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As it nears its 50th birthday, the Sydney Opera House is looking to the future to uncover who’ll define the next 50 years of arts and culture in Australia.

Join host Courtney Ammenhauser as she chats to a spectacular lineup of artists from a variety of creative disciplines as they make their way to one of the most famous performance venues in the world. Hear from effervescent Fangirls creator Yve Blake, spellbinding Dorr-e Dari actor Mahdi Mohammadi and heaps more in this playful interview series that’ll introduce you to Australia’s future arts and culture leaders.

Episodes are released monthly and available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Latest episodes

Episode 5: Character building with Lily Balatincz and Rahel Romahn

In a new Australian run of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, Lily Balatincz and Rahel Romahn play Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Constanze Mozart. Amidst rehearsals, Lily and Rahel talk to Courtney about the life-changing experiences that shifted their careers, how they connect with their characters, and what it means to share the stage with legendary actor Michael Sheen.

Read the transcript

Episode 5: Character building with Lily Balatincz and Rahel Romahn

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of gathering and storytelling, and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present.

Rahel Romahn: We're talking about one of the greatest theatre actors alive. We're filled with so much humility, you know, I felt like just a general tennis player. And then you're throwing me on the court with, you know, Novak Djokovic or Federer or even a Serena Williams or what have you. And all of a sudden it kicks in. Hold on a second. I've gone from a training/practise person to someone on the court with the highest level. And so, of course, there's a level of nerves, but a level of excitement too.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next, your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage as we chat to a spectacular lineup of artists who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. Together we’ll uncover who’s up next, and how this moment in time is transforming the next 50 years of arts and culture.

In 1998, the celebrated British theatre actor Michael Sheen took on the role of young Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. The show is about a fictitious rivalry between real-life composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. Now, more than 20 years later, Michael Sheen is returning to Amadeus, but this time in a different role. He’s back as Salieri, in an Australian run of the play, opening in December. Stepping into his old shoes is one of Australia’s most exciting up and coming theatre actors. Rahel Romahn, will be taking on the character of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, opposite the incredible Lily Balatincz in the role of Constanze Mozart.

You might recognise Rahel from SBS’s The Principal or the 2021 film Here Out West, plus a number of roles for the Sydney Theatre Company. Lily has an impressive CV of US theatre parts, awards and has recently planted her feet as a director of Australian theatre, including the recent hit Bad Machine for the Campbelltown Arts Centre. I’m lucky enough to be joined by both of them today, to chat about their surprising connections to their characters, their careers and who they think is up next in Australia.    

Rahel Romahn: Hey, my name is Rahel Romahn. I'm playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

Lily Balatincz: I'm Lily Balatincz, and I'm playing Constanze Mozart in the Sydney Opera House production of Amadeus.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Welcome to you both here on beautiful Gadigal Land of the Eora Nation. One thing we love doing on this show is asking people about the first time they've performed at the Opera House. And Lily, this show is not your first time on this stage.

Lily Balatincz: It is not, Courtney, I actually was first on this stage in high school. I was in the New South Wales State Drama Company and we were as part of that, given the opportunity to. compere events at the Opera House in the concert hall. COMPERE C-o-m-p-not…

Courtney Ammenhauser: The hosting kind. 

Lily Balatincz: Yeah, exactly. I wasn't comparing different events, but I would be on stage presenting each of the pieces by the state orchestral company in front of two and a half thousand people, probably starting when I was about 14. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Wow. 

Lily Balatincz: We got given a bit of a budget to buy a fancy dress and oh yeah, we were in black tie. It was very fancy.

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's very sophisticated.

Lily Balatincz: It was very sophisticated. And we were I think we were a little we were a little sort of jump in the deep end hosting something of that scale. But yeah, that was my first time on that stage, looking out at the beautiful space.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Rah, that was Lily's first story about being in the concert hall. 

Rahel Romahn: Yes. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Can you tell me about yours?

Rahel Romahn: Well, I've never been in the concert hall. I have never even stepped into the concert hall. So this is very exciting for me to be able to smell it and feel the temperature and be able to walk around and exist in that realm. I have however performed at the Drama Theatre, in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Midsummer Night's Dream, which Kipp Williams the now Artistic Director was amazing enough to grant me that opportunity. I played the very very small role of Snug the joiner and a fairy. Now Snug the joiner, is one of the mechanicals in Midsummer Night's Dream one of the play actors. And yeah, it was a really fun time. It was a great way for me to learn about how the theatre works. Yeah that was my first time. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Rahel, can you tell me about the first time you discovered your passion for acting as a child?

Rahel Romahn: Yes, when I was younger, I was extremely isolated and bullied and I found the mirror as a form of escapism. I would sit in front of the mirror for hours because I was quite isolated from family and friends and I would use the mirror. I would do different accents and voices and faces, and I would exist within the realms of the many different dimensions that I could have possibly been born in, so that I could bear the weight of existence. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. wow.

Rahel Romahn: I found an enjoyment in that escapism. You know, I didn't feel as though I was shackled to my my physical being. I was able to explore spiritually what it was to be other people than other people's adversities and vicissitudes that they faced. And I found that an adventure. So, yeah, once I discovered that form of of artistry, I very much plunged into the depths of what that was. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, A number of your roles Rah, like the principal and hear out west are set in western Sydney and you grew up in Parramatta. How did you bring your connection to Western Sydney to these roles?

Rahel Romahn: I came here when I was three and a half years of age as a refugee from Kurdistan escaping Saddam Hussein's genocide and grew up pretty much in the Parramatta region. And I grew up in a particular environment of multiculturalism and an amalgam of different ideas and thoughts, but kind of in a, in a peaceful, tranquil existence. I feel as though I mean, I'm a pretty out there kind of person. I feel as though the soul and the physical vessel are two separate things. And this physical vessel, which to the outer world is a middle Eastern, young, Middle Eastern guy who looks a particular way is the vehicle that I've been given to drive. And within that vessel, I've experienced particular things in a particular way. And the roles that I get very much in line with that. And when I get the principal or hear out West or any of the other multiple roles that I've played in the same world of a young Middle Eastern character who's usually angry, misunderstood, you know, confused, which, you know, is quite I like I like playing those those kind of feelings, whatever the culture may be. I was able to bring that level of history and experience to those roles and attempt to find very subtle, you know, differences between those roles. So that whenever I played those roles, they wouldn't always come out the same. So you wouldn't watch any role that I play twice and go, wow, he's literally playing the same role. No, each of these people as as similar as they may seem to the to the outside are very nuanced and complex and different individuals. And I was keen to shape that sort of difference. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And how important to you are those characters and those portrayals?

Rahel Romahn: Very important because there are, there are people of my descent out there that feel absolutely alone and scared and worried and isolated the same things I felt when I was young. And I want to be able to show them as a different way of exploring those. There are multiple ways of expression to be able to, to showcase your inner vulnerabilities without being afraid of the judgement that comes along with it.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Lily, you got your big break in New York City. How did you end up living over there and, you know, living every actor's dream?

Lily Balatincz: Oh, gosh. So it, I was actually I did an undergrad degree in film, but I just couldn't quite shake this, this desire to be a performer that I'd had from when I was about three years old. I started out as a dancer, and then I moved to poetry recitation and first speaking training when I was five and I auditioned one last time for NIDA was not successful and on a bit of a whim decided to apply to Juilliard and booked an airfare. Really spur of the moment and then found myself in New York auditioning for Juilliard and NYU. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Wow. 

Lily Balatincz: I got through the call-backs, but I didn't get into Juilliard, which in the end I think was the right thing because different programmes have a different sort of energy to them. And I think I suited NYU. I ended up being taken by the hand by the person who I was auditioning for, for the undergrad programme, and she said, I think you need to go to the grad programme, which I didn't even know existed. And I got a call-back and I got offered a place, one of 16 people out of about a thousand auditioning.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Wow. 

Lily Balatincz: So it was yeah, it was a bit of a surreal moment and that was how I ended up on the other side of the world, not knowing anyone.

Courtney Ammenhauser: After you left New York, you moved away from acting and into directing, and you brought some very Australian stories like Bad Machine to life. What was that change like?

Lily Balatincz: So before I moved into directing, I was producing a bit of a it was a journey, I guess from I was heading up the performance programme at Campbelltown Arts Centre for a few years. That was a really great experience in and of itself because it was, it's a great organisation, it only commissions new work, it doesn't do any buy-ins. So it was learning about sort of different parts of the performance world than I had ever been exposed to before, such as contemporary performance, contemporary dance, performance art, even. So that sort of led to, as a producer, I commissioned a new play, Bad Machine, which was me transitioning across to directing. It's a new Australian play by an incredible young Australian playwright named Brook Robinson, who's from Campbelltown. She's based out of London primarily, and it's exploring the topic of the robo debt crisis. She and I came together. She's worked mostly in London, I've worked mostly in New York. And we had this sort of impassioned discussion about, you know, if we were in London and if we were in New York, there's no way we'd be able to make the first art work about this topic because there'd be seven existing plays. And we found it sort of bewildering that there was no art form actually, that had been exploring it as yet. So we kind of jumped in and made a work that was looking at the human impact of these large scale, high level government decisions and the very real effects that they have on people just like you or me. One of the things that was instilled in us at NYU was that you're not just an artist, you're an artist citizen. And yeah, I'm really proud to have been a part of the creation of New Australian theatre, but also making a work that gives a voice to people who otherwise maybe don't get much of a platform. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Nice well, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Bad Machine for sure. Rahel, can you tell me a bit about the behind the scenes of Amadeus? I'm keen to hear about how it felt when you got the part. 

Rahel Romahn: My agents told me that this particular production of Red Line and Opera House had been searching for four months to find the actor or performer to be able to bring to life Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And I was quite interested. I mean, I, I'd never thought that I would be the candidate to play the role of Mozart. I never even thought it was a possibility. I don't know why, because upon reading it, I thought, wow, myself and this character are quite similar. Not in the levels of genius. I'd like to stay humble in that regard, but in the levels of eccentricity and passion. You know, I feel that connection too, to Mozart. And when I got the audition, my agent was like, Please, you know, take this seriously. Learn your lines. I said, Have I ever not? You know? And so once I got the audition, I read the two scenes that I was meant to do. One of them was a raunchy escapade into the sexual desire, and one was a passionate connexion to a godlike genius existence. And I thought, well, two extremely different scenes that would be great in any school or role. And I learnt those two scenes. I just understood the character, I understood the musicality within it, I understood the pain, I understood it on a particular level that I just was dancing at the joy, because my favourite part of performance is to break down and analyse the dialogue and the scenes and the thoughts, the thoughts in between, the birth of thoughts, the revelations, the inner circle, outer circle and greater circle. You know, I just it was exciting. And when I learnt it, I went in there and I absolutely was like a child in a playground.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Wow, you really painting a picture of of that moment. I wish I was in the room.

Rahel Romahn: It was exciting and it's always fun. Yeah.

Courtney Ammenhauser: You mentioned a little bit about the eccentricity that you saw in the character and yourself, were there other similarities between?

Rahel Romahn: Yes, they call him the tiny creature and I myself of not of a tall stature or build those physical details. Have I also found a similarity.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And Michael Sheen is in this version of Amadeus and has previously played Mozart.

Rahel Romahn: I love this man.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Did this make you nervous to join him on stage?

Rahel Romahn: Of course.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah? 

Rahel Romahn: We're talking about one of the greatest theatre actors alive You know, I felt like just a general tennis player. And then you're throwing me on the court with, you know, Novak Djokovic or Federer or even a Serena Williams or what have you. And all of a sudden it kicks in. Hold on a second. I've gone from training practise person to someone on the court with the with the highest level. And so, of course, there's a level of nerves, but a level of excitement because I look at Michael Sheen and I see myself in so many qualities in him, not only physically, but passion. You know, you watch him in anything, you Google him in anything, you YouTube Michael Sheen on anything. He is so passionately invested in whatever it may be, as silly or as grand as it may be, you know, so absolutely. It is so exciting to be able to work with a master of the craft such as Michael Sheen.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I love that analogy to of the tennis court. 

Rahel Romahn: Yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And the playing. I mean that's what acting is right?

Rahel Romahn: Absolutely.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Lily, this show is a return to the stage for you. What have the last few years been like and how does it feel to be back?

Lily Balatincz: I've been, I've been working, I guess, yeah. In different creative capacities. Bit of this, bit of that, bit of circus artistry as well. And I'm actually so grateful for the opportunity to have explored different parts of my creative practise. To me, it feels like expansion of awareness. You know, as you continue to grow awareness as a human being, you're naturally going to have awareness grow. It's like parts of the room that were in the dark before have a light shone on them, and you start to see that, Oh, there's something over there that I wasn't aware of before.

Courtney Ammenhauser: How does it feel to be back and going into the show?

Lily Balatincz: Feels pretty great. Feels pretty, pretty damn exciting. Yeah, a little daunting. I'm not going to lie. It's, you know, it's on a very large scale. And working with one of the finest living theatre actors. One of the finest living actors. Yeah, it's a rare confluence of factors that comes together to feel almost fated, and it's definitely pinch me territory.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Lily, your dad was actually born in the same town as Mozart. Is that right? 

Lily Balatincz: Yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What happened when he found out that you got the role?

Lily Balatincz: Well, he. He was over the moon. And the first one of the first things he said to me was, well, you'd better go to Salzburg for research. And my dad has always said that he would never go back to Salzburg. He's, he was born there in a refugee camp and spent the first couple of years of his life in that refugee camp. So he's, there's a lot of stuff attached to it for him. We're from Hungary originally. And and I said to him, Yeah, I'll go if you go, Dad. And he, to my surprise, said, okay. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Wow

Lily Balatincz: And so we actually just visited as a family. My family went back to Salzburg. We went for the first time, but he went back for the first time since he was a little boy, which was a really beautiful, rare emotional journey.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I bet

Lily Balatincz: It was just surreal, to be honest. It was like visiting the the birthplace of Mozart, visiting the place where Mozart then lived when he was older, and they moved to a different home. And that was a place where my character, you know, went and visited Mozart's father with, with him. And, you know, my character died in Salzburg. So I went to the house where she died. And meanwhile, just a little bit over there was where my father was born. So it was yeah, it was quite a, quite a strange coming together of events and kind of contributed to the feeling, I guess, of it being a little fated, the whole thing.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Mm yeah. It's quite a powerful catalyst for your dad to go back like you getting this role.

Lily Balatincz: Yeah, it was. It was actually. Yeah, it felt like intergenerational healing. You know, my grandparents, my nagymama and nagypapa died when I was very young because they they had cancers from the DDT spray, which people were sprayed with when they entered Australia as refugees. And so my father was so young that he didn't get sprayed, but his parents did and they died very close to each other, far too young. And so that's a huge reason why he was never going to go back. So to be a part of, you know, researching for the play, but also being a part of my own, tracing my own family lineage and yeah, holding space for my father and being by his side for that was, you know, am going to get a little bit emotional talking about it, to be honest, because it was a very rare, rare experience that I don't think many people have the opportunity to have and has come about really because of this play. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's wild. That it’s worked out like that.

Lily Balatincz: It’s so wild. Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Rahel, what do you think Amadeus is about? 

