On March 24, 2015, the New-York Historical Society presented An Evening with Amy Tan, moderated by Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times and author Ken Smith, as part of The Bernard and Irene Schwartz Distinguished Speakers Series in The Robert H. Smith Auditorium in New York.
Bestselling author Amy Tan—internationally recognized for her books exploring themes of family and self-identity within the Chinese-American experience—discussed her accomplished career and how her own personal stories as the daughter of Chinese immigrants influenced her novels.
Born in the US to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan rejected her mother’s expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist. She chose to write fiction instead. Her novels are The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Saving Fish from Drowning, The Valley of Amazement, all New York Times bestsellers and recipients of various awards. She is also the author of a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, two children’s books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat, and numerous articles for magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and National Geographic. She is also the author of the short story Rules for Virgins published as an audiobook. Her work has been translated into 35 languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew.
Amy Tan served as Co-producer and Co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club. She was the Creative Consultant for Sagwa, the Emmy-nominated PBS television series for children, which has aired worldwide, including in the UK, Latin America, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Her story in The New Yorker, “Immortal Heart,” was performed on stages throughout the US and in France. Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks, and they are assigned as required reading in many high schools and universities. She appeared as herself in the animated series “The Simpsons.” She performed as narrator with the San Francisco Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra playing an original score for “Sagwa” by composer Nathan Wang. In 2014 Amy Tan was awarded the Lawrence Sanders Award in Fiction.
Amy Tan has lectured internationally at universities, including Stanford, Oxford, Jagellonium, Beijing, and Georgetown both in Washington DC and Doha, Qatar. The National Endowment for the Arts chose The Joy Luck Club for its 2007 “Big Read” program. Ms. Tan also served as the Fiction Editor for the now-defunct Los Angeles Times magazine, West.
Ms. Tan also wrote the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which had its world premiere in September 2008 with the San Francisco Opera. The book Fate! Luck! Chance! Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Ken Smith, was published by Chronicle Books in August 2008, and a documentary about the opera, Journey of the Bonesetter’s Daughter, premiered on PBS in 2011. Prior to their disbanding, she served as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members included Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. Their yearly gigs raised over a million dollars for literacy programs.
The conversation was followed by a book signing.
Below are excerpts from their interview:
Ken: Nobody has had the kind of life you’ve had. You were blessed in your mother, with a character as colorful as anything in literary fiction. You have a wild imagination. And yet, that’s only part of the story. I’d like to see how things got out there. The process that you work with, how much was really in place by the time you worked on Joy Luck Club?
Amy: You know, I don’t really have a process. I wish I did because then I would be able to get through these books a lot faster. Joy Luck Club was probably the most organized. It was because I was so naïve about what would happen in publishing. I wrote basically three stories in three years, and the remainder of that book in four months. In part, I wrote it in a rush thinking the publisher might change their mind. I wrote a story a week, and I had a workshop leader, Molly Giles is here, and took it to a conference, and had it critiqued. It was the first time I ever went to a creative writing conference.
Ken: Since it is in the air here, The Joy Luck Club, there was a screening of it here just a week ago, what were those initial stories that you wrote, that were part of the proposal?
Amy: The first one was called, “Rules of the Game,” about a chess prodigy. I never played chess by the way. The second was “Waiting Between the Trees,” a mother whose daughter is married and she splits everything to make their marriage even; and then the last one was “Scar,” about a mother who returns for her daughter, and the daughter knows that her daughter is an outcast. Those are the three stories that I was working on. I was so naïve about this. When my agent said to write an outline, and what the rest of these stories might look like, I spent literally two hours and came up with paragraph after paragraph of what would be the stories, including the titles. When they sold it, I felt like I had to stick with the outline, because that’s what they bought. It turned out to be a fairly good outline. I wish I could do that now. Time pressure is a really great inspiration.
Ken: In terms of the China part of The Joy Luck Club, you travelled with your mother right after the book had been accepted. Had you been there before?
Amy: I wrote the first three stories having never been to China. And then I made this promise when I thought my mother might die, that if she recovered, I’d take her to China and get to know her. She lived and it was 24/7 for three weeks, sleeping in the same bed, and having her say, “don’t eat that, eat that, it is good for you. Don’t run out in the street.” It was like being six again. When I got back, that’s when my agent said, “I’m so glad you are here, because we have all these offers on your book.” And I said, “What book?” She said, “The Joy Luck Club.” And I said, “But I haven’t written it.” And she said, “Yes, I know.” I thought she was a scam artist because I was smart enough to know you don’t sell a first book by an unknown person, based on three stories. That’s how it happened.
