Maria Tran has a BA in psychology, a black belt in taekwondo, and her own film company. She’s directed a feature film, played an assassin and supervised fight choreography in the Roger Corman-produced film Fist of the Dragon, performed stunts alongside Jason Statham in monster-shark thriller The Meg, and worked with Jackie Chan.
She recently wrapped filming opposite British acting legend Tim Roth (Sundown; Reservoir Dogs) for Paramount+ series Last King of the Cross.
But most of the auditions Tran has turned up to across her career have been for unnamed characters: “Asian woman”; “tiger wife”; “sex worker”; “Japanese girl smelling underwear”; “Vietnamese mother running in a field, giving her baby away to a white woman, and then I get blown up” (that last one, twice).
“Australian TV loves to kill me,” she jokes.
Tran, 37, gives this frank account of her experiences in the film industry, as part of her stage show Action Star, which made its world premiere as part of this year’s OzAsia Festival in Adelaide.
It was originally slated for the 2021 festival, but was postponed due to South Australia’s border restrictions (which were lifted two weeks after OzAsia closed last November).
Action Star, produced by Sydney youth theatre company PYT Fairfield and co-written and directed by Kaz Therese, is one of seven new Australian theatre, dance and music works in the 2022 festival, the second edition under artistic director Annette Shun Wah, who has shifted OzAsia’s focus from importing international shows to platforming works by Asian Australian artists.
She is, remarkably, the first Asian Australian to helm the festival.
Shun Wah’s career has spanned roles up front and behind the scenes in radio, film, TV and theatre, and she says Tran’s show signals a positive, generational shift for Asian Australian artists — while also demonstrating how much work still needs to be done.
“When I was coming through as an actor, I was so frustrated that the only jobs that anyone ever offered me was to be a waitress in a Chinese restaurant,” says Shun Wah, who was ultimately vindicated by an AFI Award nomination for her role in Clara Law’s 1996 film Floating Life.
“[Now] I’m talking to young actresses, around Maria’s vintage, and they say every job they were offered was to be a sex worker,” she says.
“What does it say about how we, as a society, picture or imagine Asian women, that we can only imagine them as sex workers? Or young Asian men, we can only imagine them as drug couriers and gangsters. I mean, it’s just appalling.
“So that has to change. And when you’ve got more people writing stories that are richer and more nuanced, from different perspectives — from within the lived experience of being Asian in Australia — then you’re going to have a whole range of stories and characters and insights. And that’s what I want to see on the stage.”
Shun Wah has been working for that change for the past decade, chiefly through Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP), where she was executive producer and then artistic director.
Through programs such as the Lotus Playwriting Project and the CAAP Directors’ Initiative, which developed emerging talent in collaboration with major theatre companies, Shun Wah has shepherded a new generation of Asian Australian talent onto main stages around the country — including Michelle Law, whose 2017 play Single Asian Female opened at the State Theatre Company of South Australia this week as part of OzAsia.
Now, at the helm of OzAsia, Shun Wah hopes to extend that pathway overseas, by fostering collaborations between Australian and international artists.
“To be in a position to have an impact on the sector, to clear the roadblocks that are in the way of so many skilled and talented artists who had previously been marginalised … and to see those artists realise their fantastic potential — it is without a doubt the most rewarding time in my career,” Shun Wah says.
Action Star isn’t a trauma tale — though there are certainly tales of trauma within the show, which touches on Tran’s own #MeToo moment.
Mixing personal storytelling, comedy, dance, fight choreography and live filmmaking (green screen and all), the show provides a snapshot of a fascinating life.
Tran talks about growing up in Ipswich, Queensland (where her parents, both refugees, owned a fish-and-chip shop near Pauline Hanson’s) and being the “only Asian kid” in her class. She initially took up taekwondo in primary school, to defend herself from bullies.
Later, martial arts was a means of forging her emerging identity — and eventually, it became a vehicle into the film industry, working on stunts and fight choreography (which Tran demonstrates on stage during Action Star, aided by co-performers and fellow martial artists Therese Chen and Takashi Hara, her husband).
Shun Wah says Tran’s show presents “an image of a really strong, determined, powerful and successful — in many ways — young woman”.
