TOOLKIT SERIES 3- Daniel York Loh ‘I have a character but are they dramatic and exciting for an actor?’

As well as now being a writer, I’ve been an actor for over 30 years now.

As an actor, having been inside the process, where I notice the difficulties are when a character’s intentions are not dramatic and exciting enough and that’s often where they’re not clear. I’m exaggerating slightly (though maybe not an awful lot) but when an actor asks a question like ‘why is my character doing this now?’ and the answer comes back –

‘…’

‘… I guess they just kind of feel like it at that moment’

-it can be really soul destroying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entirely possible to shroud a character in mystery while at the same time having a clear idea of what drives them from the inside. In fact, if we want to remain ‘mysterious’ I think it’s that sense of intention that will keep the audience there. Again, it seems to me that characters need powerful story arcs to be compelling. We need to see and empathise with those arcs. In order to involve us we need the see the dilemma the characters face, including the antagonist characters who are unpleasant, evil even, and tbh the higher the stakes are the better.

On that last point we’re sometimes constrained by an inner voice that says ‘but I don’t want look like I’m being over the top’ and of course this is a concern but at draft stage I think we can afford to fly with that one and in my experience the fact is that often our plays and our characters can stand far more drama than we sometimes allow ourselves when we’re being overly ‘careful’.

As an actor we’d always learn that ‘exciting’ actors are the ones that take ‘risks’.

And I discovered that being a writer was even more about courage –

How far do I dare to push my characters and my scenario?

How ‘big’ do I dare this play to be?

How wide-reaching do I dare the effects of this drama on the world around them to be?

Forgotten 遗忘’’ by Daniel York Loh

My play Forgotten 遗忘 is probable a useful study here. I’d set out to write something that was based on the buried, unheard (not ‘untold’) and, yes, forgotten story of the World War One Chinese Labour Corps who worked behind the lines for the British, French, American and Russian armies, and who performed essential tasks at the tail end of the conflict – so essential and so high in numbers (approx 140,000 in France and Belgium) that it’s probably no exaggeration to say they were instrumental in winning the war.

After which they simply vanished into the mists of history.

Chinese Labourers in France 1918

This all sounds fantastic on paper.

But I found myself asking, how do I create something that isn’t purely ‘documentary’? Or mawkishly ‘commemorative’? Of course, the play should ‘commemorate’ human beings who have been completely erased from history (as so many troops and workers of colour have been from the narratives the two 20th Century conflicts) and of course the play should document erased history, but how do I write an actual drama that does all this and asks pertinent questions about here, now and everywhere as well?

In short, how do I make the characters ‘compelling’?*

 Jon Chew as Wild Swan in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh

*Quick digression: I make no apology here for making the case that East and Southeast Asian people on stage and screen in the UK are rarely considered ‘compelling’. We’re regarded as faceless, inscrutable and dramatically expendable cannon-fodder of little or no interest in the theatrical cannon. Our lives, sufferings, the atrocities we’ve historically suffered, our stories, our hopes, dreams and aspirations, are so often relegated to be a thing of little concern or interest to the White middle-class theatre populace. We’re effectively second-class stage citizens.

I came across a picture very early on of some Chinese Labour Corps members in extraordinary costumes (I’ve never seen costumes like that in any Chinese theatre I’ve seen) performing for their fellow labourers and British officers –

World War One Chinese Labourers performing for each other and British officers

I further read that many of the labourers carried with them musical instruments and costumes. There are also exhibits of the extraordinary ‘trench art’ they created –

World War One Chinese Labour Corps performance group

They painted the walls and ceilings of their quarters in elaborate frescoes.

In short, despite the high-level of illiteracy and lack of anything even resembling the type of basic education we take for granted, these men were story-tellers and artists.  ‘Art’ is so often seen as the preserve of privileged education. These labourers were the polar opposite of ‘privilege’. But art coursed through them like an unstoppable river.

I decided to make my four central characters an amateur Chinese opera* troupe.

Camille Mallet de Chaunet as Big Dog in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh

*The word ‘opera’ is tricky tbh.  Most traditional forms of Chinese (actually the word ‘Chinese’ is contentious as well but that’s a whole other story) theatre historically involve music and singing to a much greater extent than Western drama. The word I like is ‘zaju’  –   杂剧 -‘variety show’ – indeed I contemplated calling the entire play ‘Variety Show at one point.

Rebecca Boey as Second Moon in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh 

I also decided to make the characters non-experts. They were literally friends in the countryside trying to make theatre together. Rough, unschooled, no trips to the big city to learn from the pros. I’m realising as I write this that I based that setting on the punk rock band I was in as a teenager with my brother and some friends. We had heart and we had love but literally zero craft. We were too addled with drugs to learn and were literally lost in the cannabis smoke of provincial malaise in Thatcher’s Britain.

