Kim Ho was born and raised in Sydney. Throughout his schooling, he was heavily involved in music and drama, performing in plays such as The Popular Mechanicals, Louis Nowra’s Cosi and Monty Python’s Spamalot. He is also involved in community theatre, and has played an ungodly number of animals: springboks, foxes, crabs, and horses. And a tumbleweed.
Kim enjoys storytelling in all its forms, and has made several short films for Tropfest Jr. However, he really began focusing on dramatic writing in 2012. The success of Transcendence in The Voices Project’s Love Bytes competition led to a mentorship with Tommy Murphy. Together, they developed his monologue The Language of Love, which enjoyed worldwide exposure. In 2013, he was a recipient of the Besen Family Artist Programme, Writer’s Development at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. Kim is currently developing a deliciously wicked black comedy, and devours every play he finds.
Kim has won a number of awards for THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE: the Audience Award at both Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, the Rising Star Award at Honolulu’s Rainbow Film Festival, and both the Audience Award and Jury Prize at MoFest!, California.
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
17 year old Kim Ho was one of the winners of the 2012 online writing competition Love Bytes, from the Australian Theatre for Young People, with his 3 minute take on first love, Transcendence. His prize? A mentorship with leading Australian playwright Tommy Murphy, and the opportunity to work with filmmaker Laura Scrivano on developing Transcendence into a longer piece, which was to become The Language of Love. Kim reflects on his experience in text below this interview with Kim, Laura and Tommy.
In July last year, I submitted a three-minute monologue for The Voices Project’s Love Bytes competition, with the rather precocious title Transcendence.
I’d scribbled ideas and lines on scraps of paper during maths; the filming and editing process took me a couple of hours.
And while I was used to acting and liked telling stories, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
I didn’t know this would be my first tentative step into theatre writing.
Fast forward six months, and I’ve just spent eleven hours on set shooting The Language of Love, a 7 – 8 minute version of Transcendence.
It’s been an incredible journey, and completely unanticipated.
Never in my wildest dreams would there be people running about in order to realise something I’d created. I already have that feeling you get when you wake up and try to figure out whether your dream was memory or fantasy.
I thought I might share what I’ve learnt along the way.
The task of taking a monologue originally conceived as a three-minute story arc and filling it with more detail and emotion was actually quite challenging. It’s not a matter of simply adding more words – producer Dan Prichard encouraged me from our first meeting to tell another story with the same character. Or rather, to tell the same story in another way. I remember starting to dig around for inspiration about love. Playwright Jessica Bellamy wrote a great article on the Fresh Ink site about songs informing her choices as a writer, so I gave that a go.
I unearthed Lior, a singer/songwriter whose music is very sincere and gentle. I wanted to create a monologue that had the tenderness of This Old Love, but with enough edge to raise the emotional stakes.
For those who haven’t seen Transcendence, (SPOILER ALERT!) it’s about a boy falling in love with another boy in his French class.
I was trying to show that love could transcend barriers, and maybe it was even more special when it did.
Homosexuality is still a sensitive topic, and I immediately felt pressured to write something that was candid but not disrespectful to the LGBT community. I wanted to write something that would make me cry just like the stunning It’s Time advertisement for marriage equality, something that would resonate with people no matter what their sexuality.
But I was scared.
I couldn’t get over the idea that I might write something appalling and let everyone down.
I kept asking myself: ‘What can I possibly say that people will listen to?’
Enter the interminably awesome Tommy Murphy, who would mentor me as part of the Love Bytes prize. Two of his most successful plays, Strangers in Between and Holding the Man, dealt with the stigma surrounding homosexuality, and the fear that stigma inspires. They are beautiful plays, and they are about taking first steps and more steps towards happiness. I remember devouring them in mid-spring.
I spent quite a few afternoons walking and talking with Tommy, discussing love and writing, theatre and film.
I was surprised at how many parallels we found between my character’s story and my own life: finding your voice as a writer is a lot like finding yourself and your sexuality. You feel like suddenly you’re in the spotlight, and people are judging you by what you say and do.
I’ll spare you all the details, but my talks with Tommy revealed some of these little titbits. I’m paraphrasing of course, and these are by no means ‘rules’ to be piously followed.