Rahel Romahn: I think Amadeus is about the unsheathing of the shiny, alluring sword of one's propensity for malevolence. And the revelation of one's most darkest feelings and desires, which is the yin and the yang, light and shade. The Union. Umbra or shadow. It's essentially a dance with the devil. The inner psychological odyssey of Salieri's retelling of a particularly envious period of his life.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And Lily? 

Lily Balatincz: I think it's about the interplay between mediocrity and profundity, what it is to be someone who is born with the capacity to recognise profundity, but not with the ability to produce it. And I think that that must be a very tortured state of affairs. Yeah, the exploration of of a of a real person who existed in history. Who created some of the most. I mean, transcendent, transcendent art across any art form that has ever been made. He touched God. And I also think being that I am playing Constanza, that, you know, that she has been given a pretty rough wrap even to this day by biographers as being, you know, money hungry, greedy, not worthy of him. And I'm quite proud of the character that I'm playing. Every actor kind of, you know, stands up for their character. But if it weren't for the fact that she published his works and that she spent the time to sign off on every single page of his works after he died far too young to make sure that no one else could be taking. You could take credit for his work, or that no one else could say that was Mozart when it actually wasn't. Then we wouldn't have the catalogue of his works that we have. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Rah, the plot of Amadeus famously applies a lot of creative licence to the story of Mozart. What kind of creative licence do you want to bring to your interpretation?

Rahel Romahn: What I want to bring. I mean, I find that oftentimes Mozart is played with a particular childlike quality. I want to bring something a little more, layered. The childlike quality being only one of the qualities. And I want to bring my version. You know, my fingerprint, as it were, to this role. And I have an odd ability to mimic and sing opera and and belt out a few tunes. And due to the simple reasoning of mimicry as a child, I used to love mimicking people and their voices and their not just the voices, but the intent in the voice and the musicality in the voice and everything like that. So when I look at the script, that's what I want to bring vocal dexterity more of a complexity. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's quite amazing to hear about you singing opera as well. Had you sung opera before?

Rahel Romahn: No. So I actually well, I never sang opera professionally or anything. But funnily enough, I was involved in Cosi, which we put on here at the Opera House and Cosi was short. It's an Aussie Australian play written by Louis Nowra, one of our great playwrights, and it's about an asylum that is as the passion and and willingness to put on. Cosi fan tutte, which is one of Mozart's famous comedic operas. And within that opera, there are scenes where the characters have to sing opera. And within those scenes, once we were taught the operatic bits, I found this natural inclination to be able to express myself within the operatic scheme and all the operatic kind of artistry. And and I found that I with my vibrato and with my dexterity, I was able to mimic quite well opera. So I'm going to try my best to incorporate that into the role, which as of yet I have not seen done. So hopefully it works out well.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah here’s hoping. In 2022 you've won the prestigious Heath Ledger scholarship. Can you talk to me about the acceptance speech you made?

Rahel Romahn: We were told, you know, obviously prepare speech, you know, and I'd been nominated for a few awards prior to that, but I'd never won and I never thought I would. It was more of an exercise for me. I wrote from my heart, you know, that speech, never knowing whether I'd recite it. I wrote a wonderful poem when I was nominated for an actor award, which I never got to recite. And I remember ripping it up in my pocket, my jacket pocket, when I didn't win the award. Part of me was hurt that I didn't get to read it. But part of me thought everything, as Lilly was saying earlier, was fated and that it was not time yet to recite this. Hmm.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And in the speech, you talk about artists who are perhaps less fortunate, who maybe don't get to study, as Lily was talking about earlier, in formal institutions. Yes. Can you elaborate a little bit more for people who might not have heard the speech?

Rahel Romahn: Absolutely. In the speech, I talk about less fortunate artists. And what I mean by that is whether it be financial, whether it be knowledge, whether it be whatever the circumstances may be. There are artists out there or at least people that haven't yet uncovered the - the fact that they could be artists, that potential for artistry, such as myself, I knew I wanted to do something. I didn't know what NIDA was. I didn't know what WAAPA was. I didn't know what anything was. And I know that there are people out there that are less fortunate. Hopefully one person will see that speech or see that moment and see themselves in me and know that it's possible. If it's possible for me, it's possible for them.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Do you think that things are getting better and that barriers are being broken down at all?

Rahel Romahn: Absolutely. Diversity is number one. I mentioned that in my speech. Also, it is the mirror to the world in saying that as much as diversity is important. What's most important to me is ability and merit and hard work. I don't want to see people in this industry that. It's not doing them a service to bring forth mediocrity, which isn’t that funny. That Amadeus is about that, isn't it? That it's about mediocrity versus genius? You know, absolutely. I love hard work. I love the undying necessity to be the top level of anything. There's a wonderful casting director. Recently I had a coffee with and she told me that. She'd never known the level of technique I encapsulate until she saw me in a particular play. After ten years of auditioning for her, it's because I didn't get a piece of material that was, that gave me the opportunity to showcase what I could do. And then she came and saw me in a play and then goes, Holy moly, this guy has a technique that I've never been that I've never been able to see at work. And that is just an example of what I'm saying is dig deep, really try and find the great ones. Not that I'm saying I am one. I'm saying that that is the duty of the industry. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What's one thing that you think would enhance Australia's theatre scene? 

Rahel Romahn: I think everything starts in writing. You know, whenever I start anything as an actor or as a performer, I look at the writing. I think the most important thing is giving playwrights adequate time to be able to mould their thoughts, the complexities of the writing, the giving, each character, their own specific detail, and that and colour and quality and musicality. And I think when you allow a playwright the time to be able to carve that out concretely, you get the most potent mixture of what it is to watch a play, to mirror the inner vulnerabilities of what it is to be human to an audience so that they connect on an unconscious, subconscious and conscious level and don't even know why they’re so moved. But they are so I think absolutely taking time, you know, to carve out the best piece of art as possible, as is the case with everything else in life, whether you rush something. Rome wasn't built in a day. You know, I know that's a, it's a cliche, but. It definitely applies to this circumstance.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And Lily, with your experience in theatre, both here and overseas, the same question for you: what do you think could really enhance Australia's theatre scene?

Lily Balatincz: I have a similar sentiment to what Rah has just said, insofar as you have to sort of I guess give people the opportunity to showcase their chops and sometimes maybe think outside the box with who you would see for something. So like bringing people in for things that maybe goes against the grain, but sort of expanding the parameters of who could be allowed to play different characters, different sort of archetypes. And also, yeah, opening up positions at the table for new people to break in, not just having a sort of you can't sit with that kind of philosophy. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Totally, less gatekeeping.

Lily Balatincz: Yeah, I guess I also agree with the idea of a meritocracy. And I think that, you know, a meritocracy is inclusive of diversity. You know, you really just want to be encouraging the creation of art that is reflecting our society back to us in an authentic way and ensuring that people are being given opportunities to cut their teeth and build their careers and develop their talent over time. And not just be replicating the same sort of thing over and over again.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Well, speaking of making space for new people and new artists, who are some people who both of you think are up next that we should be keeping an eye on? Rah, do you want to go first?

Rahel Romahn: Recently I watched Never Closer at the 25 Belvoir, written by an amazing playwright, Grace Chappell. I promise you, I watched this play and I thought it was written in the fifties or sixties or I was like, Oh, wow, this is one of those classically amazing Northern Irish plays. And then I left the theatre and I said, So what? When was this written? The fifties. The Sixties. She said no. This is a recent work by an amazing playwright called Grace Chappell. And I was like, wow, this is. It was so Jacobean. It was so deep. It was so layered and had a good one direction. Fantastic. And it was just it gave me hope and excitement that there are writers out there. There are playwrights out there that follow the formula that works.

Lily Balatincz: I worked with an actor on Bad Machine named Abby Lee Lewis. She just toured the UK with Belvoir. She was phenomenal in Bad Machine, but she's also just directed, had her directing premiere and I'm excited to see where her career goes as a performer, as an actor and as an arts leader. Because I can see her as being an incredible artistic director one day, and she's a powerful, powerful First Nations woman with unlimited talent. So that's one. Hannah Bronte and her partner Jesswar J, e, s, s, w, a, r for people wanting to look it up. Hannah Bronte is a visual artist. I worked with her when I was working at Campbelltown Arts Centre. She works with sort of projections and video art a lot. Plus she deejays. Her partner is a hip hop artist and they are incredibly talented. You know, those two kind of mishmash stuff together. Hannah Sometimes deejays and uses her projection art in conjunction, and I would love to see Hannah's works on the sails one day. Victoria Pham she's, she actually performed here recently with James Nguyen. They did a work at the Opera House and it's about their exploration of the dong som drum. They're both Vietnamese Australian, so they kind of, these drums that have been taken out of Vietnamese culture and put basically into museum archives in Western countries, they've taken it upon themselves to start buying these drums, which is so incredible. So they've kind of got this like, you know, I think they've got a couple now, a couple of 2000 year old drums, the Repatriation Project. And she's just a force of nature. I mean, talk about the future of opera at the Opera House. She went to the Con. She's a composer, a musician. She's doing her PhD in archaeology at Cambridge at the moment. She is one of the kindest humans you will ever meet and just a force of nature. I don't know how she fits it all in.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Doing the most. 

Lily Balatincz: And the next thing she's as we met for coffee recently and she said, I think I'm going to do an opera next. And I was like, Of course, Victoria, of course you are. So that's another one to watch. So, anyone at the Opera House wanting to programme watch those spaces. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was Rahel Romahn and Lily Balatincz, performers in the new production of Amadeus, opening at the end of this year. In the next episode we’ll be hearing from singer-songwriter Ngaiire.

Ngaiire: I just feel - my mum flew in from PNG a few days ago to come see it and I said, Mum, how you feeling about all this stuff? She was dropping me off at the Opera House. She just. Burst out crying and she's like, I've always wanted to see a symphony orchestra and to be able to see it with my daughter is… and she just couldn't get the words out. She was just a mess.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House. From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn mixed by Glen Morrow, executive producer is Selena Shannon. From Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and Digital Programming Coordinator is Georgia D’Souza. The Up Next theme music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. 

Episode 4: Getting in the mood for love with Rainbow Chan

Courtney has a heart-to-heart with vocalist, producer and interdisciplinary artist Rainbow Chan. They get cosy and chat all about her performance in an ode to Wong Kar-wai’s cinematic masterpiece In the Mood, her artistry, and share stories about love and loss and how to find comfort in times of heartache.

Read the transcript

Up Next: Ep 4 - Getting in the mood for love with Rainbow Chan

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of gathering and storytelling, and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present.

Rainbow Chan: And sometimes there are songs that I write that are just for me. I can't sing them, no, they’re too special, they're too painful, they're too sacred. But I sing them in the shower. I sing them when I'm walking down the road about to catch a bus, and I sing them for the people who remain in my heart, even though they're no longer here.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next, your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage as we chat to a spectacular lineup of artists who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. Together we’ll uncover who’s up next, and how this moment in time is transforming the next 50 years of arts and culture.

In 2020, Wong Kar-wai’s cinematic masterpiece In the Mood for Love turned 20. To celebrate the iconic work from Hong Kong, three innovative Chinese-Australian performers reimagined it as a shimmering audio-visual dream. The show, In the Mood, was streamed live from the Opera House across the world in the peak of Covid lockdown and then returned! For a special one-off in-person show for Vivid 2022.

Sound: Music from In the Mood

Today we’re chatting with Rainbow Chan, Australian vocalist, producer and interdisciplinary artist originally from Hong Kong. She’s better known for her deeply original pop music and eccentric artistic expression. But she showcased the breadth of her talent as one of the performers and co-creators of In The Mood. She describes it as one of the most special experiences in her life. 

Behind the stage of the Opera House, Rainbow and I got cosy and had a chat about her first time performing at the Opera House, bringing Hong Kong cinema to Australian audiences and all things love and loss. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I want to start at the beginning of your career. When was it that you knew that you wanted to make music?

Rainbow Chan: I think I was always gravitating towards performance and music, and I used to make little dances and make my family watch me do little performances in the lounge room. But I think there was a moment where it really clicked and I took it more seriously. I guess I sort of imagine that it could be a real future for me. I guess in high school when I entered the talent quest 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh huge! 

Rainbow Chan: Oh, man, it was exhilarating, I think. And it was the first time I'd like I entered it in the kind of my junior year doing hilarious dancing to Christina Aguilera's dirty.

Courtney Ammenhauser: My gosh, your childhood is mirroring mine.

Rainbow Chan: I think I'm pretty sure the school took, like, VHS videos of every single year. And I asked them actually recently whether based or had a copy, and I think someone's destroyed it. So I'm both relieved, but also devastated. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh no! Yeah. 

Rainbow Chan: But yeah, I think it was like year nine. I'd written my first song, original song, and I performed it in front of the school and it actually it was like, girls, I'd never talk to my grade. Suddenly, you know, came up to me in the car and I was like, “Hey, I really liked your song.” And then I think that kind of gave me a little confidence boost, but also saw the power of music to connect me to people. And, and that was really special. And I kind of just became a bit addicted to that kind of whole process. And I think that's when I really wanted to go, “Hey, I'm going to make I feel like I'm going to make music for the rest of my life.”

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. Wow. From a talent quest. 

Rainbow Chan: Yep. That's right.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh I love that. Going back to like when you first started Post Talent Quest, how would you describe your early style of what you were making in in those early days?

Rainbow Chan: In the early days, I think I just really wanted to Bjork. I just really, I felt like, I was I was just obsessed over and I at uni, I did my honours paper on her and I just loved her artists vision and her, I guess her her imagination. I mean, I didn't even need to describe how amazing she is. I think everyone knows how amazing she is, but I think I was just really struck by her ability to translate these abstract landscapes and psychological, I guess, states into a very specific musical vocabulary, which she had invented herself. So thinking in particular, like volcanic beats that she would make or string parts that would be reminiscent of Icelandic fisherman songs and how she was able to craft that into a very specific style and always push at the boundaries. So I think even though my music didn't necessarily sound like hers, I always adopted her ethos and her vision, and I think I was. That really played an integral part in how I wanted to approach music and embed aspects of identity, being a female producer into my practise. So I think when I first started out, I would say I was less confident in those kind of conversations. Maybe I was testing out a lot of the ideas, but then over time it actually became more formalised as particular like themes that underpinned my practise. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And in that kind of evolution as it went on [00:05:14] what do you think influenced that? Do you think it was just like confidence and experience, or were there other things that kind of helped evolve the practise?

