Chang and Pan Asian Rep 'A Winning Combination'

It does my heart good when I hear about theatre companies that have endured the test of time and the economy. So, it is no wonder that I get to write about one of these companies in New York that specializes in diverse types of theatre.

Founded in 1977, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is the largest producer of Asian American theatre with regular international and national touring and residencies.  For 32 years, Pan Asian Rep has celebrated the artistic expressiveness of Asian and American theatre artists with the highest standards of professional theatre.  The company encourages production of new plays with contemporary Asian American themes, explores new forms by drawing upon the unique heritage of Asian American style, music and movement and nurtures emerging Asian-American talent.

Under the direction of Tisa Chang, Pan Asian Rep continues to bring Asian American Theatre to diverse audiences and deepen their appreciation and understanding of the Asian American cultural heritage. Recently, I interviewed Chang about life in the theatre and working with Pan Asian Rep.

TJ:  Tisa, when did you first decide that theatre was what you wanted to do with your life?

CHANG:  All my life.  I came to America /New York at age 5 or 6 and was given piano and dance lessons and my mother took me to opera and theatre. At age 10, I acted, directed and produced Cinderella in my kitchen and charged 5 cents admission. Nobody came except my Amah/Nanny.  (I guess they thought it was a "vanity production.")

TJ:  You started out as an actor and then segued to a career in directing. What is it about directing that piqued your interest?

CHANG:  It was a chance to work on projects that resonate deeply and personally and highlighted my world...of coming from a divided China that was still in the throes of revolution but steeped in culture and history. As a director, I had more autonomy in choosing projects, and felt I was contributing to American theatre with stories drawn from China's vast literary legacy.

I had been acting and dancing professionally for 10 years on and off-Broadway, so I had a very good immersion into mainstream theatre. With directing, I can help shape what the audience experiences and walks away with.

TJ:  Has it been a hard path that you have chosen?

CHANG:  Incredibly, undescribably hard. To choose to be an artist - is an act of courage or folly depending on how one views it. Practically speaking and having to earn a decent living it is a formidable challenge - but to be a diplomat's daughter - guess I risked bringing shame to my family because well brought up Mandarin girls do not go into the entertainment world seriously.

My first film Ambush Bay, starring Hugh O'Brien and Jim Mitchum, was filmed in the Philippines and there was suppose to be a night time pool scene where I would be bathing nude and Mitch would be skulking around. I thought it was an irrelevant scene given that this was a WWII film and I was the spy sent to save the Americans (serious business). The scene was cut finally but I wonder what my parents and their friends would have thought if it had not been.  But this was late 60's .  Values were different.

TJ:  When did you first become involved with Pan Asian Rep?

CHANG:  I started directing for Ellen Stewart at LaMama in 1973 directing her Chinese Theatre Group exploring bi-lingual productions of Asian and western classics. I directed Midsummer Night's Dream (Ernest Abuba as Lysander; Lu Yu as Oberon ) using Mandarin and English and Goldoni's A Servant Of Two  Masters where the characters spoke the aides in their native language. i.e. Truffaldino (Raul Aranas) gave his asides in Tagalog as did the Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian actors in their dialects.  And many other shows.

The extraordinary talent and dedication of the actors - I mentioned three - inspired me to formalize the group into Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.  All three were at one time "senior artists" and worked in many shows as actors, directors and playwrights. Thus Pan Asian Rep's reputation and track record owes more than I can express to all of the actors in the founding years. Pan Asian Rep was founded in 1977 with my earnings when I was on Broadway in The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel by David Rabe, starring Al Pacino.  So I owe Al and David Rabe a load of gratitude also.

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TJ Fitzgerald TJ Fitzgerald has been interviewing theatre’s finest talent with since January 2006. He has been active in the New England Theatre scene both as a participant (acting and directing) and an enthusiast of the entertainment scene for over 40 years. He was a featured columnist writing interviews and theatre features for New England Entertainment Digest and served on the Board of the New England Theatre Conference (NETC) for several years. Some of his noteworthy interviews have included entertainment luminaries like Tony Award winners Tommy Tune, Sutton Foster, Karen Ziemba, Michael Rupert, Faith Prince, Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara, Tony Nominees Brad Oscar, Keith Carradine and Andrea McArdle, Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, Oscar winning songwriter Paul Williams, Adrienne Barbeau and Oscar/Emmy award winning composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz. 2009 saw a milestone for TJ as he was welcomed to the 50's. In TJ’s words, "Life is good! Everyone's got a great story to tell and I am all ears! Theatre is my life!"