BWW Interview: Always a Creative Force To Be Reckoned With, Tim Dang Next Directs LATW's VIETGONE
Next up for L.A. Theatre Works will be Qui Nguyen's VIETGONE, set to be recorded live at the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus for four performances beginning January 24, 2020. East West Players' Producing Artistic Director Emeritus Tim Dang will direct this semi-fictional tale of how Qui's parents met in an Arkansas relocation camp. The talented cast includes Will Dao, Desirée Mee Jung, Greg Watanabe, Paul Yen and Jeena Yi.
I grabbed the opportunity, after all these years of knowing him, to interview the creative force behind the early development of the East West Players - Tim Dang.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Tim!
Happy New Year, Gil. Hope 2020 brings you more happiness, prosperity, good health and creativity! Thanks for your interest in interviewing me.
When did you first become acquainted with Qui Nguyen's VIETGONE? The 2016 Off-Broadway production? Or the 2018 East West Players production?
I first became acquainted with Qui years ago when I noticed an Asian last name of a person who was an artistic director of a theatre company in New York. The theatre company was Vampire Cowboys. At the time, as producing artistic director of East West Players, I was compiling a list of artistic leaders who were of Asian Pacific Islander descent or heading Asian Pacific theater companies to invite to the first national Asian Pacific American Theatre Conference hosted by East West Players (EWP). This was back in 2006. Sometime in 2008, knowing Qui's work, EWP commissioned him to write the book to a hip hop dance musical (eventually titled KRUNK FU BATTLE BATTLE) with lyricist Beau Sia and composer Marc Macalintal. It was at a time when all these Asian hip hop/B-boy crews were on America's Best Dance Crew. I first became aware of VIETGONE when Qui was commissioned to write the play for South Coast Repertory. I saw it then and knew most of the cast members. I thought it was groundbreaking. It was so smart and smart-ass. It was fresh and relevant.
What specifics of Qui Nguyen's work drew you to direct this LATW reading/recording? The HAMILTON-esque rap? The novel refugee perspective?
The fact that L.A. Theatre Works is recording this play for posterity and making this play available to an audience who may not otherwise enjoy the production in their community is very important to me. With the growing Asian and Pacific Islander community, and the specific experience or story they have to tell; it is important to investigate every means possible to share these stories. As mentioned previously, the play is so smart and smart-ass. The play is fresh and relevant. It appeals to a younger generation - a generation that has grown up on rap, comic-books, and martial arts movies. If you think of Shakespeare and the poetry of his lines being iambic pentameter, then HAMILTON and Lin-Manuel Miranda have presented a new rhythm to today's poetry through rap. So rapping is the new verse to today's theater. And to have rap as the means for the immigrant Vietnamese parents to speak Vietnamese in the play is ingenious.
This is your second directorial piece for LATW. You directed SISTERS MATSUMOTO last year. In directing a LATW reading/recording, you deal only with the actors, as opposed to all the technical elements of a fully-staged production as you've done countless times. What do you find the biggest challenge in directing 'voice only' actors?
The biggest challenge (or rather difference) is having the actor's voice be the main driver in telling the story so that the listening audience can paint the picture of what the setting/location looks and feels like. The actor's voice allows the audience's imagination to create the entire production in their head. The actor's expressions must be dynamic, emphatic, and so descriptive of the scene.
I know in attending a number of LATW readings/recordings, I do appreciate the visuals, the movements of the actors, even though I know their primary emphasis is for audio broadcast. Do you sometimes keep your eyes closed to block out the visuals the actors might incorporate to concentrate on their vocal communications?
Funny, you should mention that. From the first day of rehearsal, I don't look at the actors so that I can picture the story in my head. The first day of rehearsal is the only day that the actors can look at each other and relate to each other. Other than that, the actors are speaking straight out into the microphone imagining the character they are speaking to in front of them. At the multiple performances, I am actually following the script finding the best performances of each scene to utilize in the final cut. I am not looking at the actors. But I am also listening to the live audience's reaction to help me understand the best performances as well.
Do you encourage the LATW casts to include physical gestures?
