Once an actress, then a director as well as an artistic director of her own theatre company (The Melbourne Town Players), and now a playwright, Ming-Zhu Hii possesses a strong commitment to Melbourne’s independent theatre market. Anna Lozynski interviewed the multi-talented and energetic Melbourne-ite about her latest work, Small Movements for Three Actors, which forms part of the triple bill entitled Aviary, performed by the Branch Theatre Company at La Mama.

Ming-Zhu HiiHow did you come to be involved in this unique theatrical concept, engineered by Melanie Beddie?
Melanie and I have collaborated in various capacities in the last couple of years. I first worked with Melanie as an actor in Stephen Sewell’s Traitors staged at The Carlton Courthouse. Mel's tenacious directing energy, clear aesthetic and passion for text had me amazed. The work itself was incredibly successful.

Almost immediately after that piece, I asked Melanie to informally mentor my transition from actor to theatre maker. In 2007, the Spark mentorship program (which was then created under the auspices of OzCo and Youth Arts Queensland, but unfortunately no longer exists) allowed me to undergo a rigorous and detailed development of a new, installed work, under Melanie's guidance.

Melanie approached me recently with the offer of a commission as a writer for what was then referred to as 'a design-provoked theatre project at La Mama', and thus began the Aviary collaboration.

What can the audience expect to take away from the work?
The three pieces are incredibly different, and yet they all also draw together in a strange and haunting way. Interestingly, each of the plays deals with the fragility of the human condition, in relation to the other, and strangely, also in relation to the natural world.

When writing my limb of the work, I felt a strong sense of connectedness between the tenderness of humanity, and the frailty of the disintegrating environment we inhabit. The effect of global warming, living in cities, and a tenuous connection to nature, as well as the destruction of the land as we know it, all have profound effects on our inner psyche than we can ever consciously realise.

How did the creative team arrive at naming the play as it has done?
It wasn't an easy process! Designer, Daryl Cordell had the final idea. All three pieces featured strong references to birds, and were in a way all referencing ideas of humans who had limited their own capacity to expand their personal worlds. Enter the self-imposed aviary motif. Dan Giovannoni's piece, Edmund and Grace, actually places the physical image of the bird onstage, which is quite challenging and emotionally confronting for the audience.

To what extent did you consult with the other two playwrights, Dan Giovannoni and Anna Barnes in framing your own work?
The writing process was entirely separate. We did come together to witness all three works being read by the actors at a couple of points in the script development phase.

I tend to work in quite a fractured and intuitive way as a theatre maker, and prefer to expand before I contract. At a point, I was required to significantly reign in my piece, Small Movements for Three Actors, to make room for narrative cohesion between the three pieces, which was challenging.

Which scene in your play was most difficult to write? Why?
The hardest thing for me was assigning characters and through-line, so to speak. Certainly, some scenes flowed more easily than others; that is, at some points I was closer to hitting the 'sweet spot', when you write and there's nothing else there but the words stream from under your fingers.

How long did it take you to write this work?
This question is not as straightforward as it appears. I wrote about six different versions before arriving at what would eventually become the piece that is a part of Aviary. In total, that took me at least a good six months. However, the script has evolved, as it is worked out on the floor. That is, 'blocking' is in and of itself a component of the writing process. My personal 'text' development process doesn't end when I leave Officeworks with a pile of photocopied scripts under my arm. The process of writing ends on closing night, and sometimes not even then.

Which musical piece best represents the messages you wish to convey in Small Movements?
Für Alina by Arvo Pärt.

Tell us about an amusing moment during rehearsals.
I have a good chuckle every time I watch Anna Barnes' piece, Revelation or Bust, and HaiHa Le riffs on how her character wanted to join the Jewish Religious Education class when she was at school, because "they got to eat doughnuts".

What did the performers find most challenging about the work during rehearsals?
Working on three entirely distinct plays would be an enormous challenge. Irrespective of their actual running-times, the requirement of flipping between worlds in a focused manner is demanding. Artistically it's a massive workout, and fairly unforgiving, especially given the thematic concepts and emotional places.

What you have learned from being involved in this collaboration?
That it is not easy to have one’s script subjected to the dramaturgical and directorial process. Melanie Beddie gave me the opportunity to get stuck into the work on the floor with the actors, to allow me to learn how the story needs to be laid out on the page, rhythmically interpreted and for the images to be clear. I have discovered that at this stage in my work I am much more interested in 'scoring' than 'scripting'. This may change as my work develops, but at this stage is a thrilling revelation about my creative process.

Aviary by Branch Theatre Company is now playing at La Mama Theatre. Until August 2. Further details»

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