Interview with Summer Rolls author, Tuyen Do
Coincidence or inevitability? The first person I spoke to during the interval of Summer Rolls – a vivid, frequently humorous script centred on two generations of a Vietnamese refugee family – turned out to be one of playwright Tuyen Do’s six siblings.
While we were both queuing at the bar, he told me he was enjoying figuring out which characters were based on people he knew. He particularly singled out the wheeler-dealer Mr Dinh, who brings clothes for the recently-arrived family to sew on a piece-work basis and always seems to be reducing the pay rate. “I remember him, or someone very like him,” he commented.
When I spoke to Tuyen Do later on, I asked if she had been worried that people from her family or community might be upset if they recognized themselves.
Producer Tuyet van Huynh (left) and playwright Tuyen Do.
She worried about it a great deal, she says: “In fact, part of my journey was coming to peace with that possibility.” The play, she emphasizes, is very much fiction, and its characters are composites of people she knows or has heard about, not close portraits of any individual.
A seven-year rollercoaster ride
Despite her nervousness, she decided that if she didn’t write it, an important story would never be told.
“I just had to take the leap and hope it would all be okay. Plus, I wrote this play very much from a place of love for my own community, for my own family. And from a kind of awe about what our parents, our people had to go through in order to survive.”
Getting from first draft to stage has been a seven-year roller coaster ride. The original text had 11 characters, compared to the seven currently onstage in the Park90. Tuyen describes the original as funnier, much more superficial, and more directly from lived experience – “This is what my family would do, this is how they talk.”
The subject matter deepened as time passed and she learned more about her family history and the war. “The play became less about me and more about our story, she says.”
Finding time to work on the play became a challenge as Tuyen’s career extended to film and television, and to writing and directing. (She is also the mother of a little boy.) She makes a point of crediting several people who have supported the project in various ways over the past seven years as the roller coaster rose and fell.
One of the most important is Tuyet van Huynh, the play’s producer. Tuyen and Tuyet met in early 2018 at the National Theatre when Tuyen was cast in a lead role in Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave. Tuyet got in touch when she saw a Vietnamese name in the cast list (“There aren’t that many of us!” Tuyen laughs) and the two hit it off instantly.
The roller coaster gathers speed
At that point, Summer Rolls had stalled. “No one seemed to want it,” says Tuyen. But her new friend read the play and encouraged her to try again to find a venue. With very little hope, Tuyen sent the play to Park Theatre via its Submissions webpage, and was surprised and delighted to receive a phone call from Associate Artistic Director Melli Marie.
“Melli called me up and said the theatre wanted to programme it,” Tuyen recalls. “Her background is Ecuadorian, and she told me the script had completely resonated with her in terms of the trauma in the piece being passed down the generations.”
Personal reactions to scripts are crucial, says Tuyen, who is an experienced script reader for theatres herself. “There is a huge amount of luck,” she adds, “in terms of who actually reads a submitted script, the lens that they are reading from, and if they understand what you are trying to do. Not everyone will get it.”
After Melli’s offer, Tuyen immediately called Tuyet and asked if she would produce. “She was doing her Masters and had a fulltime job at the time, but luckily she said yes. Because the two of us felt so passionately about bringing the story to the community, it drove us to get it done.”
Getting it done included creating their own company, Van Thanh Productions. “It’s just the two of us,” she clarifies - no office, no secretarial backup. But a lot of ambition: scripts are pouring in, and the two have several projects planned for the future.
As the interview concludes, Tuyen again refers to the support she has had along the way. The arts aren’t usually a priority for immigrant communities, and certainly theatre was not on her radar when she was still in school. She hopes to inspire young southeast Asian artists “to give it a go,” because she is intensely aware that without other people’s support, Summer Rolls would probably still be in a drawer, unproduced.
(For further information: the online journal Resonate recently published a fascinating article, complete with video clips, about the production’s evolution, cast, and technical crew.)