World Pollination: Q&A With Hot Brown Honey
Ellen Desmond speaks with Lisa Fa’alafi of Hot Brown Honey about performer wellbeing, using the arts as activism and being a powerful minority voice at some of the world’s biggest arts festivals.
Lisa Fa’alafi is known for pushing cultural and gender boundaries. Her work is visually stunning, highly entertaining, conceptual, political, and satirical at heart. She earned her artistic stripes as Co-Director of artist collective Polytoxic. Fa’alafi is co-creator, writer, director, designer, choreographer, and performer for the international smash hit Hot Brown Honey (HBH).
From theatre and dance direction, to immersive and interactive costume and set design, as well as performance itself, through
to her work as a speaker on diversity and intersectional feminism in theatre, Fa’alafi has worked with numerous renowned artists and companies all over the world. Fa’alafi has also spent almost 20 years working in the community and cultural sectors, delivering projects and directing works across Australia.
Fresh from their World Pollination Tour, performing across six countries, HBH has received massive popular and critical acclaim; winning the prestigious 2016 UK Total Theatre Award for Innovation, Experimentation and Playing with Form; 2016 Greenroom Awards for Best Production and Best Design; 2017 Helpmann Award for Best Cabaret Performer; and 2018 Nominee for Best Touring Production at the UK Theatre Awards.
Q. How did everything go with your latest show?
Working on Hive City Legacy was incredible. Hive City is an alliance of young artists who we mobilise to appear together for the first time. We work to equip them with the skills to shift the paradigm.
We started work on the show in 2018 when Roundhouse London approached HBH to develop an idea working with London femmes of colour. HBH really has been our platform for challenging the status quo by presenting our stories, and Hive City Legacy was an opportunity to open doors for other people.
It started from an idea: ‘What if we could have an entire team, cast, creative, and technical that were all femmes of colour?’ We had 250 applications and ended up with a cast of 9 and a creative team of 10!
In 2019 Hive City Legacy was invited to return for not only another season at Roundhouse but to head off on tour to Manchester, Wales, and Bristol. It’s been the most incredible journey growing the Hive—having the chance to place them centre stage, and sharing our belief that art has the capacity to make change. We cannot wait to continue this legacy, using the Hive City concept as a template to create a global Hive, starting with new hives in Africa, North America, Oceania, and South America.
Q. What made you want to get involved with Hot Brown Honey?
I have always made work that interrogates what it’s like to walk through society as part of the ‘other box’. Early on in my career I saw the limited opportunities within theatre and dance for someone who looked like me. From that moment, I began working within the independent theatre and dance sectors.
I had known HBH co-writer and musical director Busty Beatz for 10 years. We worked together on numerous arts projects within Indigenous, refugee, and migrant communities. We’d both also worked tirelessly creating and producing our own theatre works. During this time, we consistently came across barriers to representing work like ours. Our projects were considered too ‘risky’. We were always asked what audiences would be interested in this type of work; we were navigating a sector that only wanted to present our work as part of the ‘Ethnic box’.
As a result, our work often floated on the fringes, never really able to infiltrate mainstream theatre programs. It was on those fringes HBH started—as a place where like-minded artists of colour could experiment, and tell the stories considered too risky for main theatre.
In 2015, Busty and I decided to take what was once a club night and write ourselves onto main stages. We wrote a show we knew would be so entertaining that mainstream theatres wouldn’t be able to resist its appeal—but we sneakily wrapped up this fun-filled night with radical gender and race politics. It was time to get through the gatekeepers and pry the door open for others to come after us.
Q. What’s your favourite thing about being part of Hot Brown Honey?
Giving space to world first nations stories; giving space to women’s and femmes’ stories; creating spaces where others can come and see their faces—their stories—reflected back.
Q. As a creative yourself, do you feel your art has an effect on your own wellbeing?
Yes. I think being able to use art to help me make sense of the world, and my part in it, is at the heart of why art is so important to me and my wellbeing. It’s a platform I can use to feel like I am both fulfilling a need to be creative and as a tool for social activism.
Q. Do you think the Hot Brown Honey team feel vulnerable putting themselves out there during a performance? Or is it empowering? Or both?
I think being a performer, you, by default, always operate in a vulnerable state. Being a performer in a show like HBH potentially heightens this vulnerability as you are also challenging the status quo. Challenging people’s perceptions of the world, and purposely making work that makes people question, and therefore discuss, the world they live in. Of course, there is also power in this. I feel the team continuously rides the line between creating change which feels powerful and feeling the burden of speaking such truths.
Q. How do you manage to take care of yourself during such busy performance schedules and training routines?
Self-care is an ongoing struggle, between workload, the emotional load of the show, general health, and maintaining healthy relationships. We view it in terms of community care, we continuously strategise about what our team needs, whether that be a physio appointment or counselling when needed. We use after tour surveys to stay in the loop with how our team felt, and figure out any additional support they might need.
We also make contact with other artists and supporters everywhere we tour; some offer support, childcare, a shared meal, a cup of tea with local matriarchs, or we share our art forms.
When you’re one of the people at the helm, you often put your own care last, your priority is the team, and sometimes it’s hard to not work yourself into the ground. Luckily for me, I have a wonderful support network, people who understand the pressure I’m under and also what support I might need, even if that’s just a hug… oh and I take heaps of vitamins!
Q. How can festivals give better platform to artists of colour and other minority groups?
Visibility is the key. Festivals need to program works that truly reflect the multicultural societies we live in. They need to look at their programming and include more diverse stories. They need to create spaces in which all people feel welcome, where they know they will see faces that look like theirs, where audiences will also feel welcome. This shouldn’t just happen on the stage, they also need to change the way they appoint their boards, cleaning staff, front of house, producers, programmers, security, technical staff, and so on.
Q. What tip would you give to someone who is struggling to put themselves out there creatively?
For POC artists: find other artists whose work you connect with, see their shows, ask them to see yours, grow your community.
At Edfringe, for example, the growing need for connecting with each other has seen the expansion of @FringeOfColour who are actively collating all the shows with POC performers, get on it!
If we build our community and make it stronger then together we can help shift the landscape.
For all HBH updates follow @hotbrownhoney.