In late 2021, Jenny Zhou received an unexpected call – the script she’d been workshopping would become an MTC main stage production. “I was shocked,” she says. “I had no idea it was going to go on stage, so I was overcome with joy and surprise.”
Prior to the phone call, Zhou, alongside several talented Asian actors, had been invited to read the script of Laurinda, an adaptation of Alice Pung’s coming-of-age novel that follows Lucy Lam, a working-class child from a Chinese family who wins the inaugural equal access scholarship to a prestigious private school. Lam finds herself in an unfamiliar world of wealth and privilege overseen by The Cabinet, a trio of mean girls who rule the school – teachers included.
Zhou says she loved the script development process – sharing stories and ideas with fellow actors and the writers honing the script – but never imagined she’d end up delivering her own lines in front of an audience.
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Part of her surprise stems from Laurinda’s broad appeal beyond regular theatregoing audiences. The production’s all-Asian cast showcases the depth of Asian talent in Australia.
“It plays to the high schoolers, the people who like art, the people who like performing, but also the wider Asian community, and also, in particular, the Vietnamese-Australian community,” she says. “This might be the first time someone is coming to MTC to watch a play, so it’s their first chapter in their theatrical journey.”
Zhou returned to Melbourne during the Covid-19 pandemic after spending six years in Shanghai, where she studied performing arts and worked as an actor, presenter and DJ. She worked with director Petra Kalive, writer Diana Nguyen and movement director Xanthe Beesley to develop all three on-stage personas she depicts in the show: Tully, Lucy’s classmate who misses out on a scholarship; Chelsea, a member of The Cabinet; and Mrs Newberry, a private school mother.
Zhou relied on nuances like the pitch of her voice and the way she moves her body to transform into each of the three characters onstage. “[You] think of how your character will carry themselves, whether they walk and lead with their hips or their nose, where they carry their weight,” she says.
While the stage adaptation is mostly faithful to the novel, there are a few differences. The book is set in the 1990s, which required “changing specific words and conversations to be more relevant to the 2020s”, says Zhou. “It is daunting because it is a very well-loved novel by a very well-loved author – we really do hope we honoured the book and the characters.”
Zhou made the conscious decision not to read the entire book until the production ends. “I’ve just read sections where my characters appeared,” she says. “I didn’t want to keep referencing the book because I wanted to honour the screenwriting as it was.”
Zhou’s childhood in Melbourne meant she found plenty to relate to in the play. The blazer Lucy must wear to her new school costs $225 – a prohibitively expensive sum for her family. “I remember when I was a scholarship girl and I went to this new prestigious school, the blazers were so expensive we got mine second-hand,” she says. “I was the only girl in that year level with a different blazer because the year I entered, they changed the logo for the school. It was blatantly obvious I was the second-hand scholarship kid.”
While there’s a lot of laughter, the play is not entirely lighthearted. “I hope [the audience also] feels uncomfortable, because it does deal with quite a few sensitive topics,” says Zhou. “For high schoolers coming in, especially people of colour, those who went to private girls’ schools or even selective schools, I hope they can see a little bit of their own journey in it.”
Laurinda takes to the stage at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, from August 6. Broadsheet readers are eligible for 25% off tickets in A-Reserve or B-Reserve. Use promo code BROADSHEET25 then select tickets in A-Reserve or B-Reserve. The discount will be applied to your cart. Offer valid for up to 4 tickets per transaction and subject to availability.
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