A Conversation with Margot Tanjutco
By Leah Jing
Margot is a performer, writer, and media maker. She is playing Juliet in electro-pop lesbian musical Romeo is Not the Only Fruit at The Coopers Malthouse for Melbourne International Comedy Festival. She debuted her cabaret, Estrella Wing, Showgirl last year as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and appeared in The Butterfly Club season of Original Cast: THe Completely Improvised Musical. Her screen works have been exhibited at ArtSpace and Federation Square.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor? How did you get into acting?
When I was a kid I thought I would be a spy or a journalist. Both career choices were quite preoccupied with people, so I suppose I’ve always been drawn to storytelling.
I started performing in high school when I became obsessed with musical theatre. After studying musical theatre full-time for two years, I felt creatively unfulfilled, save for a unit at the end where we got to write a short cabaret…! It was like tasting the sweet nectar of finally being able to voice my own thoughts and create something new.
I followed my instincts and went to study Media and Communications after that, though. I love the stage but damn, I learned that it was possible to be so desperately in love with something that you begin to lose sight of yourself. It’s absolutely no coincidence that I only fell into being involved with new work (which actually excited me) the very year I expanded my world and got out of my own head. A classic journey of self-discovery. Ha.
I like the road I’m taking now, chasing both a performing and creative media career…I want it all!
I can’t wait to see you in Romeo is Not the Only Fruit! You’re in the middle of third run of the show now, in its final iteration at The Malthouse. What have you learned during this three-part journey?
I’ve learnt so much about comic timing! I realised that there are moments in the show I needed to approach more like a ‘comedian’ instead of an ‘actor’ and it was that slight shift in my own thinking process that helped click it in place. Of course that also comes with having had so many chances to play with the lines until they finally get the laugh. Even just last night, I finally cracked this tiny line that would never get a laugh and I’m so relieved! Comedy can feel like an ongoing chemistry experiment but there are also things that are just funny.
Learning to trust my gut, listening, and remembering to breathe has been crucial in making it through this journey. Plus, Juliet has become a bit drier this season which is closer to my own sense of humour—and I think the audience has been more receptive to that.
Why do you think it’s important for stories like Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit to be told?
A study was done last year about how audience members’ hearts would synchronise to some extent when watching a live performance. Of course the study was commissioned by a theatre ticket company—but still!
Romeo is the kind of the show that brings together the kind of people and communities who haven’t had many things made for them because we haven’t been considered important enough or profitable enough. And we are absolutely important and profitable—I will throw my money at anything with a queer person of colour in it and I know a lot of people do the same. Romeo was created for the people who grew up in fandoms, people who have had to make their own happy places because the rest of the world seemed hellbent on annihilating their humanity. But guess what? We deserve to be happy. We have the right to be seen, and the right to demand to be seen.
In the theatre, you can tell exactly who is there by what they laugh at and which lines/references they react to. I especially love when audience members audibly gasp or awwww at anything. It’s a love story and the show is a fanfic on steroids! I am so happy that people are on that journey with us and are comfortable enough in the space to be themselves. Young queers, young people of colour - this is for you and you are welcome here.
That feeling of belonging at the theatre is really important to me. I saw a lot of shows alone in high school, mostly bigger or more mainstage shows (I didn’t know where else to go!) and I felt so out of place being surrounded by (often old) white people. I knew I loved the theatre and it was supposed to be where I felt at home but instead I just felt alienated from those very spaces. It was an awful feeling. If we want to foster an environment where that Asian kid who travelled an hour on a train by herself wouldn’t feel like such a sore thumb, we need shows like Romeo to remind her that she has the right to be there.
What’s your favourite song from Romeo?
Pulse Interrupted (the #JUCY duet) is probably my favourite song as a whole. It’s such a pop banger with some really fun lyrics. Our composer James Gales is a giant pop lover and the song was inspired by Carly Rae Jepsen! There’s such a joy and unapologetic frothiness to it—I was really left no choice but to love it so much. Also, the track to my solo song Aerodynamic is so layered and absolutely stunning on its own. James’ electro synth compositions are heaven.
As Juliet in Romeo is Not the Only Fruit, you’re working with a mostly WOC cast. Has this been different from your previous experiences?
Oh, absolutely. I started my training in musical theatre and it was so white. I would usually be either the only POC in the room or one of two. I didn’t think it was strange, I was used to it. In my experience, there were also people who were strangely obsessed with my being the (and I quote) ‘token ethnic’. Like, white peers would make these types of jokes pretty often and I just go along with it. It was ‘innocent’ and I guess they were my friends so it didn’t bother me too much. But of course it always felt a bit off. It’s a bit better now, I think. There’s more of a general awareness. Thanks, Hamilton and internet activism.
The musical theatre industry is a different world to the theatre industry. Though Romeo is a musical, it’s more embedded in the latter. I’m still new to the industry but I have been spoilt in that the last few projects I’ve worked on or auditioned for have been with truly great groups of people of which I am not a minority.
People are really trying to encourage new voices and I don’t take that for granted. Things are changing and hopefully one day, we’ll have a generation of artists who wouldn’t know any different.
Not only are you carving out space for queer Asian women in Romeo but within your own plays—last year, you wrote and performed Estrella Wing, Showgirl for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Estrella considers an intersection of race and class with a queer, Asian-American protagonist. How have you found writing and acting in plays so close to your own experience?
