“Hi so nice to meet you!”
“Thank you for coming!”
“Hey, how are you!”
“Hi, hello, hey man!”
An uproar of greetings come from all around the Kaleide theatre as performers proclaim their presence to us, the audience. Then the strangest thing happens, they turn their backs from us and huddle facing the walls. They murmur something in cohesion and then total silence falls upon us.
Studying the back of their heads and recovering from the unexpected loudness, audience members look towards each other in confusion. Once again, suddenly, the performers flip. An encore of “hello,” “how are you’s,” “thank you for coming,” and “so good to see you’s” resume.
This goes on until the group of performers trickle down the sides, meeting at centre stage.
Five minutes in and there is so much to unpack already. Is this a metaphor for international student’s public versus private lives? Is this how international students are usually greeted?
Whatever it may be, it is derailing. The questions that have suddenly risen, will remain unanswered throughout the show. Inviting us to actively pursue solutions.
This is the final segment of Be You Be Scene Stories at the Heart of Change (BYBS), a theatre production headed by over 500 international students and orchestrated by artistic director/adoptive mother to the performers, Catherine Simmonds. Standing alongside Catherine and the BYBS family, is ISANA Victoria & Tasmania, International Education Association Australia (IEAA), and Study Melbourne.
“This project is about using the language and ritual of theatre to connect students to their stories, to each other, and the wider community,” Catherine urges.
BYBS, is a multi-series exploration into international student life – the highs, the lows, and unspoken realities. From language barriers, separation and economic struggles, cultural disconnect, racism, sexuality, and mental health – BYBS addresses it all with equal parts hilarious absurdity and brutal honesty.
Act One “If I Tell You the Truth”
“Now you see me, now you don’t,” announces My Nguyền, her head poking out from the black curtains. She retracts and pokes out her head again.
The first act delves into the expectations and stigmas international students face. Some projected onto them by outward parties and others they perpetuate themselves.
“If I cry in front of my family they will worry. If I cry in front of you, will you laugh at me?”
Heran Chen in one sentence displays the emotional struggle international students often face but rarely speak of. The inability to cry or show any type of vulnerability in fear of ungratefulness weighs heavy.
These actresses and actors spill their personal experiences on stage for the full theatre to see, judge, dissect, and hopefully relate to. The 28 individuals performing in BYBS’s last show are a mix of domestic and international students. They all bear their own stories on stage, some experiences are common whilst others are unique to the individual telling them.
Chatting pre-show with Jacinta Smith, a Deakin University student who also works at Melbourne Polytechnic, she says “international students contribute so much to society, the challenges they face are not really ever addressed…it is really inspiring when you think about it.”
There’s a scene where an actress is curled under a table. Another where individuals unpack what it means to belong to the LGBTQI+ community. They explored the difficulty of relating that identity with their culture, and how they thought moving to Melbourne would cure it all.
Despite funny segments, such as Alfonso Gosal’s nightclub experience and deflated sexual expectations, a sombre reality becomes the punch line. Geographical relocation doesn’t solve problems.
For many international students coming from Asian cultures – moving to a Western society translates to hedonism and freedom. Although this may be a reality for few, it is certainly not for the majority. This expectation crumbles under the weight of academic pressures, difficulties melding with the host country, employability prospects, and economic realities.
ABC’s Four Corners did a good job at unpacking this in their ‘Cash Cow’ segment broadcasted last month.
As higher education’s largest income streams, the general well-being of international students is often overlooked. The advertised “Australian experience” never really attained.
Most international students have often been subject to stereotypes and stripped of their individual quirks, but BYBS tries to turn the tide. On this cold Melbourne evening, in RMIT’s small Kaleide theatre the performers are taking back their narrative.
Prejudices are broken down. The mind-numbing row of soulless questions: “what’s your name?” “Where are you from? “What course are you doing?” echoes repetitively.
These are the questions international students often feel define them, having replied to such questions on the regular.
The performers created a rhythm of pent up emotion which grew until the entire auditorium was just about ready to combust and then like great artists, defused it with comedy. The audience’s high blood pressure and accelerated heart rate return to an acceptable level.
Towards the tail end of the hour-long show though, the performers snapped.
“Stop asking boring questions, be interesting,” Maram Almazruii says.
“How do I fit into your question? Maybe I don’t fit with your answer,” Juliet Wong Min says.
For those well versed in the art of theatre – eight months to string together a script, choreography, and 28 unique stories is a mammoth task.
The show is not perfectly polished. There were some bumps on the production side of things, however, BYBS managed to do something big budget shows attempt and often fail at.
The show transcended the space.
Each performer, through their unfiltered storytelling, moved the audience in ways words struggle to encapsulate. What is evident by the end of the night is that giggles and sniffles resounded throughout the fully booked theatre where extra chairs even had to be brought in.
We all at some point in our lives feel alone in our struggles. Every scene tapped into this sensitive and unspoken vein. Not belonging to the label you’ve been assigned with, not being able to communicate how you really feel, and enhancing the “all is positive” part of your personality. Why? Because it is easier to digest and considerably less confronting than being honest with yourself or strangers.
Sunenna Bella Sharma, who has worked with Catherine before, exploring issues of gambling and domestic violence, says the show’s message was so “important.”
“It challenges me to think about how we as a society treat people and the prejudices that come with it…there was such a strong energy and I connected with it so much,” Sunenna said post-show.
In this concrete city, in this small safe space shared by performers and the audience, it was okay to be upset, angry, frustrated, boisterous, or vulnerable. The emotions that are so frequently ignored were finally liberated.
BYBS showed us that it was okay to let your suppressed struggles overflow. It is okay to cry – and cry we did.
Towards closing, Liang Yuan, with her history of being overlooked was hoisted up by her peers, stepping on their knees as leverage.
“Here I am standing on the shoulders of my giant!” she proclaims.
In response, the audience erupted in cheers, grins, and sobs.
BYBS spoke volumes to all underrepresented groups; what you are feeling is valid and you are not alone in your fight.
“You feel what you feel, there’s no right or wrong – it’s okay,” a chorus of 28 voices sing ending the night.
Photograph taken by Andrew Coulter
Proudly Funded by Study Melbourne
Presented by: ISANA: International Education Association
In Partnership with: RMIT University T & I , Monash College, RMIT Training, AFIS – Australian Federation of International Students
Artistic Director: Catherine Simmonds
To find out more about BYBS, contact:
Project Manager: Feifei Liao
Check out BYBS on:
Facebook Group: Be You Be Scene (Stories at the Heart of Change)