Ken: That explains a lot of the mother/daughter tension in the book, actually, just coming back from China.
Amy: Yes, I got to relive it, from birth to 37.
Ken: Rosalyn Chiao was here for the screening of Joy Luck Club, and in talking about the experience, she had said that you were very hands on during the filmmaking process, and certainly, having gone through an opera with you, I absolutely understood that. Tell us about your involvement with the film.
Amy: I didn’t want to be involved with the film. Wayne Wang was the director. We had a wonderful screenwriter named Ron Bass, and I said, “You guys go on and do this, I trust you.” They said, we think you should be part of it. “ I said, “no I am going back to fiction.” They said, Why don’t you stay a few days. We’re just going to hammer it out what the emotional resonance is for each of the characters, and their overall arc in the story, so I stayed and I said, “I’ll be the typist.” Sixty pages of single spaced notes came out of that. And then they said, “Why don’t you just try writing a scene. We think you’ll learn something about earning the moment. “It was like heroin. We used fax machines back then. I wrote this moment. Ron had broken this all out, three acts, various scenes, and then the moments within the scenes. I was to take one scene and these moments. He had put down the sentence. I wrote it up, faxed it back to him, and it came back all torn apart. “ Why did you think you could do this? What is word here? ” It was completely reworked. He sent it back and he said, “Now do it again.” It was like a graduate course in filmmaking. It was great. He gave me the title of co-screenwriter, but it should have been Ron Bass, screenwriter, and Amy Tan, student. I was hands on in that I had the Thanksgiving dinner, I was also made a co-producer. I didn’t know what that meant. I said, “If you make me a co-producer, I’m still not going to go to meetings.” I made them actually write it in my contract that as a co-producer, that I did not have to go to meetings.
Ken: What was that like in terms of collaboration?
Amy: We had such a terrific time and I was told that was unusual. We would talk about these scenes together. It was similar to what happen when Stewart and I did the opera. We would talk about scenes and emotions within them, what had to transpire, and what the underlying sense of that was. And talk it through, and then sit down and write the scene. And then go back and go through it again and again. There was only one scene in which I disagreed with their take on it. And usually, we were always in harmony, always agreed. But that one scene, it was a sex scene. I thought it was gratuitous. Finally, I said, “You guys write the sex scene. I’m going to go out and have the post-coital cigarette.” I smoked in those days.
Ken: Were you happy with the scene in the end?
Amy: They modified it a lot. I was hands on, really protecting the actors and what I thought was not for them. I was very conscious that these actors, these women were incredible actors who did not get a chance to have these big roles that often. This was role they could put their heart into. There was a point in which they wanted to cast another woman to be the mother, June’s mother, who at the end during the war, they were going to make her a different actress. I said, “You can’t do that.” Emotionally, we are with this woman, we’ve grown up with. It doesn’t matter if she is older or younger, the audience will go with this.
Ken Smith: It was a big boom for Asian casting. Not only were there four characters and their mothers, but other actresses playing them at different ages.
Amy Tan: It was a little bit unfortunate when it came to awards because with such a multiple cast, there was no way for any of them to garner enough votes, one over the other for those roles. I think one them, if it had been different situation, would have garnered a nomination.
Ken Smith: What did Joy Luck Club, the movie, do for Amy Tan, the novelist?
Amy: I learned I had to be very calm. I think because movies are so mainstream, it reaches more people. It really opened up awareness of all these mother/daughter issues. I think what it did was it made it seem like I was the credentialed mother/daughter expert. I was not. I wrote out of confusion.
Ken: You did ask a lot of the right questions in the book.
Amy: That’s the basis for the books. Is asking these questions, to dig deeper, to ask the questions that are uncomfortable. We can ask questions like, “What’s love? What’s hope? What is trust? But you have to get down to the really nasty questions, like, “Is love really eternal?” When would you give up love for your own selfish reasons? Is forgiveness- is that really forgive and forget? Part of me, the Christian girl who grew up with a Baptist minister says “Yes, we must forgive and forget. We can have peace in our heart, peace in the world. The other part of me says no, why should I.” I want to investigate the “No, why should I?” I want to investigate everything that is uncomfortable. The questions are good. And I ask the questions, and I don’t always have a definitive answer. That is the basis of stories. You have a million answers to the same question.
