A couple of weeks ago I ‘moved’ to Wellington. I say ‘move’ because for the first little while it’ll be more of a commute: husband and kids are staying in Auckland while I shuttle back and forth, working at Hutt Hospital and birthing new plays after-hours. I’ll fly back on weekends to deliver frozen breastmilk and take over from my sleep-deprived partner. (And no don’t call me ‘supermum’ – I want to work and produce plays, I also want to breastfeed my son... so hurray for cheap flights, and yes I feel guilty about the carbon. Anyway if anyone deserves the ‘super’ title it is probably my husband who is doing the solo parent thing while I gad about in the glamorous life of a paediatrician slash playwright. *see next paragraph.)
Family and associated paraphernalia will only move South once both seasons of Under The Same Moon and its sister production, The Two Farting Sisters, are concluded. *For the next month, I’ll be living in a house with no furniture, using random plates sourced from the Salvos and sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the floor. Memories of my student, pre-children days!
While working in Wellington isn’t a new thing for me, claiming I’m a ‘Wellingtonian’ – albeit temporarily – is. There is a certain irony in claiming this title so soon after I arrive, not least because I’ve always been such a staunch Aucklander. But needs must…there is publicity to chase, and I’ve certainly gone heavy on the interviews in the last few weeks (I secretly enjoy this. Arts reporters are generally pretty nice.)
While this may be the first time I’ve ‘moved’ to Wellington, I’m not new to this city. Under The Same Moon and The Two Farting Sisters mark my third and fourth plays at BATS. I’ve also been popping in and out of town a lot – I’ve done a total of 9 months’ work at Hutt Hospital in the last two years. But still, I’m nervous bringing a new play here. The critics here are notoriously tough, and the audiences are hard to crack too – it’s a much smaller arts community, and I’m not as known here. There are also less family/friends to pressure into postering missions, or coming to see the show, and less shoulders to cry on when the reviews are bad, or worse completely do not get your work. On the other hand there’s a certain thrill in meeting other ‘makers and creatives’ – this city is full of them, they walk around with a certain 'cool factor' which I’d dearly like to find out the secret of. Also I’d like to find out the secret of why the average Wellingtonian dresses with more flair than an Aucklander. I always feel so unstylish when strolling the streets.
It's already halfway through January; since the last time I posted Christmas and New Year have been and gone and there's been an endless stream of envy-inducing summer holiday pics on Facebook. Not that I linger much on Facebook, except for work reasons of course (cough). I have a play to write. Through these long, sweltering dry-heat days I feel like I'm the only one still working. That's not really true, but I sometimes feel the isolation.
As I've been writing I've realised the play is actually about memories and how relationships change when the people you love are far away, geographically and emotionally. Some of this is about migrant families, the rest just about families. I've based quite a lot of it on the stories of my grandmothers - both remarkable in their own way. I've been wallowing in photo albums and thinking how my youth, (which I'd thought had had its rad moments) pales in comparison.
So here's a pic of one of my grandmothers, Grace Wong. I interviewed her about 20 years ago, when the good old cassette tape was still how you did such things, threw it in the top drawer of my student desk which was where I kept all the things I wanted to keep safe, and got on with my life. Luckily a few years ago when we transferred it to digital, it was still in pretty good nick. And amazingly, my Cantonese was OK enough to listen to the tapes and translate a little.
Grandma is still alive - she's 102 now - but you could say that she's not really living in the present any more. She always seems happy though, dancing in the twilight of times past. Before, my parents urged us to go back to Hong Kong whenever we could to see her; for decades now we've braced ourselves that each time might be the last, but Grandma's famous smile is still there each time we go back. It used to be that my arrival (I'm her first grandchild) would trigger something - a word or two, a hug, some particularly enthusiastic eating. But the last time I went back, with a new baby, I dived again and again into her eyes, looking for her, wanting her to know - and I wasn't sure if I managed to find her. Dementia is like that. It draws curtains over the people we love. And for those that we only see every few years, the change is sudden, not gradual.
One of life's unfairnesses is that quite often we only get to know the people we love in one phase of their life. I only remember my grandmother as an old lady. So it's with a mix of nostalgia and longing that I look at the trove of photos of her as a young woman. She was stylish and modern for her time; she was accepted for university and would have gone were it not for the war. There's a naughty spark in her eyes which most probably drew many men to her; she chose my Grandfather, a young doctor. He wasn't particularly good looking but there was an assertive air about him. One of my murky memories as a toddler is of how he commanded the dinner table with a wooden ruler. (Not for me, of course. I was his favourite, and I had inherited his bossiness, which my daughter has also inherited. My parents probably find this hilarious.)
My grandmother was a refugee at least three times in her life, and as a young mother endured the most terrible privations. Nearly everyone of her age whose story I have heard endured hardship, drama and near-death. Yet what's amazing about my Ma-ma's storytelling is that she tells her life with such a carefree air. There are sexy pilots, picnics under fruit trees and gossipy girly sessions in her narrative; she doesn't leave out the sad bits, but she doesn't dwell on them. Perhaps that's why she survived well into her eighties with her mind as sharp as a tack.
It's like starting a holiday. You spend all this time preparing, sending off paperwork, dreaming of how it will be... you worry about disasters or not having enough money or that your travelling companions will bail. And then, suddenly, you're on the plane. Travelling. In the air. To where...? Who knows.
Yes, the publication of a real live program has meant that we can now announce to the world that the play is coming (kind of like the end of the first trimester of pregnancy... but I'm mixing my metaphors, now.) I've spent the last few days doing a first social media push, and sending out notices to friendly newsletters. Also, scrubbing up this website into some semblance of presentability.
So. May we present one bright, shiny, new play. Halfway formed in the script, glistening in its caul, but through the membranes we can already see the fingers flexing, the mouth opening and closing. It seems like I've been writing funding applications and press releases forever without having enough time to spend on the actual script, but tomorrow I'm meeting up with Hweiling and Theresa for a first readthrough and it's both exciting and terrifying. I feel like I know this baby already - like all of my plays it's been slowly growing within me for years. The stories of my two grandmothers are precious to me. I'm going to have fun sharing them with the world.