East West Players appoints Lily Tung Crystal as its new artistic director

East West Players has appointed its next artistic director.

Lily Tung Crystal will become the company’s fifth artistic director, succeeding Snehal Desai, who departed in 2023 to become the artistic director of Center Theatre Group. She will be the second female artistic director in East West Players’ history, following Nobu McCarthy’s tenure (1989-93).

She is joined by Managing Director Eugene J. Hutchins, as the nation’s oldest and largest producer of Asian American theater implements a new co-leadership model ahead of its 60th anniversary season.

Tung Crystal is currently the artistic director of Theater Mu, the largest Asian American theater company in the Midwest, as part of its first female co-leadership team with Managing Director Anh Thu T. Pham. Before leaving the Twin Cities for Los Angeles, Tung Crystal will program Mu’s 2024-25 season, and the Mu board plans on working with the staff to choose her successor.

Before her five-year run at Mu, Tung Crystal co-founded Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company in the Bay Area. A longtime stage director and actor, she was also a TV and film writer and producer (working on everything from nonfiction programming for the Discovery Channel to the movie “Steve Jobs”), a freelance journalist in Shanghai (where she launched the city’s first English-language magazine, Shanghai Talk) and a singer in a Chinese blues band (called Hot Tofu).

Her circuitous route is bringing the Chinese American, South Bay native back home to L.A. for the first time since she left to study at Cornell University (this time, with her husband, Eric Crystal, a musician for Boz Scaggs, and 14-year-old son, Cole). And yet, every stop on her journey has only furthered her mission to tell more Asian American stories in more bold and equitable ways, like establishing fellowship programs for fledgling designers and programming an entire season of world premieres by Southeast Asian writers and performers.

Tung Crystal paused preparations on Mu’s latest world premiere to speak with The Times about challenging the homogeneity of Asian American representation onstage, building career pipelines for Asian American artists and finally returning home to L.A. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling right now?

I’m feeling everything. I’m honored and humbled to be the next artistic director of East West Players. It’s really a dream come true. But it’s also bittersweet because I love Theater Mu so much, and it’s hard to leave this community and the work we’ve been doing together.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you find yourself pursuing theater and journalism simultaneously?

Theater-wise, I always thought I’d only be an actor, and journalism was what I did to pay the bills. Looking back, I used to think of them as disparate fields, and for a long time, I wouldn’t tell people of one industry about the other industry I worked in, because I didn’t think people would take me seriously in either.

But all those steps needed to happen to get me to where I am now, about to lead the largest Asian American theater company in the country, because at the base of it, the work was always storytelling. They’ve actually informed each other: My understanding of pacing and rhythm in directing comes from my experience editing television; my journalism has helped me with the writing I have to do as an artistic director.

Tell me about your initial ambitions as an artistic director. Why start a company specifically focused on telling Asian American stories?

At that time, there was a ceiling in the Bay Area for Asian American union actors, because a lot of theaters weren’t doing Asian American stories or casting Asian Americans in nonracially specific roles. We wanted to create a home where professional Asian American theater artists could find mentorship and support, but also employment, because a lot of the artists who are able to do theater come from generational wealth, where their parents can support their training and the beginnings of their careers. But a lot of Asian Americans don’t feel like they can get into the arts because they don’t see a financial path forward.

Taking care of artists in this way is something I also believe in at Mu, and my managing director put that value into our budget. Mu grew from a $650,000 budget when I arrived in 2019 to now at $1.3 million. We’re not doing more plays, per se, but we’re putting more money into the staff, the artists and the crew. That’s important especially in the Twin Cities — many come from refugee and immigrant communities where there’s not that generational wealth simply because of the newness of the immigration into Minnesota. So we’re nurturing these artists by paying them more and giving them a pathway to a career in the arts.

Part of nurturing and widening the garden of Asian American artists is not limited to onstage artists, actors and playwrights. It also needs to include backstage artists, whom I think Asian American theater has not focused as much on historically. At Mu, we started a fellowship program where all our shows have directing, design, acting, dramaturgy, stage management fellows — it’s on-the-job training; we’re paying them to train. It’s a way for them to get in the door because oftentimes, it’s challenging for a marginalized artist to get work if they don’t have their first foot in the door. Many of our fellows have since become lead artists on subsequent productions with us or at other theaters.

