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.

SS: Who is the Lodestone audience?

Chil Kong: Young Asian Americans in their 20’s and 30’s. We wanted to find plays that spoke not only to the founders but to our peers.

SS: Have they been a faithful audience?

Philip W. Chung: It’s still a hard audience to get. We’ve obviously made it this far, we wouldn’t if we didn’t have that audience backing what we did. It’s been enough to sustain us. Also, 30 to 40% of our audience is non-Asian. Old White ladies came to see our recent production of Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER but I doubt they’ll come back.

Chil Kong: We committed to a market that time and time again theater has never been able to draw, you’re talking about the college and post college demographics and they’re just very difficult to get. If you look at the average theatergoer, they’re in their 50’s.

SS: How did you reach them?

Philip W. Chung: From the beginning we really emphasized that our energy was different. It was reflected in the plays we produced. At the time, they weren’t the type of material that Asian American theater was tackling. That energy was thoroughly new.

SS: Can you describe how different you were?

Philip W. Chung: We put on plays that spoke to our generation.

Chil Kong: Traditional Asian American theater has some reference to an immigrant story. Even though I wasn’t born here, I was here since I was young. I was tired of those stories about our parents’ generation and their angst about being Asians. It wasn’t an issue for us, we wanted to move on. Our function was aesthetics over ethnicity.

Philip W. Chung: We are dealing with being Asian Americans in a lot of our work, but in a different way. Previous generations of Asian American theater were about justifying that they were Americans. A lot of the stories dealt with being immigrants and the internment of Japanese Americans. Now reclaiming that history was important. But our generation doesn’t need to prove that we are American anymore – that’s a given – the plays that we do start from a place where we ARE American. So the question becomes, what are the other issues that we’re dealing with?

Season 7: 2005-2006

SS: Some of the plays you’ve produced, like TEXAS by Judy Soo Hoo, have nothing to do with ethnicity.

Philip W. Chung: It’s true. In Annette Lee’s comedy A DIRTY SECRET BETWEEN THE TOES, which Chil directed, the two main characters have to be Asian Americans but the story is about class and moving into this new neighborhood and being outsiders. It would have worked if they were Black or Latinos, the energy would have been different though because it was written about Asian American kind of yuppies. But these are the kinds of plays we’re interested in.

Chil Kong: Even with Angela Kang’s WHEN TIGERS SMOKED LONG PIPES, which was inspired by traditional Korean folk tales, we made them very contemporary, we did it as a co-production with the Orphans’ Theater Company; we had a mixed cast. In the style of the directing, the costumes, the set, in the way that the script was written with contemporary references, it felt like a uniquely American theme even though it was based on Korean folk stories.

SS: You say you don’t have any angst but a lot of the plays that you have produced were very violent whether they were about romance or politics.

Chil Kong: We have a reputation for doing work that’s dark but I don’t think that’s completely true. Violence and sex are topics we like to visit, because traditional Asian American theater hasn’t dealt with these subject matters. They have the reputation to produce work that is nice and not really challenging. Most of our early violent plays were about formulating that new identity. We were going to create plays that would be challenging, edgy, uncomfortable.

TERMINUS AMERICANA, about American gun violence, written by Matt Pelfrey, who is a white writer, was one of our early productions. We were in rehearsals when 09/11 happened. We were scheduled to open a few weeks after the attack. The cast and crew got together to discuss if we wanted to continue with the play. It’s the story of this guy who’s involved in an office shooting where all his co-workers get shot and it sends him on this journey across America where, in the end, he himself turns into an office shooter. It very much resonated with what was happening on 09/11 because the main character was acting like a religious fundamentalist. Everyone agreed that we wanted to reflect on things that were happening right now. We moved forward with the play and it ended up being at that time our big critical success. We got rave reviews, people were commenting on how timely it was even though it wasn’t intended.

Philip W. Chung: But it wasn’t a commercial success. People didn’t want to go see a play after 09/11 about some guy going crazy and killing people. But the critical success reinforced our desire to tackle this kind of material. We were not going to be afraid and yes we accepted that sometimes the audience was not going to be there for it. But the audience that did come got a lot out of it. It was still kind of funny, it wasn’t a downer.

More theaters are doing Matt’s plays now. Back then none of the white mainstream theaters did because he was ahead of the curve. We live in a world that is more violent after 09/11. People are more aware of that. I feel very proud that we were one of the few people who did a production of Matt’s and that it wasn’t an Asian play yet it spoke to our generation.

