A Conversation with Diana Nguyen

Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh

Diana Nguyen is an actress, performer, theatre maker, writer and comedian. She has written, produced, directed and performed her own shows for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, World Fringe Perth, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Adelaide Fringe, Orange County California and soon, Edinburgh Fringe. Diana is also a community development project coordinator who works with young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds to provide innovative drama programs in Melbourne. 

We talked to Diana about acting, five ways to disappoint your Vietnamese mother, and supporting young POC to tell their stories through theatre.

When did you first realise you wanted to be an actor? 

From dancing as a wee three-year-old, to performing professionally as a 32-year-old woman—I’m amazed that I am still here. It still feels a little crazy to say that I am doing what I love; my tombstone will say—poor, but at least she gave it a go.

I realised that I wanted to be an actor when in year nine, when we did a lip-synced performance of Mulan. I wanted to be Mulan, but no one voted for me. I then wanted to be Li Shang, the good-looking guy Mulan falls in love with, but I didn’t get it. However, I did get a role in the end, as the evil hun! In the end, rejection made me hungry.

What are you currently creating?  

I’ve just finished production week for a youth theatre program in Dandenong, facilitated by Melbourne Playback and funded by Creative Victoria, part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. The SEAACT program is for young people living in the South Eastern Suburbs to devise an original play, which was performed as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Being involved in the program allows me to facilitate the young people living in the area where I grew up to have some opportunities and creative experience.

I’m also heading to Edinburgh Fringe to perform twenty eight performances across fourteen days. I’m doing two shows, Naked and Phi&Me. In 2014, I went to a 16th Street Acting school Q&A with Miriam Margolyes. She told us, go to Edinburgh and fertilise your seed. So I am going to fertilise my seed!

Can you tell us more about your work with the SeaACT Drama Program?

I grew up in the City of Greater Dandenong, and during my high school years I wanted to perform after school, but there weren’t any programs for me to join. I found that when I wanted to perform, I had to travel to Melbourne to get work.

So in 2012 with help of a youth organisation, we applied for funding to create a Drama Hub in the City of Casey, so that refugee and migrant young people could share their stories. We wanted to share stories of settlement. Fast forward to 2017, we have been funded three times by Creative Victoria, and connected with young people from all over the South Eastern Suburbs. I am so proud of this program.

You’ve mentioned that it was due to the scarcity of roles and jobs that you have turned from acting to comedy. 

As an Asian female actor in Australia, I feel that you need to be exceptional and have multiple talents because in the entertainment industry there isn’t much work for you. However, times are changing, I hope. We say a lot that there has been ‘progress’—but it’s not enough progress if I am not making a salary from my work!

In my Naked stand-up show I talk about some of the regular, typecast roles I get.

I’ve been working on and performing Naked for fifteen months, and it has affirmed that I am an actor, but I also know that if I want work, I’ve got to do everything. As a female, Asian-Australian comedian, there aren’t many of us, so it is pretty cool. It’s like going to Coles fruit section, and I’m the jackfruit. It is unusual to find a jackfruit in the Coles fruit section. But they’re pretty delicious.

I’d love to know more about your creative process—how do you go about writing your set? 

The first step of writing a standup show, is to just write a lot. The second step: make it funny. The third step: cull. The forth step: perform in front of loved ones. The fifth step: rewrite. Then: repeat the process.

On your website, your write, 'My mum wanted me to be a doctor. I became an actor.' How did you initially break down those doors?

All parents what the best for their children. Refugee and migrant parents see prestigious professions such as being a ‘doctor’ as this exclusive club—there’s a mentality of I came here with nothing, and now look at my daughter! She’s a doctor/pharmacist/lawyer/a person with a 9-5 job. There’s an emphasis on succeeding academically and having a stable, successful career. I think with Vietnamese parents, because they work so hard, there are certain expectations. I wrote a short story called ‘Five Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother’, published in Alice Pung’s Growing Up Asian in Australia, which talks about my mother not understanding my choices. Her view of my acting career was that it was a hobby.

So for five years, my mum didn’t come see my performances, until I performed in the musical Miss Saigon, and she stayed for the whole performance. During the bows I saw her crying and clapping. I think in that moment she realised why it was important for me to tell my own story—our story. I take pride that I made a choice to pursue acting, and in that way I can continue to share our story to the world.

Much of your previous performance and writing work—such as ‘Like Tears in the Rain’  or ‘Viet Kieu’—is explicitly about the Vietnamese-Australian diasporic experience. Can you reflect upon this? 

In 2007 I signed up with Platform Youth theatre to create ten minutes of work. Two years prior, I had studied the Vietnam War in my Bachelor of Arts degree. I found that the narrative was very American-centric, with limited stories told from the Vietnamese perspective. I decided that I wanted to explore the Vietnam settlement story of surrender, escape, sacrifice and struggle in ‘Like Tears in the Rain’. The greatest review was my friends saying they felt heard.

‘Viet Kieu’ explored my own experience being an outcast, and I wrote all the songs with my composer Liam. I've always loved singing so it was great to play with dramatic elements with comedy.

 ‘Migrant stories are an important part of Australian history now and if we don’t share them then we are never going to appreciate these stories.’ What is it like to work with young and newly arrived refugees and migrants through the storytelling process?

It is about ownership. Identity. The greatest joy for these young people is to have forty people a night acknowledge their story.

Being heard. Understood. Listened to. That is powerful.

As a daughter of refugees, how do you navigate the cultural, and/or generational divide?

I not sure if I can navigate the divide. It definitely isn’t on cruise control. But like that boat journey that my mum took to arrive to free land, the second generation continues the hard work, and we are still riding that boat journey so the third generation can then take it all for granted!  

Do you have any advice for emerging comedians? 

I remember seeing Felicity Ward’s show in 2010, and I thought, we have a story—why can’t we share it. So that’s how Phi and Me evolved. Our show has travelled all over Australia, and even to California, for the world’s largest Vietnamese festival.

Other advice: Just write. And be funny. That's very important.

Who are you inspired by? 

I always say my mum because she did some crazy things to give my sisters and I the education we received. I am also inspired by people with dreams; who start their own businesses, who want to invent, reinvent and keep evolving. I find that very attractive and inspiring.

Who are some of your favourite comedians?

Margaret Cho and Ali Wong. I also like comedians who test or push the boundaries of what funny even means.  

What are you currently listening to?

 A song that came on in the car recently was 'I Try' by Macy Gray. When it came on, my lover and I just sang our hearts out… it resolved the argument we'd had in the car for fifteen minutes beforehand. I love music.

How do you practice self-care? 

Don’t fall in love! And listen to music. And do big hikes—I’m currently doing a 790km hike in Spain. So wish me luck! My legs won’t have any self-care.

What are you currently reading? 

I just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and was utterly heartbroken. I was reading it in my campervan in New Zealand, and absolutely howling next to Mount Cook.

I’ve just started a Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami, who wrote and features in Ali’s Wedding.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

Being proud of who you are regardless by the colour of your skin. Being yourself. Sharing your story. Being true.

Interview, 1Leah McIntosh