Grace Chow is an emerging Asian-Australian theatre-maker, playwright and actor who trained in the Bachelor of Performing Arts at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (2020). Her work primarily takes place on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja.
Firstly, congratulations on graduating. Obviously last year wouldn’t have been the final year that you were expecting, but what’s something that pleasantly surprised you?
Thank you Haydn! Well, emerging from the Perth lockdown of 2020 with work at all was surprising. I believed I would be graduating into a non-existent industry, since it relied on the then-banned gathering of people and received little to no government support last year. I really shouldn’t have been surprised though, especially after witnessing the resilience, strength and care that artists in Australia had for each other during the pandemic. It was a challenging, but fruitful time. It was inspiring to see artists take pause to reimagine the sector and increase the online accessibility of work.
It’s definitely an interesting time for artists in performing arts, but you’ve done well – taking out some awards with your graduation. As a second-generation Asian Australian in a field that still doesn’t have too many famous Asian faces, what has your experience been like at WAAPA and in the Australian arts scene?
There’s been a lot of generosity from established artists toward me personally. I feel very lucky to have the work that I now have. Sometimes I question how much of that is tokenistic opportunity and how much is based on merit, but I constantly have to remind myself that I worked hard for what I have now and if it is token, then I’ll take it and do the best with what I have until it’s not a token thing anymore. I’ve worked with various major theatre companies in Australia now in varying capacities, sometimes advisory panels, and I intend to continue existing in those spaces. We lack Asian-identifying artists/mentors in this industry. It would be very special if one day I could play that role for another artist. In fact, it wasn’t until I was mentored by Joe Lui and Vanessa Bates, that I could see myself sustainably in the industry. Science says the part of your brain that imagines the future is the same part of your brain that deals with memories. You can’t dream of succeeding in the industry until you see someone who looks like you killing it out there. When I attended my last class at WAAPA, a young student doing a before-school program left the studio. When she saw me, she smiled a huge, fill-the-room smile. We saw ourselves in each other and I realised that I’d given to her what Joe and Vanessa had gifted me.
The buzzword of last year has been “representation”. We’re seeing more and more films and shows with Asian casts, but we’re still seeing hiccups along the way, like last year’s Mulan, which despite an all-Asian cast performed terribly both financially and critically.
I think we’re in a very exciting time where things are changing. People are having conversations around the diversity of storytelling and authorship in both the live performance and film industries that go beyond simply casting representation – and there’s a lot more accountability. I find ‘representation,’ an aesthetic and superficial solution that has always been a knee-jerk response to the sector realising it has a problem. What we really need is to have more ‘diverse’ voices earlier in creative processes, before casting, like in the writing and decision-making rooms. Deeper transformation of the industry, which is slow, but is happening. Tania Canas has a brilliant article on Artshub called ‘Diversity is a White Word’ that delves into this. Conversations about representation are optimistic though, because it indicates a desire to change and that we are all on the same team.
What do you think the issue was with Mulan? Why did it provoke such a strong negative response?
I’d say that Mulan wasn’t a hiccup, it was a failure of seismic proportions and a product of repeated poor decision making. Culture is a living and evolving thing. When Disney assembled the creative team for Mulan with no one connected to that living organism, the film was bound to suffer an embarrassing death. All lead creatives were white, including the writers! The amount of cultural inaccuracy was staggering. If the only connection to culture is aesthetic, like cast and some design elements, what you actually have is a hollow puppet colonised by white hands. No real cultural exchange. It’s fairyfloss. What does that tell us? That Asian culture is allowed to be appropriated for consumption by and for the white public and that our stories don’t belong to us. It also tells us that a multibillion entertainment giant either overlooked or couldn’t be bothered to employ qualified and talented Asian creatives. I don’t doubt that all the artists who worked on that film are great, but both the audience and artists lost out on the chance to be part of something more real, special and meaningful. The saddest part for me was that I wanted it to succeed.
Ironically, I found that Mulan seemed to be marketed to the Asian diaspora as well as the domestic Chinese market, and failed to perform in both markets. So the key to meaningful cultural engagement in storytelling is…?
Mulan was marketed to us, but not made for us. The key is in what I’ve been saying this whole time – mentorship and authorship. Engaging with artists from those living cultures earlier in the creative process, from inception to its release. And we need to bring artists up with mentorship.
Grace is currently performing in BSSTC’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard for the 2021 Perth Festival. She is also one of twenty-seven select artists contributing to Juxta, launching later this month, an online collaboration with ATYP, The House that Dan Built, Bankstown Arts Centre and The Q, supported by the City of Sydney.