When playwrights like Matt Pelfrey or Judy Soo Hoo write work for you, then their style is going to define the company to a certain extent. Another one of Matt’s plays we did was FREAK STORM which was about a guy getting married and one of his buddies comes to see him and it turns out they raped a girl back in high school. It deals with how these guys who did a very violent act against another person, think it’s forgotten but it comes back to haunt them in the most inopportune time.

Season 3: 2001-2002

SS: What is your relationship to the city of Los Angeles? How has the city informed or influenced your work?

Chil Kong: Because of Hollywood, of film, you have access to a higher level of talent in Los Angeles, with the possible exception of NY, even though I feel we are ahead of them here. You talk to people in other cities like Seattle and they are always complaining that they don’t have enough Asian American talent.

Philip W. Chung: There is no other city in America that has this large number of Asian Americans. You have so much diversity and still there are a lot of walls and boundaries and misunderstandings. The whole world’s here in a way. It does create a specific kind of identity, tension and unity as well.

SS: What were the surprises over those 10 years?

Chil Kong: Having been around for 10 years. We were thinking more like 5 years.

Philip W. Chung: One thing that you learn is that you never know how something’s going to turn out. You can think one way but you have no control. You can think something’s great and people don’t get into it. Or some plays do well that we didn’t expect, like my play THE GOLDEN HOUR. I thought it would do poorly because it was about faith and loss and all these sort of downer subjects but it ended up being a big commercial and critical success. Our audience may have just been in a receptive place to accept a play that reflected what they may have been feeling in a post 9/11 world.

SS: On your website you posted a message saying you’re not ending Lodestone because you hate each other.

Philip W. Chung: What has sustained us has been mutual respect. There was a time when we talked about going to the next level and becoming an institution, buying our own theater. But that’s not artistically rewarding. I don’t think we’re going to get better. We’ve peaked in terms of what we’ve done. Everything we’ve produced has at least been interesting. It’s really hard to continue doing the same thing.

For example the Group Theater in the 1930’s, they did hard hitting socially relevant work. They had an impact, I’m not comparing myself to them but they lasted about 10 years. After they ended, some of the members like Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and John Garfield went on to do their best work but I would argue that that was the direct result of the 10 years they put in as a group.

Conversely, if the group still existed, they would have been tied down. At some point you have to move beyond that and into a different artistic mind-set, even if at times you work with the same people. It’s the natural evolution.

SS: What is it you want to do that you couldn’t have done with Lodestone?

Chil Kong: I’m in the middle of editing my first feature as a director. I had to stop all of it. I had to do Lodestone’s taxes and we had a major problem with our website so I’m revamping all of it. It’s a 40-hour week job that doesn’t pay. We can also move on and do work that has different aesthetics. I’d like to do light comedies, but at Lodestone we do dark comedies. We can now start thinking differently; we don’t have to concentrate on how we would present our work for Lodestone.

Philip W. Chung: I knew from the beginning the plays I wanted to write for Lodestone. My last play, MY MAN KONO, is not appropriate for Lodestone. That play will be produced in the near future. You’re still working with some of the same people but you’re doing something different.

SS: Do you know who might succeed you?

Chil Kong: There are a lot of smaller companies coming up. There are more people doing it than when we started. There are more resources and opportunities now. If you have passion, you can do it. I’m glad we kept to our commitment to always move forward. I am ecstatic about our last season.

SS: It’s interesting that in the kick-off show, TEN TO LIFE, one of the founding members, Tim Lounibos, is making his debut as a writer. It’s an end but also a beginning.

Philip W. Chung: It is. The pieces were developed knowing that it was our last season by some of our veteran writers and Tim. It is directed by Alberto Isaac who also directed CLAIM TO FAME and THE TROJAN WOMEN for us. It’s four twisted one-acts touching on the bizarre and unnatural.

Chil Kong: I directed the second play, CLOSER THAN EVER. It’s a musical about a group of friends who become closer as they get older. But it’s also about the frustrating and weird things that happen to us like friends changing and lost love…and getting old, yes! There’s a beautiful song about getting old!!! (laughs)

SS: Tell me about the closing play?

Philip W. Chung: I wrote it, it’s called GRACE KIM AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS. It will be directed by a Lodestone regular, Jeff Liu. It’s one of those plays I knew I wanted to write from the beginning. I wanted it to reflect our identity and our history. It’s very much inspired by old screwball comedies but it’s a comedy/drama. It’s a gift to our audience. But it’s so specifically for Lodestone that it will never be performed again. It’s your one and only chance!

Season 8: 2006-2007