In early 2017 I spend a lot of time in bed, watching Louis Theroux documentaries. The last time I wrote anything near a play was this time last year. I wrote a play called Archipelago for the Warwick University New Writing Society. It was what I’d generously call a rip-off of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Nick Payne’s Constellations. It was also white as hell. Anyway. Shortly after that play goes on, I begin to cry more, stay in more, stare at the wall more. Now, in January 2017, I can’t begin to fathom writing anything. I left Warwick a few months ago. I don’t feel like I have any ideas. I have absolutely no desire to even – begin thinking about theatre. I watch Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler in the Lyttleton and feel fantastically listless. The actors walk across and back over the stage and it all seems extremely two-dimensional. I leave at the interval.
So I don’t know quite where it began. I start crawling towards the light in the spring. I enjoy theatre more again. I start working with a Warwick company called Reactivists to bring a show to Edinburgh. I’m one of the writers. I think this is the first time I work creatively with Helen, who I sorta feel ends up being like my right arm. How weird that that is the beginning. I think it must be at this point that I start properly thinking about it. Things now feel a little sharper, crisper. I’m more excited by theatre now. I start up a Twitter account. That’s not relevant but also seems extremely relevant. I am, at this point, thinking a lot about my identity, about being mixed race.
Sometime in June I start working on a little script – based off something I was working at the end of my first year in Warwick. I remember being at a house party the previous September and telling Helen, somewhat drunkenly, about a play I’m working on. It’s about female friendships. Helen tells me to read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I go back to the script that June and decide that at least one of the characters should be British East Asian – mixed – and the other is white. The play is about two friends, acting out the most important moments from their friendship. The play starts to break down. The race thing gets in the way. I send it to Clara, who I haven’t really spoken to since September. She’s nice about it – polite. I play with it, on and off. It doesn’t feel quite right. I think about a solo show.
After Edinburgh, I go to Malaysia and visit my grandmother for a week. It is the most relaxed, the happiest I have been for a while. While I’m there, I interview my Popo. I ask her about growing up, about how she met my Gong Gong. I transcribe the interview and think about using it in the show. I read about The Yard’s First Drafts scheme while in Malaysia. I write a monologue from the point of view of a young, mixed race, queer woman who gets into a relationship with a white woman. One night I can’t sleep for jetlag and I send off the application. Right now, it’s called GWEILO. I get the slot, which surprises me. I ask Helen if she wants to be involved. We set up an R&D session for October, at Warwick, with some of the people whose opinions I trust most in the world.
In the R&D, we talk about food – a lot. We talk about what food means to Asian communities and families. There’s a lot of just – expulsion. Safura and I therapise about families and anger and shame and expectation. I think about a second strand, a strand about a Chinese woman who marries an English soldier. I think about how racialised attraction is. I think the second strand will draw out the first one pretty well – complement and accentuate it. After the R&D, I finish a version of the script. It’s sorta just been decided that I’ll perform it. I feel like I’ve slipped into it. It doesn’t particularly scare me. It’s not acting, which just embarrasses me on a core level. It’s just sorta – projecting. Not performing. And it’s just a scratch anyway. Part of me wonders whether or not I got the slot because mixed race stories are trendy and unthreatening. That’s a whole other blog post.
Helen and I work on the text and we incorporate food and tea into it. We think about me cooking something onstage. I think that could’ve been the show, for sure. We delineate spaces and states and worlds. We do so many mind maps and unpacking and drawing on whiteboards and linking concepts and ideas and it’s so so so cerebral that I have to lie down in a dark room after each session. I find it a bit difficult to speak the text. Rehearsals are exhausting. When the performance comes, it’s what I’d call an admirable failure. It doesn’t work as a solo show. There are interesting ideas in it, but it feels wrong. Something big feels wrong. It stresses me out to think about it now. I’m not used to failing out loud, I think. I’m used to writing and doing the edits in my room, privately. It takes me about a year from that point to accept that process is failure, but at the time it kinda reverberates in my head like THIS WAS BAD YOU ARE BAD. Ellice Stevens, in the bar after the show, hears me denigrating the piece and yells at me, tells me to big myself up.
