Beng in New York City

Alumni Q&A: Director Beng Oh

In our guest post series, we invite alumni, staff and current students to reflect on their time with the VCA. This week alumnus and director Beng Oh tells us about his recent time in New York at the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab.

About Beng Oh

Beng Oh (GDipDramArt(Direction), 1997) is a Melbourne-based Asian Australian director who has staged a wide range of productions including new Australian plays, comedies, experimental works, musicals and opera.

He has directed plays by John Patrick Shanley, Paula Vogel, Peter Handke, Heiner Müller, Ann Jellicoe, Frank Wedekind, Gertrude Stein, Howard Barker and Arthur Schnitzler among others.

Productions include Dr Faustus/Lights the Lights by Christopher Marlowe and Gertrude Stein for Ballarat University’s Arts Academy; the Australian premiere of Tom Fool (aka Mensch Meier) by Franz Xaver Kroetz; a Green Room Award nominated production of Porcelain by Chay Yew; and the premiere of Happily Ever After by Jane Miller at La Mama.

He completed post-graduate directing at the Victorian College of the Arts and is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater’s Directors Lab.

Short bio

Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts I’ve staged a wide variety of productions including new Australian plays, comedies, experimental works, musicals and operas. As a freelance director I get to work with a range of theatre companies and organisations including local councils and universities.

Can you provide us with a background of yourself?

I was born in Penang Island, Malaysia and came to Australia at age 17. I’m a qualified solicitor and worked for a few years with the Transport Accident Commission. I gave up the law, went to the Victorian College of the Arts and have been working as a freelance director since.

Why did you arrive in New York (how did you get involved with the  Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab)?

The Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York is a unique program for stage directors that’s been running for 18 years now. The Lab explores a new topic each year and basically reinvents itself but at its heart it’s a series of workshops, readings, rehearsals, investigations and discussions over an intensive three-week period. This year we were focusing on Comedy and there were directors from 21 countries. There’s nothing like it in Australia and I was keen to participate. The Lab is free but you do need to apply, which I did in February of this year and found myself in New York in July.

Beng in New York City
Beng in New York City with fellow directors Ethan Lin (Taiwan) and Paul Nicholas (New Jersey).

What did you learn from your experiences there? Tell us about your trip / any highlights.

Just being in New York and working at the Lincoln Center Theater complex itself was a buzz, likewise getting the opportunity to meet and mingle with directors from around the world. I also learnt from watching other directors at work, something which is rare, in my experience.

Do you think your time in New York has influenced your work?

Yes. I no longer feel like I’m working in isolation or within a relatively small pond in a distant part of the world. I gained a new perspective on my own work.

What are you currently working on?

I’m in pre-production for three plays for 2013. I’m dramaturg for Little Dances a Comedy Festival show. I’m also directing True Love Travels on a Gravel Road by Jane Miller, a new Australian play that’s on at FortyFive Downstairs in May, and Mein Kampf, George Tabori’s incredible and very funny farce for La Mama in July-August. It’s interesting in that they’re all comic works

What’s an average day like for you?

It depends whether I’m in rehearsals. If not, I’ll be at my casual job typing transcripts. Over and above that though as I’m in pre-production there’s a lot of work to be done:  casting, shooting trailers, writing grant submissions, raising funds, putting together a creative team, script dramaturgy, photo shoots and meetings with publicists and designers.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an artist these days?

Keeping yourself together, making a living from it and persisting with your art.

And what’s the most rewarding?

When you see a project that you’ve worked on, sometimes for years, finally come to life in front of an audience.

Can you provide us with a career highlight/achievement

Premiering Chay Yew’s play Porcelain in Australia. It’s a script that first came to my attention in the 90s but I put aside for many years until I met the right actor, Keith Brockett. It’s a remarkable piece of writing about a young Asian man who shoots and kills his male white lover in a toilet block. I directed it simply with the five actors (who play multiple characters) sitting on chairs the whole time. It struck a chord with audiences and we played to packed houses, had return seasons and toured. It was very much the right play with the right cast at the right time.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Read, play video games, watch theatre and cook.

Why did you choose to study at the VCA?

I wanted to consolidate the work that I had been doing as a director and the postgraduate course was exactly what I needed. The VCA also has an excellent reputation and I wanted to go there.

Can you tell us about your favourite VCA memory?

Deconstructing Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. I worked intensely with two actors, who are still close friends. We tore the script apart and put it back together again. We had a cycle happening of rehearsals, wine, discussion, writing and back again the next day for more rehearsals. The results were beautiful. No piece of theatre is perfect but that’s the closest I’ve come.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

I started creating theatre because no-one else around me was doing plays that I wanted to see or work that I found interesting. I’ve stayed in theatre as a director because I think it suits my temperament and I find it fulfilling. I like people and I like working with performers.

What advice would you give to students who want to pursue a career in your field?

Infiltrate. Seize every opportunity to see how different theatre companies operate and to meet the people who work in them. Get yourself into as many rehearsal rooms as you can, both here in Australia and overseas.

What are your goals for the next few years?

More travel. Thanks to the Lab there are opportunities for collaborations internationally that I’d like to pursue. I’m also bothered by the lack of diversity on the Australian stage and I want to do something about that.

If people want to know more about you, where should they look? i.e. weblinks etc…

I’ve been extremely slack about getting my own web site at www.bengoh.com up and running. I hope to get it done by the end of the year. In the meantime Google is actually pretty good, as there aren’t many other directors called Beng Oh.

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