From Tribes to Outrageous Fortune, and now MTV's Underemployed, Michelle Ang is one of our most high profile actresses. Based in New York, she returns to the Auckland stage this month in a one-woman play, Chop/stick, written by Jo Holsted.
Renee Liang interviewed Michelle and Jo in the midst of rehearsals.
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The first time I met Michelle Ang, I was dressed like a Thai call girl. It wasn’t what you might think - I was an extra on my sister’s short film Take Three. Later Michelle went on to play a character based on my sister in a little kiwi film called My Wedding and Other Secrets.
Over her long career as an actress, Michelle has played many permutations of the ‘Asian woman’– so who better to explore the perceptions of being Kiwi and Asian than her?
Collaborating with writer Jo Holsted, Chop/stick is a one woman, multicharacter play which “is an experiment in Asian-ness, otherness, and us-and-them-ness.” It promises to be an exploration into “being Asian. Into being a New Zealander. A woman. A man. An Asian-New-Zealander-Man-Woman. And anyone in between.”
I caught up with Michelle and Jo as they rehearsed for the premiere season of Chop/stick.
How do you know each other?
Michelle: Bonded as all good girl besties do - over the foolishness of the male race, and a dash of heartache.
Jo: Yes, and snacks!
How did you get into acting/writing?
M: By accident. I started off wanting to be a dancer and perform in productions at the Wellington State Opera house, have an excuse to wear fanciful costumes, extravagant hairdos, and perform in magical sets. Somehow that segued into an opportunity on a TV series about dancing, that then continued into other opportunities in TV. I did really enjoy participating in school plays and I never seemed to mind giving up my lunchtimes to read poetry aloud and act out in speech and drama classes.
J: Earlier this year I was flicking through my first story-writing books from when I first started school and it turns out I was a really incredible and futuristic writer. Now I'm just trying to catch up with myself.
What's been your most satisfying project to date?
M: I love all my projects for the different experiences they offer. My Wedding And Other Secrets was an incredible opportunity to carry a feature film and portray a real life story. Underemployed gave me a chance to weigh in on my characters arcs and storylines. Xena Warrior Princess was a project that occurred in a mystical world and allowed me to learn martial arts and fly around in kimonos and drown!
J: I wish I had as cool an answer to give as Michelle. A few years ago I wrote for the 24 hour theatre challenge held out at Lopdell House at Titirangi. There is something really satisfying about staying up all night to write a script that you then see performed by a gorgeous and dedicated cast a mere 12 hours later.
How did you come up with the idea of Chop/stick?
M: One luxuriously loungy summer in Barcelona when we were both underemployed and spent a lot of time hanging out having "creative musings' in Parc Guell, we realised we shared some pretty hilarious observations about cultural crossovers. Also, we were both looking for an avenue for our creative pursuits, but realised the project would never come to fruition unless we were actually held accountable to it. We figured, by combining talents we could encourage each other to follow through. A mere four years later.... Chop/Stick.
Plus, I was frustrated about never being considered for roles outside my ethnicity and wanted to do a cheeky fuck you to the face valueness of the casting process. And who better to create a literary masterpiece to perform than my razor-witted friend Jo.
J: Is it off-putting if I say "gal-pal dream-team"? It was a real mix of wanting to share some observations and experiences that we'd found in part shocking but also hilarious, and creating some conversation about them.
Why did you choose the one person multihander format? What's been fun and what's been challenging?
M: The one-woman format is just another way to convey our theme. Can we get an audience to suspend their eyes and believe that the ethnic actress they see can play characters outside of her physical attributes. Ooh.. how meta!
J: Developing the characters has been really fun, though the whole project has been fun because so much of the process has been the two of us nutting ideas out and problem-solving and laughing. There are daily challenges, including budgeting and time-management, self-doubt, existential crises, over-eating...
Are the characters based on people you know?
M: Well, they are definitely familiar to us. Some of them are people we've eavesdropped/spied on. There's some characteristics of my Aunty that I'm staying with in Auckland and Grandma.
J: I definitely went to school with a couple of Kingstons.
What's been your development process? are you both writing?
M: We haven't really got an established process. The skeleton structure and characters sprung up organically into situations where our initial cheeky observations were suited. Jo is the mastermind behind the dialogue. She is the wizard behind the biting humour too. I am more the larger storyliner and thematic guider, and of course the cultural consultant.
J: "Cultural consultant". That is gold. The writing has definitely been collaborative. Whether it's one of us sharing a story or coming up with an idea and the other adding to it, or, in various cases, either of us getting carried away and the other reining them in.
Is this your first foray into live theatre?
M: Not exactly. I did a season of Young and Hungry at BATS while I was at Vic Uni. A very unique and interesting play. But I'm pretty petrified at the responsibility of shouldering a whole project.
J: I've written a few other pieces but this is the most involved I've ever been in something from the first seed of the idea through writing and then into production, which has been both scary and satisfying.
What have you discovered about making live theatre in NZ?
M: It's a prooooccceeesss. But it's also a great way to hang out and work with creatives you admire.
J: Retweet! That's a pretty perfect summary. I've also found a lot of people to be very very supportive and helpful in sharing advice and experience.
How has being based overseas changed your approach to acting/writing?
M: For myself, I've appreciated how supportive New Zealand is as an environment to get a project off the ground. But also, the NYC mentality of aiming high and pushing yourself has put me in good stead to attempt to do this project in this way. I'm not as afraid to visualize large and chase that.
J: I don't know if that question applies to me now that I'm pretty settled back here. I wrote a lot of letters while I was away and trying to summarise the wonderful or awful or mundane things I was experiencing to my loved ones has really shaped the way I write now.
If there was one thing you could change about making live theatre in NZ, what would it be?
M: Finding a way to crack open the minds of mainstream NZ and getting them to take a punt on something a little more indie.
J: Ooh, good question. I'll get back to you after this season of Chop/Stick...
What is your next project?
M: I'd need a crystal ball or a medium to answer that.
J: (looks worried then faints)