So, over Christmas 2017, I say to Helen I think it should change, and I start working on a new draft. I have short play on at UCL in December, and it’s written quickly and feels like a vibrant gut punch. It feels very different to GWEILO. GWEILO feels slaved over – too cerebral, too full of all the research, all the things we’ve talked about. The play I do for university – scum – it feels like fresh air. I think I need to channel more of that into GWEILO. I’m not used to writing monologues. I’m used to dialogue – it flows better for me. So, I redraft GWEILO totally. It’s very much A Play now. Two strands, again. A mother – East Asian, first generation immigrant, who meets a white man and marries him. Her daughter, twenty years later, who has started dating a white woman and is attempting to figure herself and her identity out. Purely dialogue. It’s a funny draft. Full of liberal white people making mistakes and feeling bad. I try to make the mother (Jing) a subversion of East Asian stereotypes. She weaponises her vulnerability, to an extent. She is calculating but not cold. The daughter, (Mae), feels messier to me, her arc less clear. I know want Jing wants, what she needs. I don’t know what Mae wants or needs, maybe because I don’t really know what I want or need.
I get it read out by some friends one night in Warwick, and it sounds great. It rolls off the tongue. People laugh, say it’s good. I feel buoyant. On the train back the next morning, I speak to Eve and ask her for help with the title. I don’t want to call it GWEILO anymore. I want a fresh start, away from the First Drafts version. I want something violent, about ripping or destroying. A long title, a poetic one. I offer up variants, but she comes up with the money shot – i will still be whole (when you rip me in half). I tell her I love it. I send the first ten pages to Flux Theatre and they select it to scratch at their Emerge Night at The Bunker in March. The actors are all so so talented and it’s directed so deftly, but when I watch it for the first time, at the industry showing, I feel a yank at the bottom of my stomach and I go to the bathroom and cry. Because it isn’t right, and it’s too late now. I’ve made it too broad, too funny, too easy for white people to laugh easily when actually I don’t find this shit funny at all. I laid the grounds for comedy and that’s what they went with, because that’s what they could see. My fault. I feel like a massive failure, which is obviously stupid, but I do. At the second showing, that evening, I grip my seat arm and will it to be over. I’ve never been good at sitting in rehearsal rooms. There’s always been a vague tinge of embarrassment. The performance is like that but multiplied by a million. Funnily, that’s the draft most of my friends really remember, and really enjoy. In the Q&A after the show, I burst into tears when a mixed-race girl tells me she feels seen. It’s very fucking embarrassing.
Lynette Linton is my script mentor for that draft, as organised by Flux, and she tells me afterwards that I need to trust in the subject matter, that I need to accept that it is worthy. She also tells me that maybe – maybe I need to be more ambitious with it. More epic. Not feel so confined to an hour-long show with just a few characters in it. I internalise that, try out a few pages of something bigger, and yet it doesn’t feel right. I think what she means is that I can go deeper, be more human with it. My interest in the show trails off. I’ve started reviewing. That takes up most of my time. I would be fine if I never touched it again.
In late April, I get a call while waiting at Battersea Arts Centre for the Chris Brett Bailey triple bill. It’s Emma, from Theatre Deli. I forgot I applied for rehearsal space and a scratch night there a few months back. She offers me a week’s rehearsal at The Old Library and a scratch performance at their Beyond Borders festival in June. I start laughing. I call Helen and tell her, ask her if she’s interested in still working on this damn show. She says yes. We start work. Now I want the play to fit the title. The other draft – it didn’t sound like the title was part of the play. That’s newly important to me. The new draft is two strands, again. A mother, pregnant and stuck on bedrest. A daughter, twenty years later, sorting through her deceased mother’s things. We get Emma and Lilian involved, two wonderful actors and makers. I write about ten pages and we decide to work with that. I wasn’t very present for the Deli process. The day before rehearsals began, my relationship ends. And it’s a boiling hot week. I sit in the corner, drinking tea, on my phone, not contributing much. I leave early every day and some days I don’t come in at all. Helen gamely bears the load. The performance is interesting. It’s very still, very heavy. The text is poetic and dense, unlike either of the versions that have come before it. Almost like an installation. It’s too static, for sure. The actors strain. But I feel somewhat optimistic. This form feels better. More correct. I don’t watch, I listen to it. I peel the label off my beer and feel the words slipping through my hands. I don’t hate it. Which for me – is a lot.
