Australian Amelia Roper on her life as an international playwright and her play, Hong Kong Dinosaur, coming to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in July.
Lately, I noticed, I have been writing plays about houses. Not kitchen sink dramas, necessarily. Naturalism is not my thing. The style and content vary but always some sort of house. And some sort of fight for the house. Because a house is rarely big enough for everybody.
I don’t have a house. I rent an apartment in Connecticut. Writing space is more important to me than a bedroom, so I have a wonderful office and sleep on a single bed in my closet. People think I’m mad. I love it. I spend months away. (Someone I have never met is living there now. She seems nice. I bought fire insurance.) I have boxes at my parent’s farm in Australia that I really should have labeled. Today I have a suitcase and I like my suitcase. Perhaps my suitcase is my house. I will live out of it for two and a half months this trip. It has clothes for four countries (summer and winter) and my computer. Perhaps my computer is my house. And actually I am quite happy. Traveling. Learning. I’m a citizen of the world! I don’t need to own a house! I thought I did, but enough of that. So why all the plays?
Do I miss Australia?
Do I miss my mum?
Do I want to settle down and have chickens?
No. Well yes. And maybe ducks. One day. But this goes way back. Before the traveling. Before America. Before applying to the Yale School of Drama because I liked the pretty pictures on the website. Hong Kong Dinosaur is my third house play. I started it in 2009, in Melbourne, as a response to the theatre I was seeing in my city and how white it was, how masculine, how conservative and overwhelmingly (though of course not entirely) boring. It seemed such a missed opportunity! We got enough of all that from our TV, news and government, didn’t we? People came to the theatre for something else, didn’t they? Why else would they leave more convenient locations, like, for example, their own house? Houses have plenty of movies these days and you can eat pizza. Oh, and also I wanted to write roles for my actor friends who were sick of playing foreign exchange students and prostitutes. I wanted a play that didn’t call Hello Kitty backpacks and pigtails multiculturalism. Not that I was seeing any of this on stage. It seemed even the advertisements on TV were more progressive than the theatre.
So where did this boring Australia come from, and why are we holding on to it? I had a look around, and I came up with some thoughts.
In Australia our soldiers are called ANZACs. It stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The First World War was the first time the ANZAC name was used, and the first time Australia participated on the world stage as its own country. We ditched the tight English dress uniform and designed our own based on practicality and comfort (of course we did) and a nation was born.
The image of a young white man in a distinctive slouch hat was an important part of my primary school education. ANZAC Day is even more popular today.
Now I’m not for a moment suggesting it shouldn’t be popular or shouldn’t be taught. Or even that it is boring (given the horror of it, that would just be rude). It’s the myth I want to examine. Because despite the shortage of troops and two (failed) attempts at introducing a compulsory draft, the Australian military required all soldiers to be of significant European decent. If the world was going to see what we were made of, it was going to be white and male. So what sort of nation was born exactly? And what sort do we celebrate in that iconic image?
It is a big play, this one. Big in the sense of scope and ideas and chaos. It jumps time periods and countries. Even the cast is big for me – six actors. Three men, three women. Three white actors, three Asian actors and a great range of ages and accents.
But at the very centre of it?
A little suburban house.
It is a house owned in the early twentieth century by a family of Irish immigrants, and in the early twenty-first century by a newly married couple, Sam & Zoe O’Lachlan. Sam has lived in the same sleepy suburb his whole life but Zoe, having recently given up the cultural capital of Hong Kong for daily cups of tea with her crackpot, somewhat racist mother-in-law, is less than impressed.
I’m excited to bring this play to California. As a play written for a very specific time and city it does seem to translate surprisingly well. Will Eno wasn’t surprised. He was my mentor last year for a workshop in New York City. I said something like “Do you think people will get it?” and he smiled and said something about me not being as smart as he thought I was (for even questioning it – this was his point). Now there is a writer who understands the universal importance of everyday things like houses.
I’ve never been on the west coast before. I’ve heard the food is good. Victoria and California have a similar gold rush history and as a result of that rush, similar migration patterns. (Which probably also explains the food. I’ve heard it is almost as good as Melbourne. Is this true?) California popped up regularly in my original Hong Kong research. I’ve also read accounts of Chinese gold diggers leaving Australia and heading for the USA in the hope of better treatment. I wonder if they found it.
