Between writing new plays and articles, teaching documentary film and mobile journalism at the University of Melbourne and performing as Chen Be Quiet in Melbourne’s underground rap scene, Chenturan Aran spends a lot of time in his head having imaginary conversations with everyone from exes to Oprah Winfrey. He tells us the origins of this unique pastime, where he finds inspiration for new work and what audiences can expect from his Cybec Electric play and a side of cut chilli.
What made you start writing for the stage?
I’m the youngest in my family so I always lost debates with my siblings. I used to spend a lot of time replaying the arguments in my head to figure out how to win the next one. An unintended consequence of that is now my thoughts are basically structured as an argument between two people. Rather than having an internal monologue, I'm pretty much stuck with an internal dialogue. I figure out most things now through fantasy conversations with my family, my ex, strangers at the gym, anti-vaxxers, Oprah Winfrey, old crushes, petty sales assistants, certainty freaks, Oprah Aran (in the fantasy where I'm married to Oprah).
I also thought my siblings would take me more seriously if I appeared taller. So when I wanted to be heard, I'd stand on tables, or on couches, or on an upturned bucket. A bucket is essentially a very narrow stage. So ‘inner-dialogue + stage = theatre’, is my theory.
Where do you find creative inspiration for your ideas and writing?
I get a lot of inspiration when I watch people say something judgemental and I'm just thinking, ‘Um, I think I've done that before.’ Or, ‘Maybe they had a good reason to do that.’ Do I express this thought out loud? No. Because sometimes it's boring and insensitive being a devil's advocate. It also seems like a risky time to express darker thoughts or even talk about your past mistakes. So, if someone says something really black and white and everyone just nods, but there's clearly a deeper conversation to be had, that's a good sign it should be in a play. The stage is a safe space for messy ideas.
‘I think the internet and the complexities of the modern world are making a lot of people regress to black-and-white thinking to simplify their reality. This forecloses the opportunity to listen and collaborate with people we disagree with. This play is important to restore some nuance to the way we see imperfect people.’
Can you tell us more about your Cybec Electric play and a side of cut chilli?
and a side of cut chilli is an irreverent comedy about an adoptee trying to find out why he was abandoned, and an adoptive mother getting in the way because she is afraid of losing her son to an unsolvable wound.
The play is set at a dinner table with five people: Jamie, a Sri Lankan in his twenties who was abandoned as an infant; Katherine and Lee, Jamie's adoptive parents; Zahra, Jamie's anti-racism activist girlfriend; and Jeff, Jamie's larrikin adoptive uncle.
Katherine and Lee never talked about Jamie’s birth family or culture. They didn't want him to define himself by race or his adoption story. They wanted him to be ‘normal’; to fit in. Unfortunately, this made him totally unprepared for racial prejudices in the world. It also meant he had to suppress his grief and alienation to perform gratitude about being saved. But after Jamie falls in love with Zahra, dormant grief surfaces, along with trust issues, separation anxiety and depression.
This is a play about the challenges of transracial adoption and is an allegory for assimilation. But I don't see it as just a play about race. It’s a universal tale about love, trauma, truth, forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, honouring the past, and bearing witness to each other’s unique story.
Why this play and why now?
This play has a lot of sticky situations that are difficult to talk about. There are no simple characters. A progressive white waiter is at pains to be racially sensitive to Jamie, but in the process is unable to see Jamie beyond his race. The anti-racism activist Zahra sees race everywhere and is the only one equipped to call out white supremacy, but she's also paranoid and dehumanises others, which mirrors the psychological processes that lead to her own oppression. Jeff constantly makes racist jokes about Jamie but also celebrates Jamie’s desire to forge an authentic Sri Lankan identity. Lee has interesting insights about meditation, but his value of ‘radical present-ness’ downplays the importance of excavating the past to heal trauma.
I think the internet and the complexities of the modern world are making a lot of people regress to black-and-white thinking to simplify their reality. This forecloses the opportunity to listen and collaborate with people we disagree with. This play is important to restore some nuance to the way we see imperfect people.
It’s also vitally important for People of Colour to see their own experiences on stage, and it’s equally important for the broader community to be in dialogue with these experiences. This is how we reach an understanding in a multicultural society.
What do you hope audiences feel or take away after hearing your play?
I want people to leave the theatre feeling light about heavy topics. I want people to feel open enough to ask, ‘Okay, how irredeemable is it that Jeff called his brown nephew a cheeky little monkey?’ ‘Was Zahra’s intellect helping or harming the family’s conflict?’ ‘Are parents entitled to their secrets? What if it involves their children?’ ‘In what ways am I reducing people to justify my lifestyle and values?’
I'm very proud of the ending. I hope it gives people a vision for how we can sacrifice control, bear witness, and explore the dark terrain of our minds with compassionate friends.
Cybec Electric 2022 runs from 3–5 March 2022 at Southbank Theatre.
Cybec Electric forms part of MTC’s ongoing commitment to the development of new Australian writing, and is only possible due to the support of the late Dr Roger Riordan AM and The Cybec Foundation.
Published on 18 February 2022