Playwright Anchuli Felicia King had to leave Australian theatre in order to conquer it
Anchuli Felicia King holds the singular distinction among Australian playwrights of having not one or two, but three plays debut on Australian stages in 2019. And the story only gets more interesting from there.
King — known by friends and colleagues as Felicia — made her professional playwright’s debut at London’s Royal Court in May, aged 25. That was for her second-ever play, White Pearl.
In August, she opened a new play, Golden Shield, as part of the Melbourne Theatre Company mainstage season.
And then in October, a Sydney Theatre Company and National Theatre of Parramatta co-production of White Pearl opened at Riverside Theatres, and Slaughterhouse opened at Belvoir’s tiny downstairs theatre.
The playwright also did the video design for both these productions.
White Pearl, Golden Shield and Slaughterhouse are united in their dark, exaggerated sense of comedy and their unapologetically brash characters.
All three could be described as “systems fiction”: plays that pick away at the systems that govern our lives — economic, technological, social.
Specifically, King is interested in the nexus of technology and globalisation, which she described in a recent Q&A as “accelerating forces that none of us are particularly well equipped to grapple with the moral and ethical implications of”.
Golden Shield is part globe-trotting corporate thriller and part legal drama, about a case being mounted by a Chinese-American lawyer against the American tech company who turbo-charged China’s “great firewall” — and put Chinese citizens in mortal danger as a result.
White Pearl is a corporate black comedy set in the Singapore office of an all-female cosmetics start-up, as the staff try to deal with a racist ad for skin-whitening cream that has just gone viral in the worst way.
Slaughterhouse is a monologue play in which four staff members at an ethical eating start-up — and their drug dealer — each offer their perspective on a violent incident that has taken place at a work party gone wrong.
All three plays deal with the amorality of a corporation and how that affects its staff.
All three are distinctive in their confident, fluent command of specific idiom — whether that is the idiom of corporations, start-ups, tech-heads or lawyers. The language feels lived in, authentic.
Slaughterhouse director Benita de Wit (an Australian who met King at Columbia, where she was also studying theatre) recalls reading the play for the first time: “From the first page, I was so excited — there’s a very particular style that it’s written in, the language is exciting and vibrant and sharp.”
And then in 2017, she saw the first reading of White Pearl, at New York’s Roundabout theatre: “I just remember that kind of laughter where you’re like ‘I didn’t know that I was allowed to laugh at this’,” she says. “That shocked, surprised [laughter].”
“She finds a way to write about racism where you’re laughing at racism and people being racist but not the racist ideas — it’s amazingly framed, to talk about something problematic and dangerous in such a smart way and with such humour.”
Write what you know
King grew up between the western-Thailand town of Kanchanaburi (her mother’s hometown) and Manila, where her Australian father worked for the Asian Development Bank as a climate change scientist.
“We often joke that global policy is the family business,” she tells me. “My sister is a trade lawyer at the World Trade Organisation.”
In Manila, she attended an English-speaking international school (which accounts for her somewhat Americanised accent) and sometimes she and her twin sister attended sustainable development conferences in their school holidays.
During summer breaks, they would return to Kanchanaburi where they attended a rural Thai school with a strict educational regime and took Mandarin language classes on the weekend.
At the age of eight or nine, she moved to Melbourne, where she lived through to high school and into university, studying Arts (English and Theatre Studies) at the University of Melbourne.
Asked why she is interested in globalisation and technology, she says simply: “I’m a third-culture kid who moved around a lot. And I can’t remember a time before the internet.”
Asian-Australian audience members in particular will appreciate the cultural and linguistic nuances of the characters in White Pearl — from bullish CEO Priya Singh (“Indian-Singaporean. Mumbai accent, rounded out by years of British education,” reads King’s cast note) and her brash 2IC Sunny Lee (“Chinese-Singaporean. American dudebro-speak, becomes more Singlish/Hokkien depending on her audience”) to pragmatic chemist Soo-Jin Park (South Korean. Strong Korean accent but excellent English).
“I don’t think I would have been able to write the characters in that play if I hadn’t known some elements of those people,” says King.
If King writes convincingly dire start-up culture banter, it’s at least partly because she has talked that talk — or heard it.