Because actors have a script in one hand, and their mouths have to be in a certain proximity to the mic, gestures are limited. For the most part, the actors have to tell the story through their voice. Too many gestures may also cause extraneous noise which will interfere with the recording.
You, yourself, still do occasional voice-over work for animation and video games. What notes have you been given that you pass onto your LATW casts?
LOL! Wear loose clothing that is comfortable. Don't wear jewelry that will make noise when you move about. Drink lots of water so that you keep hydrated and your mouth doesn't get dry - the mic picks up everything. Eat before you come to work - the mic picks up your stomach and the hunger pangs. Do mouth and vocal exercises. Try to learn as much of the lines as you can so that your head is not buried in the page, but out into the mic.
You were the artistic director of the East West Players for 23 years, and now been endowed with the title 'producing artistic director emeritus.' What accomplishments during your East West Players' tenure are you most proud of?
I am so proud of being a small part of people's success whether as a writer, an actor, or even as an administrator. It is rewarding for me to watch Qui's career blossom from running a theatre company to becoming a successful playwright, and now writing for film and TV. To see Amy Hill or John Cho or BD Wong, who acted on the EWP stage many years ago, be very successful in film and TV.
What East West Players' production did you find the most challenging to direct?
Oh gosh, Stephen Sondheim's FOLLIES was probably the most challenging. We had 26 actors, so many set pieces, so many costumes, so many personalities. We had to turn our administrative offices into additional dressing rooms. We had limited storage. So we had to take out scenery for Act One and put it in the parking lot during intermission, so that we could bring in the scenery for Act Two. The trials and tribulations of running a mid-sized theatre.
Do you have a favorite East West show?
I have many - SWEENEY TODD, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES...
Any preference in helming a musical, a comedy or a drama?
No real preference, but I love musicals. I graduated from USC with an emphasis in Musical Theatre.
You've worked in both Los Angeles and New York theatre communities. How would you compare the two? (attitudes of actors, audiences, opportunities, salaries)
I've mainly worked in the area of Asian American theatre. The acting communities are all so supportive on both coasts. I tend to think the Asian American performing community is larger in L.A. because of the vast exposure to film and TV, as well as, theatre. So many people are now bi-coastal, so the opportunities are available on both coasts especially with the option of auditioning on tape. Audiences tend to be more theatre-savvy in New York. I think it is more expensive to produce in New York since there is so much control by the Union. There are more efforts here in L.A. in remunerating artists at the intimate theatre level, but it is a process. Ultimately, it is the passion of the artists that drives them to make "the work" happen.
Do you feel a New York production always be the end goal in theatre?
No, not at all. People use to think New York was the place to be, but I don't think that is the end goal anymore. There is so much opportunity and different kinds of opportunity as an artist.
Is Los Angeles the preferred try-out city for new shows, or even in the top five?
That is so hard to say. Theatre is over-shadowed by the film, TV, music industry. I think some of the best plays are being tried out in regional theatres like Berkeley Rep, Seattle Rep, or Guthrie, etc. But South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa seems to be developing new plays.
As a faculty member at the USC School of Dramatic Arts for directing and dramaturgy, what do you see that's new and inventive in the upcoming generation of directors and writers that wasn't yet developed when you were in your early studies?
There are so many more opportunities to use your craft - it is not just in film/TV/stage anymore. There are other social media platforms. You have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, YouTube. Many artists are double majors where they can find arts in social justice, or how art can help autism or mental health, or how art can help in climate change.
What's in the near future for Tim Dang?
I love mentoring the next generation of artists. I think it is key that every individual find their artistic soul. That will make us better citizens of the world.
For you, what would be the most satisfying audience reaction after VIETGONE's curtain call?
I always love hearing "the buzz" after a performance... where the lobby is filled with conversation. Whether positive or negative, it is the stimulating conversation and the exchanging of ideas that is so rewarding.
Thank you again, Tim. Glad to finally have the chance to interview you after all these years of meeting at the the-a-ta!
Thanks Gil. Hopefully, I've answered your questions intelligently. I'll see you at VIETGONE!
For ticket availability for the four shows the weekend of January 24 through 26, log onto www.latw.org