It’s 2022, we have entered a new progressive age where we are all conscious about diversity and representation right? Well sort of. But it’s complex, even the best intentions can see flippant tokenization of cultures. And while it might be important for the likes of a pan-Asian front to fight for representation, it can also lead to a low resolution homogenisation of many widely different cultures within that group.
Writer, filmmaker and producer, Nahyeon Lee navigates this situation with her upcoming black comedy stage show, The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom which unpeels the complexities of making a TV Show and cultural representation. We talk to Nahyeon about cultural autonomy in storytelling and the anger of Adam Sandler.
What is The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom? Can you describe the core of it and what it means to you?
Yeah, it’s kind of a satire. It’s kind of a black comedy; that’s how it’s been pitched as. It’s a bit of a ticking time bomb. It’s about a fictional First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom.
The title was intended to be quite a dry joke. It is what it is. It starts to eat itself up and deconstruct itself. Things aren’t always what it seems.
There are some really important themes that you’re touching on, including commodity culture and stereotypes. And then what pan-Asian representation actually means. What does that actually mean, by the way?
‘Pan-Asian’ is a term that refers to the unity of Asia as a whole. I just find it really fascinating that in recent years it’s become quite a hot term that’s been thrown around for Asian creatives. It feels quite like an oxymoron or paradoxical as a descriptor.
In the diaspora as Asians here, I feel like we need to unify and we need to be a collective so we can move forward in our advocacy, but at the same time, we’re constantly jostling or fighting about our own individual identities that get lost under this Pan-Asian moniker.
In some ways, we’re unified as a Pan-Asian front, but in other ways, I wonder if we’re losing the specificity of our own cultures by trying to navigate ourselves in this industry. I find that really fascinating that it’s to what degrees do we identify with our specific Asianness and to what degrees we need to rally the troops and work together to make progressive change, because individually you can’t.
That is so interesting. There is something to be said for having a unified front, but then within that unified front, there is the danger of homogenising so many vastly different cultures. What is the trade-off?
I think the play refuses to give the audience an answer to that. A lot of these really complex ideas are placed on the creatives to have to answer. So you’ve got the first primetime Asian sitcom, now you can solve diversity for us.
I am firmly of the belief that it’s not our responsibility. And I think to put that sort of pressure on anybody will lead to chaos and combustion. It’s an impossible task and it’s almost setting someone up for failure. That’s how I feel.
So it’s kind of a black comedy because it leans very heavily into the darkness of that <laughs> and how sometimes you can fight as hard as you want and you can be as smart as you want, as strategic as you want, but sometimes it’s just not going to work out.
You mentioned in the press release this kind of personal fury. Is that woven into it, this personal struggle?
Well yes, my own personal struggle is intertwined into it. A bit of that, but I think anger is really funny. When something gets so angry and so ridiculous and you’re put in positions of, the world just feels so ridiculous that it can be really funny to see someone turn into an infant. I really want to tread that line in terms of the tone of the play.
I look at Adam Sandler quite a lot. His brand of comedy and the energy he has, has incredibly pent-up anger. He starts to act like a child and this anger transforms from something that is scary and potent, into something that’s ridiculous and kind of funny. That’s a little bit of how I feel about the world.
I feel really angry, I feel furious, but at a certain point, what can I do with that energy? I still have to live in it and I can really only laugh about it. It’s kind of a biting black comedy because when you’re asked to answer all the questions and you can’t, where does that leave you? I think it’s absurd.
With Adam Sandler’s later work, you can see this comedy intertwined with human desperation as well.
I think he’s just fascinating because he’s this ball of intense energy and I think how it’s harnessed can be tonally really fascinating; to have that at the core in a weird way that has influenced the tone of his work.
In a 2019 interview you spoke about this gatekeeping process within the industry that makes it difficult for Asian creatives to move up. Have you noticed a shift? Has it gotten any easier?
Yeah, so much has changed, even the last two years. I wrote initially in 2019 and I had to revise it and revisit the local politics of how I felt about the industry shifting. I feel like now the door is open and even the reflection of this play being programmed is itself a meta-like indication of how far we’ve moved forward.
I suppose times have changed, we’re moving forward in terms of being given an opportunity for these things to get the resources to be put on. But what you don’t see are the discussions or the stipulations around what are the rules that you are expected to follow as a result of getting this or what is expected of you.
I feel like there’s a trend of how you talk about your race and personal experiences and you have to transform them into narratives that can be understood by people that aren’t necessarily from your community or look like you. There’s a form to transform something; for television you have to commodify your race so you can get some viewers onto screen. What does that transformation look like for a creative process?
