Why I left the Original West End Cast of Disney’s Frozen for the EdFringe
Foreward by Justin Clarke
After successful runs in the West End, most recently in Disney's Frozen, as well as Cyrano de Bergerac and Evita, actor and performer Chris Fung has decided to leave the safety of the West End for the edge of your seat thrills of being a performer in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Fung shares with us his career and his decision to create a new piece of work, The Society for New Cuisine, a dark satirical fable that is an extended Buddhist allegory which also deals with consumerism, mental health and existential crisis.
Written by Chris Fung
People thought I was mad to turn down a West End contract extension of one of the most famous Disney musicals of all time to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But it made absolute sense to me at the time.
‘Are you crazy?!’ Production image from THE SOCIETY FOR NEW CUISINE featuring ChrisFung. Photo: Kawa Headshots
It boiled down to two very simple questions. ‘What are you afraid of?’ and ‘What are you truly interested in exploring?’
For millions, working for Disney is the culmination of a dream. Sensibly, the idea of working is a feat. In a 2019 study by Queen Mary University of London showed unemployment rates of UK actors were as high as 90%, with as few as 2% able to make a living.
Why? Not, why is the Arts system broken domestically and internationally - that’s presumably the topic of many many social science doctorates, but: why would anybody invest significant resources into pursuing professional creativity when the opportunities are so disparate?
The Arts are not the easiest way to make money. You only need to live the reality of drowning in a sea of silence, for a short amount of time to realise this. The teeming millions of unemployed creatives are FULL to the brim with talent, and drive, and optimism.
So why would anybody sacrifice their LIFE in order to accept this fundamentally unfair distribution of opportunity?
My answer: to be creative.
To ask and answer questions that can only be explored by a full and dedicated heart. To fully give flight to your curiosity.
I wonder who else feels the same way. I have the feeling that ALL of these people will naturally gravitate to the Fringe.
A Broken System broken some more because of COVID
The Arts Council reports that post-COVID, many actors and agents left the sector. This makes sense. COVID gave us all the chance to look at our lives and find them wanting. It isn’t just actors.
The Big Quit led to 20-25% of folk across all industries in the UK/US/AU leaving their jobs. In China, ‘Tangping’ has led to hundreds of thousands abandoning high income occupations to lead much simpler, poorer rural existences. There is a deep dissatisfaction with our governance, and occupation, and worklife balance. Trust in the institutions that shape society is at an all time low.
Increasingly more are wondering, have wondered, at the cost of our life choices. How can we continue to walk about, all crumbly, on crumbly streets, in crumbly neighbourhoods - unfulfilled, and gritting our teeth?
You’ve managed to get yourself into a Disney show. There is the prospect of working in it for at least one more year, perhaps many more. Is this enough? Are you an idiot for throwing away this great privilege when there’s no guarantee of future work?
Chris Fung as King Agnarr in the Original West End production of Disney’s Frozen. This is his final bow on Sept 25, graciously given by Jacqui Anderson Sanchez as Queen Iduna. Photo: @miagaywood
Why are you even doing what you are doing?
All commercially successful musicals require their performers to consistently and dynamically fill the exact requirements of their particular tracks with respect to the three main disciplines: Singing, Acting and Dancing. There’s a hidden 4th requirement that nobody talks about because it’s unsavoury: body composition and physicality. The 5th is even more unsavoury, which is your social media following.
Meeting these requirements can be complex. Professional Musical Theatre casts are Olympian in their athleticism. They have all been seasoned by hundreds upon hundreds of rejections and audition rooms. They have sacrificed to learn difficult lessons and earn ease.
Rehearsals can be like a race start for NASCAR. You need to have the craft to take off. You are hired for the speed with which you take in new. After you’ve learned the show, the world settles.
Now you play a defensive game, as you strive together as a company towards consistency. The same high degree of professionalism every show. The audience have paid the same amount for show 400, as they did for show three.
Because of this, most performers in their training are more concerned with raising the floor of their capacity, than their ceiling. It is about maintaining a certain standard eight shows a week. Not excelling or setting new records or pushing. Meeting.
There is no more discovery to be found. You all know the corners of the show. There is no more surprise. There is: stand on eight, do a triple pirouette, a back handspring, and belt at the top of your lungs. You must remember that the children watching tonight are seeing this for the first time. They are witnessing true magic.
You must become willfully ignorant of the 399 shows before.
It is new again tonight. Steadily, your sense of artistic wonder begins to erode as your primary driver. Something must replace it. Whether it be ego and Instagram followers, or the sure knowledge that you are building a life through payment of a mortgage/raising a family, or love for the company, or that this one job will lead to more opportunity later, or even simply, you’re too old to retrain and performing is the best of your remaining options.
Some people call this maturing, and they juggle these alongside their feeling of play. Please don’t get me wrong, these drivers are not less than or more than any other. Nobody has the right to tell another what they should want, but honestly understanding what you are interested gives you honesty in your pursuit.
I realise that none are as important to me right now, as my hunger to play.
I wonder if there are creatives who prioritise this feeling of play above safety, and if doing so is reserved for the reckless or truly privileged, or the mad.
When we begin, our creative exploration is our only concern. Then steadily that changes. We do not begin with mortgages and safety and ego. Instead, we wonder and dance and ask: ‘What if?’ and ‘Suppose a chair were bitten by a werewolf?’ or in my case: ‘What if the bible was telling us literally that if we tracked down the remains of Jesus Christ and ate his actual flesh, that we would obtain enlightenment?’
I wonder if it’s possible to have it all.
I started writing this piece with my resident director at Frozen, Alexander Sims. He’s done a fair bit of work with new writers, and loves the exploration associated with it. I would take him little diary entries and fragments of my writing, stories of Cthulhu, and the opening monologue of The Woman In Black, and plays by Mark O’Rowe and Dennis Kelly and Sarah Kane, and together we would wonder if we had the beginnings of a play. After some workshops and developments, we end up with a piece.
THE SOCIETY FOR NEW CUISINE is a one-person play, where, guided by a shadowy organisation, a rational man processes an existential crisis by eating. In his search for satisfaction, he pursues some unusual appetites. This is a buddhist allegory based on the teachings of Lama Thubten Yeshe. What would you need to eat to feel satisfied forever?
We progress and get dramaturgy from Sophie Drake, and Martin Crimp and Jamie Lloyd and The Royal Court, and Rupert Hands and Jenny Eastop. A question begins to brew.
What could this be?
I don’t know creatively what my limits are, but I do know that I am powerfully curious to meet the next wave of hungry young creatives who are interested in growing in the same direction. The next Tarantino, or Bong Joon-Ho, or Charlie Brooker, or Katie Mitchell, or Cixin Liu or Neil Gaiman or Harlan Ellison. Hayao Miyazaki, Lin Manuel Miranda, Dominic Woodhead. JRB, Chapelle, Burnham, Tim Crouch. I want to find people who invigorate me, and who I can invigorate.
I am hungry for community.
It’s no longer about just working. Even in the probabilistic world that I may not do so again for a very long time, or ever.
All of this is worth it for the prospect of play.
THE SOCIETY FOR NEW CUISINE will play at the Edinburgh Fringe at Underbelly Cowgate - Iron Belly from Aug 3 - 27 (not 14) @ 6:40 pm.