Interview with Lily Tung Crystal – Part 2

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Continued from Part 1…

WWSF: What projects are you working on and/or dreaming about right now?

LTC: I’m working on a couple of projects right now. One is Tye, a solo show, about Tye Leung Schulze who was the first Chinese-American woman to vote and also the first Chinese-American of either gender to hold a federal civil service job. She was a translator on Angel Island for Chinese immigrants.  And she was also an activist against human trafficking.  The show is written by Christina Yang and directed by Desdemona Chiang, two Chinese-American women.

In spring of 2014, Ferocious Lotus is co-producing a show with Impact Theatre. It’s a commissioned new work by Christopher Chen, who wrote The Hundred Flowers Project, which was a Glickman award winner this year. He’s writing a play about what it means to be Hapa in America, which is part-Asian. It’s called Mutt.

We’re also hoping to produce a show in 2015, with Mina Morita directing. We’re looking for a project now. And we also won a Theatre Bay Area CA$H grant recently, which is exciting.

WWSF:  What are the challenges facing women in American theater right now, and what are the challenges you face personally as a female artist?

LTC: One thing I would add to the challenges that I mentioned in my TACTICS interview is that theaters need to produce more diverse work, and more work for women of color. I feel diversity is a term so often used now that people are getting tired of it. For me, it’s not even diversity – it’s reality. I feel that theaters should resemble reality, and the majority of the population is women, and 35% of the San Francisco population is Asian-American. I don’t know the percentages of African-Americans or Latino-Americans, but I suppose it’s more than what’s on stage.

Another challenge that I discussed previously is that sometimes theater companies do one or two shows that are multi-ethnic. Oftentimes, these are during African-American or Asian-American heritage month.  It’s difficult; because what happens now is actors of color can only work in that month.  It limits the amount of work I can have as an actor, because if there are three shows running in one month… If those three shows were spread out across three months, the experienced actors could work three times that year as opposed to working all in one month. It’s a casting challenge.

Francis Jue, the Asian-American actor in New York, said this to me: “When theater companies are just doing ethnic work, work that reflects reality and not just one-off shows, that’s when we’ve truly reached parity – when it’s not called Asian-American work, but American work.”

WWSF: As an actor, have you found yourself cast more frequently in ethnically specific roles or in roles that didn’t specify ethnicity?

LTC: When I was non-Equity, I worked a lot in non-racially specific roles. I played Amanda in Private Lives with a British company. I played Lulu in Cabaret at SF Playhouse. I also played racially specific roles – like a Korean mother. Now that I’ve turned Equity, it’s totally different. It’s like night and day. I would say that 90% of what I get called in for now is racially specific.

WWSF: Why do we see non-ethnically specific roles as being white?!

LTC: That happens all the time, and I think I talked about that in my TACTICS interview. I’ll look at a play, and it’s not racially specific, but it’s always cast with white actors. It makes no sense to me, but I think it’s tied to money.  Although, I also think that’s a very closed-minded way of looking at who’s walking in the door audience-wise and what they’ll accept on stage. I also think that to be a professional actor, you have to be constantly working on your craft. It’s a vicious cycle.  Actors of color don’t have half as many opportunities as white actors to hone their craft, so when a big audition comes up, the Caucasian actors are going to have more experience and be more likely to get the parts.

WWSF: The same is true for women. If plays have more male roles and women aren’t working as much, they’re not going to develop their craft as quickly as the male actors.

LTC: Right. Though, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t feel like directors say “I can’t find good women.”

WWSF: Oh no, but I think there aren’t enough roles for women.

LTC: That’s definitely true.

WWSF: It goes back to word of mouth and personal relationships, to how much you’re seen on stage, how much do people know that you are in the business…

LTC: Yeah. I think that’s equal for both actors of color and women. If the directors are used to working with a set of people, then they’re going to continue working with those people. If it’s mostly men, then they’re going to continue working with those men. And a lot of it is where you’ve been seen before, like you said. You could be a great female actor, an amazing actor, but if all the roles are for men and you haven’t worked before in a huge house, they may not cast you. They’re not willing to take a risk.

WWSF: I’ve heard that producers feel more comfortable taking risks with male artists – what do you think of this idea?

LTC: That’s really interesting. I wonder if that’s true. You know, when I worked at the Magic Theatre, on the face of it, it was “Wow, it’s the Magic”, but it didn’t mean that I got a job at Berkeley Rep. Magic is a mid-size house, not a big house. Maybe producers lump it with the smaller to mid-size houses when it’s a woman, but when it’s a man, they lump Magic into the mid-size to larger houses.  It’s like the glass half-empty or full. For women, it’s half-empty and for men, it’s half-full.

WWSF: How do you support yourself?

LTC: I’m a writer-producer. I write and produce for TV. I work for a company called Indigo Films in San Rafael, and we do shows for Discovery, Investigation Discovery, Travel Channel and Nat Geo. I work on two crime shows. One’s called Wives with Knives – probably not very feminist! The other one is called I Almost Got Away with It. I copy-write for eBay and also for Sutter Health. And I act. I do on-camera stuff. I do industrials, some commercials, some voiceovers, and I do theater.

There was a time when I was out of work in my writing gigs, and I was just making money from theater, but it was a short period of time.

WWSF: Do you write plays?

LTC: I don’t. And I don’t think I will. I’m an actor at heart; I’ll always be an actor. What I write is factual-based. I guess I could write a play that was non-fiction, but I have never tackled that. If I ever write a book, that’d be great. My friend and I are talking about making a movie out of the Tye Leung story. That’s another project that’s exciting. She’s a producer in LA. I’ve never thought about writing a screenplay, but then, I never thought I’d start a theater company. So never say “never”!

The challenge for me right now – as a woman and specifically an Asian-American woman artist – is finding professional opportunities that pay. I think every Equity woman has thought, “Should I give up my card?” But then if you do give it up, you’re working for almost no pay. And as a mother, I have to think about saving my energy for the right project.

And that just brings me back to the lack of opportunities. It’s hard to find the time to work on your craft. If you’re making money doing other things… you have to be conscious of practicing and rehearsing on your own. It’s hard to do that, because theater is a collaborative art form. Practicing on your own is the least fun part of it. You don’t even have an audience. So, I have to consciously tell myself, “from this hour to this hour, work on this monologue.” If I had more acting opportunities, I wouldn’t have to work so much on my own.

WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?

LTC: I’m hopeful that there’s a lot of momentum in the Bay Area from women gathering and working together. There’s the “Yeah, I Said Feminist” group, there’s WWSF, there’s Symmetry Theater, and there’s the Union Women Actors’ Coalition (UWAC). That makes me hopeful.

I think the more we speak and write about our vision for theater, people’s consciousness will slowly change, both men and women. People are looking at how many women are on stage much more than they were last year. I feel directors are thinking about how many women are in their shows. It makes me hopeful that our community is coming together. I want to see gender parity in the shows we do with Ferocious Lotus. It gives me hope that I’m in a position where I can make that decision.

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