As a part of Edition 20, Yum Chattier, Merlynn Tong, multi-talented actor, performance maker and writer, shared her professional and personal experiences as a Yum Chat BrisAsia Festival panelist, and her frenetic humour in her short story Me No Likey reflecting on race and sexuality with acerbic honesty.
From 3 – 6 December, Merlynn will be sharing her one-woman show, Ma Ma Ma Mad in the Wonderland program at the Powerhouse in Brisbane. Here Peril Editor, Eleanor Jackson, and Merlynn connect again to discuss performance and practice in the lead up.
Great to connect again, Merlynn, thanks for making time. Now, some Peril readers might remember you from Yum Chattier, but for those new readers, tell us a bit about yourself as a writer and performer, what’s your background as an artist and how did this very personal performance come to be?
I’m a writer/performer from Singapore, I only moved to Australia when I was 21-years-old. Ma Ma Ma Mad is actually the first show I have written and I’m so lucky to have it published by Playlab this year. I’m currently also finishing the last draft of my second show and starting my third play! I think I see myself primarily as a performer though – that is why I started writing anyway, to give myself a space to perform. Since then I have been fortunate to be given the opportunity to perform at QPAC, Judith Wright Centre, Metro Arts and even in Taiwan this year.
My story in Ma Ma Ma Mad is about my mother’s suicide when I was 14 years old. Her presence/ being/voice has always slipped into everything that I create. I find her stories lingering again and again in my art. Before I wrote the script, I was working full time as an Arts Manager but aching to perform. One night in the Valley over some amazing Vietnamese food, a good friend of mine persuaded me that it was time to write a show, and that it needed to be about my mother. I did and that led me to performing at the Anywhere Theatre Festival in 2013 and at the Powerhouse next week!
Given the work’s personal nature and the often-difficult to discuss issue of a parent’s suicide, it must be an incredible challenge to share this work with others night after night – how have the various iterations and performances of Ma Ma Ma Mad expanded or changed the story and how has (re)telling it affected your relationship to your mother?
The initial version of my story tapped strongly (too strongly) on my instinct, which is comedy. Thankfully I won a Creative Development with Todd MacDonald who was with Queensland Theatre Company at the time. He asked me some tough dramaturgical questions like “How do you actually fell that your mother committed suicide?”, “Have you done so yourself?”. That meeting touched something deep in my being. I felt that I had to rewrite and transform the script radically. His provocations urged me to take my work to a more honest, revealing and vulnerable space.
Since that season, I had the privilege to work with the wonderful Director Shane Pike from Wax Lyrical Productions for our Powerhouse season. We dove into the work with fresh eyes and his direction brought about a new gravity to the entire piece. We explored each individual character and they grew to become rich wonderful beings. The clarity and precision of his insights have driven this work to a whole new level that I could not have gone to myself.
Telling this story brings me closer to my mother every time. It is not the easiest of stories to tell and excavating our souls for this piece has had its challenges but I am so thankful to have this fantastic channel to feel closer to her – by actually trying to inhibit her body, voice and spirit on stage.
Do you feel that Australian, or non-Singaporean audiences can easily relate to the characters featured Ma Ma Ma Mad, or is there a line you need to walk between making work that reads “universally” and also gives “cultural specificity”?
Initially, I was incredibly conscious of creating “universal” characters in this script. But as I write, I realise that my characters will always be “universal” if I am specific with them. In fact, in my next play, we are exploring the idea of including four different languages with subtitles flashing on stage. I don’t really think about making them ‘culturally specific’ too because most of all my characters are from a different culture and just by being themselves they are being specific. I hope that when I create characters that are authentic and when I unveil their core human needs and desires, they automatically become relatable and universal. When witnessing wonderful characters that I believe to be from a very different cultural background, they often expose parts of my humanity I have not known. In saying that though, I also want to address how important it is to witness stories from your own culture on stage and I am incredibly proud to stand on the Wonderland program as an Asian Australian artist.
Are there challenges or opportunities for performers from non-white or non-mainstream backgrounds in terms of finding stories that richly present their backgrounds and histories and/or finding opportunities to play characters that are relate-able or marketable to broad based audiences – is it your experience that actors have to become writers to create work that actually creates representative characters?
Yes, there definitely are challenges. Not many of such characters exist on the Australian stage as yet. I do hope that this is something that will change over time. In saying that though, I have met brilliant directors who have cast me in shows as rich, relateable characters. I would love to see more of this on the main stage – so I can see more Asian Australian stories on stage and we can get more opportunities too!
I don’t know if actors have to become writers to create work that actually creates representative characters but it definitely helped me to showcase my performing range. And since then I have gained more performance work, although I can also attribute that to my kick-arse Agents at BMEG who are champions for diverse theatre and film. Since writing Ma Ma Ma Mad, I seem to have also stumbled into a writing career (which still is a surprise to me!).
I can chose to sit and wait for those roles to come to me but I rather go out there, make some noise and see what happens – makes it more interesting for me anyway. Hopefully my actions add to the ruckus that so many incredible non-white/non-mainstream artists are making through their art already. Perhaps our collective roar will ring true soon and manifest incredible changes in Australia.