An interview with award-winning playwright Renee Liang, whose new creation is a fable of fishy sentience, ecology, and sashimi set in a Chinese restaurant.
Bubblelands is the latest play by second-generation Chinese-Kiwi playwright Renee Liang. It’s the quirky story of a bluecod and crayfish waiting in the fishtank of a Chinese restaurant, exploring themes from the ecological to the existential. It also stars frequent collaborators Benjamin Teh and Hweiling Ow, with Amanda Grace Leo directing. As well as being a playwright, Liang is also a poet, fiction writer, paediatrician, and mother. The premiere of her play will be at The Basement theatre next week.
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NATHAN JOE: How did you come up with the idea for Bubblelands?
RENEE LIANG: Benjamin [Teh], Hweiling [Ow], Amanda [Grace Leo], and myself had been talking about taking a show to the Singapore Fringe. We actually pitched Lantern last year, but it didn’t fit their brief so we didn’t get selected. This year the brief was ‘People and Animals’.
I didn’t have anything in my bottom drawer that fit, so I had to start thinking. And pretty much right away, I started wondering about the fish in tanks in Chinese restaurants. Being Asian, the idea of eating as-fresh-as-possible-fish was pretty normal, but over the years I’d started seeing things more from the point of view of my husband, who loved fish but didn’t like the idea of killing something for pleasure. And then the mental picture of Ben and Hweiling as an odd-couple pair of fish popped up and wouldn’t leave my head.
It didn’t take much for Ben and Hweiling to agree to it, and luckily Basement and BATS also loved the idea, so we had two season offers right away. We’ve actually missed the deadline for Singapore Fringe now but we’ll see how the development season goes.
NJ: And both Ben and Hweiling have worked on previous shows of yours in the past. So do specific actors, then, play quite an important role in the development of your scripts?
RL: Yes. In most of my shows to date (I’d say The Bone Feeder is the only exception) the roles were initially written for a specific actor. I see each play as a collaboration so I get actors on board early.
I’m like most creatives in that when I find people who are easy to work with, reliable, fun and ‘get’ me, I hold on to them and try to work with them again and again. Ben and Hweiling are two of my most frequent collaborators. This is the third and second play respectively that they’ve been involved with. The first time they’ve worked together on a play of mine though.
NJ: And would I be correct in saying that this is the first play of yours that’s been produced that doesn’t have specifically Asian characters?
RL: Yes. Though technically only by two weeks. Currently I have two plays in rehearsal, both with non-specific casting. So it’s a breakout year for me.
Oh—hang on—actually my first play to be produced was a medicolegal comedy. The script was my final student essay at Medical School. It had the character of ‘Death’ and he wasn’t specifically Asian, but that was not a professional production.
NJ: That’s interesting. Was there any particular reason your subsequent plays have had Asian characters and themes until now?
RL: Well, there’s a difference between written and produced plays.
I write plenty of plays with non Asian characters, but—to be perfectly blunt—the funding guidelines favour the more overtly ‘ethnic’ material. So these are the ones that get programmed, and produced.
In fact with the two current less ‘ethnic’ plays, it’s been difficult to get funding. Some of that is due to a timing issue, though. Less than six months lead up time equals less opportunity to apply for funding.
NJ: Do you think the landscape for ‘ethnic’ or ‘Asian’ plays has changed much since you first started making theatre then?
RL: Yes. There are more of us now than when I started writing plays eight years ago. Though there’s always flux. Before me there was Lynda Chanwai Earle, Jacob Rajan, Sonia Yee.
There’s landscape change, and there’s also individual change. My current pathway—starting with ‘expected’ cultural plays, getting established as a playwright, then starting to move in other directions and take more risks—that’s a common pattern I see.
NJ: And I suppose the landscape doesn’t change by itself anyway. It’s that individual change of theatremakers that affects the landscape not vice versa.
