Sunday, August 6, 2017


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre present, RICE, by Michele Lee, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 26th July - 26th August.

RICE is a new Australian play, by Asian-Australian writer, Michele Lee. It received the Queensland Premier's Drama Award 2016-2017, and this production was first presented by Queensland Theatre in the Billie Brown Studio, in June, Directed by Lee Lewis.

Michele Lee has been working around the edges of the mainstream theatres for many years, and this is the first major mounting of one of her works. Nisha (Kristy Best), the Australian-born grand-daughter of a West Bengali migrant family, is a high-flying executive at Golden Fields, Australia's largest producer of rice. As an Executive-Officer she has been preparing a deal with the Indian Government - by 'hook or by crook', it seems - which will place her company at the centre of India's rice distribution. She is also dealing with the sad disintegration of her Didima, grandmother. Working late every night, she encounters Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang), a single Asian mother, who, while working under contract to clean offices, is also an enthusiastic entrepreneur with a trail of failed, dodgy businesses behind her. Yvette is, also, having to deal with a troubled activist daughter, Sheree. They both discover that they have a lot in common.

Says Ms Lee in her Playwright's Notes in the program:
Initially I said RICE was about a plethora of 'big' contemporary issues. As if I was some Mike Moore of theatre. Mass agriculture. Super economies. Mercenary corporations. Women in business. RICE is about these things. But it's probably, primarily, about two women searching out for new friendships and new intimacies, new versions of family, however fleeting.

Certainly, then, in the present political environment of our Performing Arts industry this play ticks many of the boxes that will take it to serious consideration for actual production from Main Stream companies. A writer of the female sex (tick) from a minority Australian culture (tick), with two roles for women (tick) that will demand a cultural diversity in casting (tick), dealing with contemporary issues (tick). Plus, the offer by the writer that the two actors, who play Nisha and Yvette will, also, play an extra four characters each, of various sex and ages, thus ensuring that the Producing company, or companies, need only employ two actors - a budgetary consideration of often irresistible attraction (tick) to get one's work produced by the Professional Company in Australia. (A strategic gesture by Ms Lee?) In this case the Producing companies, the Arts Funded Queensland Company and the Griffin Company (of NSW origin) need only pay one actor each for this three month rehearsal/performance season (tick,tick).

Now this suggestion by the writer to have the two actors to play five roles each, (although in the program it is indicated that the actors are to only 'also speak' the lines for the characters - "Speak", that's all? Is that an ignorance of the writer of the actor's field of creative effort?) across multiple sex and age dimensions, is no hindrance to successfully deliver the play to an audience. It, simply, demands that the Director, in this case Lee Lewis, find two very versatile (necessarily, experienced) actors - who have not only highly developed technical acting skills to switch swiftly from one character to another, but, have an instinctive ease and appetite to be able to do so. If achieved, it will be part of the magic of the production, and give the actors the thrill of a fierce artistic challenge. The opportunity that Ms Lee is offering could be a gift for the right actor - there are, I believe, not many actors that could meet, comfortably, the demands. The alternatives then, are 1. that the time to work with the Director to sort out with the two actors the necessary cues of change demarcations for the different characters for ultimate communication and 'thrill' will be time that will be both abundant (budget cost?) and intense (emotional cost?), or, 2. you employ more actors - even, in this case, you might get away with just two others - if you were really lucky. A cast of four, at least, two for the principal roles: Nisha and Yvette, and two for the other four roles - did the two Companies ever consider that choice? Did Budget concerns close down that option?

In the case of the present production neither of the actors are easefully skillful in demarcating either , physically or vocally - except with half-hearted dialectical adaptations (Dialect coaches, Jennifer White and Gabrielle Rogers) - the cues for the audience to 'read' with alacrity which character is speaking so as to keep attention on the content of the story. Ms Best, as Nisha, is best in her upfront pleasant presentational mode, wide eyed and smiling, which is utilised for all her characters. Her energy investment on the night I saw the show needed to be tempered to allow the audience in, to be able to identify and empathise - sometimes it was almost assaulting in its overpowering offers - and the gear changes from character to character were not very easily communicated. While Ms Tang, as Yvette, was more grounded in her energy on the night and therefore more successful in her responsibilities of demarcated difference.

The construction and content of Ms Lee's play is particularly interesting for its cultural insights, if not unique either thematically or observationally, and is hindered, mostly lost, in the pell mell and 'flat', shallow, differential characterisations drawn by the actors under Ms Lewis' Direction. The Set and Costume Design, by Renee Mulder, is serviceable in its impeccable neatness, adjusted from the Queensland production in a differently configured acting space with Lighting, similarly useful, from Jason Glenwright.

There are, then, many political tick box reasons to see RICE, but if you go, for clarity of content, don't go tired. To get the most out of this prize winning text in this production, you will have to be extremely alert. Or, wait to see a production that can afford more actors to overcome what is a versatility problem with this company.


