December 7th, 2012
I’m headed out of town again on Saturday. I’ll start in NYC for a few days, then to Philly for the National Performance Network Annual Meeting, then will fly from there to Miami where my show CAT LADY will play for three weekends with a brand new cast! If you remember, that play is about my cat’s spraying problems, cat ladies, and pick-up artists. That play has a whole lotta weird memories tied in with it, so I had to put it to rest for a year. I’m actually nervous about looking at it again. Do any of you get weird when you pick up an old show? How do you deal with it?
I just did an email interview with a press person in Miami. I tend to write dozens of paragraphs and only two sentences are pulled. It took me a few hours to answer these questions but I figure, why not share my answers with you!
*What was the process to get to Cat Lady to where it is now from what it was when premiered at REDCAT NOW?
Since 2006, I’d been touring this show called “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, which really, I’d been working on since 2004. It’s a show about depression and suicide among Asian American women (who have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide in this country). So I’ve been living with this show for almost 8 years. For some horrific subject matter, it’s actually a pretty funny show and I’ve been fortunate to have toured a lot of the country to very diverse audiences doing this show and to have been able to make a good living as an artist. There were times in the first few years of touring that show that I felt like my life was finally realized, my purpose on this planet had been served, and I was able to do what I hadn’t imagined my whole life would be possible— to make a living as an artist on my own terms and to help other people who were depressed.
But what I didn’t anticipate was how totally lonely the road would be. There were shows where I just felt like I threw my guts out and everyone left with these twisted impressions of who I was. I began to lose track of who Kristina Wong, the stage persona was, and who Kristina Wong really was offstage. I was literally becoming the character from my show— a needy, eager to please person disguising the worst of her reality. I used to joke that I was a non-profit Britney Spears— I knew suddenly the power of getting paid to be myself— but it wasn’t me, it was a version of me that I gave to strangers repeatedly like a human VCR. I don’t know how Broadway actors do it, but doing the same show again and again can be a nightmare and stops being creatively fulfilling, especially when you perform yourself (and you aren’t sure who you are anymore) and are talking about depression and suicide repeatedly in the show. While I wasn’t rich, I suddenly had lots of money I never had before and nobody to share my offstage life with except my cat Oliver. And he started spraying all over the apartment because I had been gone so long. Was I becoming a cat lady? A woman who’s only companion was feline, who had no way to reach other humans except on days when I had shows? All the women my age were off in relationships and making babies while I was still Peter Pan running about onstage doing the same script again and again. I didn’t know what to do next with myself. I didn’t know how to top that show. I didn’t know if I had “done it” and now it was time to retire to a desk job. All I knew was how to do the same show again and again.
Simultaneous to this, I became totally fascinated by the subculture of pick-up artists— men who are experts in the art of seducing a woman. Their technique looks a lot like stuff taught in an improv theater class. Doing “pick-up” is basically guerilla theater on unsuspecting women— except these guys learn their characters for life. “The Game” by Neil Strauss is a fantastic account of the world of these pick-up artists. I feel it reads like a tragedy, because at the end these guys are just going from bar to bar emptily picking up women, having lost all connection with their lives before pick-up. I can identify with this failure to figure out what to do next after you’ve done a good show— how to connect to the world again. This fascination with pick-up only piqued when I got picked up in Miami in 2008 by a guy named Alex Kim, an actually pick-up artist. He told me halfway through that he was a pick-up artist and despite knowing this, it was one of the most fascinating nights of my life, like being the only audience member of a really amazing show. But what disturbed me afterwards, was I wasn’t sure if what had transpired was part of a script or two people actually connecting.
What changed since I workshopped this at the REDCAT this went from a show with me talking about pick-up artists to having their full-on presence onstage. I interviewed a bunch of pick-up artists at the World Pick-Up Artist Summit in 2009 and their interviews appear in the show. (Yes, pick-up artists have conferences.) I went in pretending to be an entertainment reporter, and asking them the same existential questions I had been grappling with in the show: What’s the meaning of life? How do I get my cat to stop spraying? What’s been the loneliest moment of your life?
I interviewed a pick-up artist named Johnny Wolf who I especially gravitated towards because not only were we both Asian American but he grew up in the same San Francisco neighborhood as me and went to the same middle school. His life had odd parallels to mine— he’d hit the height of pick-up but still felt incredibly lonely and knew he had to pursue life beyond pick-up. He was incredibly vulnerable sharing stories of his life with me as much as he was clearly in his “Master Pick-Up Artist” persona. In ways, these guys were like me at the Q&As for my show— still performing, still genuine, genuinely performing.
*Do you find yourself using comedy to interpret dark issues? Why or why not?
It sort of just comes naturally. Both Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and CAT LADY were both going to be really “serious” pieces of “art” but I think in my frustration at trying to be a serious artist, came a lot of side cracking and diffusing moments of self deprecation which I finally figured out how to embrace and just make parts of the show. It also makes it easier for me as a performer to not just re-enact the dark, but also find levity and release in it.
