When acting gigs dried up for Lucy, she embarked on a career in research. But, years later, an offhand remark gave her the opportunity to write and star in her own one-woman show, paving the way for her to emerge as a writer.
Tell us a little about your background…
I am a foundling from Hong Kong, China. I was abandoned at birth, in Kowloon, on a public stairwell; it was known as being “abandoned in order to be found.” I was found by the local police and taken to the Fanling Babies Home. I was pre-term, covered from head to foot in boils, and suffering from extreme malnutrition.
After the standard six months at the orphanage, waiting to see if anyone would claim me or respond to newspaper and radio ads, I was then eligible to be put up for adoption. Given that in Hong Kong it was an offense to abandon a minor, it was highly unlikely that anyone would claim me. The general state of poverty for the indigenous population I have no doubt also contributed to my blood relatives not coming forward.
Because I was found in Kowloon, an urban area of the city, it was assumed that I was the offspring of a Hong Kong local. But I could equally have been the offspring of a mainland Chinese immigrant or a refugee. I will never know exactly where I am from; all I know is that I am East Asian and that my mother loved me enough to leave me on that stairwell in the hope that I would be found and put into a better life.
I don’t think that my mother envisaged that my new life would take me away from my country of birth, but it did. In 1963, at 11 months old, I was flown to the UK where I was presented to my new family. I was picked up from the airport like you would a package from the post office!
My new home was very English, in the heart of conservative Southeast England. From a very early age, I knew I was different, the kind of difference that made people stare; I was probably the first live Chinese person these white middle-class conservatives had ever seen. I was the outsider, the foreigner to be feared. Don’t forget this was the era of the cold war, the UK of the Nottinghill race riots. Notices such as “No Black, Irish, or Dogs” could still be seen hanging in windows that advertised flats for rent.
I was academically average—I didn’t know it at the time but I am dyslexic—but was good at music, art, and, despite my diminutive size, running and jumping.
In those days, less than 5% of the school population in the UK went on to higher education: The school doors closed and the factory doors opened. The small number of youths who were gifted or had a special aptitude started apprenticeships or went to technical or teacher training colleges, art or drama schools.
I had attended a special high school, where I’d studied Stage Design, film studies, music, and drama. As a result, I elected to audition for drama school and was the first female British East Asian to be accepted and graduate from a recognized adult drama school in the UK, Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama.
My first professional job was the lead role in a British feature film, Ping Pong, released in the UK in 1986 (US in 1987), directed by Po Ch’h Leong. I had met my husband, an actor/director/writer, while we were doing a theatre show together in 1990 called Drink The Mercury. I was actually playing his daughter! It was a play about the Japanese Minamata mercury victims. My performance in the show led to a nomination for a TMA (Theatre Managers Association Award).
I worked steadily for several years—in TV, film, radio, commercials, and lots of theatres—until 1992 when acting work started to dry up. Initially, it didn’t matter because I had a newborn daughter, and my husband and I had decided that I’d stay at home and be a mum for a while, at least until she started school at age six. Then I went to work for a research company as a telephone interviewer in order to help pay for our rent and expenses. I turned up on time, I made the calls, I was polite, and I could take instructions. It was not long before I was promoted four times, all the way to senior project manager. Before I knew it, seven years had passed.
However, with the financial crash of 2008, I was laid off from my job, along with so many others.
What is your next act?
I am a playwright. In 2010, I wrote and performed my first one-woman play, There Are Two Perfectly Good Me’s: One Dead, The Other Unborn, at The New Diorama Fringe Theatre in London.
My play is about being a transracial adoptee and growing up in the pre-multicultural ‘60s UK. It draws heavily from my own personal experiences as well as those of other transracial adoptees. It ran for four days and was very well attended.
I had thought my play would be received politely; when you do Fringe Theatre (Off Broadway), you’re often playing to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. But my show drew a real audience, with many people I did not know, including quite a few from the East Asian community. While critics don’t review short runs, the verbal and written feedback I got was very supportive. I’d opened up a window to another world that many people had not come across or thought too much about.
