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Artist Vera Chok "threw aside financially rewarding career moves" for Soho Theatre’s The Paper Man, a show about white male fragility

Theatremaker Vera Chok says she felt jealous when she observed a group of men from different backgrounds playing football in a park. “They spoke different languages, had different accents, ranged from old to young, looked like they had money or didn't: when do non-men get to do this?” she asked.

With a 1930s footballer, humiliated by the Nazis, as historical context around fascism, this play is actually about modern day inclusion, and will surprise with its fluid form and structure.

Chok, the self-admitted provocateur, is putting on a show about “another” white man, when their representation is still overwhelming minority voices in London. “The world seems worried about the rise of the right, the return of fascism, so on a very basic level, The Paper Man is a show asking why we need another show platforming a white man,” she said.

Expect a “piss-takey” approach directed using Open Space Technology, a method for organising people creatively, which removes from the autonomous approach to theatre-making.

Vera tells us more, below...

Adam Bloodworth: The Paper Man is all about football. What’s your own personal connection to the beautiful game?

Vera Chok: 1. Early last year, I was sat in a scrappy park somewhere unfamiliar in London, waiting to meet a pal. I noticed some guys kicking a ball about, getting into kit, greeting each other, preparing to start a game of football. More guys turned up. No one really seemed to really know each other. They spoke different languages or had different accents, they ranged from old to young, looked like they had money or didn't - a really mixed bunch. I guess it was some sort of regular five-a-side thing where people just show up and play. They looked happy and held by the familiarity of the game, and I felt a little jealous. When do non-men get to do this, no questions asked, and where?

2. I grew up in Malaysia. I had strict, protective parents and I wasn't allowed to walk down my street to the shop, let alone take myself to the various open spaces near my house. I was a little jealous of my male cousins who got to pop out to play football and basketball with their neighbours while I was kept "safe" in controlled spaces.

3. When we were making the first version of The Paper Man, one of the three white, middle aged men who had been hired to direct us (three non-men), asked us to share what we were passionate about, to bring something to the process and story that was equivalent to Lee Simpson's passion for football. It occurred to us that we didn't have anything equivalent because we spend far too much time and energy fighting for space, fighting to be seen and heard, fighting against marginalisation, fighting against the loudness of systemic opposition to be able to dream and lose ourselves in something like football. Sounds a bit extreme, right? But I think there has been quite a lot of work around the emotional labour women (and marginalised folk) bear, and how that is a huge drain on power. I'm not saying Lee has had a cushy life. That's the thing about privilege - if you have privilege it doesn't mean that you're a terrible person or that you haven't worked for what you've got. Privilege exists because of the flawed system we live in.

Adam: Your play The Paper Man sounds contemporary in form and structure. What makes the 1930s football history theme so useful to convey ideas about modern politics?

Vera: How people can ever be in a space together if they are different, if they have different beliefs? I have learned a huge deal via making and performing The Paper Man.

Lee Simpson, a white, middle aged man with power (as co-artistic director of Improbable) hiring us to help him make his show is an example of power in action. He wanted to tell the Sindelar football story and specifically looked for a 'diverse' cast to, I imagine, diversify the people Improbable usually work with, to bring our take on the story into the room and to contribute our 'diverse' experiences and different points of view. This in itself is indicative of modern politics, isn't it, in the sense that we need to acknowledge that the starting point is white, heteronormative, and privileged. The world seems worried about the rise of the right, the return of fascism, so on a very basic level, The Paper Man is a show asking why we need another show platforming a white man (Sindelar or Lee Simpson).

Adam: Do you think theatre today is still too heavily reliant on white men?

Vera: Let's look at what that means. So there are white men in power, say, in theatre and many other places. If blue parrots were in power, do we need to get them completely out of the space immediately?  What if this means systems fall apart and all parrots get crushed? Should the powerful blue parrots bring in other coloured parrots and train them to take over? This might just perpetuate the blue parrot way of doing things. In making the show, Lee gave us space and tried to silence or erase himself but that didn't work because whether or not he was on stage, we only existed as a group because of him, and so his absence took up even more space, left us a little in the shit AND made him very sad and he wasn't able to use his skill and power to make a difference in the world. Tanuja Amarasuriya has come in as director to this recent iteration of The Paper Man with wisdom, kindness, courage, strength, and an astounding understanding of power dynamics. Follow her, hire her, read what she's got to say. Also, this UCL Women TEDx talk by Jules Orcullo on decolonising your self is one of my go-tos. Everyone, in particular people in power who are thinking about "diversity", should have a proper think about the Ladder of Participation. Here are a couple of terms which are no longer helpful - diversity and colour blind casting. Diversity normalises whiteness, read more about that here and colour-blindness leads to erasure. Look up colour conscious casting instead.

Adam: The Paper Man has been commended for rethinking the relationship between director and actor. Was encouraging this discourse one of your original aims?

