Artistic Director Annette Shun Wah. Adelaide Festival Centre and live streamed from Her Majesty’s Theatre. October 20 – November 3 2020. www.ozasiafeatival.com.au
Previewed by Peter Wilkins
|OzAsia Festival Artistic Director Annette Shun Wah
Photo : Prudence Upton
OzAsia Festival’s first Asian Australian Artistic Director recalls a conversation she had with a taxi driver during the rise of Pauline Hanson. A commentary about racist bullying in the schoolyard had just been aired on the radio. “Don’t worry.” said the driver. “ It’ll pass. My family arrived from Italy in the 1950s and I was called a dago. Now we are accepted and respected.” The inference was clear. The same would happen for the Asians in society. “Well my family arrived in 1878” Shun Wah retorted. “How Australian do you want me to be?” Shun Wah was born in Cairns and grew up in outer Brisbane. Her mother died in childbirth and her father was left with three young children. He had come from a family of eight children, and his mother had run the general store in Longreach and, according to Shun Wah made the best meat pies. Shun Wah’s father entered an arranged marriage with Susan from Hong Kong. She had no formal education and couldn’t speak English and found the environment alien. She worked hard in her husband’s poultry abattoir business amid the blood and the feathers. “It was bloody hard work” Shun Wah recalled.
Her story is the stuff of a very different and diverse experience, an experience shared by many Asian Australian migrants who have played their part in shaping the nation’s character. And yet how many people know these epic stories of struggle and survival. How many Australians are able to name Asian Australian artists whose work has appeared on television film and the stage? Far more are now more aware of indigenous artists, and as Shun Wah points out that it absolutely right that they should be recognized for their talents and the contribution that they make to the arts industry and Australian culture.
“It couldn’t be a more crucial time for a festival to be looking at an Asian engagement’ Shun Wah says. “Our stages and screens don’t reflect what Australia looks like. It is our job as artists to tell the story. If we don’t, we are only telling half the story. Also, if you want people to come to the theatre you have to provide work that will reflect their lives.”.” Shun Wah goes on to say how terrific it is to see so many exciting works by Asian Australian artists in development that are on the same level as works being programmed.
Under previous Artistic Directors, OzAsia has primarily been a showcase festival, largely presenting the work of Asian companies outside Australia. The challenges presented by the global pandemic and Covid’s impact on the Australian arts industry ironically provides Shun Wah with an opportunity to thrust contemporary Asian Australian artists and their work to the forefront and realize her ambition to create a more level playing field to reflect cultural diversity.
|White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia King.
Photo by Helen Murray
The final conversation will be with S. Shakthidharan on Thursday October 29th from 11a.m. – 12 p.m. A writer, director and producer of film and theatre as well as a composer of original music he is currently the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Kurinji, Artistic Lead at Co-Curious and an Associate Artist at Belvoir. His debut play Counting and Cracking about a Sri Lankan family during the nation’s bitter civil war and unrest played to full houses at last year’s Adelaide Festival and garnered multiple Helpmann Awards.
This year’s programme format indicates a significant shift in role and responsibility. Circumstances have prevented the inclusion of visiting showcase performances and community spectacles, although Shun Wah is keen to see people buying tickets and returning to theatre in 2021 to witness performance works by prominent companies. In 2020 OzAsia has an important role to play in illuminating Shun Wah’s intention to highlight diversity. By tapping into the stories of artists contributing to this remarkable diversity, this year’s festival appears far more personalized, allowing audiences to participate in the intimacy of personal experience.
“I think it’s really important for the whole country to be thinking about all these things, or about each other and coming to an understanding. There is no better way to come to an understanding of another culture than by knowing what makes them laugh, what makes them cry and what gets them angry and what they enjoy. That’s a wonderful question for this festival” says Shun Wah.
Another casualty of the Covid health crisis has been the highly popular and spectacular Moon Lantern Parade, held at the beginning of the festival on the banks of the River Torrens, Tens of thousands flock to picnic, savour the fare of the Lucky Dumpling Market and gaze in wonder and delight as the array of lanterns and dragons pass through the park. Every crisis presents its unique opportunity and this year Shun Wah will offer online Moon Lantern making workshops. The ten to fifteen minute instructional video will encourage viewers to make their own lanterns and in the intervening year perfect their creation and bring it to next year’s festival in the hope that the live event will return to Elder Park.
Also, a two hour Bollywood style workshop for selected schools will be held at the Adelaide Festival Centre and will be run by tutors from Mudra Dance Academy .
Shun Wah is hopeful that this year’s online streaming of talks, conversations, poetry readings and workshops will encourage new audiences for OzAsia.”New audiences will be aware of what OzAsia’s concerns are, not that that will translate into people hopping on planes in time, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s about promoting discussion and thinking about things in a different way”
Shun Wah’s first festival presents new challenges but it also creates the opportunity for more people to connect with this iconic and awareness raising event. I ask Shun Wah what she hopes for the 2020 OzAsia Festival.
“I would love critics and audiences to consider different needs, and be curious about the work that is being made, and the stories that are being told that come from different places. For me it is Asian Australian, but there are many other parts that have a treasure trove of stories that we haven’t dipped into yet. So many people have been excluded from getting audiences or an exposure. It is now important that we hear the diverse voices in our society. I think that people need to be more diverse in the works that they go and see.”
Shun Wah’s passionate advocacy for diversity through the unique opportunity provided by the OzAsia Festival sends a message to critics and audience alike to stretch the imagination rather than always coming from the conventional art form and mind set.
The global pandemic has presented an unique challenge to reach out to wider audiences, provide a platform for new works and blaze a trail for local, national and international artists to gain recognition through the OzAsia Festival. Softly spoken Shun Wah is no shrinking violet when it comes to forging the ideal of her mission as her comments during a recent interview with Arts Front reveal:
“In Australia and America, actors of colour rarely get to play on a level playing field… and I really think at the basis of it, it’s simply racism. I think the people who make the decisions on what gets made and where it gets shown do not trust that there’s an audience for the work. But that kind of thinking is way out of touch. There is now such a critical mass of people who are highly trained and talented from different cultural backgrounds that deserve to get many more chances and many more ranges of roles so they can sustain their artistic practice.”
At the time of a global pandemic , Annette Shun Wah’s OzAsia Festival provides the perfect opportunity to give them that chance.
The live stream and all other OzAsia Talks sessions can be viewed at facebook.com/ozasiafestival, . The program of days and times that these will be posted is available at: ozasiafestival.com.au/program/ozasia-talks