Interview by Sal Mattos
Our latest featured member is a theatrical powerhouse. Learn more about this ATLAS alumnus, Titan Award winner, newscaster, off-Broadway performer, founder of Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company (a TBA Awards Recommended company), feature film actor, mother, George Takei entertainer (is there anything she can’t do?)—in short, one of the busiest pros in the business: Lily Tung Crystal.
|TBA Featured Member Lily Tung Crystal. Photo: Stuart Locklear
Tell us a little about your background in theatre.
I always thought I was more of a singer in the beginning, even though now most people know me as an actor. I started singing lessons when I was seven and did musical theatre in grade school and high school. In college, I was in an a capella group and also did some theatre. After college, I moved to Shanghai and worked as a freelance foreign correspondent. While there, I sang in a couple of rock and blues bands and did one play—I played Amanda in Private Lives. When I moved back to the US, I got a job at KRON 4 News, and on the side, decided to pursue performing more seriously. I started taking singing classes at Jazzschool and acting classes at Studio ACT. There, I was inspired to pursue a professional career by my teacher/director Frances Epsen Devlin, who seemed to be one of the few people here that actually encouraged their students to turn Equity.
You’re quite a multifaceted artist: actor, writer, producer and company founder. Do you primarily identify as one of those over the others—and if not, how would you describe your body of work?
I feel like I have a true dual career. On one side, I’m an actor/singer, and on the other, I’m a writer/producer. It’s only been in the last five years that I’ve become an artistic director and only in the last year that I did my first directing job. So those are newer to me.
You’ve been involved in a number of TBA programs over the years. As an ATLAS alumnus, as well as a Titan Award winner, would you tell us how it’s affected your career path?
In a nutshell, ATLAS and the Titan Award changed my life. When I first started in ATLAS, I was afraid to identify myself as an actor. But ATLAS taught me to embrace that identity and stand in the knowing that I was a performing artist.
Winning the Titan Award helped me gain even more confidence in myself as an artist. It helped me found the Bay Area Asian American Actors Collective (BAAAAC) and, ultimately, Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. It not only helped my career, but helped me and my theatre company support the careers of many Asian American theatre artists. For the full story, please refer to my chapter in the ATLAS book.
[Note: Lily’s full ATLAS story can be found in the new guide, ATLAS: Charting an Artist’s Career Map, now on sale in PDF.]
Would you tell us a little more about the BAAAAC?
The BAAAAC was a group I founded with Asian American Theatre Company (AATC) to offer support, networking, education and mentorship to Asian American actors. We meet occasionally, have a Yahoo! group where we post audition and show announcements and have offered a couple workshops. It was established as a way for Asian American actors to connect with and support each other. Early on, however, it morphed into Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Although we still run the BAAAAC Yahoo! group, we now accomplish much of that mission through Ferocious Lotus, especially since AATC has gone into hiatus.
Even though I had thought the BAAAAC could perhaps eventually become a theatre company, I hadn’t intended for that to happen for at least five years. I was a new mother, and if you had told me then that I would birth a baby and a theatre company in the same year, I would have thought you were crazy.
What’s something you really like about the theatre scene here in the Bay Area? Anything happening here that really excites you?
The Bay Area is diverse, and I’m excited that theatre here seems to be growing in diversity. I’m hoping that this is the wave of the future, and not just a temporary trend. If any region is going to lead the American theatre to diversity, it’s the Bay Area. It has that history of tolerance and acceptance.
I especially love that the Bay Area theatre industry people are so supportive of each other. When we started Ferocious Lotus, we got so much support from people of all cultures and backgrounds in the community—both mainstream and smaller, diverse theatres. It was touching and inspiring and helped give us the confidence to continue our work. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.
What’s one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
In 2006, I played Mrs. Park in Jay Kuo’s new musical, Homeland. It was a watershed role for me—my first lead, and a character that I loved. It’s difficult for Asian American actors sometimes to find substantial roles, but here was a character who made people both laugh and cry; as an actor, you can’t ask for much more than that. That show was quite pivotal for me, as it propelled me to start thinking of myself as an actor/singer.
Then, in 2009, I got to do a fundraiser for Jay Kuo’s next show, Allegiance (which is now on Broadway), and got to perform with one of my favorite actors, George Takei. A month later, I went to New York with the workshop of Homeland and got to experience performing with some of my favorite Broadway actors. It was unbelievable; I felt like I needed to pinch myself. George Takei actually came to that performance, and after the show, he said to me, “Lily, you should be taken to jail!” I had no idea what he meant. Then he laughed and said, “You stole the show!” To get that enthusiastic response from an actor whom I’ve long idolized, who helped pioneer Asian Americans in entertainment, was a huge moment for me.
[And] on Monday, as part of Intersection for the Arts’ 50th anniversary, Ferocious Lotus presented a staged reading of Christopher Chen’s I Mean to Do You Harm. We were honored to be included as “artists and thinkers who will help define Intersection for the next 50 years!”
Any upcoming projects that you’d like to share with our readers?
Right now, Ferocious Lotus is trying to do one production a year, so after the [Intersection] reading we’ll need to look at what production we’re going to do next.
Theatre Bay Area members: Creative. Committed. Community.