Feature: Yellow Face – a special relationship

What happens when a Brit (Lucy Fenton) and an American (Kevin Shen) with a passion for theatre and acting come together, decide to make theatre, and star in it? Well, apparently it becomes the beginning of a very special relationship. Bringing lesser-known plays from across the Atlantic and exploring – and attempting to rectify – the limited exposure for under-represented groups like women and ethnic minorities in theatre, the still brand new theatre company Special Relationships is starting out strong with its first play, Yellow Face.

Kevin Shen explains how the two halves of Special Relationships decided on this as their first play, and why it’s important to them. “Given that we are both in under-represented demographics, myself being east Asian and Lucy being female” – “a slight older female”, Fenton chips in – “we basically are looking for pieces that thematically touch on those things but also just give access to actors in those brackets, including ourselves.” And that doesn’t just mean creating work starring characters that are specifically from minority groups, it means being flexible and diverse with casting and actors. Even in this, their first production, Fenton and Shen have already managed to flip one originally male character to become female and (in a play with a remarkable 80 or so characters and an obviously substantially smaller cast) included a lot of cross-race casting. Their plan is to leave any role that doesn’t by necessity call for an actor of any particular race or group open to actors of any race or group.

Fenton and Shen are both self-described ‘second-career actors’, having worked in the world of business before pursuing their acting passions and meeting at a workshop in 2010. After a bit of producing on one project or another the pair decided it was time to head out on their own. “We decided to come together and start producing work for ourselves as actors, so we basically formed a company with the intention to produce Yellow Face and star in it,” says Shen, however pitching a play with two first-time actors and producers proved a tricky task. “When we were pitching it as both of us acting in it we were met with so scepticism,” Fenton adds, “that’s why we decided to one of us act and one of use produce it.” So as a result, Yellow Face is Shen’s acting vehicle with Fenton behind most of the production, and the two will switch roles for their next show – hopefully something more focused on a female perspective – making Fenton the lead stage role and giving Shen his turn to produce.

Even without the aforementioned scepticism, Special Relationships has had a bit of a difficult time pitching its debut. “Just pitching the play itself when it was a minority-based play, an east Asian-based play specifically, with that sort of content we were getting a bit of pushback from people saying they didn’t think there would be the audiences there to support it, that east Asians didn’t necessarily go to the theatre, that we wouldn’t find the people to fill the roles… That was a little bit annoying because our goal was to make the effort that other companies aren’t doing to find actors to fill the roles.” It’s almost ironic, given that Yellow Face is a play based on the story of a protest against a white actor cast in an Asian role. Shen and Fenton are reluctant to give much away about the show itself, but David Henry Hwang’s semi-autobiographical play deals with everything from racism to community, from ethnicity, identity and appearance to paranoid American government investigations.

As two people co-running a company, Shen and Fenton seem to have collaboration down to a fine skill, and they attribute the success to complementing skill sets. “I think it does take a while to find who you can work well with,” Fenton says. “You have to find the person who has the skills that you don’t have. For example, Kevin is extraordinary at networking and just getting in touch with people, and he knows everything about theatre – it’s just ridiculous! And I’m very good at organising…” Shen picks this moment to pitch in and confirm, “She’s much, much more detail orientated and able to actually interpret my ramblings into function… so we do complement each other very well. We get along very well, we have the same kind of goals and ideals, we’re both in similar places in our career… so it’s just been a really good fit and we’ve had a really good time.”

If they had to give out one piece of advice, gleaned from their experiences so far, Special Relationships’s tip would be to be passionate about what you’re doing. As  Shen puts it, “I think what been really important for us is if you want to produce something, even if it’s commercial, I think you have to be really passionate about what you want to do. If you’re trying to raise money for a project or pitch a project to people and you don’t believe in it 100% then there’s no way you’re going to get other people to believe in it.” Not to mention, you don’t want to spend years working on a project you’re only half in love with it, “you’re going to eat, drink and sleep it for a while… you have to be so passionate about something. It’s only until you find something you’re passionate that it’ll really happen.”

Yellow Face is at the NT Shed until 24 May. For more information and tickets, visit the NT’s website.