Interviews of the outspoken and opiniated


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.

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Denise Munro Robb and the 44th President of the U.S. of A.

I was stunned to learn recently that Denise Munro Robb won tickets to last month’s Town Hall Meeting with our President, considering she had also won the coveted tickets to Obama’s inauguration last January! Did this red-head’s membership in the Green Party give her the luck of the Irish? On reflection, I conceded that maybe all is fair in love and war if Denise, who has dedicated her life to stand up for what she believes in, can beat the odds and win the lottery twice. When Denise ran for City Council District 4 in 2001, the LA Weekly gave her this heartfelt endorsement:

“Denise Munro Robb, (is) a resourceful, committed activist who successfully spearheaded a yearlong fight to halt the destruction of historic apartment buildings, many of which offer decent affordable housing, in her Wilshire-area neighborhood. She’s also been active in the Green Party and local environmental causes — as a candidate, she’s earned the Sierra Club’s highest possible rating… The hitch is that the 39-year-old Robb has little chance of winning. Conventional wisdom dooms her candidacy, in large measure because her campaign embodies the very attributes that make her appealing, including her refusing to accept donations from developers and lobbyists. She’s going to raise about $25,000 in a race where the top spenders could blow half a million. So while urging voters to support her, we also have to note distinctions between the moneyed candidates.”

Smiling Spider: Did campaigning at the local level make you feel closer to the President even if you ran your campaign more like a Dennis Kucinich than an Obama?

Denise Munro Robb: That’s interesting, I forgot about that no, I didn’t feel connected in that way because Obama had millions (he raised over 700 million) and I raised $60,000.  They just don’t take you seriously unless you have tons of money. What do we have in common? Obama and I both taught Constitutional law (I was a Teacher Assistant) and we both are concerned about the killing of the constitution by the Bush administration. And of course, we’re both cute!

Smiling Spider: Dennis Kucinich had to go to court to be admitted in some of the debates. Didn’t you complain at the time of your campaign that you were shunned?

Denise Munro Robb: Yes. I forced them to put me t in a debate where I wasn’t intially welcome.  Then towards the end of the campaign my volunteers and I were listening to the radio and we heard the top two best funded candidates in my race being interviewed. So we stormed the radio station and made them put us on. The next show invited me to stay as a guest for a full hour!  It was pretty wonderful.

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Denise Munro Robb in DC, January 20th, 2009.

Smiling Spider: You won a ticket to the inauguration, what “privileges” did it give you over the sans-tickets like me?

Denise Munro Robb: Oh boy, the privilege to stand out in the cold for 5 or 6 hours before the ceremony began.  The privilege to be pushed around like cattle.  After waiting in one line for HOURS someone with a bullhorn would say “you’re in the wrong line, silver ticket holders must be over here” and people who came hours after us were already way ahead of us by then. We were able to stand near the reflecting pool but we couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t even tell who Obama was. The video screen had a tree in front of it so we couldn’t see that way either.  Also, there were multiple sound systems that seemed to be crossing each other so we literally couldn’t hear anything.  The only thing I really liked was that I was with all these other people having a shared moment in history.  The energy of the city was exciting.

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“LA Views II” is the second installment of the Company of Angels’ hugely popular Playwrights Group project, “LA Views,” which debuted in 2008. Among the inspirations for this show are Enrico Caruso, Sessue Hayakawa, Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Mabel Normand, Ramon Novarro, Mary Pickford, and Rudolph Valentino.

Luminaries of the Silent Era are the inspiration of contemporary Los Angeles playwrights Damon Chua, Leon Martell, Jamison Newlander, Henry Ong, S. Vasanti Saxena, Lilly Thomassian, Brenda Varda and Kyle T. Wilson.  This moving and comic chronicle, set during the heydays and nowadays of Downtown Los Angeles’ Alexandria Hotel, shines a light on the parallel lives of those who have inhabited this building in its heyday and those who dwell in its present embodiment. This production examines lives once lived at their most celebrated, while contrasting the reality of current existence that approaches irrelevance and obscurity.” http://www.companyofangels.org