Rainbow Chan: It was a bit of both. I think inevitably I think artists always influenced by their life experiences. I think also as a pop musician, you're generally drawing from autobiographical sort of encounters, so that that's always like the bed of a lot of my songs in music. But honestly, I think it actually was a reaction to how I was perceived maybe by the public or by, I guess, music journalism at the time, like ten years ago. I think maybe at that point we hadn't really developed a very sophisticated language around identity, and particularly as someone who's a woman and of Asian descent in Australia, I felt like I was very much pigeonholed into a particular category and the descriptions that were used weren't necessarily reflective of what I was actually making. And it was maybe more stereotyped or kind of, you know, I couldn't be divorced from my body and the way that I looked, which at that time I felt was very unfair. I was like, my songs have nothing at that point really overtly to do with being Chinese or but it was always a point of conversation, but not in a way that where I where it was on my terms, if you know what I mean. And so I found that I actually then that's why I said I kind of almost formalised it as a starting point so I could reflect those conversations back on to the person who might be asking me those questions and then make it more of a dialogue where it was more mutual and where I could actually challenge maybe some of those preconceptions or amplify them in a way that a bit get gets a bit ridiculous or, you know, where actually generates more conversation. That is more about diaspora, really, about migrant families, migrant individuals and that place of sort of not belonging really to either cultures which have kind of been immersed in and having to navigate that. But at the end you kind of create these really interesting hybrid identities or conversations that connect with people in other ways.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it sounds as though you almost like taking your power back, being like, if you want to have this conversation, I want to lead it, actually.

Rainbow Chan: Exactly. Exactly.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, love that. We're going to talk about the show that you performed at the Opera House in a bit. But before we do that, you've actually performed here a few times. Can you tell me about the first time?

Rainbow Chan: I believe it was in primary school at some sort of dance eisteddfod. I was possibly dressed as Pebbles from the Flintstones. It all becomes a blur. Even after that, there were I was in like children's choirs when I was young. So I think there were a few times where I'd performed in a like a big mass choir. But yeah, the Opera House was always, you know, it's such an iconic place, you know, in not only the Australian imagination, but internationally as well. I think when I was in Hong Kong, like the Opera House or something that, you know, we would associate with like Australia, the place we're going to move to. So it was cool to be in there and performing. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What were your thoughts about the Opera House before all of the choir performances?

Rainbow Chan: I think the Opera House has the image of being quite I guess in a way, you know, it's a bit elitist. Opera is, you know, historically designated for a very particular type of audience. And so. I guess. It was something that, you know, I might have looked from afar and gone, Maybe I don't belong in that place or I'm not sure if I can go there kind of thing. But then to be able to perform in there was really great to kind of smash that trope around what, what this institution means. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's internationally recognised. So it's like, you know, everyone sort of has this idea of it even though. 

Rainbow Chan: Yes 

Courtney Ammenhauser: We don't all get to actually go in. 

Rainbow Chan: No that’s right. It's just, you know, like I think people go, Oh, what's that pointy white building in Australia? In fact, my youngest sister in year five, I still remember she made this assignment and it was about Australian landmarks and she picked the Opera House and she created a hat that was made out of felt that had that was like stuck to a bucket that she could wear on her head anyway. So, you know, it's just, it's like something that, you know, is in everyone's vernacular. Interestingly from the outside, maybe, but like, I don't know how, you know, I don't know how diverse of a of a of an audience maybe would be on the inside of it. 

What's exciting is that there is a shift maybe in the in the voices that are represented in the programming of the Opera House. But also. Yeah, the audiences that are coming to the opera house, I think that the there has been I guess, I guess a recognition in maybe the the kind of I guess, yeah, like historically what this place means and who it's for and stuff. And I think, you know, a good push now to really to think about the future and and having this place be more inclusive.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So I'm keen to hear about the digital work In the Mood, can you tell me about it? 

Rainbow Chan: So if you're not familiar with the film in The Mood for Love, it's about two people who live in an apartment block and they are married, but not together. There are two separate couples, but they realise over time that their partners are cheating on them with each other and it's about them kind of reconciling the affair and in the process they sort of fall in love with each other, but they don't want to be unfaithful to their cheating partners. So yeah, it's the tension about this love that can't exist.

Sound: Live recording of In the Mood

Rainbow Chan: It was this kind of serendipitous moment where border closures were happening. This movie was about not being able to not be able to have the intimacy with someone that you yearn for or love, but also in the in the context of everything that was happening in the world. And there were a lot of changes in Hong Kong at that point. It was a really special moment to go. Hey, let's make a tribute to the filmmaker Wong Kar wai and also Hong Kong. So I'm from Hong Kong. That's my birth place. The producer of the show Alistair Hill, Alistair also has roots there too his family. His mum's from there. So that's where their initial conversation came from. And then Marcus Whale was also involved. Obviously, he was the the other lead, Eugene Choi and Sophie Penkenthmengyoung.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So you gave a lot of like context of the time in which you did that production. How natural did it feel as a creative choice in that moment of your career? Outside of, I guess. The events of the world. 

Rainbow Chan: It was probably the most ambitious project that I'd ever done and probably still is really my career. I think the timeline also was quite tight. It was about five weeks between the conception and when it was going to be performed. And what was really interesting I think, was the format of a digital livestream, something I'd never done before. To this extent where there were like multiple cameras involved were in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, you know, and it was but it was a completely empty audience. So there was an uncanny feeling of, you know, you're being watched, but there's no immediate feedback. And as a performer, that's really disorienting. And the other quirk was Marcus and I could not be next to each other because of the COVID restrictions. So we were always five metres apart and we had to figure out ways to represent the moments of intimacy and and connection between the two characters of the film. But physically, we literally had to be five metres apart, so we had to come up with creative sort of camera cutting techniques to make it look like we were next to each other. And some like projections and animations, but it was really fun. It was like problem solving for this format. But it also allowed us to reflect some of the really specific cinematography in In the Mood for Love, particularly the use of like, historical objects and, and mirrors and windows and glass to shoot through the camera. I always being kind of refracted through objects. And then you see the figure that's always sort of distorted a little bit or warped. And so we were able to achieve some of those really iconic moments in the film through the camera techniques on the digital screen, which, you know, is not as easily achievable in a live context in a theatre.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And what was your relationship to Wong Kar Wai's films before doing this? Were they in your home growing up? 

Rainbow Chan: Yes, they were less so when I was a child, but my parents were always using Wong Kar wai as like a way to describe when something was too arthouse for them and they couldn't understand. Just kind of lived to in my imagination as this kind of enigma. But as I was older and particularly as I was, you know, going back to the earlier conversation of like me reclaiming my cultural heritage and my identity, Wong Kar wai became so and that was quite important because, you know, he was making all these really beautiful films that kind of crossed over into the mainstream, or at least in the kind of western world. And I found him a really interesting figure that was expressing a lot of social, cultural sort of tensions through a the stories. And I felt like very connected to that style of storytelling, which I do in all of my pop songs, basically. So yeah, Chungking Express was, is one of my favourite films. Ever. Just love the colour palette of his work and the I guess the slowness. But also everything he does is like poetry. So. Yeah, I, I always loved his work, so it was such an honour to be able to be part of this project.

Courtney Ammenhauser: And it was first live streamed in 2020 right in the middle of lockdown, an empty theatre bringing this show to Australian audiences and being Chinese Australian performer from Hong Kong. How did it feel to connect the cultures in that way?

Rainbow Chan: I think it was a really special time to present this work with the world, sort of being on pause and having to stop you know, what everyone's used to doing. You know, we're so used to being productive. We're so used to having this mobility. And it was a moment to actually stop and reflect on what was important in life, you know? And for me, one of those things was family. But it was really hard because a lot of my family in Hong Kong and I couldn't see them. So I think.

What our production was able to do, I think from conversations afterwards was allow other Australians to have those sorts of conversations around in particular I think around diaspora and sort of people who have family elsewhere to, to think about I guess that longing and distance for home and what home actually means. And I know in the story of In the Mood for Love is more you know, it is more about love, but there is subtext there about belonging and identity. And I think, you know, as Australians we live on stolen land. That is a very you know, that is a conversation that's ongoing. So I think, yeah, it's generated. I think the work has generated dialogue with in particular with other people who are Chinese Australians and who have Wong Kar Wei as part of their imaginations growing up and, and I guess connecting people in those, in those kind of communities, but also a bit broader I think as well. It's just about kind of migration and place. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What kind of reactions did you get after it was streamed online? I mean, you didn't have that audience feedback, but did you get it elsewhere? 

Rainbow Chan: This is one of I think this is one of the most special experiences I've ever had coming off the stage. I keep using that word special, but I really do feel like this this particular production will always have a very important part in my life. I felt it was really strange. After we finished the performance, there was no audience applause. It was just completely empty. And, you know, it was just like, All right, and we're done. And like, the lights kind of turned on. And it was really anticlimactic and very strange. And I walked back to the green room and turned on my phone and I received all these messages on WhatsApp from my family in Hong Kong who had been livestreaming it. And I didn't realise that they, you know, they actually gathered at a dinner and watched it together and I just burst into tears. It was the best response I could ever get in that moment where we were so distant, it was it was suddenly together, you know, it was just like I was embraced by by those messages and that. But yeah, it was just, it's been really positive the reaction and we were a bit nervous because it's such an iconic film and we knew that, you know, we couldn't just do a copy of it and we had to kind of inject our own original, I guess, take on certain aspects of the film. So I think we've created something that's a bit hybrid. A bit, yeah. Like has generated kind of extra conversations and that's been really, really fruitful. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: You're invited back in 2022 to perform it again at Vivid in person in front of an audience. What's it been like starting although of a back from you five eisteddfod the choirs you know and then to moving into that moment. 

Rainbow Chan: It was pretty damn cool. Yeah I think yeah. Like it was just I miss that feeling of sharing, you know, I think and I think a lot of performers have felt this way as well after COVID and actually finally being able to perform to a live audience again is that that that is such a privilege and it's such a sacred space to have that shared embodiment of a time and place together. And so I don't take it for granted anymore. I used to be like, Oh, you know, I've got a show. Coming out here, I go to work. And now it's like, Oh my goodness. How special is this? So yeah, it was just fantastic. And because it was just a one off show as well that I really, you know, I think we really put our all into it. And what was really challenging, I guess, but also rewarding, was now how do we translate something that was made for the digital screen back to a live theatre context? 

And so one way we went about this was we had a big scrim that covered the entire front of the stage so that projections of the digital work, certain parts of it, could then be superimposed over the top of our live moving bodies that was behind the scrim. And so there was this very intertextual layer which was beautiful and helped to still reference the filmic language that we've drawn inspiration from for this work. And, you know, subtitles were so able to be used because it's such an important part to the original film In the Mood For Love. I think they really play with typography, poetry as text that appear on the screen at certain key moments in the film. So yeah, to be able to translate that to a live audience was really great. We also did something a little bit, a bit whimsical, where we in the show, halfway in the show we actually left the stage and we went around the back, unbeknown to the audience, and reappeared in the crowd. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Fun

Rainbow Chan: And there were spotlights on Marcus and I, and we sang a duet together from either side of the theatre on the stairwell, and I could hear audible gasp.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah I was just about to say what was happening in the audience?

Rainbow Chan: They were like [gasp] And that was beautiful as well. And so and then from that point we ran back onto the stage and it was great because it was like the, the, I think we took the liberty in like making the performance immersive and really like using the whole theatre because the first time we did it we were collapsed onto a 2D screen. So this time we really wanted to make it 3D and alive.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah in the thick of it. It sounds like you've put a lot of time and energy into this project and no doubt you have. What influences did you take away from that project that you're bringing into your new work? 

Rainbow Chan: So I had written some music actually just a little just before the project started, and that was the song “Heavy” and “Doing Word,” which were both developed further for the show. And at that time I was listening to a lot of Mandarin and Canto pop of my parents generation, which actually corresponds with the kind of timeline of In the Mood For Love. So after the show, I really built upon that material and I guess reflecting on the role of nostalgia in identity formation and used the power of ballads and melancholy as a trope to explore the next record that I made, which was called “Stanley.” And it was an ode, I guess to to these yeah, to these ballads I had listened to growing up, and in particular a song called Teresa Teng. Then like one who's like the most famous singer in East Asia. She's just very like, everybody knows who she is. And she tragically died at a very young age at 42 from an asthma attack. So she's got this kind of tragic cultural legacy, but like, yeah, like a huge, huge following. So, yeah, the record was looking into the role of melancholy and really sappy love songs, but also I was fascinated about the role that language and music, how they interact in Chinese music because Chinese is a tonal language and so your melodies can't just dance around. They have to conform to how the language is spoken, the tones of the language. And so I notice that Cantonese and Mandarin music have very particular melodic contours because of the the language. And I took that as a way to actually then write new songs. And even though most of my songs are English, it was just playing with that tension between word and sound. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: We've been speaking about matters of the heart a lot, and I have a confession. I first came across your music when I had a very sore heart, and I found a lot of comfort in it, particularly your track “nest.” And I'm interested to know where do you find comfort in those moments of heartache and of love and loss? 

Rainbow Chan: I find comfort in actually vocalising my pain. Going back to that first sound quest, I had experienced my first heartbreak at 14. And it was like something. It was just like looking back on it now, you know, it was the worst pain I'd ever felt. It was just so I guess maybe when you're a teenager, everything's a bit more amplified as well. But I'd never experienced that kind of heartbreak before. And and since, you know, I've gone through lots of other things as well and, you know, have become quite resilient. But I think when it's the first time your heart's broken, that's something that's just such a shock to the system that you never really quite forget what that feels like. But I found writing music was a way to survive, was my way to navigate that pain, a way to navigate things that I felt were, you know, unfair or confusing and has always remained a tool for me to to ask questions when the world is just too chaotic. And there's, you know, sometimes there is no answer. It is just chaos. And to just take a moment to hold space for those complexities. So the process itself is very therapeutic for me. And sometimes there are songs that I write that are just for me. I can't sing them, they’re too special. They're too painful, they're too sacred. But I sing them in the shower. I sing them when I'm walking down the road about to catch a bus, and I sing them for the people who remain in my heart, even though they're no longer here.

I feel like that's why music has existed since, you know, time and also group singing. I think ways that particularly women have used song to pass on knowledge, to create community, to express solidarity. The power of vocalising is healing, is very healing. And so what has been so magical about writing these songs for me is having moments like this where I meet people in the future who, you know, I never imagined another person would listen to my song. You know, it's just this when I write it, I don't necessarily think about what how it's going to travel and what the life of it is going to be afterwards. But when it comes back to me in this form where someone's gone, it's helped me through this time or, you know, I connected with this. It's always such a it's such a it's such a surreal moment. It's like these things I experience can connect with other people and and become their own story and, you know, have their own life. I find that really, really beautiful. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: You've taken so many interesting pathways in your career so far, and you seem to keep finding new and exciting ways to reinvent yourself into practise as an artist. What's next for Rainbow Chan?

Rainbow Chan: What I've really appreciated, I guess, reflecting back on my career so far is the more lateral ways that my practice have evolved across different disciplines. I think, you know, when I first started, I imagined, you know, a very typical kind of conventional pop music career where I'd be a recording artist and I'd tour and, you know, try and get bigger and bigger and bigger and expand in that way, going more vertically. Right. 

But I think that for me was, you know, over time, I didn't feel like that was as interesting and not sustainable as well. And what I've loved is actually going horizontally across and meeting different people, collaborating with different people across different fields of working in the visual arts, worked in theatre, I'm a teacher as well, so I teach at unis. All these different elements of my practice has really enriched, I think, my creative life. 

