Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jennifer Lim: WeRNotVirus

By | Published on Friday 5 June 2020

This weekend, a collective of leading actors, writers, directors and creatives of East and South-East Asian heritage from within the UK’s performing arts industry will be joining forces online for a digital event entitled ‘WeRNotVirus’. It’s a response to a surge in racism and hate incidents directed at members of that community during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s been created and produced by Moongate Productions in association with Omibus Theatre. I spoke to the company’s Jennifer Lim to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us what kind of event to expect from ‘WeRNotVirus’? It seems to me that there’s a range of different performances and genres? 
JL: ‘WeRNotVirus’ is a digital event including the live streaming of online performances, as well as pre-recorded pieces, followed by a live online panel discussion. We have two post show panels, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. We’ve deliberately invited creatives from different disciplines to come together and collaborate on ten new pieces of writing. There’s poetry, dance, animation, a song somewhere, as well as straight to camera pieces too.

CM: Can you tell us about some of the artists and writers who are involved and the work they are presenting?
JL: We’ve commissioned ten writers to respond to the provocation ‘WeRNotVirus’, examining and looking at the rise of COVID-19 related racism. It’s a deliberate choice to curate a diverse range of voices drawing mainly from the British East/South-East Asian community as well as a black writer writing about racism towards the black community in China.

We’ve commissioned leading and established writers and poets alongside some newer and unheard voices. There is a tendency to view British East/South-East Asians as a monolithic bloc and the voices that usually get platformed tend to write about the Chinese experience, whereas there’s a rich diversity and range of more nuanced voices and experiences that don’t get heard.

In our mix are Daniel York Loh, of Anglo-Singaporean heritage; Will Harris, who’s a poet of Anglo-Indonesian heritage; Nemo Martin, who’s Anglo- Japanese; and Oladipo Agboluaje, who’s a British Nigerian writer.

We are also working with Jennifer Tang and Anthony Lau, who are directing five pieces each. Jen is Young Vic’s next Genesis Fellow and Anthony has worked at the National Theatre, The Globe and Nuffield to name just a few. Both are tremendously exciting directors. If you don’t know about them now you soon will do.

We’re also working with Ghost & John – a very exciting duo who are both artists and dancers in their own right – on one of our pieces, as well as Sophie Yau, a British Chinese singer-songwriter in another. Nicola Chang, an award winning sound designer, is working with us, as well as Matthew Leonhart, a hugely talented illustrator and animator. Acting wise, we have Katie Leung narrating one of the pieces.

We’re hoping to reflect the rich amazing talent in our community and what we have is only scratching the surface. There are more talented, amazing artists that we couldn’t fit in our event this time, but we want to put these talents out there and get our voices heard collectively.

The problem with COVID related racism is that the general public gets fed these images of East-Asian people whenever the media want to talk about China and it fuels the ignorance and flawed perception of a group of people who are commonly only portrayed as stereotypes on our stage and screen. Our writers are also rarely trusted to write about our own experiences and narratives too.

CM: Can you explain, from a technical perspective, how the event can be accessed?
JL: I’ll do my best. Not being a very technical person! We are very lucky to be supported by Omnibus Theatre in that respect.

A great deal of theatre has moved on to the digital platform since lockdown began and it’s a new territory for all of us. No doubt there’ll be teething problems and we’re discovering them as we go along.

We are planning to host it on Zoom and the idea is to simulate a ‘live’ theatregoing experience as fully as we possibly can under the circumstances, though there’s no illusion that it can ever replace live theatre, where audiences and performers breathe the same air, share the same space and engage in a communal act of energy giving and learning.

What we do have is a digital space. We would like to utilise Zoom features to enable us to come together for a ‘shared experience’ as much as it allows.

As we speak, the event is now sold out and people have been in touch asking if we can YouTube stream it and allow more people to participate in this event. Zoom allows only 100 participants, hence the limited numbers, and the idea to go with Zoom is to ensure that audiences engage, and they engage best when it’s live, rather than just watching a video playing.

We’ve all done it. We look at our phones and momentarily zone out with a YouTube video on. Whereas when you enter a a theatre, you automatically switch your phones off. The event will be recorded and available online for people who can’t get in for the live experience, but it would be equally exciting to make it available for as many people as possible without compromising the live aspect of it. This is where I need a tech expert to help me.

People who have already signed up to the event will be sent a Zoom link half an hour before the event starts and you’ll be admitted into the ‘room’ by an ‘usher’, aka a Zoom host.

CM: What inspired you to create this event?
JL: I did a show at The Vaults pre-lockdown which actually finished on 15 Mar, a few days before theatres started shutting down.

Two of my company members in that show experienced racial harassment three days in a row on their way to the theatre. People I know reported that they’d been shouted at, punched in the arm, called names related to Coronavirus. They’d all been blamed unanimously for this ‘Chinese virus’. Ironically, none of them was a Chinese national. They are people who are British Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, of mixed British East Asian heritage – Malays, Thais, Filipinos, Japanese, Korean etc.

