You have been working on RIOT as Artists in Residence with La Boite and Opera Queensland, how has the work changed (thematically, personally, etc.) since starting this residency?
Michelle: The heart of the story (the riot) has remain largely unchanged, but the characters that inhabit the world and their stories within the riot have shifted significantly over the years. On a personal level, COVID has changed RIOT because we’re now focused on how cyclical anti-Chinese racism is in Australia, and how many eerie parallels exist between the first arrivals of Chinese people in Australia (predating the Gold Rush, as indentured labourers for White Australians) to now. It’s scary to see how little has changed. And on a professional level, welcoming director Darren Yap into the team. Darren brings such an amazing story brain and energy into the room.
Paul: The riot as the background has always stayed the same, but we've been trying to create a personal story within that event and the personal story has changed over time. In this latest creative development it feels like the piece is crystallising around a personal story that reflects the larger story of the riot in microcosm. As Michelle said, the piece couldn't feel more relevant right now and we're drawing inspiration from real world events such as the attacks on Chinese Australians that have been happening in the wake of the pandemic.
Why is this a work that local, Brisbane and South-East Queensland audiences should see?
Michelle: Because Paul and I are from South-East Queensland and we knew nothing about this history! There’s a small sign about it in Chinatown, but besides that, ZILCH about the riot! Brisbane folk tend to think that a lot of the discrimination happened further north, but it’s been right under our noses and swept under the carpet, like many race related crimes in this country.
Paul: I think it's important story not just for South-East Queensland, but nationally. The anti-Chinese sentiment of this period was one of the factors that contributed to the drive for federation. The piece asks important questions about who we are as a nation. It's also got wonderful words and marvellous music!
What makes opera and race riots a winning combination?
Michelle: Oh, the drama of it all. There’s nothing like a singing mob. Opera gives me goosebumps and the combination of this story and the medium feels epic.
Paul: There's an old adage that characters sing when the emotion hits too high a level to be expressed through speech. I think a riot of two thousand people feels like a lot of emotion!
What’s the audience experience you’re hoping to provoke with RIOT?
Michelle: Empathy, anger, and action.
Paul: Couldn't have put it better.
What’s it like working with Michelle/Paul to create this new work? Tell us about your collaboration and learnings from working together as Artists in Residence.
Michelle: Paul and I have had some key, go-to references for this work: Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, and Harry Potter. It’s so lovely to work with someone I can have a shorthand with, and I’ve loved getting to know Paul as a collaborator and a friend. I’m convinced he’s a genius.
Paul: We do share a love of many of the same pieces of pop culture so we have excellent shorthand (Michelle, you forgot The Simpsons references). Michelle is such a fantastic, hard-working, open and hilarious collaborator. It's always great to work on a piece of art with your friends and Michelle makes even the least fun parts of work a joy!
If you had to provide one piece of parting wisdom to aspiring artists or theatre-makers, what would it be?
Michelle: Persistence, and putting in the hours. Yes, talent is involved, but it’s mostly hard work.
Paul: Claude-Michel Schoenberg (who wrote the Les Misérables musical) was asked this by a student in a residency I was at and I always think about his answer - "If you can wake up in the morning and think of doing anyting else. Do it. You will face so much rejection. It will be so hard. And you have to think 'I can do nothing but this." The French aren't known for beating around the bush and that's good advice!