Actor, writer and director Tony Le Nguyen is currently working with young Vietnamese people to produce television documentaries about their lives, visions and the society they live in. His television workshops follow his success in establishing the first Vietnamese Youth Theatre with the Footscray Community Arts Centre in 1994 .
During the decade prior to community involvement, Tony carved out a successful acting career in television and is well known for his role in the movie Romper Stomper.
I just don't want to sound like I'm whingeing or sort of knocking someone. I think this conference should be called wimpy conference because it's not really daring at all, because I think that my work is pretty daring, not only because my work involves challenging Vietnamese culture, challenging adults, challenging authority but it's not only about challenging, it's about questioning.
For me, as an artist, I find the Australia Council is very anti-youth and the reason why I said it's anti-youth is because it's not accessible to young people and I think that's something that hopefully people from Australia Council might hear this and take it to their heart because I think as long as the way they structure the Australia Council in certain places and if they have a real commitment to trying to get young people to be involved and have more say into the process, how to access funds and what sort of money that's going to go to them, then I think there must be some real change, similar to the Community Cultural Development Fund. There must be a push for more money that focuses, they have one youth arts officer I think at the Australia Council, and Elena didn't even know about it and that's very surprising.
I don't know if a lot of young people know what Australia Council is all about, that's the first thing. That's one of the things that I do in my work at Footscray, is really getting them involved and teaching them, say, "This is how you write an application, and this is what this really means," and that's how I see part of the work that I do as well. I feel I'm getting old. I'm only 29 and I feel I'm getting old. I'm a bit of a veteran now. So sometimes it sort of wonders me because I know that they are people who work with young people and they're extremely old, so, you know. I mean, this area of work that should be dangerous and when I say "dangerous" in a sense, where we should continue to question - what are we doing? Are we imposing our own adult belief on them or do we really want to know what's going on in their minds? Are we really up to date and if we aren't, maybe it's time to move on and get the hell out of there. I think thatıs the first thing for me, which is really important.
I'm one of these really dumb, crazy artists who do things the wrong way around. Normally, generally, a lot of artists if they think of a project, they go and put in a proposal and put in an application and wait and hold their breath until the funding body says, "Yep, you've got the money. Go ahead and do it." I do it the other way around. If I see that something is a need in my community, I need to do something, I'll go and do it without funding, so I spend a lot of time working in poverty, basically. Then someone like David Everest, who's here, who works at Footscray, will say, "Tony, you need to pay the bill as well, Tony," so he asked me, he says, "Let's put down what you been doing," so I write and I put down what I'm doing and then we get money that way. So the way that I work is the other way around because I recognise that if we see something that needs to be done, especially with young people, and we wait until we get the money from the funding bodies, then it's too late, the damage is done. So that's my first concern.
My other concern is people from an Anglo culture coming in and imposing their belief how to do theatre, how music - or how to make art. They might put an application and have a token Vietnamese and a token Aborigine just for the sake of getting money and I'm very concerned about that. So there's a lot of issues that I'm concerned about. The way that I actually run the, when I set up the Vietnamese Youth Theatre I spent a bit of time looking around, looking at all these different youth theatres around, and I think youth theatre sometimes is good and sometimes is very dangerous. If we don't be careful, it's actually another form of exploitation of young people.
If a young person involved in that youth theatre when they are 15 and by the time they're 30 they're still part of that same youth theatre, we haven't done very much at all for them. So my interest is to find youth, that it should be a model or a process of getting young people out of where they start from. We should be able to help them to get them further and if we can't do that, it's very dangerous. It's like introducing them to drugs that we can't continue to supply for them. It's like the way that there's a lot of myth. Also, sometimes we lie to young people and say, "Well, you come in here, next thing you know you'll get a part on Neighbours," and that's not true, and so we have to be very clear when working with young people that we donıt lie to them. That's the last thing that we need to do.
I remember there was a dinner at Footscray Community Arts Centre that Jeff Kennett came along and he talked to me and he said, "What are you doing with young people?" and I said, "I run it the way - I run the group like a gang," because if people understand the definition of the word "gang" it's about support. It's about belonging. It's about identity. But, of course, with my gang, I don't sort of encourage young people to poke needles up their arms. I provide a platform for them to go and put their anger in certain ways, like put it in a documentary or put it on stage. We just lie a little bit and we design a nice-looking poster and put a bit of music and light in and that's all. That's what my work is all about really. It's quite simple. It's not that complicated at all. I don't like intellectual theatre because the more that we try to - because I see that a lot of mainstream theatre it's like you need go to go university and get a PhD before you can actually understand what theatre is all about. Young people, especially with Vietnamese young people that I work with, they don't operate like that. I'm not going to talk too much because I'll talk later, so I'll leave it there.