So the next big project I'm working on is trying to reimagine a collection of folk songs from Hong Kong, which I have been introduced to. Well, I was introduced to it a couple of years ago. So the story was that my mum is Weitou which are the first settlers of Hong Kong, and she can speak a dialect which is actually disappearing. It's sort of a little bit it's related to Cantonese, but it's a dialect that is sort of on the brink of disappearance. And a couple of years back, I asked, Mum, can you teach me the language? And she was like, You know what? I think there are some songs in language that you could probably like learn, and that would be easier for you to to understand not only just the words, but the lifestyle and the kind of the stories and you know, yeah, like you get a more holistic understanding of the culture. 

And so I reached out to some elderly Weitou women in Hong Kong who know this music. And from there, it's just been an explosion of knowledge that's been passed down to me. These women are like in their eighties, nineties, and they didn't receive a formal education. Everything for them was oral tradition. And so they learnt through songs and stories and through like crafts, like embroidering and weaving. And it would be women only sort of shared spaces where they would exchange this craft and knowledge. 

They were also in arranged marriages. So one very specific thing I've been learning is bridal laments, which are marital mourning songs that women would sing before they were married off. And it was a song cycle that lasted three days where they would sing in front of their friends and family and actually cry. It's called to its weeping songs. And they would cry because that once they were married off, they were symbolically no longer part of this family. They were kind of separate. And and then also when they were, you know, they'd never even met. They grew most of the time on the wedding day. They'd see the groom for the first time, and then they would always be an outsider to that family, too, as well. 

So these bridal laments, mourning songs are so incredibly sad and they're sung in the dialect and they reflect the landscape of the of Hong Kong pre-colonial days. And it is just so rich in history and identity and women's voices that have not been documented very well, and still it's not mainstream knowledge at all. So what I've been doing is, yeah, relearning my songs but also trying to, I guess see similarities of that kind of liminality. As someone living in Australia with Hong Kong descent and, and, and trying to work out for me in my generation what this liminality means. But what's been amazing in my practise now is that it's kind of come full circle. Like I've now able to reteach the songs to my mum who didn't know how to sing the songs. And I imagine that, you know, hopefully I can teach it to the future generations too. And this project has been particularly rewarding in that it's connected me to a lot of other people who've experienced similar things, women who with indigenous knowledge, who have, you know, passed on these oral traditions. And yeah, just just seeing parallels, even though it's very, very different. But like parallels between these stories.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Gosh, those songs sound so devastating.

Rainbow Chan: Yeah, it's very devastating. And but I guess I'm trying to, again, harness that the power of the pain to actually express also the resilience of the women. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. 

Rainbow Chan: And and also thinking about the resilience of the culture and the resilience of the language because it's not yeah, it's not dead. Yeah, it's sleeping. It's it's fading. But hopefully through, you know, making these songs like I guess I'm doing it as a, like a multi-pronged project. I have an aspect of it which is more about conservation, preservation, but then there's another aspect where it's more generative and creative, where I'm turning them into club songs or I'm turning them into, you know, something that might have autotune on the vocals. What's going to, you know, like kind of connecting it to the aesthetic and the sonic palette of my authentic self, and then that then connecting to a contemporary audience and then allowing those songs to have a revitalised sort of existence. And that's been really cool.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, for sure. As we've been recording this, you were listed as one of the 40 under 40 most influential Asian Australians, and we've talked a lot about what's influenced you, what's influenced Rainbow, but what's it like being told that you're now somebody doing the influencing? 

Rainbow Chan: I think I feel like, you know, there's always going to be a moment of kind of feeling like imposter syndrome and being like, wait, am I actually that influential? And I think it is also, you know, in these sort of awards or acknowledgements, you know, you don't ever you never, you know, represent everybody. Like, you know, there's so many other people that could be on this list. So it really is like a little bit of luck as well in being selected. But, you know, there is hard work. I obviously put a lot of effort and thought into my practise, so it's cool. But yeah, to know that there's a privilege there. And a bit of a platform to promote other people as well, lift other people up is really satisfying and really rewarding. So I think especially my teaching and mentoring practice, I try, you know, to, to empower other people and give them the skills to tell their stories. So yeah, I think if that's the influence that I can have, then that's great. It's great to have more diverse voices, more inclusive stories being told. So if I can contribute to that, then yay!

Courtney Ammenhauser: You're talking about platforming other people. And we always like to find out who you think would be Up Next. So I'm interested to know which artists or performers do you have your eye on or do you think ones to watch?

Rainbow Chan: I have so, oh I have so many people that have really struck me as like doing something really innovative. Anne So there actually, well, was one of my old students, but on their own path now, fantastic performer. They rap in Korean and English, and their music is just so rich in its electronic soundscapes, in its grittiness. But then they sing with the most pristine kind of Mariah, Mariah Carey style, like Mauresmo vocals as well. So there's a really interesting mix of references and and styles that Anne So creates in their music. Also Indira Elias, incredible songwriter, beautiful vocalists. Her songs are just they. When I first heard them, they just sound like they were classic songs that had been written or already that I already knew somehow, but was just like unfolding in these, like, really like, poetic ways. Every single line, every single melody just kind of floated into my ears this ethereal energy. I love her music. And yeah, she is a great performer as well. 

And also, Ida Warhol, harpist who and vocalist who was actually the harp player in in the mood again really just my goodness I would say probably my favourite songwriter performer Shallow released much music yet if at the time of this recording I don't think any music yet, but please look out for her music. I think she's just she's literally my favourite performer. Singer, vocalist, harp player. Incredible. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Definitely one to watch. Thanks so much for coming in today.

Rainbow Chan: Rainbow Oh my pleasure, thanks Courtney.

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was Rainbow Chan, vocalist, producer and interdisciplinary artist. In the Mood is available to watch online for free, on the Sydney Opera House streaming platform at stream.sydneyoperahouse.com 

In the next episode we’ll be hearing from Sydney actors Rahel Romahn and Lily Balatincz, who star in the brand new production of Peter Scahffer’s Amadeus, opening at the end of this year. 

I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House. 

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From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn mixed by Glen Morrow, executive producer is Selena Shannon, with support from Alison Zhuang. 

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The Up Next theme music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

Episode 3: Facing demons with Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Courtney talks with the Western Sydney writer, playwright and founder of Sweatshop Literacy Movement, ahead of the opening of his new play, The Demon. They dive deep into his short-lived acting career, his creative journey from novels to plays, and what it means to have his communities represented on the stages of the Opera House. 

Read the transcript

Up Next: Ep 3 - Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of gathering and storytelling, and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: I would argue 99% of people who call themselves writers or aspire to be writers will never really be able to do it. It's a bit insulting to say that, but it's fine because if it was easy, then it wouldn't be special.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next, your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage as we chat to a spectacular lineup of artists who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. Together we’ll uncover who’s up next, and how this moment in time is transforming the next 50 years of arts and culture.

Today I’m hanging out with Michael Mohammed Ahmad who is the founder of Sweatshop literacy movement and the co-writer of the play The Demon. The Demon is part of the Opera House’s Unwrapped series that highlights some of the most exciting independent creators from Australia. It’s a Lynchian crime thriller that stretches across generations and in this play, the creative team draw on their Chinese, Arab, Anglo-Celtic settler and Indigenous backgrounds to weave a surrealist allegory for the Australian demon of racism.

Michael and I sat together ahead of the play’s October 2022 season. And we spoke about his brief but emphatic acting career, his journey as a writer, and what it means for his communities to see themselves represented on the stages of the Opera House. 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad, welcome.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Hello. And thank you for having me, and Salaam alaikum.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Thank you for being here today. I wanted to start off by asking you, you know, we here in Fairfield recording on beautiful Darug country and it's also Western Sydney. You grew up in Western Sydney and it's clear from the work that you make that it's a special place to you. What is it about Western Sydney that fosters creativity for you?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Western Sydney is the most culturally and linguistically diverse region in the country. Some might argue even the world. It's also the most densely populated. It has almost 2 million people. So in many ways it represents a microcosm of what Australia is. It also has the largest populations of people who identify as first nations. This kind of melting pot is the correct place to get a sense of who we are as a nation. 

On any random street in the western suburbs of Sydney, people could be speaking a hundred different languages at the same time. That's pretty magnificent. It also means that for me, as a writer and as somebody who's specifically interested in literature as opposed to just story, I'm interested in language. It means that we are in a region that can really push the parameters and the boundaries of what we mean by Australian language and even Australian English. It means that we are in the right place to tell the most exciting and complex and original stories about who we are as a nation. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And you've had quite an interesting journey to become a writer. You originally wanted to be an actor. Can you tell me about how your family responded to you catching your big break in acting?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: So I had aspirations when I was growing up of being important, not being an actor. I wanted to be important. And in a kind of Western capitalist sense, celebrity and Hollywood seems to represent importance more than anything else, even more than being a politician, you know. And so the idea of being a Hollywood movie star seemed to represent importance, especially when I was growing up. And things like the Oscars were actually a really big deal. I'd watch the Oscars, and I would have fantasies of my own Oscar speech. So that was my boyhood aspirations.

And at that time, I was completely oblivious to my racialised identity, my name, my appearance, my background. None of that meant anything to me. And I didn't think that that would actually be a barrier that we learnt that we discover the barriers through race, gender, class, sexuality as we get older. By the time I was 19, I was starting to get some auditions but the only auditions for TV shows and films that I was getting were for roles as a drug dealer specifically. And this was the context, the climate at the time was when there was a lot of media reports about Middle Eastern crime, specifically in relation to drug dealing and drive by shootings and also sexual assault. So there was a lot of narratives around sexually predatory behaviour from Arab and Muslim men in Australia because of their culture and their religion.

So the only auditions I would get offered were to play Lebanese drug dealers in the show. The shows that were being produced at the time, included movies like Cedar Boys and the Combination and the Combination 2 and Convict TV shows like Underbelly, The Golden Mile and this other TV show called East-West 121, which aired on SBS. And that's the show that I auditioned for. I was cast in for episode three of Season One. I was cast as a drug dealer named Vinny Mahmoud. 

The story for Vinny, is that he is caught with a bag of drugs in his pants. And then they arrest him and make a deal with him that if he spies on his group. In return, they will not give him a high prison sentence. So fundamentally they turn him into an informant. And then the next scene, you see Vinny going to his gang. And during the interaction with this gang, they find out that he's wearing a wire. They blast his toe off. And then they drag him. And you've got to imagine that when I say it's happening to him, it's happening to me, in that I'm playing this out. And I’m there rolling on the floor screaming “my foot my foot!”

And that's basically the last you see of the character of Vinny Mahmoud. I mean, he's so insignificant, you don't even see his conclusion. At the time, I thought it was still special. Minorities have a tendency to think that any representation is good representation before we develop some critical consciousness. So just the fact that, like one of us is on TV was exciting for my family and it was exciting for me. So I brought the whole generation together, you know, my parents and my siblings and my aunts and uncles and my cousins and we’re all watching it together in the living room. Yeah. And I remember at the end of the episode, my cousin, came up to me and said, “that was hectic cuz you were the lowest piece of shit I've ever seen on TV.” 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh, my God. 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: And I remember that being a real epiphany for me. A really shocking moment of realisation. I had become a pawn and that I was complicit in the perpetuation of simplistic, one dimensional narratives about Arab and Muslim men as either sexual predators, gangsters, drug dealers or terrorist suspects. And it was really in that moment that I understood that I couldn't be the prop for storytelling. I needed to be the storyteller. I needed to be in control of the narratives that are spoken about us. And from that moment on, I moved into creative writing as my discipline and my form. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And now you've written three novels, The Tribe, The Lebs, and the Other Half of You. And writing is this really introspective art form. How do you think that writing this trilogy helped you to understand yourself better? 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Firstly, in response to the story I just told you, the concept in cultural theory of the burden of representation is that many minorities, First Nations people and people of colour often feel the pressure to create positive representations to counteract all the negative, negative representations. And that's a burden because we don't necessarily want to do that. 

You know, all these TV shows about us and all these films about us represent us as drug dealers. I don't want to perpetuate that stereotype. But the reality is that there is anti-social behaviour in our community. And so for me, the response to taking control of the narrative and speaking for ourselves wasn't about telling a positive story or a clichéd romantic, happy story to counteract the negative stories. It was to tell a complex story to counteract simplistic and one dimensional stories. And by that I mean providing some nuance and socio political context that helps a reader understand where a certain antisocial behaviour might emerge from. 

Now, in terms of the novels themselves, so the genre that I write in is called autobiographical fiction, it's drawn loosely from my own life. But I think it's really important for Australians, specifically white Australians, but I would broaden out to all Australians to understand that people of colour and first nations people have the capacity to be artists. Everything I'm writing is not just a diary entry revealing my racist, homophobic, misogynistic thoughts. These are characters that I've invented and that even though I am drawing from my lived experiences, I as an artist, I'm in complete control of what I'm creating, and I'm doing it to meet certain purposes and certain goals and to try to get my reader to come along with me on a journey that hopefully brings them to a place of awareness through that journey. And so that's a very tricky thing to do. That’s actually a skill.

Which is why through my work at Sweatshop, but also through my craft as a creative writer, we focus on the art of storytelling and the art of literature as something that can be learnt. And in my case I have an arts degree and honours degree and a PHD and you put all that together with your lived experiences to create what I hope is good art. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And you just mentioned sweatshop. You are the founder of Sweatshop. Can you tell us a little bit about how it all began?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in western Sydney that is devoted to empowering First Nations people and people of colour through reading, writing and critical thinking. I was deeply inspired in my in my during my postgraduate studies by the work of an important African-American feminist activist and scholar and writer named bell hooks.

She argued that all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture are always dependent on mass based literacy movements, because degrees of literacy determine how we see what we see. And so this enabled me to recognise that the information that the young people in our neighbourhood, this is culturally and linguistically diverse people in Western Sydney, the information that the young people in our neighbourhood were consuming and how they were absorbing that and internalising that, was determined by their level of literacy, by their ability to grab onto a piece of information and deconstruct it, make sense of it. 

The second quote that I learnt from bell hooks was the concept of coming to voice. She defines the concept of coming to voice as the act of moving from silence to speech as a revolutionary gesture. These two ideas, the ideas on coming to voice and literacy are actually two sides of the same coin. One is about understanding representation. It's about being able to reverse engineer information. And the second is about creating alternative representations. And I built this idea of a literacy movement called Sweatshop around that coin, around those two ideas, empowering the young people in our community to think critically about the information they fed and then giving them a platform to create alternative representations.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So Sweatshop has been a big part of the work that you do. How has it shaped you both as a writer, but also just as a human being?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: The majority of the public appearances that I do are related to my own, my books and my play, The Demon, for example. However, it's about 10% of what I actually do. 90% of what I do is my work at Sweatshop and more broadly is my working community. It's about giving back to the people in my community and my communities, the multiple communities that I identify with and trying to empower them to have a platform to speak for themselves. 

The work of Sweatshop is designed to create a phenomenon referred to as mirroring. So a really good example of mirroring is the very famous photograph of Obama, there's a young boy, a young African-American boy invited with his family to the White House to meet the president. And in this photograph, the president is bending over and the boy is feeling his hair. What prompted the creation of this photograph? Is the question that the boy asked the president. He asked him, is your hair like mine? And an Obama bends over and says, “Well, why don't you feel it and decide for yourself?” 

