Lily Tung Crystal is an actor/singer who has performed in San Francisco, New York, and Shanghai. She is the founder of Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, as well as the Asian American Actors Collective with Asian American Theatre Company (AATC). She is a 2009 Titan Award winner — one of five Bay Area actors to receive a $2500 grant from Theatre Bay Area to further their career goals. Her current projects include a solo show about Tye Leung Schulze (the first Chinese-American woman to vote and activist against human trafficking); and MUTT, by Glickman Award winner Christopher Chen, which explores what it means to be Hapa in America (a co-commission between Ferocious Lotus and Impact Theatre directed by Evren Odcikin).
Works by Women San Francisco (WWSF): What’s the path that brought you to working in the theater?
LTC: I have been in theater for as long as I can remember; I don’t think there has ever been a time when I wasn’t in theater. My mom got me singing and piano lessons when I was seven. I did school plays, mostly musicals, and I always considered myself a singer. In high school, I was in a drama program. In my undergrad at Cornell University, I was an English major, but I performed there. After college, I went to China and did a little bit of acting there. I did a production of Private Lives, sang in a few bands.
I had stopped performing by the time I moved to San Francisco in 1999, but I got back into theater a few years later. Because I always felt I was a stronger singer than an actor, I did a lot of musical theater – about 70% musical theater and 30% stage plays. I turned equity in 2009. It was interesting that once I joined equity, people considered me more of an actor. Now I feel like I’m a stronger actor than a singer. I don’t know if that’s true, but there’s not much musical theater work here, and oftentimes, the equity roles go to men. So lately, the ratio’s reversed.
Recently I started a theater company, Ferocious Lotus, whose mission is to employ Asian-American theater artists. I have also become an artistic director by default.
I was born in America, but a lot of my peers who are Chinese-born or Asian-born – a lot of their parents did not want them to go into the arts. My mother was different in that she loved film, movies and theater, and she is a good dancer herself. She encouraged me which was unusual for someone of her generation.
WWSF: Why do you think Asian parents are resistant to their children going into the arts?
LTC: I think there’s a tradition of scholarship in Asia. I don’t know about other Asian cultures, but the scholar is very important to Chinese culture historically. And I think a lot of immigrant Asian parents want a better life for their kids. They want their kids to pursue more secure careers, like scientist, doctor, lawyer or stockbroker, something more financially secure. My parents went through two wars, left their home, went to Taiwan, left that home, and came to the US. They’ve seen a lot of death and destruction, and they wanted their children to have better lives. In Chinese culture, at least, the performers, the opera singers, were kind of gypsies. They weren’t the most respected people, whereas the scholars were. I think that’s ingrained in them somewhere.
Although my mother pushed me to be good in the arts, she was also one of the people that didn’t let me pursue singing and acting without being good academically. Academic excellence is very important to my family. My brother went to Cornell, and my sister went to Stanford. I had to get into Berkeley, or better, (luckily, I went to Cornell), and if I didn’t get straight A’s on my report card, there was hell to pay. My mother wanted me to excel at everything. It’s only later in my life that I realized how difficult, and actually impossible, that was – to put so much energy into everything. Even though she wanted me to be good artistically, for her, the academics took precedence.
WWSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you?
LTC: When I was growing up, there were certain artists I loved, like Judy Garland. During my teenage years, it was the Beatles – John Lennon was an icon for me, because I feel he was truly an artist. They’re still my favorite band. Their music was artistically significant and pushes humanity forward in terms of innovation and art.
In terms of Asian-American people who have influenced me, there’s Francis Jue, who is an Asian-American actor in New York. I first met him two, three years ago. He’s truly inspiring and a really hard worker. He said to me, “Asian-American actors, just by nature, we don’t have as many opportunities. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be working. Just on your own, you can read plays, practice monologues, practice songs, work on your craft every day.” I was really inspired by that. It’s harder without the job, but you can still do these things every day to further your career. So each week, I try to do that. Like my music teacher said to me,”It’s better to sing 15 minutes a day in the shower than not sing at all; you have to practice.”
I’ve met George Takei. He’s super-inspiring to me because he’s a genuinely wonderful human being. He’s really supportive of my work. And he was a trailblazer. He was one of the first Asian-American actors on TV. He’s doing all this work now. He’s a social media phenomenon. He’s just really humble and generous, he and Francis Jue both.