Zachary Hing as Eunuch Lin in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh

 

And this brings me on to the personal stakes of the characters. I knew from my research the reason the vast majority of the Chinese labourers signed up to go and work in a dangerous war-zone on the other side of the world was poverty. Life in the Chinese countryside was hard and the nascent Chinese Republic, with its fledgling against-all-odds democracy, was also a country literally on its knees, up to its neck in indemnities to colonial powers who all wanted a piece of it and to exact payment for exploitative opium wars and other incursions and incidences.

I decided that a group of my characters would be a kind of family unit which consisted of –

  • Old Six, the de facto theatre troupe leader – a poor farmer with a wife and a young child. Not only does he feel immense responsibility to his young family, but also to his two ne’er do well friends. His entire world feels fractious and vulnerable. He often cites the ‘one bad harvest’ that will wipe them out: the harsh reality of rural China historically. When offered the chance to join the Labour Corps he jumps at it and persuades the others.
  • Second Moon. Wife to Old Six and probably the theatre troupe’s real She is extremely capable and strong, arguing strongly against the idea of Old Six and their friends going off to war. She is left behind in the village where she is forced to give up her child as she flees after killing the village headman who attempts to force himself on her. Second Moon believes strongly in their familial unit and the theatre they make – that they can overcome the odds in their home setting. There is nothing unrealistic about her though and she is very much aware of the vulnerability of the two other members of the troupe.
  • Big Dog. An opium-addicted itinerant labourer, orphaned, lonely, cheeky but inherently sad, as well as a touch worldlier than the rest of the group. At first he refuses to join. What prompts him to is his love for his friends. He also has an unrequited love for Second Moon which they are both aware of. Knowing that Big Dog lacks any kind of prospects for marriage forces an intense sense of responsibility on to Second Moon. Knowing this, and fearing being left behind to experience this perennially, he signs up.
  • Eunuch Lin* – vulnerable and ultimately tragic, I arguably took a dramatic liberty having Eunuch Lin join the Labour Corps. But who knows, maybe not. Castrated by his parents at an early age for the potentially secure life of service as a eunuch in the emperor’s court only for the dynasty to fall and the monarchy’s vast eunuch system to be rendered obsolete overnight, Eunuch Lin is left with no prospects and a physical deformity. All he has are his friends and the theatre they make. With nothing else there is no way Eunuch Lin can stay behind. I gave him a speech towards the beginning –

 

‘A story is not a literal thing that only people of a certain time and place and tongue can comprehend. A story is a mad thing that travels oceans and mountains and captures the hearts and minds of men and women from far far away…’

as this is the character’s core beliefs.**

 

*It was important we try and cast a trans actor in this role. Indeed we were open to trans actors in any of the roles. Being aware that the play was about men I didn’t want it to feel too overtly ‘masculine’.

**It struck me that many of the reviewers of this play tended to overlook these very universal themes concerning the primacy and power of story/theatre and how it preserves us and allows us to live on. It’s as if some critics decide, before they even enter the theatre, that an ‘Asian drama’ is by definition a ‘cultural event’ and not urgent art.

To this I added two more actor tracks –

  • A character I called The Professor. From a different province in China, therefore an ‘outsider’. He is just a notch up on the social scale from the others, though hardly ‘middle class’. An impoverished schoolteacher with a huge thirst for knowledge I based him on the likes of Kang Youwei and Li Xun (who he quotes in the play)  – writers and activists at the time who were desperate to reform the parlous state of then China. What motivates him is a need to understand and carry that understanding back to build a better world
  • Headman Zhang/Wild Swan. By anyone’s reckoning two fairly overt villains (and I have no problem with this conceptually). But I tried to give them both ‘push’ factors. While an audience might never truly sympathise with either of them it might at least see their desperate humanity because when we dehumanise we negate ourselves. Headman Zhang talks of the cold loneliness of being a widower whereas Wild Swan hails from arguably one of the most agriculturally challenging areas in Northern China at the time – the HuaI River plain – where the only options left can be seen as banditry or starvation.

 

Leo Wan as The Professor, Camille Mallet de Chauny as Big Dog, Michael Phong Le as Old Six and Zachary Hing as Eunuch Lin in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh

Stakes. I guess it’s acquired a slightly cheesy context to talk of characters who want to ‘change the world’. Or something’s that feels so vast we can only attribute it to politicians or queens and kings. But I think, dramatically, the more we dare the more we raise our characters. Each of the characters above want to change the world around them to be safer, more abundant, more stable, more giving and more supportive (even when those wants are entirely warped and selfish). They all want ‘love’ (even when that want is dangerously solipsistic).

They all want to live.

Even if they don’t consciously wish to be remembered, they don’t want to be erased.

Or Forgotten.

Michael Phong Le as Old Six in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh

The final piece in the jigsaw of this high-stakes life and death thinking was when I came across a quotation from a Yuan Dynasty book on theatre by Zhong Sicheng called The Registry of Ghosts; ‘the purpose of theatre is to preserve the ghosts of the past’.  I also discovered the Yuan Dynasty stage exits/entrances were called ‘The Gate of Ghosts’. To be honest it’s informed my thinking about theatre ever since.

