Overcoming the struggles: a dyslexic, transracial adoptee carves space for British East Asian actors in the UK
Interview conducted by Christina Schultz
Lucy Sheen was made in Hong Kong, exported to the UK in the late 50s early 60s as a transracial adoptee. Lucy is an actor, writer, filmmaker, trainer and transracial adoptee advocate. She trained at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama (1985), the first British East Asian actress to graduate from a recognized UK drama school. Lucy’s first professional job was the female lead in the groundbreaking British feature film Ping Pong, directed by Po Ch’ih Leong. This was the first British film of its kind to look at the issues facing the British-Chinese community in the UK.
Christina Schultz: Hi, Lucy. Thanks for chatting with Femfilmfans. I want to start by saying I am in awe of all the work you do. You are a filmmaker, actor, writer, poet, cultural sensitivity trainer, advocate, the list goes on. How do you find time to do everything?
Lucy Sheen: The nature of being an actor is that if you’re not Dame Judy Dench, you need a day job. If you don’t have some Hollywood films on the backburner, you need to fit in the teaching, the training, the writing, the acting, etc. Lots of the work you can do remotely, like writing, for instance, which makes it easier.
CS: What do you enjoy doing the most?
LS: Acting, I suppose. But I enjoy all of it. The corporate training day job not so much although I do appreciate it. I get to use my acting skills in a different setting and I get paid for it, which is always great.
Acting on stage is so different from other types because it’s in front of a live audience with other actors - all living, breathing entities. The challenge is to keep it fresh and exciting for the audience and for you as an artist if you have multiple performances.
CS: What made you transition from acting to filmmaking?
LS: I got hoodwinked into it [laughs]. I was approached by an acquaintance who found out I was an actor and suggested I make a documentary film. I pointed out my work was all in front of the camera and not behind the camera so I said I could help her, but somehow I wound up producing, directing and writing the documentary Abandoned Adopted Here.
CS: But Abandoned Adopted Here also tells your story, that of the transracial adoptees. Is that why you agreed to make the film?
LS: Yes, I felt it was important to make a documentary about what it means to grow up as a transracial adoptee and what it means to be British East Asian.
CS: Was it difficult making a film about such a personal topic? What was that like for you emotionally?
LS: It would have been harder had I not been directing and writing. I would have more time to stew in my own juices. I didn’t give myself time to think about the personal nature of the project. It wasn’t until I observed other people watching the film that I realized how emotional they found it.
CS: If I may say so, your personal story seems to be one of struggle. Struggling to find quality work, to navigate the completed waters of identity, esp. in the British colonial context, as a “transracial adoptee,” struggling for the rights and representations of Asians in film and theater, struggling with dyslexia and so on. What injustices and limitations have you faced in your line of work?
LS: As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less tolerant of inequality and injustice. When you first come out of drama school you want to work. You can end up compromising yourself and you have youth as an excuse. I was lucky, however. When I left drama school in the 80s, I was a “jobbing actor,” although there were limitations. I got radio work because they wanted a Chinese person but since I grew up in the UK I had to put on an East Asian accent. And yet I couldn’t be in radio for anything other than those Chinese roles, which is quite bizarre and still happens now.
In England, East Asians are viewed separately from other British minority ethnics, such as Black, African, Caribbean and Southeast Asian. We have always been further segregated and seen very much as the Other, the thing to be feared, to be ridiculed; you find it in the practice of yellowface. If you were to continue the racist practices of black- or brownface, you wouldn’t get away with it in the UK, but for some strange reason this continues to happen to East Asians.
So we are, in many ways, so far behind and it confines what I can do as a performer
CS: And what was it like dealing with your dyslexia?
LS: I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did all of my studies. It wasn’t a recognized condition when I was a kid in the 50s-60s. They thought that I was being thick and insubordinate. This kind of reaction hasn’t changed much over time, even with more awareness of learning disabilities, but you do find ways of coping.
Dealing with text and words as an actor is still probably not the best profession to go into when you’re dyslexic. I had to learn to train my eyes to slow down and my brain to focus. I’m not very good at sight readings. In a student production of King Lear, for the line “Put on what weary negligence you please,” I once famously said “put on what weary negligees you please” instead. These kinds of things were embarrassing at the time but are now quite amusing.
Because of my experiences I work with dyslexic charities and offer advice. I tell people you can succeed in world of words and literature. Today there is so much technology that makes things easier. It still takes me twice as long to read a script though.
Join us again on Saturday for Part Two of Christina's interview with Lucy Sheen where she talks about combatting stereotypes, experiencing the #MeToo movement and promoting diversity in the UK!