Eugene Wong doesn’t look like the director of a community drama group. In fact, he looks like he would be more than comfortable in an office on the top floor of a building in Collins Street.
Dressed in neat tailored trousers and shirt, with black-rimmed glasses and an appearance that is fresh, young and clean, it is not surprising that Wong, 34, was a lawyer and not a graduate of a Creative Arts degree.
So how does a person go from a career in law to the Director of theatre company Candlelight Productions?
“When I was studying commerce/law at Melbourne University, I just assumed that I would do commerce for a living and end up in business consulting,” said Wong. “But during my first year at a large law firm in Melbourne, I wondered to myself – Is this it? It was then that I knew that it wasn’t for me.”
Not that a passion for the arts and performing randomly took Wong’s fancy at this stage in his life. He showed signs of a love of all things creative from a young age when he began acting at the age of seven and writing plays at eight. At 16 he directed his first play in high school. “I don’t know how I ended up directing a play. I just remember it was dreadful, but so much fun to do,” he laughs. “It brought me out of my shell and showed me that I could lead people and lead [them] well. It developed [my] leadership skills.”
But in high school, Wong never gave himself the chance to contemplate the possibility of a future in the arts. He says he briefly toyed with the idea of studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, but then told himself to get serious and moved on.
Mostly studying maths and sciences in senior school, drama and music are what helped Wong survive the environment of a competitive boys’ school in Melbourne. “Performing was one of the things I was best at, so you end up clinging to that, otherwise you are no-one.”
Wong’s inclination to ignore his artistic sensibilities could have something to do with his background – most of his family members are doctors. When probed with the question of there being any pressure, he simply smiled. “My sister decided when she was five that she wanted to be a doctor, and she gave herself no second plan. Medicine wasn’t for me, but ever since I was a child I knew I could sell anything so I chose law and commerce.”
But if you think that Wong miserably ploughed his way through law school, longing for what could have been, you have the wrong picture: “Life was great. I had a busy, happening life. I got involved in theatre at uni but never imagined that I would be directing a theatre company one day.”
When the time came to step out into the real world of working and earning a living, it was only six months into his law career that Wong knew his heart was not in it. After two years he resigned and instead pursued various social work roles including working with young offenders and living with homeless youths.
“I loved it. Naturally my parents were concerned but I learnt pretty quickly not to casually mention that I had a knife held to my throat today!”
Wong credits a social worker who visited his school in Year 11 for planting the desire within him to pursue an interesting life. It also fueled his inherent sense of compassion for people, particularly those who are marginalised and suffering injustice: “I have always had a strong sense of what is just, even as a child. Talk to my babysitter from when I was a kid. She would tell you I always had my own opinion and strong sense of right and wrong.”
Wong’s two passions, people and the arts, serve well the present mission of Candlelight Productions, which aims to build community and address social issues through the creative arts.
“I’ve always done things with a community development slant to it because relationships and community are really important to me,” says Wong. “I believe they are at the core of life.”
Wong’s choice of productions reflects this ethos, with his most his recent production, Voices: The Carrical Project, telling the stories of men with mental illness, living in a boarding house in Hawthorn.
“The show aims to de-stigmatise mental illness by portraying the men’s true stories in an honouring, non-judgemental way,” says Wong. “Both cast and crew have been profoundly impacted by the experience. I can’t speculate who has been more impacted by the show, the residents or the artists.”
Candlelight Productions was ‘accidentally’ pioneered in 2003 when Wong was approached to produce and direct a play called Human that was supposed to be performed a couple of times in a local hall. Except it "got out of hand" and they ended up touring for a month with a curated art exhibition, merchandise, and a catering crew!
From such small beginnings, the company has expanded to become an incorporated not-for-profit production company with two part-time paid staff – successfully producing shows for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and performances held at Chapel Off Chapel and BMW Edge at Federation Square.
“Not bad for a group that still claims to be a fledgling theatre company,” says Wong. “What began with two people chatting over coffee, now involves over 50 cast and crew with each show.”
Money doesn’t roll in when you are involved in community arts though. Wong now supports himself financially with a part-time job in business-development for a community organisation, whilst the other days of the week are devoted to Candlelight Productions.
Wong has now come full circle, having recently graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Masters of Community Cultural Development Practice (that is – how to build community using the arts). “It’s as if they created the course just for me! It is what Candlelight Productions is all about. I loved every second of it and miss it. But at least I get to practice it everyday.”
Following your dreams though is not always easy. Wong reveals that at times it is very hard and really discouraging when you are dealing with small budgets and lots of volunteers. “Tears are not uncommon in the arts world,” he says. “But it does refine you. Every morning when I wake up, I have to decide who I want to be.”
Still, with a long-term commitment to Candlelight Productions, Wong is doing what he loves: “This is what I want to do, produce theatre to create cultural change. It is literally the only thing I can imagine doing for the rest of my life.”
VOICES: The Carrical Project runs 1st – 17th September at The Open Stage, Melb Uni, 757 Swanston St, Parkville
I Am Super, Man runs 26th Sept – 8th Oct as part of the Fringe Festival at the Lithuanian Club, 44 Errol St, Nth Melbourne
For more details or tickets, visit www.candlelightproductions.com.au