Ken:When you go into something like film or opera, where it’s really about paring down stories that you actually put really deeply beloved words to and prose, how does that change you?
Amy: I don’t think of it as paring down, I think of it as reforming something. It’s as though you have been given the same material in some way that you have created a painting, and now you are doing a sculpture. You are fashioning it differently. So it has not to do with length, but intensity, in a different form, in a different medium. I was much more disrespectful of the words, than Wayne and Ron. I remember in the beginning, they wanted to open it with these words, “The old woman remembered ….” They wanted to include the whole thing, which was over two minutes. Me, the wise person who has never made a film, “You can’t use that, there are too many words. It’s too long. You need some action going on.” They said, “Too many words? That’s the movie. That’s the whole story. That is the meaning of the book.” I thought I was being chastised. Didn’t I know what this book was about? They said, “We need to use that throughout the movie.” And they did. So you see that scene in the beginning of June reading to the child, this fable like tale, then you see bits of it throughout the movie, including the swan feather at the very end.
Ken: It’s a similar approach that you did with The Bonesetter’s Daughter opera.
Amy: It starts off in a similar way. By the way, I was one of these people, just like everybody else, “How does an opera get written? Is the libretto first, or the music, or visa versa?” I had no idea. And again, it was like this graduate course, doing it. Earn while you learn. We looked at this novel, the story of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and tried to figure out what the essence of this was, and the three generations. What was going on here? What was being passed along? What had been unspoken that was really the power of the ghost? Going through it, over and over again, getting down to three acts, getting down to scenes, and into the acts, and then Stewart and I going though all of the little elements. Then my saying, “Be quiet for 20 minutes and I’m going to write four lines.” Me in my loft, and I’d write the four lines. And I’d hand it to him. Immediately, music would sprout out through his head. Later on, he would say, “I hear… and he would tell me this sound world that consisted of trumpets and percussion. It was one of the highest creative moments to have the merging of story and music and words together, and both of us, seeing and hearing it in our imaginations. He would then call me, oftentimes, when he was on the road, at Yaddo the writer’s artist colony, and sing to me over the telephone. They had the public phones there. He would just start singing. I thought, “These people are going to think he is crazy.” It would be a song about killing somebody, emasculating them. He had a beautiful cantor’s voice.
Ken: I’ve seen a lot of contemporary operas. That working process was abnormal. That was amazingly tight, at every step of the way. It’s the same way, with the commercial theater, collaborators tend to be working on different shows, and come together or don’t come together. In this case, every step of the way, you knew what Stewart was listening for.
Amy: I wanted to learn more about music, about opera. I had taken 15 years of piano lessons, from 5 years old -20. I was made to believe I would become a concert pianist. When I gave up music at age 20, I felt tremendous loss. This letting go of an expectation. Which I had actually let go of a long time ago. I knew I was not good enough to become the great pianist. I always thought there would be music in my life. And so, to have the chance to work with Stewart, to work with opera, to work with you guys, musicologists, in a place of listening to music, with stories. In China, they were always linked with stories, and on occasion, ritual. It was so exciting to me, and I felt that my mother would have been so proud of that I was using the music.
Ken: We mentioned borrowing stuff for that opera from other works. In between Joy Luck Club and Kitchen God’s Wife. Kitchen God’s Wife was your eighth novel, not really your second published. What happened to those other six that were in between? Did much of the material get reused somewhere else?
Amy: I was cleaning out my garage, my rooms, my offices, and I found all these bits and pieces. In one box, there were these dead manuscripts. They were the beginnings of novels. They were there. Hundreds of pages. I had saved them thinking maybe I would reuse them. I’ve never used them. They are just there. There’s even a complete story there. I thought maybe I’d take them out and see if they are worth salvaging. I think that my instincts were good. They were set aside and never should be used again. I think I would be embarrassed to read them. They were my groping for a story with these different voices in head. After the success of Joy Luck Club, the different voices, “We like mother/daughter tales,” or “We like the exotic parts of the story,” or “We like culture.” I had all these voices in my head from what I thought readers wanted. I had no room for my own voice. I had to let go of those attempts, because they were not the story that I was writing for myself. And I do have to ultimately write the story from the beginning, for myself.
