Louisa Phung decided to jump into the deep end with her theatrical directorial debut in this year's third installment of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.
She had already made several short films. And she had worked for nearly two decades as an assistant director in the film industry. So she was no rookie when it came to the challenges of production.
But live theatre, well, she hadn't been involved in this artform since studying stage management at Capilano College (now Capilano University).
Moreover, this show, Alan Bowne's 1980s-era dystopian Beirut, involved some nudity on-stage. That created some special challenges for her as a director.
"It's tastefully done," Phung tells the Straight by phone. "There's also profanity and violence. This is different and very risky."
Beirut focuses on a heterosexual love affair involving a New York man who's been forcefully quarantined in the midst of a pandemic. (The playwright, Bowne, died of complications from AIDS in 1989.)
Because of Beirut's intensity, Phung wanted to ensure that the cast members, Cesare Scarpone and Junita Thiessen, felt completely comfortable in their roles.
To accomplish this, Phung brought on an intimacy director, Phay Moores.
Phung explains that this position became more common in the film industry as a result of the #MeToo movement to ensure that actors don't feel exploited.
According to Phung, the intimacy director goes through various body exercises to assess the actors' comfort levels.
"There was an opportunity to say 'yes' and 'no' and be believed," she says.
The cast members are able to express if they're okay with their head, shoulders, arms, chest and other body parts being touched each day. They might say it's not comfortable to have someone else's hand on their stomach, but it's okay to touch their hips.
"It has definitely been a big learning curve in certain ways," Phung says. "Not in the way, so much, with the traditional acting and blocking stuff. It was more a trust-building with the cast and crew because of the content."
She adds that she chose Beirut for her directorial debut because it's such a visceral play. Plus, she was encouraged to do so by acting instructor Starlise Waschuk, who's the producer.
"It's one of those push-your-button shows that you don't really get to see very often," Phung says.
Short film shown at Edmonton festival
As the daughter of immigrant parents, Phung shares something in common with many of her fellow Vancouverites. Like many second-generation Canadians, she has worked exceptionally hard to succeed in her chosen career: the film and television industry.
As a second assistant director, she has piled up a long list of TV credits.
“I always loved directing,” Phung says. “And basically being in film, they were training me to direct—and paying me to do so as a trainee.”
One of her mentors was the late Kim Manners, whose credits include The X-Files, Supernatural, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Phung said
Manners helped give her the confidence to eventually start making her own short films during slow times in Hollywood North.
Her most recent film, “Hope and Grace”, premiered in early October at the Edmonton International Film Festival.
It’s loosely and partly based on her parents’ first six months in Canada after arriving as refugees from Vietnam in 1979.
“In the dead of night, my mother and my uncle were woken up and stuck on the back of a moped and taken to the airport,” Phung says.
“It’s not just my family story,” Phung adds of the film. “It’s other people’s stories as well.”
On the journey, her mother met her father. They wound up working on a farm in Malaysia. From there, her parents moved to a camp in Hong Kong.
“Canada was one of the first countries to say, ‘Yes, we’ll take refugees,’ ” Phung notes. “They jumped at the chance.”
Phung was born a year after they moved to Canada and she didn’t know much about this family history as a child. It was only in her 20s and 30s that she started to ask questions.
The family’s story was recently told in a book by her uncle, Andy Lieu, called My Children’s Horrific Journey to Freedom.
One of her earlier short films is the terrifying “Day Break”, which has become a Halloween favourite.
It won the “1 Minute Ultra Short” prize at the 2019 Vancouver Asian Film Festival.
“I’m on a bit of a hot streak right now,” Phung says with a laugh.