Over the next two years Chris O’Connell’s theatre project, Are We Where We Are?, will see nine new works for the stage – spanning a variety of mediums – performed at Coventry’s Shop Front Theatre and directed by Julia Negus. Each of these pieces will respond in a unique way to the question posed by this title, and the first piece to do so was MAY UTANG, a piece written and performed by Jules Orcullo, and staged earlier this month. MAY UTANG translates from Filipino to English roughly as “with debt.” The piece Orcullo has created is a relatively short monologue that explores, autobiographically, her experience of trying to identify and understand herself and where she exists in relation to both the past and the present – finding herself largely in debt to history and her family in particular.
Looking at the overarching title, Are We Where We Are? is a question to which we may all return to throughout our lives. It is a seemingly ambiguous question that prompts us to ask by what framework, or by what social or cultural narrative we are positioning ourselves against (and within), the world. To some extent, it asks how far we have been led by the chaotic nature of modernist society that we may not realise that we are somehow removed from where we imagine ourselves to be. O’Connell’s project is inspired by American novelist Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in Walden: A Life in the Woods (1854), “We are not where we are”. When sitting among nature having been prompted to remove himself from an ever-industrialising America and considering this problem, Thoreau’s position was that we all may somehow be in “a false position.” Through Are We Where We Are, O’Connell seeks to give an assertive voice to those who try to make sense of this question – whether in their own lives, or more widely in a world that feels increasingly disjointed and chaotic. The Shop Front theatre makes the perfect setting for this despite the sense, depicted by Chris O’Connell when I spoke with him, that “theatre is an art it isn’t a building.” The Shop Front Theatre is a sort of everyplace: with the focus very much put on the theatrical action rather than the space in which it is being performed. It is an inclusionary and democratic space; a space for voices to speak and be heard.
MAY UTANG, the first of these theatrical offerings, is a piece characterised by this idea of giving a voice to an individual – a voice that Jules Orcullo uses to stitch together past and present in an important moment. Though the piece is a monologue, characterised largely by Orcullo’s exploration of her own identity, it is not just her own voice that is prominent emanating from the stage. Her voice is a quietly powerful one that seemed to fill the intimate setting of the Shop Front Theatre, discussing identity, isolation and immigration amongst other things. Orcullo is an Australian woman living in England but her parents are from the Philippines. Orcullo’s two national identities are thus heavily influenced by European colonisation: the Phillipines were colonised by Spain from 1521 to 1898 and Cook began the same process in Australia in 1770. The effects of imperialism, Orcullo highlights, are very much alive; even shopping from Australian shops means that even now capitalist profit exists on the backs of oppressed voices. It is the voices of the oppressed to which Orcullo wants to draw our attention. Her piece seems to be fuelled by a recognition that people need space to be given a way to place themselves within the question Are We Where We Are?”
These voices somehow are made present in their absence – MAY UTANG is a monologue after all. The piece of theatre can largely be seen to be defined by her necessary recognition of those who came before her or exist unspoken now. She is fully aware that she cannot speak for others, however, as she discussed in a talk after the performance about the line between giving someone a platform to speak and narrating their experience for them in a way that overshadows their own voices. The piece ends with her deploring the audience to give a voice to those who have been oppressed but MAY UTANG still exists in itself as a thoroughly thought out and challenging statement upon these issues.
The piece is still, necessarily, very personal to Orcullo. MAY UTANG represents, to some extent, a fragmented narrative of her own life and her own attempts to carve an identity set against nationalist stereotypes of being “an Australian” to which she cannot and does not conform to. The performance was warm and humorous in the moments that Orcullo takes these stereotypes and stretches them to absolute, laughable hyperbole. Watching her perform is somewhat like talking to a close friend. Yet there is so much to be learnt, not only of the position she has placed herself in but of what this says for us all. She describes, for example, the way she found herself again after a pressure to identify with mainstream – distinctly white – culture. The piece still seems to exist as a way for her to mark her own space having been frequently set against oppressive, restrictive stereotypes of national identity. The monologue, as a form, to some extent seems to allow Orcullo to shape herself within theatre, and allows her to decide which parts of herself to abandon. This allows her, on a deeply personal level, to respond actively to the question of where she situates herself. Some parts of her identity, she decides, have been determined by an unspoken feeling from others that she was “almost white” and must aspire to this.
Her recognition of her ability, through theatre, to give voice to the voiceless is part of a wider sense of cultural debt, as the title relates, that bears heavily on Orcullo’s life. It is a debt that started with her parents who, to some extent, underpin the piece echoing through the theatre reminding the audience of a constant sense of the past as connected to the present moment. Their voices are played from a laptop on centre stage. The staging at the Shop Front Theatre was stark – a single wooden board with a laptop on it again a connection of past and present. It is a stage that O’Connell has explained will continue to grow as the pieces unfold onto one another, each time contributing to something larger than just themselves.
The voices of Orcullo’s parents in MAY UTANG , caught off-guard in natural conversation, and the way she responds to them live on stage are one of the most striking things in the performance. The cultural debt that weighs on Orcullo does not remain purely abstract, it is one she quantifies: her “debt of gratitude”, she calculates, incorporates the $475,000 her parents paid for her to learn English. It is interesting to see the relationship between her and her parents though they are not actually present on stage. To some extent, as with most of us, where Orcullo finds herself will always be within a space carved by her parents. Yet this motif of debt that runs out also relates strongly to a sense that we may all have that we must continue to progress from that which our parents provided us – that we, as a society, exist partly, consciously in the present but also extensively in that which we are yet to achieve. Thus, while the piece exists as a strong statement within itself, it also makes way for the rest of the series as it will unfold over the next two years.
The next piece in the Are We Where We Are? project, Laila Alj’s I AM HERE, premieres at the Shop Front Theatre, Coventry, on Wednesday 7 June. For more information, see here.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, 1910 (1854)): 432