Chris Fung is one of those rare actors who gets cast in a professional production before completing his training at drama school. During his second year he auditioned successfully for a place in the ensemble of Opera Australia’s production of THE KING AND I which has just finished its season at QPAC in Brisbane before heading to Melbourne. He is also understudying Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the role of the King of Siam. I was keen to speak with the charming, intelligent and wonderfully quick-witted Chris about that experience, but also about how he came to the musical theatre as a career.
Before his musical theatre training at the Queensland Conservatorium’s Musical Theatre Program, Chris studied at Sydney University where he graduated with a BA in Performance Studies and Education. At the time he was also heavily involved in amateur musicals and had studied classical voice through the IMEB program to 8th Grade, gaining a Diploma of Music Performance.
Earlier attempts to get a place to train in music theatre were thwarted, Chris believes by his weight. “I was ‘a chunky guy’ at 135kg. I was getting lots of amateur gigs,” he notes, “possibly because there were not many young men who could sing. I could yell a high note and I thought that all you needed to do was to sing the biggest, fattest note. I also thought that acting was about putting on an angry face. I had a very angry acting style,” he adds dryly.
“I wanted to get into a training school but I hated myself; I was so overweight. I also wanted to be attractive to women, to have the company of the fairer sex so I could charm them and make them laugh. I worked absurdly hard at the gym, and I started losing weight. A short time after that (still in Sydney) I met my partner and wife to be, Jess, finished uni, and started working at Star City.
“I used to tell myself that I couldn’t do musical theatre because I’m Asian, and I can’t dance.” He muses for a bit, “It’s a strange thing, isn’t it, how sometimes don’t give ourselves permission to go for the things that we want?” Fortunately for Chris he found a couple of mentors in Sydney: Pat H Wilson and Adrian Barnes and began working in their Springboards program intended to bridge the gap between high school training and entrance for tertiary training. Both had worked at the Actors Centre and at the Ballarat Performing Arts course. “Most extraordinarily their clients ranged across the board; Pat worked on voice rehab using singing as therapy for people like crash victims but also right through to super high level performers. Pat believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I had been applying to WAAPA and they (very nicely) didn’t give me the feedback I needed; it was my weight again – so I kept on exercising and trying to improve my skills.
“It was around this time that I met Jess in an amateur musical. I told her that I wanted to chase the stars. She said she believed in me, so ‘Let’s do it.’ Eventually I got into the Con course here in Brisbane and began the huge opportunity to have a crack at things. After two years the KING AND I auditions came out. I stuffed up the initial audition mightily but miraculously somehow got called back to what was eventually 3-4 months of auditions, after which hugely, astoundingly, I got the job. That’s where I’ve been for the past 5-6 months.
“Having studied in Brisbane for last couple of years it now feels like a second home – with a base of friends and teachers. While I’m here for THE KING AND I season, I’m staying with a good friend from the course.” He’s looking to the future perhaps at the UK, ” I just hope I have a job come November when the season of THE KING AND I finishes.”
I ask Chris what, if anything has taken him by surprise about the art and craft of acting since he left full-time training. He answers quickly, “That the world is not about me.” He goes on, “When training you have all these performance opportunities and appraisals that put you under the pump every week. You are judged, measured and poked.
For the past 5 months it’s been a huge revelation that ‘they’ the creative team and everybody else is not there to help me do my job – but for me to help them do their job.
“There are a whole bunch of things that I’ve learned – how it’s so important to learn efficiently and on your own, to stay motivated and not to drop the ball. I’d say to anyone still studying to cherish those opportunities to perform because you go from the super-hectic pace at the Con with weekly assessment classes and chances to spread your wings. I’m now an understudy, and as such would get maybe 10 hours of rehearsal before the full run in costume and on stage where you are expected to know the blocking and everything else about the performance. You are expected to do your own work.
“You have your scripts but you haven’t been workshopped. No one has talked to you about actions and intentions. For four months you sit in the wings and watch and learn but you don’t have an opportunity to perform. Your job is simple: be able to learn and to be just as good as someone else.
“Before this job came along I was budgeting for maybe 5 years of not working. This was based on shows coming to Australia, shows that require few Asian men and on the fact that people currently working have far more skill sets than I have. They are better dancers and have better acting and singing technique. The fact is you are seen either as a film and tv guy, a musical guy, or a theatre guy, so how am I going to fit into that milieu and get a career? And the answer was, ‘I have to try – it’s stupid for financial reasons, but I have to try and I have to keep on doing it.’ Jess believes in it too.” He adds, ” It is so difficult for me to be bored with what I am doing right now because there are so many wonderful things to do. Last week I got to do my cover call and I got to experience the team work – the eyes on me as the King of Siam. I shouldn’t have had that chance; people don’t realise I’m an idiot.”
I ask Chris what he admires in fellow artists and again he responds quickly. “Generosity and their work ethic.” He is keen to tell me a story to illustrate what he means.
“During our 4 week rehearsal block for THE KING AND I Lisa (McCune) and Teddy had, typically, about 5 minutes to themselves in an 8 hour work day, but every day without fail Lisa would be there early. Right from day one I was having a race with myself to see how quickly I could be off book and every time she’d see me she’d ask, ‘Do you want to run lines?’ She would make the offer and I would jump at the opportunity. So, I got to work with the beautiful Lisa. I’d run lines and later, in week 3, I got to work early one morning – an hour and a half early – and she asked me whether I would mind running some lines with her. She said, “It’s OK if you are not off book because we haven’t got to that part of the play.’ But I was (off-book) and we ran the scene which comes just before the Shall We Dance? number. So we finished up and I was fixing up some word errors and she was giving me tips, and then we hit the dance part. I asked if she would like to do the dialogue bit again because it would help her whereas the dance would be only about me, but she said, ‘No let’s do it.’ So she spent an hour out of her own time to help me with the dance.” He adds, ” Others would pay $10k. for the privilege of dancing with the lovely Lisa McCune, but I got it for free! Her work ethic and generosity and the fact that I was keen and got there early each day meant that I got the chance. That spirit of generosity and awareness of others were also echoed in the teachers at the Con who have invested in me through all the classes and lessons. Attitude is important.”
What are the support systems an artist needs? “You need people who love you but who don’t need anything from you – people or a dog to hang around with – a gym buddy, someone to play touch football with.
As a working artist you need allies rather than friends or peers; those who band together with you to get better at your craft. Friends are uneasy to say things which are uncomplimentary. Allies use one another and you exchange and interchange.
“Your allies have to be brave enough to point out things you are shitty at so you can advance together. You need people above you – teachers and mentors who invest in you. You need their altruism in getting more expertise and knowledge. If you want to do cross-collaborations then you are going to need others like accompanists but if you pay attention to being a generous person, then it can happen. Don’t focus on the negatives.”
I finish by asking what would you say in a letter to yourself back when you were about to start your training? “Try to remember what you love. Focus on what you want to get out of this thing. I get caught up in my drive to get better – going and going – and in that repetitive cycle it can be very damaging to the psyche – mindlessly hating myself doing endless pushups. It’s so valuable to have someone remind you that we are privileged to do what we do. So many people have invested so much in getting you there. I had access to my teachers – information that I could not get on my own. I have a debt of love. Remember that you are fortunate to be where you are,” and he adds, “and this is the most important thing – smile – remember why you are doing what you are doing and that it is fun.”