“The thing I love most about working in theatre is that it is a deeply collaborative art form. You don’t have a hermetically sealed, heterogeneous view of the world and the work because it’s the result of multiple sources of input.”
It’s telling that 24-year-old playwright Anchuli Felicia King, the youngest contributor to this year’s National Play Festival, has an affinity for the porous nature of theatre-making; multiple influences have similarly percolated through her development as an artist.
This can be best seen by looking at the path King has taken to becoming a playwright: indirect and full of formative experiences.
“I thought I was going to be a musician,” she says. “It was during my undergrad at Melbourne Uni, through picking up live composition gigs, playing in bands for shows and creating sound design, that I realised I really loved pretty much every aspect of the theatre.”
She has since tried her hand at just about every facet of theatre craft, from video design to costuming, and various modes of performance. But it wasn’t until she took a “compulsory” class in playwriting, during her dramaturgy studies at Columbia University in New York in 2016, that she eventually discovered, “just like everything else connected to the theatre,” that writing for the stage was an exciting creative opportunity. “I was totally hooked.”
Looking back to her childhood, there may have been some earlier indications that she was destined for a career in theatre. “I have an identical twin sister and we grew up making art together,” King shares with a laugh. “We’d write musicals together, but we’d split up the portfolio: she was in charge of lighting, stage design and stage management, and I was in charge of sound design and performing. We’d often collaborate on projects like that. That, I think, more than anything, spurred on my creativity as a kid.”
A lifelong love of collaboration has become a cornerstone of King’s creative identity, which is reflected in the companies she has worked with, such as immersive theatre pioneers Punchdrunk, known for their vast, interdisciplinary productions, and 3-Legged Dog (more commonly knowns as 3LD) Art & Technology Centre, the New York-based creative hub supporting original work using new technologies.
“It’s what makes theatre such a vibrant art form,” King says. “For that reason, I don’t see myself ever writing prose or other forms of written storytelling. I think of myself as a theatre technician. In whatever creative role I happen to find myself in, I just can’t see it being something that I do in isolation.”
Her years of restlessly exploring every aspect of the art form has equipped King with a holistic understanding of theatre. It’s also resulted in some fascinating juxtapositions in her work.
For example, the interplay between the traditional and the cutting-edge, a pairing she describes using the relatively new and exotic term “technodramaturgy.” This explores the function and scope of advanced technologies, such as projection mapping or augmented reality (AR), and how they can be used to theatrically enhance conventional dramatic texts.
As the Associate Artistic Director of 3LD Art & Technology Centre, King has been able to make this trailblazing corner of contemporary theatre a focus of her work. “We try and foster a space where artists have the time, space, and equipment to actually experiment with this kind of work. At the time I was studying dramaturgy, I started to realise how little people were actually thinking about the innate theatricality of these kinds of technologies,” she explains.
King has even explored how this cross-pollination between the technological and dramatic can be expressed beyond physical stagecraft, in the philosophical make-up of her plays.
“I’m fascinated by the latent politics of technology, which we don’t often think about. We often think of technology whether it’s AR, or other mixed reality systems as being kind of politically neutral systems, onto which we impose politically charged work,” she shares. “But in the course of doing this kind of work, I often find that the form in and of itself, or the technology in and of itself, imposes certain kinds of politics onto the work and that interchange to me is really interesting.
“In some ways, my practice seems kind of bifurcated. On the one hand, I have this life as a techie, and then I have my playwriting, which is in many ways a very traditional form. But it’s where the two intersect that I deal with technology thematically, exploring the ethical implications of technology and digital acceleration, technocracy, and so on. In many ways, I use the stage to talk about the moral and ethical implications of the technology.”
“I think as a playwright I take myself to task in terms of the quality of the language that I use,” she says. “I think it’s really important in this particular political moment for female or female-identifying playwrights to write work that is muscular, to write political realism, to write work that has an adept, rigorous approach to language.
“I think often there is a sort of implicit assumption that if you are female or a female-identifying playwright, your work is supposed to be lyrical, or highly emotion-based, sensorial, synesthetic. I’m far more interested in what may typically be thought of as the male voice in playwriting, to say that, well no, male priorities shouldn’t have a monopoly on overt political realism as a genre or vulgarity or whatever else it might be.”
Coming from a Thai-Australian background, King has an equally detailed viewpoint on representations of different cultures on stage, simultaneously challenging the audience’s expectations of her, as a playwright of colour, and their potential preconceptions about the subject matter.
“There’s an assumption that I am only supposed to write about my experience of race. I’m supposed to encapsulate a certain cultural identity or a certain cultural experience. So one of the things that I often talk about in my plays is just how fraudulent that notion actually is, how multiplicitous our cultural identities actually are now, how fractured the very notion of a national identity is in a culture that embraces globalisation spurred on by technology. We are all so connected now that those boundaries are kind of breaking down.”
The everyday racism and cultural shame that often thrives in advertising and pop culture is the focus of King’s play, White Pearl. A boardroom drama with a darkly comic edge, it takes place within a skin care company scrambling to clear up a PR crisis connected to a skin whitening product marketed to Chinese consumers.
But while King’s theatre is undoubtedly political, she prefers not to think of herself as a polemic or even as subversive. Moreover, her narratives aim to explore a less self-conscious reflection of what she believes is important.
“I want to be cognizant of the expectations that audiences or producers place on my work and take that all in, and yeah, sometimes challenge it. But mostly, I just write what I’m interested in. I don’t self-police what I write, basically. I think that’s when you start to get into dangerous territory, when you’re trying to write, for example, for the ‘diversity programming slot’ at a theatre. Then you start to write a very specific kind of play, and I’m not interested in writing for those reasons.”
Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl is presented at the National Play Festival 2018 Wednesday March 21 (8.15pm) and Friday March 23 (12 noon).
This story was made possible through a grant from the The Rodney Seaborn Playwriting Support Fund.