I’m really fascinated by systems and how the process will actually change the creative nature of the work. We all go into art because we want to express something deep within ourselves, but what happens when that’s not on your own terms all the time, or what happens when you have to face roadblocks?
You have to constantly compromise just so it can stay alive. I feel like I’m choosing between, this can exist, but I have to compromise along the way; and how much am I willing to lose for it to even exist? I feel like it’s a matter of survival. How much are you willing to compromise to survive?
Can you expand a little bit on that? That stipulation and the homogenisation of culture, is that part of the process? Is it like producers going, in order for it to reach a mainstream audience, in order for it to be understood by a mainstream audience, you need to tone things down a little bit or adjust things?
Iit goes all the way up the line. It’s like funding structures that dictate what stories get told and what don’t, what is the process in which that happens, or what are the internal biases that will deem one thing more quantifiably important or deserves resource over another.
And then all the way down to process. It would be producers in terms of who gets to make the decision about whether something needs to be more or less Asian or who gets to influence those creative decision-making processes for what might be best for the work and what are the things that people value in a work?
It’s one thing to have different Asian creatives given an opportunity, but if the entire infrastructure is not really aligned to that, then things will get warped at some point along the way.
Yeah, I think warped is a really, really great word. I really love that. It’s really easy to point to one antagonist and be like, that’s the producer that stopped it. But what happens when systemically it doesn’t exist yet or the foundations aren’t there yet?
One of the actors said this in our discussion earlier, but he said he felt like the play was like three steps forward, two steps back; it’s kind of this ebb and flow. The thing I’m really struggling with is I feel like sometimes these systems are set up for you to fail no matter how hard you try.
It’s not about pointing the finger at one person because it’s not actually about one person. It’s about all of these other insidious things that exist in the process that maybe aren’t clear or do disempower you or disenfranchise you in the process.
Going back to the funding bodies and producers, it seems like they could draw on the same argument that you get in a lot of media and publishing; that they are just giving the audience what it wants. Is there some blame that just goes onto us as a society, in terms of what content we are consuming and what content we are drawn to?
Yeah, I think so. There’s a constant struggle with me internally and my creative work about entertainment versus advocacy or activism. Where should the media lie? Should what we see on our screens be a reflection of the future we want to create? Or is it a reflection of what is existing now?
I suppose this is reflected in the continuation of my play; feeling like it refuses to give audiences the answer, but it’s the cyclical nature, what feeds into what. If funding bodies say that their audiences don’t want to see diverse content, how do they even know? Because they have never been offered that. And then maybe if they’re offered that, maybe they’re under-resourced and so the content maybe isn’t realised as much as you’d want it to. And then they point to that and say, but this didn’t do so well. But they should have never had to hold that burden in the first place.
It’s this vicious cycle. Going onwards to New Zealand, it’s interesting the models we have, the avenues for funding. In America, they are deeply capitalistic but there are studio systems and there’s competition in America, so they’ll back what they believe will sell. There’s a variety of different intentions behind why work is created. But in New Zealand, a lot of the funding is taxpayer money or government money which has certain mandates, like who they are serving.
I think it is also worth considering in the mix of the specificities of local funding as well. Yes, that’s great that it also further questions the idea of how much content being made now is reflecting New Zealand. Or what is the changing face of New Zealand?
With all of these things, I don’t have the answers. I don’t want to give anyone the answers. I think this play is me resiliently pushing my heels into the ground, I refuse to give you the answers. My whole career, I felt like you in some ways insidiously asked me to provide these answers for you and I’m not going to, I am tired.
You mentioned funding bodies pushing diversity. Is there a danger with that, you can just tick a box? Is there a danger that you just brush over so much cultural nuance?
There is such a danger of being tokenized and by having a box-ticking mandate, it creates a scarcity of what stories can be told. It also puts pressure on this one story representing everybody because of the scarcity. And even further to that, because of the scarcity system that’s been created, and not everyone will agree with the story that’s being told, there are suddenly disagreements in the community. We’re all trying to tear each other down because only one thing can exist to be the box-ticking.
There’s this fascinating metaphor that came up in the rehearsal about crabs. Crabs are naturally a communal organism, but when they’re put in a bowl where they have to escape, they’ll actively pull each other down to try and escape for their own survival. It makes me think about how the scarcity of opportunity for Asian creatives puts both simultaneously incredible pressure onto them, as well as this darker unseen side where we feel like we have to pull each other down because only one person can get it.
On another note, I’m excavating the paradox, right?
That scarcity can be like a loaded gun as well. For example, Constance Wu opening up about her experiences with Fresh Off The Boat and sexual harrasement from a producer on the show. She was so worried at the time about blowing the opportunity for Asian-American representation that she kept quiet about it, but it all came to a head when she let slip about the show continuing.
