Interview: Nur Khairiyah Talks Launching RUMAH Festival, Valuing Creatives’ Work & the Need for Greater Representation

RUMAHFest, founded by Nur Khairiyah and set to launch later this month, is both timely and incredibly important. The festival will run online from September 26th 2020 and seeks to champion the work of Asian artists based in London. While the festival will give audiences free access, it is hoped that audiences will donate to support the creatives and their chosen charity if they are able to do so. Here, Khai opens up about why the festival is so important to her and why she feels it’s vital to create greater representation for creatives from the various Asian diasporas.

When and how did your love of theatre or live performance make an appearance?

Way back when I was in drama club in secondary school in Singapore. I wanted to be an actor so I went to Lasalle College of The Arts, Singapore after my O’Levels in 2005 and graduated with a Diploma in Theatre Arts in 2008. Whilst training to be an actor, I learned about a whole other world in theatre making that consists of production and management. I was very nosey as a teenager, so I would spend my free time, outside of college, writing to theatre companies to ask if I could observe rehearsals. So my college days would be training in the morning, working at famous amos selling cookies in the late afternoon (to sustain myself and to get a bit of income) and then sitting in to observe rehearsals in the evening.

I am very lucky to have had the chance to observe how the magic unfolds before the proper staging. Rehearsals are the best part of theatre-making. When I had a chance to be on stage a couple of times professionally, the feeling and adrenaline rush is out of this world. That’s when I knew, I love being part of the industry.

And what has been your route into the industry and in turn towards producing?

After being on stage and just watching how the team is formed organically, from designers to production team to logistics and administration to coordination, I wanted to learn more about what is going on back stage. Even before production, who are the ones making these important decisions in forming a team?

That’s when I realised there is a group of people who handle administration, budgets, logistics, forming a team, chairing meetings, and I wanted to be part of it. My first experience in coordinating productions was with a theatre company I truly love back in Singapore, The Necessary Stage. I was given the opprtunity to assist in coordinating production and technical requirements for Singapore Fringe Festival. I got to sit in on meetings, write minutes, take notes, meet local and international artists, liaise with their respective managers, etc – it gave me such a rush, just like performing, but even more.

I’m so neat in note-taking I have colour coded labels, I created my own template for note-taking, let’s just say I was obsessed with learning the administration and logistical side of making a performance happen! After 3 years, I left the production job to become a Programmes Manager at an independent contemporary arts venue in Singapore called The Substation. I learned a range of great skills; programming, working and commissioning artists, curating, budgeting, and producing.

Later I took on managing an independent theatre collective called Hatch Theatrics which gave me the opportunity to produce new writings and stage works internationally in Japan and Brisbane. After 9 years in the Singapore arts industry, in 2019 I decided to move to London to pursue my MA in Creative Producing and here I am today.

What a fantastic journey! Now, since Lockdown, you’ve initiated and produced a number of digital performances, including Monologues from My Bedroom and Rumah’s Solidarity Project. What prompted you to strike out in the direction of digital works rather than sitting tight or throwing yourself into an extended planning period?

When lockdown happened, I was very devastated. 2020 was to be the year that I, for the first time, would be bringing a production to EdFringe at The Pleasance, launching my inititaive RUMAH with a festival at Rich Mix and producing many more exciting new writings. So when lockdown happened, I was overwhelmed with the unfortunate news of cancelling many of my productions and at the same time, checking in with my artists/friends’ well-being and mental health.

I had my fair share of bad and good days, and I know myself, that to overcome this I need to make myself busy. Busy with things to do, learning to adapt and survive. A friend contacted me to ask if I would like to produce digital monologues to encourage creatives to continue to create and submit monologues that they would have to adapt for an online audience and film themselves. The idea was wild! So I got on board, and I tried to raise money for the project by paying forward the hardship funds that I have applied to, to be shared with the participants.

