Voices of craft and change
When news spread that Studio Ghibli’s beloved animation, My Neighbour Totoro, was set to be adapted for the stage at London’s Barbican, fans across all generations grinned as wide as the story’s giant, furry Catbus character. It’s the first time Studio Ghibli’s iconic story has been brought to the stage; ticket sales broke the Barbican’s box-office record in just one day.
Currently running until January 2023, actor and puppeteer Mei Mac is at the centre of this unique performance. Playing Mei Kusakabe who, with her sister Satsuki, escape the reality of their hospital-bound mother to explore the surrounding woodland, meeting enchanting creatures and cuddly forest spirits invisible to grown-ups. Featuring a script by the Royal Shakespeare Company and puppets by award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, Mei, along with the rest of the cast and crew, are bringing this magical, spiritual and joyous world into our own.
“We can’t just be performers and actors,” says Mac, speaking to actor and writer Cherrelle Skeete, “We have to be makers in our own right because, if we don’t do it, who else is going to put our voices out there?” Two makers addressing change through a commitment to their community: Skeete is the co-founder of Blacktress UK – a network and support group for Black woman actors – while Mac is a fundamental voice in the Rising Waves collective, helping and encouraging people of British East and South East heritage in the performing arts industry.
JACKET AND SKIRT BOTH BY ANDREAS KRONTHALER FOR VIVIENNE WESTWOOD FW22; RING IS MEI’S OWN
Cherrelle Skeete: This is so nice! Tell me about this little show you’re in!
Mei Mac: What is this thing I’m doing?! [laughs] I’ve just finished rehearsals in Stratford-upon Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Company for the stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro, which is the first stage adaptation of the Studio Ghibli animation. We’re doing it in collaboration with Ghibli which is really lovely, so we can get their input. My first ever job was also a Studio Ghibli adaptation, the first of Princess Mononoke, so I feel like I’ve bookended this decade of my career with Ghibli, which is just incredible. I’m a huge fan, instead of Disney, I grew up on Ghibli so my understanding of how I view the world and my imagination is so informed by those animations, their ethos and those really strong female characters. It’s been amazing, the process of rehearsals has been absolutely life-changing.
CS: That’s amazing. Just hearing how you connected the dots in terms of the beginning and this point in your career, you can see the similarities and how it connects to your younger self – it’s a full circle moment. I can’t wait to watch it, I’m really excited.
MM: You always encourage me to celebrate myself and my work. We came into this industry around the same time and everything you do and what you stand for inspires me. Tell me about what you’ve been up to.
CS: I did a new play by Roy Williams called The Fellowship directed by Paulette Randall, it was at Hampstead Theatre and we finished the show in July. We had a really good run, but there was a turn of events where I stepped into the lead role a few days before we started to preview. That was definitely unexpected. It was not part of the plan, I was quite happy to do my three scenes but the universe said, “You will not be sitting in the dressing room, you will not be leaving the stage!” [both laugh] Paulette harnesses such a caring environment, especially because the story is centred around a Jamaican-British family and the through line is very much about two sisters and generational trauma. Talking about the Windrush generation, then the Rebel generation that has come after. It’s about each generation blaming the generation before for not giving them tools because they were fighting racism and sexism, then each generation feeling as though they are not prepared.
The character I play is very much the next matriarch, so everyone is blaming her for a lot of their stuff and she’s completely of service to them. To the point where she hasn’t connected to her own identity and, by the end of the play, we realise that’s the journey she would take next. To tell such an important story meant Paulette was so kind, and there was so much kindness in the room, which meant when she did ask me to play this role it was a difficult but easy yes. I knew I was in safe hands and I would be provided with the support needed to be able to get where I needed to.
It was a very emotionally demanding role, but I feel really grateful to have been able to do it. A big thing for me has been imposter syndrome and the programming I told myself before, I’ve built my career on doing a lot of supporting roles, which I’ve absolutely loved and doing supportive work is amazing. You come on with a whole world, you impact the story then you leave. But what’s interesting about playing a lead role is being able to build momentum through a story. Because of the short time frame, I didn’t have time to be fearful, even though the fear was there. I didn’t have time to even doubt my abilities, it just went straight into intellect and will. I felt like I wanted to do it for the ancestors as well; the beauty of theatre is that we’re conjuring together.