In these shows I never set out to write jokes and be funny, but the humor found itself in the process. I think this is what differentiates me from stand-ups, not only because my work tends to not be me and a mic— but it’s more than set-up- punch, set-up- punch. It’s a lot of superbly emotional ideas and heady concepts, filtered into some very visual and colorful performance.
*Why did you chose (the great!) Paul Tei to direct?
Paul has become one of my best friends in the last few years (if you don’t believe me, check the WONG tattoo on his bicep!). His friendship really got me through 2010, which was one of the most depressing years of my life. I had just bought my home in LA, left a series of bad relationships and horrible non-relationships, and some really bad stuff went down. I was in this empty home that I had to suddenly get going on my own. It should have been an exciting chance for renewal, but instead, I found myself asking a lot of existential questions about what my future looked like alone, why do people turn so sour after the honeymoon phase of a relationship, and is it just better to have a series of affairs where you don’t get to know the ugliness of a person, so you never get hurt? And I felt totally isolated and overwhelmed trying to get a home going— something that my whole life I assumed I’d be doing with a partner. Doing tons of research on pick-up artists and cat hoarders was not helping.
Paul had just moved to LA in 2009, and we spent a lot of 2010, going for walks and drinking. This was a welcome break from trying to write CAT LADY and being cooped up all day long.
He did a brilliant job of directing “Going Green the Wong Way” and he had sat in on every workshop reading of CAT LADY. He was sort of my sounding board through a lot of my creation process. I had a really great director in Shawn Sides who directed the inaugural production of this show in 2011, she did some amazing work on it. But after putting this script down for a year, I realize that if I’m going to open the can of worms that is this play, why not try something different and revisit this show with a new cast and a fresh eye? Plus, so much of this show was inspired by being picked up by Alex Kim in Miami— it’s sort of a homecoming.
*What are the current hardships for minority women in your profession?
To be clear, no matter what you are, being a performing artist is not an easy profession. If anything, I will say that it’s not easy to make a living being Kristina Wong.
I don’t think of myself as a “minority” especially having lived in California my whole life where Asians seem to outnumber everything. I do think that my race and gender have informed so much of who I am but I feel like I’ve been successful as an artist because I don’t just parrot back obvious canned observations on race and gender. I resent it when people assume that I get grants and gigs because I’m an Asian woman. As if I check off a diversity box, cry victim and money just gets pumped into my account. To these people, I scream a big FRUCK YOU! I get the gigs and the big money as an artist because I work my ass off and I am good at what I do and I’ll fist fight anybody who tells me it came easy. It certainly did not.
I used to spend a lot of time meditating about how hard the odds of making a life as an artist were because of my race and gender, but it wasn’t helping the situation because so much about being a successful artist (or human) is about keeping yourself up and positive. It took many years for me to realize that I had to be able to say “yes” to myself before standing in judgment in front of others.
I don’t really spend too much time thinking about “hardships” as related to my being a Chinese American woman because so much of my career has been saying “fruck you” to the establishment and doing my own thing and doing it really well. I did do the actor thing out of college and really found that incredibly oppressive, not just because it’s a hard unforgiving business, but the roles that I went out for were so incredibly poorly written and not really worth my life’s energy to pursue. I didn’t like feeling captive by the casting system of Hollywood and at that, was much more interested in the process oriented interdisciplinary live performance work I make now.
I do feel that maybe people might have assumptions of what my shows might look like because I’m an Asian American woman— assumptions that my show will be “precious,” “historical” or “educational”. Many years ago, I was playing at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley and my friend Dave Vaknin missed my show because he assumed that I was playing at the non-existent “Asian American Theater” in Berkeley and couldn’t find it when he got out a the BART station because, duh, I wasn’t playing there and it didn’t even exist. People sometimes have really narrow ideas about who I am, what themes my show can explore or where I can play because I’m an Asian American woman. And it’s both Asian and non-Asian audiences who are guilty of viewing me this way. I have experienced as much validation as I have rejection from the Asian American arts community. Truly, I’ve had to pull my cart the whole way. I’m fine with that. It keeps me on my toes.
I also get a lot of people comparing me to Margaret Cho because she’s funny and I’m funny. She’s amazing, but I am also a very different person with a very different body of THEATER work, and it feels annoying that there is this tacit understanding with creative Asian American women that “there can only be one” or that somehow, we’re all in competition with each other. A guy once said, to me, “Is your biggest competition Sandra Tsing Loh?” What? I’m a performance artist and occasionally a radio commentator, but can recall no time in the history of my life where me and Sandra were up for the same thing. Actually, now that I think about it, I do find myself in a lot of unsolicited conversations where I am being compared to other Asian American women comedians and commentators. My mother is the most guilty of doing this. That’s really annoying! Stop it everyone!