In one of Action Star’s most fascinating scenes, Tran recalls working with Jackie Chan as a stunt attachment on the 2017 film Bleeding Steel, shot in Australia, and a road trip to Canberra during which the star offered her a job working with him in China.
“I said, ‘No, I want to be like you, but I want to make my own films, for the next generation of filmmakers.’ So I went back to Cabramatta, to my film buddies and continued making movies,” she recounts in the show.
“I realised more than anything, I wanted to make films with people who looked like me.”
In the show’s most confronting scene, Tran shares a #MeToo experience she’s never talked about publicly before, involving a meeting in Hong Kong with an individual associated with the Weinstein company.
The moment had profound repercussions for the young aspiring actor — both emotional and professional.
“The reason why I came back [to Australia from Hong Kong] was the fact that I was blacklisted by the Weinsteins … and it was because I didn’t take my clothes off [in that meeting]. That was the issue,” she tells ABC Arts.
“And I didn’t want to tell people that because it was just the weirdest thing to say, you know? And I think at that time, he [the person she met with] was like, ‘It’s such a simple thing. You’re an actor, it should be a normal thing you do.’ … [and] as a performer, as a filmmaker, you’re kind of torn: do you, don’t you? And eventually you say no — and then there’s a repercussion for saying no.
“But then I ended up coming back to Australia and making my own stuff, [and] I found myself again,” she says.
“[I thought] screw the system, just do your own thing.”
In 2018 she founded the female-led company Phoenix Eye Film Production, and in 2021 she co-directed and starred in Echo 8, an ultra-low-budget action film about a female assassin, shot around the Fairfield LGA in a mere 15 days.
She continues to work on film projects as well as teaching and training emerging talent.
She says making her first theatre show has been a productive challenge, and has galvanised a passion for acting that working with Tim Roth earlier this year had reignited.
“And then also, each time I do a show, I realise, this is it: this is why I’m here … when you feel the energy of other people, and you can see people come into the theatre space and be like ‘I don’t know who I’m going to watch’ … and then after that [the show] their faces light up, and you can see there’s something inside where they’re like, ‘I want to do my own thing as well.’ I love that,” she enthuses.
“I’ve realised, also, that the plight is long term — in every industry, there’s always going to be the oppressed and oppressor … But what’s important is that if you’re invited to keep showing yourself and telling your story, that makes a change. I think that’s a really good way to go.”
Personal stories, centrestage
Action Star is one of several personally-charged works in OzAsia that draw on individual experience to make broader statements about social issues such as racism and sexism.
There are resonances between Tran’s story, as a young woman in the male-dominated action-movie industry, and that of Margaret Leng Tan, the Singaporean ‘toy piano’ maestro whose solo show Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep was a highlight of OzAsia’s second weekend.
Leng Tan, a pianist and composer (and a thoroughly charismatic, entertaining stage performer all-round) who trained at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, came to prominence as a champion of the work of American avant-garde composer John Cage — though these days she is best known as the world’s foremost proponent of the toy piano.
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, a collaboration between Australian company Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore, intersperses live piano performances (toy and grand) with tales from Leng Tan’s life; she speaks of her first encounters with Cage, as a young woman in 80s New York (he dismissed her; she persisted — and prevailed) and how that developed into a profound collaborative relationship spanning many years.
It’s impossible not to walk away wondering why Leng Tan is not better known; how this brilliant artist’s reputation has perhaps been overshadowed by that of the quintessential “male genius”.
Of course, Leng Tan — like Tran — has in many ways superseded any setbacks, and audiences unfamiliar with her work would have walked away from the show thrilled to discover this unique talent.
Opening weekend of OzAsia featured two new Australian theatre works: Lost in Shanghai, in which journalist Jane Hutcheon shares photos and stories of her “Eurasian” family and her career as a foreign correspondent; and The Demon, a supernatural thriller written by Miles Franklin-nominated novelist Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Rachael Swain (co-artistic director of Indigenous intercultural dance company Marrugeku).
Lost in Shanghai, which premiered at Sydney Festival in January, is the latest in a lineage of works produced by CAAP that pair storytelling with photo slideshows and live music to explore personal stories of prominent Asian Australians — including former Matildas vice-captain Moya Dodd, musician and rapper Joel Ma (aka Joelistics), and Malaysian-born South Australian chef Cheong Liew.
