Final London Theatre Seminar of 2015: 3 December with Ashley Thorpe (RHUL)

Dear colleagues,

Please see below for details of the next London Theatre Seminar on 3 December 2015 at 6:30 PM, with Ashley Thorpe, Royal Holloway, University of London. The event will take place in the University of London Senate House, Room G37.

We hope to see you there!

Broderick, Louise, & Jen 

Destructively productive: revisiting the intra-ethnic rivalry between British East Asian theatre companies Yellow Earth Theatre and Mu-lan Theatre Company 

This paper offers a provocation on the work of two British East Asian (BEA) theatre companies, Yellow Earth Theatre (YET, founded 1995) and Mu-lan Theatre Company (1991-2004). Members of these companies were, and some remain, locked in a fierce rivalry. I argue that this rivalry produced a highly charged context that divided, and continues to divide, the theatrical community. Yet, I also argue that this division highlights the heterogeneity of BEA practice, thus refuting the simplistic conceptions of collective identity sometimes ascribed to multiculturalism.

In particular, I argue that neoliberal and multicultural initiatives affected British East Asian theatre companies in two significant and peculiar ways. The first is that, although neoliberalism highlighted more widely the agency of the individual in establishing small and larger scale businesses as a means of accessing the equal opportunities promised by multiculturalism, it also placed an already fractured community into a situation of increased intra-ethnic competition as each business vied for a greater share of the market. The simultaneous existence of two BEA companies responded to, and further produced, a palpable sense of intra-ethnic and market competition in theatre. Yet a by-product of this was to highlight community divisions that resisted broad conceptions of multiculturalism based upon notions of ethnic-absolutism; it highlighted both networks of BEA practice and their division, and described the realities of internal communal diversity.

The second, contingent upon the first, is that the conception of British East Asians as ‘more commodity than citizen’ implies that patterns of consumption were (and are) predicated upon a relatively narrow and stereotypical range of signifiers, largely (though not exclusively) consumed by the white majority. I argue that YET and Mu-lan represented and responded to these patterns of consumption in different ways, by utilizing ‘Chinese’ signifiers as a means to access greater cultural visibility, but also by seeking to deconstruct them to diminish their representational agency. Caught between the individual and the communal, the neoliberal and the multicultural, public funding and the proceeds from ticket sales, I argue that intra-ethnic competition arising from the simultaneous operation of two BEA companies nevertheless represented a forceful theatrical expression of the complexities of BEA experiences that resisted cultural homogenization. 

Dr. Ashley Thorpe is Senior Lecturer in Theatre in the Department of Drama & Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London. His second monograph, provisionally titled Mirrors of Empire: Chinese Opera on the London Stage, 1759-2008 is in press, due to be published by Palgrave in 2016.