This is a very good example of the symbolic power of representation. I, as an Arab and as a muslim, I'm very critical of Obama's presidency, as are many people. There's a lot of things that he let us down on in very tangible ways including, for example, his policies on the Middle East. However, I value the symbolic importance of an African-American president, and it is embodied in that photograph. Just the significance of young people of colour seeing themselves reflected in these kinds of positions of authority can be transformative. And in the same way one of the principals of Sweatshop has been about mirroring, has been about creating spaces where we get to offer an alternate alternative complex and empowering representations of First Nations people and people of colour by the communities themselves. That gives hope and gives and gives trajectory for the next generation. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Other Half of You is your most recent novel, which you wrote. You were writing the trilogy over the span of a decade. How do you think that your writing changed and evolved over that time?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Firstly I'll say that the three books that I've written, The Tribe, The Lebs and The Other Half of You are described as a trilogy because they're all autobiographical to some extent, and they are written in chronological order. However I didn't write them as a trilogy. I wrote them as standalone novels that you can read on their own and they're fully fleshed out so that a person can just jump in with any book and read and know where they are from the beginning to the end. 

But what I find so fascinating about the journey of writing these books is when you look at the Tribe, it's a quite a small book, it's a little square book. And then if you look at the Lebs, it's kind of a more mid-size book. So it looks like a more conventional novel than the tribe, but it's not in that kind of large trade paperback edition because it was quite small as well. But then the Other Half of You is a very big document, 100,000 words, and it's published as a very big, dense book that's about 350 pages. And it's so interesting that you could almost see me growing up with the books if you literally put the books next to each other. They grow up, they are getting bigger. And I like to think that as I grew up as a writer, as I matured as a writer, I got better as a writer, and I became more determined to push myself as a writer to write more ambitious works. And I would like to think that as writers, we do improve. We learn lessons from the previous book, and we continue to challenge ourselves. And I think that journey is very clear in the creation of these three works.

One thing that I think is really important about the final book, the Other Half of You is that there's a kind of level of tenderness that I was able to infuse in the work that I wasn't ever able to create prior to the other half of you, because it's written as a letter to my son. So my son is named Kahlil, named after the great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran. And, you know, he is the product of an Arab Australian Muslim dad and an Anglo Australian mother who comes from a very atheistic, middle class family. And our story of coming together was an incredibly challenging one. There was tremendous amounts of pressure from the families for us not to be together. 

And it's really written as a letter to my son to explain how he got here. And so because I'm talking to my son, there's a little bit more of a kind of affection, you know, a gentleness. I'd like to think that you still get that kind of raw, rough, gritty Western Sydney vernacular that makes our language the language of Western Sydney writing so special. But I feel like it's kind of layered with a, with a sense of fatherhood and parenthood that really gave me perspective and vision on the next kind of incarnation of the type of writer I want to be. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I want to chat about the Demon now, For listener could you give us a description of the plot? 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: The Demon is a play that I have been working on in collaboration with Dr. Rachel Swain, a dear friend and collaborator of mine, and who's the director of the show. It is a play that we've been co-producing, co-writing together for ten years. I'm going to say that I don't really know how to articulate the plot, but I will talk about the politics of the work. There is a compelling story that is very action, heavy, very exciting, that's drama heavy. And that has some really amazing dialogue and some important sequences of events that link together three Shared histories, histories of First Nations people, Asian Australians and Arab Australians.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Speaking of the politics, would you like to share some of the themes in the demon? 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: I think that the the demon is about shared histories of xenophobia, and it tries to link three distinct histories together. So the the xenophobia that manifests on this land, as soon as it becomes colonised, as soon as the the First Fleet arrive and begin the process of genocide against the First Nations people. And then after this, is the xenophobia that manifests against Chinese communities in the context of the Gold Rushes, in the context of Burrangong and the Lambing Flat riots, and then leading all the way up into Western Sydney looking at the post-9-11 hysteria and moral panic around the Arab and Muslim communities in light of events like the 2005 Cronulla riots and the 2019 Christchurch massacre. 

So we see these are linked histories of xenophobia. What's so frightening is because it took ten years to write. It was confronting to see how history had been repeating itself and reproducing itself. So we're talking about these old histories. We're talking about colonisation. We're talking about the Lambing Flat riots. We're going back 20 years to talk about the September 11 attacks. But then in 2019, while we're still developing the script, an Australian born white supremacist goes into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and slaughters 51 Muslims peacefully conducting their Friday prayers. About 12 months later, the first stories of COVID-19 are emerging, and we see a huge rise in anti-Asian violence across Australia and around the world. And then straight after that, George Floyd is murdered and we're suddenly witnessing the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, which draws tremendous attention to the mistreatment of First Nations people here in Australia, specifically around deaths in custody, 500 deaths in custody since 1993. And so we're seeing this linked history of xenophobia from hundreds of years ago to the post 9-11 era re-emerging in the last three years with Christchurch, COVID and Black Lives Matter. And so without us intending for this to be the case, the Demon has become even more relevant and more urgent. The demon of xenophobia is a demon that we literally and metaphorically want to bury. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Absolutely. And, you know, as you mentioned before, it's been ten years in the making that you've been working on it. And yeah talking about the recent history as well it's still present. What's it been like going from those initial conversations when you came up with the idea to bringing it to life on a stage now?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: You know what’s so interesting was that I was just a kid. You know I was just starting off in my career when Rachel first approached me. In fact, it was very shortly after my experience with East West 101, you know, like I'd only really just left the acting world and had started to enter into professional writing, studying at university and running a writing programme at the time called West Side Publications, which was the early incarnation of what is now Sweatshop. 

Rachel came to my office, my little grungy office in Bankstown at the time and told me that I had been recommended to her as someone that could potentially write the dialogue for these characters. You know, it required some foresight on her part, you know, like they were kind of predicting who the successful and leading Arab Australian writers might be and who would actually be able to create something meaningful and significant as the years go by and as we developed this. So, you know, this is before I had a doctorate in creative arts. It was before I'd had written any one of these three novels that you were talking about. And it was before Sweatshop existed. So it was very, very early on. And in a way, I had to kind of learn to write the play as I grew into it. And of course, the entire world around me kept changing. So the politics of the play kept changing. Until it really cemented itself with the with the kind of the cycle of xenophobia that revealed itself from 2019 onwards. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And how do you go about navigating the different forms of being a playwright and a novelist? Do you find it's challenging or what, what's your experience switching between the two? 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: There are technical differences, which, of course, somebody who is very educated and trained in creative writing should be able to do. If you're skilled in the form and of course, when you're talking when I'm talking about teaching creative writing and when I'm talking about studying creative writing for ten years, we learn about as much as is imaginable in terms of just the technical abilities to do it. So once you've kind of got all those technical skills, then it becomes to me really about one simple concept across every single form, whether you're writing novels, whether you're writing a play, or whether you're writing non-fiction or poetry. I don't dabble in all the forms. I'm very restricted to non-fiction, prose and playwriting. 

But as an editor and as the director of Sweatshop, I teach all the forms. I edit poets, I work with poets for example. The number one thing that connects all of these creative writing forms together is a concept that we actually teach in creative writing at the university, which is referred to as an original contribution to knowledge. So when you're creating a piece of art, whether it's a whether it's a play or whether it's, say, a novel, what you're seeking to do is contribute something to the world of knowledge that the collected knowledge of the human race that is new, that is original, that hasn't been done before. That's a very, very difficult thing to achieve, which is why so many people who aspire to be writers are not very good at it. I would argue 99% of people who call themselves writers or aspire to be writers will never really be able to do it and that's fine. It's a bit insulting to say that, but it's fine because if it was easy, then it wouldn't be special. What makes great art special is that it's actually very hard to do as hard as any other form. So the idea of creating an original contribution to knowledge is always what's driving me. So when I write a sentence, if one of my characters is saying something to someone else, whether it's in a play or whether it's in a novel, if I'm setting up a scene or a sequence of events in a play or in a novel, I always go back to the question, is this scene I've created? Is this dialogue, is this moment? Is this description an original contribution? Has it been done before or is it reproducing, tired and boring clichés? And if it's an original contribution to knowledge, then I trust that the audience is going to appreciate its value and its quality.

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Demon has a really great team attached to it. What's it been like collaborating with people from different fields?

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Incredibly significant. I can say the classic things like, I love this team so much. They're so awesome and they're so talented 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Blowing me away. 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Yeah. And you know, in closing, like, you can see us all on stage hugging and kissing each other. But but actually, there's something more technically important when I say it's significant, which is how do you make a work that is looking at First Nations experiences of genocide and ongoing dispossession. How do you make a work that is looking at the ongoing xenophobia and demonisation and violence against Asian communities in Australia from the moment they arrive? How do you make a work that looks at Islamophobia and anti-Arabness? And how do you make a work that links these three legacies together? And then also attempts to address issues of orientalism and colonialism and imperialism. Like how do you make a work that addresses all these issues on your own? You can't because I don't inhabit all of those different identities. So you can only make it collaboratively and you can only make it with the communities themselves. And you can't make it with the communities in a consultative way that is an old white colonial model. You have to make it together in collaboration with each other, where everybody is empowered through the experience, where everybody is invested financially, professionally, where everybody grows through the process and everybody makes a contribution to knowledge that expands expands the capacity of Australia to be thinking critically about itself. And so to bring together such a culturally and linguistically diverse team for a show like this, and for a story like this is the only way. And so, of course, when we talk about the actors, when we talk about the the other writers that I worked with, when we talk about the directors and the the choreography and the stage management, the dramaturgy, when we're talking about it and we say that the the team who created this reflect on every level, the, the people that are being spoken about and spoken for in the show. This is the only way that we can ethically make a work in the year 2022. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it's that whole thing of, like, nothing about me without me. 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Exactly.

Courtney Ammenhauser: The show's got a season at the Opera House, which is very exciting. Did you ever think that your work would be on at the house? 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: No, I didn't. And it wasn't a goal of mine. My goals have always been about people, you know, and I'm not saying this in a romantic way. just to just to establish what my views are and how I feel about the work I create. Once I'd had the epiphany that I no longer wanted to be rich and famous and a Hollywood movie star. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Once I'd had the realisation that there was something toxic about the way our community was represented, I really didn't only transform the field of work that I was in, you know, move into writing, but I also transformed what its purpose was. I didn't want to be world famous anymore and I didn't want to be rich. What I wanted to do was create art that inspired and empowered the people I cared about and that I loved. And, and so my work has always been focussed on creating a, an experience for an audience that pushes them as far as they can be pushed to ask hard questions and hopefully to have some kind of transformative experience and, and an experience that we share together not one that is me just being a teacher, but maybe always being a student and a teacher trying to listen to my audience and create work that respects their interpretations.

But here's the thing about putting on a work at the Opera House. I was very fortunate when I was starting off to get a few gigs out like, say, Belvoir, for example, Belvoir Street Theatre. And I remember finding out when I was a lot younger that Belvoir was a quite a respected and very loved space. And when you go and you perform there, you'd get quite a middle class, primarily white Australian audience who really appreciate that kind of alternative space. You know, this little theatre in on a random street in the inner west, there's something very alternative and trendy about that. But when my family members and my Arab Australian friends from these, you know, lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the western suburbs of Sydney were rocking up to Belvoir. They were just like, Bro, this is just some trashy little theatre. Like, what are you doing here? You know? And it's, it's really that contrast between people who have privilege, a kind of look for alternatives. You know, they play it down. And people who don't have privilege play it up. And there's a name for that is conspicuous consumption. 

That's why, the kind of the common thing that a lot of my friends used to pick up when they go to Newtown is, “bro, the people here are rich, but they act poor.” And in contrast, you see a lot of people in the western suburbs of Sydney like really opting for the most expensive TV or the most expensive handbag or, you know, the most expensive car because they're trying to compensate for their low socioeconomic status, performing a level of privilege and wealth to hide the socioeconomic disadvantages. And so, you know, it was so interesting to realise that a space like Belvoir could be very much appreciated in one socio political context, but not the other. And the other is the one that matters more to me, is my own community, how they receive that, this kind of work. And so for them, for, you know, for a lot of the communities that I grew up around, they can't really understand the value of some of these more alternative spaces, theatre spaces in Sydney they have a kind of more conventional understanding of what theatre is.

And really for them the Opera House is the symbol of the very best and the highest point of theatre that you can reach and that you can have. And so I'm so excited about it at this point. Now, having finished a play and knowing that it's going to be put on at the Opera House because I know it, it'll mean a lot to our communities. The working class, culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Western Sydney. We have a show that is born and bred in Western Sydney and that represents our communities and it's being put on in the most iconic theatre in the country. I'm hopeful that for that reason some of these communities from Western Sydney are going to have the chance to come and see it.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And see, you know themselves on the stage as well. To wrap up, we like to ask our guests about people on their radar or, you know, artists who are coming up that we should keep an eye on. Is there anyone that you think is, you know, going to make some waves? 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Oh yes of course. That's a terrific question. So firstly, I can't talk about everybody because I run a nationally renowned, very successful literacy movement. So there are just so many amazing arts practitioners that I'm working with at the moment. So the first thing I would say is this for anybody who's interested in my work and in the work that I'm doing in my community in the western suburbs of Sydney, please check out the Sweatshop website. Sweatshop.ws the WS stands for Western Sydney. So that's how you remember it. But you can jump on our website and find out about all the amazing artists that we're working with. You can check out some of the publications, the amazing anthologies and books that we've published from these up and coming superstar writers.

Now, some of the style writers that I'm really excited about in the next, say, 12 months. Shirley Le, who's a Vietnamese Australian writer who grew up in Yagoona in western Sydney, has a novel coming out called Funny Ethnics. She's just signed with Affirm Press. It'll be out in March of next year. Iit is an autobiographical fictional novel about her experiences as a Vietnamese Australian woman growing up in the western suburbs. So keep an eye out for that one. 

And then you've got Sara Saleh, who's an important Palestinian Australian award winning poet who's going to release her debut novel next year as well. Also with Affirm Press. And Sara’s book is called Songs for the Dead and the Living. And it's, say, an intergenerational diasporic novel about the experience of being a Palestinian Australian. And I think, again, it's an incredibly important novel, especially as we have more and more intense and more honest conversations about the plight of the Palestinian people. And I think Sara's book is going to be a real game changer for that conversation. 

And then lastly, a writer that I'm very, very excited about is Winnie Dunn, whose debut novel is coming out next year with Hachette, Australia, so a multinational publisher. Winnie’s book is called Dirt Poor Islanders. I guess the other side of the Crazy Rich Asians coin. And it's, believe it or not, the first Tongan Australian novel ever published. And it is frightening to think that after hundreds of years of Pacifica communities engaging with Indigenous communities, that there's never been a mainstream novel yet that represents the Pacifica community. And so Winnie will be the first. She  happens to also be the general manager of Sweatshop. The editor of a new anthology that just came out called Another Australia, which you can find on the sweatshop website. And so I'm particularly excited about Wendy's debut novel because I think it's going to make a very important contribution to Australian literature.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Thank you so much for coming in today. It's been a real treat. 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Thank you and thank you very much for having me.

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was Michael Mohammed Ahmad, writer, playwright and founder of Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement. I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House. From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn mixed by Glen Morrow, executive producer is Selena Shannon. From Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and Digital Programming Coordinator is Christie Yip. The Up Next theme music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. 