MM: The thing that really struck me is we both inhabit these archetypes in our community so it doesn’t surprise me that, even though you had such a short amount of time to learn this huge role, it was something very natural to you because you are a matriarch. I think we both inhabit those spaces in our communities with the work we do, we are the aunties of our respective communities and we both really care about putting on stories from our communities and doing it authentically, doing it right and making a point about taking up space. It’s definitely something I learn from you daily, reminding myself to take that permission and I think we project that outwards into our communities with Blacktress and Rising Waves. The community work we do outside the room always feeds back into the work.
CS: It’s a holistic approach. I don’t know if you’ve found this, as much as you’re sharing and all the work you do with Rising Waves, you’re then having to remind yourself of the [advice] you’ve shared with others.
MM: Exactly, you have to internalise what you project outwards. As much as we’re like, “Yes, take up the space,” you have to remind yourself, “I also have to take up the space.” [laughs]
EARRING BY ANDREAS KRONTHALER FOR VIVIENNE WESTWOOD FW22
CS: That’s right. We must always challenge our own internalised racist, we also have to channel our own internalised misogynists. We have to have that conversation because of the way we’ve been socialised in this country. That dialogue, that quiet time, that conversation we have with ourselves has to be ongoing.
MM: I agree. For you to feel held by the creative team, for you to feel safe to go and step into that role is so powerful. It’s something I don’t think we see enough of, and I think after the pandemic we all agreed as an industry we need to “build back better,” whatever that looks like. Working with Phelim McDermott the director of My Neighbour Totoro, has absolutely changed my life. He has taught me so many things about how a space can become anti-hierarchical and for us, being women of the global majority, and queer women, I think often we feel that structurally we don’t have institutional power, because we’re stepping in as freelancers or we’re stepping in as marginalised people. Phelim’s process has been to break down the hierarchy in the rehearsal room and we’ve had an eight-week rehearsal period, every morning we do a check-in. It sounds very simple but it has fed the work so much because as soon as you step into the space every single person has an opportunity to speak, he asks “What’s alive in yourself?” It disregards the concept we’ve grown up within of leaving your shit at the door, because inherently that stuff is what makes us human.
We exist as artists because we are influenced by the things in our lives, and in the world, we don’t exist in a vacuum outside of stuff that affects us emotionally or psychologically. Him giving us permission to bring that stuff into the room has been transformative. Every morning we sit down, there are 22 of us in the company and everyone from the RSC or friends or family, anyone who is interested in the process is welcome to join us in the circle, and we check in. It means for anywhere between twenty minutes or sometimes an hour and twenty minutes, we practice the craft of serious active listening. Everyone’s story is given space, you’re giving your energy to listen to that person talk about what’s alive in them. When we finish that circle my whole heart is open, it makes me a better performer because I go into the rehearsal room and my active listening skills are turned on to the nth degree.
Everyone’s empathy skills have been turned to the highest degree because that’s what we’ve spent the morning doing and it makes us better artists because we’re caring about each other, we’re listening and we’re caring about our characters. I really hope people see that when they come to see the show, all the work we’ve done, not necessarily working on the scenes or the puppets or whatever, it’s the human work, and that’s ultimately the point of art – to grow empathy and find humanity. It’s a practice I’m going to take forward into the rest of my life and career but it’s something I want to spread throughout the industry, we make art because we’re connecting with our humanities and other people’s humanities. It’s not about making something spectacular, it’s about that collaboration, it’s about connection. It’s been totally life-changing, I’ve never felt so safe in my entire life working in a process like this. So when you say you felt safe and held to do something totally extraordinary, I feel like I’m also having a similar experience.
“We exist as artists because we are influenced by the things in our lives, and in the world, we don’t exist in a vacuum outside of stuff that affects us emotionally or psychologically.”
CS: Wow, that’s amazing. Those were the conversations we were starting to have within Blacktress, especially over the pandemic. As artists, asking the question of how can we be kind? How can we bring care back into the rehearsal room? We realised so many people did not feel cared for. At the beginning, when all the theatres were closed, people being furloughed, and people losing their jobs was all really unfortunate, but in terms of the theatres going dark, I actually thought it was a good thing. I saw it as something positive, a time for us to really decide and decipher how we can be moving forward in an industry I hope can be more inclusive and kinder.
