A Breakthrough For Asian Representation In NZ Theatre

Cassandra Tse.
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Wellington-based Director Casandra Tse has been selected by Auckland Theatre Company to bring the ground breaking Australian play Single Asian Female to NZ’s stage for the first time. She discusses her lived experience as a NZ-Chinese bisexual woman and the importance of telling intersectional stories

Single Asian Female was Australia’s first main-stage production to feature three Chinese-Australian female leads. Do you consider this ATC production to be as big a breakthrough for Asian representation in NZ theatre, as it was for Australia?

Definitely. There is still a paucity of representation of Asian stories and Asian performers at all levels in theatre in New Zealand, and especially at the big main-stage theatres. I can’t recall ever seeing a main-stage theatre show in New Zealand with three NZ Chinese women in the lead roles before.

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Why do you think it’s important to be telling this story in Auckland in 2021?

NZ Asians, and particularly the NZ Chinese, have been part of our country’s history and culture since the 19th century, and yet we are sorely underrepresented when it comes to the stories that are being told through theatre and other art forms, and so for that reason I think it’s really important that these untold stories are being given a platform by ATC. Additionally, New Zealand has seen an uptick in anti-Asian sentiment over the last few years, whether due to ignorant claims about people with “Asian sounding surnames” buying up property or facing racist abuse for blaming us for the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, it is more important than ever for NZ audiences to hear our stories.

Single Asian Female tackles the conversation of Asian females being fetishised by men in heterosexual relationships. As a bisexual woman, do you think this also applies to same-sex relationships?

For me personally, I’m lucky enough to have been in the same relationship for about seven years so I haven’t had to face it from any gender in quite some time! But I know that queer communities still have their fair share of racism and racial fetishisation; just because we are marginalised in one respect doesn’t mean we are therefore immune to all forms of prejudice. LGBT+ communities are not inherently anti-racist.

Bi-visibility is an issue that has been identified and talked about much more within the rainbow community in recent years. In 2021 do you feel bisexuals are understood and respected in the NZ queer community? 

I’m very lucky in that my community of Wellington theatre nerds, probably about 80% of my friends and colleagues are bisexual (with a few token gays and straights thrown in for colour) so I am perhaps insulated inside a very bi-friendly bubble. Out in the mainstream, I think there is more work that needs to be done to represent bisexuality in media — rather than narratives where a character “is straight and then turns gay” and the b-word is never said, or the implication that bisexuality means you’ll screw anything that moves — but I think that attitudes towards bisexuality are rapidly changing with the generations. For people over 40 or so, bisexuality is still seen as something that’s a bit shocking or sexually adventurous. For Gen Z and younger millennials, being bi is pretty mundane, almost a bit boring.

How was coming out for you?

I had a pretty atypical Asian NZ coming out experience I think, because one of my uncles is gay, and so I feel like my family had already had to grapple with any lingering homophobic attitudes back before I was born and have always been very liberal and accepting on the topic. That said, when I came out my mother’s first comment was that this could all be traced back to her singing “Over The Rainbow” to me too many times as a baby, which probably helped me develop my singing voice but I am pretty sure had no effect on my sexual orientation.

What queer story are you most proud of having told in your work?

As a playwright, my musical Bloodlines is a project I am still very proud of, featuring a lesbian couple in the process of starting a family while trying to answer lingering questions about their own place in a ‘family unit’. As a director, I was so privileged to direct the original production of Kieran Craft’s Four Nights in the Green Barrow Pub back in 2019, which was about a young pub owner in Ireland having a chance encounter with a NZ traveller, both of whom have their lives changed in the process. I’m also excited to be writing a new character based on the zishunü of China, ‘sworn virgins’ who lived as independent women to avoid arranged marriage to a man, in an upcoming historical fiction play — I’m really passionate about the inclusion of LGBTQI+ characters in historical works!

When we have spoken previously, you have talked about how the NZ Arts industry often only keeps talent for their twenties until they decide they can’t live on Arts salaries anymore and move on to more celebrious industries. What effect do you think this has on NZ and what needs to change to stop this happening?

Making art often means either working on a ridiculous number of projects at once to scrape by (generally receiving less than minimum wage for your hours worked) or having to balance a day job with your art work, sacrificing free time and basically working two jobs at once. So it’s no surprise that we often end up burning out a few years into our careers, and quitting because we just can’t sustain a lifestyle like that for any longer — especially if we want to have kids, or save for a house (ha!). I don’t think that there is anything positive about that kind of culture, and the only solution that I can see is more government investment — not careers seminars, not networking events, but cash investment towards Creative New Zealand and local funding bodies so that art can be produced for a fair wage. 

Cassandra Tse directs Auckland Theatre Company’s season of the sensational new comedy Single Asian Female, on at ASB Waterfront Theatre 27 April – 15 May. For tickets and more info visit: atc.co.nz

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