Asian Ghost-ery Store

agsSteph has taken advantage of having a blog to interview her friend Vidya, who has a show, Asian Ghost-ery Store, starting this very week at Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

So today Steph and Vidya talk talcum powder, ambiguity, ghosts, and the comfort of the Asian grocery store.

The show blurb:

Raised in the aisles of Asian grocery stores, time has come for Shan and Yaya to escape — and haunt modern Australia. But how do a couple of ghosts conjure a stylish, post-racial image while stuffing their faces with Hello Panda? Shannan Lim and Vidya Rajan glide you through a late-night trolley ride of story, performance, sketch and meandering rumination. Part truthful, part ball of lies, Asian Ghost-ery Store is an exorcism — a dark yet gleeful shopping spree of their shared consciousness.

Steph has already seen the show once, when they took it to Melbourne Fringe Festival (Innovation in Cultural Practice Award). Since then Asian Ghost-ery Store has been performed at Crack Theatre Fest (Setting the Stages recipients), and Perth Fringe World Festival.

Steph: Where did the idea for Asian Ghost-ery Store come from? (Sorry! It’s important background info for the readers of No Award.)

Vidya: My least favourite question! I guess earlier last year I had just been thinking about identity and racism and representation in media and sketch comedy and improv a lot, and my place in it. And it all just came together, like a jolt. I jotted down the base structure of the show which has stayed pretty much the same, and wrote some of the pieces and listed some images I wanted to explore. Then Shannan and I got together and he brought some of his influences and we would improvise and tweak and write.

Steph: Has Asian Ghost-ery Store done what you wanted it to do?

Vidya: I didn’t anticipate what it would or wouldn’t do. I just wanted to do it, and I thought it would be what it wanted to be. But it has engendered strong responses from audiences. I think about this stuff so I like to talk about this stuff but I didn’t expect people to want to talk about it. Shannan’s said similar things. We’re still surprised and love it when people want to chat with us after.

I have a note on my writing whiteboard that says, ‘Don’t be afraid of ambiguity.’  Which is a good rule for writing or comedy – the contradictions are where the juice is. But it also applies to stuff on race and identity – being honest about the messiness. We never pretend to have all the answers, just our answers.

Steph: What’s the lifetime of this project?

Vidya: It’s definitely got more tours in it and maybe a life in other media though nothing’s firm as yet. I’d love to to tour it more around Australia, and to take it to places with big diasporas like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Steph: How did Asian Ghost-ery Store get into MICF? Is there some sort of exciting grading system?

Vidya: You apply! It’s not very exciting – just some forms. It is curated in the sense that not all shows go in the Festival Hub, so we feel lucky to be playing Trades Hall. There is so much great stuff on there.

AGS promo shot

Steph: Vidya, you’re a lawyer! So in grand Aussie tradition, you’re also a comedian. What’s your entertainment background that’s led you to this most excellent point?

Vidya: Yes that terrible Aussie tradition. Lots of lawyers are frustrated artists, aren’t they? I feel like there’s some connective tissue there but don’t want to probe it. But would also like to say to future employers that I am neither a frustrated lawyer nor a frustrated artist. I’m only a frustrated snacker.

In terms of background I’ve always done a lot of writing – mostly short stories and poetry – and bits of performance and improv and sketch. I’m currently studying a creative Masters (writing for performance) at VCA (the Victorian College of the Arts). I feel like my childhood of being forced to do folk dancing is probably what led me to this point though.

Steph: What’s the ideal punishment for hecklers?

Vidya: Throw Hello Panda at them. We’ve not really had hecklers. We’ve had a few people who were really shocked and I’ve felt the urge to address them directly sometimes but then remember I have to say my lines.

Steph: What about the ending? How do people react? [The final third is a fantastic payoff to an earlier joke, but can be a little confronting. I was NOT EXPECTING IT.]

Vidya: Some audiences get it and lose it with laughter, and others are like, “What the hell is going on?” But I hope that by that point we’ve done enough work that the ending is justified. Good comedic writing has a payoff – it’s about the character and the plot as well. I love comedy that’s about flaws and our characters [in Asian Ghost-ery Store] try to transcend that and fail, mostly through their own narcissism.

Steph: How much talcum powder do you go through per show?

Vidya: We have this huge bottle of it but I recently found out that the one we’ve been using causes cancer maybe? But I don’t want to throw it out because we have so much of it! So in trying to end racism I have once again failed as an oppressed minority.

Steph: The grocery store concept doesn’t take up as much of the show as I expected it to, and it’s something others have commented on, as well. Can you speak to that concept?

Vidya: Yeah – there are a few more visual and emotive tie-ins now than in our first run, but it is a subtle almost starting point I guess? Shannan and I are both very aesthetic in our references and love the feeling and look of Asian grocery stores. We realised they feel like home. And on that theme, we envisaged groceries as motifs of comfort, and the ghosts in our ghost-ery store as exorcising identity. Asian Grocery stores are also never anything but themselves – just crazily bursting and varied. Part of what we’re saying with the show is that it’s tiring to translate humour and stories and experiences, we just want to be represented as we are. Also, just puns.

Steph: Speaking of ghosts, who is your favourite ghost?
Vidya: There are a few but I am fond of the Vetala – which is a vampire like figure in Hindu mythology that hangs from a tree and demands passing people and kings listen to its stories and answer its riddles.  Oh god, I just realised that is basically what I’m doing with my life. I need to go think about this now.


Asian Ghost-ery Store runs 24 March through 3 April at Trades Hall.