BWW Interview: Kalean Ung Acting, Singing & Writing LETTERS from Cambodia to SoCal
LETTERS FROM HOME marks the most personal reveal/presentation that writer/actress/singer Kalean Ung has ever undertaken. Based on her family history in Cambodia, specifically during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, Kalean explores her relatives' struggles and eventual rescue, while also describing her own experiences of growing up bi-racial and first generation in Southern California. Kalean most graciously and quickly responded to my probing inquiries.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me, Kalean.
LETTERS FROM HOME is your personal story of your relatives surviving in the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the late 1970s. How did you come to find these letters that sparked LETTERS FROM HOME in your father's desk drawer?
The letters lived in a drawer in my father's closet and I did not know they existed until 2016. He hadn't looked at them since the 1980s. He had burned many others after he had read them decades ago. I knew that my father revealing this to me was a tremendous gift, and that these letters were gold. As he translated and transcribed them, we both realized just how beautiful and important these letters were to pay tribute to the family's suffering, as well as, all other people who have faced genocide.
Any contents of the letters that particularly shocked/surprised you? Did you have a general knowledge of what occurred to your family back then?
Of course. A lot of them were very hard to read because you can hear the urgency and desperation. I can only imagine how panicked my father was when he read them. My father and I were most interested how much imagery and metaphor were present in the letters, even under such circumstances and suffering. It is a testament to how extraordinary the Cambodian people are.
Is this your first creative collaboration with your father, the much-acclaimed Chinary Ung?
This is our second collaboration together. He wrote me a piece called After Rising Light that is a soprano and piano duet that we premiered at The Wild Beast at CalArts.
Did your father write the music for LETTERS FROM HOME specifically? Or are some of the pieces from his vast repertoire?
My father wrote the music for LETTERS FROM HOME specifically.
Being raised in a musical household, did you sing before you ever spoke? Were you surrounded by music?
I spent many hours on my swing set singing my own solo operas. My bedroom was also above my dad's studio, so I would fall asleep listening to my father compose music late into the night. I would hear the chords he played on the piano, and then the sounds of his chair rolling over to the drawing board to write down the notes, and then rolling back. There was a constant sound space "negotiation" with my mom practicing viola, my sister playing violin, my father composing and me singing or playing the piano.
What words of professional advice did your father share with you?
In many ways, I learned from example. I observed how to being serious about the work you do without taking yourself too seriously. My father is very charismatic, so I also learned how to have a sense of humor, and how to collaborate with other artists.
When did you come to realize the significance of your father becoming the first American to win the highly coveted international 1989 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition?
Ha! As a child, I'm sure I had no idea what that meant exactly. But I did know it was a big deal when we went to Carnegie Hall to hear Inner Voices (the piece he won the award for) in 2000.
You have been a frequent performing contributor to the Los Angeles theatre scene. What inspired you to transform these LETTERS into this workshop with Independent Shakespeare Company?
Melissa Chalsma has been a big supporter of my dream of writing a solo show for some years now. When we began speaking about the letters that I found, she invited me to be a part of iambic lab, ISC's new works series, that happens once a year. LFH also includes personal accounts of the recent Shakespearian roles I've performed at ISC. I was honored when she invited me to perform LFH this fall. It is also an opportunity for me to get it on its feet before I present it as part of my father's 75th birthday celebration at UCSD in November.
Here's a 'which came first - chicken or egg' question.' Which discipline were you initially drawn to - singing or acting? Of course, singing combined with acting's what makes an effective performer, as I was fortunate to witness at one of your performances of "Barbara Song" in Kurt Weill AT THE CUTTLEFISH HOTEL a couple years back.
Thank you so much! I started out as a classically trained singer, and came into acting after undergrad. On most days, I like to think of myself as an "actor that sings." Sometimes the job calls for a "singer who acts" or an "actor that moves and sings." I wear my hats accordingly. I love the task of balancing out this ratio depending on what the project requires.
What acting exercise do you utilize in your singing and what vocal exercise do you adapt to your acting?
As an actor, I work a lot with image. That is something that I did not use when I started out as a singer, but now I always try to connect to image when I sing. As a singer and musician, you are required to use a lot of discipline. Inheritably, I bring this into my work as an actor, and I relish balancing technicality and creative impulse.
Would you tell us what you learned from your experience in Germany performing as part of "CalArts Plays Itself" in the Rurhtriennale 2011 festival?
That was such an incredible experience! It was wonderful to collaborate with CalArtians overseas and was empowering to share our work in the festival. It was also haunting to work in Essen, specifically because it was a coal-mining town. The building that we worked and presented work in originally functioned as thousands of showers for all of the men who worked in the mines.
What do you hope for your LETTERS FROM HOME after this workshop?
Two things. One, there are many things we won't know until we get it on its feet and in front of an audience. I hope to learn from this experience what is resonating with the audience both in terms of the writing and performance. Two, my dream is that I get to perform the piece around the country and around the world.
Any chance of you and your father performing on stage together in the near future? Or this collaboration as close as it gets for the two Ungs in a show?
Probably not! My dad doesn't perform anymore, but sometimes he conducts his work. This might be it!
Thank you again, Kalean. I look forward to seeing you command the stage again!
For available tickets for the four November dates at the Independent Shakespeare Company Studio, log onto www.iscla.org