LumiŤreís Auckland Theatre Reviewer, Renee Liang, chats to ALEXANDER BISLEY about the fruition of her own play, ĎLanterní, at BATS from April 21-May 2.

What was Lanternís genesis?

Iíd written a few short plays before then, and had some performed, but wanted to try my hand at long-form. I thought Iíd start with a two-hander since Iíve really enjoyed the ones Iíve seen (Niu Sila, Bare) and theyíre something of a tradition in New Zealand anyway Ė easy to put on, challenging for the actors, fun to watch. After Iíd written a few scenes, I quickly realised that I needed some kind of unifying notion. Itís well known advice that you should Ďwrite what you know.í So I hit on the idea of centering the action of my play around a family preparing for Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is to Chinese what Christmas is to Europeans. Itís a big fifteen-day celebration, and on Chinese New Yearís Eve everyone has to get together for a big family dinner. And traditionally you start the New Year off on a clean slate, so you have to have sorted the house, yourself and your family out, before the clock strikes midnight.

ďItís a play about what it means to be family.Ē Could you expand on this?

Well, Lantern is about the Chen family, which like any family, has issues bubbling away under the surface. They happen to be Chinese New Zealanders, so that history informs how they behave Ė especially the father, Henry, who was caught up in the Sino-Japanese war when he was a young boy and then experienced life in Communist China. But even though I explore issues of culture and identity in the play, first and foremost itís a family drama. I hope that the themes I raise in the play will resonate with anyone whoís been part of a family Ė thatís all of us.

What do you want the Lantern audience to take away?

Well, firstly itís a comedy-drama, so I want them to go away with a sense of delight, maybe also a sense of discovery. But thereís also some pretty serious material underlying the jokes. I did quite a bit of research into the history of the Chinese in New Zealand when I was writing this Ė itís a little known part of our history. People donít often realise that we canít all be lumped together, for instance. There have been many different patterns of migration and many different origins and dialects, and those differences continue today.

Iíd love it if people took away a curiosity to find out more, or even started exploring their own stories. The majority of New Zealanders come from a migration background, if you think about it, and there are so many amazing histories out there. Theyíre all stories that need to be explored for us to really build a sense of ourselves as New Zealanders.

A few of the funnier scenes in the play came from real things that happened to me while I was writing the play, I enjoy poking gentle fun at people who just assume things, itís much more common in New Zealand than out-and-out racism.

How is writing like doctoring?

Iíve been thinking about this a lot since I started writing and practicing medicine in tandem. Iíve found they are natural partners. Doctors are trained observers Ė a lot of what we practice is reading whatís going on under the surface Ė socially and mentally as well as literally. So, doing medicine is superb training for writing. On the other side, compassion and empathy are very good skills that writing hones for medicine. Letís not forget that in both professions, getting the story right is the key to getting everything else.

What do you think of Glen Colquhounís work?

I think itís amazing, so funny and raw and real. Playing God is one of my favourite collections. He really broke some conventions with that one and he might even have made some new converts. At the last Paediatric Society of NZ meeting they had a poetry writing competition for the doctors, which they asked Glen to judge. His delivery is amazing as well. We were classmates at medical school, believe it or not.

Poetry and theatre are good for oneís health, eh? Do you see them potentially having a therapeutic role?

Yes, in fact thereís quite a lot written in both arts and medical journals, about the benefits of using poetry or drama, both as therapy for patients, and also to train health professionals to communicate better. One of my exams at medical school involved the use of actors! There are even textbooks which use theatrical language to explain human psychology, describing peopleís lives in terms of a dramatic structure, for instance.

I love using writing to unlock the potential of young people. Again, itís that idea that everyone has a drive to tell their story, a need to have it validated and listened to. Poetry is ideal for this. It can be written and performed for quick feedback, or analysed and further developed. Itís a very direct form and can be very raw, so it needs to be used with care. But itís also extremely powerful.

Describe your creative philosophy?

Firstly, I believe that thereís no luck involved in being successful creatively Ė the first step to doing anything is to decide to do it. If I donít have the skills to do it, then Iíll find someone who does. So I guess you could say that I enjoy collaboration, and that I enjoy taking others along with me on the journey.

That being said, I also have to have those moments of creativity when Iím alone. My favourite time is after midnight, when all the safety barriers are down, and I can go swimming.

Who are your inspirations? What is hope?

Iíd have to say that my parents are pretty up there in terms of inspiration. Itís because they decided to take a punt and emigrate to New Zealand that I am doing what I love today, and think the way that I do. And despite not always understanding why I do things like writing plays, my parents like to see me happy, so they support me. I put a lot of them into my writing, not directly, but theyíre there.

I also admire other writers, especially those who went against what was expected of them at the time and found their way by following their convictions. A lot of the women writers whose writing I admire Ė Amy Tan, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme, Margaret Atwood Ė are like that. Some of the men as well, especially the poets such as James K Baxter and Shane Koyczan.

And as for hope, I think itís whatís driving many of us. Without hope, most of us wouldnít dare to believe in our stupid crazy dreams. And then probably nothing would ever get made.

What are your two favourite plays youíve seen?

It changes every time I go to the theatre! I thought the recent Auckland Festival was particularly rich in terms of well written, deeply thought and felt work Ė The Arrival stands out for me, as does Sleep/Wake. Both are New Zealand productions with universal themes and questions, which would do well, and I do hope they will tour, anywhere.

How does the emotional connection of live theatre and poetry differ?

Both can be very absorbing, raw experiencesÖ I guess thatís why Iím drawn to both. The difference for me is that if itís poetry, I am the performer so Iím out there pushing my thoughts across. Theatre is much more of a team effort with everyone getting a defined creative part. You have to learn to let go and trust others with your material, something Iím still learning to do.

Both use personal presence, voice and gesture to convey something. It gets pretty addictive. For me, live performance is much more absorbing than film, because itís real, itís right in front of you, it responds and changes every night depending on the audience.

Any last words?

I guess Iíve got a lot of satisfaction over the years from learning how to tell my own story. I consider poetry, playwriting and other forms of writing as tools. I enjoy figuring out which tool is best with which story. I feel uncomfortable when people treat me as some sort of representative, although itís inevitable, I guess, given the small numbers of ĎAsianí writers out there. Iíd prefer to encourage others to stand up and tell their story, too. No matter who you are.