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Meet the Bohemians: David & Kara

By Leah Jing McIntosh | September 18, 2021

“I think I was about eight or nine, when I first saw MOULIN ROUGE! I was obsessed!” David Ouch is video chatting with me from his dressing room at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre. “You know, when Satine first comes out, to sing ‘Sparkling Diamonds’? And then she falls—I would recreate this drama on our dining table, trying to fall!” He laughs. “The movie was heaven.”

Ouch, now thirty, notes that he came “late” to the theatre. “I didn’t know I could even do musical theatre. I grew up in Logan, in Queensland. My parents are children of war; they came from Cambodia, as refugees. My mother arrived in Australia as a young orphan.” The notion of musical theatre as a career wasn’t on the horizon. “No one in my family knew how to do it. More importantly, they had bigger things to worry about, like food, and trying to survive in a foreign country.”

Yet he grew up surrounded by music; Ouch’s father would drum and sing in a traditional Cambodian band, and Ouch would spend time listening to and rehearsing with them on the weekends. “Creativity and storytelling is very strong within the Cambodian culture,” he notes. He began piano lessons due to a fierce love of Delta Goodrem. “The people at the music school said, ‘a lot of boys your age are playing guitar’. But I wanted learn piano, so I could play Delta!” he cracks a cheeky grin. Ouch first learned ‘Born to Try’, followed by ‘Predictable’, and has maintained a lifelong adoration, waving his perfume bottle of ‘Dream’ by Delta Goodrem at me from his dressing room table.

At twenty-one, Ouch’s fellow ensemble member Kara Sims laughs when I ask her when she first watched Luhrmann’s film. She is video calling from a corner of the Regent, a painting in a gilded frame hanging behind her. “Oh goodness–this is embarrassing!” Though she knew the soundtrack well, she only watched the film just before rehearsals began. She admits to showing her age -“it’s just, the film was released the year after I was born!”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is Sims’ professional musical theatre debut. “I feel like I started singing, straight out of the womb,” she tells me. “Going to Filipino functions, doing karaoke with sixty-year-old lolas!” She sings me a few bars of her karaoke song, Janet Jackson’s ‘Together Again’, glorious even through Zoom. “But I didn’t start taking performing seriously until I was fifteen.”

Though Ouch and Sims entered the industry almost a decade apart, they have both found entry to musical theatre complex, and at times confronting. Ouch explains that when he was growing up, Asian-Australian representation was so scarce, he could only look to Disney’s Mulan or Jackie Chan. For Sims, it was looking abroad, to find Phillipa Soo in Hamilton, who finally allowed her to consider musical theatre as a possibility – “I could look the way I look, and have this career, too.”

Contemplating structural racism in the industry, Ouch shares advice from a Filipino dance teacher: “you can’t just be good. You have to be better than your white counterparts.” Ouch continues, explaining, “we have to be exceptional, in order to make it through the first round, in order to even get into the audition room.” Since graduating from WAAPA in 2013, Ouch has played his share of stereotypical, orientalising roles; he remarks that if he can navigate this path, “then maybe the performers that come next won’t have to.”

Unfortunately, the path isn’t fully paved just yet; Sims also admits that experiencing racism in the industry has “really motivated me. If people are only going to see this,” she says, gesturing at her face, “then I’ve got to be ten times better than everyone. It forced me to work really hard, because I wanted people to see my talent instead of what I look like.” When she attended Moulin Rouge! auditions, Sims was worried about not having the ‘right look’. But she found the creative vision refreshing. “For this show, they want you to be your own person, they want you to have your interpretations; they just want you to be you. And that makes for such a beautiful energy on stage.”

Sims revels in the ability to interpret her role. “So, although we’re always fitting [choreographer] Sonya Tayeh’s creative vision, and making sure we hit our lines and all of that, we have this ability to make slightly different choices, so it feels good for us.”

The day Sims discovered she’d been cast, a friend had already been notified, and she had not. Upset, she absent-mindedly made, then burnt, a batch of cookies, and found herself running late to pick up friends at the airport. She got the call in the middle of singing along to Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’ as she sped down the freeway. She was shocked. “My agent told me to pull over!” she laughs. “But I couldn’t—I was late!” The youngest performer on the Moulin Rouge! stage, she jokes, “take a shot every time I say ‘grateful’ in this interview! But I truly, really do feel so grateful for this role. I also feel a deep responsibility.”

Ouch remarks that with Moulin Rouge!, he is thrilled to finally play a character who resonates so deeply—for him, and, he hopes, for others. “Honestly, I’m still pinching myself that I’m here.”

“For the very first time in my career, I am playing myself—in all my camp, beautiful glory. It has taken eight years; I am finally not playing a stereotype of our people.”

“Being in Moulin Rouge! has really given me hope, and inspiration, for what the industry could be.’

About Leah Jing McIntosh: Editor of Liminal Magazine. Find her at @_leahleahleah.

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