Diana Nguyen, who has just co-adapted Alice Pung’s novel Laurinda for the stage, says laughter is the way through pain. By Romy Ash.

Writer and performer Diana Nguyen

Diana Nguyen.
Diana Nguyen.
Credit: Jackie Tran

I’m walking, listening to Diana Nguyen speak on her podcast, The SnortCast. It’s rainbow weather: a bit of sun warm on my back and then the sky spits at me. I’m laughing out loud as I listen and then suddenly I’m crying. In the podcast, Diana Nguyen is crying too. She doesn’t really tell us why she’s crying, except that her Melbourne International Comedy Festival show this year, Chasing Keanu Reeves: An Encore, was a lot. Then, just as suddenly, I’m laughing again. Nguyen’s a stand-up comedian with such radical vulnerability. So much heart, so much hilarity.

When I meet her in the bowels of the Melbourne Theatre Company headquarters, those tears are still there, ready at the back of my throat. They spring to my eyes when I talk to her about Chasing Keanu Reeves. She rescues me with a joke. It’s quick to her mouth. “Lockdown,” she says, “was the biggest blessing of my life, because it got me to reconnect with my pussy.” She has a punchline always at the ready. There’s an answer to the emotion in the laughter.

“Actually, funny story, I also work as a clown doctor at the Royal Children’s Hospital. I’m very lucky that I get to do that work. We work as distraction-and-joy people,” she says. She describes her clown doctor outfit, her red nose, doctor’s coat, ukulele. She sings songs, dances, is silly, makes people laugh.

“The work isn’t just for children, it’s for the whole hospital. If you just imagine the last two years – really tough. Hospital rooms aren’t great. Not great. We come in, we are the medicine. That’s our job. We need more funding for clown doctors, the work that we do is amazing, in a place that needs it. I’m a playwright for mainstage,” she says, laughing, “and I’m also a clown doctor.”

For the past couple of weeks she’s been in the rehearsal room for Laurinda, a stage adaptation of Alice Pung’s young adult book that Nguyen has co-written with director Petra Kalive. It opens in previews this weekend. “I’m there two, three days a week, just sitting in the room, and it’s just beautiful to see seven Asian–Australian actors on stage. Seeing how the actors absorb the words and put them into their bodies. Oh!” Nguyen makes a sound of absolute joy. “Ngoc Phan who plays the lead – she’s the protagonist Lucy Lam – just watching her play, just seeing this ensemble move, it’s just so exciting. Seeing the actors working in the rehearsal space, figuring out that line, how does that full stop work? How they relate to each other in space. It’s so wonderful. That’s my first love, theatre, that’s how I got my training, I made independent theatre. I could set up a show for $2000 and tell my story. With film I need a crew, but with theatre I can transform and be anyone I want to be. It’s so great to see actors do that with the work that we have created.”

Nguyen and Kalive wrote Laurinda in 2020, over Zoom in lockdown. Nguyen speaks about how moving it was finally being in a room with actors, listening to their voices bounce off the walls. “I really love being in the room, having people’s stories. The actors sharing their experiences informed the script, grounded our thoughts. When we are in rehearsal – you can hear people going through their life – going…” Wincing, she makes a noise of pain and then descends into laughter, snorting her trademark snort. “You’ll see these characters on the stage – you’ll see that they have been in your life.

“Petra and I – we’ve got different experiences. Petra, she’s got a Greek background and I’m Vietnamese background. We wanted the story to not just be about this Asian girl at school – but also a universal story about this girl, essentially about fitting in, and everyone has that urge to want to be part of something, to be seen. We’ve put our own twist on it, there’s the perspective of a woman in her 30s looking back on the ’90s.”

We talk about the ’90s – “sick music”, says Nguyen and that’s in Laurinda – but we also talk about the fallout from Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech and how this overt racism shifted and changed people. Nguyen speaks about how it changed her, a kid in her last year of primary school. She’s very serious, but also ready with a joke. “At the time, The Simpsons was on, so being yellow wasn’t so bad,” she says.

I ask Nguyen if Laurinda is a funny show. “There’s movement, there’s definitely comedy, but also heartbreak – that’s why I’m crying so much,” she says. “The conflict and the laughter, it’s been entwined in my whole life, it’s coming out in Laurinda as well. That’s important to me, there’s journey, transformation. I sometimes do enjoy watching comedy where it’s just laughter laughter laughter” – and she smacks her hands together, bang bang bang – “but for me, I really need the heart. I need you to drop it down for me. Intellectually feed that,” she points at her head, “but feed this,” she points at her heart. “There are laughs, but through the laughter there is pain, and through the pain we need to laugh. It’s like a manual gear shift, finding where it needs to go.”

I think about this metaphor later. I remember learning to drive a manual car, how hard it was. How it would have been easier to find the path of the gearstick if I could have just closed my eyes and felt it, felt how it could fall into place. This – being in the body – feels important to Nguyen’s work.