I think more so, as I grow older, people who inspired me, a lot of them are around me. They’re not all famous national stars or anything, but they’re all talented and fearless. Like Marissa Wolf – I loved working with her on Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, she’s an amazing director. It was a really collaborative rehearsal process with her, which I really appreciate.
I tend to get inspired by people who are not only talented but also generous with themselves, those who help others and believe in community and are just really open-hearted with their resources and their talents.
WWSF: Describe a moment from your artistic life that you’re particularly proud of.
LTC: I have a couple. I played Mrs. Park in a musical called Homeland (now it’s called Worlds Apart) by a composer-lyricist named Jay Kuo, who is amazing. His next show, Allegiance, is going to Broadway soon. I aged myself to play an immigrant Korean mother in her fifties, probably one of the best roles I have played. That role had it all; she made people laugh, cry – she was the comic relief in the show. I feel like when you have a role where you can make people laugh and also where you can make people cry, you can’t ask for anything more. There are so few roles like that for women in general, Asian-American women in particular. I felt really fortunate to play her. It was a milestone for me in my career, as I was non-Equity, I was grappling with identifying myself as an actor, and I think for actors, it’s important to embrace that identity. When I did that role, it felt like it was a character I could really wrap my hands around, sink my teeth into – she received such amazing feedback and touched so many lives. We performed in San Francisco and then performed at the Community Center Theater at the Sacramento Convention Center. It was the first time I’d performed in a big house, I had the star’s dressing room. It was unbelievable.
And then we did a workshop in New York, and I was performing with Broadway actors, actors whose work I’d been following. It was crazy. I was just really grateful to have a role that not only established me as an actor/singer, but also lasted for several years and grew, from SF to a big house in Sacramento to New York. During the three-year period that the show was going on, I became Equity. So I think it was a seminal role for me. The last show, the curtain call, was so enriching for me because that role got such a huge response from the audience. I remember telling myself, ‘Remember this moment. Six months or a year or two or even next week, you’re going to be bummed because you’re not going to have work. And you have to remember that this exists and you can come back to it. This will happen again. I knew that if I could just remember that feeling, I could continue being an actor.
WWSF: How has becoming a mother impacted your approach to your artistic work?
LTC: When I first found out I was pregnant, there was a lot of fear that I wouldn’t act again. I had just turned Equity; it was the worst timing, even though we’d wanted to have a child. Once I had a baby, I was consumed with the baby and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. When my son was 10 months old, we produced our first show. If you’d told me then that I would birth a child and a theater company in one year, I would have said you were crazy. I did not in my wildest dreams think that would happen. But the opportunity came up and I had to take it. Initially, it was fear, but once I realized what could happen and gathered up everyone in the village, I realized that a lot is possible if you open yourself up to it. So one thing having a child has changed in my approach is that I ask for help more. I have always believed in community. I think sometimes people are afraid to ask for help. But I found that when I did, people were actually honored to be asked to contribute and be a part of a project they believed in.
I also think that being a mother has enriched the way I am as an actor. There’s so much more emotional depth, just because there is this possibility for love that I never knew existed. Having this love for my child is very different for me than any other love that I’ve experienced, and to have that depth of emotion influences my work.
In terms of the approach I take to being an artist, I think that I’m more picky about the work that I do. When I was younger and a non-Equity actor, I had more time and I didn’t have as many financial responsibilities, I remember one year I wanted to be better at auditioning, (which I still want), so I basically went to as many auditions as I possibly could – I went out for everything. I don’t have that same luxury of time anymore.
Before, I would get upset if I didn’t get the part after auditioning. But now, being a mother, I just show up for auditioning and if I don’t get the part, I trust there’s another audition around the corner. I mean, there are definitely people I want to work with, theater companies I want to work with. But now, my personal resources are just so finite, in terms of time and energy. Not that motherhood is limiting me, but I tend to pick and choose better. If I’m not going to get something out of a project, I’d rather spend time with my son. And I think turning Equity has helped with that, for better or for worse – there are not as many opportunities now so it limits my choices, but sometimes it’s in a good way. When the opportunities do come, they’re better, and it’s more important to me now to be paid for my work. I also make decisions faster. I have a husband who is very supportive; he’s an artist too, so he gets it. We share, we co-parent equally, we scramble, but we still do our art.
Tune in on Monday for Part 2 of this Interview, when Lily shares her thoughts about casting and ethnicity.