Thanks to this play, I now realize that I can write and that people will actually pay to see a performance-focused on East Asian themes and people.
What do I love about what I do? There is nothing quite like being on stage. Every performance is different, yet it has to be “the same”—you can’t go around suddenly changing the staging as that can throw your fellow actors off track. Acting is all about collaboration, communication, and creating an entire world that you invite the audience into. Your skill is keeping your audience engaged and fully immersed in the world you’ve created. You can feel that living connection to an auditorium full of sentient beings, and how your words and your artistic choices are affecting them. When you get it “right,” the silence that you can induce, the palpable frisson when you scare or make people cry, is just amazing—then the moment is gone. It becomes a memory, whereas, with film or TV, it’s there for all to see forever.
Similarly, writing for the stage is creating a world that is lifted off the page and shared with both actors and audiences. Getting that right, there is also nothing quite like it. I am constantly trying to challenge myself with the subjects, the themes, and the characters. I’m always looking for out-of-the-box situations, for the slightly off-center view, which is me through and through.
How did you go from being out of work to performing a solo show?
After being laid off in 2008, I assumed I’d continue in the 9-to-5 type of work, so I set out to find a tolerable job that would help keep a roof over my family’s head and food on the table. But jobs were scarce due to the recession, even more so for someone like me who’d been in middle to senior management and was well over 40. I was considered by many unemployable, not because I Iacked transferable skills, but because I had too much experience and therefore was too expensive to hire—employers could hire three first-time jobbers for the price they would have to pay me.
There was a point, during the eighteen months that I was registered as unemployed and claiming government benefits, that I felt totally useless as if I’d been thrown in the rubbish dump. It was very depressing and I did actually think that I might never find paid employment again.
But in 2010, now in my early 50s, a friend put me forward for a new stage play, Hungry Ghosts, by Tim Luscombe. I auditioned on the last day and was offered the job, after 15 years without any stage work. I played the lead female role of Pin-de, a Chinese dissident and the love interest of the lead male character, a British racecar driver.
My performance in Hungry Ghosts earned me a nomination for an OFFIE (Off West End Theatre Award) for best performance by an actress in a play. A new chapter well and truly opened up. I was cast in Plenty, one of the plays in the retrospective season of David Hare’s work, the following year, and then again as the mother in the award-winning play 73a. This last play was produced by the True Heart Theatre Company and directed by co-Artistic Director Wing Hong Li, who was very proactive in trying to raise the visibility of East Asian artists in the UK.
One day, in June 2011, I suggested to Wing, in passing, that it would be great to have a program of solo theatre shows from female writers of East Asian heritage—I knew several actresses who had already written solo theatre pieces. When Wing announced, a week later, that we were doing a small program in November where three East Asian female actors/writers would perform their one-woman shows, including mine, my jaw fell to the floor.
Problem was, I hadn’t actually prepared a one-woman show. So I wrote my first solo theatre show in less than three months, then performed it, along with two other solo shows, at The New Diorama Fringe Theatre in London.
The publicity described the show and its three performances as follows: “Three British women, whose lives have been deeply influenced by challenges of bi-cultural identity East and West, created performances which revealed their stories. Entertaining as well as moving, these stories have something to say to everyone in multicultural Britain. Every show also created an opportunity for a conversation with the audience, so that curiosity could be satisfied, resonances shared, and cultural differences negotiated.”
How did you follow up on this success?
With this newfound confidence, I then wrote a short play, Waiting, and entered it for REDFest 2012, a well-known new writers’ competition.
Waiting is about an older pensioner in a nursing home and a new nurse who isn’t all that she appears to be. The fact the pensioner is East Asian and the nurse is of African/Caribbean heritage was apparently unusual but it didn’t seem so to me. Maybe that’s because in my world I have friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from all backgrounds and racial heritages. I just don’t think about it. While we may talk about issues that involve race, heritage, and identity, and it can get heated at times, we respect one another as human beings.
