F*ck M*ss S**gon Play was a punky triumph of a play with a psychedelic moment and a nuanced approach to the historical pervasiveness of limited representations of East and Southeast Asian women in Western culture. My Neighbour Totoro is a family favourite and an enchanting escape from the harsh reality of day-to-day existence. Mei Mac plays the lead in both. She’s an actor with great range. Instantly watchable, intelligent, and articulate, she’s a true rising star.
Running up until November last year F*ck M*ss S**gon Play was how we were introduced to this wonderful actor. Now you can see her in My Neighbour Totoro, a vastly different production that nonetheless celebrates Japanese culture. F*ck M*ss S**gon Play meanwhile references not just Japan but also an unspecified island in the South Pacific, South Korea and Thailand in reinterpretations of Madame Butterfly, South Pacific and M*A*S*H. It received glowing reviews and that would be thanks to Mei’s interpretation of Kim, whose angry resistance to the head-spinning and repetitive cycle of mini-plays she moves through is triumphant.
The play challenges ideological violence in these plays. There’s an interesting use of music in the play too, with Western popular songs being jammed onto a completely different cultural context in a way that can only make us laugh at the absurdity of colonial representations of East and Southeast Asia. Laughter is an act of resistance. There’s also interrogation of class relations and the familiar story of many fold discrimination for working class racialised women. But the play leaves a distinct sense of hope, another slightly shared characteristic with My Neighbour Totoro that encourages us to dream for a softer world.
Your journey into theatre started after watching a New Earth Theatre roadshow led by Kumiko Mendl that gave you the representation to see what is possible. Can you tell us more about the show? How old were you when you saw it and envisaged yourself as an actor?
I must have been 16 or 17. I had originally pursued a career in medicine and it was something that my family had wanted for me. I would’ve been the first person in my family to go to university, so there was this hope that I could give us social mobility and all of those classic immigrant working-class aspirations. When I went to my Saturday Chinese school, there was a leaflet on my desk from New Earth Theatre [formally Yellow Earth Theatre]. I had already been doing drama as an extracurricular at that point, and so I was really intrigued by it. The roadshow was a Q&A at Birmingham Rep, which was incredibly illuminating. I think that's what I needed at the time: to be able to talk to these jobbing actors of East and South East Asian heritage and hear about their experiences. It was so real and suddenly so tangible. There was a switch on moment when I realised that this is something I could actually do, that people who looked like me had a place in the professional arts.
Have you written or directed theatre yet?
I do write, mostly for myself (for now!) and I have directed. The core of my creative practice has always been about devising and creating, especially at the beginning of my career when I made a lot of my own work.  Over the years, I have also spent a lot of time at the National Theatre Studio workshopping new shows. I often bring my dramaturgical hat into projects and I think I’m known for being a good collaborator in the room in that way! One of my favourite pieces I was associate director and dramaturg on was Gwei Miu//Ghost Girl by Jennifer Tang. Jen is a genius, and I loved working with her on that piece. I enjoy working on projects that feel they have a fresh voice or get the chance to play with form.
In your interview in Women's Hour on your role in Untitled F*ck Mss S**gon , you talk about laughing as a way of reclaiming power. Are there other plays or contexts you have seen this happen in?
Beef was one of my favourite shows of last year. The creators of Beef, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun are brilliant at exactly this. They tackle some really intense, dark and troublesome themes and they subvert it. It's incredibly exciting to find the juxtaposition of emotions and just sit in it [and] see what happens. You get to see something from a different lens without losing sight of the original provocation. It's a lot about framing. In Untitled F*ck Mss S**gon Play  we made a very deliberate choice to take situations that have been previously very traumatic and rageful for the ESEA community and give our audience a choice to laugh at it, to mock it even. That choice to me, at least, felt very healing and empowering. A way of taking agency back from the situations that stripped it from us to begin with. It is an absolute reckoning.
Was there laughter in the rehearsals for Untitled F*ck Mss S**gon?
Oh yes, absolutely. We were constantly laughing. Everyone in that room is hilarious. We were just experimenting all the time and throwing around ideas and making offers and so it was just constant silliness. It was incredibly joyful and funny.
Also in Women's Hour, you discussed the real experience of old immigrant generations accepting crumbs of representation rather than demanding new or better characters. Is this something worth arguing against?
The really beautiful thing about this play is that we get to hear and experience an older immigrant perspective in Rosie. Using words that only us, in later generations, have access to. Our immigrant parents didn't have the chance to speak truth to these things, they were just trying to survive in hostile environments. Audiences loved Rosie’s speech because it was so nuanced, so empathisable, so heartbreaking; and yet, audiences also described Rosie’s speech as “intergenerational gaslighting”. So yes, the generation before us had no choice. They had to accept the crumbs because that is all there was and they had to find a way to make peace with that, to be grateful for it in some twisted way. But it is also the very thing that leads to the dangerous Model Minority projection. As Rosie says, “and poof! Things magically appeared - The transcontinental railroad”. Our parents and grandparents built these cities, these countries and were still treated inhumanely. As the next generation, I think it is completely reasonable to demand more. To demand that we are seen as human beings and not second-class citizens. To have all the same rights and opportunities that everyone else has and be represented properly.
