I walk, I listen to Diana Nguyen talk on her podcast, The SnortCast. It’s rainbow weather: a bit of sun warms my back and then the sky spits on me. I laugh out loud while listening and then suddenly I cry. In the podcast, Diana Nguyen also cries. She doesn’t really tell us why she’s crying, except that her performance at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year, Chasing Keanu Reeves: A Reminder, that was a lot. Then, just as suddenly, I laugh again. Nguyen is a stand-up comedian with such radical vulnerability. So much heart, so much hilarity.
When I meet her in the bowels of Melbourne Theater Company headquarters, those tears are still there, ready in the back of my throat. They jump out at me when I talk to her about Chasing Keanu Reeves. She saves me with a joke. It’s quick to his mouth. “The lockdown,” she says, “has been the biggest blessing of my life because it’s allowed me to reconnect with my pussy.” She has a punchline always ready. There is a response to emotion in laughter.
“Actually, funny story, I also work as a doctor clown at the Royal Children’s Hospital. I am very lucky to be able to do this job. We work as people of fun and joy,” she says. She describes his doctor clown outfit, his red nose, his doctor’s coat, his ukulele. She sings songs, dances, is silly, makes people laugh.
“The work is not just for the children, it is for the whole hospital. If you imagine the last two years – really difficult. Hospital rooms aren’t great. Not great. We enter, we are the medicine. It’s our job. We need more funding for doctor clowns, the work we do is amazing, in a place that needs it. I’m a main stage dramaturge,” she laughs, “and I’m also a doctor clown.
For the past two weeks, she’s been in the rehearsal room for Laurinda, a stage adaptation of Alice Pung’s young adult book that Nguyen co-wrote with director Petra Kalive. It opens in preview this weekend. “I’m there two or three days a week, just sitting in the room, and it’s just wonderful to see seven Asian and Australian actors on stage. See how the actors absorb the words and put them into their bodies. Oh!” Nguyen makes a sound of absolute joy. “Ngoc Phan playing the lead role – it’s protagonist Lucy Lam – just watching her perform, seeing this set move, it’s so exciting. the actors working in the rehearsal room, figuring out that line, how does that full stop work? How they relate to each other in the space. It’s so wonderful. It’s my first love, theater, it’s that’s how I trained, I did independent theater I could put on a show for $2000 and tell my story With film, I need a team, but with theater, I can transform and be whoever I want. It’s so great to see actors do that with the work that we’ve created.
Nguyen and Kalive wrote Laurinda in 2020, on Zoom in confinement. Nguyen recounts how moving it was to finally be in a room with actors, listening to their voices bouncing off the walls. “I really like being in the room, getting people’s stories. The actors sharing their experiences informed the script, grounded our thoughts. When we’re in rehearsal – you can hear people going through their lives – going…” Grinning, she makes a sound of pain and then breaks into laughter, sniffling out her signature growl, “You’ll see these characters on stage – you’ll see they’ve been a part of your life.”
“Petra and I have different experiences. Petra, she is of Greek origin and I am of Vietnamese origin. We wanted the story to not just be about this Asian girl at school – but also a universal story about this girl, basically about fitting in, and everyone has this urge to want to be part of something, to being seen. We put our own twist on it, there’s the perspective of a woman in her 30s looking back to the 90s.”
We’re talking about the 90s – “sick music”, says Nguyen and it’s in Laurinda — but we also talk about the fallout from Pauline Hanson’s first speech and how that overt racism changed and changed people. Nguyen shares how it changed her, a child in her last year of primary school. She is very serious, but also ready to joke. “At the time, The simpsons was on, so being yellow wasn’t so bad,” she said.
I ask Nguyen if Laurinda is a fun show. “There’s movement, there’s definitely comedy, but also heartbreak – that’s why I cry so much,” she says. “Conflict and laughter, it’s been intertwined throughout my life, it comes out in Laurinda as well. It is important for me, there is the journey, the transformation. I like to watch comedies sometimes where there’s just laughter, laughter, laughter” – and she claps her hands, bang bang bang – “but for me, I really need heart. I need you to drop it for me. Intellectually, feed that,” she points her head, “but feed that,” she points her heart. “There are laughs, but through the laughs there is pain, and through the pain we have to laugh. It’s like a manual gearshift, finding where it needs to go.
I think about this metaphor later. I remember learning to drive a manual car, how difficult it was. How much easier it would have been to find the way to the gear stick if I could just close my eyes and feel it, feel how it might fall into place. That – being in the body – seems important to Nguyen’s work.