Finding myself in the company of actor/poet Xavi Moreno at an exclusive private screening of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in Boyle Heights last weekend, I decided Xavi was the perfect spokesperson for CoA’s new production. One reason is that he performed in two significant plays last year which highlighted L.A.’s history present and past:  the exuberant Company of Angels’ staging of  Ricardo A. Bracho’s “SISSY“,  about affirming one’s difference on the streets of 1970’s Culver City, and Cornerstone Theatre Group’s “FOR ALL TIME” written by KJ Sanchez, a heart wrenching examination into how civilians and convicts alike are affected by the consequences of their actions and by the laws of California’s  justice system. The other reason for making Xavi Moreno’s the ambassador to “LA VIEWS II”?  He’s one of those rare actors who can claim L.A. as his native city.

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Company of Angels members Richard Azurdia and Xavi Moreno in Boyle Heights.

Xavi Moreno:  I was born, raised and staged “East”of the LA River in the historic neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The house I grew up in has a view of the Hollywood sign from the front porch. I wasn’t inspired by seeing the sign every day – I couldn’t – it was always smoggy. It’s in my blood. My parents have always been entertainers. I was placed on stage 2 months after my birth. I played “Baby Jesus” in a comedic production of “El Nacimineto” that featured my pops as Jose and several other known Mexican actors at the famed El Million Dollar stage in Downtown. That was my first on-stage performance, naked and I’m still not equity..haha.

What kept the inspiration wheel rolling was my babysitters: El Chavo del Ocho, El Chapulin Colorado, La India Maria and novelas like Rosa Salvaje and Carusel de Ninos. My parents were always working so these folks took care of me and when the T.V was shut off, it was my turn to shine and that’s when my crush for live theater began and I have endured a lifelong love/hate relationship with the stage ever since. Theater has stereotyped me, personalized me, released me, and brought me many of my best travels, friends, and experiences, while it has also held me back and held me down. Theater is the foundation that all my accomplishments have been built upon. It’s the fuel that jets me always a step ahead of the pack.

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When Xavi’s life is not engulfed by theater, he performs as one of  Los Poets del Norte.

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Betsy Kalin.

I wrote this story for the second issue of “Brooklyn & Boyle,” a monthly magazine about Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. It was originally published in December of 2008.

When Connecticut transplant Betsy Kalin was approached to make a documentary on Boyle Heights, nothing in her activist and filmmaking background had prepared her for the obstacles ahead: “Boyle Heights is the richest area that I’ve ever been in contact with,” Kalin confesses after two years of total immersion in the neighborhood’s history, past and current. “How do you choose one amongst the million great stories? That was the biggest struggle.”

Her starting point was photographer and entrepreneur Eric Waterman, who originated the project and produced it. “It has such resonance for him because his family is from Boyle Heights,” says Kalin. Even though Waterman’s parents left in the 1940’s and Eric was raised in the valley, his family would talk about Boyle Heights all the time and would often bring him back to visit. This is a story Kalin would hear time and again as she began researching the neighborhood. “People who lived in Boyle Heights in the 20’s are still going back and feel a strong attachment to it, and people who live there now share the same passion,” Kalin remarks. “I don’t hear people in my neighborhood say ‘I was raised in West Hollywood, what a great place!’ Why does Boyle Heights have this power that other neighborhoods don’t have?”

Kalin found answers in the friendships of 50 plus years featured in the film: Floyd Jeter, the first African American to receive a track USC scholarship in 1955, and his Russian Molokan neighbor Bill Novikoff; Marsha Vasquez, Momo Yoshima and Dian Harrison, three women activists who met at Belvedere Junior High School. Kalin even captures on camera 89 year-old Japanese American Cedrick Shimo‘s visit to his old home. Forced to leave their house after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cedrick’s family was sent to internment camps never to return to Boyle Heights to live. Saul Ines, a 30-year old Mexican American Cal Arts student who now lives in the house with his parents, welcomes Cedrick home and the men instantly bond over their shared upbringing.

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Cedrick and Saul’s first meeting. Photo by Martha Nakagawa.

