Published on June 4th, 2019 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Derek Chan
Chicken Girl is currently underway at ANNEX in Vancouver. We talked to a few of the artistic talents involved in the show.
Here is our interview with Derek Chan!
Can you start by telling us a little bit about your inspiration for Chicken Girl?
Of course. Chicken Girl started as an investigation on why we are or aren’t content in life, and what keeps us going. It has taken many forms over the last year and a half, but the story of Chicken Girl is where we have arrived at in the end.
In the midst of everything that is Chicken Girl lives a back-alley fried chicken shop. When I was a kid, growing up in Hong Kong, my grandmother would babysit me when my stereotypically stoic and quiet father went to work. This was when I was about 3, maybe 4 years old. After a day of teaching, my dad would pick me up, and we’d take the bus home. He’d ask me about school or something, and I’d answer dutifully. Thinking back, I was a little scared of him. But once in a while, for reasons still unknown to me, he would take me to this chicken shack under the highway bridge after work. It was one of those places where you weren’t sure whether the food would be amazing or if it’d give you food poisoning- or both. And this place, I swear, only sold chickens. All sorts. Deep fried, soy sauce, salt-baked. Nothing but chicken legs. And my dad would tell me to pick whatever I wanted. I would always pick fried chicken. Since I am left handed, my dad would always make sure the hawker gave me the right leg, because that way the chicken skin will always face the right way when I hold it – my mouth. Then we would go to the bus stop on the bridge, and take the bus home in silent contentment. That was his way of showing care to his children.
The chicken shop remains one of my favourite childhood memories- warm and a bit mysterious. There is a lot going on beneath the colourful magical realism of the play. A dark undercurrent of anguish and despair. I wanted the characters of the play- and the audience- to have a safe place to depart from and return to. That’s why I have placed this parallel-universe version of the chicken shop in the middle of the play.
What should audiences expect from the show?
An adventure! The show is a vibrant collage of text, languages, characters, visual elements, and sound design.
From your perspective, what is the most rewarding thing about writing a play?
The most rewarding thing about writing? I get to work with a room full of talented folks and share stories with people out in the real world!
What are the three most important ingredients for a successful play?
Honesty, relevance, and passion.
You’re involved in this production as a writer and director. What was your experience like directing from your own writing?
Directing my own writing has been a fundamental element in my creative practice over the years. At the end, I guess I am really just theatre-making. I am lucky to work with Heidi Taylor (my dramaturg) throughout the process, identifying whether each question is for playwright-Derek at his computer, or director-Derek in the rehearsal hall. This hat-switching is definitely a bit of a juggling act, but that’s the way it goes. I am learning that director-Derek has to trust playwright-Derek, in the sense that any director should trust the playwright- all the clues are in the script. At the same time, playwright-Derek has to make sure that everything on the page is clear and concise (especially when it comes to complex stage directions), so that director-Derek can translate vision into reality. It is, at the same time, easier and more challenging.
In your opinion, what is the current state of Canadian theatre and how has it evolved since you first got involved in the industry?
Things are changing. When I first started, there were very few opportunities for emerging artists of colour. That was actually why Pedro and I started rice & beans theatre in 2010, right after we graduated from university. We couldn’t find any platform or significant support for our work in the beginning. We didn’t see any work that we could related to. Over the years, important conversations have begun to emerge, people are beginning to find the space to speak up, and the capacity to listen. Is that enough? Absolutely not. There are many things that we all could still be doing better, no matter the size of the organization. There are many people out there who go through the ‘right’ motions on the surface, but repeatedly miss the point deep down. But I am hopeful, because there are many, many brave, persistent members of the theatre community out there, fighting for the right things, fighting for what they believe in. Some of them have been doing this for decades, some years, some months. Those folks need our support. Things are changing, that’s for sure.
What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned about theatre in your career so far?
Listen with compassion.
What theatre-related books and authors have been influential in your career so far?
I remember reading Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double as a teenager. I remember felling in love with Die Hamletmaschine by Heiner Müller. That was kind of the beginning of my journey into western theatrical practices. I must also mention Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares. The Viewpoints Book was integral to my training at university, so was An Acrobat of the Heart by Stephen Wangh and later on, The Moving Body by Jacques Lecoq. I am also a huge fan of Gertrude Stein and Sarah Kane’s works. (I am sure I missed a ton of essays and books. Time to brush up on my studies, it seems!)
What other projects are you working on right now?
I just started writing my next play, which is a multilingual venture, like always. This one riffs on the hierarchy of accents and how languages survive or perish, in our bodies, and in our communities. The play is scheduled for rice & beans’ 2021 season.
rice & beans always have things on the go, big or small. Our next public thing will be #DBLSPK with Boca del Lupo. It is a casual event where excerpts of translated or multilingual works are presented, and the creators and translators are invited to have a conversation with the audience about what is gained and lost by creating in a cross-cultural context. It will be at the Fishbowl on Granville Island. (date TBD)
In the fall, I will be performing in the revival of Hong Kong Exile’s No Foreigners in Toronto, Winnipeg, and eventually back here at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.
Where can we find out more about you?
Thanks to Derek Chan for speaking with us!
You can check out Chicken Girl at ANNEX until June 7th. For tickets, please visit TheatreWire.com