How A Trip To Thailand Became A Queer Rom Com
"I thought I was going to go on a ten-day bender with two girls I’d never met in a city I had never been before."
Julia-Rose Lewis on Thailand, breakups, and creating Neon Tiger.
Kris Stewart from Brisbane Powerhouse called you to say he was sending you on a creative research trip after watching a documentary about lady-boys in Bangkok – tell us about what is going through your head during this call?
I was so fresh into my career as a writer at this point that I was just so stoked to even get a call from him that what he was actually asking me didn’t sink in until I’d hung up. When I started to process it I was honestly thinking, “this will never ever happen, what a loose unit!”. After a few more calls and few more meetings, I started to understand he was actually serious.
What did you expect going into this creative research trip? Did reality match your expectations?
I thought I was going to go on a ten-day bender with two girls I’d never met in a city I had never been before. It ended up less about partying and much more about observing the city and the people in it.
The concept that we had been given by Kris (to focus on the stories of Thai Lady Boys) fell apart quite quickly because it became very apparent that we couldn’t do that story justice. We only had ten days, there was just no possible way to develop meaningful, trusting, safe connections with that community in such a short time frame. In addition, it just didn’t feel like our story to tell. So we let it go and just opened ourselves up to other possibilities. The biggest surprise was the way Gillian, Kat, and I got along. I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d meet two women who would go on to become lifelong friends. That has been the greatest gift of the whole experience.
What do you mean you didn’t set out to create a queer love story – what did you set out to make and how did you end up with Neon Tiger?
Kat, Gillian and I didn’t set out to make anything in particular. We had been given a prompt from Kris to try and possibly write something about Thai Lady Boy culture. As I said, that dissipated quite quickly because it wasn’t our story, it didn’t feel right. That was the wonderful part of the brief from Kris though, he knew that might be the case and he was essentially happy for us to go on an adventure and see what grew from it.
Once we got back to Australia we had so many ideas that we workshopped. All of them were utterly crap. We were trying too hard to say the right thing, trying too hard to be intelligent and funny and clever. Months and months went by and we still couldn’t find a story that felt honest. That’s when I started to reflect on the actual experience we had instead of trying to invent something more interesting. We realised the story had to come from our perspective and anything else was going to be very difficult to do justice to. I was in the midst of a pretty nasty ongoing (you know the type) breakup when we went on the trip and so the Andy character has a lot of me in her. I’ve said this a lot, but the most important part of the trip for me was the relationships I formed with Kat and Gilly. I fell in love with them both on that trip at a time when I really needed them. It was wild because I was so out of my depth in Bangkok. The city itself really became the third character. Every aspect of the story grew from real experiences, whether it was my own journey or my observations of Kat or Gillian’s and others we met along the way.
Are the characters or relationships in Neon Tiger based on real-life people you met in Bangkok or are they simply inspired by real people and experiences?
Everything I have ever written and will ever write is always inspired by real people and real experiences. I’m not sure it’s possible to write something that isn’t. Every part of the story and each character is like a kaleidoscope of people, places, ideas, experiences. Every fragment of the story, every line of dialogue has come from somewhere, either from the trip itself, a lot from my own personal life, and many aspects from the lives of Kat and Gillian. If someone tells me something that moves me, intrigues me, fascinates me or angers me, it will eventually make its way into some writing somewhere and I think I can speak for Gillian when I say her lyrics are inspired in much the same way.
Yourself, Kat and Gillian all have very distinct styles – how did you go about merging the three? Were there (or are there) any difficulties?
This collaboration has been one of the rare occasions where we have had no troubles at all. I mean really, it’s been a once in a lifetime sort of project where it just all works (I hope the girls would agree with that). I don’t think we thought too much about how we were going to merge our forms, or if we did, I’ve blocked it all from my memory haha. Looking back now I remember it just all fitting together like a puzzle. Piece by piece we sorted it out. Any issues we did have we combatted with humour. When the three of us are together we do a lot more laughing than anything else. Most of this show came about by us just messing around in hysterics and then saying, “hold on a minute, that might actually work?”.
How did you meet Kat and Gillian and then decide to work together on this?
We didn’t! Kris Stewart who commissioned this work was the one who dreamt up the idea of the three of us working together. I didn’t meet Gillian until the day we flew to Bangkok and Kat I’d met a few times in foyers and at events but basically we were all strangers. Utterly crazy. It was the most bizarre feeling getting on a plane with two people I really didn’t know and flying for a ten day ‘party’.
You must have a comical mishap on a bizarre trip like this - please share!
Oh so many. Gillian got scammed in an alleyway by a man who she believed was actually a psychic, she ended up having to pay him to leave her alone. We filmed our own video clip to one of Gillian’s songs along Kao San Rd and so many random people just joined in, it has to be seen to be believed. It’s completely cringe-worthy. On our way out to the Tiger Temple (come see the show for more details on this adventure) the wheel of the van we were on blew apart and the driver (who didn’t speak any English) sort of half repaired it and then just drove away, leaving us without a word on the side of the highway. We honestly thought we’d been abandoned there but an hour later another van came and just picked us up (in retrospect we probably should have been more careful getting in to that second van). So many Tuk Tuk mishaps, being taken to a market that exclusively sold car parts when we wanted to get to Chinatown, being taken to a Tailor shop when we were trying to get to a train station (I had to buy a Tie so they would let us leave). We went to a club one night and the bathroom was magnificent, they’d give you a hand massage before you left and Gilly and I kept going back for more but every time Kat went in they just ignored her. Obviously her hands weren’t worthy. One night at karaoke we all thought Kat was doing the most magnificent rendition of Material Girl, she was really getting in to it… then we realised that it wasn’t actually her turn and she was just singing loudly over the top of the other girl who actually had a beautiful voice. Poor pet.