I was recently in Seattle and met up with Roger Tang, founder and editor of the Asian American Theatre Revue, an online resource that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Over a light lunch at Eastern Cafe, we talked about a range of subjects related to Asian American Theatre.
DAN BACALZO: What factored into your creation of the Asian American Theatre Revue?
ROGER TANG: When I started it, there was very little on the web about Asian American theatre. At the time, I was just ending my term on the Board of Directors for the Northwest Asian American Theatre – NWAAT. And one of the things I noticed was that there were four or five Asian American theatres that were fairly major in Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco. But there was very little talk between them. I had always been the one that tried to make connections between the people at East West Players or Pan-Asian Rep and say, “let’s share our stories and our problems and see what kind of solutions we can come up with together.”
I started putting up a calendar of what was going on, as well as news articles every so often. Once that started, people sent me stuff on what they were doing and the Revue sort of grew from there. After two or four years, there was an explosion of groups and I started to scrabble a little bit trying to figure out how I was going to keep up with this stuff. It just got so big with so many people that I know I’m not catching everything, but I’m trying to do as much as I can.
DB: In the 20 years you’ve been doing the Revue, how would you describe the Asian American theatre scene as you saw it emerge?
RT: There were separate waves. I recall one of ensemble work, much of it sketch comedy. So you had Peeling, SLANT, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, Stir-Friday Night!, and one of my groups, Pork Filled Players. I think they felt a little impatient about the time it takes to put on a fully staged show. Doing it quickly and getting feedback from the audience was very appealing. There was also a movement of solo shows and performance artists that cropped up – Denise Uyehara, Brenda Wong Aoki, Dan Kwong. Following that, smaller groups were popping up. Not in competition to some of the bigger groups like East West or Pan Asian. I think the field has gotten big enough so that there are multiple visions and multiple artistic sensibilities.
DB: Tell me a little bit more about Pork Filled Players. You were there from the beginning, right?
RT: Yeah, but actually Pork Filled began a little before that with the group OPM which was started up by three or four artists here in Seattle.
DB: What did OPM stand for?
RT: It didn’t stand for anything at that time. When they moved to LA, OPM became Opening People’s Minds.
DB: Otherwise, it’s just a play on “opium,” which I realized once I said it out loud.
RT: Basically, yeah. Then about a year in, there was a split. The usual creative differences. Some people went one way, some another. Myself, a guy named Dave Kobayashi, a Caucasian stand-up named Wally Glenn, and a woman named Ellen Williams decided to start our own group, Pork Filled Players. I’m the only one still with the group. Wally has gone off and done his own thing. Dave got married and moved to Hong Kong. Ellen is down in LA and does a lot of sitcom work. She was Patrice in How I Met Your Mother. So, she’s a fan favorite, now. I’ve gone through about three or four iterations of the group. This current incarnation has been around six or seven years, and oddly enough I’m the only guy. Everybody else is female.
RT: Yeah, which is really unusual for sketch comedy, and certainly unusual for Asian American comedy groups. Most sketch comedy is young and male. Basically, I’m around more as a caretaker and administrator, so they don’t have to worry about paying the taxes and filing licenses. I handle all of that.
DB: But you perform with them too?
RT: Only if I have to. At one point, I did a little bit of acting but I don’t know if I ever felt comfortable as an actor. I feel more comfortable as a writer and much more comfortable as a designer or producer. Usually, I’m not needed on stage but occasionally they need an Asian male who’s middle-aged.
DB: Has the kind of work you’ve done changed over the years?
RT: About seven or eight years ago, I saw there was a gap in the Asian American theatre scene in town. By that time, the Northwest Asian American Theatre had gone into suspension and there was no one doing full-length work. So I started producing more; I did Prince Gomolvilas’s Big Hunk O’ Burnin’ Love and Qui Nguyen’s Living Dead in Denmark. Things got more standardized, with a bigger budget. We started doing more ambitious stuff. I did a co-production with Repertory Actors Theatre of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face. That was a fairly substantial undertaking. And along the way we decided to split the group off into the Pork Filled Players, which is mostly sketch comedy, and Pork Filled Productions, which is full-length work – some of it is original but we also do other people’s plays.
