Jordan Blake-Klein of Yellow Earth Theatre interviewed Pamela Carter about her new film, Duck Rabbit, a digital commission from CAN and Yellow Earth Theatre, launching on 14 October.
- What type of work do you create?
I work in performance, so I write for theatre, opera, dance and with visual artists as well. And I’m also a dramaturg, and recently I’ve been working with architectural practices as well as a dramaturg. My way into work is always from a spectator’s point of view, I’m really interested in the space-time event of performance.
- How did you become involved with CAN Digital Commissions and YET
I saw the call out for the application and the commission and like many theatre artists, I wasn’t doing much at the time. It chimed with something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, which is writing much more personally about my heritage. So, I thought I would try to articulate some ideas that have been floating about in my head. I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it so I was surprised and delighted to be given the commission.
- What was your biggest inspiration behind Duck/Rabbit?
Absolutely my family, my parents. I inherited their photographs when my father died in 1999, and my mother in 2018, and neither of them had spoken very much about their families. My mother in particular, who was from Singapore, and was Teochew Chinese. With her photographs I’ve been trying to piece together my past using only this visual information and threading together partial memories she shared with me, sometimes grudgingly I have to say. And so, I suppose i’m trying to make sense of my own heritage, in terms of my parents, and the generation before them as well: to try to understand your parents and what made them the way they were, you inevitably have to go back another generation.
- Was it a journey you took alone by looking the photos or did your parents help fill in the gaps before they passed?
I have a half-brother (we share a father), so my brother remembers slightly more things that my dad talked to him about. He told me stories as well but it was quite a long time ago and I didn’t probably listen in my teenage years and twenties as much as I should have done. And of course, you get to my age now and you kick yourself for not asking the right questions at the right time. So my dad was a little more forthcoming and there was my brother to consult. However we still don’t know much. I have this box of photographs, a lot of them form the early 20th century 1910, 1920, and we’ve no idea who a lot of these people are. Some of them look familiar you can see facial similarities, but we have really very little information about who they were as people and only rather my dad’s feelings about them. My mum was incredibly quiet about her background. She rarely spoke about her mother, and never showed me a photograph of her. I didn’t even know she owned one until after she died. So lots of it is a real mystery. My mother was 85 when she died and of course her generation won’t be with us for much longer. There are bits of information that come from my cousins in Singapore. And I met with a contemporary of my mum’s last year who lives in London, and who’s now 85 and she told me something about my grandmother that I’d never known which is she’s not Chinese, Han Chinese, but she was actually Peranakan (or nonya, another name for a woman of mixed Chinese/Malay heritage). It was a total revelation to me and actually made sense of certain things I’d experienced. In my 20s I worked in Jakarta, Indonesia and people would stop and point at me, but I didn’t know why. Then someone told me it might be because I was from a tribal group from the north. Apparently, they could recognise an ethnicity in my face that I never knew anything about.
- Can you explain the film’s title?
It’s from a very famous, recognisable ‘Bistable image’. It’s one single image that if you look at it, it looks like a duck then if you tilt it slightly it looks like a rabbit. You can’t hold both duck and rabbit in your head at the same time, you oscillate as a viewer between the two meanings within a single image. There are similarities here in how I feel about being mixed race.
- What other creatives are collaborating with you on this project and how did the become involved in the film?
Two very wonderful people. Christine 挺欢 Urquhart, who I’ve never actually met in person. She’s a theatre designer, who’s based in Glasgow who is half English, half Taiwanese. She contacted me earlier this year because she’d seen a piece of work, I had made for the RSC and the Lyceum in Edinburgh, which was my adaptation of a 17th Century Chinese opera. She contacted me out of the blue afterwards and we chatted and when I got the commission for this I immediately I thought she’d be great to work with on it. It’s a conversation we’ve had over zoom over the last few months and it’s been really great. As a theatre artist you’re always speculating, you can’t show anybody, ‘this is what it’s going to look like’. So that’s a very hard thing to communicate when you’ve got two different people with ideas running around in their brains and no clear evidence of what to show the other person. To find someone you can speculate with and find a way of communicating that means your both fi moving in a certain direction together is really exciting. So Christine’s been pretty fabulous.
My other collaborator is an old friend Nick Powell is the most amazing composer, sound designer, and musician. We met in 1997 because I joined his theatre company called ‘Suspect Culture’ and we’ve been friends and collaborators ever since. Very usefully he has a studio quite close to where I live. So this is another step in an ongoing conversation we started over 20 years ago. Because I’ve chosen to narrate the piece myself, which I’ve never done before, I was very nervous about it. But it felt like absolutely the right thing to do. There’s also something very nice about being with someone you know very well, who’s happy giving you notes, and who you can relax with. We recorded the voiceover and it was pretty good fun. And Nick’s ideas are brilliant and he’s a great musician. As I was writing it at first, I thought this was for an actor but the more I wrote the more personal it became. It made sense to voice the piece myself. Actually it felt like it would be an act of cowardice on my behalf to not to do it.
- How have you found staying creative during the pandemic?
