What a Site!
by Terry Hong
originally printed in A Magazine (August 1999)
Roger Tang's career in theater started out easy. He talks of three impulses that started it all, back in his undergraduate days at Stanford University some two-decades plus ago.
First, Asian American theater veterans Judith Nihei and Marc Hayashi arrived on campus to talk about San Francisco's Asian American Theater Workshop (founded by the venerable Frank Chin, it would eventually become the Asian American Theater Company). "It was an eye-opening experience to see Asian Americans on stage doing theater," recalls Tang.
Secondly, Tang helped produce a dormitory version of Promises, Promises with such success that he got the idea that producing a show was "just a matter of learning a new technique."
And finally, in putting up broomsticks for lighting stands in a dorm lounge, Tang designed the world premiere of a work by a fellow classmate and friend, one David Henry Hwang and his groundbreaking play, FOB.
"The combination of these things made me think, 'Yes, I can do theater.' I even worked on a play that won all sorts of national awards," Tang says. It occurred to him that, "Gee, this is easy, I can do this."
More than twenty years later, Tang has emerged as a godfather of Asian American theater as the creator of the Asian American Theatre Revue, the most comprehensive website that includes just about everything anyone ever wanted to know about Asian American theater. "It started out as a vanity site about two-and-a half years ago," says Tang. "Everyone had a site, so I had to have one, too. I wanted to do something unique and there was nothing on Asian American theater, so it grew from there."
If Tang is a little humble, pal David Henry Hwang is ready to toot his friend's horn. "I check it out about twice a week," says Hwang. "It's a great way to keep up on what everyone around the country is doing, and, I would even venture to say, [the Revue] has contributed to the consciousness of a national Asian Pacific American theater movement."
Them's big words, but they're undoubtedly true. The sheer volume of traffic on the site is remarkable. According to Pierre Wuu, co-founder of the Asian Buying Consortium (ABC), which hosts Tang's site [at least, it did in 1999], the Revue receives about 40,000 hits a month. Says Wuu, "Out of all our similar partnerships, Roger's site is by far the most updated and in-depth, with good content."
And, as if the Revue wasn't resource enough, Tang pays out of his own pocket ("It's not much," he demurs) to host the Asian American Drama Digest, an email roundtable for theater folks and other interested people to exchange ideas, post information about upcoming performances and events, offer reviews and just sound off.
All this from a Chinese American boy who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona during the late '50s and 'óOs and never even saw other Asian Americans on a day-to-day basis until he got to college.
Although Tang's theater epiphany came to him quite early, the path he took was a bit circuitous. He majored in journalism and geology and did a two-year stint at the U.S. Geological Survey. He received a graduate degree in behavioral communications and became a professional fund-raiser and administrator. His current day job at the University of Washington development office involves a) finding rich people and b) identifying among them the ones willing to part with some of their assets.
All along, however, Tang managed to get himself into the theater in various incarnations. He helped birth the Asian Theater at the University of Washington, Politically Correct Theatre, OPM, and most recently, Pork Filled Players. He was a board member of Seattle's Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT) for thirteen years and also served as the group's development director. During that time, he was instrumental in getting NWAAT's home, Theatre Off Jackson, up and running.
These days, Tang describes himself predominantly as a "producer." He says, "I can be pressed into service as an actor, but I think that the Asian American community is much more in need of a good producer than another mediocre actor. Actually, even a mediocre producer is much better than a mediocre actor." He admits that the talent pool for "actors my age"-to which he adds with a pained pause, "our 40s"-is thin. So as a good dramatic citizen, he's been known to reluctantly get up on the stage.
Tang has been around long enough to notice waves and currents in the Asian American theater community. Back in the '70s and early '80s, being involved with theater in the Bay Area was synonymous with being involved in the social activism of the day, with finding new venues and getting together the means to get our voices and experiences heard. By the late '80s and '90s, however, as Asian American theaters established themselves, Tang says his attempts "to connect theaters together" were hampered by "people who were more than a bit stand-offish about cooperation."
In the last decade however, Tang notes the emergence of "literally dozens of new Asian American theaters throughout the country." Among the established and the upstarts, Tang says, is a new sense of "collegiality," as witnessed by a late May weekend in Seattle dubbed "Asian American Theatre Convening." At NWAAT"s invitation, representatives from the majority of Asian American theater companies as well as Asian American playwrights, actors, directors and groupies, came together to discuss the past, present and future of Asian American theater.
While the first day was open only to members of selected companies, the second day included various workshops and panels for all interested parties. "What struck me was the feeling that we were all colleagues with a lot of common problems that we could tackle together. There was a palpable sense of people working together and being in the same boat." Tang muses, "Perhaps the pervasive influence of the Web has shrunk the borders of the world and removed the sense of geographic isolation." Ah, the power of being connected.
Tang also notes that while "Asian American theaters may not ever grow any bigger than they are right now, Asian American theater as a whole can still grow tremendously." Says Tang, "In the early '90s, it was performance art. In the mid-'90s, it was sketch comedy. Today, the fruits of each of these waves are ripening and contributing new artists and writers to traditional Asian American theaters."
Whatever happens next in Asian American theater, the news will spread with the click of a mouse thanks to Tang, who will undoubtedly be on top of the next wave, the hottest production, the most avant-garde presentation, the newest faces, scripts, hard facts... and maybe even a little bit of delicious gossip.