Written & Directed by: Tony Le-Nguyen
The 1998 Sydney production of Chay Vong Vong was a new work, which grew out of Chay Vong Vong, a play of the same name that I wrote and directed with the Vietnamese Community in Melbourne in 1995 and 1996.
Living and working in Sydney for four months was the most challenging thing I’ve done for a long time. Apart from being in a new community, I had to attend two funerals, one of which was my mother. The other challenge was to compete with the Commonwealth Games, Bill Clinton’s sex life and Pauline Hanson during a federal election for media attention.
Despite two unfortunate incidents during the time of the project, the outcome was quite outstanding. The project gave 20 young Vietnamese-Australian and myself the opportunity to work learn and share ideas with professional artist like John Baylis, and Tori De Mestre. It also allowed me to employ a young emerging musician/composer Jenny Ly. This was a great opportunity for both of us to explore and experiment with different working methods and different form of music expression.
As a show, Chay Vong Vong was not afraid address many issue such as domestic violence and generation conflict, which is very much taboo within the Vietnamese community. It has generated discussions and debate within the Vietnamese community, especially in the Vietnamese Media.
Chay Vong Vong was performed over 8 nights to over 600 audience members. The majority of the audiences are from the local Vietnamese community. For many people, this was their first contemporary theatrical experience.
Two organisations that gave me the most support for this project, were Urban Theatre Projects and the Vietnamese Community Association in NSW. Without their support this project would not possible.
An assessment of the project’s successes and failure.
A meeting to evaluate the Chay Vong Vong project was held Wednesday 7 October at the Vietnamese Community in Australia Association office in Bankstown. In attendance were: Harley Stumm (chair), Tony Le Nguyen (director), John Baylis (associate director), Jenny Ly (music director), Michael Tabrett (musician), Sean O’Brien (observer), and the following participants: Jessica Tran, Anique Vo, Khoa Do, Hong Nguyen, Thuy Trang Tran, Rosie Chan, Do Trong Tien, Le Chau Quy, Bao Khanh, Thi Lan Nguyen, Emily Nguyen Thao Tran and Catherine Le.
Participants absent were: Le Phu Cuong, Sarah Vongmany, Duc Dep Trai, Quoc Vinh Le, Sally Hoang, Bich Tran, Phuong Tran and Trang Thi Tran. Musicians absent: Soai Nguyen, Hao Duong. Tori de Mestre was overseas.
The meeting was loosely structured around the following topics.
Reason for involvement/expectations
Participants had a range of expectations:
- to get more experience
- to see how directors work
- to try something different
- to explore Vietnamese issues
- to work in both English and Vietnamese languages
The workshop process
- Much of the script came from improvisation and so allowed participation in its creation.
- The equal participation of young and older peoples.
- The chance for the young people to speak with their own voices.
- The chance of the older performers with various degrees of professional experiences from Vietnam to experience different ways of making theatre, in particular the strong emphasis on improvisation.
- Communication between artist and participants was good.
- The emphasis on improvisation meant that performers did not know precisely what their role was until very late in the process.
- Not enough time was allowed for rehearsal: four months (rather than the actual three) was mentioned as the ideal period.
- The long process and especially the early emphasis on ensemble-forming games meant that some participants lost sight of the ultimate purpose of the process halfway through.
- There should have been more consultation before decisions were made.
The show itself
There were a number of views about the final result, some the opinions of the participants, some reflecting audience reaction.
- Many audience members stayed behind to talk, which is unusual.
- A different theatrical experience to what they were used to.
- Many scenes created a great deal of discussion for and against (eg the girls takeover the stage).
- Many scenes were very close to the audience’s experiences (eg the nuns’ scene).
- The overall style was too comic and arty, not tough enough.
- Did not deal enough with contemporary issues like drugs and homelessness.
- Some audience members could not follow the time shifts in the play.
- Lighting design was not adequate to assist audience understand where the main focus was at any given time.
- Set design was too simple.
What did participants get out of Chay Vong Vong?
A range of answers:
- Learned what a professional theatre process was like.
- Acting is hard work, though it looks so easy.
- Gained confidence.
- Helped to make decision about career options.
- Made friends.
- Learned unconventional ways of making theatre.
- Learned courage.
- Enjoyed being part of something that was fun but was also intense when it needed to be.
Like all the community theatre projects that I have been involved in, finding the right balance or combination that will satisfy the needs of the community and artists is always challenging. It is even harder if you are working with two different cultures.
However, I believed that this has been one of my most successful projects so far, from a community cultural development point of view. My aim in this project was to try and find the right balance. If we take a look at the participant’s expectations of the project at the beginning and what they gained at the end, they are very similar.
The overall feeling towards the project was positive, and all of the participants had a strong desire to do more work together. They in fact have come together again to work as a discreet group in Urban Theatre Project’s next project Speed Street.
Details of all artists participating in the project.