Staying creative was quite hard. Whenever I’ve sat down to try and write something for theatre, what I’m immediately struck by is, because I write for the specifics of a space and a particular time, how I can’t imagine the space we can all meet in at the moment. And I can’t imagine who we might be in that space. Events around us are changing so radically. So I’ve avoided writing anything for theatre. There are a couple of projects that I’m trying to tease out with other people in different forms But I think it’s been really hard. I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of day dreaming. I’ve barely been able to watch any theatre online, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do it.
Although next week I’ll be going downstairs to my sofa to watch ‘To Be a machine’ by the amazing company Dead Centre at the Dublin Festival– that will be the first piece of theatre that I’ve actually sat down to watch since March.
- How would you describe the film?
Strange, Compelling, Beautiful, Melancholic
- Any difference in writing for performance vs for literature?
I don’t write prose, only the spoken word. So the cadence and rhythm of spoken language is a very different to that written for the page. Theatre is a visual medium and language is a material in it, one material of a few that you’re working with. Even though you’re putting words on a page, you’re still constructing relationships between people for a real time event and you’re still speculating what that physical space might be and your thinking about how language sounds or how it feels in the mouth.
- Tell us about how you found those amazing vintage photographs.
My mum kept the photographs with her and I’d always known about them and occasionally been able to sneak in and have a look. But she hated talking about her past, and always resisted any of my enquiries. When she died it was down to me to clear the house and I knew that I’d be bringing boxes of all these photographs home with me. And so over the last few months, I’ve had the time and space to start to work through them an try and piece a life together that I didn’t know much about. My dad had a lot of slides, mostly from his time in the Air Force. I remember him showing them to me when I was a kid and probably I found it really boring, seeing people I didn’t know, in an era I knew nothing about. When he died in ’99 I found this one tin box that must’ve belonged to his mother and inside photos she’d taken of other members of her family. From the first half of the 20th century. I’d looked at them after his death but I hadn’t really looked at them again properly until this year. I started to look at my mother and my father and compare their circumstances and see visually what the resonances might be. The experience of course is incredibly sad. You lose a parent, and probably after that, is the first time you’re able to think of them as individuals rather than as ‘my mum’, and ‘my dad’. That parent/child relationship is no longer extant and you realise they had their own hopes and fears and disappointments and loves and secrets that you’ll never know anything about. And you start to look at them with a little more compassion.
- There’s a phrase you used in your application an Indonesian phrase for Peranakan which translates as ‘Chinese not-Chinese’ can you explain the meaning of this?
There is a distinctive cultural group which is a combination of Chinese and Malay culture. So Chinese immigrants, often male traders leaving in the 14th Century and moving through Malaysia, Indonesia and that region and settling and marrying into the local Malay communities. And a distinct cultural group developing which combining the two cultures in a sense but keeping the Chinese dialect or language they spoke. My family are Teochew, so I’m guessing my mother’s mother, whilst Peranakan, would have spoken Teochew. But visually in photographs, she is an extraordinary looking woman. I’d heard about the Peranakan culture because when I was last in Singapore, I understood my family cooked Peranakan food. But it hadn’t occurred to me that this was why. I just loved this gorgeous food and brought back a Peranakan cook book without realising my mum had always cooked this food. It wasn’t until I heard from my mum’s friend that my grandmother was actually Peranakan that it all made sense to me. It was probably blindingly obviously but I just hadn’t made the connection at all.
So, as I start to research what Peranakan culture is and came across this really great Indonesian phrase ‘cina bukan cina’ which translates as ‘Chinese not-Chinese’. Which really resonated with me, being mixed-race. I was brought up in a white culture and I was brought up mainly by my white father. And so, the only other Chinese person that I knew really was my mum. But I would walk out in the street and of course in the 70s and 80s you would have people going ‘Oi Chink’, I would get racist abuse all the time. So alone you think, I speak English, I read English, just like everyone else. But suddenly in public you’re hyper-visible as something ‘other’. And so it’s that ambiguity I feel about identity and belonging that made the phrase feel apposite to me.
- History, Ancestry, and Identity are the key themes of this piece – was it your intention to create a piece around those themes or did it happen organically?
Originally, I had an idea where I would just use photographs from the 20th Century. I had two images of my grandmothers and I wondered whether I could thread together some impossible fictional life whereby both images would work in one woman’s story. I very quickly came to the conclusion that this would mean finding the rights for images that I didn’t own. Or using freely available stock images, which seemed quite boring to me. It then occurred that I had all these photos from my mum and dad I could use . And then of course when you start using family photographs it becomes incredibly personal. And I’d always had the sense that war and colonialism would be part of it because my father was in the air force and was stationed in Singapore, where he met my mother. The Japanese invaded in the early 40s and that was a traumatic event for the family. My father’s father served in the First World War for three years and was invalided out in 1918. He abandoned his wife and my dad when he was only a few years old. And so you’ve got to wonder if spending three years fighting in the first world war may have had some damage. So, waves of fracture and conflict run through the family. It’s a colonial history, of which I am absolutely a product. So, i’m trying to locate the personal experience within the public historical context.
- Do you have any future plans for the piece?
I’m always interested more in the process than the product. But I do feel this is the beginning of me digging into something that could go on for a little while yet. I think I might be at the beginning of a longer journey of finding form for some of these stories.
- Last words about the film
It’s about ambiguity and being able to sit with ambiguity and ambivalence without having to work it all out.