Melbourne Theatre Company’s public play reading series – Cybec Electric – returns in February with nine Asian-Australian playwrights taking part in the program, as part of Asia TOPA. We asked them about the moment they fell in love with theatre, and what prompted their latest work.
Cybec Electric runs from 23 to 25 February at Southbank Theatre, the Lawler. Tickets to all readings are now on sale.
I think I’ve always been a fan of performance – I sang non-stop as a child and acted out little shows for my family. But I fell in love with the power of theatre when I saw Rita Kalnejais’ Babyteeth at Belvoir. It was a new Australian work; fresh, funny, heartbreaking, honest, with a cast whose astonishing diversity reflected Australia. If I can make theatre anywhere as good as that someday, I’ll be a very happy writer.
The idea for Mirror’s Edge sprung from an ABC Radio segment. Chinese tourists had suddenly started coming to visit a salt lake in the middle of Victoria’s Mallee region,
breathing new life into the struggling town nearby, Sea Lake. It struck me as such a bizarre but beautiful meeting of cultures. Being mixed-race (Caucasian/Chinese), I immediately felt invested in the story, and I knew I had to write about it.
I fell in love with theatre during school when I had the opportunity to present a project through performance. It allowed me to discover a form of communication that was playful, intimate and expansive in its possibilities to explore the world around me.
The premise of this work was ignited through the need to put my grandfather in an assisted living facility, following a fall in which we also learnt that he was in the early stages of dementia. The experience propelled me to consider the ethics and complexities of ageing, care and death within both family and society in the midst of an ageing population.
J: When I was six years old, there was a Show and Tell segment in class. I remember thinking that the other kids weren’t fully utilising the medium, so for my turn, my friends all stood up and performed a big fight that I’d ‘choreographed’ and ‘taught’ them earlier. I was just a little boy, so I didn’t realise how off-topic it was to just pretend to fight in class.
[I started writing this work after] a long layover at an airport – my mum was telling me about things that had happened in Vietnam before I was born, and I couldn’t believe that the everyday Australians who are our friends, co-workers and family, could have been through so much.
A: I remember watching a production of Othello as a teenager. At one point, I wanted to leap out of my seat, grab Othello by his collar and scream the truth at him! I am passionate about experiences of refugees and this play depicts complications caused by and effects of migration under stress, long after the event.
The play is about family, and a family under an unusual strain. Working through these things with my brother was too good an opportunity to miss.
[I fell in love with theatre] in Grade 3 when I did an impromptu dramatic performance of Swan Lake in front of my class as Odette/Odile and I experienced the magic of an audience watching me!
My play is about how to survive and be sane in an insane world. Khanh is diagnosed with schizophrenia and she ‘hallucinates’ that they torture refugees in camps. In 2016, this is the reality; it is not delusional and not solely the product of her mind. The Australian government is what is insane, with delusions of persecution and paranoia. My play shows the thin line between sanity and what is considered insanity and the slim yet strong ideals of humanity and hope through Buddhism and the Heart Sutra.
Growing up in a middle class immigrant family in outer-suburbia, theatre consistently was the only outlet available to me within my little vacuous existence. I’m not sure that I’ve fallen in love with theatre as much as it was the only thing I was given an opportunity to flourish in and eventually it’s become inextricably linked to my identity and artistry. I’m also an angsty millennial, insecure attention-seeker, and will mostly base my self-worth on external validation, like social media; theatre provides an extremely convenient transactional relationship for that purpose.
I started writing this play as a response to a generational disillusionment with theatre and art, and the weird private/public tensions that are manifesting in response to a radically changing world.
I watched a performance of The Smell of Language sixteen years ago in an experimental black box theatre at the basement of a rundown shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. The piece was a monologue written by Huzir Sulaiman, deftly directed by Krishen Jit. The protagonist – an aged, eccentric and courageous essayist – had come back to investigate the circumstances of his own murder. At that precise moment, I was awoken to the intimacy and playfulness of theatre, and made a commitment to myself that I would write a play.
Hero revolves around a Malaysian politician who is assassinated. The politician, his wife and son recount the dead man’s life through monologues. In the process, disturbing questions and truths emerge. The central question the son appears to be asking is: is my father a hero? Apart from this, I was interested in other themes. How does public life interfere with private life? What makes a hero? How does one contend with public scandal? In the process of experiencing these conflicts, the son goes through a type of catharsis which ultimately might, or might not, give him peace.
I’ve retrospectively realised that my earliest memory of theatre is of watching political satire The 2nd First Bolehwood Awards in Malaysia that – aged eight – I didn’t understand at all. But that sense of sitting in a crowd of people who got it, whatever ‘it’ was, stuck with me for a long time. I wanted to learn to make that happen.
I think I have to write Hungry Ghosts while still young/ egotistical enough to believe I can adequately cover the messy convergences of political corruption, collective tragedy and personal identity in one small play. Older me will probably look back and laugh in disbelief.
I fall in love with theatre when I watch a performer be so vulnerable that the audience are on the edge of their seats. And theatre is very good at doing this because of the live presence of the actors, which seems to encourage us to be present to each other.
[I started writing Mermaid Terrorist] because I became obsessed by an untold story suggested in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. I had to ‘dive into it’.
Cybec Electric is only possible due to the support of Dr Roger Riordan AM and The Cybec Foundation. MTC gratefully acknowledges the support of the Sidney Myer Fund and Arts Centre Melbourne for Asia TOPA. Asia TOPA is a joint initiative of the Sidney Myer Fund and Arts Centre Melbourne and is supported by the Australian and Victorian Governments.