Media profiles regularly characterise Anchuli Felicia King as a “tech artist”, but really it’s just that she’s 25. To say the playwright is “interested in tech” is like saying the sun is “interested” in helium, or that cuttlefish are “interested” in water. In the 21st century the digital world is the world. It’s a force that exerts its influence from both within and without, responding to our actions and shaping them. So, for a 21st-century artist, it’s natural to write about it.
“It’s interesting when people write about me as a ‘techie’,” she tells me, over a glitchy FaceTime connection. “Because I wonder what that’s pointing at, actually. It belies the anxiety that I think everybody feels about a technocracy. There’s a very real fear that something nebulous is happening out there, and there’s an emerging class of technocrats that people can’t understand and can’t engage with.”
That nebulous something is the subject of Golden Shield, a bold new production that’s currently on at Melbourne Theatre Company. Loosely based on genuine court cases in the United States, the play follows a class action launched on behalf of dissidents. A liberal-minded law firm decides to take on a multinational corporation which has collaborated with the People’s Republic of China in building “The Great Firewall”.
But, in King’s hands, what would typically be a story of a plucky young lawyer fighting the cruelty of a faceless state becomes something far more complicated. Golden Shield digs deep into the spurious motivations of these protagonists, exploring the potentially tragic consequences.
For instance, what are the lived consequences for an elderly professor of testifying against the PRC in a Texas courtroom? And how do Chinese officials – not to mention Chinese citizens – actually feel about the state of information management? The answers to these questions may seem obvious to one person, but will diverge either subtly or radically in different cultural contexts.
“One of the core questions of the play is how the West conceives of its moral superiority in relation to China,” King says. “[There’s] this weird Western stewardship, and American companies and law firms conceive of China and the Chinese government in this parochial way that turns out to be arguably more damaging than non-involvement.”
As mentioned, Golden Shield is partly based on a series of real court cases that have been tried in the States since 2006. But King wears the research lightly, integrating not only the legal drama but the Silicon Valley technobabble into something that’s comprehensible even to me.
King’s writing process often proceeds this way: she ravenously consumes international news and academic articles, digs down into the minutiae of a particular case or issue, and transforms the political into the personal. For King, it’s a process of metabolising something that’s been worrying at her – and her audience gets to watch that process as it happens.
“It’s hugely cathartic, the process of taking things I’m concerned about or ethical quandaries to which I don’t have easy solutions and staging them,” she says. “The issues in the plays – the ethics of online censorship, the lack of overreaching international law, and corporate governance in the tech industry – aren’t easily reducible issues, they’re big themes. Finding ways to explore and humanise them without adopting a moral stance, just asking questions about them – I think that’s what writing allows me to do.”
King has achieved a lot in her relatively short life: she completed a Bachelor of Arts with Honours at Melbourne University and moved on to a Master of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy at Columbia University, NYC. She’s worked with bleeding-edge multidisciplinary and experimental theatre groups such as Punchdrunk, 3-Legged Dog, Ars Nova, Red Bull Theater, and co-founded a new collective called NPG. Her first full-length play, White Pearl, was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Slaughterhouse is playing at Belvoir in October and White Pearl will get another run at the Sydney Theatre Company. She’s proficient in videography, VFX, 2D animation, projection design, asset creation, game design, computer-aided design drafting, composition, sound design and music production. She’s fluent in English, French and Thai. So, yeah.
I know it’s kinda rude, but I’m compelled to ask her how the hell she got this way?
“I don’t know, man,” she says, dismissively. “Moving around all the time? And being around fucking amazing people? I’ve been around lots of scientists and lawyers and academics and people that think about things very deeply. If that hadn’t been my experience growing up, then I definitely wouldn’t be the person that I am.”
There’s something about that shifting set of influences, the amorphous and interconnected flow of knowledge, that typifies King’s position. She’s willing to occupy multiple positions. “I try not to have a stable political position. I’m being exposed to things all the time that shift where I sit in terms of my moral philosophy and my politics,” she says. “I think part of being an empathetic person is not thinking you have all the answers and allowing yourself to move with the world as it’s changing.”
With Golden Shield, King attempts to stick the audience in just this unsettled position – somewhere difficult, somewhere uncertain. “I think the best thing I can do is to make space and ambiguity around the issues staged, and then my audience will think about them and come to their own conclusions,” she says.
The way she explains it, theatre is not an education. It’s elucidation – the act of making something light and clear. “I really fight the notion that art should be comfortable all the time, and that you should provide people with easily digestible messages,” King says. “You shouldn’t decide what your moral stance is and then spend a whole play just trying to communicate that one moral stance. That’s not what theatre is for.”
What theatre is for, though, remains an open question, and one I’m pretty sure King will continue to address. At present, she’s working on a commission from the American Shakespeare Center to respond to Othello with her own work Keene.
She’s also wrestling with a piece on fake news and misinformation. And she’s amped about getting her hands dirty with a genuinely digital work. “I see a lot of bad art in emerging technologies, a lot of bad art in AR [augmented reality] and VR, and I feel like the true political potential of those technologies is being misplaced or underused or misappropriated. And it’s a very white-male-dominated field,” she says. “I very much hope that working in those forms is in my future. Or video games – I’d love to work in video games. Someone hire me to write video games! I would love to write video games... ”
Golden Shield is on from August 12 to September 14. Get tickets here.
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the Melbourne Theatre Company.