Lindsey Huebner speaks to theatre critic and now playwright, Ava Wong Davies about being told to decide just one path, crying after scratch nights and how spilling her guts is the best ‘process’ right now.
It isn’t until I’ve ordered my coffee and unpacked an excessive amount of tech that I realise I’ve made a huge mistake. Bass-y club music pounds and blenders whir- perhaps too many decibels for 10am, and definitely too many decibels for the phone interview I am hoping to now conduct. As my phone starts to ring though, I decide the hubbub of Joe and the Juice will have to do.
Today, I am speaking to Ava Wong Davies about her debut piece i will still be whole (when you tip me in half) which plays at The Bunker this month. Describing her work, she tells me, “I am a general theatre writer. I write criticism – that’s how I really got going in the industry, and I also write plays.” Wong Davies’s criticism is poetic and punchy and has been published in The Stage and Exeunt among others. Some of my favourite quotations from her work with Exeunt are, “the plot has aged like milk,” and that a production, “fizzes and froths like a half-drunk bottle of Coke.” I am inspired by her approach to reviewing theatre. She says, “when writing criticism, it’s really important to give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be in the room. Theatre is meant to be a sensory experience and it’s my job to relate some of that to the reader.” In the early days of her career, Wong Davies says, “criticism never crossed my mind. I’d read a review and think ‘that’s wild, but I couldn’t do that.’ Now, I love being a critic so much, but there’s always been that thing quietly progressing in the background.”
With i will still be whole (when you rip me in half), Wong Davies turns her talent and obvious way with words toward playwriting, although this is not a new development. She tells me, “I always wanted to write plays. That was the first love. I did it at university, but criticism was my first proper professional debut, so it took the most focus. The transition between the two is not a massive jump. People say you have to do one or the other. Right now, I’m feeling quite comfortable doing both. I feel I don’t have to choose. There is less a divide than I expected there to be.”
i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) has had numerous incarnations. It was initially scratched at the Yard, as well as the Bunker, and Theatre Deli. A “more final version” (as she describes it) was presented at the Vaults this year. After this run, the team got a call from Chris Sonnex, Artistic Director of the Bunker, offering a longer run at the (unfortunately, soon to be closed) versatile London Bridge space.
The current plot of i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) chronicles the story of a mother and a daughter reuniting twenty-two years after the mother walked out. The first half, Wong Davies describes as, “lyrical and poetic, interlinking the parallels between these two characters,” whereas the second half “goes more into naturalism. The contrast to the first half is meant to be alarming. It’s exposing for the characters and the audience.”
The road to this particular version has been a long one. Wong Davies says she was initially writing about the experience of being mixed-race English/Chinese:
Wong Davies fully acknowledges the complexities of writing about the experience of people from a mixed-race background. “This stuff is so full of multiplicities. I personally don’t want to confine my piece or myself or my characters, but on the other hand, I think visibility can be the most important thing.” She recalls an early interaction after one of the scratches, with a woman who was also mixed-race. “She said she felt very seen by the piece and I just started crying.” Laughing, she continues, “It was a very excessive reaction, but that meant a lot.”
When speaking of the team behind i will still be whole (when you rip me in half), the adoration and respect for her collaborators emanates through the phone. Director Helen Morley has been on board since the first iteration. Of her, Wong Davies says, “She is very kind and patient. She’s handled me tearing up drafts throughout the process and has always been so supportive. The other core team member is producer Emily Davis, who Wong Davies describes as, “The engine in everything.” Of the whole team, she says, “They’re incredible – such a tight knit team. They’re so focused and really passionate about the piece. If it were not for them, we literally wouldn’t have a show.”
The job of writing can be a lonely one and requires discipline when it comes to staying productive and motivated. I ask about her process as a writer. “I am still figuring it out. I’m currently in the phase of trying stuff out and seeing what sticks. Generally, in terms of writing, I very rarely plan; I tend to splurge. Everything from the gut comes spilling out and then I have to go back and to shape it. I think there are more effective ways of doing it, but I’m discovering as I go.”
Admitting that after years of development, she tells me she is finally ready to let go of i will still be whole (when you rip me in half). “The piece is done – it’s gotta be, it’s being published. It’s been through a whole life cycle as a play and I’m ready to have my brain not occupied by it.”
“I’d never seen that on stage before. I wanted to write about that experience. What does it mean to be that? Over time though, it started to change, and became more embedded within the piece. I didn’t feel it necessary to talk about it as explicitly. There is place for all this stuff for sure, but it was important to me ‘the race thing’ was not on the skin of it. My raison d’être is not to overtly teach the audience something – that gives it to them too easy. For me, I think it’s still essential but less on the surface.” She describes the piece as like asking the question, “what is it like to need someone you’ve never known?” Although the aptness of this question is evident in the mother/daughter relationship central to the play, I can’t help but feel this statement applies to the visibility of mixed-race creatives in the industry. We need writers like Wong Davies in all their multiplicities, eloquence and doubt to continue to tell stories we didn’t know we were missing.
i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) plays from 12 – 23 November. For more information and to book tickets, visit The Bunker Theatre website.