how our own heritages, from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, London, Leicester, Manchester could all connect on one level or another.

Si’an, Jude and Si bring a wealth of experience from dance, theatre, poetry and opera backgrounds. This multifaceted approach was vital in evolving the script and choreography into what you will experience on Instagram.

All of the above fed into the shaping of nineteen ways with its multiple chapters and threads. In that sense, the production really feels like a community of perspectives. As you can imagine, there have been a lot of international Zoom sessions over the past couple of months! I spent one day in back-to-back Zoom meetings for 8 hours straight, though that has not been repeated since—it’s not for the fainthearted, I tell ya!

It’s not easy creating and rehearsing virtually, especially when it comes to music and choreography. There’s a lot of roundtable discussion followed by intense, independent devising, although we were lucky to get in one day of ‘normal’ filming recently, where I actually met Si for the first time in the flesh! Even so, I’ve been in awe of what has come out of our collaboration!

The show offers nineteen individual experiences of the pandemic, drawing on issues of racism, isolation, media and mental health. Were these themes you’d initially set out to explore, or did you find that these were common issues that arose?

These were themes that I initially set out to explore. They’re all interlinked and could easily be either the cause or effect of one another. Overall, the show is about human empathy…or a lack thereof. Whilst I will never condone racism or any other form of discrimination, prejudice thrives in times of fear and isolation of one kind or another…and we are going through a global crisis right now (preceded by years of austerity).

These themes form an unhealthy cycle that takes a lot to break. nineteen ways hopes to shed some light on them; the ugliness, the suffering but also the beauty of human connection.

What can viewers expect from the show?

A journey of anger and fear but also discovery and hope. Mixing social realism, documentary and fantasy, nineteen ways of looking is a constellation of music, moving image, dance and word; a powerful embodiment of the very themes it investigates.

The show unfolds as you see fit, whether you follow the live release @nineteenwaysoflooking from 17-27 November, or come across the show in its entirety on Instagram over the next few months. Whilst nineteen ways confronts with some of the toughest issues and truths, we invite viewers to connect and engage with the project. Leave comments, start discussions with one another, ask questions, share moments from the show that resonate with you for whatever reason. We want to start a conversation. See you there.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

nineteen ways of looking will play out daily on Instagram from Tuesday 17th until Friday 27th November 2020. To find out more, visit @nineteenwaysoflooking.

Written by Theatrefullstop