Lee Lewis said...

Dear Kevin,

Traditionally artists stay silent in the face of published criticism. However the media landscape is changing rapidly and significantly, and in this age of disinformation and fake news there is an increasing need for fact checking. Normally I’d pick up the phone and call you to organise a coffee and a chat about some of the misconceived notions you have about programming at Griffin, and in the past I have enjoyed our discussions about the challenges of selection and production of new Australian plays.

Today though, I am worried that my more personal approach might, in the past, have contributed to the impression of the silence and silencing of artists and artistic directors in this country. I find myself in an age and a country where it is necessary to analyse my ‘traditional’ responses in an effort to understand whether they are ‘right’ or lazy, or the product of an institutional structure created to support the cultural status quo, or the product of an inherently patriarchal, white dominant education system within the British empire, or the product of the nuns impressing on me that good girls are quiet. I am also worried that a lack of response posted publicly will add to a spread of cynicism about our funding structures, the likes of which exposed the arts to damage of the Brandis debacle.

So. A response. Posted for the record on your website. If you choose not to post it as is your right as a moderator, I’ll also post it on the Griffin blog. I will attempt to limit my conversation to what I will term paragraph five of your blog post, beginning (ironically from my point of view) with the word ‘Certainly’. I will not engage in any response to your critiques of the play or the performances. We have a long history of acknowledging our different tastes in writing, production and performance styles, and I will always support your right to your opinion of my work.

“Certainly, then, in the present political environment of our Performing Arts industry this play ticks many of the boxes that will take it into serious consideration for actual production from Main Stream companies.”

To be clear, there are no boxes to tick. Neither the Australia Council for the Arts nor Create NSW put any restrictions on our programming decisions. As a company we create our own Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure and acquit our success at achieving the goals of the company. Our acquittals are publicly available in our Annual General Report which is on our website. Our main KPI is to produce three new Australian works every year. That is it. There are no restrictions on that. I have enormous freedom as an Artistic Director to distribute the company resources to meet that KPI.

There are goals within this company that publicly state that we are committed to creating productions which reflect the diversity of the city and country in which we are privileged to work. We create our own KPIs to track our strategies and successes in meeting those goals. None of those KPIs necessarily impact on the straightforward mission of the company to produce at least three new works every year. Note that even while absorbing the Brandis cuts we are producing three new works and one revival this year, and that over the next three years the Girgensohn Foundation is supporting the fifth play in our season…(post continues)

Lee Lewis said...

The goals of the company to reflect the diversity of our population reflect the values of the people working in the company, and I would say the values of many people working in the arts in Australia today. Often we do not reach those goals in our programming. More often than not in the history of this company, the seasons are dominated with plays written by men; the plays are written by white playwrights; and the stories told are dominated by white male protagonists. Historically, educationally and institutionally, the scales are still tipped in favour of the white male playwright and the white male hero, even at Griffin. I don’t deny the excellence of the plays programmed even as I admit the absences their presence perpetuates.

Every time there is a lack of gender equity in the season, the production or the story, I feel it personally. Every time there is an all white cast onstage, I feel it as a failure keenly. I believe every play is an opportunity to move the Australian cultural identity towards a new normal that includes every citizen in our storytelling traditions. Those are my own values, which are publicly known, and were known at the time I was hired to lead this company. Yes I try to separate my values from the company goals because it is not ‘my company’ but a company belonging to the audience of Sydney and Australia. But of course my values influence the conversations within the company and thus the formation of the goals. They are connected. Inevitably. But to be clear, those values are in no way boxes to be ticked by playwrights desiring production at Griffin. There are no boxes. And for you to perpetuate that language or that myth is incorrect, irresponsible and damaging.

“A writer of the female sex (tick) from a minority Asian culture (tick), with two roles for women (tick) that will demand cultural diversity in casting (tick) dealing with contemporary issues (tick).”

Let’s leave aside your glib tone that ripples with colours of condescending, patronising and offensive. Let’s instead celebrate all those qualities about this play. Unfortunately RICE is still extraordinary for these reasons. I hope within my lifetime these qualities will become unremarkable. RICE was not programmed for any of these reasons. It was programmed because it is an excellent piece of writing from an emerging playwright that reflects the people and politics of our time. It was programmed because I believed it would speak to our audiences in ways and words they needed to hear. And the reactions from most of our audiences are ratifying that instinct. This is a critically and financially successful production of a new Australian play from a playwright who I believe will be one of the most significant voices in the transformation of the cultural identity of this nation. But the success or not of this production does not fall within the framework of this conversation. Again your opinion is your own.

