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Tim celebrates his ten year anniversary with the Asian American theater troupe and explains his ironic mission to "not exist" in a creatively expressive form.
Ten years of brilliance, ten years of sheer magic - Tim Dang, Producing Artistic Director of famed Asian American performing group East West Players, celebrates his decade of success with EWP this year. A Hawaiian native and graduate of USC's Theater program, Dang has proved that he has the ability to play the role of an actor, director, or writer since 1993. Dang has received numerous awards, including the Ovation Awards and Backstage West Drama-Logue/Garland Awards for his contribution as an actor and director. Also an active community leader, Dang has served as member of the Theatre League Alliance and panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, and Theatre Communications Group. He received the Durfee Foundation Sabbatical Award in 2002 for his dedication in advocating the need for more representation of Asians American in art. By directing such plays as "The Nisei Windows Club," "Leilani's Hibiscus"; writing lyrics for "Beijing Springs," "Canton Jazz Club"; and producing many of Stephen Sondheim musicals, Dang has been acclaimed as an artistic genius.
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Interview with Tim Dang
July 29, 2003
Interviewed by Kenneth Quan
Transcribed by Angela Kang
Ken: Tim, tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the theater business.
Tim: I was growing up in Hawaii, and of course in Hawaii, you have this place where the majority of the population is Asian. So I always wondered why you don't see a lot of that in television or film. When I was watching "Star Trek," when I was watching George Takei playing Mr. Sulu, I said, "Hey there's an Asian guy on TV." And I thought maybe I could do that. So it was almost like at a very young age, there was a role model whom I could aspire to be. I think also in high school, I was one of those nerds - I was part of the speech and debate teams, Math club, and I would audition for some of the shows that my high school had in Hawaii. That's how I got interested in it. And when I finally applied to college, I was going to be a Math major, since I was already attending the university while I was still in high school. For some reason, something just made me switch and check a different category in terms of what my career goals were. I actually attended USC, but in high school, I attended the University of Hawaii during my senior year.
Ken: East West Players will celebrate your 10 years with them. When did you become associated with East West Players?
Tim: Actually when I graduated from USC back in 1980, that's when I actually joined East West Players as an actor. So I've actually been affiliated with them for 23 years and I've been Artistic Director for 10 years.
Ken: So you actually started as an actor and then gradually moved on to becoming a director?
Tim: Right, right. I think most people who are interested in the arts start out as an actor, as a performer. And I also think that there's something that's just a little bit more empowering when you get to the other side of the camera, or when you're on the other side of the stage. A little later on in life, you discover that it's more empowering; you have more creative control over what's happening, whereas as an actor, you more or less memorize your lines, you hit your mark, you say your lines, and you cross your fingers that the public likes you and you become a star.
Ken: With which production did you decide to become the Artistic Director?
Tim: It all began with the casting controversy of Miss Saigon, which was actually written by the same creators of Les Miserables and Cameron Macintosh, the producer, which was going to start in London. It boasted a mainly Asian cast. What had happened was that one of the lead Asian roles was actually cast with a non-Asian person. So the uproar began, in terms of "we don't want any more yellow-faced acting on stage, as well as on TV and film." That started the protests. In a lot of ways, that empowered me. If we wanted to do something about it, we had to create our own productions, our own stories, and that's how I started to write and direct. Lo and behold, it really was a passion of mine.
Ken: Looking back on your 10 years, can you tell us the thing you liked most about your job?
Tim: The thing that I like most is moving the audience - just seeing the audience laugh or cry because of what they saw on stage, or being moved by the experience of a certain story that we told. I think on the most part, it's giving opportunities to Asian American performers because they are given the opportunity to play lead roles, whereas they would not normally have the chance to do so.
Ken: What about the thing you liked least about your job?
Tim: The thing I like least about the job is that we're constantly having to raise funds, whether it is by special events or through grants, corporations, or foundations. There always seems to be a challenge every single year of something. Right now, we know that the California Arts Council is in danger of being eliminated because of the balancing of the California budget. A couple years ago, it was 9/11 and our theater happens to be right across the street from Parker Center, which is the police station, so our streets have been closed at certain times, deterring business. So that's always a constant challenge in terms of raising funds to keep the theater, or to sustain the theater, at a level at which we are comfortable with, in terms of producing our art.
Ken: What does EWP provide that other theater groups do not?
Tim: I think East West provides a home for the Asia Pacific actors. I think there is this comfortable setting that, in a lot of situations that deal with the performing arts, there is a lack of sensitivity sometimes in the classroom or workshops. I think East West provides a safe haven for artists to create and explore. I think one of the important things is, when you go to a class when all the writers are Asian, or all the artists are Asian, there's already this language that you don't have to talk about. It's already accepted because you're all coming from the same experience. So that makes the work that much better because you just concentrate on the work and not what people perceive you as.
Ken: I have often times heard some in the Asian American community voice the opinion that associating themselves with Asian American arts groups, such as EWP, would be detrimental to their careers because it would pigeonhole them in the eyes of casting directors, producers, etc. What are your feelings on that?
