Aljin Abella talks to Peril Magazine

Aljin Abella in The Good Person of Sezchuan, photo by Pia Johnson
Aljin Abella in The Good Person of Sezchuan, photo by Pia Johnson

Q. The Good Person of Sezchuan is a show that is quite unique in Australia in that the audience is engaging in what is a Chinese production mostly about Chinese concerns, how have you found the audience reaction?  

I think the Chinese element is inevitable especially with (director) Meng (Jinghui)’s influence. We are all really keen to see how a Chinese audience will take to this production when we go over to Beijing and Shanghai in October. Coming out of the shows we are far more curious to see what the audience thinks. A lot of it has been deliberately open to interpretation speaking from an audience and an actor’s point of view.  The creative process of Meng’s was drastically different to conventional rehearsal times that we have here in Australia.

Q. How so?

When we got together for the creative development a few months earlier, he was far more interested in how interestingly we could present things. He really required us to expand our imaginations and start thinking left of centre. I think that we all agreed that the worst thing we could do was present a conventional earnest Brecht show, which would just be boring as hell for everyone, creative and audience alike. Meng just has a very cheeky and interesting way of going about things. We were on the floor on the first day and just trying things out, we were doing full runs of the play on like the second day, which was really quite different.

A lot of things just chopped and changed right until and including through some of the previews. Meng’s terrific in that you always feel safe with him, but you also get a sense that he knows more than he is letting on. He came across as the guy who was really laid back, saying ‘I don’t really know what I want’, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, let’s just have a bit of a play and see what happens’, but you’re always thinking in the back of your mind, ‘I think he knows what he’s doing’. The sensation for the actors that I’ve spoken to is that you’re never really rounded on your feet and I think that’s really nice as well.

Q. Was it strange going into a production that is set in China and that most of the cast members where white and there were only a few people of colour in the cast?

I think you’re always going to get an amalgamation. It’s been translated by Tom Wright an Australian, written by a German, directed by a Chinese National and obviously Szechuan being a fictional part of Brecht’s idea of what artistically what china would be like. I think everyone contributed to what was seen on stage because it was such a collaborative project. Yeah sure it is China, but at the same time I’ve had people come out and say it could be modern Melbourne or any other place in the world.

Race is something that I’ve paid attention to less and less throughout my career. Now a days when every I see a group of actors get together, unless it’s blatantly clear, the writer is white, director is white, everyone on stage is white and it sticks out like a sore thumb, otherwise, it’s a mix of people and it’s about the roles.

Q. How much do you think ethnicity has played a role throughout your career?

In a play like this I think I’ve be very fortunate, I don’t think you need specifically an Asian cast to put on a production like this. I was in the development process for another production at the time that I had to pull out of and I was given the opportunity to do this and I just went for it.

It certainly plays into it, the great comfort for me is now a days is that I meet more and more Asian performers and directors and writers and theatre makers, that’s really encouraging. Only in the last five years has it become really prominent and that’s fantastic, to see people doing what they love to do and really making an influence and trying to change the landscape.

I’ve been doing this for 15 or so years professionally and it’s certainly changed in that sense. A lot of my experience is in film and television and I would only every get these briefs for the same roles, Asian nerd, best friend, that kind of thing and that’s certainly started changing. At the same time you would meet a group of directors and casting people and you get this brief of the ‘typical Aussie larrikin’ and you would get told, well you don’t really fit this description. That’s part of my role to change the minds of people in the room and say, well how come we can’t do it like this. To be in the room and have that opportunity is very important.

Q. Is having the opportunity and being offered roles that aren’t ‘Asian roles’ in that sense something you still struggle with?

For me personally, I’ve been ecstatic with the amount of roles in the last few years I’ve been able to play that weren’t specifically seeking Asian ethnicity, it has been incredible encouraging. At the same time, like I said I think the landscape is changing, do I think it can be better, of course.

I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten less and less hung up about it. Because I guess there is only so much you can do. At the same time there is a time and place to play those cards and I very, very rarely find the need to make a point or a stand about it. I also I think it’s in my own point of view, I stop differentiating so much and it all just comes to artists coming together and creating things.

Q. Has that changed come out of necessity or choice? As a relative young person coming into the theatre world there wouldn’t be a lot of opportunities to raise those kinds of concerns would there?

It’s a bit of a mix bag.  You could ask another Asian performer who would say something different. However from my own personal experience, the collaborative workers I’ve worked with who are very experience, are passionate about creating projects that represents Australia as it is today, which is without doubt, a multicultural Australia.

Any production on stage of television that is trying to recreate life as it is today should be one with diversity. There is still a while yet to go to get full diverse image on tv screens and in the theatre but it is going in the right direction

Q. Do you prefer working in television or theatre?

If you had asked ne a handful of years ago I would have given you a different answer, but now certainly theatre. I was exposed to it quite late only when I went up to NIDA to study.  It definitely changes the way you go about your job, because to the very core the job is that of a servant to create the story and to serve to everyone that walks in to the theatre. When you think of it like that, in its simplicity, all the ego and all the superfluous crap about acting, being elite starts to melt away. When it comes to that and you have a story to tell and that’s what there is to it. My next 18 months is dominated by theatre and then after that who knows?