I am not the only person in the artistic community that has this faith in the potential of this play and this playwright. Michele Lee’s potential as a playwright was identified years ago. She has had a number of plays in development at different companies. Playwriting Australia developed this work. RICE won the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2016-17 and received further development at Queensland Theatre. There has been the freedom in these processes for her as the playwright to experiment with how to tell the story in the way she wanted. Which brings me to your third sentence:

“Plus, the offer by the writer that the two actors, who play Nisha and Yvette will, also, play an extra four characters each, of various sex and ages, thus ensuring that the Producing companies, need only employ two actors – a budgetary consideration of often irresistible attraction (tick) to get one’s work produced by the Professional Company in Australia.” ...(post continues)

Lee Lewis said...

Yes, importantly, the playing of multiple roles was an offer by the playwright. This was not a directorial idea, or a producer intervention. Griffin is a playwrights’ theatre and as such we strive to present the first productions of plays as imagined by the playwright. Michele Lee’s reasons for asking two actors to play multiple roles included, but are not limited to, an acknowledgement that there is not, in this country, much opportunity for the transformational performances by diverse women. As such, she has genuine interest in exploring the boundaries and possibilities of this challenge in her play. It was my duty as first director of the work to give her the opportunity to see her ideas in front of an audience.

“(A strategic gesture by Ms Lee?)”

If it was, it was a dangerous strategy. The two-hander is an exceptionally difficult form of storytelling. The first one I worked on was Caryl Churchill’s A NUMBER, which was possibly the most perfect meeting of form and content I have ever had the privilege to direct. It also made me very wary of the pressures of that formal choice. In fact, seeing that a play is a two-hander sets off all sorts of resistances in me. Michele Lee’s work convinced me that the two-hander is ultimately the right form for the telling of this story. There is a philosophical offer inside the form that recognises that power is one person feeling entitled to value themselves above another, and that racism is built and deconstructed between two people. These thoughts are not overt but they are being tested by the play. Again, the success or not of the production in realising these philosophical enquiries is not important right now.

I would note that the only other two-hander we have produced in my time as Artistic Director here at Griffin was Aidan Fennessy’s THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE. Prior to that, under Sam Strong’s leadership, I directed Van Badham’s THE BULL THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS in 2013. So, in no way could it be said that we look to produce two-handers. Indeed the entire theatre community is aware of the need to keep the numbers of actors onstage as high as possible. Last year Griffin had an average of 5 in cast size. This year, in absorbing the Brandis cuts we have dropped to an average of 4. Next year we will be up to an average of 4.6, again with no two-handers. We do have some physical limitations at Griffin. The eight in the dressing room for GLORIA did rely on certain graciousness from the acting company in sharing a tiny space. But I digress.

“In this case the Producing companies, the Arts Funded Queensland Company and the Griffin Company (of NSW origin) need only pay one actor each for this three month rehearsal/performance season (tick tick).”

This seems like a good opportunity to correct the false impression that co-producing saves companies money. The cost of safely and responsibly supporting a play and its team across companies and states outweighs any ‘savings’ you are implying. One of the reasons companies invest in the extra work and cost of a co-production is the genuine desire to share a story across geographic boundaries. I believe that this benefits both the playwrights and the audiences of different cities. In the quest for a national conversation, co-production is one of the creative tools the arts community has to bring audiences together around a contemporary narrative. The costs are large and that often stops more co-productions from happening, but the benefits to this country are significant in the long term. No company co-produces to save money. Cue laughter from every general manager across the country...(post continues)

Lee Lewis said...

That was my best attempt to contain the anger your paragraph provoked. I hope I have dealt with the parts of your statements reasonably and factually. What I have yet to address is the despair provoked at the sum of the parts of that paragraph. That you would attack the programming of a play for the very qualities which represent the ambitions of the theatre community to be inclusive and representative of the audience it works to serve is devastating. The suggestion that all the work, intuition, craft and creative energy over the years it has taken to bring this work to the stage was expended cynically in the pursuit of political correctness is deeply offensive. At a time when our values as a nation are under attack, this play is programmed with an eye to the best version of the future of this country. That is not a box, it is a belief that our artists will lead us when our politicians fail to.

Lee Lewis

Anonymous said...

So I am pretty certain the below quote from Ursula K Le Guin is the internal monologue in the 'reviewers' head. “Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other--outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”

I understand it is hard losing your white male power Kevin. It can't be easy. If RICE isn't the sort of play that you feel says anything relevant, then simply trot off to the Ensemble, or to NIDA 3rd year shows, or perhaps to a regional theatre somewhere. You don't have to participate in modern Australia if you don't want to.

Merrilee MIlls said...

A stunning, deeply reflective and intelligent response from Lee. I'm disappointed that Anonymous, in supporting the ethos of Griffin, felt it necessary to condescend to other theatremakers in this country ( "simply trot off to the Ensemble, or to a NIDA 3rd year show, or perhaps to a regional theatre somewhere"). This sort of commentary is both divisive of and ill-informed.