Ken: In terms of getting those ideas and inspiration that you are talking about, and getting it to the page, there is a lot of research involved for you. There’s a lot of working and reworking. What are some examples where research has changed for you?
Amy: Well, certainly the internet has changed research. I still do a lot of go-to-the-source kind of research. I think writing a novel is an excuse to do research. Research is fun.It’s one of the best parts of writing. So, for example, we went with you and Joanna to Dimen, this little village in Guizhou, the Southwestern part of the poorest, most remote province, to live with these minorities who had a singing language, who didn’t have a written form and sang their history. What better research than that. And the fact that even though it was not something that was used, not all of it was used in the opera, I used that scene, that scenery, that sensibility, in The Valley of Amazement. One of the valleys is from Dimen. So, it became, inadvertently, the source. But when I went there, I didn’t know that I was going to use it.
Ken: To be fair, when you were doing the National Geographic article on that village, you were there three times.
Amy: Yes, that’s true.
Ken: For a five thousand word piece, which is a pretty intense amount of work to immerse yourself into the village, to know people’s names, to have relationships there.
Amy: To eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there, which was kind of taking my life in my own hands. The sanitation system was a little iffy, but I was inoculated from most of the stuff. Sitting on those boards on the floor, every time I walked by they would say good morning in Chinese, and they really meant it. Pretty soon, three meals a day. That was my way of getting the story, collecting the story. Not asking them questions. Just going through, sitting down, talking, then hearing them talk. That’s how I did my research. Just trying to connect on a level of storytelling with the other person. A lot of this comes as happenstance. I might be researching one thing for a particular piece, like the National Geographic article and something will come up that I can use somewhere else. Or that will inspire a part of the next book.
National Geographic: Village on the Edge of Time
Ken: One of those examples that I remember you talking about from The Hundred Secret Senses, and the fact that this is a mystical story to begin with, you have a story that is about a ghostly and spiritual presence. You said the research just fell into your lap.
Amy: That whole book was really bizarre how it happened. I hesitate to talk about it because it makes me sound very Californian, new age. This very mystical stuff continued after the book came out. For example, I was trying to decide whether I could have a character who was living in this area of Guilin, who was involved with the Taiping Rebellion. My sister, the expert who lived in Guilin, who is Chinese said, “No, there were no Hakka people in that area.” The doorbell rings, it’s Fedex. I received this brand new galley of Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China. The first page it flips open to is about the Taiping Rebellion of the Hakka in Guilin. That happened repeatedly. I wanted the name of the village, I’d flip open my Chinese dictionary and the first name I would see would be exactly the right name, that had the double meaning that I wanted. It was as though all I had to do was think about this and I would wait and something would come. Now the part of it that continued, when I was doing interviews, the tape recorders would go dead. I had to warn people, a lot of these interviewers lost everything. These said, “Well, this is a new recorder, new tapes, fresh batteries.” One woman said she got home after this 90-minute interview and the tape was completely blank. She was so freaked out. Television stations, audio would go down; radio stations, audio would go down. It was only for that book
Ken: The detail with which you go to set a place, to set a person, a character, I think that’s one reason that it transcends the sources. One of the great ironies, the more detail you get of a specific place, the more universal it becomes.
Amy: Well I think it’s not the amount of detail, it’s the detail that enables you to sensorially be there, and emotionally be there. If somebody believes emotionally that they are there, that will cover a lot. You can practically say anything, and they will believe it as long as they feel it. I have a very visual imagination. I wanted to become an artist when I was child. I have to see the scene completely. What I mean by that is if I were going to write a story, first, I would not have such a plain stage, if it was going to be in my story. I’d have things carved on there, that was like a curse or something. I would have to see everything in absolute detail, to know exactly what it looks like. I would look to the side and know what was there. I would know what my shoes look like. It’s the way that I dream. My dreams are very detailed. I’m very lucky that I am this way. It’s an imagination that I know I had from a very young age. The way that I know that is in doing research for another book, I came across a study that it turned out I was part of. I was one of 49 children in this landmark study on early reading. That was the study that my parents thought I was going to be a doctor based on that study. It had nothing to do with being a doctor. It had to do with the fact that I was an early reader. In the interview, my father said to this woman, the researcher Dr. Dolores Durkin, that even before the age of four, I started to learn to read on my own. He said, ‘She was always a scribbler, she’s always drawing pictures and making up stories about them.” I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t realize what I wanted to be was the flip side of it. It was two sides of the same coin. My imagination inhabited both sides of it. When I say that my imagination is visual, it’s that kind of detail that I look for.
