Kumiko Mendl, founder member of leading British East and South East Asian (BESEA) theatre company New Earth Theatre, announces her decision to step down from her role as Artistic Director after 11 years, leaving the company in 2024.
New Earth Theatre was founded in 1995 by Mendl, David K.S. Tse, Tom Wu, Veronica Needa and Kwong Loke under the name Yellow Earth Theatre. Since becoming the Artistic Director in 2011, Mendl has championed the work of British East and South East Asian artists and communities; spearheaded a rebranding to New Earth and established strong creative support systems for BESEA artistic and community networks.
Kumiko Mendl said today: “This is without doubt a bittersweet moment for me. The company has played a very large part in my professional working life but after 11 years of leading the company it’s time for me to hand the baton over and pursue my own creative adventures.
It has been an incredible privilege to have worked in what has been, an exhilarating, joyful and at times challenging space. But I have always felt secure in the knowledge that what we have created and achieved has been meaningful, necessary and true to purpose. We can and have made a difference to the stories that are being told and being heard on our stages and one of the greatest pleasures has been to witness the growth of our sector into a flourishing, confident and diverse one.
All of our collective achievements would not have been possible without our small but dedicated and hardworking team, the constant support of our Board throughout the years, the many talented and passionate BESEA artists who make up our sector, our audiences and Arts Council England who have enabled us to continue our work.
I hold great hope and confidence in a bold and exciting future both for New Earth and our sector and look forward to seeing the next chapter unfold.”
Chair, Wai Mun Yoon commented: “Kumiko has been the heart and soul of New Earth for the last 11 years and our company has never been stronger thanks to her unwavering drive and vision.
From the start, her recognition that the future of theatre lay in the hands of emerging artists, coupled with her commitment to improved BESEA representation, led to her fearless focus on developing programmes to nurture talent across all aspects of the theatrical production process.
Throughout her tenure, she has remained steadfast in her commitment to artistic excellence and innovation, while forging meaningful collaborations with other theatre companies and theatre professionals to turn New Earth into the hub of artistic diversity it is today.
As she steps down from her role, her absence will be deeply felt. But we take solace in the knowledge that her influence will endure. Kumiko’s legacy will continue to resonate through our performances, the artists she has nurtured and the audiences she has moved.”
At the heart of Mendl’s tenure is her passion to advocate and support the work of BESEA creatives and creative communities. Alongside previous general manager Chris Corner, New Earth Theatre became a powerhouse of new writing that forged space for BESEA voices and talent development within the theatrical landscape, beginning with the innovative Dim Sum Nights that seeded and platformed new writers and creatives and led to two successful tours, followed by a number of landmark productions including Tamburlaine adapted by Ng Choon Ping, Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok by In-Sook Chappell, Forgotten 遗忘 by Daniel York Loh, Flight Paths with Extant, and a number she directed or co-directed herself; Why the Lion Danced, The Last Days of Limehouse, and Tsunagu/Connect Live.
Early into her tenure, Mendl made New Earth Academy an annual fixture, the first of its kind to offer free courses for performers, writers, backstage technicians and creatives specifically to redress the underrepresentation of BESEAs in the arts. Today, the company has over 300 alumni and runs academies annually in four cities and online, supported by over seventeen partner venues and organisations. Alumni include Jessica Henwick (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery), Isabella Leung (Finalist of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting 2021), Mei Mac (First ever BESEA nominee for Best Actress at the Olivier Awards 2023) and Jasmin Thien (Associate Artist for Extant, the UK’s leading company for visually impaired artists).
As an actress herself and understanding the barriers faced by recent graduates, Mendl established with actor Orion Lee (First Cow, Turning Red) the annual Constellation Creatives Bursary, now in its eleventh year with an aim to encourage and stimulate greater participation and representation of British East and South East Asian actors on stage and screen. It is awarded to an outstanding BESEA drama school graduate and seeks to celebrate BESEA talent whilst supporting the journey from graduating student to professional actor. The judging panel included Heads of Casting at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC.
With funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, New Earth then forged the New Earth Professional Writers Programme (PWP) to make a step change in BESEA writing. Working with 21 writers across four years, including Rogelio Braga, Kyo Choi, Joanne Lau, Lao Lee, Nemo Martin, Amy Ng, Julie Tsang and Marie Yan; the programme developed 8 full length plays of which 5 were taken to commission, further development or full production. The scheme has grown into the New Earth Fellowship programme, with Jude Christian named as the company’s first fellow.
This work saw Mendl successfully bringing New Earth Theatre into the Arts Council National Portfolio for 2018 onwards. With Executive Producer Lian Wilkinson, she has led the company through the Covid-19 pandemic and relaunched from Yellow Earth to New Earth Theatre during their 25th Anniversary. New Earth was among the first companies to stage live work in 2020 with Signal Fires: Beyond Chinatown in Manchester, and to tour in 2021 a co-production with Storyhouse, presenting Miss Julie adapted by Amy Ng; and recently created and produced the Tsunagu/Connect project, and produced two PWP plays; The Apology by Kyo Choi and WORTH by Joanne Lau, also in co-production with Storyhouse.
Under her leadership, New Earth Theatre has recently secured new associate partnerships with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and Central School of Speech and Drama, furthering New Earth’s mission and aiding the growth of its audiences across the UK. The company has also just been awarded three year funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to further its community focused work outside of London.
The role of Artistic Director of New Earth Theatre will be advertised in Autumn 2023, joining Executive Director Lian Wilkinson early next year. Kumiko Mendl will remain in the company to ensure a smooth handover as the company gears up for their 30th anniversary.”