Arts / Living with the oddities of a new life

SHAUN Tan is one of that rare breed of artist who is equally adept at telling stories in words and pictures, but a production adapted from his book “The Arrival” has no words at all.

In an adaption by Fremantle’s Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, directed by Philip Mitchell with music by Lee Buddle, young audiences during the ACT school holidays will be invited into the shoes of middle-aged immigrant Aki, who leaves his wife and child to seek better prospects, finding himself on the other side of an ocean in a place not unlike the Perth of Tan’s birth, with odd customs, odder animals and weird objects.

He survives through the kindness of strangers, as so many before him have done.

“The Arrival” was published in 2006 as a graphic novel where, cinema-like, Tan told a story in frames and panels of a father migrating to a new land – maybe Australia, although a version has also been staged in NZ.

It’s a timely show, dealing as it does with what a migrant faces, a perennial issue.

In writing his novel, Tan drew on stories from his dad, who migrated from Malaysia in the early ’60s and never stopped complaining about “the unpalatable food, too cold or too hot weather, amusing misunderstandings, difficult isolation, odd student jobs and so on”.

And, as a half-Chinese boy, he was constantly being asked: “Where are you from?”

A brilliant illustrator who spent his childhood illustrating poems and stories with dinosaurs, robots and spaceships, he nearly studied to become a geneticist, but instead he took out a degree in literature from the University of WA.

Since then, he has become a household name not only through books such as “The Rabbits”, “The Red Tree” and “Tales from Outer Suburbia”, but as an artist for animated films including Pixar’s “WALL-E” and director of the Academy Award-winning short film “The Lost Thing”.

Tan’s flirtation with theatre began in Canberra with the 2004 production of “The Lost Thing” at the NGA by Jigsaw Theatre Company’s Greg Lissaman.

“This is a very interesting area for me as a painter and book illustrator, having to apply existing skills of drawing and story telling to new technical problems, of which there are plenty,” Tan has said.

“The Arrival” production is targeted to a new generation, giving a human face to the migration issue and is consistent with Tan’s belief that children react particularly well to issues of natural justice.

As well, he says: “We might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land.”

“The Arrival”, The Street Theatre, September 27-30. Bookings to or 6247 1223.

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