There’s been a surge in race crimes against people of East/Southeast Asian appearance. I myself have experienced people giving me hostile looks, moving away from me on the tube, children running away from me when they saw me coming, shouting “they’re Chinese – quick put on the mask”… it’s kind of traumatic because I thought the days of racist bullying was a thing of the past and suddenly it’s like your younger days are coming back to haunt you

CM: Who has been involved in bringing the event together, and how have you managed to get everything organised in the current situation?
JL: ‘WeRNotVirus’ is produced by Moongate – founded by myself and Daniel York Loh, who’s also an actor, writer, activist and previous Chair of the Equity Minority Race Equality Committee.

We decided that an urgent, creative response was needed to counter this serious rise in hate crime against British East/Southeast Asians, and we believe that the lack of representation has a lot to answer for.

Theatre is a powerful tool for change too and we want to platform and uplift our community as much as we possibly can. Considering it’s a two-person outfit comprising of two working actors, we haven’t the admin support or office infrastructure. I have to put my creative producer hat on and am thankful to have the support of Khai, who’s our associate producer.

We applied to the Arts Council Emergency Fund and we’re really grateful to have the support of ACE to make this happen. It was a rallying call to our fellow colleagues who care just as deeply about the issues and who supported us generously in this very quick turnaround. We definitely wouldn’t be able to do this without their support and it goes to show that things can get done if we all pull together.

CM: How did you go about finding the writers and performers who have contributed? 
JL: It’s a mixture of knowing their work previously as well as coming across them and thinking “that’s an interesting and pertinent voice”.

Daniel York Loh, Lucy Sheen and Amber Hsu are writers known to me already, but I came across Will Harris’s poetry by chance a while ago and knew that I would love to work with him one day. When this came up, I approached him directly and was thrilled he was up for it.

We came across Shaofan’s post on Facebook responding to her own lived experience on COVID-19 related racism and thought it’d be great to give her a platform. Likewise with J M Arrow, who writes from the perspective of a religious queer mixed race woman of Southeast Asian descent.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you end up in this career? Was it something you always wanted to do? 
JL: I am an actor, first and foremost. However, I’ve been compelled to put on different hats as a producer, filmmaker and creative in the last ten years to empower myself in terms of the type of stories I want to tell and, quite frankly, I got tired of playing the same old stereotypes I got offered. Hence this is where Moongate Productions came in.

I’ve always known I wanted to be an actor and I did the usual route of studying drama at A-levels then drama school, and acting is the only thing I know. It does get incredibly frustrating after a while, when you realise that what you do as an actor is of limited impact and the career of an actor is a disempowering one where you’re always waiting for someone else’s approval, dependent on the whims of others, and it’s never about the talent.

Politics are a huge component, and a lot of talented people I know don’t get through because they’re not mixing in the right circles. Talent is not democratic, it’s about profile, who you know, who you haven’t pissed off etc. Daniel and I started Moongate to smash all that. To democratise the process and provide a platform for top quality British East/South-East Asian creatives as well as providing a truthful perception of this community.

A lot of the work about British East and South-East communities is shrouded in exotica and ‘othering’. We want to challenge that perception and smash the stereotypes. We want to champion and take risks on unknown talent and we hope to build an artistic community that is vibrant and diverse.

For far too long, because there’s so little work about, it’s been hard to foster a sense of community spirit and support. I would very much like to challenge the idea of deprivation with the concept of an ‘abundant’ universe and that, as minority ethnic artistes, we can achieve more by uplifting and supporting each other, and rise up collectively rather than playing divide and rule politics based on fear and a poverty narrative.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
JL: I would love ‘WeRNotVirus’ to grow into a positive movement galvanising East and Southeast Asian people to exercise their right to be creative, be strong, speak truth and celebrate ourselves. At the same time, standing up to racism in all forms. We have been known far too long as the silent community.

It’s hard to talk about aims and ambitions for the future in these times. Without wanting to sound like a beauty queen contestant, I’d say ‘World Peace’! LOL! In all seriousness, I would like the British East/South-East Asian community represented more both on and off stage in our theatres, to have a level playing field for all minority voices, and for all of us to co-create a better theatre ecosystem.

CM: What would you have been doing now if COVID hadn’t happened? 
JL: I would have been on holiday in Singapore visiting family.

CM: What have you been doing to stay sane in lockdown?
JL: Watching lots of films, theatre, reading books, listening to music, daily mediation and yoga practice. Also playing the ukulele. I am self taught, so I’ve been taking ukulele lessons on YouTube. Also watching European theatre. Just discovered Milo Rau. He blows my mind!

WeRNotVirus’ will be live streamed on 13 and 14 Jun via the Omnibus Theatre website. See this page here for info.

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