Q&A: Playwright Nakkiah Lui

Date posted: 14 Feb 2019Author: STC Production: How to Rule the World

Nakkiah Lui returns to the STC fold to team up with our Associate Director Paige Rattray (her creative partner in crime on Black is the New White) for a hilarious political satire packing serious punch. Between the laughs Nakkiah puts the Australian political system under harsh scrutiny in How to Rule the World, and lays some of the toughest questions facing our society today on the table for discussion. 

Watch the short videos and read the full interview with Nakkiah below. 

You and Paige Rattray have successfully collaborated on Black is the New White and The Green Room (Power Plays 2018). Why do you think you work together so well?

I think so much of great theatre comes from good relationships – friendships, really. I love working with Paige, and also [STC Literary Manager] Polly Rowe. So many of my stories are really about questions that I have about the world, questions which I love to explore with my friends better than anyone. Also Paige is an incredible director, I feel lucky to work with her so often. She’s fun, she’s playful and she’s able to take your words and your characters and create the world that they exist in, which is a really special gift. It’s like we’re both parents of this production.

So it’s been a particularly collaborative process in the rehearsal room...

Yes, How to Rule the World came to life in about nine months total, which is a fast turn-around. About the time it takes to have a child, in fact. And that’s because the play is so urgent; it’s very much about the now. The way that we understand each other, and understand politics, has greatly shifted in the last few years and people have a lot of questions about where this world is going. This play is very much in response to that. In particular, what is it to be a young person of colour who wants to make an impact on the world, and who actually wants to engage with democracy? I don’t think these issues are limited to people of colour or young people, but that’s my story and my perspective, and it’s a new way to do a political satire.

It’s been really collaborative because of this short birth period, and because of the importance of getting to the most relevant crux of this story and the questions it asks: what is the cost of power? And what does it mean as a community to create hope for others, and invest in the future? What does it mean emotionally – and practically? This is very much something we as a team have been thinking about together, I wrote with Michelle [Lim Davidson] and Anthony [Taufa] in mind.

It’s also a new work, and doing a new work is very different from doing a classic, at least the first week of rehearsals is spent on the script. And finally, since I’m having to be on the floor and also be playwright I’ve relied on Paige and Polly to have an eye over the entire world, so I could really delve into the characters.

When you present arguments in the play they are almost always coupled with a counter-argument. Why is this important?

Partly because I don’t want to be didactic. But it’s not with intent that I put forward certain opposing arguments, rather that I think in order to be a playwright you have to create characters who have obstacles and different opinions. I’m not a lecturer or philosopher, I don’t write essays. I have opinions about society, but so does every person. If you’re going to criticise the world, you must criticise what you have to say first – which I guess is why I write, at the end of the day.

I never studied playwriting; my background before coming into theatre was law and so much of that is problem solving, you’re trying to figure out how to get to the end. And so with a lot of my work, I have an idea of what the end might look like, or who the characters are, and then I have to try and figure out how to get them where I want them to go. I’m not precious about which arguments need to be voiced, I’m interested in characters and drama.

What is the experience like of acting in your own play? Does it change the way you write?

It’s always a really weird experience. I love working with actors [when writing], I think actors are incredible dramaturgs, and as a writer I love being able to give my words over to people who bring them to life. So it’s fun, but also at times frustrating to get to know your words in a different way as an actor. Sometimes once I act the script I think, “why did I write this!”, but others in the room will convince me to trust my own words.

I actually never thought I would play Vic. I didn’t write her with myself in mind, it was a discovery. Everyone told me, “you’re kind of writing yourself”, which is not great when you think about the character. She’s a pretty messy political reporter!

What sort of questions and feelings do you hope audiences will be left with by the end of How to Rule the World?

I hope this play creates space for people to feel like they are part of a community, which ultimately is why theatre is so special. You sit in a room with strangers and go on a journey with them, experiencing a whole array of emotions together; it’s not a solitary experience. I want How to Rule the World to create a space where people can engage with the tough political ideas and questions that Australia has right now. What is it to support Aboriginal people into the future when, so often, so much of Aboriginal politics is focused on the past? How do you engage with a democracy outside of just voting?

I don’t know what hope looks like, but I believe in it. And I would like the audience to. More than anything, I hope the words do that. I want to see what hope looks like from them.


How to Rule the World, 11 Feb – 30 Mar 2019, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

Seeing the show? Pick up a souvenir play program from the Drama Theatre Box Office for $12, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and info about cast and creatives. You can pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.

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