“My final year of grad school I was working at an art and technology centre in the financial district that was start-up-esque — smaller office, democratic ‘de-hierarchised’ structure, and a sort of ‘jack-of-all-trades’ company,” she says.
“But also, you know, because I’m a millennial I have a lot of friends who are working at start-ups or have worked at start-ups and I’ve heard a lot of stories about it. And people who have worked at big tech companies as well.
“The disjunct between the reality of working there and what they’re selling is phenomenal.”
Finding her voices
Grad school, for King, was in New York.
She graduated from the University of Melbourne with an arts degree and a string of indie theatre gigs under her belt — mostly in sound design, composing or videography.
“Every time I did a job, I taught myself on that job,” she laughs.
The result was a “disparate skillset”: “I was possibly good at everything but not particularly good at one thing,” she says.
“I knew I wanted to move to New York because I couldn’t get work here and I also looked at the theatre industry at the time and thought: ‘I don’t think there’s a place for me here’.”
“And that we’d just import plays that had been successful in the UK or New York rather than investing in our own new play culture,” she says.
“All of that made me feel like — as a person of colour, as a weirdo multidisciplinary artist who wanted to do new work, radical work — that I didn’t have a place in mainstage theatre here.”
Columbia had a dramaturgy major that seemed like the best fit for her disparate skill-set, and was nurturing towards multidisciplinary artists — rather than pushing them to specialise.
It was at Columbia, reading up to 15 plays a week and designing shows for fellow students, that King discovered she wanted to write. Creative writing classes were compulsory and she quickly found that playwriting held a particular pleasure for her: the opportunity to shift voices within the one story.
She was a fan of the “muscular” style and “grotesque capitalist realism” of playwrights like Lucas Hnath and screenwriters like David Mamet, but was frustrated that women did not seem to be credited with the same ambition or style.
White Pearl was a breakthrough — even though only her second play — because she realised she didn’t want to copy and write “bad Mamet”.
There are two other key ingredients for King’s playwriting practice: research (“I’m a research junkie,” she says) and collaboration.
She says that she writes the systems fiction first and works on character development afterwards. If she gets “blocked” during the writing or needs to redraft, she will go back to her research to find the inspiration.
For Golden Shield, based on a real-life case, research included reading reams of court transcripts.
But she also credits cast and creatives in various development workshops with refining both White Pearl (which had four different developments) and Golden Shield (developed through Melbourne Theatre Company’s Next Stage writers program).
“That’s what the theatre is really good for — you develop [the work] in a room with human beings, who will tell you if you’re doing something wrong,” she says.
In White Pearl particularly, featuring six women with different and specific Asian-diaspora identities, King was heavily involved in casting decisions for all three productions (London, Sydney and a new production in Washington, opening in November).
“That’s been the amazing thing about doing White Pearl all over the world … if you get a global room together, you’re going to learn things.”
Changing the system
King says that from her experience of the theatre ecosystem so far, her involvement in casting for White Pearl was “necessary”.
“If I’m not involved, really involved, people might get cast in roles they shouldn’t be cast in … people might be like ‘this is good enough’,” she explains.
“Part of that [my role in casting] is fighting for people who might not have enough ‘main-stage’ experience — but they’re actually better for the role.”
As a result, Sydneysiders who watch White Pearl will discover six young Asian-Australian actresses who for the most part are making their mainstage debuts.
While Catherine Văn-Davies (Going Down) and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash (a Helpmann Award-winner for Counting and Cracking) will be familiar to Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir audiences, most of the roles were filled via open casting calls.
It is a marked difference from casting the Royal Court production, says King: “We saw hundreds and hundreds of actors for White Pearl [in London] and lots of them had mainstage experience and had gone to the best drama schools.”
“And then you come here [to Sydney] and you can count on two hands the actors who have the requisite level of mainstage experience that a company would feel comfortable casting them.”
After “a really, really long casting process” involving community outreach and open casting calls, and King advocating for her actors of choice, she was satisfied.
“Part of what I hope is that by getting people in the door who don’t normally get in the door, and creating opportunities for them, you’re changing the culture of how an institution hires people.”
Slaughterhouse runs at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, until November 2
White Pearl runs at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, until November 9