Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Diana Nguyen

Leading the charge for our new season of interviews featuring the category winners of the 2021 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards is the overall award-winner, Diana Nguyen.

Recognised for her leadership, creativity and humour that embraces inclusion and diversity in contemporary Australia, the Vietnamese-Australian actor, comedian and writer’s career highlights the power of candid storytelling and forging community connections especially during a period of enormous disruption and uncertainty for artists and entertainers over the past eighteen months. Diana likes to stand up – both literally on the stage and regarding her commitment to balancing gender representation and cultural diversity when it comes to the politics of casting.

In addition to touring internationally, Diana has smashed viewer numbers with her Vietnamese-Australian family comedy webseries – an industry first regarding its concept – Phi and Me TV  – which has won international awards. Spurred by its popularity, Nguyen is the mastermind behind and host of The SnortCast Comedy, a podcast interviewing a cast of comedians (of mixed gender and cultural backgrounds) to essentially spread laughter. Johnson Partners (JP) catches up with Diana to talk humour, hardships and honesty.

JP Let’s start with early 2020. You were all set to premiere you live act Chasing Keanu Reeves and COVID-19 cancelled the show (and inevitably your chance to connect with him!). Fortunately you squeezed it in at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival earlier this year before more lockdowns ensued. You pivoted your live comedy series, SnortCast Comedy – which embraced line-up shows with 50% gender balance and cultural diversity to represent the true ‘colours’ of Australia – from a stage act to a podcast series thanks to a grant from the City of Melbourne. What’s next – are you yearning to tread the boards again, or is streaming your new comedic currency?

DN Definitely back on stage and live entertainment. Who knew in 2021 we would, especially Melbourne, be enduring a lockdown again. I’m grateful for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as shows sold out. People supported local comedy and the arts were thriving. I can feel that this time it’s different. There’s an urgency to save the arts in 2021.

Digital has been great in keeping me active and involved in my artform, but there is a responsibility to support the arts. Whether it be buying a ticket to a music concert, to see actors performing stories in the theatre, wandering the art galleries, dropping money into a busker’s hat or laughing in a small room with a comedian trying out new jokes, we are ready!

JP You’re a savvy utiliser of digital platforms to reach a broad diaspora of fans around the globe. We’ve read that on LinkedIn you started singing Karaoke with entrepreneurs which gave you the confidence to host your own show and share stories. Let’s talk about your multi award-winning Phi and Mi TV – the first Vietnamese-Australian comedy series you co-created. You transformed a 2011 Herald Sun Melbourne International Comedy Festival show into a global webseries by 2019. It’s received over 50 thousand views on Youtube, and almost 5.4 million views on TikTok. Crowdfunded by over 220 donors plus Screen Australia, it explores your parents’ life in Springvale Australia since arriving by boat, plus the formative years of their teen daughter who walks the fine line of ‘fitting in’ between both cultures. Casting yourself loosely on your mother, beyond the immediate gratification of ‘getting a laugh,’ what drove you to tell this somewhat autobiographical story and what are the key messages you hope it conveys?

DN There’s a Disney movie called Mulan. It came out in 1998 and the song, Reflection, has been celebrated by Asians world-wide. In the mirror Mulan stands and sings, Who is this Girl I See, Staring Straight Back at Me? I wanted to be seen. Not literally my own reflection but regarding the relationship I have to people in my life.

Phi and Me came alive in 2010 when I saw shows at the Melbourne International Comedy festival, and thought, “they’re funny, but I know a funnier story that means a lot to me and my co-creator Fiona Chau growing up with our single mums in Springvale.” We had Wogs out of Work in the 80’s/90’s but were Vietnamese Asians celebrated for their comedy? No. It was time.

In 2011 we launched the show with our drama teacher Steve McPhail (who played all the white characters) and here we are today in 2021. Phi and Me TV was independently crowdsourced and finally funded by Screen Australia to make the first Vietnamese Australian family comedy web series since the arrival of our parents in Australia. Its key message is: don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s time. You make the time. You create the time, and when you do it 150% people will believe in your dreams.

JP You grew up in Springvale (where Phi and Mi TV is set) with few creative outlets like art programs or drama classes after school before pursuing a BA at university. What lead you to pursue the thespian path and inevitably, comedy?

DN I somehow came out of high school DUX of drama and it was because of the school environment. I was the lead actor in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Coming from a girls school, transforming and playing different characters was in my blood. My transition into stand-up was in 2015 when I wanted more work on TV panel shows. I found that comedians were generally hired for them. My first show in 2016 was a 50 minute solo performance… and I died on stage. LOL.

One week later that show got 4 stars and has toured around Australia and to Edinburgh with 4.95 star reviews. The lesson is that you’ve just got to take that chance for the work and life you want when there’s no alternative career you would chose.

JP Can you shed some light on the types of discrimination you have faced growing up and during your professional career? How has it differed from your childhood experiences and how have your reactions to it altered in your older years?