 

Episode 2: Pearls of wisdom with Mahdi Mohammadi

Mahdi Mohammadi offers lessons in love and activism from his feminist theatre roots in Afghanistan. Courtney sits down with the co-divisor and performer in Dorr-e Dari: A Poetic Crash Course in the Language of Love ahead of its season at the Sydney Opera House. Together they journey back to Mahdi’s beginnings in Afghanistan, reveal the biggest lie he ever told his dad, and discuss what it means to him to have performed at the House - twice!

Read the transcript

Up Next: Ep 2 - Mahdi Mohammadi

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House honours our First Nations by fostering a shared sense of belonging for all Australians, and we acknowledge the Gadigal, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Take care of your artists. They are the one who showed you that. What is your truly feeling? They are the one who show you the way. They are the ones that show you and remind you that. What is life about?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next, your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage as we chat to a spectacular lineup of artists who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. Together we’ll uncover who’s up next, and how this moment in time is transforming the next 50 years of arts and culture.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Our pronouns in Persian language doesn't have any gender differences. So your lover could be a he, or she, or whatever form of gorgeousness you desire. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Dorr-e Dari: A Poetic Crash Course in the Language of Love, has been a hit ever since its first show at Sydney’s PYT Fairfield. Inspired by the tradition of private recitals and ‘curtain shows’ performed all through the Persian-speaking world, Dorr-e Dari combines thousand-year traditions, with personal story, singing, joyous dancing and sumptuous video imagery, where guests appear on video calls from Afghanistan, Iran and Canada. 

I had a chat with Mahdi Mohammadi, cinema and theatre director, co-diviser and performer in Dorr-e Dari ahead of the show's season at the Sydney Opera House. We spoke about his journey into the world of the arts from Afghanistan to Australia, his award-winning Papyrus theatre group back in Afghanistan, and the biggest lie he ever told his dad.  

Thank you for being here today. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Thank you for having me.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What was it about theatre and performing that made you think I want to do that?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, when I was a child in Afghanistan, I used to watch a lot of movies. And I was a big fan of, you know, being an actor. While growing up in Afghanistan, I saw and I noticed a lot of problems with women in Afghanistan, and especially my mother. I saw how she was treated in our family and all other women in Afghanistan, especially the violence against women in Afghanistan was really a big issue and I always wanted to do something for them. So before going to university, I was thinking that which subject is the best for me to study, to reach my goal and help the women of Afghanistan. And I did a lot of research and I found out that people of Afghanistan, they really love arts and especially acting, movies, theatre. You know, that's when I exactly decided to be an artist and to, you know, this is going to be my life passion and I'm just going to be an artist and actor and I will do anything I can to help the women of my country.

Courtney Ammenhauser: You mentioned that it was a problem for your family. What did they have, other plans or hopes or things that you would follow?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Of course, like like all other families, like my father. My father was really a religious person. And he always wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer or, you know, something, as he says, always something better. That I had to lie to my father. When you go to university. So before university they take exam from you and you have ten choices. For me, art was my second choice and the first one was to be a doctor. And I knew definitely that I'm not going to get that. I told my father that art was my 10th choice, my last choice. So, and I got it then. This is the only subject that I can study so now there is no other way. And my father was like, I don't like art, and I said, you know, look father, I can't just waste one another one year to wait to become a doctor or something, just let me do it and let's see what will happen. And my father said, okay. And that was the, I think the biggest lie that told my father.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Revealing all on this podcast today. So you went on to study theatre in Afghanistan, and you're part of this amazing award winning theatre group there. Yeah, it was called Papyrus Theatre. Can you tell me about how it came to life, how it began? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I was in the second year of university. Then I met this amazing woman. She was an actress too Tahya Hashimi and her two sisters, Burhan Hashimi and Nadia Hashimi. And we had a lot of chats. And we then we found out that we all think in the same way. And like helping women in Afghanistan. And we decided to publish this theatre group, Papyrus Theatre Group in the Cement National Festival of Theatre in Afghanistan. We performed a performance which the name was The Wall, and it was about all the problem for Afghan women. And we won the first prize for that performance. After that, we decided to ask for some funding and work with the NGO's Western people. And we tried to show the women of Afghanistan their rights. And even then I've got to say this - because I was the only man in our group, all other was just women. Sometimes I had to go to the family and say, like, hi i'm from this NGO and we would love to take your wife or your daughter for a picnic and we've got to pay and we're gonna pay you as well. And because they don't have any problem with going for a picnic and, you know, especially when you're paying as well. And then after that, we take the women to the theatre salon and show them the performance and talk about their rights. And which, a lot of problem came after the show.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What kind of problems came?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, the, you know, the men of the family would come to us like, did you really take my wife to a picnic? Because since they're back from that day, they're talking about their rights, they're talking about all other stuff, which is weird. And I, I'm not sure if you really took them to for a picnic in the park, like, yeah, we did that. I don't know, maybe she saw in the TV or some other things and that was good. At least we made them to stand for their rights.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, absolutely. And so how do you think that being in Papyrus Theatre and making those shows about women's rights in Afghanistan helped to prepare you for the future work that you were going to make? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I had no idea that one day I'll be here in Australia. I was really happy with the work that I was doing in Afghanistan. But, you know, fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan is a, is a really big deal, especially, you know, Taliban around this, all other Islamic groups around. And they always threatened you and like, got a lot of warning blackmails about stop doing this job. But I was happy. And because I found out they wouldn't blackmail me if I wouldn't do anything, you know, big. So it means I'm doing my job, right? And I loved it. But, you know, coming here wasn't my choice. It was my family's choice. Like, they forced me because they cared about me not being in Afghanistan and they just asked me for family's sake, for all other friends that care about you, you got to go out of Afghanistan. And I had no idea that I would come here. Then I decided if I go to any other country, I would love to continue my theatre and arts. I did a lot of research and I had some friends here and I thought, well, Australia would be the best to go and just continue my art. But now I'm so happy to be here. I'm so happy that I have a lot of stories to share with Australian people. [00:07:47][68.0]

Courtney Ammenhauser: You mentioned before that you had to lie to your dad about your university applications. You've had quite a lot of success now. Does your dad know that you lied?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Uh, I've got to say, unfortunately, I lost my dad two years ago.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Okay.

Mahdi Mohammadi: While I was in Australia, but the most happiest thing I remember from my dad the last time I spoke with him on the phone, he told me, my son, I'm proud of you and I'm proud of what you're doing and the life that I had here. And he told me that I never known. I always thought that art is about being, you know, it's a shameful thing. And the way that they lived, they haven't studied too much. He always told me that I thought art is about dancing or this all that stuff but the thing that you did and I saw I'd done, my mom and my sisters, brothers used to show to him the things that you're doing in Australia, you know, being on the stage, all of this stuff. I'm so proud of you and I'm so happy that my dad was happy about me and being proud and I could definitely change his idea about art and yeah, and I think he's proud of me and I'm proud of my dad.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And you said you had some friends who were already here and you did a bunch of research and when you came and arrived in Australia, what was it like to sort of get your foot into the industry and continue your creative practice in a new country?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, it was a really hard thing. First of all, I did ask my friends, but I didn't ask like about how arts is going in Australia. I just asked them how is this country so, so like this is a country full of opportunities if you just come here and take it. But when I arrived there for the first time there, there was an Australian person and I met old lady, very nice lady, and she asked me that, what did you used to do in Afghanistan? And I said I was a director of cinema and theatre. And then she asked me, what is theatre? And I was shocked. I was like. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What do you mean?

Mahdi Mohammadi: What do you mean though about the, I was so scared like, I hope not all Australian people think like that. It was just that time I was really scared. But when I just walked into the society and it was really hard for me because I wasn't allowed to do anything like study or just work or go around. So I always wanted to make art. It was really hard for me and it's a really long story, but I was getting depressed. But to be honest, I had to see some psychologist and I told her about everything. I was telling her about my job in Afghanistan. I would just wanna make art. She knew someone in PYT Fairfield. Karen Therese was the artistic director of PYT Fairfield, and she introduced me to Karen. After that, yeah, I got involved with the ensemble, which is a group of young people just gathering together every week and thinking about their arts, what they want to make. It was really fantastic for me. That's the only reason that I, it like helped me to go through this depression. And finally I made it and I got introduced to PYT Fairfield and it a kind, it was a kind of survival for me. [00:10:54][68.3]

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it's a it's a big journey that you've been on. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: It is a big journey. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What has theatre in Australia taught you about this country? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Theatre taught me art is not that important here, to be honest. You know, we're living in Afghanistan. It's a poor country, but the way they respect arts, the way they respect artists is just totally different and artists walk proudly. Now I'm in Australia, I'm an artist and I see all other artists. It's a really hard job. It's not well, well paid. You've got to work hard. Being an artist deserve more to be respected. Take care of your artists. They're the one who showed you that. What is you're truly feeling? They are the one who show you the way. They are the ones that show you and remind you that what is life about? All other this, you know, beauty in life. Because being an artist is a talent and not everyone has this talent. But you don't make art for yourself. You make art for people. That's what I really want to see in the future in Australia. And that's what I saw the difference between Australia and Afghanistan, that artists deserve more and they need to be respected more.

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Tribunal was your first major experience in theatre in Australia. What do you think was the biggest learning from that production?

Mahdi Mohammadi: The biggest learning was that when I came here I suffered a lot as a refugee, being a refugee in Australia and because that is story was the relationship between refugees and Aboriginal people. So I learnt a lot about Aboriginal people, and Auntie Rhonda, which I'll call her my grandmother. She's my Aboriginal grandmother and she told a lot of her stories. And one of the other biggest reason that I survive in this situation, living in limbo was when I was thinking about what happened to them, like through their history and how they have been living. It just make me think that, wow, what is happening to me is just a small thing. It's nothing and I can handle it so easy compared to what happened to them. Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I learnt from that show was, that's not fair what's happening and it shouldn't happen. But well, we can do anything. We can just say that to them and hopefully people bring some change. And I love Auntie Rhonda because every time that she sees me and she always say me, you're welcome here. She always told me so nicely to me. It just makes me feel like I'm in my home.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So your next show, Dorr-e Dari, you're acting in it as well as you are a co-divisor. Can you tell us about the show and what it's all about?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Dorr-e Dari, which the 'dorr' means the pearl. So it's the Pearl of Dari. And Dari is our language that Afghan people and it's a part of, it's a branch of Persian language which just Afghan people speaks in Afghanistan. This show is it's about our culture and how this culture is like a pearl and very precious for us, how this culture has survived through all this. Now, it's almost 50 years of wars in Afghanistan. The only thing that we have is that culture. That's the only thing survive because that's the only thing that we, we carried by our hearts. Poetry is, I can say is one of the most important thing in Afghanistan. It's a part of everyday life in Afghanistan. It's like, you know, you can't live without eating. So it's, in Afghanistan you can't live without poetry. Think if you walk around Afghanistan and you just stop a kid and ask him or ask her if you know any poetry, they will definitely know something. So this show, we try to talk about our culture and how poetry is important in our life. We brought some personal stories from our teenage and how it goes in Afghanistan to be in love, like Afghan Romeo and Juliet and how we love to sing, we love to dance. It's all about good things, about Afghanistan for the first time that Afghanistan is not all about war, drugs, or all other things. That's what we try to do in this show. And I think we were successful, especially when audience, even Afghan people or Persian speaking people see this show, they just cry and they sob out the tears, if just because of their happiness. They always come to us and thank us because we remind them of their culture and we show them that this culture will be always alive.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What do you think are the things that Australians know about Afghanistan? You're talking about all the wonderful things you want to show in the play. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, the most things that, of course, they know is, is just what's going on in Afghanistan war. It's all other things, Taliban and, you know, killing and all other stuff. But this poetry was when we did this show and they were just shocked. They were thought because as I know, I believe that in Australia poetry is for educated people. In Afghanistan, poetry is for everyone. So you don't need to be educated to know poetry. Used to be 90, but I don't know right now, 90% of people of Afghanistan were uneducated, but hundred percent of them like all of them, knew poetry, you know. So that's the problem here in Australia is just I think they show the kids that you need to educate to know some poetry. I think that is the, one of the biggest difference here. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it almost sounds like the way music is here, like everyone experiences different kinds of music, but

Mahdi Mohammadi: Yes. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's pretty much in most people's lives. What is it about poetry as a form that you're, that you find so special?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Let me ask. Well, let me explain with the question. Have you ever been in a situation that you you can explain something to someone? 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.

Mahdi Mohammadi: So that's when you use poetry because poetry is the easiest way in Afghanistan to explain your feeling, to express when you have problem with the explanation. Because in English, it's really hard to just, you know, explain what you what you're feeling, but in Persian poetry. Just it's just explaining it straight away perfectly the way that you want to explain it. Especially the love poetry there. I've never seen people in there like, you know, love couples that they talk like. So like, you know, I love it is this they always talk to their poetry, they send to each other the poetry express their feelings, which is amazing because. Yeah, that's, that's the only special thing. Poetry helps you when you want to explain a feeling that you cannot do it in the normal way or with your just, you know, language.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, that's so beautiful. And for people who aren't from a theatre background you mentioned before that Dorr-e Dari is a co-devised piece, so it's made in the rehearsal room on the floor rather than coming in with the play that's already been written. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Oh, definitely, like we have been gathering together for one year, every week, one night, and we had this amazing meals like Aussie meals, Afghanistan, Persian. We used to just cook and talk, talk about everything. Yeah, like all this stuff that's happening in Afghanistan, our teenage stories about everything. And at the end of a year, we had this like all lots of, you know, material. It could go for ten, 15 hours. And then we just sat down and we just, we chosen which one is better to go to the show, you know? And then, yeah, it came up like that because at first it was just a five minute show and now it's an 80 minute show.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, yeah. Wow. The show, it has a Sydney Opera House season. What did you know about the Opera House before you came to Australia? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: For me, the Opera House was the symbol of Australia, I had no idea about anything else, like kangaroos or other stuff and nothing. Just as soon as Opera House, Australia. That's what I see. First time I came here and I think the second day I just came to, I went to Opera House to just look it closely and see like, you know, how it looks. And it was amazing. I have got another story about being an Opera House. When I was- 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Please. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: When I was studying in Kabul University. So my teacher showed us this big song in theatre and all over the world. And then Opera House came and, and he just told us, like, you will never get to perform there. But I'm just showing you, you know, that this is a really nice place. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Well, well, well, yeah.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, this is a wrong thing as well, because the teacher in Afghanistan, they don't encourage you like you can do it, you know? But it's my second time performing in the Opera House. But the first time when I went to Opera House, I did text my teacher.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Good on you.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Do you remember that one day when you were teaching, as you just said that, and now my show is going to Opera House and I'm performing there. He didn't answer me and he blocked me. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Really? Yes. Oh, my gosh. Well, that person just is. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well I so happy, I sent my picture.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I was gonna say, hopefully you sent a selfie with the sails. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I did send! I did send. I did send and I did send to all over my classmate to everyone. I'm like, look, you can do whatever you want to do. You just need to keep pushing and do hard work and just think big. That and I always tell to Afghan people like, I'm so proud to go there as I have came first and perform there. And they can believe it too, because it's really big deal. Opera House, you know?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh, yeah. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Sydney, yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Absolutely. Now that you've had this dream come true to perform at the Opera House, what's next in store for you and what are your other dreams? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, one of my other dreams is to always, as I wanted to make a theatre company, as I made in Afghanistan. Because I would love to work with the younger people and talk about acting. And still that problem that we had in Afghanistan, we have here, like, can you believe how hard it was for us to look for an Afghan actress here in Australia? I thought we were living in Australia. It's just, you know, democracy, everything. But it's still most of the Afghan families have the, they think art is something shameful. It's not a good deal for and for us as Afghan people, we really struggled a lot to find an Afghan actress. And finally, we, I knew Bibi Goul Mossavi, the first actress who was involved in Dorr-e Dari and yeah. So I would love to work on that and make a theatre company and work with Afghan women and trying to encourage them and make them understand that this is not wrong. Art is not what you think and what your family thinks. It's just something different. And if you really want to be an artist, you've got to do it.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I'd be keen to know what else you'd like to see on the stages of, you know, Australian theatre stages in the future. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I would love to see a lot more performers from, I'm not going to say Afghanistan, but Middle East because they haven't been given the opportunity to be in such a big stage and there is a lot of amazing performers. They just need this chance to be on the stage of Opera House.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And what about the people that you'd like to see?