Another project I initiated was the solidarity project, a guerilla-style digital project that aims to introduce Singapore Malay theatre works to a newer and larger audience. The project showcased a collection of monologues that have been extracted from Singapore Malay plays. What was exciting about the project, personally for me, was interacting with the past veteran actors, whom I didn’t had the opportunity to work with back in Singapore, and to get them involved in the project. The project started in May, running every Wednesday and the last, which I’m presenting, will be on the 2nd of September. In total I have presented 29 excerpts from plays in the early 1980s to the present year.

I think being occupied was my lifeline to adapt to the current climate, and still be productive. Seeing so many of your peers in the industry , whether in Singapore and London, finding new ways to engage with audiences, gave me a glimmer of hope that not all is lost.

It’s so lovely to hear about such a positive outlook even while things became so tough for people in the industry. So let’s get to RUMAH! This is an initiative which should have launched a live festival at Rich Mix in London in March, just as Lockdown made its arrival. The festival will now be a digital livestream in September – have there been many significant changes to the work audiences will see in their digital form?

The whole curation changed. Having it live and then deciding to adapt it online is a major difference. The interaction will be different. Many of my artists who were slated to perform in March were international artists, who had gone back to their country due to Covid-19. The festival was meant to be a celebration of Asian Artists and to create an allyship and open up spaces of integration amongst artists of the various Asian diasporas. And the festival was right smack in the middle of Covid-19 and numerous racism attacks in London. So it was not the right time at all. What would I and my other artists be celebrating?

RUMAH Fest is a very special and urgent project for me. It was inspired by a survey I conducted previously for Asian artists based in London. As part of the survey, I intended an open-ended question – “What can be done to help Asian artists who are working in London?” There were recurring responses like development opportunities, networking, finding new audiences, financial support and creating a more inclusive Festival. So when I decided to postpone the festival I really used the time to re-look, reflect and re-structure the programmes to reflect the current climate.

With the climate today, the festival would now attempt to facilitate a recovery that is emotional and that can get us through this challenging times, and to ensure the programmes can hold and create a space to process what we are going through right now and what everyone is going through.

It has certainly been a dramatic and emotionally challenging few months – I think that shift in purpose sounds perfect under the circumstances. On the flip side, it was fantastic to read RUMAH’s mission statement: ‘RUMAH aims to serve Asian Artists who are invisible and under-represented. It is crucial that we do not exclude anyone based on their country of birth or where they grew up’. Tell me a little more about why this initiative is so important to you and why you are keen to emphasise that RUMAH is ‘not limited to just artists who were born in Britain’.

I think the term Asian is heavily loaded, extremely sensitive and very political in the UK. When we look at Asian festivals just here in London, it tends only to highlight artists from the South Asian community. Previously, this is acceptable as the South Asian community has the most number of communities residing in the U.K, but since 2001, the census has seen an increase in migration of people from other parts of Asia, particularly the South East Asians. Me, for example.

In the recent 2011 Census, the data shows that from 2001, there is an increase in the Chinese heritage and the Asian Other. So how do we then represent Asia accurately in Festivals? The festival landscape in the U.K. is continuously changing, and it will continue to change in response to how the public and the environment evolve. Festivals should be used as an opportunity to create awareness. I believe that festivals are able to reach out to a more diverse group of audience members as compared to just one specific performance or event. I think that Festivals have the ability to raise public awareness on specific issues like identity, representation, power, authority and even marginalization.

Your city, your country, your history, the audience you’ve attracted, the political and social environment: all these factors make a Festival unique. Therefore, it’s a good practice for festival curators or producers to reflect on their current cultural landscape and have a good knowledge of the diversity of that context. Just to give an example, if I were to curate a U.K. Festival in Singapore, and it featured only English artists, that’s a huge misrepresentation, because I’m neglecting the voices from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s exactly how I feel when I go to Asian forums, theatre or Festivals in the U.K. because even though I am Asian, I am not represented.