Ken: Tell us about The Valley of Amazement. I’m assuming that is the highest level of research you’ve done for a book.
Amy: There was a lot of research. It involved a lot of museums. One of them, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco led me on this completely different direction for the novel. There was an exhibition on Shanghai. I saw an illustration of courtesans. It said they were very influential in Shanghai, they brought a lot of Western culture in. I thought, “Interesting, strong women, not what I thought.” I bought a book on courtesans, opened up the book and see this photo of this woman wearing clothes identical to that of my grandmother in my favorite photo of her. Now, I have a mystery. It takes me on this journey to many different places. I went to Rochester to the George Eastman House where there is a great repository of images, moving and still, to look up all the photographs they might have of courtesans and women of the 19th century. I went to the National Gallery of Art to look at Hudson River Valley paintings. I went to the Metropolitan museum and thanks to Mike Hearn, who is the curator of Asian Art, was able to do research on poet scholars, and became fascinated with poet scholars who had blue eyes. So the blue green eyes figured into the story. It came, not in an organized way at all, but each thing led one to the other, these pieces would come along the way and I would integrate them.
Ken: How much of the story did you have before you started this research?
Amy: It upended the other story. I kept the village, a cowshed, a woman who had been stuck in this very remote place, and then I took off with the courtesan house now. My research indicated that there was a possibility that my grandmother had been a courtesan. I talked to a number of scholars, a lot of research books about Shanghai courtesans. That figured into the story, as did a lot having to do with paintings and foreigners. I found out, what about, did American woman marry Chinese men? There was a lot of intermarriage in the United States. Much more than you would imagine. Especially Irish woman would marry Chinese men. And there were also some in China. I read newspaper accounts of what happened. I found out how much the newspaper subscription costs. I went to these really stupid lengths to be in that place. I wanted to find out if they had toilet paper. That is the degree of obsession that I have when I go into my mind. It’s all a part of going into that story.
Ken: What do we have to look forward to?
Amy: Well, I do have a novel that I am working on called The Memory of Desire. This is going to make a lot of writers sick. On New Year’s eve, I had dream. I dreamed the entire novel- how it starts, where it is set, who the main character is, the other characters, the conflicts, the overall direction this is going in, the backstory. I couldn’t believe it when I woke up. This can’t be true. You have a dream and you think it’s great. And then after a while, you realize it is jibberish. I wrote it down. It is intact. It is a story. It is the first time that has ever happened to me. I feel great. The narrative, the voice. The book that will come out first is called, The Mind of A Writer. It’s a book about writing. It’s about my imagination, my mind and my writing. How I do my writing. Which is really how I think. Which is really a lot of bizarre thoughts. It has to do with imagination and association, memory connections, a lot of fortuitous happenings. It started off with my editor and a letter I wrote to him when we started working together, when he asked, “What is the book about?” I was heartsick about this novel. I said, “You’re not going to know what this book is about unless you know what I’m about. “ So I wrote this 4000 word letter to him that said why I am a writer, about the about. And then he ended up wanting to publish it. And then he ended up wanting to publish my emails. I said, “No I will never write another email to you.” We are working through privacy issues and I am writing essays related to this. We’ll probably include some of the emails because that more than anything, probably is a good example of how my imagination works. How it jumps from one thing to the next and makes these connections.
The evening with Amy Tan was part of the New-York Historical Society’s Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion Exhibition, that interprets the legacy of Chinese in the United States as a key element of American history, spanning the late-18th century to the present and all regions of the country, recently on view through April 19, 2015. The exhibition addresses the challenges of immigration, citizenship and belonging that shaped not only the Chinese American experience, but also the development of the United States from the formation of its policies to its national character.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion Exhibition on view at New-York Historical Society through April 19; Photos of An Evening with Amy Tan
Mar. 24: An Evening with Amy Tan at New-York Historical Society
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Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon and Taxman. She has guest starred on “One Life to Live,” “As the World Turns,” and “New York Undercover.” Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington and Roscoe Orman. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.
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