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Young performers explore issues of identity and belonging

Burnaby teenager explores the gulf between personal identity and family expectations in a new production, Away With Home
AWAY With Home, Kevin Nguyen, Miscellaneous Productions
Burnaby’s Kevin Nguyen, centre, with (from left) Zefanya Hardhian, Lucy Luo, Arjun Panesar and Lennox Johnston-Yu in Miscellaneous Productions’ Away With Home.

It was one of the hardest nights of Kevin Nguyen’s life: the night he sat down to tell his parents he wanted to pursue a career in theatre.

Given their choice, Nguyen says, they’d pick a much more traditional and stable profession: doctor, engineer lawyer – anything where he’d actually make money.

The 17-year-old gets that his parents don’t see life the way he does. He even gets why. He’s a Canadian-born kid who went to school in Burnaby. His parents are first-generation Canadians who escaped the Vietnam War.

“We both can’t understand each other’s side,” he says.

That struggle between his background and his future, between his identity and his parents’ vision, is fuelling Nguyen in a new theatre endeavour – as part of the youth cast for Away With Home, a MISCELLANEOUS Productions presentation that’s onstage at the Scotiabank Dance Centre’s studio theatre next weekend.

MISCELLANEOUS Productions is a hip hop theatre boot camp for youth that presents an original theatrical work every two years, with a cast made up of youth drawing from their own experiences. For this production, the five youth (aged 14 to 21) are exploring their own experiences of identity and belonging, covering issues such as immigration, racism, mental health, bullying and family.

Each youth has a monologue within the show.

“Each person who is speaking, they’ve written all the words for themselves,” Nguyen notes. “We all have personal stories about how we’ve struggled to find ourselves in this changing society.”

The subject matter varies. Some deal with moving to new countries and finding a place in a new society; others talk about bullying or mental health issues.

Nguyen’s monologue zeroes in on the gulf between his own desires and his parents’ expectations. Delving into his own personal truth, he says, was both frightening and rewarding.

“It’s definitely a tough thing to do every time, but that really is what fuels my need to be on stage, to speak this out, because it’s different when I sit down and talk with my parents versus when I’m just expressing myself onstage,” he says. “I get to say whatever I want onstage, versus when I’m talking with my parents I have to be a bit more careful.”

The young cast members also team up for group dance and performance numbers in the show. The multidisciplinary work combines contemporary and hip hop dance, neo-soul and hip hop music, Taiko drumming, performance art and performance poetry.

The teens were chosen for the project after initial auditions last October. The rehearsal process since then has been an intensive learning experience, with some of Vancouver’s top professionals teaching the young participants every aspect of performance.

“I expected fun. I got a lot of really great training,” Nguyen says.

Nguyen has a background in singing and acting. He’s been a high school choral singer and is now singing tenor with Aurora Chamber Choir, and he was active in Burnaby Central Secondary’s drama program until his graduation last year.

But dance? Not so much.

“I’ve never danced a day in my life,” he says with a laugh. “I remember my audition process was not fun with that.”

But he says participating in the project has brought out the best in him and the other performers.

“I’ve learned so much more about dancing, singing and acting. They go at a really good pace to make sure no one gets left behind,” he says. “This program is like amazing. They can transform these kids into awesome performance artists.”

He’s happy to be taking his newly honed skills into the Studio 58 theatre program at Langara College starting in January.

But he admits he’s still nervous – particularly about the fact that his parents will hear his monologue for the first time when the show hits the stage this weekend.

“It’ll be a shock to them,” he admits. “I am always scared to death when they come to my performances. For them, they’re still coming to terms with me wanting to be an artist, but in my mind, the only way they’ll accept that is if I’m the best. Obviously, I’m not the best, but I have to do my best.”

Nguyen hopes that by telling his story, and following his dream, he can help other young people find their own way.

“Whenever I look at other Asian media artists, I always get inspired,” he says. “I really hope that maybe one day, I could be like an idol to someone, and they could see that it’s possible. It’s not impossible. It’s only possible if you try, though.”

And he also wants to make sure other teens – and parents – hear the truth he has come to understand even more deeply over this past year.

“I think that everyone should know that arts are as important as any academics out there, because arts teaches you to accept yourself when no one else will.”



What: Away With Home, a MISCELLANEOUS Productions presentation

When: Friday, Sept. 27 and Saturday, Sept. 28 at 8 p.m.

Where: Scotiabank Dance Centre Faris Family Studio Theatre, 677 Davie St., Vancouver

Tickets: $12 in advance through; $15 (cash only) at the door