Not in a sense that feels really soft, but in a sense that feels revolutionary, to be able to love through art even when you’re telling such harrowing stories. We spoke a lot about representing Black trauma on stage and, as actors, how we do that, of course, affects the process. So, do we have drama therapists in the room? That affects budgeting and things like that, bringing in a new pedagogy in terms of how we choose to work, which is ultimately going to affect the finished product of the performance, the experiences and also the career paths. What I love about theatre and art as a whole is we are bringing in so many different life experiences, so many different people and everyone has something to offer. With a juicy eight-week rehearsal process, or if it’s a two or three-week process, there is time to be able to have conversations that can be life-changing and revolutionary.
I’m so happy to hear this show, which is going to be a huge ground-breaking production, is having a process like that because it could be the total opposite, especially something that is so huge and has such a following already. I’m so happy for you. Having a holistic care approach to the work just makes us all better people, it makes the work better. How can we tell stories where we’re trying to connect to humanity and we’re not doing it for ourselves in the rehearsal my joys and pains I’m pouring into the work I need to have access to. The fact that from the get-go you walk into that space and everyone’s voice is heard is so simple but it’s so powerful. It’s really great.
MM: That often is the case, the things that feel very simple can have such a huge effect. In any marginalised community, especially when you’re displaying trauma on stage, you forget the other side of that is the healing and the joy. My friend Don says the most amazing thing which I feel you’ll really appreciate, he says, “Often we talk about intergenerational trauma but the thing we forget to talk about, which is born out of intergenerational trauma, is intergenerational resilience.”It’s something I see a lot in you as well because you are such a resilient human as well as an artist, and the work you do with Blacktress is about building that community and therefore building resilience. Knowing your worth and then knowing how to ask for what you need in a space to make great art is a really powerful thing. I want to hear more about Blacktress!
CS: I was going to say the same about you, I want to know more about the work you’ve been doing with Rising Waves.
MM: Rising Waves was born out of the pandemic because those people who were self-employed for three years or under weren’t eligible for the government SEISS [Self-Employment Income Support Scheme]. Statistically, early career artists are the most diverse across every spectrum including race, sexuality, disability, and gender. When that sector gets to its mid-career, the diversity drops off a cliff because if you don’t have inherited wealth, how on earth are you going to sustain yourself in this industry? It’s nearly impossible unless you’ve lucked out. We were terrified we were going to experience a brain drain because we’ve seen this incredible influx of phenomenal East and South East Asian talent and if we don’t protect those artists now, we can’t secure their futures.
Rising Waves was in response to the pandemic to try and get those artists securely into their mid-career, but rather than just providing financial support it was about holistic support. So we pair emerging artists with established artists and we provide training for both, just because you’re an established artist doesn’t make you a mentor, so we trained them to be mentors, we trained mentees to be good mentees and make use of their time with us. We offered programmes, workshops, talks and networking opportunities, it was all very practical and hands-on, which is what we intended but what was born out of it is the shift in culture. To change the conversation from a competition culture into a collaboration culture. So often, with anyone who is marginalised in the world and therefore in the industry, it feels like you’re fighting each other for those roles. There isn’t enough work out there, we feel like we’re fighting over the scraps, but it doesn’t have to be like that. We’re forgetting about the bigger picture – encouraging the concept of skill sharing within the community to change the conversation, so we’re supporting each other rather than fighting each other.
There isn’t a huge amount of fighting anyway, it just changes the way we make art and the way this community can empower itself. Our motto is; “Together we rise.” It’s called Rising Waves because our acronym BESEA which stands for British East and South East Asians, has the word ‘sea’ in it, so you think of water and you think of healing, cleansing, and the power of the sea. It’s like a new wave of talent rising together, that’s the concept behind it and it’s been the thing that gets me up out of bed every day. It’s about making that cultural shift and hoping the rest of the industry wants to share it with us. Blacktress is something that inspired us when we were talking about programmes that feel like they have made culture shifts. Tell me all about Blacktress.