Tim: Well I've heard that a lot. In fact, a lot of people say that they wouldn't want to be associated with any Asia Pacific organization, whether it was performing arts or not, because they don't want to be necessarily linked to them, or pigeonholed. My feeling on it is that you need to give yourself all the available options to you. Yes, you should be a member of non-Asian groups, and yes, you should be a member of Asian or Asian American groups. I think the more options that you have, you'll find that your perception of things around you tend to open up, particularly in the performing arts. I think that there's something about being attached to an Asian American or Asian group that again goes back to the whole feeling of home, and the feeling that you can play a lead role, as opposed to some of the stereotypical ones that you see on film and TV.
Ken: Which was the reason for the 9 artists who started the theater courses?
Tim: Right, you have to remember that in 1965, the reason why these 9 artists got together was because there were no roles available to them on film or TV, so the theater was actually actor driven for a long time back in the 60s and early 70s. Then we discovered the writer, in terms of the writer writing their own stories, as opposed to doing European classics, like Shakespeare. Finally the Asian American writer was born and we were able to be both actor-driven and writer-driven and that's how we've been for the last 30 years.
Ken: Where was EWP originally located?
Tim: Actually, we first got started in a basement of a church of one of the founders. It's kind of ironic that our theater space is located in the church, but we're not in the basement anymore; we're now in the main sanctuary.
Ken: EWP made the decision to name its current theatre the Henry David Hwang Theatre. Why Henry David Hwang?
Tim: Well first of all, David Henry Hwang is a Tony Award winner. He's probably the most well-known, in terms of the theater artists that we know of our generation. Second of all, David's parents, Henry and Dorothy Hwang, are major donors to our theater and it was quite a significant donation, which is why we named the theater after him. As a side note, Henry Hwang, David's father, was a bookkeeper for EWP in the early days and his mother, Dorothy, actually played the piano for our rehearsals, for our musicals. So what happened was that David, as a child, would come around to EWP and run around and play and help out. And I think that's how he got his first interest in theater, which I think is a really good investment on behalf of both his mother and father to keep him involved in the arts at such an early age. I think we maintain a lot of contact with David. A lot of times, I seek his advice. I think it's really important because he's living in New York. He has his plays done regularly now at almost any theater across the US, including Broadway. I think he's right in the pulse of what's happening in the Asian American arts scene.
Ken: This upcoming season, you will be taking the reins on a Steven Sondheim musical, "Passion." Can you tell us what that is about?
Tim: First of all, "Passion" is a very difficult musical. In fact, a lot of people call it a chamber opera. The music is difficult, the singing is difficult; I think it's a great challenge for any artist, let alone an Asian American artist. Again, you would not normally see these roles being cast Asian at any other place other than EWP. The second thing is, "Passion" is all about relationships. It's about innocent love, passionate love, adulterous love, and obsessive love. And many times I feel that the Asian American community, and more so the Asian American males, get short shrift as being asexual or not masculine, or a lot of things that tend to give you a negative portrayal of how our community loves. And I think that this will be one way in which our audience, the Asian American audience, as well as the mainstream audience, will be able to see that on stage. I have a feeling it will be a little uncomfortable for a lot of people, but I think in a lot of ways, it will break down some barriers.
Ken: As a director, can you tell us how you go about choosing your projects? What are the themes and subjects that you like to explore and work with?
Tim: Actually one of the things we're looking for right now are plays that deal with the bi-racial experience. There have been so many inter-racial relations, inter-racial marriages, that the generation that is now growing up is half-Asian, half-White, or half-Asian, half-Black. There are these voices that are coming out in terms of how they deal with the identity issues that come out of that. We're certainly looking at that, and we're certainly looking at a lot of comedies. I think a lot of times, people think Asians are so serious and that you're not portrayed as funny. One of the things we should think about is why there aren't more Asians in comedies on TV. Is there a perception that Asians aren't funny? And so what we want to do is that we want to show that Asians can write funny material and Asian actors can perform funny material.
Ken: Although recognizing EWP's obvious significance, why is it that EWP chooses to produce works that place an emphasis on the Asian American experience? In doing so, isn't it having the adverse effect by disassociating the Asian American arts community from the mainstream, thereby perpetuating the continuing stereotype of Asians as the "other"?
Tim: It's really interesting because in a lot of ways, we think that we want to do our work so well and spread the work out to the mainstream community to really recognize our talent and recognize our stories that perhaps in the future, there won't be any need for EWP. So it's kind of like an interesting mission, in which our mission is to not exist. But until the playing field is level, we'll have EWP and other Asian American theaters across the country because the playing field is not level, and we're not recognized yet, in terms of our talent and in terms of our stories. For right now, probably during my lifetime, and maybe during someone else's lifetime, there is this need for EWP now. And Asian Americans don't live in a vacuum. Obviously, we have done plays that are multi-racial. We do have Caucasian people in our plays. So it's not as if everything that we do is all Asian, but what we want to do is celebrate the Asian American experience.
Ken: Well what about adapting certain classical stories, like Shakespeare, into the Asian American experience?
