This week we interview Sydney actor and author, Kathryn Yuen who is the special guest MC at the Little Fictions’ Year of the Dog: stories for a Lunar New Year. Kathryn will be host of the Tuesday February 20 show at Sydney’s Knox St Bar and on Saturday February 24 at the City of Sydney’s Year of the Dog Fair, Joynton Park, Green Square. In this interview we find out about Kathryn’s Asian heritage, about her stint in SBS comedy’s Maximum Choppage and her other creative pursuits. For ticket information, click here.
Kathryn, you’ll be compering the first Little Fictions’ show for 2018. How do you feel about jumping into this MC role?
I’m delighted and looking forward to it! I’ve long admired the work of Spineless Wonders and Little Fictions. I won an e-reader in one of their competitions a few years ago. I think it was for a six-word story or something short/flash. Was also delighted to be asked to be a reader for the show in the past but was unable due to family commitments.
Can you tell us a bit about your own Asian heritage. What did the Lunar New Year mean to you growing up and how do you celebrate it now that you are an adult?
My parents are both Chinese. Mum was born and bred in PNG. She escaped some of the horrors of the Japanese Invasion during WW2 by coming to Sydney. Dad was born in Canton, spent a good part of his teens in HK, then finally landed in Sydney. Both suffered many horrendous disadvantages due to the war. This resulted in less opportunities available to them in Sydney. Mum hadn’t completed even her primary school education, spoke a mixture of Pidgin-English and a Chinese-dialect. She had lost siblings and parents. Dad, even into his final years, never spoke much English at all.
I think the world often downplays the impact of trauma, horror, and grief on refugees/migrants and it’s long-lasting consequences; even for descendants. In many more ways, as a middle-aged woman/wife/mum myself now, I’ve come to understand just how hard their experiences of life have been.
Lunar New Year was not celebrated by my mum because it evoked bad, bitterly unhappy memories. My father, on the other hand always felt it an unlucky to not usher in the new year as his ancestors did. However, Dad was usually not around to help organise and Mum had not had the benefit of her parents being around to pass on these traditions, so my childhood LNY was often just a slightly better dinner centred around our small nuclear family. Mum also had those particularly Chinese traits of the day of not wishing to appear ostentatious. So, no fire-cracker red lanterns, flammable paper decorations or indulgent sweets. I think she also didn’t wish to be ‘too Chinese’ like my dad. I think this stemmed partly from her experiences of hiding out during the war years, poverty, and not forgiving her life as it was playing out.
As an adult now, I love the idea of bringing the world home via celebrations and festivals. (Diversity is a valuable contributor to society. I believe it assists in community-building. Differences are obvious, we are presented with the impressive array of human existence. When prompted to look beyond differences, we can find similarities. An appreciation of diversity promotes inclusiveness, goodwill, connection, and participation. It may even instil a greater duty of care, sense of compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings.)
Lunar New Year is now an opportunity to re-engage with my Asian heritage. I adore food, new clothes, bright red, gold, bling, homes spring-cleaned and inhospitable to evil-spirits, and seeing how joyful humans can be in each others’ company.
What attracts you to Little Fictions, a show involving actors reading stories to a live audience?
Many writers, creatives, and people have very engaging ways of seeing and being in this world. Their styles, mindsets, imaginations are not often not fully apparent in day-to-day interactions. Bringing together a community where audiences listen to well-crafted impressive stories told via actors (also professional story-tellers) just seems like gateaux instead of a scone!
I value the stories all beings have within them. I value the voices and lessons to be learnt, understanding/empathy to be evoked through the sharing of story. I also appreciate the delightful nutters and how carefully they must reign-in their natural states when working their day-to-day lives which may not require their creative souls.
We heard a whisper that you are not really a ‘dog’ person. Does that mean you prefer cats? As a dogphobe, what preparations are you making to host a show all about canines?
I’m a mum of four. I can’t even do goldfish anymore! A pet-rock might even make my life less simple than I desire! I’m also completely over the domestic life and domestic duties. I’ve no desire whatsoever to dust, clean or cook for another ‘pooper’ anymore.