DRESS BY LOUIS VUITTON FW22; BELT BY MIU MIU FW22
CS: We’ve actually been on a kind of hiatus after lockdown because there is a re-focusing that has to happen. The landscape has definitely changed since we first came out, first of all just to call ourselves ‘Blacktress’ was revolutionary at the time, and I was prepared to get backlash from that knowing I was creating a space specifically for a particular type of demographic. But I knew there was a lot of healing which I think is really important, similar to what you’re saying in terms of process. First of all, you have to meet the people as the people who are the artist, and the way you create a full-rounded artist is to support the person.
So it came out of many conversations surrounding this feeling of isolation, feeling as though if you did get the audition or the job you were the only one in the room, cultural things meant you didn’t feel like you could be your whole self in certain spaces, you couldn’t speak a certain way, you were only able to celebrate certain aspects of yourself and the other stuff you had to leave outside. It felt really splintering, disenfranchised and isolating, so I was like, “How am I having these conversations in so many different spaces?” There are so many Black actors at different points in their careers, so the whole point was then to bring it together in a space to be intergenerational. To have conversations with people who have been trailblazers like Sharon D. Clarke or Angela Wynter and people who were just starting out in their first year of drama school.
It was great to bring those people together, to be able to share that wealth of experience. Some of those people who have been in their career for a very long time still have not been celebrated and have been doing this for maybe 20 or 30 years, but haven’t been recognised in the same way their white counterparts have been. It was also about knowing that the people who are very experienced were not necessarily visible or feeling celebrated. Those who were first starting out didn’t have access to community or support. Not knowing where to go, they’re asking the same questions people have already solved ten years ago.
Knowing all of these generations is really important to be able to feedback to one another. We had this thing called ‘A Seat at the Table’ so we went to a Black-owned restaurant and we had dinner, it was literally breaking bread where there is food and we’re able to have conversations. Then we moved on to Spark Workshops, which again made us realise there weren’t many Black women in leadership across our industry so it was about skill-sharing. For example, Hazel Holder would come and lead a voice workshop where we got to speak about language, and the variety of languages we had in the room and then also talk about how we’d use our voice within our communities and families. There’s an outward-facing part of Blacktress where we do fundraisers to support charities such as the Sickle Cell Society.
We had a screening of Black Panther at Peckhamplex to raise money and again we were bringing people in the community together. We also did an event for International Women’s Day raising money for Women’s Aid, it was about inviting the public to come and listen and share. We’ve also got a thing called the Sage Club as well, we do a lot of collaborations with theatres. For example, at the National Theatre we had Myah Jeffers, an award-winning photographer take portraits of the elder community. It was for people who were 60 or above to come along and they got a discounted ticket to watch Small Island with their chaperone. It was great having the younger generation bring out the older generation and the older generation being the focal point. They had their portraits taken, they had a VIP area in the National Theatre and it was great because a lot of them got to watch part of their story on the stage. It’s about us working with theatres, getting out in the community targeting different areas and also letting Blacktresses know what it means to connect with your community.
I could go on but we’re in a state of regrouping because the landscape has changed over the past five years and we want to make sure we’re serving the community in the best way possible. So we’ve got our thinking hats on at the moment, part of being a grassroots project is that we are self-funded so we’ve also got to get our money together and we’re a small group so it means we have to make sure we’re striking when the iron is hot in terms of making sure we’re moving the conversation forward. That’s the crux of it, I always think there is so much power, as you said, in working together as a community. As I’m listening to you I’m like, “I wonder how we can collaborate!” [laughs]
MM: I was literally just thinking the same thing.
“My first ever job was also a Studio Ghibli adaptation, the first of Princess Mononoke, so I feel like I’ve bookended this decade of my career with Ghibli, which is just incredible”
CS: Wouldn’t it be great to do a Sage Club with some Black and Asian elders where we’re bringing them to the theatre or doing something where there is food involved? Wherever there is food I just think great things happen. [both laugh]
MM: I agree, where there is food the Blasians will come.
CS: I would be so happy to do a Blasian activity together, that would be amazing. Watch this space!