In her program note for the show, Hutcheon talks about grappling with “identity and belonging” throughout her life — and we hear how this inner turmoil led her to trace the story of her mother Beatrice, from pre-communist Shanghai to the present.
The result, co-directed by acclaimed photographer William Yang and Melbourne Theatre Company resident director Tasnim Hossain, and accompanied by live music composed and performed by Terumi Narushima, is an incredibly moving personal story that speaks more broadly of women’s resilience.
The Demon, which was meant to premiere at OzAsia 2021 but (as with Action Star) was postponed due to border restrictions, is perhaps the most ambitious new Australian work in the program: a blend of narrative and physical theatre with choreography by Gavin Webber, featuring a cast of five, that draws a line from the racism and violence of colonisation to its contemporary offshoots.
It’s also the least obviously personal story within the cohort of new Australian works: a story of two detectives in Western Sydney who find themselves caught up in a quest to return a cursed gold nugget to Burrangong in south-western NSW, the site of a massacre of Chinese miners in 1860-1861.
However, the dialogue between Arab Australian detective Jihad (played by Johnny Nasser) and his partner in crime-solving, Aboriginal Muslim Muhammad (played by Kirk Page), has a “lived-in” quality derived from writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s experiences as a young Lebanese Muslim man in Western Sydney.
The Demon was originally conceived by New Zealand-born director Rachael Swain and Chinese Australian filmmaker Tony Ayres, and has been 10 years in the making, with various stops and starts. It was commissioned by Sydney Festival under former artistic director Wesley Enoch, but was postponed due to the pandemic — and the commission was not renewed after Enoch finished his term.
Eventually the show premiered at Sydney Opera House, in October of this year, but ahead of that opening, Rachel Swain told ABC Arts that OzAsia was crucial in making sure the show made it to the stage.
“When we lost the initial commission, we went around with hats in hand, pitching it all over the place … [Then] Annette Shun Wah from OzAsia asked to see the script … It was right around the shift when OzAsia was taking more Australian Asian collaborations, and also including the Middle East, and Australian artists from Middle Eastern descent, into the scope of the festival,” she explains.
Swain also feels that OzAsia was the perfect home for the show, given its themes and “robust language”.
“Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s got this fantastic expression of the vernacular of Western Sydney. And I think OzAsia Festival had to wait until there was an Asian festival director, ready to stand up and champion the kind of language that’s in the work — because it deals with racism in all its forms, and there are racist and sexist slurs in the piece,” Swain explained.
Art from Asia
While Shun Wah has shifted OzAsia’s focus to works by Asian Australian artists, she has continued the festival’s other two key programming strands: collaborations between artists from Australia and Asia, and “imported” international works.
Admittedly, COVID has complicated both these programming strands — and Shun Wah explains that the timeline for putting the 2022 festival together meant that most of the works had to be locked in when border restrictions were still in place in Australia and many countries in the region.
Still, the festival managed to secure a handful of international headliners, including SNAP, a family-friendly blend of comedy, clowning and magic by South Korea’s GRUEJARM Productions, that opened the festival; and South Korean pansori pop band Leenalchi, who performed with Korean Australian collective 1300 on Friday night at the outdoor stage of Lucky Dumpling Market in Elder Park.
Besides Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, other key collaborative works between Australian and international artists included the 22-person concert Bridge of Dreams, which brought together the composing and performance talents of Australian saxophonist Sandy Evans, Indian singer Shubha Mudgal, and tabla player Aneesh Pradhan at Her Majesty’s Theatre; and the psychedelic musical-meets-puppets outdoor show The Ratcatcher of Angkor Wat, a collaboration between Melbourne creature-design and puppet company A Blanck Canvas and Cambodian rock’n’roll throwbacks The Cambodian Space Project.
With border restrictions now lifted in most countries within the Asia region — except, notably, China — Shun Wah is optimistic about programming more international works in her 2023 festival, and will be embarking on scouting trips after this year’s festival wraps.
However, she says COVID is likely to have a lasting effect on programming.
“I think something’s fundamentally shifted, both in terms of Australia’s place [in the region] and relations between countries, and also in terms of the arts and the way that centres like this [Adelaide Festival Centre, which runs OzAsia] think about their audiences and their communities.”