On a serious note though, we have allergies in the family.
My kids have also had a bird, rat, rabbits, a dog, guinea pigs, fish, and other things Ive happily obliterated from my memory. Often, they were brought home without permission, had more legs than two. And wreaked havoc. A lizard that moved like a snake on speed has just come back to haunt my recall.
I’m also wary of anything that could be considered a food-source. That might fit in the tucker-box freezer.
There hasn’t been too many innovations to the tried, tested, possibly tired pork or chicken buns/dumplings for decades. Can you imagine sausage dog and shrimp wontons?? Would you eat Pekingnese or Shih Tzu eye-fillet??
I do not prefer cats. They seem to have a reputation for being wily and cunning. I’d prefer the delusion that I alone am in charge of my life! Sneeze, sneeze. I’d probably want to vacuum the feline whole or air-dry it to store as food for later generations!! Cat-cannibalism. Joking. Do not give me a tazor gun. My hubbie seems to have a penchant for those Egyptian cat figurines… I’m sure I could glitter-flock or spray-paint…joking again.
Actually, I remember a high-school friend’s very old cat. It was addicted to walking along the top of her lounge but would always fall off due to poor eyesight. And it just kept repeating that behaviour. While it was funny the first time it fell, I always ended up feeling bad for the puss. I wanted to put it out of it’s misery there and then. However, I was told that it had more than nine lives.
So, in preparation for the MC role of this Little Fictions Dog-stories show, I’m bringing anti-histamines, and my greatest respect for all those loving humans who do allow these ‘pets’ to take over their homes and children. Personally, I have witnessed how caring humans can be towards their dogs (and vice-versa) even when these same humans and dogs are so mean to their own kind! I also acknowledge that there is nothing like a dog to keep your loved ones safe, entertained, and groom a responsible human. They are probably great chick magnets too – bar this hen 🙂
Can you tell us about your other experiences on stage – do you normally perform your own material?
I write poetry, short stories and stage/screen scripts too. I have also written some memoir. My style/genre varies. I’m both comedic and dramatic. I’ve been told I write with a lot of pathos, honesty and sometimes confronting detail. I feel literature, theatre, art and film are the safest ways to experience the sadder aspects of this world and (in)humanity. We are afforded the chance to laugh with, cry with, or want to kill without consequence characters from art. It relieves the stress of not being able to do so in life, I think. Writers and creatives can be incredibly insightful folk.
My first experience on stage was an accident. While waiting to collect my youngest son from a library activity, i picked up a non-de-script flyer for a free comedy workshop.
I was incredibly mentally-bored at the time. My life had been centred around the kids and family. I was also part of the sandwich generation caring for parents too. I had had three babies within three years. I recall being eight months pregnant whilst sitting the last of my uni exams, thinking I better pass! I also recall my employer giving up on calling me back to my lovely corporate role after I kept falling into breeding mode year after year! There had been a thirteen year gap between my third and fourth child. Same father. Poor man, although some Chinese thinking ordains that we created own our Dynasty 🙂
The ‘comedy workshops’ were actually a front for a reality Tv doco and stage show at The Comedy Store. It was quite an experience. Surprisingly to both myself and the producer, I didnt bomb! I had an amazing time on stage being a fully committed, hyped-up version of my crazy self. I managed to get the audience to laugh with me not at me (although I probably would have been ok with the latter too at that comedy-virgin stage). I recall being so self-conscious of my perfectly beautiful upper arms and thinking I can’t wear a strappy slinky dress like the other ladies, so I wore my communist-blue martial-arts-madame pants-suit ( lent to me by a Caucasian girlfriend who later gifted it to me). Onto the stage, I also carried a toilet plunger ( a definitive comedy prop), a gong ( I was going to gong myself off the stage if required) and bucket( over the head). Apparently I just looked like a lost cleaning lady when I gave off the impression I was going to walk on and immediately off stage. I however finally acknowledged the microphone and began. I declared I would not be telling any blokey jokes that included a ridiculously long list of synonyms for the male appendage. I confessed that my kids, happy in the car alone at the casino carpark, would probably try to report me to welfare and community services. However, I’d probably be ok 🙂 DOCS had an appalling record at the time! Sly giggle. I think I upset the producer’s ‘reality’ plans. This was reflected in the editing of the footage. A great lesson on many levels.