Vera: I am grateful to Improbable for having introduced me to Open Space Technology, a way of encouraging freedom of expression and discourse, and for running regular nationwide and international events, Devoted and Disgruntled sessions, which empower makers. Here's an article written by co-artistic director Phelim McDermott about how he thinks Open Space is shaping the future of the arts. "Director" has been a tricky role in our process. I am incredibly relieved that we are now working with the exceptional brain and heart that is director and artist Tanuja Amarasuriya. She came on board in January 2019, re-rehearsed and re-made The Paper Man with our change of cast (a whole other interesting, painful, and illuminating story about power dynamics, idealism, and "real-world" pressures) but did not use Open Space Technology as a whole.

Lee Simpson was initially our director but we encouraged him to be on stage, and we had attempted to co-create the show. We did make a beautiful and amazing show, but it is the problem with any non-hierarchical system is how to keep people safe within an inherently hierarchical world? The answer lies in open and honest communication, which 'real-world' systems (e.g. programmers, venues, marketing, and anyone with deadlines) don't always have time for. Open Space Technology relies on a mediator but in a world of non-parity how do we prepare to hold that role?

Adam: Alongside the weighty themes of gender and fascism, the play sounds like a visual spectacular. Will audiences be laughing as well as crying?

Vera: Absolutely! A visual and sonic dance party! Yes! It is precisely because it looks at serious things that it is as anarchic and funny as it is. We might all implode or cry in a corner, or jump off a cliff if we didn't make something so glittery, piss-takey, and naughty.

Jess Mabel Jones is a visual extraordinaire and she, with Steve Tiplady, and Colin Grenfell, have created some super images using light and shadow. Adrienne Quartley who started off as our sound designer but who is now on stage performing with us, smashes up sonic expectations and explodes what it means to "have a voice". There is so much life - joy and despair - in the shape of dancing around and throwing shapes with our various, funny bodies! We are highly skilled improvisers, funny people, clowns, comedians and we are disgustingly, belly-achingly honest and let you laugh at and along with us. But back to the visuals, I've never seen such beautiful and funny images made deliberately out of "shit" materials, a metaphor for life, innit? CHECK OUT ANYTHING made by performer artist Jess Mabel Jones.

Adam: The show's been on tour. Is that the best way to make theatre reach new audiences that might not have previously known about the medium?

Vera: Firstly, I love live performances and community gatherings: music gigs, live art, storytelling. There is something about the power of connecting with others in a shared space. I am not so sure I believe in the importance of "traditional theatre" so I'm not specifically interested in imposing that on audiences in some missionary outreach kind of way. But yes, physically going out to reach people who can't reach you is a great thing if you believe in what you've made and want to share it. I am uncomfortable about the model of programming and touring for the sake of it, the snobby bringing "culture" to the provinces attitude, but am hugely interested in sharing. Adrienne Quartly, co-artist on The Paper Man, pointed out that companies and trailblazers like Dawn Walton at Eclipse employ enablers to go out and reach relevant audiences and support artists in what they actually need, as opposed to guessing and deciding what people need. Jess Mabel Jones works with Hijinx Theatre, which builds work from, and not around, disabled performers. It was wonderful to bring The Paper Man to Graz in Austria, where audiences who usually dislike text-heavy shows loved our meld of entertaining, powerful text and imagery.

Adam: Can you run us through how your funding grant went for the show, so others can be inspired to apply for funding themselves?

Vera: My advice to those looking for Arts Council funding, from personal experience of running a small company, saltpeter, and being a producing artist myself, is to invest time into speaking with the Arts Council advisors, attend their funding workshops if you can afford to, approach other makers and form some sort of sharing community where you can read each others' applications and garner support in kind. Basically, don't be shy about asking for advice and help but do your research and be respectful - don't just mass mail people if you don't know and love their work.

Provocatively, I'd challenge you to watch the UCL Women TEDx talk by Jules Orcullo mentioned above and have a think about the spaces and audience you might find joy in. Do you actually need the kind of funding you think you need? How can we disrupt the system and not get stuck chasing the carrot?

Adam: Another of your passions is destigmatizing the discourse around sex: would you like to turn this subject into a show?

Vera: Yes, I'd love to connect with more people, not just about being sex critical (a useful phrase from relationship and sexperts Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock) but about anything I care about. I don't tend to think in terms of single projects e.g. one show about sex, but in terms of how I live on a day to day basis and who I connect with. A chat with my postman might fulfil my need to share but I know, I know, they're just ONE audience member but doesn't that make a difference in the world?

On the other hand, I would like to reach huge numbers of people via the internet and digital telly. Popular culture is a powerful vehicle for social change. I love communicating the things I care about to people, and via comedy sneakiness, I love irritating them into finding out more for themselves!

I have ongoing conversations with some of my best friends and makers to see how I can support makers I admire during the times I am not "making" myself, although staying alive and being me is my way of making. A line from The Paper Man, written by Anna Maria Nabiriye reads "just being is my act of bravery".

Adam: What conversations are people still not having on stage, and how can we start them?

Vera: "Why are we sitting about in a theatre?” Oh wait, I say this in The Paper Man.

Vera Chok

Improbable presents...
The Paper Man
Tue 12 Feb - Sat 9 Mar
Soho Theatre
Info and Tickets: sohotheatre.com