Report by Veronica Goodwin (RMIT)
The project aimed to assist young people of Vietnamese backgrounds to build self-esteem, confidence, and a sense of belonging and at the same time to encourage young Vietnamese people to take risks on stage. Dem Lieu Mang can be translated as “night of taking risks”. The project ran for ten weeks and was conducted within school time, during recess, lunch and after school at Braybrook Secondary College, St. Albans Secondary College and Caroline Chisholm Secondary College.
Vietnamese culture tends to operate on the basis of a hierarchy of authority, in which obedience to parents is considered a basic value. It is also patriarchal because the authority figure in families is the father. Questioning parental decisions is not acceptable and children are expected to achieve well at school and university.
Many of the Vietnamese people have escaped from the ravages of war and oppression in their own country to come to Australia, and expect their children to have the same Vietnamese value system. The young people cannot identify with the culture of their parents and feel that others label them because they are Vietnamese. They often rebel inwardly against parental control and yearn quietly for the freedom of their non-Vietnamese peers. In one sense they are caught between two cultures and are somewhat shy and confused by the contrary demands and expectations.
Tony understood their dilemmas deeply and he gave them opportunities to express their feelings and emotions, to question authority and traditional Vietnamese values and helped them express their individuality through well-crafted role-plays. He sought to teach the young Vietnamese-Australian students that taking risks by placing themselves on the line through creative self-expression in the performing arts, could be a positive and rewarding personal experience.
Tony provided students (from years 7 – 12) with opportunities to find their own personal voice, to speak out for themselves and to make their own decisions in a community setting where they felt safe enough to take a risk. Tony described the project as ‘contemporary theatre’, which came together from his own, live performances in theatre, an experience in community development projects and his life. The arts experience was offered as a way for young people to express themselves and deal with real life issues in a creative way. The parent’s response to the final product – the public performance – was pride and support.
Over the ten weeks of skill development leading up to the final performance, Tony concentrated on memorising lyrics to songs, vocal production, dance and movement, self-expression and structured improvisation. During the workshops Tony was firm, and appropriately challenging with the young participants, as he wanted the best from them. However, he knew how to encourage them with Vietnamese humour that had them happy, laughing yet hard working. They generally did some warm up exercises for 15 minutes as part of each workshop and then practiced their speaking, singing and drama skills.
Tony divided the students into two groups so the young men and women could begin to write their own scenarios. After this, they acted out their story with Tony as critical friend who pushed them to be clearer in their expression and more confident in what they wanted to say. As the participants were at different levels of development, Tony worked from their strengths and personal issues while challenging them to develop further through appropriate role playing techniques. They were now being assertive about what they wanted to do in their dance and story. They made plans for the final night and Tony went over what had to be done on stage – voice production, positions, cues and audience focus. They were ready excited and nervous.
The opening night came and the auditorium was full to capacity. Tony was visible on stage supporting the participants through the whole performance. There were themes of parental discipline and girl/boy relationships in the scenarios. There was lots of laughter in the audience of 400 and the singing and dancing were very entertaining. The appreciation for this Vietnamese production was outstanding.
Robyn Ramsden, Welfare Coordinator, writing about a similar performance at Braybrook Secondary College summed up the work that Tony achieved with the participating students through the performing arts:
The Evening was a huge success. Students were pleased with the outcome and buoyed by the experience. Some expressed feelings of doubt about their ability to perform in front of others early in the project and were proud that the hard work had paid off. I feel certain that the benefits of this project will have spinoffs for the students at school and in their home lives. Many of them never had the confidence to read aloud in class before yet alone to perform in front of an audience. To have successfully performed in front of their families, friends, teachers and school community gained them an enormous amount of self respect and respect from others. Surely this will enable them to grow by trying new and challenging things in the future.
In summary, it can be said that the Dem Lieu Mang Project was an unqualified success from all perspectives – the students, their families, the teachers, the school community and Tony Le Nguyen the professional artist. The following picture tells it own story as these are some of the participants from the project.
Participants were surveyed after the performance at St. Albans Secondary College and the results of the surveys were quite conclusive that the students had gained self-confidence, respect and felt that they now had the strength and the skills to perform in front of hundreds of people. For them, the best part of the project was learning new skills and having fun. They appreciated Tony for the manner in which he worked, for the fun workshops and using their own story lines in performances. Surely this project fulfilled its aims very well.
The Dem Lieu Mang Project was funded by the Sydney Myer Foundation and supported by Braybrook Secondary College, St. Albans Secondary College, Caroline Chisholm Secondary College, Maribyrnong City Council, Victoria University of Technology the Footscray Community Arts Centre, the Flemington and North Melbourne Community Centre and the Footscray Ethnic Police Unit who helped to supervise the performance nights.
These projects provided a unique opportunity for Vietnamese-Australian students to blend drama and Vietnamese language together. Again, this project was an outstanding success. The students gained self-confidence, self-respect and trust. They developed from shy young people into self-expressive, happy and productive participants. They worked hard to achieve these successes.
Again, the skill of Tony in empowering the young people to find their own voice, to discuss and role play real life issues and to give them the opportunity to express emotions and deep feelings, contributed in a major way to the success of the model. Like the professional young artist who were involved in the Debney Park model, Tony respected the students, built up a relationship of trust and he was able to call forth their best qualities for the public performance. Their performance in front of the audience of 400 was tribute to what can be achieved when students believe in themselves.
Tony Le Nguyen’s recent work with the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta represents national recognition for Tony and his work with SCRAYP. Tony is an effective facilitator and leader, and his qualities are essential for work with the Vietnamese young people. While the students are capable of designing their own scripts and making some decisions about production, they will still need Tony, or a young artist overseen by Tony, who understands their ethnic cultural background and is capable of facilitating their efforts within the framework of the SCRAYP model.