The Australasian Chinese Theatre Company was founded by Dr Moni Lai Storz, an ethnic Chinese born in Malaysia who came to Australia in 1964.  

 

 
The ACT has a mission to create and produce intrinsically cross-cultural performances with elements borrowed and fused from Australasian/English and Chinese traditions, ancient and modern.  In fact, it is this cross-cultural element that is tantamount to Storz and is what inspired her to create ACT’s  successful recent production, Our Man in Beijing which was billed as a romantic comedy poking fun at Aussie and Chinese cultures.

Storz is also an academic – with a doctoral degree from Monash Uni – a business woman, an educator with a particular interest in accelerated learning techniques, a speaker, a cross cultural trainer and published writer and poet. I spoke with Moni Storz recently and discovered much more about her theatre company, her passion for the arts, the fusion of her academic and artistic life and much more.
 
Can you talk about what initially motivated you to establish the Australasian Chinese Theatre Company?
 
What initially motivated me to establish the Australasian Chinese Theatre Company is the lack of Chinese Australians on stage, TV and films in Australia and NZ. There are many reasons for this low visibility of Chinese Australasians or Australasian Chinese (problematic phrase) compared to the USA. Traditionally Chinese are not encouraged to be performing artists. Acting was seen to be not too respectable, especially for girls. Better to be wives & mothers and boys to be doctors or dentists. Chinese parents will tell their children. Another reason is because few roles in Australia (an English speaking country) call for a Chinese. When I was a student at Monash in 1966, I was in the Monash Players but there was never a role for a Chinese girl like me. I remember Medea was on and I recalled thinking, who would cast a Chinese girl as Medea. She was Greek! Perhaps Brecht’s Good Woman of Szezuan but even in that play, an Australian girl was cast.
 
So these were some of the reasons that motivated me to establish the ACT…the mission of the ACT is build bridges between the Australian and Chinese talents in Australia/NZ and create inter cultural performances and encourage Chinese Australians to be performing artists.
 
 Over the years, have you found that any of these motivations have changed in structure or design?

 Yes. My motivation got stronger over the years and the frustration of not finding an Australian Chinese inter cultural play so I wrote one instead, the result is Our Man in Beijing, the first inter cultural play exploring Aussie and Chinese culture…I am pretty sure it is the first play of its kind in the world.
 
Can you talk about any specific challenges that the theatre, and yourself as the founder, have had to face and how did you choose to meet and negotiate these challenges?

The biggest challenge Is finding Chinese actors who are Australian by birth and have traces of Chinese culture in them even if this is unconscious. I really want a Chinese Australian. Not a Chinese from China who happens to be in Australia. And this Chinese Australian is someone who can speak Mandarin and English. I found that either they are so Australian that there is little Chinese in them or they are so Chinese that there is little Australian in them!!! When I find the right cultural mix in a person, s/he is not a performing artist. So meeting this challenge is a waiting game and trusting in the Universe that it will happen and it did. Meeting this challenge has required a lot of searching, going to theatre groups, and hoping to find a Chinese face somewhere…how to negotiate this challenge? in the end it is producing Our Man in Beijing and letting people know about this challenge and need… a number of people have come forward and expressed an interest in the ACT…people with Chinese Australian background..
 
The obverse to that is the great accomplishments. Can you please talk about those?

Writing the first intercultural play in the world that showcases Australian and Chinese values, (implicit and explicit eg egalitarianism and hierachicalism, individualism and collectivism) and the use of this play to be a teaching and training tool in cross-cultural management is for me a personal accomplishment in a career that spans 30 years. This is in addition to the play being first and foremost an entertaining performing piece. It is multi-purpose. Above all the audience likes the play as the feedback forms indicate. (over 200 people saw this play over 6 nights).
 
What is your current role within the company and how has this evolved over the years?

 I am the artistic director and producer. Since the ACT started in 2007, I have also been the playwright as I could not find plays which are intrinsically Australian and Chinese, a unique interweaving of these two cultures is just too new and original but as Our Man in Beijing is a pioneer, it will spark other plays to be written ..I hope. The company’s inaugural production was From Little Things… In 2007 I sponsored an Australian theatre maker Aurora Kurth to write, direct and perform a musical piece . I was the producer. From Little Things… received good reviews in the Age and Herald Sun. in 2010 the ACT produced a cabaret performed by Tegan Jones, a Chinese Australian. Blues in the Night was inspired by Eva Cassidy. This was performed in the ACT’s new home, a renovated garage set amongst a sub tropical garden beside a swimming pool on Brighton beach. It was amazingly successful and the young performers made a lovely intercultural pair.
 
You have had a life ling interest in the performing arts and hold a doctorate in Sociology. Can you talk about how the academic influences the artistic or vice versa?
 
Sociology provides me the theoretical perspectives and scientific knowledge/research to be a cross culturalist/interculturalist. The existential/phenomenological perspective from Sociology gives credentials to a qualitative subjectivist methodology to explore society and its social problems/issues. This is the basis for the dramaturgical approach (influenced by the works of Erving Goffman, Garfinkel, George Herbet Mead, etc, writers whose work I explored in my Masters and PhD thesis). The dramaturgical perspective in Sociology and Social Psychology is limited within academic writings constrained by “science”. It is natural for me to move from being a social scientist to the artistic (I was a closet novelist and short story writer in the Sociology Department. Very” no no”. So you can imagine what a challenging career I had at CIT then before it merged with Monash, Clayton). The story teller in me and the anecdotes I brought to my lectures in sociology and management enhanced my teaching/training. And it still does. However it was in the Accelerative Learning methodology (or Suggestopedia as in the works of Dr Georgie Lozanov) that I found a true marriage between the science and art. Accelerative learning is a whole brain methodology to learning and teaching especially in language acquisition skills. AL allowed me an academically respectable way of applying the tools of the theatre eg story telling, music, relaxation, etc to teaching and training in the classroom with spectacular results. Some Australians were learning mandarin within a weekend ! After the first lesson, Australian students were able to identify 22 Chinese characters( I founded the Australasian Centre of Chinese Studies in 1993-4. The ACT has emerged out of ACCS). I wrote a book about AL (see Mind Body Power: The Self Help Book on Accelerated Learning, published by Times Books International, Singapore 1989. Reprinted 3 times.) I was the first person to apply AL to the teaching of mandarin in Australia (possibly in the world).
 