I’m not fully tuned into the sexual harrassment allegations, but I think in terms of the stuff where she was perceived to be ungrateful for her role on Fresh off the Boat because it was renewed and because she couldn’t pursue other artistic endeavors, I think that just speaks to pretty much everything that we touched on and the question before, how scarce those roles are.
Even if that’s not what you want, she may have a perceived burden to withhold that storytelling to stay in that role. All of the pressures on the community to tell her to; she should be grateful for that and that she’s doing a disservice of letting everyone down by wanting to walk away. All the pressure she must have felt between that burden versus what she really wants to do, because she should be allowed to just quit. Other actors walk away from shows all the time.
You have spoken before about the power of storytelling to humanise minority groups and that’s really important for this counter to the divide that seems to emerge at certain points throughout history. At the same time, media, storytelling and advertising can also have the opposite effect as well by dehumanising cultures. Where do you think we are in that mix?
Something that really spoke to me early on when I was a teenager who was film obsessed, was I really loved Roger Ebert and his incredible reviews. He always said that a film is an empathy machine. It’s a means by which you can deeply emotionally feel lives that you’ll never live, places and situations that could never exist both literally and within the realms of your own lived life.
And so when I approached my early days of storytelling and in a lot of my film work still, it’s a lot about trying to provide an insight of an experience to a wider audience that they could never really have before. That perspective or the empathy being something that I wanted to express, whether these people were reflections of the people in my life or my family, I wanted to acknowledge their existence. I wanted to celebrate their existence and I wanted their stories to be told.
I still really, truly believe that. On the other hand, on my most cynical days, I will watch something and feel really angry because it feels like a mishandling of responsibility. When you start to excavate who maybe made some decisions behind certain things or if a certain person was the best person to be able to hold the reins of that storytelling, I think it could get more and more warped.
You work in journalism and media. There are agents that change and influence expression. Every narrative is crafted and everything you see is constructed. It’s presented to you like it’s not, but even things like a documentary. I feel like at every point there could be that the cacophony of voices may warp something or maybe even the intention won’t align with who I am and my taste either. It’s a really tricky territory.
It’s that paradox that I keep coming back to. It can both be deeply humanising, but it can also be entertainment and it can also be titillation and it can also be a spectacle. It just lies on what art is or what media is for people.
The dissemination of content and storytelling has evolved a lot over the years. It’s no longer just a Hollywood pipeline. Are you optimistic that that feeds into the concept of an empathy machine, where you can actually delve into an experience or a life experience that you would never have yourself?
I really hope so. I do feel optimistic about that. When something like Squid Game came out with no recognisable American star, there was huge discussion around how that was changing what gets funded or made, or programmed. Because the funding models of Hollywood are built on a star system. The actor brings in the funding.
It was fascinating to see how Netflix is democratising or changing media. It’s having a dialogue with its audiences now about what they want and what they value in a story. That being said, I think it’s still very complex. South Korea has an incredibly huge industry and huge resources and they’ve got their own stuff going on as well on that side.
But I do feel optimistic with how things are changing, but at the same time, I’m very cautious. Everyone has an agenda and I just can’t help but be nervous and be strategic moving forward. I think an underlying thing in this play, with the showrunner at the centre, is about how you navigate this industry. Something that I’m exploring in myself is how do I be strategic within these frameworks or how have I survived or how do I thrive in this clusterf**k?
Have you got a sense of what that navigation through the clusterf**k looks like? Have you thought about the next five years?
My God, I don’t know. Even right now with this play, I’m like, how much do I kick up a fuss or how much do I disrupt or be vocal about the disruption? Force the change I want to see, versus am I actually compromising by disrupting this?
My dreams are still in my teenage years. I want to make films and I want to tell stories. More recently I want to tell stories in the theatre, but I just feel like I’m still trying to survive. I still feel like I’m figuring it out and I feel like I need to be really smart about the next steps I take because that’s how I’ve gotten work up to this point in my life, I feel. Trying to be one step ahead.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given along the way?
It’s about being dogged, to be honest. It’s cheesy but it’s about never giving up. I’ve questioned a lot of the time why I’m trying to tell stories. I think it’s because I do really believe I couldn’t do anything else.
I think there’s something in me that refuses and maybe it’s my stubbornness, but I just never wanna give up because I couldn’t do anything else. I really couldn’t.
The advice I was given is just to keep going. Be dogged in what you want, be smart, just have ambition, just drive forward.
Nahyeon Lee’s The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom is showing at Q Theatre – Loft from 3 – 27 November 2022. Tickets are available from SiloTheatre.co.nz