1) Be fearless. Follow your instinct. Tell the story you need to tell. More often than not, writing for theatre is an intuitive process. If you’re lucky, a work will start developing a momentum of its own, an internal engine, and if it does, let it guide you.
2) Good theatre will come from good characters. This confounded me at first. At school, they’ve always taught me how to find meaning in a text. But it has a nasty potential to become mechanical, almost like training monkeys to peel fruit and find the tasty stuff inside. The grand aim is to discover the ‘point’ of a work, or what you think that ‘point’ is. That’s all dandy, but when you go the other way, constructing instead of deconstructing a piece of fiction, it’s often better to avoid starting with a grand idea. Originally, I wanted to explore the tenuous link between finding religious faith and the leap of faith of embracing homosexuality. Despite point one, Tommy suggested I reconsider. Theatre, after all, is a medium for telling stories, not selling an idea like, say, speechwriting. Meaning will arise from character; don’t try too hard to tell your audience something. The Crucible, for example, has an incredibly powerful political message, but it’s anchored by a great protagonist.
3) Make it authentic (unless, of course, it’s meant to be surreal). Listen to how people speak and figure out the rhythms of everyday language. People use ‘like’ all the time and ‘but’ at the end of sentences; they interrupt themselves and change thought paths. Contemporary dialogue, especially monologues, will gain authenticity with attention to our natural beat.
4) Let the audience know the stakes. It’s always good when the audience is aware of what the character or characters have to lose, and what they stand to gain. All theatre, when boiled down, is about “a person who really wants something and is having trouble getting it.”
5) Theatre is about change. Theatre exists in each performance for a certain amount of time, during which things happen and circumstances change. Even one character thinking aloud should discover things about themselves and/or their situation that they did not know before.
6) And this applies especially to teenagers: Don’t whine. It is very easy when trying to write a monologue to slip into a mode of complaint. I had a “whingey draft,” whereby the main momentum of the monologue came from my character saying why his life was terrible. Generally, you want your character to earn your audience’s sympathy, but complaining too much is one of the quickest ways to lose it!
It suddenly appeared to me that there was one principle underlying all this advice. Tommy guided me through five redrafts, some of which were drastically different to the previous, but the overall trend in terms of finding my voice was from using the head to using the heart. I initially wanted my piece to engage with my audience at an intellectual level, and Tommy kept asking me to find the humanity in the piece, and explore emotions before ideas.
I used to think that theatre was shocking if it didn’t say anything, but now I appreciate that stories can be as simple as that: stories.
Acting on film
Acting may well have been, for me, the hardest part of realising the monologue. I’d only ever acted on stage, and I’m used to being over the top for irreverent roles. Stanislavski meant nothing to me, neither did Meisner, so having Laura Scrivano as a director was a godsend. She had directed across theatre and film, preferring actor-based directing to technical gymnastics. She sat me down over a few rehearsals and talked me through how to be authentic on camera.
Theatre, I learnt, is all about externalisation. The old lady in the back row with cataracts needs to be able to see and hear what’s going on, so gestures and projected voices are used widely and to great effect. Flail your arms about in film, however, and it’s too much; it looks like you’re overacting. Badly. According to Laura, the trick is to internalise your character’s action more. The camera should be able to see ideas flitting around behind your eyes. On film, especially with close-ups, less is more.
Theatre has other conceits, too. For one, actors usually pause for laughter if the audience is particularly vocal (that is, tipsy). Australian actor Toby Schmitz once mentioned he delivers monologues as if every audience member were part of his character’s mind. And the actors bow at the end, a sign that they have performed specifically for the audience, that it’s all been for them. In film, there’s no audience until the film is cut together and screened. You can’t wait for laughter; there isn’t any. You can’t talk to anyone; you have to hit an ‘eyeline’. Film acting, when you’re not used to it, feels very artificial. I can only hope my performance seems authentic on camera.
So that’s it: tales from my unexpected journey.
I’ll never be able to thank atyp enough for putting their confidence in a schoolboy, and I’ve tried to write something that will resonate with many people.
The Language of Love is a piece that’s incredibly special to me.
Just as Charlie wants to hold and comfort Sam, I hope my audience will want to step into the film and hug them both.