Had things gone to an earlier plan, Tiffany Wong would be at the United Nations in New York City working as an interpreter.
“That’s what I really wanted to be,” Wong says. “I was studying languages at uni. I went on exchanges to Taipei and France. But when I got back, I realised my language skills were never going to be good enough.”
A different kind of interpretation work soon beckoned.
When Wong was in her final year at the University of Sydney, she was asked to direct a play as a community-building project in a new student accommodation unit.
“I’d done some acting but had never directed anything,” Wong says. “We ended up doing As You Like It with an 80s prom theme. I loved the sense of bringing everyone together.”
“Now I see the director as an interpreter,” Wong says. “I always try to imagine what it is the writer wants to say to the audience.”
A couple of years along and Wong is leading an independent theatre company – Slanted Theatre – and preparing the Sydney premiere of Singaporean novelist and playwright Ovidia Yu’s Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, a satirical examination of the experiences of Asian women as seen through the eyes of three characters meeting for tea on Singapore’s National Day.
As the women unpack their work, family and marital lives, the play reveals commonplace oppression and the cyclical nature of misogyny, and “how we perpetuate it without being aware we’re doing so,” says Wong.
You are excused from feeling embarrassed if you’ve never heard of the play or the playwright, Wong adds. “We don’t see any Asian work from that period – or from any other time in the 20th Century, really. There’s a lot of Asian work being made now, but plays like this are the predecessors.”
Three Fat Virgins is part of KXT’s Storylines initiative, a platform for First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse artists. Previous Storylines productions at KXT include Jatinga, The Laden Table and Black Jesus. Actor and writer Renee Lim mentors for the program.
“I love workshopping things with people so I’m mentoring the artists and being a sounding board for these groups,” Lim says. “I help them work out what they really want to say, if the audience leaves with one or two thoughts in their head, what is one of them and how do you get that to your audience. What is the emotional impact of the show?”
Three Fat Virgins Unassembled is “thought-provoking and quite challenging,” says Lim. “It’s not in your face, but it is going against the cultural norms. For Tiffany to choose that script as a young emerging artist and then to really commit to making it happen, puts it on the edge of all sorts of things. It provides insight into how Chinese culture approaches the understanding of women, and power dynamics and identity.”
Lim says Three Fat Virgins Unassembled might normally be given to someone much more experienced and at a different stage in their life. “I think to be able to have audiences experience Tiffany’s voice now is really, really wonderful. I think that’s something that is missing a lot in Australian theatre – young voices but with a context of a script that allows an audience to hear that voice.”
Wong’s cast – Denise Chan, Sabrina Chan D’Angelo, Happy Feraren and Caroline George – is Asian-Australian. So are all the production’s creatives.
“With Slanted Theatre I’m interested in tackling tokenism head-on,” says Wong. “We started it as a kind of thought experiment, just to see what it would be like to work only with Asian-Australian people, which was something I hadn’t done much of to that point.”
To date, Slanted has worked with around 40 Asian-identifying artists on projects including American playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman (Chippen St Theatre, 2020) and a series of short plays for this year’s Short + Sweet Festival (now playing at the Tom Mann Theatre, Surry Hills).
The company also has a work in development for BrandX in Darlinghurst in 2022, a staging of an almost forgotten West End hit – Chinese writer Hsiung Shih-I’s 1934 play Lady Precious Stream.
In Australia, knowledge of Asia’s theatrical canon is close to zero, Wong says. “I sometimes wonder if the idea of diversity we’re developing here now had come about 100 years ago, what kind of works would we have seen? We know the old American and British plays but what do the Asian plays of periods other than our own look like? That’s the theatrical canon I want to interrogate.”
Three Fat Virgins Unassembled plays at KXT, Kings Cross Hotel, November 24 – December 4, part of the KXT Storylines season.