Interview: Jem Lai (Single Ladies)
“Ya used to get mugged around here. In the 70s, and the 80s. Even into the 90s. All types. The Aboriginals. The Serbians. Punks. Skips. You’d just punch on. People were tough around here. People were surviving.”
Set in the sanitised grunge of Collingwood, Single Ladies is a buddy story of lone women in the city told over the course of a day, from the award-winning writer of Going Down and Rice.
Anne, Lilike and Rachel are from different generations and backgrounds and hold different allegiances to their neighbourhood, but a chance happening outside Coles sets them on the path to an improbable friendship.
To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?
I'm working on Single Ladies at Redstitch. I'm an actor, playing a character called Rachel.
What drew you to this show and why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?
What I love about this show is how fascinating and truthful the characters are. People are super weird, all the time. When you watch people in public spaces you notice them doing all sorts of beautiful and strange things. I think this show highlights this in a hillarious and fun way.
I think it's a wonderful time to bring this story to the stage. It explores what our responsibility to strangers is, as well as just our responsibility to our fellow humans in general. And how these ideas intersect with widespread loneliness. It reminds us that even though we all have differences, we also all have our own reasons for our actions. No one is trying to be the 'bad guy,' or the 'lazy person.' You never know what someone else is going through, or has gone through.
What has the experience been like working on this show? What has been unique about this show and your process in comparison to other shows you have worked on?
This experience has been genuinely wonderful. Thanks to our director Bagryana Popov, the cast and crew, it's felt like one of the safest and most collaborative work spaces that I've been a part of. The script has still got us laughing 6 weeks into rehearsing, there are so many great hidden nuggets in Michele's work.
What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?
Audiences can look forward to lots of laughs and fascinating characters.
What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?
I've loved mining the comedy and accidentally stumbling on some very touching moments.
Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?
The discussion of gentrification and people that are towards the edges of society, it's so so important. This play has taught me a lot about these things. Michele deals with the topic in such a truthful and funny way.
When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process in approaching a new work?
When first working on a new project, I really enjoy finding everything in the script that is said about my character. Whether it's said by my character or by another character. This helps me form a rough idea of who they are. Then I love to do background research, what there day to day life would be like to experience. Also who in my life they remind me of, and what sorts of things these people are motivated by.
What is a common misconception that people have about your role in the production?
I think a lot of people will see Rachel as weak. Which is a huge misconception. She's definitely emotionally sensitive, but she's also incredibly lonely and she doesn't really know where she's going to live next. As well as some other things that I won't spoil. I think emotional sensitivity is often a huge strength rather that a weakness.
What has the rehearsal process been like in bringing this story to life? By the time audiences see this show on stage, what has gone into making it happen?
The rehearsal process has been busy and very detail orientated. The humour in this show is very much in the details and the sincerity of each character. So we've probably gone over these scenes 30+ times each as well as figured out a whole bunch of technical things. Yesterday we were working out scene transitions, down to each second of movement and sound.
Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?
Ooo, no I don't currently have any opening night rituals, but this makes me think I should start some. My mum sends me photos of fancy chickens to say, 'chookas' whenever I'm opening a show.
What is something that you take away from each show that you work on? Do you feel like you take a piece of the production with you each time?
I definitely learn lots about myself and humans whenever I play a new character. I take these things with me after a show. I enjoy this immensely, one of the great things about being an actor is getting lots of different perspectives on fun ways to live life.
When was the turning point for you when you realised that theatre was not just a hobby but a passion? How did you go about making it your career and is there any one show that you can attribute this to?
In year 10 I got called up to be a volunteer in a performance. I played Juliet in a contemporary version of the play and did some krumping in front of all of my class mates. I had so much fun I realised I wanted to do it forever.
My career is very much at its beginnings. But I think something that helped me was getting to do Bell Shakespeare's education tour. It was performing for kids, three times a day. Some of the best and worst audiences I think I'll ever have. It was like doing a second round of drama school.
Across your work, is there one story, thought or theme that keeps you interested in continuing to create? What stories do you find yourself drawn to the most?
I think at the moment I'm most drawn to stories with characters that are commonly misunderstood. Whether it's because of their appearance or socio-economic standing or whatever, I find unraveling these stories to an audience the most satisfying.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your acting bucket list?
Look honestly this play has been freaking amazing. But a different highlight would be a one night show I did with arts house and Michele Lee. It was about pandemics, we put it all together in a week and it was hillarious. There was also a panel of real life experts which I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with as a fictional character.
Still on my bucket list is to perform professionally overseas and to finish writing my own play.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?
The best advice I've gotten is from an old housemate of mine. She said something like, 'time spent day dreaming is really important. Just letting yourself drift off sometimes. And you have to make sure you make those day dreams a reality at some point.'
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
What is your favourite production you have ever seen?
Chorus at the Old Fitz in Sydney.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?
Portugal, I've heard the people are super friendly and the food is awesome.
What is your dream show to work on?
To be honest, something that I wrote. Because I love theatre-making.
What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I love walking with friends.
What’s next for you after this show?
A wonderful little show I can't talk about yet. But I'm also starting a masters of social policy! Super part time so I can keep acting.
Single Ladies opens at Red Stitch Theatre on March 18, 2020. You can get your tickets here.