On the Australian goldfields Chinese men were not allowed to bring their families. They were charged extra for land to dig and often sectioned off completely. They were frequently victims of beatings and murder and by the end of the 19th century, most had returned home. To China. Assuming China was home, after all those years. Australia had a preference for English and Irish migrants. A policy we would later call the White Australia Policy. Yes this was its official name and it stayed in place until the 1970s. Some will say it can still be found (unofficially) in Australia’s immigration laws today.
I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. It is hot in Hong Kong this time of year. Tropical hot. People move out of their apartments early in the morning and set up cardboard box cubicles under the relative cool of the many covered walkways. They bring computers and games and food and fans. The boxes are flattened and then sat on. Cardboard walls are built to delineate one’s area from one’s neighbours. There were some general rules. No setting up your box in the fancy shopping centre, or in the way of traffic. Stay in your own box. And keep your kids under control. It was not unlike an Australian beach in summer with our rows of small sun tents.
Hong Kong has a turbulent history and really it was the colonial connection that got me interested in the first place. It’s not China and it’s not England. And what will happen to Hong Kong when it is handed back to China in 2047? No one is entirely sure. And for those who own houses there? Owning anything in any country requires a few basics. For example, hoping another country doesn’t sail on in and take it. Luckily that’s never happened in my country.
But that was years ago, more than two hundred years. And my primary school was too busy teaching me about ANZACs. And then I grew up and learned that my ancestors stole. And I don’t mean the loaf of bread that got us deported as convicts. (Actually, to be honest, we’re quite proud of that.) I mean the land under our houses. What to do with that information?
And then there is the weather. And the earthquakes. And the floods and the fires. There are the millions of people around the world in refugee camps and offshore processing schemes (Australia, I love you, but you make me so sad sometimes). They don’t show us graphic images of people dying on TV, but they do show us houses being destroyed. And viewers around the world watch in horror, because we all know exactly what it means.
Living in Melbourne, the lucky ones, safe from all that, there was something else happening to my generation. Most of us grew up assuming we would own houses one day. Our parents did. Get married. Buy a house. Have children. All of us, gay or straight, still expected something a little like that. We would stay in the suburbs we liked – the shabby, cool, arty suburbs, and we would buy our own little place. Perhaps we would have to fix it up a bit, or move a little further out, but it would be ours. There would be vegetable gardens and chickens. Yes, we were mostly artists but not all of us, actually, and other jobs could always be found.
Wages are high in Australia.
Soon those little brick houses in our favourite shabby suburbs started selling for over a million dollars. Renters were also affected. Share houses doubled in price. Friends who wanted children stopped waiting until they owned houses. Many moved to country towns, which, by the way, are getting mighty pricey themselves. Others were lucky enough to have parents who could help them but the next generation of Aussie kids will learn a different lesson. Home ownership is no longer a given.
In Hong Kong Dinosaur, when Zoe learns that her husband has lied to her and (plot spoiler) her mother-in-law owns most of their house, she questions whether she will ever be happy in Australia. But is it the house or the lie that hurts the most? And does either matter when suddenly you find dinosaur bones in your backyard? A Diplodocus! The Prime Minister wants that Diplodocus. She wants to give it a patriotic name and put it on display. Sam & Zoe’s little house must be destroyed. For the good of the nation. Of course.
2010 and I am an international student in America. It is two years since the Global Financial Crisis and... well. You know this story better than I do. People are walking from their homes. The poor have never been safe in this country but now, suddenly, there are so many kinds of poor. I write She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange. A dark comedy about housing foreclosures in New England. Recently I did a workshop of this play in Moscow. Again I am surprised Russians care about Connecticut and again I am reminded of Will Eno’s wry smile.
Theatres make the best kind of houses.
It is easy to believe in everything but permanency in the theatre.
So come and see a play about a house. It’s called Hong Kong Dinosaur. It’s unlike any house play you’ve ever seen, but also kind of the same. It’s foreign, but you’ll still understand it. It’s on at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, directed by the brilliant Desdemona Chiang. The cast is astounding. The festival is a triumph of story telling in the middle of a mean, economically challenged world. And it runs under two hours. So if you have a house, it will probably still be there when you get back.
Hong Kong Dinosaur by Amelia Roper is part of the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. For more on this play and the others that are part of the festival, please visit playwrightsfoundation.org for more details.