TACTICS: Interview with Lily Tung Crystal

Welcome to the TACTICS (Theater Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges & Strategies for Gender Parity Advocacy) interview series curated by Amy Clare Tasker

Women are underrepresented on and off stage. The problem is clear. The causes are thorny, complex, and controversial; the solutions equally so. Many women and men have worked toward change for decades, and more are now asking, “What can we do?” The TACTICS interview series investigates what our community is already doing, what we’ve tried, and what we can do next to advocate for equal and better representation of women in theater.

Lily Tung Crystal 2012


Actor, singer, founding co-artistic director,
Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company

ACT: Who are you? Can you give me some background on how you came to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?

I’ve been an actor/singer in San Francisco since 2002. I’ve also worked in New York and Shanghai.

When I joined Actors’ Equity in 2009, I noticed the dearth of opportunities for professional Asian-American performers in the Bay Area, so I co-founded Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, whose mission is to employ professional Asian-American theater artists.

At the same time, some of my female colleagues were counting the numbers of AEA women on the boards and noticed that the female/male ratio was shockingly low – somewhere between 20/80 and 30/70. With so many talented professional female actors unable to find work, I realized that we also had to fight for gender parity so that women could get equal access to casting opportunities, health weeks, and other benefits.

ACT: What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists face right now?

Both racial diversity and gender parity are vital issues, and as a minority female actor, I’ve noticed some polarization between the two movements. Those who fight for minority issues often don’t consider gender parity, and those who fight for gender parity don’t always consider racial diversity.

For example, when I do work that is racially specific, I’m sometimes the lone person on an artistic team who brings up the need for gender parity in casting and choosing scripts. Once we discuss it, everyone is open to it, but it takes me to bring up the issue. Likewise, when I’m part of a group of women fighting for gender parity, I have to sometimes remind the group that we need to include women of color in a particular project.

I don’t want to fight for racial diversity to see Asian-American opportunities only going to men. Likewise, I don’t want to fight for gender parity to see female opportunities only going to white women. The challenge is for us all to work together so that women of all colors can enjoy equal opportunities.

ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?

Education and building consciousness are vitally important.

As the founder of an Asian-American theater company, I have a male co-artistic director and often collaborate with men. When I inform them of the unbalanced gender ratios when it comes to casting, it sometimes catches them by surprise. They just haven’t noticed the gap before. The same thing occurs when I point out to female artists that many women’s theater companies primarily hire white women or that minority female actors are often not considered for roles that are non-racially specific.

They’re not aware of these surprising and concerning facts because it’s simply not part of their everyday experience. But once people are conscious of the issues, their actions tend to evolve. So I try to diplomatically and respectfully raise consciousness in the industry so that change can happen.

Creating quantitative evidence is also powerful.  People can hear that inequity exists, but if there are no hard figures attached to it, it’s easy for them to disregard it, or say, “It can’t be all that bad.”  But numbers show that it REALLY is all that bad.  Valerie Weak’s Counting Actors Project is invaluable in that it shows the facts about gender inequity and makes concrete a problem that can initially seem amorphous.

In terms of racial issues, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition recently found that Asian Americans accounted for only three percent of the ethnic makeup of Broadway casts of shows that opened in the 2011/2012 season, as well as productions at the 16 largest not-for-profit theater companies in New York City. These abysmal numbers reflect the reality of Asian American casting across the nation. Although there are no hard statistics gathered in the Bay Area (I hope to start a “counting actors by race” project soon), casting trends show that the numbers are not much better here, even though Asian-Americans account for 25 percent of the population in the Bay Area and nearly 35 percent in San Francisco proper.  At a measly three percent, the Asian-American numbers are especially eye opening, even compared to the gender ratio figures.  And I hope that, on both fronts, having the data will make people realize the challenges and take action.

In terms of other strategies, people can also speak with their pens. The letter writing campaign to Theatre Bay Area seemed highly effective. I also work as an arts writer, so when I can, I cover diversity issues, and those news and magazine articles seem to have helped change the way people in the industry think in terms of both racial equity and gender parity.

Finally, I like to bring people together because I believe that strong, more socially aware work happens through community. When we created the Asian American Actors Collective, a support and networking group that includes about 80 actors throughout the Bay Area, industry people took notice. Now that they see the numbers of talented Asian-American actors here, they have slowly begun to produce work with those actors in mind.

The “Yeah, I Said Feminist” Theatre Salon and the AEA Women’s Subcommittee, both of which I’m a member of, have done a great deal in building community and instigating awareness and change.

Part of my job is knowing the women artists in town—both Asian-Americans and others—and supporting and recommending them to casting directors and directors so that they know that there are strong, talented performers here who are ready and willing to work. Some people may find this self-defeating since it could result in me losing a role to another woman, but I have to trust that when one of us is lifted, it increases opportunities for all of us.

ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective? Why do you think those tactics worked or did not work?

It’s easy in activism to work from a scarcity mentality, get myopic, and concentrate on one’s own fight. In my experience, the most effective tactics happen when groups of women and other minority artists work together so that everyone moves towards equity. The least effective tactics occur when people go into their own corners and fail to work together for ALL minorities.

It’s also easy to fight using negativity or bullying. I prefer believing that change and abundance are truly possible and being passionate yet respectful in my arguments.

Finally, it’s important that woman artists continue to work hard and grow in their careers while also putting their time and energy into activism. By being excellent at what we do, we further justify the need for gender parity on stage.

ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?

When I see more Asian-American actors and more women on stage, and theater companies, both large and small, produce more diverse work, I feel like my advocacy actions are effective.

ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?

For theater makers: Read (and consider producing) one play today with more roles for women and other minorities, or if you want to do more traditional pieces, think of creative ways to include more diverse actors. It could be as simple as hiring a woman for a role where gender is not especially necessary or calling in an actor of color for a role that is not racially-specific.

For both theater makers and audiences: Write a letter—to a director, a theater company, an artistic director—and tell them why you do or don’t like their track record when it comes to gender.

6 responses to “TACTICS: Interview with Lily Tung Crystal

  1. Pingback: What Can We Do About It? | Works by Women San Francisco·

  2. Dear Lily,
    Thanks for this great interview. You might be interested in Martha Lauzen’s statistical studies of women in film and television since she tracks the racial diversity of female characters. She finds that Asian-Americans are about 5% of the female characters on film and TV, and she points out, “Moviegoers are almost as likely to see an extra-terrestrial female as they are to see a Latina or Asian female character.” See “It’s A Man’s World” http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2011_Its_a_Mans_World_Exec_Summ.pdf

  3. Great interview, Lily. Thanks for all you do to raise awareness. The more of us are talking about it, the more people notice that it is an actual issue.

  4. Pingback: TACTICS: recap and relaunch | Works by Women San Francisco·

  5. Pingback: Interview with Lily Tung Crystal Part 2 | Works by Women San Francisco·

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