Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Hester Welch: Rice!

By | Published on Friday 12 February 2021

I’ve been hearing a lot about digital performances and productions of late, of course, and it’s really exciting to hear about the ways performers and companies are stretching the boundaries of how to deliver culture in lockdown.

I was particularly intrigued when I read about ‘Rice!’, an upcoming production which will be streamed from two countries at once, and which incorporates interactive elements.

To find out what to expect from the show, and more about the creatives behind it, I spoke to Hester Welch, director, and co-founder of producing company Wayang Kitchen.

CM: Can we start with the practicalities? How will ‘Rice!’ be broadcast and how will audiences access it?
HW: ‘Rice!’ will be streamed live on Zoom simultaneously from Malaysia and the UK. The show is an exciting blend of storytelling, interactive games and food where audiences in both those countries will be able to watch the show and ‘break bread’ or rather, rice, across continents.

CM: I love the sound of the food element – can you tell us more about that?
HW: Wayang Kitchen is a new theatre company based in Malaysia and we love to explore fusing food with performance. In the UK, audiences can order a food kit, containing simple ingredients, and follow a cooking demonstration online to prepare the dishes before the show starts. During the show you are invited into the world of our main character, Connie Cheng, engaging your nose and tastebuds as well as hearts and minds!

CM: What is ‘Rice!’ about? What story does it tell?
HW: ‘Rice!’ is about Connie Cheng, a Chinese Malaysian woman hungry for life in the West. It is a story of migration and heritage, the delicate existence of life between two cultures and the food that shapes it. How do you hold onto the past while looking towards the future?

CM: What themes does the show explore?
HW: Migration, headstrong women, home, belonging and cuisine. Food is almost the second character in the story.

CM: What was the inspiration for it? What made you want to work on a piece about this subject and themes?
HW: Wayang Kitchen’s restaurant partner venue in Kuala Lumpur was the original inspiration. Concubine is a glamorous bar located in the heart of the capital’s Chinatown. As they put it “our walls were once the sanctum for eternal Mahjong nights, gang lord reunions and hosted strong-minded women of the street, opium smokers and Chinese merchants.”

For me personally, I had spent a lot of time in both China and Malaysia over the last few years. I’m fascinated with how Chinese food has travelled the world and made a huge mark in the fabric of multicultural communities worldwide. Immigrants are so often scapegoated in this country, and I am keen to share positive stories of migration, and the strong women behind them.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
HW: Connie, the protagonist in this show, is played by two fantastic Chinese Malaysian actors, Amanda Ang in KL and Michelle Wen Lee here in the UK. They have both been part of the devising process, so actually a lot of their own personal stories have had a major influence on the script, which is being pulled together and written by the talented Vera Chok. Michelle is also creating the food packs for the UK show supplied by her East Asian street food company 5 Foot Way.

CM: What challenges have you faced in bringing this to life during the pandemic?
HW: Originally this show was meant to be performed in person at the Concubine restaurant in KL, but due to COVID, Wayang Kitchen co-founder Razif Hashim and I have been separated by borders: he is in Malaysia and I am in the UK.

A British Council grant – from its Digital Collaboration Fund – helped to restart our project and transfer it online. So considering our own separation, and inability to migrate during the pandemic, we started to explore this in our story and how we portray it. It’s influenced both the story and the form.

The pandemic continues to cause many challenges in putting this on – for example, the different lockdown restrictions in the two different countries, working online over different time zones rather than in one place – but these have ultimately meant we’ve been able to create some unique elements because of it.

CM: Lots of companies have been doing online-accessible shows in lockdown. Do you think it’s a format that might stick around post-pandemic?
HW: I think it will, as it’s a whole new medium with different possibilities, where we can connect the local with the global from our very homes. But it’s still totally different to live theatre in person. When it’s possible to do that again, I’m sure audiences and makers will leap at the chance to breathe the actual blood, sweat and tears of performers!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Did you always want to work in the arts, and how did your career begin?
HW: Yes, I’ve always made theatre, it’s just tricky to make a living out of it so it led to me embarking on a fairly nomadic life.

I started off in London, but grew tired of the rat race there, so I often escaped to other parts of Europe and Asia, working a lot with the David Glass Ensemble.

Then I trained with master clown Philippe Gaulier in Paris, and spent a while in Malaysia and China on different projects. Now it is not possible to travel, I have returned to my roots in the West Country and have found some magic on my doorstep.

CM: The industry has obviously gone through a very difficult period over the last year. How do you feel it has affected you? Will this time have repercussions for your future as a creative?
HW: It makes me so sad and angry to see my industry collapse and left to crumble. Where artists are listed as the top ‘non-essential’ jobs. Where our government say we should simply retrain. Time and time again the arts are undervalued and deemed expendable.

Prominent scientific studies show that audiences’ hearts synchronise at the theatre – our hearts literally beat as one when we experience art together. Countless times I’ve seen how making and experiencing art transforms lives, where people express themselves, accept themselves, take risks, breathe courage, relax, revolt, dare to see, dare to be, dare to dream. Now more than ever, in a world where we have to be socially distant, we need to keep connecting, engaging and inspiring each other.

I think this pandemic has ultimately made me more resilient and more determined to keep making art no matter what. It’s taken quite a few existential crises to get there, and I’ll probably start drowning in self-doubt soon again. But right now having work – and with such a brilliant team – I am encouraged to keep going. Just could do with a bit more sleep. And the introduction of Universal Basic Income.

CM: What hopes and ambitions do you have for the future?
HW: The Digital Collaboration Fund was the first grant we’ve received as a new company. I hope we can continue to secure funding to survive and share more stories with brilliant artists and audiences across the UK and Malaysia! Long live interculturalism!

‘Rice’ is streamed for four performances, on 20, 21, 27 and 28 Feb at 12.30pm. See the Omnibus Theatre website here for information and to book.

LINKS: | | |