RL: Yes. And I think we all study each other, and talk, and encourage, and share, so there’s also a bit of a movement. One thing I think we are bad at is watching what is happening internationally. It’s still hard to access plays by non-white playwrights, I find. Though finding scripts is easier. I’d love for there to be a way for us to meet and swap ideas with other playwrights from minorities.
NJ: Yeah, I definitely have a difficult enough time keeping up to date with mainstream plays.
I see a lot of really ambitious plays produced overseas, but far less so over here. This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with some other playwrights about the mental constraints we put on ourselves when writing. In that what we write tends to be limited by what we think we can realistically produce ourselves.
RL: Yes. Actually I have two types of plays I write—the ones I can produce myself, and the ones in which I either lose a lot of money and/or I need a producing partner such as a venue. The difference is of course the cast size. One and two handers are easier to mount, tour, remount, and market. There’s also more creative control. Once you get to cast sizes of 10-12 your development period, production budget, everything just gets stretched.
NJ: I can imagine.
RL: I have lots of ideas for the larger cast sizes but hesitate to even start the script sometimes because I already know the pain that awaits me. But then these are also the dream big projects.
So The Bone Feeder took three years to develop and cost me tens of thousands of dollars of my own money. But its impact on our community has been far reaching in ways I never really intended—I just wanted to make a good story.
NJ: Would you say the original gestation period for that play is atypical in the New Zealand theatre scene?
RL: No… not for a big play. When I wrote Lantern, my first professional full-length play, page to stage was less than six months. I guess Bubblelands is the same. But The Quiet Room, a four hander, also took three years including two public readings. It’s never been workshopped though.
NJ: And how involved are you in the rehearsal process when you’re not directing the plays yourself?
RL: I try to stay as involved as the cast and director want me. Usually I’m in the rehearsal room watching run throughs and rewriting on the fly—it’s one of the most exciting and scary parts of the process, watching it come off the page, and making those all important last minute adjustments.
Of course that depends on the flexibility of the actors and director too—but as I’ve said I pick my collaborators. I’m also usually producing, and I’m very hands on. I cook for my cast! Hot food—we’re talking rice cookers, electric fry pans—I have all the gear!
NJ: So would you say you don’t really think of a play as ever being finished?
RL: No. There’s always fiddling and I can’t help myself. But after a few seasons, things are more settled. I’m in the process now of preparing two of my scripts for publication. So sooner or later I’m going to have to agree to the words for that at least being set in stone.
NJ: Right. I guess publication is when a play moves away from being merely a blueprint and becoming a historical document in a way.
RL: Yes. That’s scary in of itself.
Even after opening night, the process isn’t finished. I’ll generally sit in the audience listening to them, where they laugh, where they’re still. We change a word here, take out a word there. I agonise if the audience don’t laugh over a joke! I find I have to fine-tune my jokes as Aucklanders and Wellingtonians laugh at different things, weirdly.
NJ: Well, I guess that’s the thing. A playwright rarely writes only for him or herself. The audience is such a tangible part of the experience unlike, let’s say, with writing a novel.
RL: Yes. I think that’s why when I encountered theatre, I was hooked. I come from a poetry background, and that too is really interactive. It’s the most self-contained production experience. Writer, producer, actor, and director in one. Also sound guy.
NJ: I’m glad you brought that up. I find the relationship between poetry and plays incredibly fascinating. Especially in modern theatre where the tendency is to evoke naturalism and almost filmic conventions.
RL: Yes. In performance poetry we evoke ‘documentary’ but in fact we are performing a fiction. We’re not performing as ourselves, we’re performing a version of ourselves—even if that self is ourselves five minutes ago when we wrote the poem.
Theatre also has that immediacy. Plays live and breathe and their rhythm changes every night according to who’s watching and what people the actors talked to that day.
You mentioned filmic conventions. One of the things I love about theatre is the fact that naturalism is not required. It goes back to the most basic of conventions—if I stand on stage and tell you something is happening, you believe it. The audience contract.
NJ: I think it’s easy to forget that naturalism in theatre is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. The Greeks and Shakespeare did without it. It wasn’t until Ibsen and Strindberg that modern theatre and the desire for naturalism was born.