But I don’t have anything lined up for the show, so I let it sit. I don’t want to do any more scratches, but I can’t fathom doing a full production. I don’t know what that would look like. Regardless, the play needs to sit and breathe and percolate. I focus on my head and my heart. I start swimming in the Ladies Pond. I try to enjoy the summer, and the heat – and the play and all the previous drafts sit quietly in the basement of my head. I go to Edinburgh and review a lot, and then come back and feel bone tired.
At this point, Emily is on as our producer. She and Helen, in August, suggest that we apply to Vault Festival. I’m indifferent. I say – sure. Why not. I’m not overly excited to get back to the piece but at the same time it’s the only piece of writing – playwriting – that I’ve worked on or thought about for the last few years. I find it hard to hold more than two potential plays in mind at the same time. I can’t fit both the worlds in. We do the application and I don’t think much about it afterwards. We get on Ben as lighting designer and Clara as dramaturg. It doesn’t feel particularly real. And then we get a Vaults slot, and I’m excited again. For that opportunity. I start work. Yet again. Draft – what is it? Five? I think about something Ira Glass said. About how when you’re a young creative, you become frustrated because your capabilities as an artist can’t match up to the work you admire. I remember Jordan Peele at the Oscars, saying that it took ten years and so many drafts of Get Out before it became the film it now is. I try to feel less precious about having about a million different drafts and forms. Less like that’s failing. I rarely edit my reviews before I post them, and there’s a frustration that the same can’t be done for the play.
The monologues I write don’t really flow. They stick and unstick, and I have to work around them and unpick them. It doesn’t feel wrong, though. It’s just difficult. I’m fine with that, happy for it not to be too easy. I want it to be poetic and slightly heightened – vivid – but not as heavy as the Theatre Deli draft. I worry about the lack of humour. Not that I mind a show being serious – maybe there’s something there about not thinking that I, a young woman, can even be serious, or if I’ll just look silly and high-falutin and pretentious. I usually have more humour in scripts. I try to add jokes but they sound dumb, so I take most of them out. Two monologues in the same timeline. A mother and a daughter, estranged, who eventually meet. Two subjectivities clashing in the most violent way. I think about their meeting. That’s what drives the play. Time nudges and pushes them towards each other. Characters walk through the city, run through it, dance, have sex. I realise how important the city is to the play. I like that the play quietly feels like it’s about urban landscapes, about the muscle deep loneliness you can only ever get in London. I think the Vault venue will really suit it. The venue sits in my mind as I redraft. Should I switch to naturalistic dialogue for that climax? Or keep it to monologues? I try both, then I think the dialogue sounds better. It’s arresting. The characters who narrate and redraft their lives suddenly get thrown into cold, (somewhat) objective light. I send the first draft to Clara. She says you can feel all the other drafts, all the work I put in, inside this version. I’m glad. It feels richer. More textured. More alive. I finish the draft over Christmas. On New Years Eve 2018. Two years after I first started thinking about it. The form finally feels right. The characters are there, waiting to be lifted off the page. I don’t know what else it would look like, and that’s what makes it feel right. It feels good. Not perfect, no way. I don’t know how I feel about the ending. But it’s a start.
Nathan asks to read it in January and a few weeks later he tells me it’s as if I cut off my arm and gave it to him. I like that. I worry a little about how nakedly emotional it is. Something a bit embarrassing about that. But I push it away.
We audition and we cast Rosa Escoda as EJ (I changed the names of the characters between the third and fourth drafts – felt like a small but necessary shift) and Kailing Fu as Joy. Rosa is luminous – she speaks the text without reverence, without archness, acknowledging the poetics but then discarding. It sounds totally right in her voice. Kailing has this quiet dignity – a layer of impassivity which just-almost conceals a simmering core. I am constantly surprised and delighted by them.
