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INTERVIEW with Michelle Wen Lee

What kind of theatre or performing excites you?

I’ve always loved theatre that has a blend of spoken word, music and physicality; where each type of performance supports and informs the rest, rather than standing alone as separate entities. Clever dialogue and strong characterisation is also important to me; and a strong story. I don’t ask for much!


Tell us a bit about your character in Little Potatoes

I am very fond of my character, Yin Hong – she is logical, practical and a pragmatist but she is not a traditionalist. All the same, although she believes in China and the sacrifices its people have had to make for the country to progress, she is full of heart and compassion.


What do you think about opportunities for BAME performers outside London?

Speaking as a Chinese performer, opportunities were already scarce before moving away from London a couple of years ago, especially if I didn’t want to play a triad boss or prostitute with some kind of put-on thick accent. While things are certainly improving in London and with some of the larger theatre companies, now I am based in the South West, the lack of opportunity is stark, compounded by regional theatres seemingly having a default of casting white Anglo Saxons where race is not significant. Unfortunately, East Asians still have some way to go when it comes to being given the chance to be considered for roles. I’m also unhappy to find that many London-based projects will exclude regional performers in a bid to save on accommodation and travel fees; whilst regional theatres will hire London based actors in preference to locally based actors, on the premise that London actors bring more status to their productions. In short, I’m not impressed.


What will you take away from your experience of performing Little Potatoes?

It has been more than twenty years since I have been given the chance to play a significant part. In quick succession, Clare Reddaway who wrote and produced Little Potatoes, has given me two fantastic, complex characters to play – first in The Red Court, which was the reason why we went to China; and now Yin Hong, in Little Potatoes. I am so grateful to have been able to work on these original plays, fleshing out the characters and devising the story with Clare and the directors, Carolyn Csonka and Bryn Holding. Being in Little Potatoes has helped remind me why I wanted to be an actor in the first place – to tell significant stories that affect and challenge.


What did you think of China when you went there in 2017?

Where to begin? I was very excited to go there, having only spent a long weekend in Shanghai before – my mother was born there and it gave me a chance to delve deeper into my family history. There was a lot that impressed – the public transport systems were fantastic, there was free potable hot water in public places and on the trains and recycling bins everywhere. There were massive infrastructure projects and the scale of China as a whole – the cities, distances between, population were unfathomably large. The authoritarian state was very much present, particularly in Beijing – there were security checks at all stations and airports and large public buildings and monuments, hutongs were cleared of ‘unsavoury elements’ or outsiders from that area, people can’t move to work or live in a different city without the right papers.  Given the enormity of trying to govern a country and population of that size, it is perhaps understandable why some policies are in place, but there are certainly lengthy debates to be had about these, and likely impossible to resolve. I would certainly like to go back again and stay longer, there is so much more to observe.


Michelle Wen Lee plays Yin Hong in A Word In Your Ear’s upcoming production of Little Potatoes.  Little Potatoes is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington on the 7th and 8th April. Tickets available here.

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