Artistic Report for the Australia Council of the Arts
by Mr. Huu Tran
Aussie Bia Om, performed 19-29 September 2001, Trades Hall Theatre, North Carlton, Melbourne, was a community theatre project, aimed at exploring the issues prevalent in the lives of young people in today’s society. It encouraged an understanding of the arts and cultural activity in young Vietnamese people. It supported collaborations between professional artists and community members, to ensure that artistic and social value of community cultural development is widely accepted.
The story of Aussie Bia Om is set in the future Australia of 2010 in Australia’s first Bia Om, an entertainment superstore for adults. The play follows the journey of Aussie Bia Om’s owner, Bob Williams, his workers and customers. It is a tale of intrigue and betrayal which explores greed, exploitation and sexuality. It looks at a society driven by money, power and corruption.
Aussie Bia Om required me to work for one year to research, network, promote and create the structure for the play. From the beginning of the project, I had two young Vietnamese women helping me research, collect articles, search the Internet and talk with young people about the relevant issues in today’s society. Unfortunately, due to changing life styles and school commitments these two young women didn’t complete the project. At this time Tony Le Nguyen, my colleague, stepped in to assist me as a co-writer. With Tony’s experience and the opportunity to travel around the world with his fellowship, I thought he was the right person to write Aussie Bia Om with me. Tony is an established theatre writer and director. He has his own networks and audience groups and through these I was sure Aussie Bia Om would attract larger audiences. In addition to this, the original concept for Aussie Bia Om was created after one night’s conversation between Tony and I about his trip to Vietnam in 1998. He told me about his observations of the current Bia Om situation in Vietnam and I told him about my observation during my last visit.
While Tony travelled overseas to observe the Bia Om situation in Vietnam, I was back home in Australia working with other key artists and the Vietnamese community to generate new audiences from diverse backgrounds. I promoted the ideas of Aussie Bia Om to Melbourne Workers Theatre, and received much valuable feedback. Tony and I exchanging emails three times per week for over 7 months. We bounced ideas and discussed the process of development for the performance. We constantly talked about all aspects of organising a performance, including scripting, marketing promotion, production management, video projection, music and performance skill development with community members. We wanted to workshop our script with our community members. We wanted to provide opportunities for community members to have more input in the characters and content of the production. We wanted them to gain more ownership over this project. At the same time, I have a great support from two artists, Dominic Hong Duc Golding, from Adelaide, graduated writer and director from Flinders University and Bao Khanh, a performer with 15 years experience who won an “Arts and About” grant from Community Cultural Development Fund by Australia Council. She was sent down to Melbourne by Urban Theatre Projects to assist me in working with Aussie Bia Om. With this support, I received more input and ideas for the structure.
I started recruiting performers. I sent out media releases to the local and Vietnamese press to inform the community about the project and the concept of Aussie Bia Om. Five local and four Vietnamese newspapers responded to my media release. One week later there were over 50 people from diverse backgrounds calling me up with a desire to be part of the project.
At our first meeting there were 54 participants from differing cultural backgrounds and ages. I was amazed at their interest but concerned that I did not know how to work with them all. I managed to stay cool and calm, informing them about the concept of the project. I spent two hours in this workshop showing them the objective, strategy, and structure of the play. I took their details, and handed them the questionnaire asking about their experience, and importantly their purpose for involvement in this project. I informed them that I required people to commit regularly for the workshops. I decided to cast them depending on their commitment and input. I informed them that the project would involve 3 stages; 10 weeks workshopping, 10 weeks rehearsing and 2 weeks performing.
For the first 10 weeks I workshopped with the participants to generate an understanding of the project. I allocated 3 nights per week for workshops; each workshop taking two hours. I got them to improvise with the structure, play basic theatre games involving voice projection and body movement. Every week, I brought more interesting materials to the group; sometimes we just sat down and discussed this material. Then I went away to script it. I came back the next week, showed them and got them to play with it. Before the 10 weeks of workshopping ended, I called the participants up for a meeting. I wanted to seek their opinion on casting. I listed all the names of the characters, and gave brief character descriptions. I asked the participants to nominate someone that they thought was appropriate for the roles, but not for themselves. I cast the roles based on these nominations, their contribution and commitment. By now Aussie Bia Om’s first draft was ready to be given to the participants.
In the second 10 weeks, I spent five nights a week and the weekends rehearsing with the cast and my days working with the costume designer and music composer to integrate all the artistic components for the play. I helped the cast enhance their creativity and direction for their roles. I tried to resolve the problems that occurred within the group. The set started taking shape and all the technical aspects were confirmed at this time.
In the final stage, I brought the entire cast and crew into the performance space. I showed them where and what exactly happens during the performance. I provided food and drink for everyone. I organised people to pick up some of the young people, when they had no transport to the space. I sustained the group’s enthusiasm, energy and flexibility. I talked to them and encouraged them to stay focused and enjoy their work. I created a safe and friendly environment during this intense period.
Each night, we played games, sang and danced with the group to maintain their energy and interest in the performances. I asked a few members of the cast, who were experienced in theatre to help me warm up the whole group. John Jacobs, my former University lecture, volunteered to help the group to warming up their voice. He taught the group to project their voice properly; to make sure they don’t twist their tongue during the performance. Kha Viet Tran and Phong Nguyen also looked after the group, used their experience in martial arts to warm the group physically. Once again, we got to play new games and have fun before the show started.
Aussie Bia Om was performed 10 nights to over 1500 audiences members. The majority of the audiences were young and from diverse backgrounds. For many people this was their first contemporary theatrical experience.
VALUE AND BENEFITS OF THE PROJECT
Aussie Bia Om was a complex vision involving young Vietnamese people’s experience and the resulting culture difference in Australian society today. It aimed to create the opportunities and challenges for artists and community members. It extended beyond the interests of the Vietnamese community into the issue of how this generation of young Australians are attempting to forge a new identity.