While my play didn’t win the competition, it got pretty far and I was again surprised at the level of interest. And, strangely enough, I got a part in an Italian feature film out of it, with Luca Barbareschi’s return to film as a director, writer, and actor in Something Good: The Mercury Factor (2013).
What challenges have you encountered?
The biggest (and ongoing) challenges for me are race/ethnicity, age, and gender. Writing for the theatre made me realize that yes, I can write—and I’m not too shabby at it. But it’s been a double-edged sword in that there are so few British East Asian writers in the UK and even fewer who are female. Most creative gatekeepers are white, middle-class, male, and Oxbridge educated. They have no understanding of my experience as a dual-heritage British woman of color.
My world is full of complications, interlocking issues, grey areas, abuse, discrimination, racism, prejudice, challenges, setbacks, and endless obstacles. I cannot change the color of my skin. I cannot (at the moment) stop the ingrained structural and institutional prejudices from kicking in when I am seen. That’s the way of the world.
I’m like a bad joke: I’m an actor of color, I’m female, and I’m over fifty. Unless (no disrespect) you’re Dame Judi Dench or Helen Mirren, getting acting roles as a woman over 35 is hell, even if you look younger like I do. It is really difficult to find substantial roles.
So my answer is to create my own work and create work for others like me. I hope my work will help open a discussion about dual heritage, about being British, and what that means in a post-colonial, multicultural, and poly-ethnic British society.
Are there times when you think about giving up?
I often think about giving up. In some sense, it’s always in the back of my mind: At my age, shouldn’t I be thinking about retirement and not worrying about where my next paid job is going to come from?
I guess I just refuse to be kept out of a profession I trained for and I refuse not to be allowed to participate in the arts. I’m British and should have equal access. I have just as much right to be employed in the theatre as the next person and I’m just not willing to give up and roll over because my skin color is not the right shade of white or because I don’t fit someone’s stereotypical ideal of what an East Asian should be according to Eurocentric bias and prejudice.
I know that I am just as good as the next comparable white actress but I don’t have equal access to opportunities. My hope is that other minorities like me will push for change so that things will get easier for the next generation of artists.
My family and friends have kept me going; they’ve always been immensely supportive. My husband, Patrick Miller, is an actor/director too and our daughter, Sophie Miller-Sheen is just getting into the acting world as well.
Friends have always been great supporters and have been my biggest fans; unlike me at times, they have never ever lost faith in me.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife or for those interested in pursuing the arts?
You only get one life. While we may come across opportunities, we can be very good at talking ourselves out of things. So I’d say go for it. What have you got to lose? If you don’t try, you’ll never know and there will always be that doubt in the back of your mind.
You should only go into the arts if it’s something that you really cannot live without. It must be your passion, your life. If you’re looking for fame and fortune, forget it. I mean it. Even now, with all the “reality TV,” it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and being famous just because you’re in the media is not the “free lunch” that many think it is. It’s a hard, sometimes cruel and uncompromising, life choice.
But if you really cannot see your life and career path going anywhere else, it will work out, eventually. Just know that it’s not a way to get rich. It does happen, but that is the exception to the rule.
If you have not trained to be an actor or dancer or writer or whatever, then I do strongly advise that you seek out some professional training. These are crafts, and you’re never done learning. You must continue to add skills and experience to your art, which in turn makes you (hopefully) better and better.
What resources do you recommend?
Feel free to drop me a line via my website and ask away. I will always endeavor to respond to any questions about writing, acting, training, etc.
Books about acting:
Voice and the Actor by Cicely Berry
An Actor’s Handbook: An Alphabetical Arrangement of Concise Statements on Aspects of Acting, Reissue of first edition by Constantin Stanislavski and Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood
An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
Directions Indirections: John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company by Michael Greenwald
From Word To Play: A Textual Handbook for Actors and Directors by Cicely Berry
Books about writing:
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
Essential playwrights to read:
I recommend: William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov, Arthur Miller, Athol Fugard, Bertolt Brecht, Yasmina Reza, Samuel Beckett, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Sam Shepherd, and Oscar Wilde.