DN I remember I used to like being the ‘only Asian’ performing in the show. It was like an exclusive reward for being the best Asian, but actually that thinking is toxic. It stems back to being the only Vietnamese girl at a very white primary school and I was picked by the boys because I was ‘exotic.’ In my early 20’s in the theatre circles and I feelt ‘exotic’ again, and I endorsed that behaviour because it gave me work. Only after creating Phi and Me and seeing that Asians can play such a range of awesome roles, did I make it my mission to be much more inclusive. The Australian TV and arts industry have created a toxic competitive  casting environment which stems from the writing room. Why are they writing the one Asian role? And where is the true Australia if there is one Asian amongst a sea of white faces?

“I feel that when you express these dark moments from memory to words it enables healing. I’ve laughed through a lot of pain, sharing these moments allows people to connect. Empathy and Inclusivity enforces the concept that people are not alone.”

JP Named after Princess Di, we can see you were destined to fill big shoes! The hilarious theme of ‘disappointing’ your mother regarding your ‘unconventional’ career choices and lack of ‘settling down’ to marriage and motherhood surfaces regularly in your work. Your short story 5 Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother featured in Alice Pung’s book Growing Up Asian in Australia and has been studied by students across Australia. Jokes aside, to be funny, a comedian often needs to explore dark points in their life for content. What have been those moments for you and how has humour healed them or at the very least provided a distraction?

DN In 5 Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother I reminisced about being kicked out of home and finding freedom in it. It was a painful time. I remember going to Centrelink at the age of 18 and telling them that I was now an independent, and they didn’t believe me because my mum was in denial and told them I wasn’t kicked out of home. It led me to working double shifts at KFC/Coles to make ends meet and finish my university degree.

I feel that when you express these dark moment from memory to words it enables healing. I’ve laughed through a lot of pain, and have joked that when my mum found out about the short story she wanted to sue the writer which was me! Sharing these moments allows people to connect. Empathy and Inclusivity enforces the concept that people are not alone.

JP From the get-go you’ve strived not to ‘fit-in’ with conventional notions of a ‘white Australia.’ Your career is defined by your inclusive outreach and you have continuously sought grants to enable people from diverse backgrounds to share stories in theatre. Where did this drive to ‘be heard’ so to speak rather than ‘blend in’ come from?

DN I Witnessed my mother’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder whilst growing up. I worked with young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds for over 10 year, and during those years I saw the same disconnection, the isolation and invisible stories that were not told on mainstream media. Mainstream media focused on ‘boat people,’ ‘queue jumpers,’ ‘terrorists’ and ‘gangs’ but they didn’t focus on the JOY of community and the resilience of these survivors. I knew theatre could bring people together to see their stories come to life. The partnership was with Melbourne Playback theatre who literally play back stories into theatres instantaneously, allowing audiences to hear, see and feel amazing journeys regardless of peoples cultural background or race. This connection of identity, fitting in and family love is universal.

Over three years in the South Eastern suburbs, young people from different backgrounds shared their stories, learnt how to perform and built their confidence. They became the actors listening to stories and bringing them to life. One of the students was given a scholarship and is now part of our ensemble at Melbourne Playback. For over 10 years this work was a great joy in my life and I am still in contact with these young people who are now adults.

JP What tips do you have for budding actors, comedians, script and screen writers eager to get their own initiatives off the ground in terms of generating public and private funding? Where should they look and how can they best utilise digital platforms for self-promotion?

DN When I think about Phi and Me crowdfunding there are five things that got us there:

  1. A rocking network – people who will cheer you on every single day for 30 days and believe in you;
  2. Paying for a marketing strategist. We worked with String Nguyen 2014 and in 2019 she was our web series marketing strategist getting this show around the world (Rock Network);
  3. Joy – I was going through a break-up during the crowdfunding process and I decided $25 karaoke incentives would help us raise $28k. It worked because I had fun doing it;
  4. Promote with no fear. Your real supporters will support you. The people who call it spam will ignore it, and your ‘double down’ promotion online will allow new people who haven’t heard of you to know about your dream;
  5. Jump on LinkedIn. We launched the process journey regarding how to make a web series on LinkedIn. When we released our web series, the LinkedIn community was right behind us. They supported the arts on a business platform.

JP Ending on a hypothetical question, if you were offered unlimited funds to write, cast and direct a comedy film or TV series OR the funds could be used to develop a new podcast stream, what would your dream project be and who would star/what talent would appear in it? The world’s your oyster…

DN Keanu Reeves and I play best friends/housemates for a never ending comedy sitcom. They live in an apartment complex with 5 different households and we see their stories. Think Friends, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. The writers rooms are talented diverse Australian writers who represent these households. They are paid full salaries to write this never-ending sitcom. Keanu Reeves and I are best friends.

If you’re looking for light entertainment, just search #DancingDiana and you’ll find 1,000+ dancing videos on LinkedIn. Diana claims that whilst looking for lovers on traditional dating apps she found herself on LinkedIn, started dancing, and the rest is viral history.

Johnson Partners features monthly interviews with all the 2021 category winners to further explore their career achievements and the challenges they have confronted in their pursuit for excellence – from bamboo ceilings to political and economic hurdles, amongst others. See more here.

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