MM: We would set things alight. It would be fire. I’m so struck by what you said about seeing the past and honouring it, but also moving forwards, that is part of what healing is. We can’t stay in trauma, because it’s painful and we need to be able to heal through it, but you can’t heal through it until you’ve looked at it properly. It’s a long community process but that empowerment means the communities we are working with feel permission to make art. That’s the work I’m most interested in seeing, for me great art is authentic or when it is looking back to the past but also pushing forwards – it has that holistic element to it. It’s about work that feels relevant, when you’re looking at a re-staging of something, I think the questions we’re both asking are, “What are you saying? What are you bringing to the table that is new?” This means when I leave the cinema or finish watching a show I’m thinking about something, and I’ve been provoked emotionally, and psychologically. I think we have to be constantly inspired, otherwise it’s harder and harder to move forwards. You’ve really inspired me in this conversation, my brain is ticking thinking about what we can work on together as matriarchs of these communities.
CS: Even just a social because I didn’t realise the power of bringing people together, especially us being isolated for such a long time. It’s so nourishing, that’s why we love theatre. I want to ask you a question, have you got a dream role or a type of role you want to play that you haven’t played yet?
MM: That’s a really good question. It’s been asked of me a lot and I’ve always had similar answers but now my answer has changed. Now in my career, I’m more interested in new work, I’m more interested in work that comes from a voice I haven’t heard before. I enjoy political theatre, but I enjoy work that doesn’t feel overtly political, you’re watching something and empathising but what you leave with by accident is a philosophical or a political undertone. I still want to play a Juliet or a Lady Macbeth but I want to see new work, I want to see writers from communities I haven’t heard enough from before on mainstream stages. I, Joan at The Globe is the show I’m most excited to see next, I workshopped that over Christmas before it went into production and it felt radical. It felt like the people in the room, including Michelle Terry were like, “Let’s disrupt this space.” This space has been an institution for so long and I, Joan is bringing ideas and breaking form. That is the work I want to be part of, with kindness and with empathy: disruptive. It gives us a chance to shake things up and rebuild. If I was going to play Lady Macbeth in the future I would want it to be set in a world that feels revolutionary, to feel like it’s saying something you’ve never heard before, that will make you think. The conversations around great art continue outside art. When you watch a show or a film, you want that conversation to exist outside the moment you have watched it. You want it to keep inspiring and conjuring new thoughts. What about you?
DRESS, BRA AND UNDERWEAR ALL BY MIU MIU FW22
CS: I’m very excited about The Woman King coming out, I’ve always wanted to play a warrior or soldier role, something that is physically demanding. Something that physically would be a challenge and there is training that has to go with it. Whilst I’ve got my body I want to use it, so I definitely would love to do something like that. There are so many untouched stories about diasporic people like Black Victorians and hearing their voices, I’m interested in those stories being told. There are so many Victorian paintings where you’ll see a little Black child, a servant, or a musician and I want to know what happened to them. I always think with British history there is a rewriting of it that seems to be quite pretty and we know the global majority of people have been in this country for a very long time, people have been travelling back and forth for a very long time, and I’m interested in those stories.
We learned about Henry VIII and all his wives but there were also other people who weren’t white who were existing and flourishing around that time. Maybe we could go back and look at those stories, celebrate those people, specifically within the Caribbean community. Not everyone came over in the Windrush, there were so many stories happening, and there were so many grass-roots organisations happening and doing some dangerous things. It would be great to see an Ocean’s Eleven set in Victorian England! I feel like there is so much to be looked at in terms of what was happening on this soil and the different ways of people resisting I find really interesting. Storytelling is a great way to mark that, I would love to be part of telling their story. It’s got to be written for us to play it, so whoever reads this if you’ve got ideas, write it!
MM: People like Shonda Rhimes and the world of Bridgerton, people say it’s fantasy fiction but it’s not actually fantasised in Regency Era, your history has just been whitewashed. There are parts that are obviously fantasy and it’s light-hearted but it comes from a place of reality. When you see marble statues, I forget they may be white now but they were painted and they were probably painted brown. Reimagining and remembering historical figures that we’ve accidentally whitewashed over the years, forgotten figures of the past can empower us because they’ve already done it. Sometimes it can feel like we’re at the forefront of something and it feels like we’re constantly pushing, but remembering it’s been done before is equally as empowering.