We start rehearsals with two days of talking. Helen is so good at this. She’s precise and specific but also generous and probing – more like a facilitator at this point than a director. We go through the text, asking questions, noting down facts and tasks. We talk about everything, make links throughout the body of it. Like we’re doing a close reading. It holds up surprisingly well. It’s a robust text. It is solid, and detailed, and deep. Rosa and Kailing dig right into it, getting their fingers deep into the soil of the play. It’s like we’ve cut open the body of the play and have gotten elbow deep in the muck, and now we’re stitching it back together.
The hard stuff is when we’re trying to get all that head and brain stuff and trying to funnel it into the body without diluting any of the work we did. Helen wants to emphasise the relationship between the women, since they spend so much of the play apart. They play games, mirror each other. This is the part of the process that makes me most nervous. I’ve committed to being in the room the whole time – just because I rarely am, and this version feels important to me. But it’s hard. Anxiety inducing. This is the bit when things don’t work – it’s so much easier when we can just talk and throw out ideas and don’t have to – you know, actualise them. I worry about Joy. I worry that the character seems almost sociopathically cold – completely uninterested in her daughter, almost disdainful of her. Because she’s not spiteful. I didn’t mean her to be, anyway. I feel so strongly that there is a core of terrible sadness and loneliness to her and I worry that I haven’t done enough for that to be sufficiently picked up on. She is the more difficult character to embody, I think. More impenetrable. Have I done enough?
I think the moments of the script I like the least are the ones where I can hear my voice most acutely. I would rather be chameleonic, but I can’t help when certain styles, or tones spike out of the text. I feel like people will recognise those moments where I am most present in the text and find them the most rubbish, and so by proxy think that I, as a human, am rubbish, never mind just a rubbish writer. But maybe that’s the stuff people will like the most. I don’t know. The text is odd. Sometimes it feels very heavy and clunky, and sometimes it feels silky and slippery.
Rehearsals are hard for me. They always have been, probably always will be (if people give me the chance to keep writing). It’s the relinquishing of control, that fear that what comes out will not be the thing I held in my head for so long, even with a director I know as well as Helen. I worry that the play will get lost in translation, that it’s not strong enough to hold all the direction and tweaking and exploration. The actors sometimes ask questions about why something in the text is the way it is and I worry that my uncertainty is indicative of my general idiocy. And I worry that it’s not very good, because of course. I decide I need to take a morning off from rehearsals. I try to calm myself down because it’s a tiny little show and barely anyone outside my friendship group is going to see it, but I still gnaw on my fingernails on the tube home. Must be my Virgo moon. I can’t fathom how it’s going to come together with the depth and detail I want for it. I don’t know how any playwrights ever feel like a play is finished. i will still be whole… doesn’t feel finished, it just feels like it’s come to a natural rest point. I could redraft and redraft forever.
Watching the production on the first night – the first time I haven’t been able to check my phone to calm my anxious hands – is less stressful than I think it will be. I can see friends on every side of the stage. I try not to watch people’s reactions. There are more laughs than I thought there would be, which is disorientating but gratifying too, because I wasn’t searching for jokes when I was writing. Ben’s lights are gentle. Amanda’s score pulses softly, looping Mitski instrumentals. I cry when the actors leave the stage, almost despite myself, and am crowded upon by my friends’ hands on my shoulders. The wordless interludes, where the actors eat oranges and drink sparkling water, are bathed in peach light and I could cry at the tenderness. Those are my favourite parts. What does that say about my self-worth that my favourite bits are the bits I didn’t write?
I’m finishing this piece today, before the second and final performance. I am proud of it, I think. I am trying to be proud of the thing that we made, not the thing that it could be. I feel consistently, deliriously lucky to have worked with such an incredible group of women. When I watch the show tonight, I will sit between Emily and Helen, and I will watch Rosa and Kai and I will be happy with what we have made together.