Theatre Changes Lives

In a culture where Vietnamese artists are only starting to develop a profile, actor and playwright Tony Le Nguyen is an exception. Now recognised throughout Australia for his performances in the australian film Romper Stomper and in television series such as ‘Fast Forward’, ‘Secrets’ and ‘Paradise Beach’, Le Nguyen has moved his work into production and onto the stage. In December last year, SBS television screened his drama, World’s Apart, and in September this year, his play Chay Vong Vong will move from Melbourne to Sydney where it is being staged by Urban Theatre Projects. But it is behind the scenes where his energy for life, youth and the theatre is changing lives.

Le Nguyen, who graduated from Victoria University with a Bachelor of Arts last month, has used his own feelings of alienation from family and society to create an opportunity for other young people to express themselves. His play Chay Vong Vong, first performed at the Footscray Community Arts centre in Melbourne, explores ritual, music and dance to tell the stories of teenagers like himself. Working with local Vietnamese actors, Le Nguyen unfolds his own journey of self-discovery after arriving in Australia from Vietnam when he was ten years old.

“Before acting, I was living in a refuge. I left home because I had problems with my parents, and I left school in year 10. I couldn’t have cared less about studying then,” Le Nguyen said.

“There was huge pressure from my family, especially from my father, who used to be a high school teacher in Vietnam. He was pushing me to study hard, but I just couldn’t hack the pressure from my family and the school… We were living in a housing commission house, with four boys in one bedroom. Then were nine of us in the family in one three-bedroom house.”

“The play was about trying to take some control of my career and life, I contacted the Footscray Community Arts centre (FCAC) and they were very supportive about setting up a Vietnamese Youth Theatre group. I wanted to be able to share my skills with young Vietnamese who were hanging out at pinball parlours and on the streets – people with a lot of anger and energy. I thought if I could focus that energy and convert it into a dramatic context it could be very interesting, because they have lots of stories to tell.”

The idea to write a play followed a two-year contract Le Nguyen had with Handspan Theatre in Melbourne, a visual theatre company that works with people and puppets on a range of productions designed to encourage theatre education. The experience was a “gutsy, hard-working way to learn about theatre”, but one that inspired Le Nguyen to do more with his acting career than sit at the end of a phone waiting for his agent to call.

“People say to me, ‘You’re very ambitious Tony.’ I say, ‘I have no choice, I have to do it.’ People say things will change slowly, it will be better for the next generation. But I don’t want to wait any more. There are too many problems at the moment with young Vietnamese, and no-one is doing anything about them. There’s a lot of passing the buck. Vietnamese people say ‘Well, that’s a police problem, crime is for the police to handle.’ I say ‘Rubbish’. People don’t turn to drugs and crime for no reason. All these kids have families, and all those families create little problems, and they end up on the street, and that creates more problems,” Le Nguyen said.

The FCAC Vietnamese Theatre Group, established by Le Nguyen in 1994, generated significant interest from young Vietnamese people, resulting in a series of workshops that explored ideas, personal stories and experiences that had not had a vent for expression.

“Lots of angry and emotional stuff was coming out and we started putting down material and issues, then scripting. In the process, I became a social worker and got burnt out. The stories started to overwhelm me – I was providing support for 20 young Vietnamese.”

“I had all these scattered scenes. I didn’t know how to bring so many issues and problems together. It was too much for me. I never thought of myself as an actor. I was ready to walk away from the project when David Everest (FCAC Theatre Co-ordinator) said to me, ‘Tony, you’re the only one who can do this. Give it another shot.’ He was very supportive, and organised help with the scripting.”

Now, with a growing portfolio of experience, a University degree and the tenacity to express his ideas, Tony Le Nguyen is attracting increasing attention. The Sydney production of Chay Vong Vong is a rework of original piece using local actors from the city’s western suburbs. Before leaving to help stage the play in readiness for its September opening, Le Nguyen will be working with Victoria University, the city of Melbourne and FCAC on Melbourne’s first Vietnamese Arts Festival. He will also continue teaching drama in regional secondary schools in St Albans and surrounding suburbs where he is keen to see teenagers tap their own creative talents.

“A lot of Vietnamese parents think: ‘We’ve been through war, we’ve struggled, we escaped, we got here, I’ve worked very hard, we’ve got a house, we’re feeding you, so don’t be ungrateful.’ But young people living in this society need more,” Mr Le Nguyen said.

“You can’t ignore the past, because if you do, you don’t have a history. You don’t belong anywhere. But to deny the present means you don’t think about the future.”

“In my worked I am appealing to the community to be more sympathetic and more supportive…In a culture where people are marginalised and alienated, you will eventually have a segregated society like in LA… people will fight back.

“When I wrote the play originally, I wrote it for Vietnamese people to show what was happening to their kid. But through all the issues that revolve around their lives, it’s a perfect opportunity for non-Vietnamese people to look in through a window of Vietnamese life.”

Jill Winterburn

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