Theatre, Representation and Three Fat Virgins – In conversation with Tiffany Wong

Interviewed by Deborah Prospero

Tiffany Wong is an actor and director living and working on Gadigal Land in Sydney, Australia. Tiffany is the Artistic Director of Slanted Theatre, an Asian-Australian theatre company that is now putting on a much-anticipated production of Ovidia Yu’s Three Fat Virgins Unassembled

In anticipation for the opening of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled on the 24th of November 2021, we sat down with Director Tiffany Wong to talk all about personal experience, Asian-Australian identity in the arts, and the importance of diversity in the Australian theatre scene. 

So, Tiffany, this is a bit of a warm-up question. Having done a non-creepy stalk of you online, it’s clear that you have an extensive background as both an actor and a director, with a history of plays and short films like Ching Chong Chinaman, Animal Farm, and the recent short film Prey School. When and how did you first realise your love of theatre? 

Well, I kind of got into theatre in high school, but I think it really probably dawned on me when I went on exchange to Taipei and Lyon in France. I always thought that I wanted to be a translator or interpreter, but I got back from exchange and thought that my language skills might not be good enough. 

So weirdly enough, Plan B included getting involved in a lot of uni comedy and uni plays, which was a big turning point. Directing is a way to quench that interpreting thirst, because I still look at texts and I still think about who I’m trying to interpret a play for. What’s my audience? Directing is how I think about language. And even when it’s not, I’m still thinking about the translation. Who’s going to read it? Am I going to translate it literally? Am I really going to put this play on in Singapore and do the exact same thing that they would have done in the 90s? 

In light of your film, theatre, and (musical!) experience, what does your Asian-Australian identity mean to you?

I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure out my identity. For me, I think establishing a community like Slanted Theatre was kind of an experimentation into what being Asian means to me, what being Asian means to other people. Most importantly, it’s about what it is like to collaborate with other Asian-Australian people, because that collaboration was missing in a lot of student theatre.

After those sorts of experiences in my student productions early on, I asked myself: “what would it be like to collaborate with other people of colour?”. It was then that I knew that I didn’t really know any other POC in the industry. So, when I was venturing out to do our first show Ching Chong Chinaman, I had to stalk a bunch of alumni pages on different theatre schools to see if I could find actual crew with an actual cast. So yeah, I guess I’m still figuring it out.

Photo by Liangyu Sun

Well, in speaking of leading stories that you actually know, how does your personal lived experience translate into past, present, and perhaps even future theatre and film projects?

Well, I guess the thing with any actor is that a lot of theatre is personal experience. There are a bunch of different methods out there, but a lot of them require you to have an understanding of yourself. So, every time I approach a scene or anything, I’m often thinking like “Oh, this might have happened in my life, or this could happen in my life and how would I respond”?

You also have a diverse theatre education. You’ve completed an actor’s residency at NIDA, trained for Shakespearean drama with Sport for Jove’s Damien Ryan, and have also done a summer program at the Shanghai Theatre Academy! How does this intersection of unique dramatic styles help you shape your directorial vision?

Well, I am doing a project next year– Lady Precious Stream– which is a traditional Chinese play that was translated in the 1930s and it had close to a thousand performances in London. It was a huge hit back in its day, and that is going to be a true exploration for me of different theatrical styles. I’ll be meshing in some of the stuff I’ve learned in Peking Opera, from which I’ve found that some of their stylistic features were quite similar to Brecht’s Alienation, so I was thinking of exploring some of that– he’s German. And then, the playwright actually compared his translation of Hamlet to Shakespeare, so it’s all written in this heightened English. So yeah, that will hopefully come into use as well.

This play, Three Fat Virgins Unassembled  is really just about women. They’re all women and they just so happen to live in Singapore. So, the themes tend to be universal and would certainly be more understood in countries that do have a patriarchy and that sort of influence by Western society. So, each play for me is always very different to explore.

Photo by Liangyu Sun

Moving onto the play Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, obviously that first debuted like you said to a Singaporean audience in the early 90s. Why do you think this play continues to resonate 3 decades on in Sydney, Australia?

