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.

TJ:  What are some of the biggest successes to come out of Pan Asian Rep?

CHANG:  Ghashiram Kotwal by Vijay Tendulkar with Marathi music and movement  in 1985, Cambodia Agonistes with music about Cambodia 1992-95 and THE Joy Luck Club in 1999 and 2007. Of course it was Yellow Fever by R.A Shiom in 1982 that made us known nationally and internationally.

TJ:  Tell me about the upcoming NEWWORKS 09. What can the audiences expect to see?

CHANG:  A mosaic and explosion of talent and new modes of communication including World Premieres of Lan Tran's comedy  solo Smart Ass and The Secret Of Osono, a ghost love story by Elsa Okon Rael; 3 different music nights of Christine Toy Johnson's love songs/ Helen Sung's jazz piano and Andy Akiho's  new age steel pan. Emerging artists Mitsu Salmon and Lucas Kwong are 20-somethings experimenting with words/movement /guitar; and guest artists Paola Irun from Paraguay in the chilling Ramona and Juyoung Hong's aural/video riff on Wozzeck, is from Korea.  Once again, Pan Asian Rep is on the cutting edge of discovery and magic (...and do we need that now!)

TJ:  How do you decide about which new works to feature in this event?

I think of balance and uniqueness of the theme, of the artist, and how fully realized the work is. i.e. experimental work still needs a cohesive arc and disciplined articulation. I wanted a mix  of artists we have nurtured and worked with, along with new artists and new genres. Thus Music Nights is an expansion and so is Paraguay but Paolo Irun has a compelling story and is performed in English and Quarani (an indigenous language of Paraguay now the 2nd official language)

TJ: Tisa, tell me  a little bit about the incarnation and history of the NEWWORKS series.

CHANG:  Pan Asian Rep has three decades of experience and in the last several years we realized how the 21 century world is changing as well as the way artists express, create, and articulate their energies. In tandem with our training programs and play development, Ernest Abuba has a writing and solo performance workshop,  which allowed me to see how many younger artists are doing self created work or writing formats away from traditional playwriting. Thus we began a 2 + 2 nights emerging artists forum a few years ago which grew and grew, and mushroomed into this month long mosaic.

TJ:  I am also very curious about the upcoming show, Imelda: A New Musical. Is this a musical comedy? Please give a little insight into this.

CHANG:  Imelda, A New Musical, has book by Sachi Oyama, music by Nathan Wang and lyrics by Aaron Coleman and directed by Tim Dang who is AD at East West Players in L.A.  It centers on Imelda Marcos against the background of recent Philippine history. It is inspired by certain factual events but it is a fictionalized and original story with songs and dances. We are proud to highlight the richness of Philippine history and culture and it will be FUN!! (...and do we need that!)

Imelda was a strong woman with great love for her country and as First Lady wanted to put the Philippines as a legitimate political player on the world stage. The songs are clever, poignant and the story is illuminating. People will be pleasantly surprised as most only have stereotypic remembrances of her. 

We are still fundraising. It is fitting that the two oldest pioneers, East West Players in LA and Pan Asian Rep in NY, are building bridges to collaborate to bring this uplifting work to larger audiences.  

TJ:  What do you credit for the longevity of Pan Asian Rep?

CHANG:  It is the dedication and tenacity of so many, and I credit the staff and board, as well as my own stubbornness, having remained in the driver's seat as artistic producing director. We have had to learn the ropes of running a serious non- profit the hard way.  Some serious budget shortfalls in the early and middle years - but excellence, and quality of work, and the drive and integrity of operations gave us the reputation for being a responsible organization. I have to credit our government (NYSCA, DCA, NEA), foundation funders and our peers who sit on panels who have given us the respect and grant support over the years. This is a pivotal, synergistic partnership.  

TJ:  Has the current economy affected your company as it has affected theatre all around us?

CHANG:  Yes, these are trying times. But was it Dickens who said "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  So, in adversity we have to find how to overcome and be stronger and more creative for it. Pan Asian in the last five months has lost earned income, donations and a major foundation grant and cutbacks in others.  But we have so far been able to juggle and weather the erosion of our current budget without draconian measures. We are applying to new sources.

TJ:  Any enticing words to leave us with about the upcoming season?

CHANG:  Come to see our shows at the West End Theatre on w 86th for NewWorks 09 where we will raise a cheery toast and provide many surprises.

TJ:  Thank you Tisa and all the best to you and the Pan Asian Rep!

CHANG:  I so appreciate chatting with you, TJ, and it was quite a meaningful walk into memory lane in thinking about your keen questions.

You should definitely expand your horizons and delve into a new experience by seeing a show at the Pan Asian Rep located at the West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. You will have a great opportunity to see some amazing work in their upcoming NewWorks 09 which runs from March 16 through April 11. For tickets and more information about the upcoming shows, you can visit their website at or call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101. For now, ciao and remember, theatre is my life!!!

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From This Author 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 (read more...)

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