Tim: Actually that's really funny that you asked that, because we're actually doing "The Wind Cries Mary" by Philip Kan Gotanda and that is actually based on "Hedda Gabler," which is a play by Henrik Ibsen. So that will be very interesting to see that adaptation and Philip is actually sending it back to the turbulent 60s at UC Berkeley, which was the start of the Asian American studies program. So it will be very, very interesting to see that. And again, with "M. Butterfly" being done as well, which actually only has 3 Asian actors, and 7 non-Asian actors, we again face that whole perception issue of how the west perceives the east.
Ken: And will EWP be keeping the storyline the same for "M. Butterfly"?
Tim: Actually, we've had a lot dialogue - we, meaning Chay Yew, who will be directing the show, myself and David - through email in terms of how we can bring something different to "M. Butterfly" because certainly, we don't want to bring the same production to "M. Butterfly"; we just don't want to remount it. We want to bring something different; I think we want to bring something a lot grittier, a lot less pretty, so that it's probably in the mind of the French diplomat, who is the lead in the play, that it is all in the mind of the French diplomat in terms of how he perceives the east. But I think the audience is actually going to see a different image of the Asian lead character, who is Song Liling. And so we hope to bring something different. Also, with the play being 15 years old, there are some things that might be considered dated, but I think there are some ways in which David can help us, whether it through a rewrite, and Chay Yew can help us through a reinterpretation in terms of bringing new things that are valid and plays true today. This is going to be a major revival in Los Angeles, and we want to make sure that David is part of the process. The story is so great that I believe the story will hold true. The conception in which we bring the story out is what we want to develop further, perhaps because this play takes place in a prison, maybe it is the prisoners who are actually acting out the play. Or perhaps it might be something that is totally in his mind and his mind comes to life within the confines of the prison. So it's not a pretty setting, it's very gritty and dark and I think that's the direction we want to go.
Ken: To differentiate it from other productions of "M. Butterfly"?
Tim: Right, which really sees the Asian character as pretty, beautiful, lyrical, and flowing in this kimono. I mean, what if the kimono was torn and tattered? What if the actor playing Song Liling wasn't beautiful at all? But it was in the French diplomat's mind that he saw a beautiful woman, let alone that this woman was a man. So there are all these other sexual politics that are happening as well.
Ken: What do you hope to accomplish with "M. Butterfly"?
Tim: I think that as EWP works toward its milestone 40th anniversary, which actually happens in 2 years, that we want to be able to raise the visibility of the organization of Asian American works to a level that when we reach our 40th anniversary, we can jump onto a new plateau. I think that if we bring a large, significant play, like David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," that we will be able to, perhaps, inspire a new generation of artists and theatergoers, and audience members who have never seen "M. Butterfly." We can inspire them so that the community expands and gets larger so there are more artists who are excited about taking risks. So after our 40th anniversary, there will be more works that we can be more involved in, in terms of its development. I think that's one of the ways we're doing it. It's more of a bigger picture kind of thing, as opposed to just doing a particular play, but I think that it is a bigger picture. And I also think that after 15 years, we need to take a look again at why "M. Butterfly" made the splash that it did in the 80s.
Ken: Why do you think "M. Butterfly" is still significant today?
Tim: The story is true, so I mean, no matter how unbelievable it is, the story is true. Whether or not an audience, say with today's perceptions, will believe it and say, "So what's new?" I think it's up to the director and to David to actually bring something new to the piece. And I think that there are new things we can add to the piece because the climate of the Asia Pacific community and its perceptions really have changed. There is a lot more acceptance of the Asian American community to the mainstream community, and so again, this will give us an opportunity to explain how far we have come.
Ken: But don't you think that revisiting the play, with its theme of transexualism and homosexuality, enforces the ideology of the Asian as the feminized?
Tim: Again, this is certainly going to come from the perspective of the French diplomat. Certainly, the Asian character is not going to be thinking that at all, so that what you have is this balance that's happening because we are an Asian American theater. And I think we are the first Asian American theater that will be doing "M. Butterfly" so we have this opportunity to make the balance tip our way so that we can see how ludicrous this European French diplomat was in creating this fantasy about having this relationship with an Asian woman, who turns out to be a man.
Ken: Ok, so what can expect from Tim Dang in the future?
Tim: Well, certainly, my passion is to take the organization to a new level. I think that's why we're doing all this planning, say within the next three years, in terms of raising the visibility of the organization because I think that we can go further; I think that we can broaden our boundaries. That is what I look forward to. But I also look forward to new blood; I think that's what always keeps the organization exciting because there is a new generation. There are always new actors, new artists, new playwrights coming through our doors and I'm just waiting for that next David Henry Hwang to come on through the doors so that we can help develop him or her. We can really take the Asian American experience and the Asian American voice to a new level. I think it's really important to balance the new artists coming in and have them being mentored or developed by our more veteran artists. We also like to see that on stage; we always like to see new faces on stage. But then we also know that there are familiar faces we see on stage all the time, so what we want to do is we want to create that balance so that in the future, there is this torch that is passed on. So whoever the new blood is will feel really comfortable in knowing what happened in the past and can take it into the future.
Date Posted: 8/15/2003