Tony Le Nguyen (director & writer) was born in Sa Dec, Vietnam in 1968 and migrated to Australia in 1978. He is currently the Artistic Director of Australian Vietnamese Youth Media. He wrote and directed Chay Vong Vong with the Vietnamese young people at Footscray Community Arts Centre in September 1995. He later directed a fully professional production of Chay Vong Vong at Napier St Theatre in September 1996. Recent projects include co-directing Worlds Apart with Gary McKechnie, a television drama about the communication gap between older and younger generations of the Vietnamese community, broadcast on SBS-TV in 1997. He is well known in both the Vietnamese community and the wider community for his pivotal role as Tiger in Geoffrey Wrights’ film Romper Stomper. Other professional work includes Titus (Theatreworks), Madame Butterfly (Victorian State Opera), A Change of Face (Handspan theatre) and many television productions (GP, Embassy, The Damnation of Harvey McHugh, Fast Forward, All Together Now, Secrets, Boys from the Bush, Paradise Beach).
Jenny My Ngoc Ly (musical director) is a composer and musician, who has performed her own work at the Opera House and Sydney Town Hall. She plays dan tranh (Vietnamese zither) and piano, and is a member of the University of Sydney Gamelan Ensemble. She is a registered practising music teacher, and teacher of English as a second language, and is currently studying music at Sydney University.
John Baylis (associate director) is the Artistic Director of Urban Theatre Projects. His background is primarily in contemporary performance, as a creator and as a performer – notably as co-founder of the Sydney Front (1986-1993). He has also worked as a freelance creator/dramaturg with companies such as Sidetrack, Entr’act, and Calculated Risks Opera. He had a long association with The Performance Space, as a founding artistic coordinator in the early eighties, and its chair in the early nineties. He was senior theatre program officer at the Australia Council’s Theatre Fund from 1994 until 1997.
Tori de Mestre (designer) is a visual artist with 15 years of experience working on community arts projects. She has collaborated on many projects involving dance and performance. Her work, predominantly textile based, has been exhibited widely in Australia and overseas. Recent work includes a textile installation at the Kiama Seaside Festival (1992), murals for Kiama Infants School and Minnamurra Primary School (1993), CEAD project at Albion Park in collaboration with architect/planner Iain Pratt and Crossroads group (1995), a mural and textile project with Liverpool Hospital (1996), design for Death Defying Theatre’s Going Home performance project with the Polynesian and Maori community.
COMMENTS ON ASSESSMENT OF THIS PROJECT
Artistic Director, Urban Theatre Projects
Associate Director, Chay Vong Vong
My role in Chay Vong Vong was to support director/writer Tony Le Nguyen in realising the Chay Vong Vong project in Sydney. While the project was based on his Melbourne productions of the same name, it in fact became a very different show. The whole scenario was reworked completely, and all that remained of the old show were a few pages of dialogue reassigned to the new characters. I was closely involved in this reworking, having regular sessions with him in the early weeks of the workshop process. Together we developed the performance concept of setting the action in a cabaret in 1998. Tony then wrote the scenes that the reworking entailed.
Within the rehearsals themselves, my role was to help with the warm-ups and to assist with the running of the two main weekly rehearsals (Tony also ran alone a number of rehearsals with smaller groups). I was also heavily involved in the bump in process; Tony left most of the liaison with the lighting designer/operator to me.
I found the opportunity to work within the community and to learn a little about Vietnamese culture, history and people very rewarding. I was impressed by the commitment of the participants and their willingness to be involved in a style of theatre which for the most part was outside of their experience.
My relationship with Tony was productive and frank. He was generous in allowing my contribution, and I never felt that he was possessive of the work despite his obvious passionate attachment to its development. He was very willing to accept my suggestions and was equally uninhibited about drawing the line when I pushed too far. I felt that I was able to make a real contribution to the work without in any way undermining its ownership by Tony and the community participants.
The project also fulfilled Urban Theatre Projects’ objective of developing a public profile within the Vietnamese community. The production received good publicity both with the Vietnamese community media and in the media at large. Most of the Chay Vong Vong participants were eager to work with Urban Theatre Projects again, and some of them went on to be involved in our following project Speed Street.
TORI DE MESTRE
Designer, Chay Vong Vong
My first meeting with Tony Le Nguyen some nine months, prior to the first performance of Chay Vong Vong was a stimulating experience. Tony’s direct and expressive descriptions of Chay Vong Vong (in Melbourne) and the future Sydney production were inspirational. His very strong vision, sensibilities gave me something to grasp, to build on to and set my imagination spinning with other possibilities.
I like to work as a member of a production team – each respecting the others’ professionalism and expertise – but questioning, challenging and extending.
My task was to design and make sets (costumes & props where necessary). The communities were not involved directly in this process. My initial choice of bamboo as the major construction element was made for several reasons – the “Asian” look of bamboo, it is accessible, cheap, light and also flexible. I was keen to avoid too much realism – the performance was realistic – I preferred to design sets / props to be more abstract, open to interpretation symbolically and physically flexible in their use.
The final venue itself was not inspirational – small, pink, modern, with rather severe spatial and surface limitations – it provided no real character of its own on which to build and was virtually impossible to conceal.
