Stories about the human condition

Mark Brook

William Yang doesn’t like action films. He says he prefers a storyline that speaks of the human condition. His renowned photography, documenting Sydney’s celebrity and gay party scene in the 1970s, is evidence of this. “Anyone can tell a story,” William says. “I’ve been storytelling in the theatre for 20 years.”

William and his creative partner, Annette Shun Wah, co-curated the performance piece, Stories Then and Now. “In Stories Then and Now, we are encouraging people to be not so mono-cultural, but to embrace the diversity of other cultures,” he says.

Stories Then and Now brings together six Asian-Australians who tell stories in a candid, personal way, from the past to the present. The stories speak of the challenges of finding a way in contemporary Australia. “We’re promoting Asian performance. So we’ve got people from different parts of Asia to create a more diverse mix,” William says.

This storytelling event is illustrated by photography, showing personal family photographs of parents and grandparents. And with the images, it’s a very direct communication with an audience. It’s more vivid because of the images.”

Canadian-born photographer Grant Buchwald’s evocative image entitled Chinatown Dancers. He lived in Tokyo for 12 before moving to Shanghai in 2006.

Canadian-born photographer Grant Buchwald’s evocative image entitled Chinatown Dancers. He lived in Tokyo for 12 before moving to Shanghai in 2006.

The event evolved out of a workshop. “Before Stories Then and Now, we had quite a successful event called Stories East and West, both of which grew out of a workshop. The workshop was fairly simple in structure. Each of the storytellers had a different story to tell. Each story had its own progression, and each was riveting.

We’ve used the same format for Stories Then and Now. We’ve got six storytellers telling stories about the past. And then later they each tell a story about the future. I couldn’t believe that we had stumbled upon this perfect structure.

We don’t use professional actors,” William says. “People tell us it’s more authentic to use people who aren’t slick performers, they’re just people telling their own story. I think it’s a perfect formula, it’s very simple.”

We’re very pleased to be included in an event at the Writers’ Festival because, as it happens, the Festival’s theme is storytelling. We fit in perfectly,” William says. “And in some ways, we’re reaching out to people who would be interested in coming to hear our stories because it is form of writing. It’s a specialised form of writing; it’s prose meant to be spoken.”

Marriage celebrant Willa Zheng’s parents as a young couple (right)

Marriage celebrant Willa Zheng’s parents as a young couple (right)

Stories Then and Now touches on societal acceptance; it is something William understands. He says that, being Chinese-Australian, has not been easy, especially when he was a child. “I felt like an outsider, that I was different. Yes, it has been difficult but I was never harmed or grossly maligned,” he says. “I suppose I most strongly identify with being Western but because of the way I look and because of my past history, I can claim China or Asia as part of my cultural heritage.

I’ve kind of learned to claim my Chinese heritage. It’s a thing I had to actively find. I suppose it is the basis of Stories Then and Now. It’s about re-education, broadening people’s minds, to open people up to different realisations.”

William says his evolution to becoming a performance artist was a slow one. “I did have a background in theatre, because I’d written plays when I was at Queensland University. And in the 80s, I started projecting my slide images with music. This was partly because it was so expensive to colour print at the time. So it was much easier to show my work by projection. And so I started talking with them.

His frank, poetic monologues are about significant periods and events in his life. “It’s a strange form,” he says. “It’s similar to motion film except the image is still. And a still image can be examined like a painting in a gallery.

Identity is a very complex thing,” William says. “It’s not really the result of one or two things. That’s probably the focal message in the stories. It deals with the issue of being a hybrid person. The storytellers in Stories Then and Now tell a narrative illustrated by photography, and the formula works really well,” he says.

Stories Then and Now captures the stories of six Asian Australian families. Directed by William Yang and Annette Shun Wah. Presented by Carriageworks and Performance 4a. May 25, 7-8.30pm, Carriageworks