Nguyen, who was recently crowned the winner of the 2021 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australians Award, grew up in Melbourne’s outer suburb of Springvale. His house was filled with Vietnamese music. Her mother – a refugee and single mother who raised three children – always sang karaoke: “Karaoke is her gift,” says Nguyen. Ever since she was little, Nguyen has been dancing. At first she learned ballet, and when there was not enough money for lessons, she danced in her room or on her way home from school. She talks about it in her TEDx talk “JoyFool,” and shows a photo of herself performing in a purple tutu, her hair pulled back, with a fairy crown.
“It should start with my mum, growing up in a Vietnamese-Australian family home that is surrounded by the trauma of war, but my mum is also this hilarious woman – this conflict,” says Nguyen. “A lot of tension, but then there was just a lot of laughter and then a return to tension. It was a sitcom, really. That’s why I co-created [the comedy web series] phi and me. This baby needs to come out.
Nguyen the point of the finger phi and me phone case. “I’m really good at merchandising,” she says, “masks, t-shirts, everything.” phi and me was first a theater show, co-written 12 years ago with Fiona Chau and Steve McPhail. “It’s an intergenerational family story. It’s fictional but based on our two moms. I was doing that at the Comedy Festival. We were passing, getting four and a half stars.
“Our community was queuing up to buy tickets, which is so rare. It’s so rare because, you know, we’re tight ass. We were trained this way – you came to Australia, you have nothing, you have to support your friends, send your money back to Vietnam. Of course, you’re not going to spend $25 to sit down and watch something for yourself. It’s a very privileged thing to do, for yourself, but having 100 people sitting in a room and laughing at our childhood, growing up? I can’t believe we made it. We succeeded and 12 years later we are in development to do a TV show.
Nguyen talks me through all the different stages of Phi and medevelopment. She raised $28,000 by singing internet karaoke to make the web series. She sang a song for you, any song you wanted for $25. In 2020, she cut the web series images in a TikTok and it got 6.8 million views.
This isn’t the only time Nguyen has gone viral. She is also well known for her ongoing comedic gag on LinkedIn, titled #DianaDance, in which she dances in places around the world with different people, often, over the past two years, via Zoom. I’m questioning about it, I don’t really understand, and she just laughs. “I wanted to make money, which is why I call myself a creative entrepreneur. I’m not just a creative, I’m an entrepreneur. I make business decisions for my creativity, I think strategically. I’m trying to get more artists to make more money. Change the mentality of doing things for free or for favors, or for love – shit. I’m about to cut this shit. Changing the way artists see themselves, economically. I am such a chameleon. Anything that flows.
She took phi and me at Screen Australia. “We went back to Screen Australia and said, it’s time, it’s time for my mum’s story to be seen. It’s never been seen on Australian TV before, it’s all been put together – we’ve gotten together – we are “Asian.” We are just in the Asian group.
She got into stand-up after a long frustration with the roles available to her as an actress. “I want to be seen,” Nguyen says. “I stand up so a kid can look at me and say, ‘I can try’.” She wanted a show. They were comedians who had shows; she became an actress. “Look at them, they have shows, and I’m here.”
She describes her first stand-up concert, the horror of it. “The first show was brutal, probably the most brutal show I’ve ever done in my life, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s screwed’. I went home, cut, cut, cut, she laughed at her own audacity.
“My mother – phi and me – I saw my mother laughing in the audience, but hide this laughter with the flyer of the show. I had to be behind the audience and I spotted my mom and she was laughing, and it’s really… Those are the times when my mom understood why I had to become who I am. Nguyen tells me with a smile that his mom is actually in the web series of Phi and I – with a credit to her name, she’s a real actor.
“With Laurinda, we have Vietnamese fluently on the show – Petra and I made a choice. It’s a Vietnamese family, a Vietnamese refugee family, and we talked to Alice and she gave us permission. I really wanted to focus on Vietnamese. We haven’t seen this on the main stage, we’ve settled here so long. That is luck. Chi Nguyen plays the mother and, oh my god, I can’t wait for my mother to sit down and listen to herself. I can’t wait, and I cry all the time”, – Nguyen stops here as his voice breaks – “every time Chi plays it, because – we were talking about Pauline Hanson – I wish I could talk like Chi. I don’t have the nuances to speak like that to my mother, so I hope that when my mother listens to her, she can hear what I say to her. This show is really big, for me. Nguyen wipes the tears that have rolled down her cheeks and laughs.
This article first appeared in the print edition of the Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 under the title “The best medicine”.
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