DB: Tell me a little more about the kinds of shows you put on.
RT: With Pork Filled Productions, we made the decision to orient it towards genre pieces – science fiction, steampunk, fantasy, comic books, crime fiction, noir plays. Because what I’ve noticed is that when theatres across the country do Asian American work, they tend to like Asian American writers and actors to do “Asian American things.” Identity issues. Immigration issues.
DB: Family dramas, intergenerational conflict.
RT: Basically, they want to see a lot of angst – pure emotions dripping across the stage. And there’s very little time for pure fun. There are a lot of big strong ideas and weighty matters, which you do want to see. But for a healthy theatre, you want a little variety in your meal.
DB: You’re doing Carla Ching’s Fast Company next, right?
RT: Yes! And that’s perfect for us. It’s for Asian American actors and actually can’t be done with another ethnicity. But the whole thing is not about racial identity. It’s about con men and grifters. There’s a sense of fun and you get to see Asian American folks be stylish – sunglasses and GQ looks.
DB: How do you see the Seattle scene fitting into a larger picture of Asian American theatre?
RT: I’ll be serving on a panel at the upcoming National Asian American Theatre Conference and Festival in Philadelphia, talking about what we are doing outside of LA and New York. It’s very interesting in Seattle, because there’s no central organizing institution. There are about four, maybe five groups that produce. And we’re all gypsy companies.
DB: Besides Pork Filled Players/Productions, who else is there?
RT: There’s SIS Productions, run by Kathy Hsieh, which concentrates on Asian American women and their issues. There’s Repertory Actors Theatre, run by David Hsieh, who is Kathy’s brother. They do racially aware casting – basically, they put people of color into roles where you might not think of them first thing. There is the South Asian theatre group, Pratidhwani and they do plays in Hindi and in English. There’s /fee-nix/ Productions, run by Ben Gonio, a Filipino actor; that one tends to be a little smaller. And there is Kultura Arts, which is Filipino-American and does a little bit of theatre, poetry, spoken word, and dance. So there are a lot of little groups but not a strong institution here or a space where people can gather. This is opposed to places like Minneapolis where a lot of stuff goes through Mu Performing Arts and Pangea; those are two strong homes that are very open about people doing things out of. We like to joke that we’re just like one of those theatres if you add up all our activities together.
DB: But you’re all doing your own thing – you don’t coordinate?
RT: We do a little bit of coordination. Sometimes we step on each other’s toes, which is very odd because we’re all friends. We all know each other and cast each other in each other’s productions and staff each other’s shows. But sometimes opportunities arise, spaces open up at the same time, and you step over each other. It’s not a big problem. The city’s big enough to support both productions.
DB: And if two are running at the same time, you can cross-market.
RT: Yeah, we cross-market a lot.
DB: Would you say there’s a particular ethos that describes the Seattle Asian American theatre scene?
RT: As compared with other areas, I don’t think we’re quite as heterodox. We have a younger outlook and take more chances, because we are small. We have the nimbleness that large groups don’t necessarily have. There’s still a little gap because there’s no standard producer of the Asian American canon.
DB: NWAAT was that when it existed, right?
RT: Yes, it was that for a long time. So if you wanted to see something like David Henry Hwang’s FOB or Philip Kan Gotanda’s Song for a Nisei Fisherman, that would have been the group that did it. But since NWAAT’s gone, nobody in town is going to do it because our missions are different. So, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll start another group. I have the thought of doing a reading series of Asian American classics. I think it’s useful for people to know what the state of the art is, where we’ve been, and what the classics are.
DB: Right, because a lot of new groups sometimes end up reinventing what has come before. I’ve noticed that even in New York. There’s a lack of institutional memory when it comes to Asian American theatre.
RT: Yeah, but also I think that’s a necessary phase you have to go through. You have something to say and you’ve got to get it out. When you first start, you want to talk more about identity and stereotyping. You want to talk about how the wider society puts you into roles you don’t necessarily fit into. I’ve noticed that the older groups don’t tend to talk about that as much, because they’ve said what they’ve needed to say.