Recently the company had much success with its production of Our man in Beijing. Can you discuss, firstly,  how that project came about and then describe the artistic process involved in getting it to production stage?
 
I wrote Our Man in Beijing because I wanted an inter cultural play uniquely and intrinsically Australian and Chinese, with both cultural elements woven into one tapestry. For example, our Aussie rampant egalitarianism stemming from the tall poppy syndrome and the Confucianist hierarchism. A side note to this was I attended a speed dating event for theatre people at Theatre Works and was encouraged to apply for a grant. I applied for the grant before I had a play written. I wrote Our Man in Beijing for the grant. Of course I did not get the grant but the good thing that came out of that process of grant application was that I met Wolf Heidecker at the speed dating event. How the whole process of getting the draft of Our Man in Beijing to its production stage was really mystical…through a series of synchronicities and “accidents” Wolf and I finally met again after our brief encounter two years before. He read my script and over night, he agreed to direct it. The artistic process was spontaneous and immediate unlike the usual way a play is produced through play readings, work shopping and auditions, etc. Wolf and I are like mirrors to each other: We work spontaneously, trusting in the Universe. What made it possible in a practical way is: I have already got my own theatre venue (a year ago I renovated my garage into an intimate cosy theatre/cinema and an outdoor stage) . Having that practical detail out of the way, the artistic process was made a lot easier. Wolf is a very culturally aware and experienced director who had worked with Asians ( apart from Chinese). This enabled him to work with a cast (in Our man in Beijing) comprising Aussies and Chinese in a dramatic intuitive way and as the rehearsals proceeded, my role as an inter culturalist was a useful complement to his directorial “artistry”.
 
The company has been invited to the Beijing Young Drama Festival and Beijing Fringe Festival for 2012. A very exciting acknowledgment that will, no doubt, requiring funding. Can you discuss the financial logistics of funding this?
 
The ACT is invited to participate in the Beijing Youth Drama Festival (the Beijing Fringe is under exploration at the moment in terms of details like dates, timing, and sponsors) . The Beijing Youth Drama Festival is really not ‘youth” as in young apparently but “contemporary”. They are after modern contemporary productions. Our Man in Beijing fits in very well with this.
 
We are applying for an Australia Chinese Council Grant which we are very optimistic about because of my business background. And if we do not get that grant, we will fund ourselves on an equity model. Those in the cast who can pay for their return airfare will and we then will raise funds for the cast members who cannot (our main actor Peter Muir is a full time actor, part time waiter. barman with wife and child so it is very likely we will raise funds to support his stay in Beijing for 2 weeks.) the Beijing Young Drama Festival (or Beijing Contemporary Drama Festival, my interpretation,) will fund all accommodation and local transport. There are only 2 cast members with director Wolf and me as producer and musician Phil Trainer who is my defacto. I am pretty confident as a producer that we will make it to Beijing in 2012 for 4-5 people’s return airfares. If we take two Australian actors who are the main protagonists, it is possible that we will use local Chinese actors for the minor parts eg the room boy.
 
 
As well as a wonderful opportunity, can you foresee any ramifications that the participation in the Beijing Young Drama Festival and Beijing Fringe Festival may have for the company?
 
Yes. I think other Chinese cities may be very interested in getting us to perform. Some theatre company in Shanghai is interested in us and it is also possible that we will perform in Malaysia. I am planning to take the play overseas especially in countries where I have already established connections eg USA and Canada. 

Can you  describe what this trip symbolises for the company  and yourself?
 
For the ACT it symbolizes the fusion and friendship of Australia and China since WW2. The Australian socialists were the few friends China had during the cold war era (when the bamboo curtain was up). The uniqueness of the ACT i.e. the fusion of Chinese and Ausssie cultures symbolizes how as Australians we always look after the underdog and China was the underdog. Now China is going to be the top dog ( USA owes money to China!) so the ACT symbolizes the triumph of this historic friendship. For me personally, it symbolizes a personal journey that I took as a young 19 year Malaysian Chinese (member of the Chinese diaspora) girl and came to Australia, a country that educated me, made me rich in more ways than one, (materially and spiritually…I was from a poor working class family in a Muslim dominated country that discriminated against the Chinese!!!). I now call Australia home for I have lived here nearly 50 years. Who I am is shaped by both Aussie and Chinese values which I think is pretty cool. Both liberating and fulfilling in a woman who is nearly 70 years old!
 
And finally, if you had one overwhelming desire for the company, what would it be?
 
That the ACT bridges cultures for all peoples of the world. To enlighten ourselves about how different we are and how these differences should bring peace, love and harmony, not divisions. Not war. That as human beings, we can transcend our cultural diversities and live as One.
 
Contact Moni Storz for more information on the ACT: [email protected]
 
 
 
 
 
 

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