One of the first things in creating a character in a drama is exploring what she looks like. Author Yang-May Ooi reports from the first Photoshoot for her new theatre project Butterfly in Blue Jeans, working with actor Julie Cheung-Inhin and photographer Alison Romaczuk to portray the eponymous Butterfly, the protagonist of this new play, in a single image.
As a novelist, the heroine of my books comes to me in my imagination. I know in my imagination exactly what she looks like in the way that I would know in my memory what my partner or my friends look like. The challenge then is to describe her in writing so that the reader can also see her and know her like I do. And in that wordy portrayal, who she is comes through not just in her physical description eg of her face and height and build but also in what she wears and how she moves. You also learn about her through her actions and what she says and how she relates to others.
In my latest theatre project, a play, the lead role of the eponymous Butterfly in Blue Jeans will be taken by actor Julie Cheung-Inhin. I know her as a working colleague, collaborator and a friend. I don’t have to conjure up an imaginary woman in my mind in that we all know that the heroine of the piece will look like her. The challenge however is to create the character of Butterfly as distinct from the actor Julie. For me, that will be part of the writing process. For Julie, it will be part of her acting process as she portrays the character that I will have written.
Right now, we are at very early stages in the development of the play. We have an idea that Butterfly will be a strong, independent woman and we have an idea of what her story arc might be but nothing is certain until I sit down to write the play next year. So it was an interesting and thought provoking challenge to try and create an image of her for the play’s website at the Photoshoot this weekend with photographer Alison Romanczuk.
A driving principle of my collaboration with Julie is to challenge the stereotype of the East Asian woman as portrayed in Western culture – epitomised by Madama Butterfly, the docile, passive, delicate tragic East Asian girl who kills herself for the love of a white man. The image for our theatre project needs to play with the popular eroticised images of a beautiful, vulnerable East Asian woman while also challenging it. Our Butterfly needs to be seen as strong and powerful without at the same time losing her feminine qualities.
I will be blogging in further posts in more detail about the different images we experimented with through different poses, body language and clothing, especially shoes (my trademark issue!). For now, I want to acknowledge the fascinating creative process of the Photoshoot in not just capturing an image for our website but also in helping me further in my investigation into who Butterfly in Blue Jeans is as a character.
Photographer Alison Romanczuk had a strong sympathetic understanding for what we are trying to do. The Photoshoot was a brilliant collaborative process with Julie, Alison and me coming up with diverse ideas which we would try out in front of Alison’s camera so that overall we now have a range of different images to work with. Also, the process has made me think more deeply about how the act of looking at an East Asian woman can be empowering or disempowering depending on how she is made to sit or stand, how she looks into the camera or away, what we do with her hair, and what shoes she wears – which will all feed into my writing of her as a character for the stage, to be looked upon by a live audience.
Yang-May Ooi is a writer and theatre-maker. She is currently developing the play Butterfly in Blue Jeans with actor Julie Cheung-Inhin. Her previous work includes an autobiographical solo theatre piece Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes (Nov/ Dec 2015, Tristan Bates Theatre, London) and novels The Flame Tree and Mindgame. Www.TigerSpirit.co.uk