Well, firstly that’s the sort of question I do want our audience to ask. So, I will give a very broad answer. Simply put, the play is really about being a woman. I know a lot of the reviews were talking about how it explores the experiences of “being a woman in Singapore”, which is true: there’s a lot of references and stuff, and it will be interesting to see if people can still get past these sorts of cultural references that are made. As I was sort of saying before, the universality of women’s experiences in the play, especially as an extension of Western-influenced cultures, are very familiar to our contemporary society here in Australia. 

Given that as the director, you’ll be leading “an all-female identifying Asian creative team”, how do you think this upcoming production of TFVU speaks to the wider progress of diverse representation in storytelling?

Well, I guess the start of change is happening. The fact that we have been so welcomed by KXT Theatre into their main season is awesome.

One of our aims is to improve representation and often things that I do here still revolve around the issue of people not being able to find POC cast or crew. So, I wanted to create a platform where you could find them, because they were all in one database, so you can just email Slanted Theatre and ask, “do you have someone that fits this bill?”. Another thing that I often hear is that POC artists and theatre makers also don’t have enough experience. Through Slanted Theatre, I’m hoping to create enough opportunities and to give those people experience, so that that argument is not valid anymore.

I also try to explore the diversity within the Asian community itself. Especially because everyone’s had different experiences depending on your background or where you grew up. We’re not trying to blur all Asian identities into one, but eventually we’re looking to have more directors of different backgrounds. We had a director from a South Asian background do one of the short plays this year, so I am trying to bring a lot more people and am hoping to explore diversity within the Asian community. 

Photo by Liangyu Sun

Ok so, although diversity and inclusion have a long way to go in any and every space, diversity in representation and storytelling is having a moment, which you mentioned earlier. So, do you think this moment is here to stay? Is it going to be another black tile, or do you think it’s just going to get better with time?

I do think it’s here to stay and if it doesn’t, I will be here fighting for it. I’m waiting until we reach that point where people from marginalised communities can make bad art. That’s my marker of whether we actually have achieved diversity and inclusion. You know, we’re so proud of being women of colour on this team. But then, if we bomb, people are going to be thinking and saying, “well, women of colour can’t make art”. So, that’s something that’s been really stressing me out. I do think that the first step of diversity is awareness, and I think a lot of theatre companies are starting to bring in these new initiatives.

OK so I’m not sure if this is OK for you to even spoil this for us, but what is the main message that you want to get across to the Asian-Australian diaspora?

In general, it’s that you should come and do theatre! On our Slanted Theatre website, there’s this page which says, “Get Involved!”. You can fill out a Google Form. I think we’re doing something right. I think a lot of Asian people have talked to me about how they didn’t feel like a career in the arts was possible and I think that’s obviously changing. We’re seeing some really awesome people like Michelle Law and Benjamin Law doing their thing. I think the first step is always really hard, and that’s sort of why I’ve taken a community vibe to Slanted Theatre. Here, you don’t have to feel like you’re doing a whole step into an industry. You can feel like you’re hanging out with some friends, and then maybe you will like it enough.

Photo by Liangyu Sun

After all these heavy questions, I hope there’s room for a would you rather – acting or directing? 

I don’t know! I get asked this question at pretty much every job interview. They’re essentially the same thing– they’re all about creating a world. Acting is more about creating a world for yourself and directing is more about creating a world for other people. For example, creating a world for your cast, and your team. On the other hand, directing is all about bringing people together and for me, is more about serving people. 

Three Fat Virgins Unassembled is opening for previews on the 24th of November 2021. Get your tickets now at:

https://www.kingsxtheatre.com/three-fat-virgins

If you’re interested in getting involved in theatre, check out Slanted Theatre’s website here:

https://slantedtheatre.com/get-involved/

Published by asianaustralianproject

The Asian Australian Project: events, stories and insights run by and for the Asian-Australian community.

3 thoughts on “Theatre, Representation and Three Fat Virgins – In conversation with Tiffany Wong

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