I created Estrella because I wanted to see something like it and Romeo was created for similar reasons. I just wanted to see race and sexuality addressed in interesting, non-traumatic ways—why was that so hard to find? I had no choice but to make a show myself.
The process of writing Estrella involved a lot of historical research on the period as well as a blind interest in creative memoir. As Leslie Knope says, 'I am big enough to admit that I am often inspired by myself!' Ridiculous and pretty shameless but whatever. I kept discovering more and more ways in which all these young Asian-Americans in the 1940s felt similar to myself. Just a bunch of ambitious idealists trying to navigate a fucked up world.
Both shows happen to be close to my own experiences because they come from places of genuine care and interest in its subjects. Estrella and Juliet’s journeys are not uncommon in young, queer, first generation Asian women dealing with their lives in Western contexts. In terms of performing as these characters that are close to myself, it’s important to know when to embrace the similarities and where they end. In saying that though, I still have to remind myself to suck it up and just do the Margot thing sometimes. If you have the luxury of playing to the strengths that make you unique, then do it. Don’t be embarrassed about what makes you you.
You’re written that you started Estrella with the vision of ‘alerting people to the Asian-American vaudeville scene in the 1940s!’ I’d love to know more.
It was wild. San Francisco’s Chinatown had the largest Asian migrant population at the time and this business man Charlie Low opened the Forbidden City nightclub with solely Asian-American performers. Can you imagine? Entire nightclubs full of Asian dancers, singers, jazz musicians, and strip teasers?
Acts were often be billed as the Chinese Fred and Ginger or the Chinese Frank Sinatra—the cast would be made of Filipinos, Japanese, and Koreans but they would all be called Chinese. Just keeping it simple for the (main clientele) whites, ya know? Of course, white people ate it up and the shows sold out out for years. All of this happened during the Japanese internment in World War II as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The balance between self-exoticisation, reclamation, and profit was messy and glorious. Those performers totally loved it, warts and all. How could they not? It was a chance to have a life different to the one imagined for them by society at the time.
It was such a fascinating period of history. I don’t think I’m done with that world yet and would love to come back to it again one day.
Of ‘Estrella’ you’ve commented that it explores how ‘to find comfort in your own alone-ness’. How do you find your own comfort?
Finding that comfort has lately been about being honest with myself, what I need to do, and who I want to be. It’s attempting to make peace with both the pleasant and unpleasant parts of myself. It takes work.
There’s a book I’m obsessed with, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, about the communality of experiencing loneliness. There’s a lovely kind of solace in understanding the world through that lens. I find myself feeling more connected and more empathetic following those bouts of sadness.
Right now I think I’m the most open to others and the most comfortable by myself than I have ever been.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
It would be nice to make someone feel less alone. That’s all I want. There’s no greater feeling for me than hearing a song or seeing a show, film or artwork that feels like it was made just for me. It is, at the least, comforting and, at the most, empowering.
What can we expect next from Margot Tanjutco?
I’ve been writing some original songs and I’m keen to produce music videos for them to release in the next few of months. I’m excited to find where my passions for performance and creative media could best intersect so it will be a lot of experimenting coming up.
Once Romeo’s done, I can’t wait to just keep working on my own comedy writing and do some gigs around town. I’m also trying to figure out a new solo show that can hopefully do a development season of at the end of the year. So much to do. It’s a hectic time and I’m feeling ambitious.
Do you have any advice for emerging actors?
We emerging artists need to support and and look out for each other… find or start our own communities, grab coffees, cry, show each other our works in progress even if and especially when it’s shit. And find other things that make you feel alive.
Who are you inspired by?
People who are trying to find their way out of the dark.
What are you listening to?
I’m always listening to my forever love, St Vincent. Recently I’ve been getting into Yoko Ono’s Take Me To The Land Of Hell. That album has an awesome funk/rock/synth fusion with cool lyrics—plus her sense of artistry is badass.
Also the Butter playlist on Spotify. Delicious.
What are you reading?
Plains of Promise by Alexis Wright. Walking Intently: The Ambulatory Art of the Surrealists, the Situationist International, and Fluxus by Lori Waxman. Magazines: Eyebag and Gusher. My backpack is very heavy.
How do you practice self-care?
It’s a daily process that involves setting a routine and having a solid 'To Do' list. I like to mentally 'clock in' and 'clock out' when working on my own creative stuff. It reminds me that what I do is work—both relieving that weird guilt of doing something you enjoy whilst also making sure I that do the work even when not in the mood because I just have to.
Boundaries between work and play can blur so quickly so it’s important to stay vigilant about where I am mentally throughout the week. Generally I try to get enough sleep, eat vegetables, go to dance classes (especially when I don’t feel like it), and occasionally treat myself to beautiful things. Self-care is a full-time job!
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It’s a relaxed mess. I moved here from Manila when I was ten—old enough to remember, young enough to absorb anything that came my way. I don’t know if I can ever actually call myself an Australian and believe it, but I don’t object to being referred to as one either. Asian-Australian-ness is not needing to have the answers about who you think you are or where you think you’re from.
It’s also about knowing our dues; knowing that we have made a home on un-ceded land and doing what we can to support Indigenous voices.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.