Screenwriter and essayist Michelle Law is well known for offering a searing, sometimes crude, always hilarious take on often-serious topics. Law has written about bodily obsessions for Daily Life, shitty selfies for the Sydney Morning Herald and co-authored a book with brother Benjamin titled Sh-t Asian Mothers Say. She has contributed to numerous journals and books, and storylined for comedy television.
For the past three years Law has been working on her debut play, Single Asian Female, which opens at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre on February 11. It’s a work with a primarily female and Asian-Australian cast, bringing some much-needed diversity of perspective and experience to the Australian theatre scene.
The play is called Single Asian Female, so it obviously deals with issues of identity – what were you trying to explore?
Well from the start it’s already presenting you with these really overt labels. And I wanted the characters to show you how deeply these labels can be subverted. At its heart it’s a story about family, but it’s also very deeply about what it means to be a woman and Asian and single in Australia at this time. Those sorts of narratives are often co-opted by other people, and you often don’t get to see an authentic portrayal of that experience.
I’ve never seen a play that has connected to my experience in terms of race and identity. I always go to theatre and I’m watching the other people in the audience and feeling quite envious because they’re like, “Oh, I really empathise with that,” or, “Oh, that’s happened to me,” and I’ve never really felt like that.
When there was the first full reading of it this guy came, and I’m not sure what exactly his background was, but he was Middle Eastern, and he said, “I’ve never been to the theatre before but I came to your reading because I saw an ad for it and thought it looked interesting, and I really loved it.”
I want it to be beyond the story, and be something that makes people feel welcome. Especially people who wouldn’t usually go to the theatre because they feel like the stories don’t apply to them.
Is much of the story based on your real life?
A lot of people think it’s autobiographical … which might be because my face in on the poster! But it’s not. Obviously, in everything you do you have your own experiences and people and relationship infused in there. Tammy [Law, Michelle’s sister, whose photography accompanies this story] came to one of the readings and said, “Oh, I see some of you in all the characters.” But it’s a fictional story.
People might primarily know you as an essayist and non-fiction writer. What motivated you to write a whole play?
I started in 2014 when I did a workshop called Lotus, which was an initiative between Playwriting Australian and CAAP [Contemporary Asian-Australian Playwrights]. They put on this series of workshops to develop the voices of Asian-Australian playwrights – I don’t know if I would have had the initiative to do it if that hadn’t come up. I applied, got into the first round, and then went through all the subsequent rounds where you can develop a full-length work.
It’s different from anything I’ve ever done. There are really no rules. Obviously in all writing there’s basic story rules, but with playwriting it’s kind of “anything goes” in terms of how you structure and present it. It’s not like screenwriting where you have a prescribed format and software to use. So I had to learn how to do stage directions and infuse subtext into the story from scratch. I really like writing dialogue, too, so that also drew me to playwriting.
Is it hard to make a purposefully “funny” piece of writing? And translate that onto the stage?
It comes naturally. I’m used to the need for light and shade in work because a lot of what I have to say is quite serious. And the people who inspire me [tend to not be] serious people, but they’ve had a lot of serious stuff happen to them, yet they’re still so funny. So those voices are always embedded in my brain while I write.
What’s it like as a writer seeing people performing your work?
I’ve been to rehearsals and they were doing such an amazing job. It’s such a privilege when you get to work with really talented actors like I have. They make your work sound better! Especially when you hear something that you thought would fall flat and then they bring life to it. Or something that you thought was funny and then you find out it’s not.
I had a big part in picking the actors, with Claire [director Claire Christian] and I’ve really enjoyed the whole process. Once the play is actually done and you sit in on rehearsals you realise, “Oh, I made this”. It’s really surreal. I think it’s different to other mediums. In screenwriting you finish the script, hand it to the director and off it goes, but with playwriting – everyone calls it the writer’s medium, because it’s your vision right there, what you’re trying to say. And I’ve never felt that before.
Single Asian Female will play at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre from Saturday February 11 until Saturday March 4