Growing up Asian-Australian in Queensland during the first wave of Pauline Hanson’s hate, renaissance man and The Family Law creator Benjamin Law had to latch onto pop culture fragments from overseas to see reflections of himself. Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, about Chinese-American families in San Francisco, and Zhang Yhimou movies like Raise the Red Lantern were touchstones.
“I grew up in really white part of Australia,” Law says.
“Television and popular culture was all white, arguably still predominantly is, so I just thought the Asian-Australian community was really small. I had no idea how big it actually was. I guess that’s the weird thing when you don’t see yourself. It’s a slightly deforming, disorientating experience."
If Law’s sense of the broader Asian-Australian community was shaky, he also had to figure out his queer identity piecemeal. “My real outlet for that sort of stuff was watching Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes films on SBS and not quite understanding what I was seeing. When you’re so desperate for that sort of stuff in the pre-internet pornography era, the good thing is you become very arthouse-literate. I didn’t have Love, Simon or Glee, but I had really gritty, intense representations of homosexuality.”
If Law’s sense of the broader Asian-Australian community was shaky, he also had to figure out his queer identity piecemeal.
Law's multi-platform writing endeavours seem like a one-man corrective. Having already adapted his bestselling memoir The Family Law into the beloved SBS show, he now adds playwright to his bio. Torch the Place, commissioned by Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program and presented as part of Asia-Pacific cultural festival Asia TOPA, centres on his fascination with compulsive hoarders. The sort of folks who’d give Marie Kondo nightmares.
Diana Lin (The Family Law, The Farewell) stars as a mum whose overstuffed house has become a death-trap. Her kids – played by The Family Law co-star Fiona Choi, Michelle Lim Davidson (Utopia) and Charles Wu (Doctor Doctor) – stage an intervention on the occasion of her 60th birthday, but end up uncovering more than a Princess Diana doll and a Mulan VHS.
“It’s a play about mental health, capitalism and real estate, all the things that make a great comedy,” Law laughs.
The voracious appetite for stories of his real-life mother Jenny, something of a celebrity in her own right, played a huge part in Law finding his way to words. “We grew up watching Asian cinema and [Pedro] Almodóvar on SBS as well as Home & Away and Gladiator,” he recalls. “She, and therefore we, did not distinguish between high and low culture.”
Once he realised his dream of joining the cast of Home & Away was unlikely, his letter-writing crusade to the editor of Australian Rolling Stone set him on a different path. With one of his critical missives making letter of the month, he was awarded with a Panasonic stereo. As one of five kids who didn’t have much to call their own, it was a huge deal. “I just thought, ‘wow, writing is so well paid. I’m definitely going to stick to that’.”
As one of five kids who didn’t have much to call their own, it was a huge deal. “I just thought, ‘wow, writing is so well paid. I’m definitely going to stick to that’.”
Law’s only half-joking when he says the reason he has been so, “disgustingly promiscuous,” working across disciplines was born of necessity. “I didn’t have any illusions that it was going to be handed to me on a platter. I also knew that there was no such thing as a stable job in writing, so I had to have other skillsets under my belt.”
Studying postgrad screenwriting at QUT, he never expected that to one day lead to The Family Law, or in turn onto Torch the Place. “Every time I step into a new project, I’m usually the dumbest person in the room,” he insists. “That’s not even a sledge of myself. Objectively speaking, writing this play, I’d literally never done theatre before. When I stepped into the writers’ room for The Family Law, I hadn’t worked in the screen industry. But all of these things are a great education, and they speak to each other.”
He compares the similarities and distinct differences to sporting endeavour. “If you’re a triathlete who’s about to go into a gymnastics competition, you don’t have the right muscles built up. I’ve got general fitness, but I don’t know what the **** I’m doing. And then you learn.”
He loves the all-in nature of theatre. “TV has to be a bit of a machine. So as a screenwriter who’s not a producer, I write the script, liaise with the producers and then I’m gone. But with theatre, we’re all in it from almost day one, which is absolutely terrifying for the playwright. It’s so exposing for actors to already be talking about your work when you’re like, ‘it’s not ready yet’.”
The more collaborative nature is exhilarating, and Law’s proud to be part of a team, alongside director Dean Bryant, that put a 100% Asian-Australian cast on the oldest main stage in the country. “That’s still a relatively new thing in theatre that thankfully we’re seeing more of,” he says, pointing to his sister Michelle (Single Asian Female), Anchuli Felicia King (White Pearl) and Torch the Place associate director Margot Tanjutco.
“Every time I step into a new project, I’m usually the dumbest person in the room”
Chuckling, he suggests that, just as queer stories are moving beyond purely coming-out narratives and homophobic trauma, he wants to see a broader range of Asian-Australian stories on our stages and screens. “The richness of our Caucasian Australian storytelling tradition runs deep, and I’m just trying to contribute to the same richness within Asian Australian storytelling.”
That includes his onstage appearance in another Asia TOPA Highlight, Double Delicious at both the Geelong Arts Centre and the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. Debuting at the Sydney Festival, it sees him join Asian-Australian celebrity chefs Elizabeth Chong and Heather Jeong, plus performers Valerie Berry and Raghav Handa, in sharing the secrets of significant dishes in their life. Food is, after all, a great cultural leveller, I suggest. Law agrees. “If you want to access people, feed the f*** out of them. We nourish you with our stories, and just literally with calories.”
Stephen Russell is a freelance writer. You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @SARussellwords.