Nguyen, who was was recently crowned the winner of the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian–Australians Award 2021, grew up in the outer Melbourne suburb of Springvale. Her house was filled with Vietnamese music. Her mother – a refugee and sole parent who raised three children – was always singing karaoke: “Karaoke is her gift,” says Nguyen. Since she was small, Nguyen has danced. At first she learned ballet, and when there wasn’t enough money for lessons she danced in her bedroom or while walking home from school. She speaks about this in her TEDx talk “JoyFool”, and shows a picture of herself performing in a violet tutu, hair pulled back tight, with a fairy crown.

“It would have to start with my mother, growing up in a Vietnamese–Australian family home that is surrounded by the trauma of war, but then also my mother is this hilarious woman – that conflict,” says Nguyen. “Lots of tension, but then there were just big bursts of laughter and then back into tension. It was a sitcom, really. Hence why I co-created [the comedy web series] Phi and Me. This baby needs to come out.”

Nguyen points at her Phi and Me phone case. “I’m really good at merch,” she says, “face masks, T-shirts, everything.” Phi and Me was first a theatre show, co-written 12 years ago with Fiona Chau and Steve McPhail. “It’s an intergenerational family story. It’s fictional but based on our two mums. I was doing that at the Comedy Festival. We were succeeding, getting four-and-a-half stars.

“We had our community lining up to buy tickets, which is so rare. It’s so rare because, you know, we’re tight-arses. We’ve been trained that way – you’ve come over to Australia, you’ve got nothing, you’ve got to support your friends, send your money back into Vietnam. Of course you’re not going to spend $25 to sit and watch something for yourself. It’s a very privileged thing to do, for yourself, but to have 100 people sitting in a room and to laugh about our childhoods, growing up? I can’t believe we did it. We were successful and 12 years later we’re in development to make a TV show.”

Nguyen talks me through all the different stages of Phi and Me’s development. She raised $28,000 singing karaoke on the internet to make the web series. She sang a song for you, any song you wanted for $25. In 2020 she cut the footage from the web series into a TikTok and it got 6.8 million views.

This isn’t the only time Nguyen has gone viral. She is also well known for her ongoing comedy gag on LinkedIn, titled #DancingDiana, in which she dances in locations across the world with different people, often, in the last couple of years, via Zoom. I’m quizzical about this, I don’t really understand, and she just laughs. “I wanted to make money, that’s why I call myself a creative entrepreneur. I’m not just a creative, I’m an entrepreneur. I’m making business decisions for my creativity, thinking strategically. I’m trying to get more artists to make more money. Change the mentality of doing things for free or for favours, or for love – fuck that. I’m about cutting that shit. Change how artists think about themselves, economically. I’m such a chameleon. Whatever flows.”

She took Phi and Me to Screen Australia. “We went back to Screen Australia and said, it’s time, it’s time for my mother’s story to be seen. It’s not been seen on Australian TV before, it’s all been lumped – we’re lumped – we’re ‘Asian’. We are just in the Asian group.”

She got into stand-up comedy after a long frustration with the roles available to her as an actor. “I want to be seen,” Nguyen says. “I’m standing up so that some kid can look at me and can go, ‘I can give that a go’.” She wanted a show. It was comedians who had shows; she became a comedian. “Look at them, they’ve got shows, and I’m here.”

She describes her first stand-up gig, the horror of it. “The first show was brutal, probably the most brutal show I have ever done in my life, I was like, ‘Oh, this is fucked’. I went home, cut cut cut cut cut.” She laughs at her own audacity.

“My mum – Phi and Me – I saw my mum laughing in the audience, but hiding that laughter with the flyer of the show. I had to be behind the audience and I spotted my mum and she was laughing, and that’s really... Those are the moments where my mother realised why I had to become who I am.” Nguyen tells me, smiling, that her mum is actually in the web series of Phi and Me – with a credit to her name, she’s a real actor.

“With Laurinda, we’ve got fluent Vietnamese in the show – Petra and I made a choice. This is a Vietnamese family, a refugee Vietnamese family, and we spoke to Alice and she gave us permission. I really wanted to focus this on Vietnamese. We haven’t seen this on mainstage, we’ve settled here for so long. This is the chance. Chi Nguyen is playing the mum and, oh my god, I can not wait to just have my mum sit and just have her listen to herself. I can’t wait, and I cry all the time,” – Nguyen stops here as her voice breaks – “every time Chi performs it, because – we were talking about Pauline Hanson – I wish I could speak like Chi. I don’t have the nuances to speak like that to my mum, so hopefully when my mum listens to it, she can hear what I am saying to her. This show is really big, for me.” Nguyen wipes away the tears that have rolled down her cheeks and laughs.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 as "The best medicine".

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