As rehearsals got under way, stories told, experiences relived, issues discussed, ideas developed – then I could begin to develop a set design to work with the drama. As they settled into their roles and as we became more familiar with each other, the cast began to make suggestions – some were new ideas, some changes were of a practical nature to improve the “workability” of a set or prop. Adaptations were made. Compromises too of course. This is what a team and community process is about – adjusting and re-designing.
As a visual artist much of my work is solitary and static. It is a great pleasure for me to extend my work into performance. The process of working with community, with a production team, experiencing the evolution of relationships is a vital one – and in the end, very moving.
Music Director, Chay Vong Vong
At the end of 1997, I was approached by Tony who talked about a project which he would be workshopping in Sydney 1998. He had contacted me through my teachers and was curious as whether I would be interested in being involved. After I expressed my interest in the project, I had meetings with Tony who outlined the project and subsequently meetings with Urban Theatre Projects were scheduled.
My role as the music director was to collaborate with other professional artists and members of South-west Sydney Vietnamese Community and to musically direct the production of the work.
The most difficult task was finding musicians who were committed and willing to be involved without pay. It is a compromise in working with a community project which requires musicians, in the sense that good musicians rarely can do something without income – especially for an extended period.
It is very rare to find very good players to perform for two weeks and rehearse for another four weeks without pay, especially band musicians. We were very fortunate to have at least one musician who was a professional player involved without pay, who encouraged the amateur members and added enthusiasm to the band.
As a band, every member is dependent on the other and it was difficult to find a time in which all members and the singer were free to rehearse. To overcome such difficulties, compromises had to be made, so that each member knew of musical changes and there was a cohesive relationship with the band.
I would have liked to have more room to explore my potential and creativity with the music. I felt I was not given enough room and respect in relation to my musical ability, for example, the four cabaret songs were not chosen by me and although I had arranged the songs, there was no creative satisfaction on my part. The viola and voice composition for the first funeral scene was the only part in the show which I was allowed to use my creativity. I would prefer to have input as an artist, whether it is choice of music or original composition in future projects.
Regardless, being part of Chay Vong Vong was in no way short of experience. I learnt to adapt to working in a different atmosphere, and with different people. I learnt that writing and working with non-professional musicians was different from working with professional people as I was used to. The organising and approach to music had to be different as musical ability with in the band varied and a midway had to be reached. Overall, the band’s performance was quite good.
Chay Vong Vong however, was an amazing project to be a part of. Many stories have been told in the Vietnamese community about the adult’s problem but rarely ones focusing on the family and the children. The play mixes a true reflection on the changes of the family; the changes in values, the east adapting with a western society, with humorous cliches, which gives the play its light and enjoyable moments. The fact that it was a community play gave it a relaxing atmosphere within the cast, and enthusiasm within the band. As a community project, I feel that Tony has been successful in his project.
Theatre Outreach Co-ordinator,
Footscray Community Arts Centre.
As Theatre Outreach Co-ordinator at Footscray Community Arts Centre I have had the opportunity to observe the four different productions of Chay Vong Vong written and directed by Tony Le Nguyen. It has been a fascinating journey for Tony and myself to see the work evolve and develop.
I have been extremely impressed with how Tony has been able to adapt the process and the product to the situation and condition he finds himself working in. Tony has an acute awareness of what is required and the ability to choose the right people to support the work he undertakes. It would be a temptation to just remount the same play and make it fit to the new environment but Tony has allowed the project to grow and change.
This makes it quite hard to compare the different productions. They all had different aims and objectives and were with different communities. Instead of evaluating the projects separately I will highlight some of the common strengths.
Tony is a brilliant networker and through this process manages to find and inspire people within the Vietnamese community. All his projects have received strong community support. He manages to speak to the community across generations. He includes and relates to young people through to the more conservative leaders of the Vietnamese community.
Related to this strength Tony has also received strong support from the media and this has been important in raising the profile of the community and presenting positive images of the Vietnamese Community. This support reflects Tony’s basic commitment to his community. This has been a powerful motivator behind his work in theatre.
Tony has also brought to the different productions knowledge of Western theatre and Vietnamese traditions. The bilingual scripts reflect a fascinating combining of culture which allows both English speaking and Vietnamese speaking audiences to understand and enjoy the performances. This blending of cultures has meant the audiences have included large numbers from the Vietnamese community as well as the wider community who are interested in performance which challenges the conventions and aesthetics of whit middle-class western theatre.
It has been a privilege to be involved with and observe the development of “Chay Vong Vong” and Tony’s career. The work still has the potential to further develop in many directions. Tony’s ability to work with a community as well as push the boundaries of the art form mean he is ready to take on many new projects and ventures.
Statement on the value and effectiveness of the grant.
The grant given by the Australia council, Community Cultural Development Fund has enabled professional artist like myself to work together with other Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese artist and Vietnamese community in Sydney. The grant gave the Vietnamese community a chance to discuss, work, learn and address many issues such as identity, social, cultural and generational conflicts, which are rarely mentioned in the mainstream arts scene.
A community cultural development process provides an important experience for the Vietnamese community. The process allows participants to tell their stories in their own languages to their community as well as to wider Australian community. This is very new for the Vietnamese Community. Without this grant, a project like this is not possible.