As my youngest still needed me at home – he has had quite debilitating allergies- I wasnt able to do what most beginner comedians do – do the club or cruiseship circuits. My do-not-drink gene, asthmatic lungs, and wary family also dictated otherwise. I guess no one wants the possibility that their mum , wife ,daughter, girlfriend might be silly or be embarrassing! But personally, I relish the day I’ll be allowed to yell out more than Go Nads! on a footy field (Nads is the nickname of my oldest son, my daughter is No-Nads). I dream of yelling across a boardroom or marriage ceremony that I feel blessed to have given birth to my children naturally regardless of the stretchmarks or trauma to their mother’s ladybits.
Regarding other stage appearances, I’ve shared my poetry, short stories and performance scripts and performed in other people’s works. I love both live audiences and appearing on screen. I love the magic that happens during storytelling whether it is through audience engagement or in the case of TV/film when a performer ‘enters the zone’. For a brief moment, the ‘world’ definitely feels new, surreal, different. Although I’ve never taken recreational drugs or drunk or gambled (I just do carbs and under-exercise ?), I imagine it’s similar to the intoxicating, addictive side of those activities. Definitely a buzz.
At home, I am never lauded or praised or allowed to be anything other than the fortune-teller with the food-menu or some idea of what’s where in the pantry. I am apparently the keeper of all the missing socks and keys. I am mere human and feminine comforter or camembert. I honestly can’t even plead or demand another human that I gave life to to take out the trash immediately!
My first short stage play was The Fallopian Channel. I directed. It was set in the scrotum of The Godfather, a flawed man at odds with his parenting skills and lust for his wife and even her underwear hanging on the clothesline. It was a Moonstruck meets Brokeback Mountain. The sperm inside him were constantly on call yet faced sudden annihilation. The play centred on two swimmers (one who could only dog-paddle and another an elite athletic-type) and their existential angst-driven journey to the next level of consciousness ie baby boy twins).
I’ve followed it up with many more stories. Among the word-feast, the topics include euthanasia, repressed memories, the writing life and woes, my husband’s holey boxer shorts, miscarriage, dementia, male suicide, female infanticide, narcissistic abuse, DV, and IPV. I’ve also written full-length scripts about an Aboriginal woman, a woman seeking her right/desire to have a child despite the odds, and a play inspired by the fellow who became known for talking to vulnerable persons at The Gap.
The skillset I honed as a writer and through my other stand-up experiences, I brought to Acting. I like to joke that I crossed the line! ?
You were described in The Australian by TV reviewer, Justin Burke, as ‘the scene-stealing Kathryn Yuen’ in your role as Lawrence Leung’s mother in the SBS comedy series. Maximum Choppage. Tell us about how you came to play that role. What were the charms and the challenges of working in the show?
I hope its Ok to reveal that Film/TV critic Melinda Houston from The Age (and other nationally-syndicated newspapers) said she wanted to nominate me for a newcomer Logie! Would have been even more brilliant if it had eventuated. Perhaps I should have nurtured my contacts with the Asian Triads and had them lobby TV week? Alas, it still feels pretty good when I’ve been remembered and am invited to do guest spots alongside the winners and other funny people. I recently got to do a little work for the Van Vuuren bros. ?
Honestly, I was a bit tentative at the time when it came to self-promotion and career nous! It was actually my first ever audition and professional lead role. I didn’t wish to have an inflated ego. I lacked a mentor, and computer savvy. I was very aware that at the end of the day, it’s all a collaborative venture. Producers and all the other creatives and crew, like publishers and editors, were also bold with their choices.
The Maximum Choppage cast however was rewarded with an Australian Equity Best Comedy Ensemble nomination. Other creatives from the show were also praised for their producing, scoring and editing. I had been the newest person on set. To this day, I am still flabbergasted about the talented people I had the privilege to work with!