Mahdi Mohammadi: There is a lot of people that I would love to see on this stage of Opera House. One of them, Hasiba Ebrahimi, this amazing actress who is working with us in Dorr-e Dari. She lived a tough life and she made it all the way here to Australia. And she, she's a fighter. She fought for herself in Afghanistan for her rights. And it's really hard. You can imagine it's really hard to be an actress in Afghanistan and be that famous. And she made it here and she did this. One of the shows that I went to see in Opera House, one of this is the show that Hasiba Ebrahimi did in Kabul. And that time I was here, I'm really upset that I missed it and I would love to see that show here. And it was called Intelligent Tara. And then the English, I think means till freedom. It's this beautiful, unbelievable story about love between Taliban and one Afghan girl. It's just such a beautiful, amazing story. I would love to see Hasiba on the stage because she deserves it. And I would love to see another one. Munira Hashimi, the sisters of my co-worker in Afghanistan, she did a show called They Stars. Now she's living in Sweden. And this show is about four of the most famous Afghan women, which I saw this show in Blacktown. She came all the way from Sweden and did this show in Blacktown. It was just another fantastic story from Afghan women, it was really amazing and powerful story. I would love to see that show on the stage. I would love to see my housemate, Jawad Yaqoubi, is another performer in Dorr-e Dari. This guy, when I met this guy, he's uneducated. He didn't studied at all, but he, the passion that he had. I met him in Indonesia. We became friends and he always wanted to be an artist and he made it all the way to Australia. And now he's, I can honestly say he's better than me. He's just unbelievable. He learnt so fast he, and his dream is all the same. I want to do my own show in Opera House. I would love to see him on this stage. That would be the biggest dream. And for my Australian friends, Karen Therese, Kaz, the ex-Artistic Director of PYT Fairfield. I just recently saw her show in Carriageworks, Sleeplessness. Such an amazing story. It's just.

Courtney Ammenhauser: It looks incredible, yeah.

Mahdi Mohammadi: It was, it was just I think it's connected to everyone's life. It's just beautiful. It's just beautiful. How the story of her life is. I think she deserves to be on the stage of Opera House, and I would love to see our director, Paul Dwyer, on the stage. I saw his theatre from long, long time ago. I mean, and he was working, performing with us in Tribunal as well. He's such an amazing actor and director. I'm learning a lot from him. I'm learning a lot because when I came here and I found out that I know nothing. I studied for years, but I still I know nothing. I'm learning every day. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was Mahdi Mohmmadi, cinema and theatre director, and co-diviser and performer in Dorr-e Dari. In the next episode we’ll be hearing from writer, teacher and community arts worker Michael Mohammed Ahmad…

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: How do you make a work that addresses all these issues on your own, you can’t because I don’t inhabit all of those different identities so you can only collaboratively and you can only make it with the communities themselves. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House. From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn, mixed by Glen Morrow and executive producer is Selena Shannon. From Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and Digital Programming Coordinator is Christie Yip. The Up Next theme music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. 

 

Episode 1: Fangirling with Yve Blake

What do Mount Franklin bottles and Harry Styles have in common? Fangirls. Courtney meets playwright, screenwriter, songwriter, and beloved creator of the hit musical Fangirls, Yve Blake. They chat about her overnight success, the Fangirls of Fangirls, and the sacred Mount Franklin bottle that touched Missy Higgins’ lips.

Read the transcript

Up Next: Ep 1 - Yve Blake

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House honours our First Nations by fostering a shared sense of belonging for all Australians, and we acknowledge the Gadigal, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands.

Yve Blake: And I'm learning about how like some fans don't use spoons anymore because one of the band members said that he, like, wasn't into spoons.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next. I’m a culture writer, a radio presenter and a huge nerd about all things music, arts, and culture. 

Right now I’m sitting in a little backroom at the Opera House, behind one of the most famous stages in the world. And it feels kind of surreal to be here, so far from where I grew up at Mission Beach in Far North Queensland. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Opera House. It was just a fancy place that I only saw on TV.

As an adult I moved to Sydney and found myself enthralled by the underground arts and music scene here. I loved watching emerging Australian talent rise up, make a mark, and carve out a space for themselves on big stages. Changing the culture and stories of Australia as they went. What excites me most is seeing them make it all the way here. Where they reclaim this stage above me. All eyes on them. 

This podcast is all about capturing this moment and seeing all the exciting places it takes us. Up Next is your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through these doors… In each episode, we discover who's up next… who’s defining the future of arts, music and culture in Australia.

It’s no secret the award-winning musical Fangirls has taken the world by storm since its first season at Queensland Theater in 2019. Following fourteen year-old Edna, the musical dives deep into her love for beautiful, perfect, Harry. But there’s just one problem, Harry is the star of the world’s biggest boy band.

I spoke to playwright, screenwriter, songwriter and creator of Fangirls, Yve Blake ahead of the show’s current season at the Sydney Opera House. She’s here to tell us about her meteoric rise from unknown artist to award-winning playwright… about the Fangirls of Fangirls… and why musicals are for everybody… 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I wanted to start the interview with a pretty big question, who did you fangirl over as a tween?

Yve Blake: So I often say is like, No, I wasn't a fangirl of anyone. And that's why when I found out about Fangirls, I had to research them. And that's true to a degree. But honestly, I was obsessed with Missy Higgins and Megan Washington and maybe like a little bit of Regina Spektor. So like singer songwriter girlies. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I have a chaotic story about...

Courtney Ammenhauser: Please. 

Yve Blake: OK I was 13 and I saw Missy Higgins did this gig in Centennial Park, massive park in Sydney. And so we were like 100 metres back from the stage. We were so naughty. We tore away from our moms and we raced to the front and we were right on the barricade watching. And then at the end my friend, shout out to Mari, knew that at the end you've got to like yell at the security gods if you want a guitar pick from stage. So Mari was like, "Give me a guitar pick!" So then I panicked, I wanted a relic and I saw her water bottle on stage. So I asked him to give it to me and I brought it home, this holy relic. And I put it like right on the top of a bookshelf. And I remember when I like finished year 12 and packed up my stuff from my parents house, I found this like ancient half drunk Mount Franklin water bottle. And I was like, what? But it did feel kind of special to touch this thing that she had touched, and she just felt like this kind of magical being. So I always am like, Yeah, I wrote this show because I couldn't relate. But then I think about the water bottle. I'm like, Wait a second.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I spy some of the similarities.

Yve Blake: Yeah.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I have to ask, what happened to the water bottle? 

Yve Blake: Yeah, I did just throw it out, but mad respect to Missy. And then she saw Fangirls last year. Yes. Which was such a full circle moment. It was in Melbourne. She sent me a lovely email and did an Instagram post and I passed away briefly after.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Truly. Well, I'm glad that you've resurrected yourself somehow to join us today. Fangirls, you know, Missy Higgins enjoyed it. It's been enjoyed by many people. It's got a season at the Opera House this year and it's had lots of rave reviews and it's also been picking up a bunch of awards as well. It's won the AWGIE Award for Music Theatre, the Matilda Award for Best Musical, the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Main Stage Musical, and also a Green Room Award as well. You've even done a TED talk about it, but for someone who somehow has not heard of Fangirls, maybe they've heard about in passing but don't know heaps about it, or they might not consider themselves like a musical type of person. Could you explain what the show is about and why this musical is for them?

Yve Blake: So Fangirls follows a 14 year old girl called Edna, and she's in love with a boy called Harry. But the only problem is he is the world's biggest pop star. And what happens in Fangirls is that, Ooh, how do I do this spoiler free? Edna gets an opportunity she never thought she would have in her life. And it's going to require her to do some very dangerous and intense, life changing things without spoiling what happens. Fangirls is like this musical comedy with blockbuster stakes. So because it's a story about being 14 and first love and and stopping at nothing to like get to your crush. I knew the score needed to sound really adrenal, right? So I decided I wanted the score to sound like a pop concert meets rave, also meets church. So, like, the experience of the show itself is like bombastic and huge, and like, feral and like, has these subwoofers in the theatre that will, like, wobble your seats. But yeah, it's like a Trojan horse, so it appears to be this fun camp night out. But it really is an exploration of like the ways that we raise young people and the lies that we tell them about themselves. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And this kind of bombastic experience and this battle cry for young people came to you in a pretty unusual way, which I'd love to talk to you about. You mentioned it in your TEDx talk that when you're 21, you had a pretty fateful meeting where you met a very special teenager who told you about her husband. Can you take us back to that story?

Yve Blake: I was 21 and I met my friend's little cousin and she was 13. And she told me she had met the man she was going to marry. I thought, okay? 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Huge. 

Yve Blake: Absolutely huge, very organised. Must know more. So I said to her, okay, tell me everything about him. And she looks me dead in the eyes. And she confidently told me that his name was Harry Styles.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yep.

Yve Blake: Right. So at this point I laugh. Exactly. And I'm like, sure. And she's like, "Do not laugh at me." I'm like, okay, cool, cool, cool. She's like, "No, don't laugh at me. I would slit anyone's throat to be with him." So I have like, I am immediately interested.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh yeah, that's commitment 100%. 

Yve Blake: And I'm a writer. I'm like, Oh yeah, I have to make a show about this. So overnight I start researching One Direction fans because One Direction, the band was still together at the time that I started writing the show. I'm so fascinated that I've discovered what feels like a sovereign nation of teenage girls on the Internet and then, like the world shakes. Because overnight one of the members of One Direction, Zayn Malik, leaves the band without warning. You remember?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, of course.

Yve Blake: Everyone remembers where they were. So I. Of course, I'm like, whoa. Okay, I'm following all of these fans on Twitter, and I see my timeline are up to, with like, people who are just so grievous about it. And then I notice in mainstream news outlets that are covering the story, they're using really interesting words. They're using words like desperate, pathetic, over-the-top, crazy, unhinged, psycho. And it's interesting right, because I look at all this language and I ask myself a question. It never occurred to me in my life before, which was that, you know, if this was a news story about young men but perceived young men being upset about something that had happened in sport, would these journalists be reaching for the same words? And that is really when I knew that I had to make this show. I wanted to explore the question, like, why is it that when we describe enthusiasm being expressed by, like perceived young women, we use all of this like minimising language and we ridicule them and we socially sanction completely different behaviours for young men and young women. So yeah, I was like, Wait, that's so deep. I have to write about that.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I'm going to make some art.

Yve Blake: Yeah, literally.

Courtney Ammenhauser: All right. So this is where the idea of of Fangirls came from, the stories that you've just taken us through. You then pitched the idea to the Australian Theatre for Young People, ATYP, and you became the recipient of the Rebel Wilson Theatre Maker Scholarship. But you didn't know how to write music at the time, which is quite wild considering it's a musical. But you did round up a really killer creative team. Can you tell us about your team?

Yve Blake: Yes, it's kind of chaotic in retrospect. I was 22, 23, and I had this idea that I wanted to make a musical. But the problem was that I didn't and I still don't play a single musical instrument and I have no idea how to read music. So my first step was I went on YouTube and just watched a lot of YouTube tutorials on how to create music on your laptop. So I use a software called Ableton Live, and then from there I spent probably six months on my own writing the music and like I said, I can't play a piano. So I had to kind of use my QWERTY keyboard on my laptop and slowly it's so silly, but like I just had to sit there and like hum out the tune and then press the buttons until I could kind of hear it back. So I realised that that wasn't going to cut the mustard, like that was not going to get me all the way to a musical. I needed a music producer, right? I needed someone who was going to make it sound like an actual pop concert. And I found this guy, David Muratore, but he's like a mad genius. He's amazing. He's won, like, Triple J remix competitions because he just does this thing with sounds or he collages sounds together in these really unexpected ways. But he also knows all the pop tropes. So I got him on board, and then I got this amazing vocal arranger, her name's Alice Chance, and she's like quite fancy in the classical world, or at least from what I can tell. Like, she writes amazing like vocal arrangements and classical arrangements that get played like all the time. She literally makes a living as a composer and she's in her mid twenties. She came on board and I said, How can you take these songs but add like a girl's choir to them, like make us feel like we're in the church of Harry? And then I brought on board Jonathan Ware as my dramaturg, which is a word that everyone always kind of goes, ooh what's a dramaturg? That sounds fake. But he is like, I guess like the story consultant. So while I was writing the scenes and the music and the lyrics, that's like a lot to keep sight of. And he would sit with me and read the drafts and help me make smart edits and go, Oh, you're repeating yourself there. And look, we worked on this for like three, three and a half years before anyone became interested in it. So I often think of them as like my bandmates, you know what I mean, and we would just spend so much time together refining this and then things kind of changed. And suddenly all of these theatre companies and like TV and film companies came knocking because it was, you know, this show about Fangirls. And I guess we didn't ever imagine that it was a commercial idea, but suddenly that sort of changed overnight.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And I want to ask you about that because, you know, you create it and, was skipping over a lot, but basically you write it gets heaps of seasons, multiple different theatres, as you say, have come knocking to get a piece of the fan girls puzzle. People love the show. What was that shift like from going, as you describe yourself, a bit of an unknown talent to then having award winning in your bio? 

