A fishy tale makes a fishy play

Bubblelands by Renee Lliang
The Basement, Auckland
August 25-29, 7 pm

BATS, Wellington
October 13-17, 6.30 pm

Various people over the centuries have trotted out the phrase “you are what you eat.” It sounds profound and meaningful but ultimately doesn’t mean much.

Despite that, playwright Renee Liang has written a new play for which the phrase “you are what they eat” would be more appropriate.

The premise is simple: in the fish tank of a Chinese restaurant, a Blue Cod waits. She doesn’t remember how she got there, or what she was doing before. But the arrival of a big, bold and beautiful Crayfish starts to jog her out of her haze. Soon, one of them will be ‘chosen’ and neither can wait.

It’s the classic odd couple set up, with a dash of potential cannibalism thrown in – not to mention the hungry diners looking in through the glass. Liang sees this as a chance to explore ideas about what and why we choose to eat and what our choices might mean.

She also touches on ideas such as humane treatment of fish and the effect of climate change on New Zealand’s marine population.

“Theatre’s a great medium for exploring serious questions, but in a non-threatening way. You can sit back and enjoy the fun, but maybe you’ll have an unintended ‘takeaway’,” she says.

“The play was inspired by a collision of experiences: I saw Gary Henderson's existential masterpiece, An Unseasonable Fall of Snow, in Wellington last year. Then this year I saw Prehistoria, a clowning piece in which actors play cavemen and dinosaurs.

Somehow that, combined with my childhood experiences watching fish in Chinese restaurants, and I started dreaming about a crayfish and blue cod who meet in a fish tank while waiting to be 'chosen'.”

She says the play is not merely making about Asians and food but rather is “more an exploration of hope, death and – of course – sex. In my research I found that fish have very weird sexual habits, and I couldn't resist mentioning them.”

Ms Liang adds “I love how this is a play that ‘just happens’ to be made by Asians. It proves that we don’t have to stick to expected themes like family or racism.”

Actor Benjamin Teh chimes in: “But we do talk about food. Without the MSG, of course.”

For this whimsical physical comedy she is using actors Hweiling Ow (Two Fish n a Scoop, Under The Same Moon) and Benjamin Teh (The First Asian AB, Passion In Paradise).

“Hweiling and Ben are great friends, so I can really push the boundaries and have them do crazy things in a confined public space,” Liang explains. The two make the perfect odd couple, playing an uptight fish with religious hang-ups versus a hip-hop loving crayfish.

“You know what’s weird? Trying to work out how to move,” says Teh, who will have twelve appendages to manage on his costume and his hands encased in foam claws, and who breakdances during his performance.

Sarah Burren, who has worked on events ranging from educational children’s shows to the Rugby World Cup, is making and designing the costumes.

“They’re more like wearable puppets. They have to reference the real animal, yet be easy to move around in and durable enough to last through rehearsal and the two seasons,” she says.

There are also some extra design features – such as squirting eyes – which appear in Liang’s script.

“I’m loving the challenge!” director Amanda Grace Leo is keen to explore the possibilities of Liang’s script, which dips into absurdism while exploring some of the big issues of our time – like inter-species attraction.

“I now know more than I need to about sexual habits of fish,” Leo says.

Aiding her in the rehearsal room is clowning guru and 2015 Billy T Comedy Award winner, Hamish Parkinson. Veteran director Beth Kayes and playwright Gary Henderson are also mentoring. The play is being jointly produced by Omphalos Co and A+ Productions. There is also a Boosted campaign running.

"We're hoping to get funding for the production of a very clever, quirky, fun show,” says Joselyn Khor, co-producer.

“We’d love for Asians and other minority groups to get a chance to play roles that aren't stereotyped. It'd be incredible if people donated to our Boosted campaign, showing support for great theatre, where Asians break out of the mould… to play fish.”