Mountains Director Jennifer Tang: "Stories about the Chinese are rare in the UK"
How has your background as a director prepared you for Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok?
Most of my previous work has been directing new writing as well as working closely with writers to develop their scripts, and so it has been a joy to collaborate with In-Sook through this process. I trained at The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth as their Resident Assistant Director a few years ago (the Drum is a new writing theatre) and that really helped to hone my dramaturgical and script-reading skills. Having said that, I think, in a way, each production I direct is a new experience.
There is always something to be learnt, or new to discover – I think there has to be. I have been working in devised practice quite a lot recently, and although not strictly speaking new writing (although it is new work) I think that spirit of inventiveness and play and investigation is crucial when working on new scripts.
What attracted you to In-Sook Chappell’s script?
Lots of reasons! First and foremost, it struck me that it was an important story to tell – a story about women, told by women. It’s an epic narrative that sweeps across generations and includes struggle, love, death, family, ambition, war…it has everything. And, of course, it’s a true story, which makes it even more compelling.
I think In-Sook’s adaptation is brilliant in the way it uses really playful and inventive means of storytelling. It isn’t a simple memory play, it’s inherently theatrical, with lots of room for playfulness and creativity. I loved how immersive the script felt, and how it plunged me into a world that felt both beautiful and dangerous at the same time. I also felt it would be quite a challenge to stage, and I am always up for a challenge!
On a personal level, I felt really drawn to the script because it tells the story of a woman from a community which I think is often overlooked in the UK. Stories about the Chinese are rare. Stories that recognise that there are Chinese people in the UK –first, second or even third generation – who identify themselves as British, are even more rare. As a British-Born Chinese woman myself, In-Sook’s script felt like the chance to tell a story from a (usually) unheard voice, and that felt really exciting and important to me.
What are the directorial and visual challenges of taking the play from the page to the stage?
In-Sook is an incredibly visual writer, and I think that’s what makes her work so exciting. She has written a complex play that jumps between past and present, from memory to reality, from dream to truth. One of the main challenges is how to make each of these realities clear for an audience. How do we know when we are in the past, or the present? What is a dream, and what is a memory? And does it matter if sometimes these lines are blurred?
I think In-Sook has tried to capture the fluid and unpredictable nature of memory – how one idea can trigger the next, without any seeming sense of logic or cohesion – and a big challenge will be how to retain that lovely slippery quality of our dreams and memories while still keeping the story clear and distinct for an audience. The play is in many ways a story of memory and dreams.
How would you like the audience to respond to the story?
To a certain extent, I hope that every audience member will be able to take away their own individual response – that it will affect everyone slightly differently, based on their own personal experiences and dreams. Ideally, everyone will have a slightly different interpretation and will go away and talk about it in the bar afterwards!
I guess the common theme for me is the idea of a personal quest – whether that is for identity, family, community, success (however you want to measure that). What would be lovely is for the audience to feel like they’ve been on a journey with us –through a world that swims through dreams and memories, hopes and ambitions, discoveries and truths, and for them to emerge on the other side, ready to look at the world, and their own quest, in a slightly different way. (That’s quite a big ask though. So maybe just a chat in the bar afterwards is more realistic…!)
You are working with an all-female creative team off-stage. Why is this important to you?
I think for this story particularly, a creative team of women is the right choice to help bring this show to life. We have two strong female leads, and I was keen to keep strong female role models both on-stage and off-stage. Women are under-represented in many areas of the arts. Female writers, directors, lighting and sound designers (and others) are all outweighed significantly by men.
A few years ago I resolved to do any small thing I could do to help support women in theatre – whether that be working with them directly, vocally supporting and recommending other female artists, mentoring or advising female students interested in working in the arts – anything. Theatre can only ever be at its best when we have the most diverse and representative voices making the work, and that means equal numbers of men, women and ethnic minorities, as well as artists from all different economic and social backgrounds.
I find working with an all-female creative team empowering and enriching. Not to discredit the male colleagues I have ever worked with, because they are all brilliant too, but I find myself at my bravest, and at my collaborative best, when I am working with a team who are all taking risks together, have fought similar battles, who have a shared language. Choosing an all female creative team is not just about sharing opportunity, but about helping to reinforce a wider community of female artists.
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok shows at Derby Theatre from Thursday 10 - Saturday 12 May.