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Ofelia Esparza by Gil Ortiz. Tropico de Nopal fashion show 2006. Copyright Gil Ortiz/Tropico de Nopal.

The photograph on Ofelia’s head piece is that of her mother’s great grandmother, Mama Pola, and Ofelia’s baby brother.

In 2001 for Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics, Ofelia recreated a prison cell in a corner of the gallery. She intended the entire installation to represent “grief for the living dead”–those who are in jail, their loved ones, and others around the world who lead lives that are unfulfilled, tragic, or lack freedom. At the foot of the bed she assembled a small traditional ofrenda made from materials that would be available to prisoners: papel picado made from newspapers, paper flowers of toilet paper, small offerings of pictures and flowers. Thus she celebrated a universal human condition in a truly traditional Mexican manner.Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

To celebrate Ofelia Esparza’s first solo exhibit, I asked the artist to answer a few questions knowing that what Ofelia truly deserves is to be the subject of a documentary or a book about her life and the lives of her ancestors for whom she builds altars year after year not with grief but with a deep love and admiration for the blessings her ancestors received and the hardships they lived through and conquered, if not within their time, at least within hers.

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Ofelia Esparza’s peace altar for the LA VS. WAR art show, April 2008.

Smiling Spider: Who are the artists who have influenced you the most?

Ofelia Esparza: There are many artists I have come to admire and from whom I draw inspiration today. But there are three who have been in my sights since I was a child. The first one has been my mother from my earliest recollections. She never called herself an artist, she didn’t learn her art in school, but her resourceful, creative spirit, her imagination sparked my own beginnings in my life and love for creativity and art.  Thus, I have been greatly influenced by the Mexican folk art that I have been surrounded by for most of my life.  During my childhood, folk art, brought back from my mother’s visits to Mexico every year, mirrored my mother’s own style of bright colors and handmade decorations for her home altars and our celebrations.  Perhaps this is why- as a very young girl, when I discovered Diego Rivera (from postal cards my mother sent me on her trips) I was drawn to his images of people who resembled me or those in my life around me, and by the familiarity I found in Rivera’s images of people engaged in activities I recognized.

Later, by the time I was in junior high school, I discovered Charles White in his book of portraits called “Images of Dignity”. I was always drawing things around me, but especially faces of people- mostly my own. White’s graphite drawings of ordinary people in his life, was an inspiration to me to keep drawing and striving for likenesses in my images. As I got older I began to understand why White called his portraits images of dignity– something I recognized in people around me–they  had not written a book nor held any degrees, but many commanded respect through their hard work, and carried themselves in dignity despite their humble possessions or limited resources. Charles Whites’s influence has held me to this day.

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Charles White, “Spiritual.”

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Kanzo. BH Life Film Festival fundraiser. Photo by Sam Hernandez.

frankiely: Tell us about your first encounter with Burlesque.

KANZO: My first time was at the Fourty Deuce on Melrose where they do a mainstream kind of burlesque. I felt so empowered by it. I didn’t feel ashamed to watch. It was such a relief to feel good about something that can be considered bad. This was not degrading to women, men were not throwing money at them saying come over here and do this sexual act for me. It was accepted in the room that this was a performance and I was so taken by the connection the girls had with the audience since I’m a performer as well. I was blown away by what they did and how they did it with such confidence. They didn’t take everything off and they were able to captivate and suspend the audience’s attention by teasing them… which is what it’s about.

Laurel & Hardy, picture found on http://www.dvdbeaver.com.

frankiely: Can you expand on that? Being a French woman by trade, burlesque to me evokes Laurel & Hardy usually with their clothes on.

KANZO: Burlesque in major cities has changed over time, it died and was revived and died again and was revived again. What is interesting here in Los Angeles is that the girls make a comment, maybe political, social or cultural like La Cholita

KANZO: She’s a great performer and dancer, her persona comments on how we see Chicanos or Latin people in our culture today, maybe not immigrants from Mexico or Central America but the pocha, if you want to say the term… the Chicana of Los Angeles. She dresses up in very traditional forms of folkloric dresses but she has her twist for the new generation. She represents neo-burlesque, the new wave, the new Chicana, what it is to be a Latina in today’s L.A.

