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Actress Michelle was raised on two continents but got the acting bug in Huddersfield

British-born Chinese actress Michelle Yim says she has Huddersfield to thank for an acting career

Michelle Yim in The Autumn of Han, a Red Dragonfly production. Photo Ross Ericson

It was a cold, damp Saturday evening in Meltham and actress/producer Michelle Yim wasn’t too hopeful about an audience turning out to see her company’s play about the First World War.

As she says: “Strictly was on, so when a few people arrived at the Carlile I thought that was it. But then the room filled and we ended up playing to a full house.” In fact, they’ve played to packed houses almost everywhere they’ve been.

The show that Michelle and her partner Ross Ericson had brought to Meltham’s Carlile Community Hub was The Unknown Soldier, written and performed by Ross and created as part of the WW1 commemorations. It gives a voice to a single soldier, a man who reflects on the horrors of trench warfare, the maimed survivors and bloody corpses. It was inspired, says Michelle, by stories of what happened at the end of the war, when bodies were being dug up and the great cemeteries erected. “Many people have written about the war,” she explains, “but not so many have written plays about what happened afterwards. There were no jobs, workers were striking, there was a flu epidemic; they weren’t just celebrating victory.”

Ross Ericson in The Unknown Soldier

As Ross says in the introduction to the book of his play: “They never got their land fit for heroes, many of the pre-war injustices not only remained but were compounded, and although the dead were remembered the living were forgotten.”

Michelle, now 31, has been delighted by the response to the play. It was premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, earned a five-star review and has been on tour on and off ever since. She’s hoping to bring it back to the Carlile for Remembrance Week during the 2018 anniversary of the end of WW1.

While the subject matter is powerful and tragic, Michelle says that the first aim of Grist to the Mill is to entertain. “Ultimately, we don’t think people go to the theatre to be educated. Our show has subtle messages that we hope people take away with them,” she explained.

Huddersfield-born actress Michelle Yim of Red Dragonfly and Grist to the Mill

Ross and Michelle formed their own company, Grist to the Mill Productions Ltd, five years ago to perform original material written by Ross, whose extensive credits include a stage adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Michelle, however, also masterminds Red Dragonfly Productions, a company that brings classic Chinese stories to the stage – but in English and with a Western twist. Together they have worked on DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan and The Autumn of Han.

Red Dragonfly reflects her Chinese ancestry. But while she was brought up in both Hong Kong and Singapore, Michelle was born in Huddersfield. Her parents, Anthony and Nancy Yim, originally from Hong Kong – at the time a British colony – were students at the former Huddersfield Polytechnic.

Michelle Yim in DiaoChain: The Rise of the Courtesan, picture by Ross Ericson

The family returned to Huddersfield when Michelle was 14 and she attended both Honley High School and Greenhead College, where she showed a keen interest in drama. Educated at an international school abroad, Michelle says she never realised that drama was a subject that she could study until she came back to Huddersfield. “Sometimes I think that maybe I started late, but drama wasn’t a subject in Hong Kong or Singapore. In Huddersfield I was part of school productions and I was the lead in Guys and Dolls for my final year at Honley. I think that Yorkshire is such an artistic place to live,” she said.

Marsden's Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society performs Annie

Having enjoyed drama at school Michelle did a degree in the subject at Bristol University and then, after working in a supermarket while deciding what to do, went to drama school in London for a year. Since then she has worked as a professional actress, mainly in the south, before teaming up with Ross, whom she met while appearing in a production of A Christmas Carol in London.

Michelle admits that launching Red Dragonfly has enabled her to access funding because it “ticks boxes for ethnicity” and because it provides parts for what she calls “British Born Chinese” like herself. She explained: “I prefer things that are traditional, like Shakespeare and restoration comedy and farce, but I don’t get a lot of chances to do them because I’m ethnic.” Producing, however, allows her to work on all manner of shows.

The Autumn of Han, a production by Red Dragonfly

Modestly, Michelle says most of her acting work has been small parts but she can lay claim to television roles in Sherlock and Blue Murder and has been in numerous short films. She is trilingual and also works as a voice-over artist in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

She admits that her parents, an accountant and midwife by training, were a little surprised that their daughters should have made careers in the arts (her sister Pearl is a musician) but Michelle clearly enjoys her nomadic and varied theatrical life. And it’s a career that aims to make a difference in the arts.

Next year, Michelle and Ross will see the culmination of a long-term project they have been running to find new voices from the British East Asian, South Asian and South East Asian communities. Entitled Taking Flight, the writing competition is a collaboration between Grist to the Mill and Red Dragonfly and has already shortlisted eight new playwrights. Three winning plays will go on tour around the country – coming to Leeds in February 2017.

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