Yve Blake: I guess the thing that I reflect on a lot is for years, like years and years, it was me and Dave and Johnny and Alice. We had this magical idea that we knew was special. And slowly people started to go, oh, I think that's special, too. And theatre companies became interested. But we were just like all in our early twenties and we had so much to prove. And so the creation of this show began with like dinner table readings around my dinner table, and I would just make pasta for all my friends. And it's like, Can you just read this out loud? I need to hear it. Or like going to Dave's studio above a tire shop and just working for hours and then getting a $5 Domino's Pizza because it's like what we can afford. It's interesting that it went from that to then suddenly all of these companies became interested in it and it had this huge season and it was really surreal. Like when it first came out in 2009, Paige Rattray, the director, did such an extraordinary job and I was in the original season and I remember walking onto the stage for the first time and seeing the set, which is like these two story high LED screens, like a Beyoncé concert, and just being like, how many people made this? So it's been really surreal. And I think like what's been especially wild is that before it came out, my fear honestly is like I know that the people who mostly go to theatre are middle aged, rich white people, to be frank. And I wanted to reach teenagers and I was scared they wouldn't come. I was scared they wouldn't find it. But then, you know, in our original seasons, teenagers started coming and then they started coming back. And then they started bringing signs for the fake boy band in our show. And then last year on the tour, it just like it went to another level. And there were people who came 15 times, like someone got a tattoo of the show. People named their pets after the show, all kinds of things happened. And then there was this meta layer where like people who loved the show found each other specifically on Twitter and created this huge group chat called the FGFG, which is like the Fangirls Fangirls. And then when we went like into lockdown in the second half of last year, I'd go into Twitter and I would see members of the FGFG just like posting pictures of their distanced picnics and pictures of their zoom parties that they were doing and like these ridiculous PowerPoint presentation nights where they'd all jump on a zoom link and then make like a comedy PowerPoint about Fangirls. Like one that I saw was called Why Every Character an ape likes Fangirls is a lesbian, no, I won't be accepting any criticism. And like these kids, I shouldn't say kids. These young people are so funny and industrious and kind of represent everything that inspired me to write the show. So now it's amazing. Like yesterday I went into rehearsals for the Opera House season and it's the first time I've been in rehearsals. It's the first week of week three, so they've been working for two weeks without me and it was so surreal to see this like tightly oiled machine. Everyone knew where they were going. There's like tubs and tubs and tubs of props and like matching silver boots for everyone. And it is, it's very difficult to, like, emotionally comprehend that this started as a word document on my laptop. Like it's yeah, yeah, it's just really special.

Courtney Ammenhauser: But a lot of the inspiration for the show has come from One Direction fans. Harry Styles has famously said that young women's taste is often ridiculed by cultural commentators. But who's to say that their taste is less valid than a 30 year old hipster guy? Why do you think people are so quick to judge stories about young women but are open to consuming content from a man's perspective?

Yve Blake: Kind of feels like what's that word? It starts with P and ends in atriarchy. Is that the word?

Courtney Ammenhauser: I think it, I think I've heard of it.

Yve Blake: Have you heard that word? I feel like it's that word I. That's the question. It's so interesting, isn't it? There was that movie Turning Red that came out and I don't know if you heard about this, but there was like some middle aged male reviewers who wrote about how this Disney film that had been made about a 13 year old girl was frustratingly unrelatable and like there was just a lot of rightful clapback about like, I'm pretty sure everything else is made for you. Yeah. And the like. Why can't you extend your empathy? But you know what's been interesting is like with Fangirls, I've maybe had a bit of fear about that, if I'm honest. It's been interesting as well in the years I've had this experience I've had of telling people about this show, I'll be at a dinner party and I'll describe it to them and some times before I kind of get to the punchline. Like, it's just interesting to observe the interesting comments that people will say like, Oh yeah, but it's different for girls because like, there's something sexual about when they like these pop stars and you know, and when guys like sport, it's not like that. And there's, and then that becomes interesting to me because I feel like we socially sanction like the sexual desires of young men in a completely different way than, than young girls. Like I think about this story someone told me where she, her brother in his room and I think this is like in the nineties had a whole bunch of posters of like women in bikinis or less on his walls. And in her room she put up a poster of Robbie Williams from Take That and he had like some overalls on, but no shirt underneath.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh, risky.

Yve Blake: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Her dad came in and took the poster down, said this is completely inappropriate, and she was older than her brother. And I just remember that story and I just think, yeah, like that is the question why do we socially sanction completely different behaviours for young men and women? And like another thing the show really goes into, it's a show like about Fangirls, but it's also just a show about what it's like to grow up in the world when you're being like socialised as a young woman and something I kind of have never gotten over, I'm so obsessed with is, I don't know if you can relate to this, but I feel like when I became a teenage girl, it felt like overnight the world just started yelling at me with like this list of things that I needed to change or modify or upkeep.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Fix all of this.

Yve Blake: Fix it. Those eyebrows. What are you doing?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Those pants? They're wrong.

Yve Blake: The pants are wrong. You need, that is not the correct lip gloss and you need to smell like pink. Get impulse spray now, like, just. I feel that's so interesting. The world yelled at me to consume and modify and that nothing was enough. And also that like, hotness was my superpower. But figuring out how to like, hack the code of hotness was this impossible algorithm. And the show is kind of about that, too. And it was really interesting to see, you know, in the original season when I was in it, how many like dads and granddads would come up to me after the show crying and like, give me a hug? And I'd be like, I'll never forget this guy who I'm guessing was in his seventies, eighties. And he came up to me after the show and gave me a big hug and he's like, "Oh, I was that girl, I was that girl." And I just loved it so much. And there was like this dad that came up to me and he was like, "Wow, I really see my daughter differently." And so it's been exciting to see how it's really captured the hearts of like, different generations has been really beautiful.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hmm. What are some of the lessons that you've learnt that Fangirls or this process has taught you that you'll take into your next project?

Yve Blake: I think about the early days of this project and how scared I was that people wouldn't get it. And like a big driver for me is that when I was a teenager I fell in love with musical theatre. But like, you know, if you ask anyone their favourite musicals, I'll guarantee you, like, all the biggest ones were made by an all male team. I think back to 23 year old me who started this. What I want to be careful of is now not forgetting that like, the reason that this show became what it was is that we wanted to be feral and weird and different and we didn't want to tick any boxes. And so yeah, like don't, if you're a theatre maker listening to this, don't try and make something that's like something else you've seen. Make your own weird thing that like, maybe no one will get.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And I think going back to what you were saying about a typical theatre audience as well, maybe that's the audience because that's who has historically been on stage. But if you make a show that's telling stories about other people, you know, people are going to come see themselves on stage and relate.

Yve Blake: And yeah, I completely, completely agree with that.

Courtney Ammenhauser: You've got a show at the Opera House.

Yve Blake: What the hell?

Courtney Ammenhauser: What the hell? Did you ever think that would happen? 

Yve Blake: No!

Courtney Ammenhauser: How are you feeling about that?

Yve Blake: So excited. No, I'm really I'm really excited. Like I grew up in Sydney, so. This is wild.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.

Yve Blake: The Opera House is from Keychains at tourist shops. I guess I budgeted emotionally for some stress around this time because, you know, I guess I would have imagined three months ago that like, oh, well, I'll go into rehearsals and I'll see them and there'll be like this little thought in my head of like, ooh, what if I hope they're good enough opening like ooh, I hope they get it right. But then it was crazy because I went into rehearsals yesterday and like, Oh my God, okay, I want to do something with my hands, so I'm going to do some audio description. Mm hmm. Okay. So if I put my hands, like, at my hip, that's where I thought the performers would be when I came in. And then if I put my hand up like my chest, that's where I hope they get to at opening night. And then when I went into the room, my hands like as high as I can reach it, that's where they were. Like this cast. And I'm not just saying this is like ad copy because I'm on a podcast, but genuinely I actually cannot believe what they're doing. And, and, you know, we had to cast a lot of them over Zoom and stuff because of COVID. So, you know, we didn't get to have them in the room and like check chemistry, but they're just like, it's another level. And our original cast, we never knew how we'd replace them. They were so incredible and of course are all unavailable because they've booked like Netflix shows. I think I'm just going to sit there and just like beam and cry. They're just so, so good.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hell yeah, proud stage mum?

Yve Blake: Yeah, I'm stage mum.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So did you ever imagine that your work would be performed at the Opera House?

Yve Blake: Oh, my God. Well I dreamed about it. Yeah. Like when I was a teenager, I was such a theatre geek. Like, I just loved it, you know like, teenagers don't have disposable income, so I would write to Belvoir and STC, Sydney Theatre Company.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What would you write to them?

Yve Blake: Well I'd just write to them like, can I have some tickets, please. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh, I love how bold that is.

Yve Blake: Yeah, like so. So the way that I did it at Belvoir is I became friends with the front of house manager and then we'd email him and he'd sneak me into shows, which was amazing. And the STC, the Education Department, did like this youth advisory panel of like teenagers who can come in and, like, advise the company on how to make it more teenager friendly. And then the Opera House did that the year after I finished high school, so I would have been like 18. And I sent them like a desperate email being like, Please, I must do this. So we spent this year getting to have these free tickets to the Opera House in exchange for telling them how to make the space more welcoming to teenagers and a space where teenagers could feel like they were at home. And it was my total am so it's so surreal to think that I spent that year walking into this building again and again and being like, Oh, one day I hope I can have a show here. And specifically, though, talking to them endlessly about like, how do we make this space a place where teenagers feel like it's theirs? And now, quite literally, ten years later, to be there doing this is quite spooky looky.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Totally. Like the seed was planted all those years ago. I feel like musical theatre can kind of, you know, get a bit of a reputation for being cheesy for people who aren't necessarily who don't, you know, they don't call themselves musical fans. I do think there's a bit of a barrier there, but it's changing a bit. There's new works coming out aimed at younger people. There's more women or non-binary or gender diverse people working as well. And this show has obviously won a stack of awards and has become part of the zeitgeist. But what do you think brought about that change?

Yve Blake: I think that a lot of the perception around musical theatre being cheesy is that it's like super earnest, right? Or maybe also that, yeah, the roles are kind of narrow and I just think there are so few musicals about like some woman who wants to get married or, you know, like women written by men singing about, like, even though he's terrible to me, I love him no matter what. And I wonder if it's like the girls, the gays in the theys got obsessed with musicals because we love to feel things and then all grew up and went, I'll have a go. And I wonder if. I wonder if that's it, you know what I mean?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it's definitely, I think, able to broaden the appeal of musicals as well, having different stories. Do you agree or?

Yve Blake: Oh, yeah, totally. And like I've got a really smart friend, Adam Lenson, who actually wrote a whole book called Breaking Into Song: Why You Shouldn't Hate Musicals. It's such a BOP. But he said this thing that made my jaw fall off my body, he was like, musical theatre is, it's a medium, but we treat it like a genre. And he's like, you can have infinite forms of music, infinite styles of music and infinite, like, styles of theatre. So why can't you have like infinite iterations of musical theatre? He says we always talk about how in musicals, people burst into song when words are not enough, and he's like, That's such an unhelpful, like, incomplete idea, because what if you need to burst into a song when words would be too much or when like words would be wrong, or what if you need to burst into song because you're like gluing together two people who are singing across a 50 year gap, like there's just so many different ways you can use music. A key inspiration for me has been the way that, like teenage girls speak in Australia and the way they go off at the end, every sentence has been like really interesting to me and like putting that into the melodies in the show, also in just like the, the lexicon. So I was tested how Fangirls talk about how they're like actually dead about something happening and they're literally dead like literally plan my funeral. Like I cannot breathe anymore, I'm ceasing to exist. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah I am deceased. Exactly.

Yve Blake: There's an entire song in the show called Actually Dead, which is just like kind of this wonderful collage of, of amazing things I saw on Twitter like that.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, that's amazing. You spent so many years working on this show, the better part of your twenties. What is next for you? Have you had any recent chance meetings that have kind of inspired a new idea, like the one when you were 21? 

Yve Blake: Well, how do I answer this question? I'm really lucky that, you know, so Fangirls, it looks like is going to have an international life, fingers crossed. I know. I just I literally just got back from overseas working on an overseas version of it. So cross we cross our fingers and toes and bum hold it. That happens.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I'm actually dead hearing that news.

Yve Blake: Okay me to. Please, please, could that happen? But, you know, with theatre you never know, especially in the midst of a Panasonic. So um.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Truly.

Yve Blake: Truly. So fingers crossed that happens and I'm really excited. So Paige, the director, and I are developing a screen adaptation, so also fingers crossed that happens. That'd be so cool. I know. Thank God the series, please. But then separately, I'm really lucky. Like I've got a bunch of screenwriting gigs and a few new, very, very new ideas that I'm playing with. But I mean, look, like I started writing Fangirls seven years ago, so. These things take a lot of time.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So we're all about highlighting upcoming talent on this podcast. What do you think is up next for musical theatre in Australia as a genre? We kind of touched on it before of the shes, the gays, the theys being like, I'll have a crack.

Yve Blake: Oh my God. I was born ready for this question. I'm going to give you a roll call of just some of the new Australian musical theatre writers I'm obsessed with.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Please. 

Yve Blake: People often talk to me and they're like, Wow, isn't it? Wow. There's no young women out there making musical theatre. And I'm like, Excuse me, shut your mouth. These are the people I'm obsessed with. Everyone look up Vidya Makan. She's an extraordinary writer. She's currently in SIX the musical because she's also what an amazing actress. But look up a song she's written called Hugh Jackman on YouTube. It'll make you laugh and cry. Jules Orcullo is doing an incredible musical called Fraser Babies, look it up, it's extraordinary. Cassie Hamilton is amazing. Gillian Cosgriff, I think, is one of the country's best songwriters, and no one's heard her stuff yet, but it's going to change the game. Jean Tong and Lou Wall, extraordinary. They have a musical they've written together called Flat Earth, is the musical, someone programme it you cowards. Jordy Shea and Victoria Falconer-Prichard are developing this amazing musical called Lola that's like about this Filipino grandma and her granddaughter. And listen, hijinks ensue. It's incredible. I want to shout out Samantha Andrew, Mel O'Brien, who is in Fangirls, but also an extraordinary songwriter. It's illegal that she's good at both of those things. Oh, my God. There are so many more. I'm going to absolutely kick myself for forgetting. But there's just so, so, so many great writers out there. Mags McKenna is extraordinary, they're in Jagged Little Pill.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I saw Jagged Little Pill last week and was blown away in You Oughta Know.

Yve Blake: Okay, everyone knows that they're like this massive star of musicals. But like, is everyone aware that they also write absolute bops and bangers? Incredible. Also, Laura Murphy has written The Lovers, which is about to come out at Bell Shakespeare. And I'm truly shaking to see and I'm so, so excited. Hannah May Reilly made an incredible musical called The Dead with Meg Washington earlier this year, which was wall to wall bangers. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And another one of your idols. 

Yve Blake: Yes. Oh, who also saw Fangirls.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Go, oh, my God.

Yve Blake: I literally.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Missy and Megan?

Yve Blake: I know I've absolutely passed away. We just need Regina now, come through. Anyway. Yes. If you are someone in this industry with power and you are looking for new, incredible musical theatre writers, I have a whole list. DM me.

Courtney Ammenhauser: You can DM Yve Blake at Y-v-e B-l-a-k-e. In the next episode we’ll be hearing from Mahdi Mohammadi, co-diviser and actor in Dorr-e Dari: A Poetic Crash Course in the Language of Love.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Our pronouns in Persian language, doesn’t have any gender differences. So your lover could be a he or she or whatever form of gorgeousness you desire. 

Courtney Ammenhaurser: I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from Sydney Opera House. From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn, mixed by Glen Morrow and executive producer is Selena Shannon. For Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and Digital Programming Coordinator is Christie Yip. The Up Next theme music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. 

 

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