INTERVIEW FEATURE: Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy
Interview with Sam Wang, creator of Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy
By Arran Munro
I'm in the Belvoir Downstairs Theatre. The lights turn on. Sam Wang, the writer and star of his 6 year in the making show Skyduck stands in the middle of the stage. He begins to sing.
It's off-key. It's knaff. As he belts out the chorus, with the tagline "Tokyo" in a partially convincing Chinese accent, I know this one man spy comedy is going to be everything Wang and I had talked about. Equal parts goofy and charming, Skyduck is unique in that it isn’t trying to appeal to a select group of avant-garde art lovers. It’s accessible in a way that isn’t attempting to dumb down its plot or themes.
Wang understands his audience and is making a play for himself and those around him. There’s a familiarity and complete lack of self-consciousness in the script and his overall performance. From puppets to musical numbers to high intensity one man action scenes, it really is a delight to watch the sheer imagination of Wang come to life.
The play follows agents of the competing countries China versus America in the year 1993 for operation: Skyduck. Wang plays seven characters. An agent from Australia, one from the US, two from China and several other supporting characters. The play is bilingual, with the script partially written kudos to Google translate. I’ve never seen anything close to the level of Mandarin integrated into a play for a predominantly white audience. The execution is clever, with the dialogue presented on a screen behind the actor. If anything, the change between languages helps to differentiate characters. Inspired by a Mandarin rip-off of various Western sitcoms including The Big Bang Theory, it is clear the accents are not to be taken too seriously.
Although the plot can be hard to follow at times and the switch between characters is not always the most seamless, it’s undeniably an enjoyable watch. This is unlike any play I have seen before, which is a crying shame as it is one of the most fun and down to earth productions I have seen. Skyduck truly manages to find a balance between presenting an Asian-Australian perspective whilst not getting bogged down in the representation of either. For anyone, including those who are not frequent theatre-goers, I highly recommend this play.
Here's a peek into my chat with the creator of the play, Sam Wang.
Arran: I’m really excited to see Skyduck premiering in Sydney on Friday.
Sam: Awesome! Thank you. Thanks for coming.
What inspired you to make this play?
I’ve always been a little bit interested in spy movies and Mr. Bean comedy - or like those ‘80s parodies like Hot Shots and stuff like that. So it’s a bunch of stuff that show that kind of thing.
I went to a place called Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School. And in our third year, everyone does a 20 minute solo [...]. So I kind of did a 20 minute spy comedy and then this is kind of like an hour version of that.
That leads into my next question - what would you describe your journey into making this… a reality?
It’s just been, yeah [laughs]- it’s been a long time [laughs]. I met Christie Woodhouse, one of the artistic directors at Crack X Festival and they were like, “Hey! You should produce a one hour work,” and we were like, “You know, okay…” [laughs].
So because of that we did a little one at Crack X last year and came back and reapplied [to the Belvoir 25A season] for this year and were lucky enough to get in. Obviously with a strong pitch, some footage and also a really strong letter of recommendation from Pierce [Wilcox], who was the other co-artistic director of Crack X and has come on board as the producer on our show as well. So yeah, it’s just been a slow accumulation I guess.
What was your process in making a bilingual play?
Uh, Google Translate. [Both laugh]. I can speak Mandarin but I can’t read or write it - so it was basically like me dictating it to Google Translate, getting it, replaying it so I could hear it back and go “Oh, which one’s wrong?” And then manually, one word at a time, seeing the English translation and then subbing it in and out.
I read that you said that you’ve never seen a show that used Mandarin this much - not just as a plot device but as something that’s celebrated. And so you decided to write one. What inspired you to do that in the first place? To write something that was more based around an Asian identity?
I was introduced to this Mandarin sitcom a couple of years ago. And they basically just ripped off every single show like Friends, IT Crowd - every single [Western] sitcom. But it was really really funny and it was quite contemporary and silly as well. I guess I kind of wanted to do a show that was inspired by that. The expectation is that if you’re doing something that’s bilingual, particularly Mandarin, that it is quite earnest or dramatic or poetic. But I was really wanting to do something that was contemporary, silly and like a sitcom-y kind of thing. So that was the motivation.
Also translating Mandarin via Google Translate adds to the goofy element.
Hopefully! [Both laugh]. My dad says it’s like watching a kid.
What plans do you have for future shows? Do you think you’ll do more bilingual shows or what’s next?
Maybe! Originally, Skyduck was going to be a three-part epic set in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. At the moment the focus is just to get the show up and then once it’s done it’s a blank sheet of paper. And then I can see what’s next. I kind of feel like because I’m bilingual, I’m a Mandarin speaker - not well, but obviously there’ll be an element of that. Maybe not in every show.
Do you have any tips for people creating their own work?
Keep applying for things and use it as a chance to potentially be better on the next one. Just apply for things, apply for things and you know, if you don’t get it, it’s a chance to just get practice. Just apply for the next one. Hopefully sooner or later one will come.
Oh, and surround yourself with a really strong team. That would be the thing that I would say.
So originally when you were working on Skyduck you didn’t actually have the team with you, right? How did it change your process in terms of having a team vs. being more on your own?
You definitely have more responsibility. You can’t just pull out. It’s a good motivation. Especially with indie theatre, there’s not a lot of money in it. So if you try to get someone to join your team or once they are a part of your team, they’re going in for the passion. If you don’t make that, if you don’t lift it to the highest standard you can, they’re going to feel that. So that is a motivator to make sure you present and be as strong as you can. And at the same time, that’s when you realise all the things that aren’t working in your show but were working in your head [laughs].
You have more of a soundboard to throw ideas at.
Especially the team with Aileen, they interrogate the work in a way that you probably wouldn’t by yourself. So they’re like another advocate for the audience - to make sure that your work can make the most sense and can communicate what it’s trying to communicate to the best of its ability.
What’s a question that you would most like to answer about Skyduck?
I guess it would probably be - is it artsy theatre or is it theatre for "normal" people? And the answer is that it’s a quirky, silly thing that’s hopefully aimed for everyone. Not just bilingual speakers, not just Mandarin speakers. Basically it’s just a little bit of fun for an hour and hopefully we use things to try and maximise that. AV to puppets, to musical numbers.
Does it have broad appeal, or is it quite niche. And it’s probably a bit of both [laughs]. But we’re aiming for broad.
16 - 18 July
Belvoir 25 A