Li-Leng Au is one driven performer, which has everything to do with how many miles she’s put on her car, amassing hundreds of them as she traipses all over the Bay Area to work on show after show as an actor and performance coach.
But her latest gig is different. Au is finally able to perform in her adopted city after her upbringing in the United Kingdom. She is making her San Jose Stage Company debut in “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Bartlett and directed by longtime San Jose Stage director Kenneth Kelleher. The story is a sweeping epic focusing on the journey of Pip and his many decades of triumphs and misfortunes, beginning as a young boy of seven.
Au plays the role of wealthy spinster Miss Havisham, a woman consumed by loss of love, her chosen outfit an old wedding dress that she wears daily.
Since Au only lives a few streets away from the intimate theatre on South First Street, it begs the question – is she skateboarding to rehearsal, taking a leisurely stroll, or is she still driving? Au greets the question with a fit of laughter. “No, sometimes I cycle, but by the end of the day, I’m pretty tired and want to get home quick. It’s sort of a cop out.”
When you see Au’s performance in the new San Jose Stage production of the Charles Dickens epic tale “Great Expectations,” you can excuse her desire to hop in the car and skedaddle home after a vigorous rehearsal despite living so close. The entire show is built on constant movement, with Au and her castmates handling multiple roles throughout the two-plus hours of action.
For Au, who grew up outside of London as an Arsenal F.C. supporter and one who has been in San José for the past five years, high school was her first introduction to the story. Ever since that initial offering, she found the epic novel beautiful and feels the same way about how this current production is built.
“There’s sort of a spatial magic that takes place and you can see the active craft on the stage,” said Au. “I think that’s really exciting because that’s where the magic really lies. Over the last year-and-a-half, audiences have been consuming a lot of content on television, and now it’s time to go back to the theatre and engage in a different way.”
Art hits us differently depending on where we are in life when we consume that content . “Great Expectations” carries a poignance today for Au that it didn’t when she first read the story as a teenager.
“Being at the age I’m at or having experienced heartbreak in my lifetime, that changes your interpretation of who this person is,” said Au. “When you’re younger, you could probably look at these characters and have very strong judgements about them, but now the magic is to have compassion for these characters as individuals. What is their inner-struggle and their inner-pain? I think the challenge is to bring the humanity to the stage and the characters.”
Au has seen plenty of the world in her time, attending drama and physical theatre school in the United Kingdom, and eventually spending seven years living in Australia. What compels her most about her current home in the Bay Area is that it’s not easy here for artists. Despite that, the artistry of regional stages is off the charts.
“It’s been a really interesting journey to now be in the Bay Area, and I’ve been massively surprised by the dedication, focus and the depth of talent here, it’s incredible. A lot of actors or performers here have their majors in things like computer science and then a minor in theatre, and they are just incredible actors. Whether it’s a smaller stage or one of the larger stages, I’ve been very, very fortunate to be part of the mix of both groups.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents “Great Expectations”
Written by Neil Bartlett
Adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by Kenneth Kelleher
San Jose Stage Company
490 South First St., San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $32 – $72
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit https://www.thestage.org/