The project was aimed at broad audience. The success of the project was revealed by the size and diversity of the audience. Approximately 50% were from the Vietnamese community in Melbourne. This included mainly younger people from Vietnamese backgrounds. The performances were sold out even after extra seating was brought in. Clearly there is a demand for this type of theatre which crosses generations and cultures exploring universal themes.
The project had many significant outcomes. It provided me as an emerging writer and director to see my work performed and to develop my profile as an artist. I am currently planning my next work. The work gained excellent media coverage which helped raise the awareness of artists and issues within the Vietnamese community in Australia.
It provided employment and skills development for a number of young and emerging artists and performers. Dominic Hong Duc Golding has since worked for projects in the Adelaide Festival in October 2001. This project has certainly taught me a great deal about contemporary theatre. It helped me to explore my attitudes about the world around me and to make sense of that world, so that I can develop my relationships, not only within my own community, but also with surrounding communities. It has provided me with an important opportunity to reflect upon and question my own cultural identity in the past and present, and to learn how to make more informed decisions about the future.
It has extended my vision of cultural diversity and multiculturalism. I found language is the most important part in this type of project. That’s why the play was multi-lingual from beginning. This is marking the core value of any theatre project.
I have seen the community members develop interpersonal skills and gain more confidence to create their own networks. The other young artists have further refined their professional theatre skills. They have come to better recognise that their contribution is important, not only to themselves but also to the wider community. I hope Aussie Bia Om is utilised and to be recognised by more people from culturally and lingusility diverse backgrounds in the arts.
I will continue to develop more projects with some people who worked with me. One of the projects, which I recently applied to Australia Council, called “Fish Sauce on Toast”, this is a new theatre project. It aims to explore the cross culture relationship between Vietnamese background and Australian Anglo background. At the same time I am working on a project, called The Viet Boys from Down Under, produced for Nextwave festival at La mama May 2002.
I also encourage young people to participate in more projects at Footscray Community Arts Centre and a mentor program from other youth theatre companies.
Successes of the project
For some people this was an opportunity to build self-esteem, trust and to establish a stronger link between the arts and community and helped some people break down cultural barriers that exist within the communities. Through the 20 weeks workshopping they learnt to explore their life issues, which are related to the concept of Aussie Bia Om. They recognised the excellence of cultural expression.
It also provided an opportunity for the involvement in all aspect of organising a project, allowing people to gain skills in a whole range of disciplines, including marketing promotion, stage, and production management. This approach allows participants to become more self-sufficient.
As Aussie Bia Om was a community art project, participants had their chance to collaborate with professional artists in sharing their skills and knowledge. This allowed them, a community member, to establish infrastructure for self-determination.
The project was entirely successful in achieving its projective. It attracted the wider audiences from diverse backgrounds. The average audiences of 63% of house for the season of Aussie Bia Om exceed audience of 40% of house. It indicated that Aussie Bia Om achieved its objective and attracted a new audiences to Trades Hall theatre.
The project also explored the potential of drama combining Australian and Vietnamese culture. The performance style was strongly influence by Vietnamese Martial Arts, Vietnamese opera and naturalistic / non naturalistic western drama. The combination of music, movement, ritual, dance and video elements drew so much attentions from Vietnamese and non Vietnamese audiences members.
Failures of the project
Ideally all my key artists and I could not get full time employment in this project. I had to take a reduced fee and reshuffle the budget in order to balance the payment. It affected the effort of achievement of professional standards. I felt that I did not promote and sustain the values of community arts enough in this project. I found myself rethinking the ways of working with and understanding about theatre community that had preciously sustained me.
I am disappointed that Aussie Bia Om can’t tour interstate to with a large number of cast. Even though the main cast said that they were willing to work for lower fee.
I realised that I should have brought Dzung into the process earlier, so he could have been involved in making music from the beginning of the creative process. This would have allowed him more time to develop a necessary working relationship with the band members. Unfortunately he was unable to form this relationship with one band member, who quit relatively close to performance time. This lack of time and preparation also arose with the dance group, who felt that they only had limited involvement in the project.
In the end I believed Aussie Bia Om could have been more interesting if I had have had a dramaturgy to help me polish up the script.
PERSONAL RESPONSE BY Christie Walton – PARTICIPANT IN AUSSIE BIA OM
I became involved with Vietnamese Youth Media and their Aussie Bia Om project when I saw an article in my local paper. I was looking for a new experience and decided to give this a go. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
As a performer I could see the benefits from this project. People had fun creating this piece of theatre. We played games, made close friends and developed skills that many of us thought were not there.
When I stood back and looked at it with a teacher’s eye I started seeing many more benefits that may not have been evident to others. Huu and Tony provided the necessary environment for development for a range of people of differing levels of confidence. For some that were nervous and shy, they were comforting and not forceful. For those who had participated in theatre and were confident, they pushed us to our boundaries; they tested us and drew as much out of us as they could. Through the workshops and rehearsals, Huu developed our skills to a level many of us were surprised at. Even the meekest ones of the group grew is confidence and ability. They fostered a social element amongst the group. As an Anglo – Australian I was able to see a lifestyle that I had been oblivious to before. Others were able to learn about other cultures as well as developing a better understanding of their own culture and heritage.
Huu and Tony allowed us the opportunity to develop our skills in other areas, such as production work if we were interested. Everyone had as much input into the whole process as we wanted. We all felt an ownership over the production.
Personally I have gained so much from work on this project. I have grown in confidence in my own abilities and am now working on other projects. I also now know many fun team building and skill developing games and techniques which I use regularly with my grade. Aussie Bia Om was a fantastic experience.