Shun Wah says that her arts colleagues in the region are talking about “[shifts to] the way in which we tour and the way in which we collaborate internationally, [and] the use of more digital platforms in terms of discussion, development [and] maybe even presentation of work”.
They’re also “thinking much more about engaging with local communities and local artists in a longer term [way], rather than the old model of just going out [around the world] with a shopping list,” she says.
Developing the audience
OzAsia’s program this year was bigger than last year’s — and yet ticket sales were down, reflecting an industry-wide trend.
“It seems to be not only just in Australia, but almost worldwide,” Shun Wah says.
“People are just reluctant [to buy tickets] — their behaviour completely changed [during COVID lockdowns]. A lot of venues I talk to say the patterns are different to anything they’ve witnessed before. So they can’t predict [sales] — they just don’t know what’s going to happen with anything.”
This trend has dovetailed with a sector-wide reevaluation of local vs out-of-town audiences, and a broader trend towards community engagement as a matter of access and equity.
“There’s a real rethink from the big performing arts venues about what is their purpose and place in the context of where they are,” says Shun Wah.
“It’s not just a big building that you bring stuff into; you’re part of a cityscape. And so your local community is not only your audience, but they’re your fellow citizens, there has to be some sort of engagement there.
“Venues are thinking much more along those lines of developing their audiences by connecting more meaningfully with the local communities.”
Even if none of that was happening, however, Shun Wah would still have come into her role with a mission to develop the audience.
“I want to expand the usual festival audience to make it broader and younger and deeper and more diverse,” she says.
OzAsia’s approach is multi-pronged, involving public programs, community engagement, and culturally specific programming, such as AnimeGO!, a one-day mini festival of Japanese pop culture; an exhibition of textile works made by women batik artisans in Sangiran, an archaeologically significant site in Java, Indonesia; and an exhibit of works by exiled Afghan graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani.
OzAsia’s core public programs include the annual Lucky Dumpling Market, held in Elder Park throughout the festival, and the opening weekend Moon Lantern Parade, the latter of which has evolved into the more COVID-proof Moon Lantern Trail, through Tarntanya Wama/Pinky Flat.
To these, Shun Wah added a mini festival of writing and ideas, In Other Words, which debuted in 2021 and returns for the final weekend of this year’s festival (November 4-6), curated by comedian and writer Jennifer Wong, with guest curators Beverley Wang (of ABC RN’s Stop Everything!) and broadcaster Marc Fennell (host of ABC podcast and TV series Stuff the British Stole).
Shun Wah remains based in Sydney, but says that engaging with local communities is an all-of-team effort: executive producer Joon-Yee Kwok, for example, approached Indonesian researcher Sih Natalia Sukmi, who is behind the Batik Sangiran exhibition.
She also emphasises the importance of the festival’s relationships with locals such as Durkhanai Ayubi, whose family, refugees from Afghanistan in the 80s, run beloved Adelaide restaurant Parwana.
“Durkhanai is a great connector for us with the Afghan community,” Shun Wah says.
The festival director met Ayubi last year, over one of the festival’s lunch events.
“She talked about how she had been so engaged with the Afghan refugees coming out [to Australia], but was really sick of Afghans being framed by war and trauma and conflict, when in fact, it’s a culture that is so rich. And so she prefers to engage in things via artists; via the poets or the painters, for example,” Shun Wah explains.
Shamsia Hassani’s exhibition, Art Not War, came out of that discussion, as did the panel discussion Afghan Women Leaders in Exile, taking place on Sunday as part of In Other Words.
Shun Wah hopes this kind of public programming, which is free, is a gateway through which new audiences connect with OzAsia.
“[With] Lucky Dumpling [Market], for example, you see this huge diversity [of communities] that turn up — you know, with their families, to grab a bite to eat.
“And so it’s about: How do we bring them into the venues and show them the work [we’re presenting at OzAsia] and get them really engaged in the whole conversation? And they can educate us about what more we could be bringing as well. That’s what the whole process is about, for me.”
OzAsia Festival closes Sunday November 6. The Lucky Dumpling Market has been extended through to Sunday, November 13, at Elder Park.
The writer travelled as a guest of the festival.