By SAYMOUKDA VONGSAY
AAP staff writer
This week’s Pushing the Pen interview is with someone whom A. Magazine has dubbed the “Godfather of Asian American theater,” Roger Tang.
Tang’s involvement and love for theater has spanned three decades having produced David Henry Hwang’s Bondage, Philip Kim Gotanda’s Dream of Kitamura, Genny Lim’s Paper Angels, and Qui Nguyen’s Living Dead in Denmark, among other influential new works. Tang is the managing producer of the northwest’s longest running Asian American theater, board member at Repertory Actors Theater, editor of the Asian American Theater Revue, and the author of Third Generation Heritage and Shadowed Intent.
In Seattle, Pork-Filled Players is one of the oldest APA sketch comedy groups in the northwest, founded in 1997. At the 3rd National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, I connected with Robert Tang, a managing producer at PFP, who piqued my interest in PFP due to their use of humor in addressing themes and issues that pertain to the APA community.
Tang has taught Asian American history at the University of Washington and is the Literary Manager of Sex in Seattle Productions. SIS is a Seattle-based company where Asian Americans, especially women, could be the leaders and the driving force in producing quality shows that showcased the talents of Asian American women – producing, directing, writing, and acting.
Let us get to know the educator, editor, writer, producer, and rogue photographer better.
Vongsay: In the form of a haiku/senyru, tell us about yourself.
Roger Tang: I create and write / To Lead by example / Yet still be funny
V: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced within your discipline?
RT: Pork Filled Players is a humor group, that does both original sketch comedy and “legit” stage, full-length pieces. Right there is a challenge to produce both Saturday Night Live material (but funny!) while still managing to put on stuff like our last show, YELLOW FACE, by David Henry Hwang.
On the sketch side, it’s been a challenge to encourage other Asian American writers to unleash their funny side, while at the same time, maintaining the discipline to avoid self-indulgence and to keep to deadlines for producing shows. A lot of AAs don’t think they’re that funny, so you have to give a little self confidence to nascent writers, while at the same time making sure they hit all the bases of their craft (in sketch comedy, that’s being brief, hitting the rule of threes, etc.). Too, once they get that initial confidence, it’s been interesting trying to develop writers’ voices. At some point, you cover all the obvious material (Asian Americans considered foreign in their own land, stereotyping, etc.) and then you have to consider what else to write about–other aspects of life and other, non-obvious angles of being Asian American.
On the theatrical side, it’s been a challenge to find and promote good, quality stage comedies. Asian Americans don’t seem to write longer length comedy. I’ve tried myself, writing a few full-length show, but they’re still at the whimsical/amusing stage, and not quite at the grab-you-by-the-eyeballs and make you watch stage. Still, they’re something I want to see on stage—they’re distinctly Asian American, but they tend to build it into the bones of the play rather than have a show revolved around the themes of Asian American culture.
V: What does the saying, “Each one, reach one, teach one,” mean to you? Should it apply to writers at all?
RT: I look at myself more as a producer, teacher and igniter of creative talent. I’m a modestly talented actor and writer, and I’ve used that talent to form a place where others (hopefully more talented than me) can gather and hone their craft. I find that immensely more useful than being just another mediocre actor or writer.
V: What is the future of your discipline? Where is it headed?
RT: Sketch comedy is a young person’s game, so you’re constantly seeing new people come in, develop as both writers and actors and move on. That makes sketch intimately involved with Asian American culture as a whole, as the concerns of artists and writers are tied to where Asian America is.
So, we’ve seen a bit of a shift; previously, a lot of material was concerned about identity, immigration, so forth. Not so much now, as we’re seeing a little more stuff about non-ethnic specific material, general stuff like relationships, employment, etc. (although with a tiny bit of Asian spin to it).
Not sure where that leads into the future, though maybe there’s a more global look and more general socio-economic commentary might be coming up.
V: Be innovative or stay classic?
RT: Both. The classics are classics for a reason. Be innovative to stay fresh. And then put it all together.
Hey, pratfalls and physical humor is still funny.
V: What else do you wield with your hands other than a pen?
RT: I wield an editor’s pencil—as part of Pork Filled Players, I help shape the material.
As a producer for both the sketch and the theatre side, I wield the checkbook.
I’m a sound designer at times for the various other associated Asian American theatres (Repertory Actors Theatre and SIS Productions).
Very, very occasionally, I shoot video for shows and edit footage for stage use.
V: Where is your happy place?
RT: With other people, tinkering with a scene or a sketch, AND IT WORKS.
V: In the spirit of ‘wait 20 minutes before swimming,’ what should a writer NOT do before their pen hits the paper?
RT: Watch network TV.
V: Besides other writers, what influences your work?
RT: For a sketch comedy person, I don’t have a lot of influences from within comedy. But I have a lot of influences from geek culture: comics, genre TV shows, genre movies, SF books, etc. You can tell what I’ve been watching from the latest script I’ve been writing.
V: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
RT: Well, the sketch group is appearing regularly through the Seattle area, but we’ll have a new show with new material in the middle of next year. And I’m going to try to finish my next script next year — it’s supposed to be a light hearted heist job, but we’ll see if I can get it done.
Vongsay is a recipient of the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry and is a Jerome/Mu Performing Arts New Eyes Theater Fellow. She lives to write and dreams to fight zombies.