Basically, you need to read and watch as much as your time and wallet will allow. And don’t just stick to theatre, film and TV; check out poetry, performance art, and exhibitions—anything “artistic.” Go see the avant-garde shows, the playwrights you’ve never heard of with actors that you’ve never seen on TV or film; you might be pleasantly surprised (or not). Art is subjective; don’t confuse supporting the arts with having to agree with or like everything that you see.
Inside the Actors Studio: Take a browse on YouTube through those interviews.
What’s next for you?
I recently completed a small writing commission for a famous London Theatre, The Royal Court. I was one of four British East Asian writers asked to write a short play that challenged the preconceptions and stereotypical portrayals of East Asians. My play, Restrain Your Grief and Adapt to the Mishap, was a piece about a British East Asian couple who’d been married for a while and what happens when that partnership suddenly ends—when there is no more time to argue, to speak, to love.
I remember sitting there in the semi-dark theatre, watching the actors rehearse my words, bringing to life the emotions and all the hidden nuances of my piece, giving breath to my thoughts I thought, this is amazing.
So I hope I will do more writing and more acting.
I’m currently working on three new theatre pieces: two full-length stage plays and a second solo theatre piece.
Sh¯ofu,Wianbu,Pi is a play about a group of surviving Japanese comfort women, the women who found themselves working as sex slaves for the Japanese army during WWII. I’m developing this work with the support of Papergang Theatre Company and also the mentoring eye of the Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang. In fact, I’m really nervous about sending the piece to David for the first time!
The Silence of Chung Sing Loo is a play about a Magician and what must be one of the greatest illusions of the modern era.
And Ungrateful-A Paper Daughter is refined, less self indulgent, more eloquent and poetic, a reboot of my solo play, There Are Two Perfectly Good Me’s: One Dead, The Other Unborn. I’m developing it with the help of a writing bursary from Nimble Fish (a creative arts company) and their performer/writers development initiative called Re:Play.
Then there is my debut documentary, Abandoned Adopted Here. It’s been selected for the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival, the Wire Festival, the Dyslexic Festival of Culture (I’m dyslexic), and the Open Nest Annual Adoption Conference, which is fittingly being held at The Foundling Museum in London.
I’m also a contributing writer and digital artist to the #FlipTheScript anthology being released by AN-YA. It aims to question the idea of adoption as a stereotypically positive, benevolent, charitable act. The reality is that it’s not always “and they lived happily ever after” because we’re talking about real life and real human beings.
And finally I’m pushing another play towards full production. Conversations With My Unknown Mother explores the adoption triad of mother, birth mother, and adoptee; it’s about the relationship between mothers and daughters, about the idea of blood being thicker than water; it’s about identity being you (whatever that may be); and it’s about all those conversations you wish you could have had and never did and can’t have because of death. But what if you could?
I do feel that we are on the cusp of change, or at least the possibility of change, attitudinal change, in the UK with regard to how British East Asians are viewed—not just within the arts but in our society as a whole. That has to happen because no matter how much lip service is given to greater diversity and equality in the arts and media for British East Asians unless we have the writers to back this up then nothing really will change. In order to be included, we have to have the material and the writers who can create that inclusion, so we can elevate it from the page and see it through a camera lens or in the flesh on stage.
Contact Lucy Sheen by sending her a message via her website contact form. Or message her on Facebook or Twitter.
Twitter: @LucySheen and @ActorWriterTRA
Founding member of The British East Asian Artist
Amazon Author: My nom de plume is Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen, in honor of the name given to me at the orphanage, before being given a Western name once I’d come over to the UK.
Please check out this short film featuring an amazing array of British East Asian acting talent. I’m super proud to be included.