BWW Interview: Artistic Director Kumiko Mendl Talks 25 Years of Yellow Earth Theatre
In 1995, Yellow Earth Theatre was formed by five British East Asian (BEA) actors: Kwong Loke, Kumiko Mendl, Veronica Needa, David KS Tse and Tom Wu - aiming to develop work that would give BEA actors more choice of roles, and to bring together Western drama school training with exploration of East Asian cultural heritage. Mendl became Artistic Director in 2011, and the company is now celebrating 25 years.
What was the first piece of theatre you saw that really inspired you?
The first one I recall really inspiring me was a production by the Moving Picture Mime Show. It featured the three founders: Toby Sedgwick (War Horse), Paul Filipiak and David Gaines (who taught me later at the Jacques Lecoq school). I saw the possibility of telling stories with very few words, gestures that spoke volumes, language being no barrier, and an accessibility that I really treasured.
What was your route into the industry?
I auditioned for a student production at university, a political piece about Nicaragua. The show was a three-hour epic in which I played Nancy Reagan, the dictator Somoza and a Sandanista. We decided to tour it after graduation, auditioned for actors and I then realised I can do this - I can be a 'professional' actor.
I took classes at City Lit - the adult learning centre - and one of my teachers, Lorna Marshall, had been to the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris (she also worked with Yoshi Oida of the Peter Brook company, another reason for me to go to France). She and others encouraged me to go, so I applied and ended up training there for two years.
Tell us about the formation of Yellow Earth: why it felt like the right time to found the company and what you were hoping to address
After Lecoq and a spell in Scotland, I came back to London and answered an ad in The Stage for a movement director needed for a play based on a Japanese Kyogen (comic plays that accompany the serious Noh plays). This was my first encounter with a group of British East Asian actors. There I met David Tse.
He told me about a play he had written for the children's theatre Polka Theatre and asked me to come and audition. The five of us who were cast in it ended up forming Yellow Earth. David had been thinking about forming a company for a while - partly as we were all fed up with the very few opportunities on offer for BEA actors, and rather than waiting for the phone to ring, we wanted to make work for ourselves and for others like ourselves.
We were keen to explore what it meant to be a British East Asian actor and creative. We wanted to look at ways of combining East Asian and Western forms of storytelling, as well stories that we wanted to share, stories from our unique perspectives.
Congratulations on 25 years! What are you most proud of achieving during that time, and what's been the biggest challenge?
Thank you - I'm really proud we are still alive and kicking! It's never easy running a company, especially one that has a remit to tour, so you are always reliant on venues that have really been struggling over these past 10 years.
I think the biggest challenge that has turned into my proudest achievement was when we lost all our core funding just as I took over as the Artistic Director! I was determined to keep the company going. We had to rethink how we worked and operated, but it has resulted in a company with broader shoulders and deeper roots and I'm pleased to say that after eight years, we are now a National Portfolio Organisation.
How do you think the industry more widely has progressed in the past 25 years? And what change would you like to see in the next 25 years?
When we first began, it was the beginning of the Blair Government and we were fortunate to catch the upswing in terms of resources, understanding and real support for the arts from top down. That has all begun to erode and the austerity years kicked in, with local authorities in particular being decimated and leading to major cuts to the arts all across the country.
You could probably say it's been swings and roundabouts - but in the past few years there really has been a change with young women, people of colour, D/deaf and disabled artists, LGBTQ+ communities and those from working-class backgrounds all standing together and demanding a place at the table. We are no longer able to swallow the daily microaggressions, the racism, the inequalities in our society.
I would like to see more leaders in the arts who look like us and have the power to effect change, so we can come to the theatre and experience the myriad of stories we have to tell from a myriad of viewpoints and perspectives not yet heard or seen.
Post COVID-19, it's going to be a very different landscape for everyone - too early to predict, but for the arts it will have opened up new avenues into the digital space. I hope that borders will remain open, that we will all think and act more globally, be kind to one another and fully turn our attention to the climate crisis as individuals, a nation and a united world.
Are there any current artists who particularly inspire you?
What Tobi Kyeremateng began with the Black Ticket Club, enabling black people to access theatre for the first time with a discounted/free ticket offer has been inspiring and led to Moi Tran, Jane Chan and Lan Le setting up a similar scheme, EATC (East Asian Ticket Club) for East Asians.
As an Artistic Director, Indhu Rubasingham has transformed the Kiln Theatre and the work put on there, and Madani Younis equally did an incredible job during his tenure at the Bush and reached out to the community on his doorstep, making the work and supporting the artists that spoke to contemporary London.
This is obviously an incredibly tough time for the industry - what's the impact on a company like Yellow Earth?
As a touring company with no building, we are reliant on all the venues across the UK and beyond, and so if for whatever reason they go under as a result of COVID-19, we can't stage our work - or at least not in the form and way we originally intended it to be seen. Our next production, The Apology by Kyo Choi, is scheduled for the end of the year at the Arcola Theatre, so we're hoping it will be able to go ahead, but everything is so uncertain at the moment.
I am really concerned for all the freelance artists we work with. Not only have they lost their livelihoods, but the amount of racism and xenophobia our artists and people of East Asian appearance have experienced as a result of this virus has been truly shocking and very upsetting. This needs to be addressed and recognised. To this end, we are setting up a fundraising page to help the wellbeing of BEA artists in need.
Do you think the Government and Arts Council are doing enough to support theatre? If not, what more you like to see happen?
The Arts Council have been incredibly good and swift to respond, sending out messages of support and dealing with the impact on the industry as fast as they can. The new package announced on 24 March helps many of us and is very welcome, but I also know it's extremely difficult for independent artists and freelancers in the industry.
The Government's announcement for a COVID relief package for the self-employed is very good news but won't happen until June, which leaves some people relying on Universal Credit and others unable to claim anything due to their visa status, even though they live and work here.
How can theatre fans help support you during this difficult time?
Support our fundraiser - and continue to be lovers of theatre! Be ready to return to theatres when this is over, because this industry needs live performances and live audiences.
Finally, to leave us on a cheery note - can you share a memory from your time with Yellow Earth that makes you smile?
One of my all-time favourite shows with Yellow Earth was Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis Potter, directed by David Glass in 1999, where we spent a rehearsal shaving our heads (it makes me smile now!).
Giving each other number one haircuts signalled our commitment to the world we were creating on stage and our commitment to each other as a company. It makes me smile to think of the puzzlement and misunderstanding it brought to those who couldn't understand why these actors could inhabit this play - now, this looks much more like the new normal.
Photo credit: Robert Workman, Robert Day