RL: Yes, and of course in Asian cultures there’’ an intricate symbolic language—the stick which is a horse in Chinese Opera for example, and all the hand gestures in Indian dance.
NJ: So with Bubblelands you’re clearly not interested in attempting naturalism.
RL: Well, it depends on what you mean by naturalism. I clearly don’t have the budget for a giant fishtank, and Hweiling and Ben can’t hold their breath underwater for that long.
But the emotions are true to life, I think. Assuming fish have feelings. So for me naturalism in theatre is important when it comes to emotion. I’m very much a writer who is guided by the heart. If my work doesn’t move people, then I’ve failed, so those ‘arty’ pieces where people try to be clever and ‘refer’ to emotion rather than portray it—I’ve learned I don’t enjoy those at all.
NJ: I think that’s something most audiences would agree with. We go to the theatre expecting artifice or illusion, but we still want something real underneath it. It can’t all be fake. So, in creating the world of Bubblelands, did much research go into it or is it mostly a product of your imagination?
RL: The week I started writing I happened to have dinner with my parents at Grand Park. They have a giant fish tank crammed with blue cod and crayfish. So I spent a bit of time at the tank, watching my Dad show my son all the crayfish, and my son fascinated by how they moved. I was watching how they moved too.
Then I did quite a lot of googling looking for information on New Zealand crayfish and blue cod—there’s not that much but some of the people on fishing forums talk. And I also read some scientific papers on how global warming will affect New Zealand marine species. Scary. And then pretty much after that it was a matter of dropping a hip-hop loving Crayfish and an over-fastidious Blue Cod into my brain together and watching what they did.
Oh, and I also found Gizoogle. You should try it, it’s awesome.
NJ: What’s Gizoogle?
RL: It translates anything into what Snoop Dog would say. For example, here’s my Playmarket profile.
NJ: That is amazing. And essential.
RL: Absolutely. All writers should use it. I actually had the translation window open on my laptop for two or three weeks while I wrote. The problem is there’s no reverse translator, so when we read the script and the actors asked me to explain what I meant I couldn’t.
NJ: [Laughs] That’s great. An idea for a play in itself. In terms of style is Bubblelands quite a departure for you? It’s been advertised as “whimsical existential comedy” with dips into “absurdism.”
RL: Yes. We’ve had clowning workshops from Hamish Parkinson, and Beth Kayes is director mentoring—she’s fantastic in expressing herself through physical theatre. The premise itself is pretty existentialist: a Crayfish and Blue Cod meet in the fishtank of a Chinese restaurant. Kind of like No Exit but in a fishtank.
So we’re taking huge risks—me with the material and style, and the actors with the clowning. But—watch one, do one, teach one, right? In my case, I also read Waiting for Godot and No Exit. Not that the play is anything like Beckett—I wish!
I also reread Gary Henderson’s play An Unseasonable Fall of Snow, which I saw in Wellington last year. Gary’s a long time friend and mentor so he’s also been involved in the process, and if you’re looking hard you’ll see what has inspired me from his script.
NJ: That’s really exciting. It sounds like those coming into the show with preconceptions based on your previous works will be in for a surprise.
RL: I hope so!
NJ: So after Bubblelands’ Auckland season at the Basement what is next for you?
RL: Three weeks after we close Bubblelands in Auckland we open The Quiet Room at BATS. This is the other play I have in rehearsal at the moment, it’s about a teenager with cancer and the choices she has to make: to live or not to live, and on what terms?
And then one week after we close that, Bubblelands travels to Wellington for its BATS season, and everyone’s staying at my house (little do they know my kids will love having all the extra entertainers around!). Last Christmas I basically had to work through to get two plays ready for Fringe. I thought “that’s ok, it’s a one off.”
NJ: Sounds like your busiest year yet—at least as a playwright. I hope it all goes well and I look forward to seeing your upcoming shows.
RL: Yeah—I’m too busy surviving to think!