RUMAH sounds incredibly timely and important then. For sure. So the online festival will be free and audiences will be asked to embrace a pay-what-you-can strategy (with a percentage of donations to be shared with Rich Mix’s #SaveOurVenues). Do you agree with the view many seem to have at the moment, that the necessity to move towards online content at lower costs to audiences will facilitate wider audience access to the arts when lockdown lifts?

I really feel it’s based on what the project’s affordable loss is. Having it free or a lower cost to audience means you can reach out to a wider audience, but then it also loses the artistic integrity if let’s say the production is free and the artists are not getting paid. I am not comfortable with exposure and not paying artists, because exposure does not pay rent. And if there is a donation option, as a producer I will make sure that the conversation I have with my artists is transparent and that the donation will be shared equally amongst the artists involved.

As much as we want to facilitate wider audiences to access the arts, I also believe that we need to take care of our artists as well. For RUMAHfest, I’m lucky to have raised some amount to pay a remuneration to my artists and myself. The donation that I implemented goes to RICH MIX as part of their #saveourvenue campaign. RICH MIX has been a huge support to the festival, ever since the first day I spoke to Josh Mcnorton, then Head of Programmes at Rich Mix, about the festival. So the decision to donate the earnings to them was straightforward.

I couldn’t agree more – it does seem that more people are speaking up about the poor form of ‘paying’ through exposure alone now, so here’s hoping the industry moves along in the right direction…

So the programme for RUMAH looks deliciously varied with ‘an eclectic mix of commissioned spoken word and sonic performances, scratch works, food treats and comedy skits’ and kicks off with an embroidery workshop led by embroidery artist Nicole Chui. What inspired this commitment to embrace such a variety of forms and content for the festival?

I remembered advice that someone gave me, that when you have the chance to curate, curate things that you want to see. I want to see more ethnic diversity on and off stage and a variety of art forms. And so the festivals I curate should engage with audiences who are interested in various forms, whether it’s crafts, new works, comedy; having a range of programmes will encourage cross-pollination of audience, and that’s the goal. For example, someone who is tuning in to the festival because they are fans of comedy, will they stay tuned to other programmes and realise they’re maybe into embroidery?

I can imagine I might fall into such a category! Other works look set to dig deep into reflective, personal territory, including Camilla Anvar and Zelda Solomon’s Sexy Asians Around Ur Area which explores stories about being young, loss and ‘Asian-ish-ness’ in today’s climate. Can you give a little insight into how work was selected for this festival? Was there an open call or did you specifically approach artists already known to you?

For a lack of better word, I ‘STALK’. Like I said, I’m very nosey. I want to know who is doing what, who is from the industry, what are the new works being produced, etc. I follow a whole lot of artists, theatre companies on Twitter and Instagram and that’s where I get to know people/artists/fellow producers/curators.

I didn’t do an open call. I wanted to work with people I trust and who understand the aims of this festival and who would take the creative risks with me. Once I’m in contact with the artists, I’ll have a pre-conversation with them about the festival and if they are keen to be part of the festival and take this creative risk with me (adapting the festival online) then my job is easy. Because at the end of the day, all of us are working towards a common goal.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this beautifully varied programme of digital work?

A desire to find out more about racial identity, cultural diversity and importance of representation.

And finally, what’s next for you personally and what do you envision the future of RUMAH to look like long-term?

I hope the festival could be an annual event, and hopefully in a physical space. RUMAH means home in the Malay language, and so as the name suggests, I want to house Asian artists who are from the various Asian diasporas in London. To feel that they are represented, safe and also be able to inspire and encourage cross collaboration with other diverse artists. On my website, there is a tab call Collaboration. I’m currently building a list of Asian artists with varied artistic practice and are from the various Asian diasporas- South East , South, East and Central Asia.

So there you have it! Remember, RUMAHFest runs from September 26th 2020 and you can keep up to date with Khai and the festival by heading over to the website and following Khai on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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