Chil Kong and Philip W. Chung.
More than a few months ago I had the pleasure to sit with two of the co-founders of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble and breathe in the trademark passion that has fueled the company’s 10-year body of work. Researching their production history (I only discovered them in 2006) triggered a genuine sense of loss for the plays I had missed and the realization that 2009 is it! Their last play, GRACE KIM & THE SPIDERS FROM MARS opened November 14th (see separate post) and will be running through December 20th. Suffice to say this is your last chance to be touched by the courageous and fiery duo who lost their funding after their first play all because of a bare bottom.
SS: Let’s go back to the beginning. After the L.A. riots, veteran actor Soon-Tek Oh urges the new generation of Asian American playwrights to tell their own stories to counteract the media’s tendency to portray Asian Americans as immigrant store owners who fall victim to violence.
Chil Kong: Yes. Soon-Tek Oh mobilized us. But it was more about the energy between Phil, Tim Lounibos, Bokyun Chun and I. We were passionate about our vision of the future of Asian American theater and we each had our own ideas about how we wanted to see a theater function in Los Angeles and we talked and talked and talked about it for four months. A lot of it had to do with timing for us; we were at the right place at the right time. We started forming when East West Players was moving from their small black box to their big theater so there was a gap. We filled that vacuum. We’ve been very lucky. From that Lodestone was born.
SS: What is the meaning of the word Lodestone?
Chil Kong: We had so many names. Tim Lounibos did some research and he found out about those magnetic compasses which Chinese explorers used to guide them.
SS: What did you set up to explore?
Philip W. Chung: Up until that point and to a certain degree now a lot of Asian American theater revolves around certain themes, certain subjects; it has to address the Asian American experience. Are we doing plays by South Asians? Are we doing plays by Vietnamese? They have to be inclusive. Because those theaters already existed, we didn’t feel we needed to do that. It gave us a chance to not be confined by those kinds of criteria. If we wanted to do a new play by a White writer then we could do it and we have. If we wanted to do Tennessee Williams, we could. That was the only philosophy and it hasn’t really evolved.
Season 4: 2002-2003
SS: Lodestone, like many small theater companies in LA, has not-for-profit status. Does it influence the choices you make? Do you have to do plays that are community oriented to get grants?
Chil Kong: Yes and No. Yes for certain things we will definitely go after those grants. No because we never wanted to pick the material that we wanted to do based on financial consideration. We didn’t want our choices based on “now we have to get this grant so we have to do a play about this issue.” We always had to stay at a certain level but that’s fine because it gave us creative control.
SS: What do you mean by “a certain level”?
Philip W. Chung: The smaller you are the lower your budget, the more creative control you have. The idea is to work from that model, which represents a lot of theaters in LA, where you don’t have to be depending on those grants. We have picked materials where we thought no one was going to come and see this. But it was ok because artistically it was something we wanted to do and that was more important. If it’s artistically sound, that’s the first criteria.
Chil Kong: It is very dangerous for a company to let their choices be directed by grants, it’s a wag the dog contest. Now, instead of your artistic vision driving your company, it is a commitment to different funders. Now it’s propaganda, now you’re doing things for money. Ultimately the good artistic material will have an audience. After 10 years we’ve been accustomed to that.
Philip W. Chung: We lost most of our funders after our second play LAUGHTER, JOY & LONELINESS & SEX & SEX & SEX & SEX, which I wrote. The subject matter turned them off.
Chil Kong: At the end of the run, I spent a week on the phone with two of our biggest funders screaming at me about betraying them. They were upset because there was a man’s naked butt on stage. I remember being very frustrated and yet laughing. The worst times are also the best times. That experience told us we were doing the right thing.
Philip W. Chung: The play actually ended up doing very well with our audience.