Each performer has their own personality, their own act. Ruby Champagne calls herself the Mexican Spitfire of Burlesque; her inspiration comes from the 1930’s Golden era of Mexican cinema. She’s got the glamorous look. Her routines are very classic, it’s not just about the body and about stripping, it’s about her as this persona and you follow her dialogue, her dance, and yes it involves taking off clothes but it’s really about the revealing of the personality.

Ruby Champagne. Photo by Laura Creecy.

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Taco was cordially invited by Brady Brim-DeForest of Found Gallery to take a peek at their current exhibition of Irene Kai’s photo essay: “What do you see?” I jumped on the opportunity to discover a new gallery and to see why, according to the press release, “Princess Margaret was shuffled past an art exhibit at the Royal College of Art in London in 1976. College officials deemed Irene Kai’s work too provocative for even the liberal minded Countess of Snowdon. The images caused a major uproar within the Royal College of Art staff, which took two months to settle and caused the Royal College to change its hiring policy.”

frankiely: How is a show that was judged shocking in 1970’s London relevant in Los Angeles of 2008?

Brady Brim-DeForest: What was shocking to me was that this show had been in New York City and London but had never made it to Los Angeles. Many LA galleries are very SoCal-centric. They show contemporary art made in LA – so we were interested in showing a retrospective of an old show, one that has been around for a while – one that had perhaps lost a little bit of its luster. It’s definitely not as shocking now as it might have been in 1976 London but it’s still relevant – especially in an American society that still struggles with its own sexuality today.

frankiely: What have people’s reactions been like?

Brady Brim-DeForest: This image (above) generates the most negative reactions, some people feel disgusted by it. Some are intrigued. Either way, it regularly produces a very visceral reponse in the viewer.

frankiely: I think it would have been interesting not to refer to the 1976 scandal in your press release to witness people’s reactions free of the knowledge that they might be shocked. Why did you make that choice?

Brady Brim-DeForest: We had an endless series of discussions about this particular point – but we determined that the best way to get people to the show, in a city dominated by endless noise, was to tell them a story that would pique their interest, appeal to their inner voyeur – and it worked! Ultimately, it is better for us to push through the noise, and encourage people to see the work, than to get lost in the shuffle.

frankiely: The fact that informing the audience that the pictures are sexual in nature is the best way to get people into your gallery makes a point that this exhibit is still relevant today.

Brady Brim-DeForest: Definitely. Nudity and sexuality are much more acceptable in European culture than in America today. What strikes me as funny, however, is that during the time that these photos were taken, “Deep Throat” was all the rage on this side of the pond. I can’t imagine the same film enjoying that kind of reception in the States today. Maybe we have become more conservative as a society over the last thirty years?

frankiely: That first picture definitely had that “Ooohhh what am I seeing here?” effect on me… but the more I paid attention to the photographs the more I was drawn by their sweetness, humor, the poetry a la Georgia O’Keefe and yes that liberating feeling.

Brady Brim-DeForest: Some people are disappointed because they expected to be shocked and they find out rather quickly that they are not. There’s a mix of excitement and disappointment. From that perspective it’s been great to watch people’s reactions.

frankiely: Every time we’re confronted to how we feel about something, it’s a great mirror for where we are at as individuals and as a society. Is that Found Gallery’s goal?

Brady Brim-DeForest: To a certain degree, it is. We’re interested in showing artists and producing shows that no other gallery would take a chance on. We love to explore art as a process. For instance, the Joint Custody Project, which this year paired 44 artists of different disciplines, twenty-two each in Berlin and LA, to work together. The show opens in Berlin on June 28th and the reception for the LA artists will be here on July 5th. You can see them at work on jointcustodyproject.blogspot.com.

I see a flying elephant. You have until the closing reception, Saturday, June 28th between 7 and 10pm, to be attended by Irene Kai, to tell us what you saw. Found Gallery, 1903 Hyperion Avenue, LA, CA 90027. Tel: 323-669-1247. http://www.foundla.com

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