I didn’t have an agent (and still don’t). I only heard about the role accidently. At a film screening at Parramatta Riverside Theatres, I was sitting next to a Vietnamese actress and her boyfriend. Casual conversation led to her telling me she was currently involved with the development of a project that would involve a cast of mostly Asians. She told me briefly about the role and that it might another year before anything happens. I really did not expect to hear anymore. A year later she came looking for me via my online writing stint with the NSWWC. Many thanks to both parties. It was still many many months till I finally got a time to audition at a community set-up. I think they had already auditioned all the actors with agents and were looking still. I even had to send a bi-monthly email to express my interest in formally auditioning. Networking, etc is something I get very shy about doing.
At my first audition set-up in a community-minded theatre, I really was an outsider. I recall getting the audition time, being assisted with headshots, given multiple directives and being given cautioned to be serious. Also, not to expect too much because everyone in Australia is auditioning! Most of the other actors were way ahead of me, already experienced and well-connected. I hadn’t even told my otherwise-busy family, I was going to my first ever audition. I was quite high on adrenalin and nerves throughout the auditions. I remember casting agent Anousha Zarkesh looking at me the first time I met her. I turned up wearing a leopard print shawl. Kathryn would never wear that! director Craig Melville also grinned in a nice way. At that first meeting, I honestly felt like I could have been lamb/hen to the slaughter-house. (I also have a very subversive sense of humour!) Her smoking and assertiveness made me feel by comparison such an unsophisticated blob. And Craig, also a fan of Simon Pegg and Shawn of the Dead films, just kept smiling. There is a lot of trust that actors must invest in themselves and creative teams. I committed to trusting them. And that was a brilliant decision also honoured by them and the Maximum Choppage crew.
Mrs Chan was an amazing role for a middle-aged woman. I still remember the responses of the assisting readers at that first audition. One was so taken by what I did that he kept hiding behind his script because he didn’t wish to distract me with his smiling and giggling. Before I knew that, I just kept wondering ‘why is he hiding behind the script?’ I was also asked to improvise. I had not been told or expected that might be required at this quick community-audition! Not only did I have fun but I surprised myself too. All the Mama and Son (chopsocky style) sketches I had two years before laboured over and performed onstage shone through. The investment of my time and admiration for the MyChonny youtube clips rewarded me. And the season I ran away to Improv shows showed great returns! And I guess my comic brain, life experience and love of wordsmithing helped the grandiose silliness and dramatic challenges of the audition. I also try not to take myself too seriously or be precious. I had honestly walked into that audition auditorium thinking they would show me the door within minutes but they will remember me …fondly. At the third audition (second-callback) I recall telling Anousha Zarkesh and Craig Melville that even just auditioning was going to be one of the highlights or ‘moments’ in my life. ? I didn’t truly expect to see them again. Although I did appreciate the way Anousha fussed over my hair. She said I was still looking too nice, stylish, young for the Mrs Chan that other decision-makers might be expecting! PS. If it isn’t obvious, the accented, bullying, excitable matriarch is a pure acting persona. I’m a first-gen Australian born Chinese. Also a first-born dutiful subservient Chinese only daughter!
It was truly brilliant that the producers and directors had such faith in me. Prior to wardrobe consults etc I remember being silly myself and asking director Craig Melville, ‘ Umm, I’m just wondering if any low-brow visual humour might be planned and how far that might go. I’m not sure about camel-toes or gratuitous butt shots or excessive mammary cleavage. I can be funny and engaging without that. ‘ I had mistakenly assumed (like many people who had been mean enough to say to me) that perhaps my generous body size would be an integral part of the humour. Craig’s professional and most gracious reply was something like ‘we hired you because of your energy, wit, and the personality you bring to Mrs Chan. You have good comic timing and instincts. ’. My curvy contours were a blessed bonus, as were my nice teeth and smile. (Mrs Chan’s intimidating eyebrows were concocted by myself and make-up.)