Modern reconstruction of a mural depicting the Yuan zaju stage in 1324. The original was found in the Guangsheng Temple, Shanxi province. The picture is thought to depict the legendary female performer of the time, Zhong Duxiu.

Two more quick things –

I discovered something about exposition when I was writing Forgotten 遗忘. I had come across a letter written by a schoolteacher who joined the Chinese Labour Corps and worked as an interpreter which informed my writing of the Professor character and also this scene below about the origins of World War One. I wanted to also show that the other characters, who had never encountered then-modern technology or global geopolitics, despite their lack of education, were incredibly sharp, quick and witty. There’s no avoiding exposition. But we can look for ways to make it fun and compelling –

 

 

Dialogue. I slave rather obsessively over this (even too much at times) but I’ve felt always as an actor I want to go on stage feeling I’m armed to the teeth – not with weapons but with lines of text that will zing around the stage and audience, enrapturing and dazzling everyone in the space. One of my favourite writers (after huge class-issue resistance which prevented me seeing much of his work satirises the English privileged class of the day) is Oscar Wilde for this.

Dean Fagan and Elizabeth Twells in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde directed by Suba Das at Bolton Octogen

I’ve been lucky enough to perform in Wilde’s seminal The Importance of Being Earnest and there isn’t a line in it you don’t look forward to the audience hearing every night.

Daniel York Loh in the Wild Rice Singapore production The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde directed by Glen Goei

As an exercise I sometimes try –

‘Take a scene in your play. Examine how great the characters’ needs are and what their reasons are for being in the scene*. Add three more stress factors either side (husband abandoned her when she was pregnant/owes her sister vast amounts of money/is on the run from gangsters after resorting to drug-dealing etc) and set out to just enjoy yourself by writing some absolute melodrama’ (this is just an exercise but you might be amazed by how much you can keep!)

*It’s entirely possible that right here right now you realise you have no idea why the character was there, you just knew you needed them in the scene. But don’t panic, if you know this now you’ll find the reason.

Another answer that can come back to an actor when they ask ‘why is my character doing this?’ is ‘I don’t know’ – though it wins full marks for honesty. Again, to be clear though, this doesn’t mean you have to know all the answers. Harold Pinter used to famously answer that question with ‘I’ve given you all the information I have’, and a truly beautiful part of writing is when you are led by your characters and can only surmise their motives yourself. It’s when we contrive to have them behaving in ways we haven’t thought through or use them as convenient cyphers that we might find ourselves in trouble. With Pinter, for instance, I always suspect that his plays are compelling precisely because the characters do respond to their own logic, wants and needs. They may seem obscure on the page but reveal themselves tellingly in performance but, again, in ways that are open to interpretation.

 

Another exercise –

Write a scene where at least one character will say nothing that relates to what they want but you yourself know what they want and have them behave to that end. As an exercise it can be a simple want (‘the character wants to destroy another character’s confidence’). This is just an exercise. Conceal their motives as much as you can but make every action they engage in about those motives. If nothing else this exercise might unlock a way out of ‘reported dialogue’ i.e. ‘I’m just going to make you a cup of green tea because I like you and I know it’s your favourite’

It can be especially enjoyable to look for the contradictions. Someone who’s evil might be more interesting if that evil character is ostensibly, overbearingly perhaps, ‘nice’. They might be so convinced of their own innate ‘kindness’ they might commit all manner of atrocities. Because, of course, they will be utterly assured of the inherent ‘correctness’ of any action they take.

Leo Wan as The Professor and Rebecca Boey as Emilie Chen in Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh

 

Forgotten 遗忘 credits:

Second Moon/Marie Rebecca Boey Headman Zhang/ Wild Swan Jon Chew Eunuch Lin Zachary Hing Big Dog Camille Mallet De Chauny Old Six Michael Phong Le The Professor Leo Wan CREATIVE TEAM Director Kim Pearce Designer Emma Bailey Composer Liz Chi Yen Liew Lighting Designer Jessica Hung Han Yun Sound Designer Luke Swaffield Movement Director Quang Kien Van Assistant Director Mingyu Lin Company Voice Work Sun Mi Lee Design Associate Natalie Johnson Costume Supervisor Kyle Flynn Davies Production Manager Gareth Edwards Company Stage Manager Alexandra Kataigida Trainee Director Tian Brown-Sampson Trainee ASM Nemo Martin Work Placement SM Emily Pearce Moongate Producer Zhen Lin Marketing Manager Gemma Lloyd Publicist Nancy Poole Production Assistant Eugenia Low New Earth Artistic Director Kumiko Mendl NET General Manager Chris Corner NET Administrator Tammie Rhee Produced by Moongate and New Earth

Published on:
23 Feb 2022

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