The world is continually changing – now more than ever given the recent events in America and the affects of globalisation. We are beginning to realise how interdependent we really are and accept that happens in any part of the world will actually affect us sooner or later.
The arts is much the same. For too long Australians have been passive participants: films, music, television and large-scale theatre and music, more often than not, come to us from the United States or the United Kingdom. Unless we create more of our own work in these areas then, in 50 years time, there will be no Australian film, theatre or music.
Youth Performing Arts has an important role in creating new work and developing new talent, but we must remember that we cannot beat the US and the UK at their own game. Rather we must work to create dynamic new Australian work which draws on our culturally diverse society. We should draw on the many languages, musical traditions, dance forms and rituals that thrive within our communities, using them as the inspiration for new and exciting works.
In 1994 I founded Australian Vietnamese Youth Media (AVYM) with the support of Footscray Community Arts Centre. This was to be our own company, a place where young Vietnamese-Australians could come and make art, telling their own stories and creating their own characters. The work that we do ranges from theatre to documentary-making, from music production to karaoke performance nights. We make our own work. We don’t want to wait for Anglo writers and directors to give us work. Their offers are too often motivated by sympathy rather than empathy, or by a desire to appear to be politically correct.
The AVYM model is a cross between Youth Theatre, Community Cultural Development work and professional. Any new initiative usually starts as community theatre project – small budget; mainly voluntary labour. However the following year we re-work the script and re-apply for funding with the aim of developing a full scale performance, complete with a budget that allows us to pay the participants. The third stage, one that we have yet to reach, is to remount the show and tour it regionally and interstate. Our major difficulty, apart from funding, is that we started with a community show and a large cast. To tour a show we are limited to 6 or 8 cast members and this is a dramatic change which creates problems for all concerned, not least myself. The risk involved in turning professional is that you lose essence – the power and immediacy of a community voice. Giving effective voice to the community is central to all that I do.
Too often Community Theatre simply preaches to the converted, telling its story to the same people who have already heard it hundreds of times before. What is really important is that you take your story beyond your community. Unless you succeed in making the dominant culture sit up and take notice of your community nothing will change. It’s good to sit together and cry, but hey sometimes it’s equally important to educate and inform those outside your own community. We need to let them know what we think, what we believe, and how their actions, too often, hurt us.
How do we take that message out from our community and still keep the authenticity of our experiences? This is a key question and it takes us to another level. When you produce a professional show you are judged against generally accepted professional standards; you are not judged by the less rigorous standards of community theatre. Audiences come to see community theatre to support the content and/or the participants. They come to say: ‘Yes, oh great, you’ve got the courage to tell a story which I really want to talk about’. If you attend a professional production you bring higher expectations.
I am still struggling with this issue; still searching for an answer. At the end of the day, when I am producing a show, I have to deal with the hard realities – the budget, the costs. A community production can use any number of spaces from church halls to warehouses; can call on volunteers to do lighting and sound, rather than employing professionals. But a professional production raises additional demands: Where do cast and crew eat? Where are you going to perform? How are going to generate an audience? What about publicity?
Vietnamese Youth Media believes that continuity is very important when it come to working with young people. When one of us have an idea for project we’ll do it, with or without funding. If the young people are interested in karaoke, martial arts or basketball, we’ll find a way to incorporate these elements into our work. The question is not whether to use any particular forms or styles of theatre but how to make them interesting and theatrical. I’m really interested in starting with what people feel comfortable with – be they karaoke, game shows, video games – and then slowly stretching them.
Four years ago I thought I knew everything I needed to know about working in community theatre. My first project Chay Vong Vong was a very angry show. Three years later I realized that if I continued to do that kind of work then my work would become predictable, and those who didn’t want to be confronted by my work would stay away. So what? You might say, but maybe those who choose to stay away are the very people I want to see my work. Okay, so how do I get them to see the work without offending them, without losing my integrity, and still deliver my message? These are the type of questions that I ask myself every time I do a project.
Seven years of working in community theatre has taught me that whilst young people may seem to be easy to work with, they are not; and whilst older people appear to be difficult they are in fact very easy to work with. Older people tend to have a fixed way of thinking and find it difficult to deal with the diversity and complexity of today’s society, but they do have discipline and are more ready to accept direction. Young people are constantly on the move and with them the challenge is to find unpredictable material, something that is new and exciting, and to work with them rather than direct them in a more formal way.
Sometimes when I’m working with kids, I operate more like a gang leader. I tell them directly what I think of their work and don’t tell them ‘This is great’ unless it actually is. There are many little subtleties in the way I work with them, things that are hard to explain to those from another culture.
Criticism in Youth and Community Theatre can be very interesting. Traditionally many theatre critics are of Anglo backgrounds. They are still struggling to understand anything beyond “English language fourth wall theatre”. So how do we expect them to understand theatre from cultural and diverse backgrounds, being created by young Vietnamese-Australian who have complex migration and cultural experience? In the past, I liked the idea of people writing nice things about me. But now that I’m more experienced and my work more widely known, I tend to be more sceptical of what they write. The critics used to write things that I would get upset about; now I’m struggling to see something which really upsets me. In Community Theatre the process and the outcome are equally important, so if a critic focuses only on the outcome, ignoring the process, then their comments are of no great importance.
We aim to attract as wide an audience as possible. First we look at the issues we want to explore. Next we decide what kind of story we want to tell and what kind of theatre we want to create. If we want to attract the widest possible range of people from the Vietnamese community we need to accept that there is great diversity within this community. The older people tend to prefer something more traditional like Vietnamese opera or theatre, whilst the younger people like something more hip, modern, challenging and confronting. Beyond this is the challenge of attracting theatre goers from the wider community: what do they want? How do I make theatre that challenges and excites them and that they want to see? These questions are at the heart of every single project I make because I really want to generate new audiences for my work.
If I present the work in a Vietnamese area, there are probably no theatre venue around. But if I present my play in a traditional theatre space then the Vietnamese community will feel less comfortable in attending the performance. Although the Vietnamese have been in Australia for over 25 years, there are still many spaces they never visit. Many tell me that they don’t feel comfortable, that they don’t feel they belong or have a right to be in these spaces. There has to be a good deal of give and take, but the overall aim remains the same, to try and increase audience numbers with every show.
Attempting to reach beyond the Vietnamese community to include the general theatre-going public creates another set of problems. These people are used to a theatre district, complete with bars and cafes. When we choose to choose to perform in a non traditional space with no bars and cafes, I know that I risk losing part of this audience. My solution is to create a theatrical experience that explores aspects of contemporary society, as truthfully as possible. By going back to the basic purpose theatre.
Instead of aiming to create confronting theatre our aim is to create affective theatre. There is a Vietnamese saying: “Sweet Honey Kill Flies”. The message is that one should not be fooled by the sweet honey because it might kill you. We don’t aim to ‘kill’ anybody – we want and need our audiences – but we do seek to lure them into a new, exciting and relevant theatrical experience.
It is important that we work together to create relevant, challenging, Australian theatre, theatre that speaks to the great diversity that is our contemporary society. I would like to encourage companies from around Australia to work with us so that we may learn from one another and together work towards ensuring that our culture is more fully represented across the art forms.