Samuel Lau on forging artistic identity, finding community

Who am I? Where do I fit? Why do I feel this way? Such ubiquitous notions could be easily dismissed, but these thoughts have been the driving force behind Samuel Lau’s latest project, Walk of the Ancestors. Lau is based in Adelaide and has cultural roots in Hong-Kong. He admits that he has often found himself between two worlds, turning to hyphenates in an attempt to label his cultural and artistic identity. Through his art, he is learning to navigate what it means to be an Asian-Australian actor-musician.

Samuel Lau | image credit – Lok

Lau graduated from the Adelaide College of the Arts at the end of 2019. Despite the challenges facing the world since the year 2020, he has gained much in the way of booking work and receiving creative development mentorship and funding for his artistic practice. Lau is the current recipient of the Brink Residency at The Mill, and as he nears the end of his residency, he reflects on his accomplishments to date.

One of the first organisations to book Lau was ActNow Theatre, whom he still works for as an actor and facilitator. “I really think the support from ActNow Theatre is so monumental for the type of artist and person I want to be. I’m really honoured to be able to work with them. They were the first people I worked with after graduating. I found such a community.”

In 2021, Lau was a recipient of a MakeSpace Residency provided by ActNow Theatre to BIPOC artists. He used this funding to bring together a group of like-minded Asian-Australian creatives who collectively reflected on their experience growing up between two cultures. One of the common themes which kept being raised was ‘family’ and a short film was created to express the artists’ disconnect with their environment; the exchange helped Lau to develop a vocabulary to articulate his sense of disconnectedness as an artist. This experience was the catalyst for Lau’s self-exploration. “I’ve come to reconcile my place, I feel empowered, I know my identity. My story bears guilt and a sense of duty. I don’t want to disappoint my parents; I’ve always had guilt for wanting to pursue an artistic career.”

Samuel Lau | image credit – Chasing Chi

A much larger idea was brewing inside Lau, one that would see him delve deeper into his personal history, he recalls, “I knew this story needed to be told. It’s culturally-specific but it’s an Australian story”. Themes of filial piety became the centre of Lau’s project, Walk of the Ancestors. Armed with an inSPACE development (Adelaide Festival Centre) and Breakout Residency (The Mill / Brink Productions), Lau had the space, time, and resources to bring his work to life. Generational stories have inspired Lau to investigate and create original work, and he has an incredible resource at his disposal in order to do so. A great uncle of Lau’s conducted a wealth of research and collated his findings in a book which traces Lau’s family history as far back as 700 years. “As I’m creating, I’m getting closer to my ancestors, trying to embody them through acting, improvisation, empathy… I’m walking with my ancestors”.

Lau credits his mentors and collaborators for his success to date. In particular, he appreciates the guidance he has received from Chris Drummond, artistic director of Brink Productions. “I wouldn’t know how to do this project without the support of Chris. Through his mentorship I’ve learned to work differently and not be bogged down in my questions [which] really block the creative process.” Other collaborators have been brought into the creative development, two of whom Lau met through his involvement with Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP). Valerie Berry, an experienced theatre maker, cast an objective eye over the work and brought up great points, and musician Zhao Liang has contributed musical ideas through playing the guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument. Lau, who plays the piano, sees the juxtaposition of the guzheng and piano as symbolic of the two cultures he lives in. Furthermore, he is enjoying exploring how the spoken word and music complement one another.

Samuel Lau at the CAAP South Australian Artist Lab 2021 | image credit – Emma Luker

In a similar way he is building relationships with artists whose work complements his own. During the interview, he endearingly states, “I’ve found my people!” Lau acknowledges community as one of most important elements of his artist practice and while listening to him, one gets a sense of deep gratitude.

“Thank you to ActNow Theatre, Brink Productions, and inSPACE. I’m really grateful. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve got these opportunities. I never want to disappoint people who really believe in me. That can be it’s own trap – this fear of failure. Being really grateful, instead of fearing that I’ll fail, has really given me peace and confidence. [I] create out of gratitude, not fear”.

The Walk of the Ancestors continues its creative development through the inSPACE development program provided by the Adelaide Festival Centre. Sam Lau’s next Q and A showing for this work will take place at 6pm on Thursday, 13 October 2022, in the Drama Centre Rehearsal Room. More information about the event can be found here.

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