Hester Welch: On making theatre, moving abroad and embracing your nakedness on Zoom

It can be hard to track her down sometimes. Before the pandemic brought the world to a halt, Hester never seemed to stay put at one place for long, as she travelled to different parts of the world for her many theatre and drama education projects. 

We met almost a decade ago when we were students at Goldsmiths, where our shared interest in theatre brought us together. We spent a glorious summer rehearsing lines, wandering the streets of Edinburgh with stacks of flyers, jostling with other performers for passersby’ share of wallet, getting drunk, and wondering how on earth Hester got her foot stabbed the night before the show’s premiere.

In the ensuing years, Hester’s love for theatre has not waned at all. She is a theatre maker, director, producer, performer and drama educator. Her projects have brought her to France, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Canada and most recently, the seemingly borderless internet. 

Recently I caught up with Hester via Zoom (ok, for transparency’s sake, it’s Google Meet but let’s face it, Zoom sounds punchier) to talk about her love for theatre, her latest projects, moving abroad, trying out new food and embracing your nakedness on Zoom.

What kind of theatre work do you primarily focus on? And what draws you to that? 

I primarily work on physical and visual theatre, often with a focus on social connection or political emphasis. I’m drawn to the use of physical and visual theatre because I find that it’s more visceral and less cerebral than a text-based approach, and can affect the heart more, which is important when you want to effectively convey social messages to the audience. It also works better internationally as it bypasses language barriers.

However, with the constraints brought about by the lockdown, I have actually been trying out different art forms such as shadow puppetry, as I realise it’s important not to pigeon hole yourself as an artist. 

How did your passion for theatre begin?

I was 10 years old when I played the main part in a school play, and there was an issue with the sound when I was onstage and everything just came to a stop. I think that was the first time I was in a situation where everything went wrong and yet I had to keep going. I got that taste of adrenaline in live performance. Theatre is community, where you have to work together as a team with the rest of the cast and crew (and sometimes the audience) to keep it alive, even when things don’t work out the way you expect them to; and I realised that’s something I truly enjoy.

Can you tell us a bit about your latest project? 

Yes! I have recently co-founded Wayang Kitchen, a company that creates culinary theatre experiences in Malaysia. We create immersive performances where stories are inspired by the food you eat during the show. 

One of the plays we have been writing is called The Far China Monologues (it’s a word play on The Vagina Monologues!!!). It is inspired by the experiences of a spectrum of Chinese Malaysian women in Kuala Lumpur, and explores the duality of being a modern Malaysian woman with Chinese heritage. The show is in collaboration with Concubine KL, a funky bar/restaurant in Chinatown. 

Due to covid-19, we have also made interactive videos, which we call EATertainment, that pair with the curated menu from our partner restaurants. The story comes to life as the audience / customer chooses where the plot goes based on the dishes in front of them.

Promo image from The Far China Monologues

That sounds like a very interesting concept! I mean, food and theatre – what more does one need in life? So I have a question. Why food and theatre? What do you think is the power that comes from the interplay between food and theatre?

Food brings people together, just as theatre does. Meal times are common places for storytelling and connecting with others. By combining food and theatre, the experience goes much deeper.

Just ask someone about their favourite childhood dish and see as their face lights up sharing stories of their past.  Food naturally creates engaging, relevant stories. I want to challenge and inspire audiences through shared experiences, and I think food is a brilliant way to do it.

Your theatre work has taken you to different countries around the world. Can you tell us more about that? Are there common themes that run through all your work?

All my work has touched on international cultures! I have worked as a director with a French Japanese theatre company that draws on the heritage of the two founders – one French and one Japanese.

In China, I’ve mainly worked as a drama educator for both young children and drama teachers. China was the first place I lived outside of the UK, and it was such a good learning experience to just be thrown into the deep end, to a culture that is very different from my own. I think engaging in drama education also gave me an opportunity to look at drama from a very different perspective, as the ideas and processes themselves are what matter, as opposed to the end result.

What is the best memory of your work so far?

Recently I have been working with an alternative comedy hub called The Lost Cabaret. Due to lockdown measures, their shows have moved online, of which I have performed in.

I made a sketch centred around my character who is supposedly incredibly shy and self conscious, yet who loves to just turn up in her birthday suit. 

Unfortunately, as I was about to perform, my laptop went out of battery and the screen went dark. Desperate to fix it before I was supposed to go on the Zoom ‘stage’, I just started hitting all the buttons – whilst I was still very much naked, hovering above my laptop.

Unbeknownst to me, the laptop was still on – it’s only the screen that has gone dark. Which means I have been showing my boobs – close up style – to the audience the entire time, and it ultimately added to the hilarity in a way I couldn’t have planned!

And it was fun because I would have never done this a few years ago, to go ‘fuck it, I’ll just perform naked and get my tits out’. I think this epitomises the growth I’ve had as an artist in the past few years, which is to trust your instincts and take more risks!

If you could give one advice to yourself 5 years ago, what would it be? 

Give less fucks.

As someone who has lived in several countries, what advice would you give to those who are interested in moving abroad? 

Diversify your social circles: connect and engage with people of different cultures and backgrounds. 

Get out of your comfort zone and try to experience as much as you can. Take on experiences you would never have thought you’d say yes to.

And try new food! 

To learn more about Hester and her work, visit hesterwelch.com 
To learn more about Wayang Kitchen, and to try out their EATertainment if you’re in Malaysia, head over to their page

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