Ming-Zhu Hii, photo: Pier Carthew

Alumni Post: Director & Producer Ming-Zhu Hii

In our guest post series, we invite alumni, staff and current students to reflect on their time with the VCA. This week director and producer Ming-Zhu Hii, reflects on her time as a student in the early 2000s.

About Ming-Zhu Hii

Ming-Zhu Hii (BDram, 2002) is an interdisciplinary maker, director and producer, working across theatre, performance, film, video and installation, as well as being a practicing actor and voiceover artist.

She has worked with major companies and festivals such as the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Malthouse and Playbox, and both the Melbourne and Adelaide international Arts Festivals, as well as across multiple film and television projects.

She co-directs the independent company The Public Studio, has launched and run several businesses, and was recently the founding events producer at Dumbo Feather magazine.

Her work at The Public Studio can be found at http://thepublicstudio.net. Ming-Zhu writes critical responses to creative work and practice at http://mingzhuhii.net.

'Attract/Repel' (2009) pictured: Terry Yeboah & Jing-Xuan Chan, photograph: Naomi Wong
‘Attract/Repel’ (2009) pictured: Terry Yeboah & Jing-Xuan Chan, photograph: Naomi Wong

Ming-Zhu’s reflection

I was the youngest in my class by a mile – highly impressionable – with practically zero life experience. I’d just finished high school, and I’d turned 18 about two weeks before the beginning of first year. I was knocked for six a bit by the social realities of drama school and by my baptism by fire into adulthood. I did all my growing up in the studio.

So, the life and maturity hurdle was one thing, and I struggled a lot. I repeated second year, because my awkwardness made me so self-conscious on the rehearsal room floor that I was constantly freezing up like a deer in headlights.

But artistically, it was a revelation. And truthfully, I couldn’t be more grateful for having had the opportunity to repeat. It meant I got to be in training for a year longer, which is a gift I’d accept again 10 times over.

I trained under Lindy Davies who remains for me, to this day, a genuine touchstone of inspiration. I remember in one of our first classes with her, she put this one, single question to us: “How shall you live?” She instilled in us again and again that as artists we had to live in the world, but not be of the world. The School of Drama – I later found out from visual art students –  was nicknamed “The Monastery”. Which I thought was hilarious, partly because it felt utterly true at the time.

We turned up every day and washed the floors with cold water. We meditated. We breathed. We worked. Hard. I was truly devoted to my practice there – as much as I struggled with it. It was a little like a religious experience. There was the ecstasy and communion in being exposed to some phenomenal international performance practice – in the true privilege we had in studying this stuff with some of theatre’s most brilliant minds – and there was the slog. The rigour. The chop-wood-carry-water discipline of the work. Both were indispensible elements of the training.

In my first year, I was introduced to the work of Heiner Müller, Romeo Castellucci, Pina Bausch, Howard Barker and Tadeusz Kantor – all artists whose work I continue to draw insight from today – and also the very exacting performance practices of Robert Draffin, Richard Murphet, Leisa Shelton and Lindy Davies. When you’re a kid eating these things whole, you’re putting quality meat on your bones.

Y. (2006) pictured: Ming-Zhu Hii, photography: Bronwyn Pringle
Y. (2006) pictured: Ming-Zhu Hii, photography: Bronwyn Pringle

I started making my own work, and writing about the work both in 2006, because I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the projects I was engaging with as an actor. I realised I had aesthetic, political, performative and practice-based questions that I needed to explore more deeply and holistically, and very independently.

I’ve now got this really lovely balance of being a maker (performance, film and theatre), and a jobbing actor. I’m not driven to perform in the way that many actors I know are – but I am hugely hungry to make work and explore aesthetic and social ideas – I think I always will be, no matter what happens.

Writing about the work for me, is a core element of practice. I’ve been doing it on and off for about six years now, and it keeps me both sane and stretching. It helps me to clarify why I respond to work I see in the way that I do, and moreover what this means for my own process as a maker. It’s taught me that art making is complex, personal, big. It demands of us unflinching honesty and perpetual questioning. It’s something that we need to be humble and radically vulnerable in the face of.

These, of course, were ideas that the VCA laid the foundations of for me from the very beginning. And in truth – a lot of the time it feels like I never actually left drama school. There quite literally isn’t a day that passes where I don’t draw on my extremely formative time there. The lessons came thick and fast and are an unshakeable part of me now.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.