I fell into acting at 13, and fell into the role of a child actor. In that time of the late 80s early 90s there was a lot of good work, especially in children’s television. I was academically sound but I remember getting to a point quite young in my life, when I had to make a choice to give my full attention and the arts was that choice.

Q. Did that go against the grain of a lot of stereotypes you were around about Asians being studious?

I only have my family to thank for that, they have been nothing but supportive. I know I’m fortunate because form being on the other side of that panel at NIDA in Sydney, I see Asian actors coming up and auditioning. The panel sometimes asks them what they have been doing for the last four or five years and they often say, ‘I’ve been studying to be a doctor’, or ‘I am a doctor’. They say they felt that I had to have a fail-safe and yet the acting thing is something they are really passionate about and they can’t get rid of despite being four or five years into what is seen as an entirely respectable profession. They end up quite far behind, and it break my heart because there’s another face that could be making just a strong an influence in the arts, which is just as important as those other professions.

Q. Growing up how did you end up making that choice to do arts at a fairly young age? Without a lot of other Asian people on TV in a visible way, it must have been a tough decision to make?

Growing up and working in television, looking around it was clear my colleague weren’t Asian. Certainly it made things difficult, it was an added challenge. Acting being already the way it is then also coming up certain obstacles, like we can’t let you come in because you don’t fit the brief, you don’t look the part so. When you come up against hard headed set mind sets like that it’s hard to break the mould, but then I had other experiences where people said you don’t fit the mould but I like you so we will give it a crack and that was always encouraging. So yes, it is an added challenge, but not something that was big enough to make me turn away from it all together.

Q. How did you react to getting knocked back from roles based on your ethnicity when you were younger?

When I was much younger, it flat out it just pissed me off. You do go, why is this happening? Because now we’re not talking about talent or ability anymore, we’re talking about something that is beyond someone’s control, how they look and where they’re from. But I guess at all times this is a fickle business for everyone and its one I’m truly passionate about.

I don’t make a point of saying let’s all be ambassadors, but at the same time, that is there. The way I see it we are ambassadors but let’s not all feel the need to get up and shout from the highest roof. There is a time and a place, however I think a lot of the time people switch off. I mean I find it really off putting when people only talk about I couldn’t do this because of this discrimination here and here. I say well I’ve been doing this a long time, this colleague of mine, and this other person here has been doing it a long time. There are also these other people who were doing it generations ago when it was far more difficult than it is now, you can’t discount all that work.

I think in theatre bigotry is a very strong word in the theatre world. I don’t think I’ve met anyone that’s been that bigoted,  but when you do I think it’s more sad than anything else. Not sad for me but sad for those types of people that are working in a field that is about expansion and that mind-set is closing it off.

Q. Do you think that having people of colour being visible is having an effect as well?

Yes of course. Occasionally you’ll get a group of people together and everyone is Asian there are certain shows that get us all together. When you get that and you look around the table and see everyone who is powerful and fantastic and that needs to be encouraged in a greater way.

A lot of stage shows don’t need to have an Asian face, but when they do put one up there it’s great. If that has the after effect of encouraging someone else in the audience of a non-Caucasian background then fantastic, it is certainly something in the back of your mind

Q. Do people recognise you from Power-Rangers? Is it something you want to forget

Aljin Abella in Power Rangers Jungle Fury
Aljin Abella in Power Rangers Jungle Fury


No not at all I had a great time on Rangers, it’s great to be part of something that has such a big following, particularly from overseas. A lot of people from the United States and the Philippines, which is where I’m from, still get in touch with me, it has a great fan base and a great legacy and that’s always something that’s great to be a part of.

Q. Where would you like to see yourself working in the future?

In the future I would like to collaborate more and more with theatre here in Australia. Partly because it’s wonderful but also if you’re going to make any change in talking about cultural diversity, theatre is the space for it and now is the time for it now. While it does worry me that many companies aren’t bold enough to take a step in that direction and diversify and while TV is always going to have a reach that theatre doesn’t, but now at the moment it is theatre that is making the change.


The Good Person of Szechuan, by the Malthouse Theatre and the National Theatre of China is at the Merlyn Theatre form July 3 till July 20.

Bookings: (03) 9685 5111 or online at Malthouse Theatre.


Jarni Blakkarly

Author: Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly was Peril's Politics and Arts Editor. He grew up and lives in Melbourne. He started working in journalism interning at Malaysian online news organisation Malaysiakini. Since coming back to Melbourne he has pursued free-lance writing while studying journalism at RMIT. He has been a correspondent on Australian politics for Tokyo-based online publication The Diplomat and has had work published across various publications, including Al Jazeera English, Crikey, ABC Religion and Ethics, Overland and The Conversation. You can follow him on Twitter @JarniBlakkarly.