Taking that blueprint and working out our blueprint now, translating it into art so it can be spread to a mass audience. It’s as simple as the power of representation, seeing someone who looks like you doing something empowering and then as complicated as working out the intricacies of how to make a room safe, how we affect policy making, and how art gets spread to the masses but also informing government and informing the way we’re ruled. Both things need to exist side by side otherwise we don’t cover all bases. What you said about white counterparts and titans of our industry having done this for 30 or 40 years and not getting recognition is so true. This glass ceiling that exists for women – we have an equivalent in the South East Asian community called the bamboo ceiling.
CS: I’ve never heard of that.
MM: We call it the bamboo ceiling because there’s the glass ceiling that exists for women but then there is the ceiling that exists for women of the global majority, it’s specific for Black women, it’s specific for South East Asian women in that our struggles are different and harder in varying degrees. It’s a sad thing for me. With My Neighbour Totoro, we have a company of veteran performers, everyone is at the top of their game and it is incredible. It’s almost everyone’s RSC debut because there haven’t been this many Asians working at the RSC before. I love the RSC and they have been really responsive to us and wanting to learn from us on how to change the institution, I feel so privileged to be part of that conversation and of that change, but I do feel sad about it, I feel sad that it’s taken this long. It’s about smashing through that bamboo ceiling, and taking the elders with us.
CS: Definitely. It makes me sad and it makes me angry, but I always think there’s a place for anger because it can be a catalyst for change. We have to be hard on the issue and kind to the people. They are also very privileged to have you there, and yes, we acknowledge our privilege, but you’re fucking good at what you do. I think sometimes we can go around feeling like we’re grateful but, over the pandemic, people awoke to the things they had within themselves. In some spaces now there is a mad rush, an awakening that has happened, for change. So they are very privileged to have you guys there and I hope you say what needs to be done and hold them to account. I’m interested to see what will come out of this conversation.
MM: I’m also thinking about how we can bring Blacktress into the conversation so it is genuinely holistic and it’s about changing ethos in the industry as a whole rather than paying lip service or tokenism. That’s how we make long-lasting change. I think this conversation has inspired collaboration between Rising Waves and Blacktress.
CS: Definitely. We spoke about intention, because ultimately making sure you are clear with your intention is how you’ll attract the right people to the project you’re doing. You’ll find your tribe with that intention. I went to drama school, I come from a Caribbean working-class background in Birmingham and my way into working was doing a lot of grass-roots projects. I was definitely a funding baby, there were quite a lot of funding projects at the time I was a part of, that was a gateway into getting drama school. A lot of that funding has gone now, so I know I’m very fortunate and privileged to have benefitted from that, then to have gone to drama school and been exposed to the culture of this industry. That was my way through, then getting my agent through a showcase and working after that, but I’ve always been an artist before everything. I was always developing and creating my own work, collaborating with friends. What about you? How did you get into the industry?
MM: Very similarly to you and I love that you’re a theatre-maker, and a maker in general. I was so gutted I missed your season at the Almeida Theatre because it was so incredible to see freelance artists, especially ones like yourself. We’ve known each other for ages and I’ve followed your career but the curated work everyone was invited to do in a space like the Almeida was so powerful. I often find artists of the global majority are all those things, we can’t just be performers and actors, we have to be makers in our own right because if we don’t do it, who else is going to put our voices out there? There aren’t enough of us being given platforms to do so, and you’re right, the internet is changing that for sure, but it’s a different beast.
My route was very similar, also a funding baby same as you, and I couldn’t afford drama school at the beginning because I also come from a working-class immigrant family. I had to hustle my way up, I started working in the Fringe, I worked for a theatre company and then I had my first agent. I made work because there wasn’t enough work out there for me, so I had to make work to invite agents to come see it, then I climbed the ladder from there. But we’re both from Birmingham and I can’t think for the life of me how we met but when we did we were like, “Yeah, Brummies!” We had quite a similar background and a really similar life and work ethos. I think we really connected over that. We came up in the same year too, ten or eleven years ago. I remember thinking, “This woman is incredible.” Even at the beginning, I knew you were a powerhouse and I really connected with you over that, we were drawn together in that way.
Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual.
My Neighbour Totoro is currently running at Barbican until 21st January.