The charms and challenges of the role and the experience being my first professional foray into the industry were many. I should write a book about it. It was a very busy filmset as was my emotional landscape and personal life.
Among the charmed memories are some of the leading people at ABC making a point of generously praising my work, even the audition takes. And a well-known iconic cinematographer verbally expressing his thumbs up during the filming of some scenes. It’s really humbling and beautiful when highly experienced people take the time and effort to encourage and appreciate a newcomers work. Audiences, critics, and other creatives/crew encouraging and ego-lessly showing their appreciation. Gratitude and humility always shines through. Other actors giving me little tips along the way about physical acting like fighting, being choked, how to faint, and bedroom scenes. Continuity and camera angles etc were a whole other skillset I had to quickly learn.
The challenges included the heat and rain. Having to give up the accent and over-the-top persona after filming ended. There really are real Mrs Chan’s out there in the community and the ladies terrify me! I don’t frequent nail and beauty salons. A few times at yum cha or a Chinese restaurant, I’d feel Mrs Chan wanting out. If that had happened, I think I would have risked being stoned to death with a dim sum by a trolley-dolly-diva. It was also funny when people seemed disappointed that I wasn’t like the matriarch in real life. I had women suggesting I should dress like that all the time. Creatives wanting that accent all the time. I’ve heard there are little Asian blokes out there that have a thing for her and maybe dominatrixes. I’m feeling sick ?
Finally, it was quite surreal to work with Lawrence Leung. Only three years earlier, my youngest son was badgering me to buy Leung’s rubik-cube or Choose Your Own Adventure DVD. And while my own mum kept forgetting to watch Max Chop (she much prefers The Bold and the Beautiful), she now, after a few years have passed, joyfully announces whenever my TV son has been on air. I think she fancies him her TV grandson and likes the beard.
What advice would you give to people wanting to break into TV or live performance?
Sign up. Turn up. Expect surprise from yourself and others. Resilience, determination, and clarity help. Everything is a learning experience. Whatever we have learnt or experienced form part of the toolkit. There is no timeline if you do not wish it to be so.
Be bold, brave, and thoroughly committed in your performance choices. Show horror, kindness, vulnerability in your performance but make sure you are also street-smart. While there are many beautiful, divine souls in the industry, sadly there are also very professional predators. The harm they wreak can be devastating to trusting individuals wanting to work in an industry that mostly requires collaboration. Know the MEAA, AACTA, workplace legislation, etc.
Learn to network well. Try never to be shy. An agent is a good move. Knowing your way around technology, databases, cameras, editing software etc is smart.
Absolutely adore the creative crafts. It’s a privilege to even want it. Know however that it it not a be all and end all in life. Every moment off or on screen is an audition or chance to perform or engage. While still being REAL and not a phony. It’s an opportunity or challenge to affect another human’s life in a positive way.
It’s said that Life is just a series of moments. And I know that while some of my life’s moments will include artist-driven scenes ( great literature, art,etc) , ‘non-artists’ will also feature; just behaving like the divine/diva/demon-esque complex humans they are. They will have been completely in the moment and capture a part of me.
What’s next for you in your creative life?
Everything! Being a late-blooming creative, I’ve realised I could probably have a go at many, many creative pursuits. I will probably terrify my family. I’m very much the creative Asian mum from a non-artistic sporty family. I swear I was the one accidently swapped in hospital when I went to give birth! Four times! Seriously! Sadly, I can’t help but still love them. Most of the time.
There are some brief guest spots in a webseries, sitcom and an indie film that are still in post-production.
Some amazing wearable-art I’ve created alongside other women has become a video installation looking for a gallery to give it a permanent home. I plan to create more!
I will be sharing more of my writing at spoken-word events and festivals.
There’s a group anthology at the printers.
And I plan to gather up my poetry, short stories, monologues, and stage/screen scripts for publication as well as write more. I’d also like to record them and collaborative with an animator or digital artist to bring them to life even more. Podcasts or short motion poetry films would be nice.
Blessings to all, and thanks for reading xoxo