Cultural change is what this play is demanding while also making some of the changes we want to see. Diverse casting, roles for women outside of the romantic part etc. Does Kim's lack of romantic interest in her partner in her final scene feel like she has broken out of the cycle, even though she is having a breakdown, is it a silver lining or am I being too optimistic?
Optimism is a wonderful thing, we need more optimism in this world. It is also something we hoped our audiences would leave the theatre with -  that as well as something resembling hope and perhaps spark some fire.
Kim's final scenes don’t centre romantic love but, instead, something much more powerful: community, where one feels a sense of belonging, of feeling seen and heard. This is her out - through empowerment and healing and perhaps, revolution? The silver lining is her own resilience and her ability to experience hope out from the other side of rage.
I am glad to see lots of these cultural shifts happening, not just in art but everywhere, though I am sad it’s taken this long. I hope to see more of them and that we see an ever more inclusive and accepting society. Art imitates life and life imitates art, and sometimes you have an opportunity to change what the world could look like through art. Grow empathy, interrogate societal norms and inspire change. I hope we did that.
You were Olivier nominated for your performance in My Neighbour Totoro so you are a very talented and very successful actor. Along with the award nomination, what are some of the biggest compliments you have received for your performances so far and from whom?
First of all, thank you very much for that compliment. It is very, very kind. Actually, the biggest compliments come from our audiences. That's who we do the show for every single night. Most of our audiences are adults because the original film came out in 1988, but on our matinee days we have a lot of children and families in. My ultimate Turing test is when we meet parents of 4 year olds who cannot believe that Ami Okumura Jones (who plays 10-year-old Satsuki) and I are grown women! Also, when children can't believe that we're adults. I do sometimes feel bad because they're quite disappointed when they meet us and confusedly declare, “But you’re an adult!”. That for me is the ultimate compliment - if I have managed to capture the essence of a 4-year-old child well enough to feel like adults and children are with Mei on her journey without feeling patronised or imitated, I’ve nailed it.
Are there any wonderful queer roles you wish you could play?
Loads of wonderfully queer roles. I think the best ones yet are still to come, so I suppose I can't name what they are just yet because I am excited for what the future holds and the new roles that will be created, written and fleshed out. But Killing Eve has certainly been a highlight of television in the past few years as well as Stephanie Hsu’s gorgeous performance in A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Are there any directors you'd love to work with?
Yes, there are some incredible directors I would love to work with. Rebecca Frecknall is a director I have been very excited about. She has been churning out beautiful piece after piece, hit after hit. She's a really exciting talent in theatre at the moment. I have recently watched Past Lives by Celine Song, who is just brilliant. The way that she crafted that film is so beautiful and delicate and meaningful. Of course, Greta Gerwig is a genius. So funny and sharp and I really enjoy that about her direction. It's cutting, refreshing and exciting. I would love to work with her as well as the Daniels. Everything Everywhere All at Once might be one of my favourite films of all time. Not least because Michelle Yeoh is one of my idols, but I think the Daniels were so brave and bold with the way they directed that. I love how much they broke form and that is the thing that most excites me in any medium.
Rising Waves is the mentoring programme you found for British East and Southeast Asian artists and creatives, can you tell me about the importance of community?
Community is the thread that I can draw throughout my entire career. It is the most important thing to me and the choices I make boil down to trying to serve the communities I belong to.
There are lots of ways in which art can be a playground for empathy. Whether through inspiration, delight, grief, providing escapism or holding up political mirrors. Ultimately, it is about the people that experience the art communally that are the heart of it.
I am only here because of the incredible outreach programmes already mentioned and I wanted to give back as soon as I could. I’m really proud of what we’ve done with Rising Waves. The bi-product of the programme was to make a shift in culture which we achieved. A shift from a culture of scarcity, where people are fighting each other in the community for “the crumbs” we’ve spoken about, to a culture of abundance, where people feel empowered to support each other and champion each other rather than stepping on each other. Our motto is “Together We Rise”.
Thoroughly enjoyed the punk spirit of Untitled F*ck Mss S**gon Play and it’s a big shift moving to Totoro. How do the two compare with each other?
It's a huge 90 degree shift but they are both so meaningful. Both are plays that have moved me and changed me and plays I love dearly. If My Neighbour Totoro is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made, Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play is the most important thing I’ve ever made.
Untitled gave our audience and the community permission to feel rage, question things and be punk, as you described. Something that feels like a reckoning and through that, I’ve experienced healing and a lot of our audiences described that they felt that too. A catharsis from speaking truth to power. To have someone point at injustices and mock it. Totoro, on the other hand, creates space for healing in a completely different way. We take our audience on a return journey to childhood, inviting them to see the world through a very pure lens of wonder and imagination and celebrate the simple act of being. Both feel like they do similar things but from very different angles and both feel pretty ground-breaking. It’s my life’s honour to get to do both.