What do you prioritize when programming at Theater Mu that you hope to continue at East West Players?

Theater Mu is a magical place. I’ve never been at a theater so beloved by its community. I think that’s partly because the Asian American community here is smaller than in other cities [like the Bay Area or Los Angeles], so people consider Theater Mu their Asian American home, and they will defend it and stand by it and love it to an extent that I haven’t seen in any other theater company.

A lot of our work is focused on the Twin Cities’ Asian American community and artists, which is very different from that of other parts of the country. California is very dominated by Chinese Americans; here, it’s dominated by Southeast Asian Americans and Hmong Americans. But Asian American theater historically has been focused on East Asian American stories, so when I came here, I had the vision of expanding the diaspora of the stories we tell to include Southeast Asian, South Asian and Southwest Asian American stories and artists.

Last season, we did all world premieres of Southeast Asian American plays. This season, our two mainstage shows are by mixed race playwrights. I want to represent the full diaspora of the Asian American experience, but I learned something from Mu’s co-founder Rick Shiomi: “Don’t try to represent every community in one season, because that’s impossible. You have a limited number of shows each season. But you can try to do that in three- to five year swaths.”

It’s also become very important to me to work at the intersection of our community and other marginalized communities, whether they’re other racialized communities or communities of disability or queer communities. Programming always means asking the questions , “Why this play? Why now?” I go one step further: How does this play intersect with other marginalized communities, both outside our community and within our community? Mu’s next season will be an intersectional season of the Asian American community and another marginalized community, and I want to bring that kind of thinking to East West Players.

You could easily put on Shakespeare and other classics with diverse casts.

Yes, we could. We also thought about doing reimagined canonical works by white playwrights with all-Asian casts. I haven’t done that yet at Mu, and there is a play we’ve been thinking about doing that with.

But I’ve been focused more on new plays because I believe that today’s Asian American writers are creating the new American canon. We’re one of a few handful of Asian American theater companies in the country. We also have a responsibility to serve Asian American theater artists nationally. So whenever I think about programming a canonical play, a part of my heart pushes against taking one of our season’s few slots away from a living writer. I want to give Asian American playwrights a platform from which to tell their stories and to develop their work.

I want to continue that at East West Players. In fact, East West Players, Theater Mu and Perseverance Theatre [in Juneau, Alaska], we’ve been working on a co-commission of the sequel to Prince Gomolvilas’ play “The Brothers Paranormal.” It’s called “Paranormal Inside,” and we’re actually gonna have a workshop of it next week. It’ll most likely be a rolling world premiere of the three theaters, so I’m excited that a project I started at Mu will continue on at East West Players.

You’re part of East West Players’ first co-leadership team. What do you like about this model, at Mu and soon at East West Players?

In the last five to 10 years, a lot of theaters have been moving toward co-leadership models, where the artistic director manages artistic vision and programming and decision-making and the managing director leads finances and fundraising. I much prefer this model because I like working collaboratively. Also, a lot of nonprofit leaders have a lot of work to do and they’re working over 40 or 60 hours sometimes to lead their organizations. This allows for a division of responsibility so that the work can be done in a more empathetic and, I would say, in a more efficient manner.

It’s really exciting that the board has decided to move in this direction. In this day and age, a lot of white institutions have put women or leaders of color in leadership positions and not given them the tools to succeed because of long-term or historical ways of doing things. The co-leadership model lets each leader bring in a certain set of very, very well honed skills and then, together, we are more powerful and talented and skilled and supported than we would be individually, which only goes toward the success of the company. I’m very much looking forward to working with Eugene [at East West Players] to create an inspired vision for East West Players moving into its 60th anniversary and the next 60 years of its life and evolution.

What excites you about leading a theater company in Los Angeles?

With East West Players’ location being so close to Hollywood, I’m curious about the intersection of TV, film and theater, all in the same city. People in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, we’re lucky that we have an Asian American theater in our backyard. But there are Asian American people everywhere who don’t have that in their hometowns. I’m curious how we can implement innovative live streaming capabilities so that our theater can be seen all around the world. And not just recording it with one camera, but live streaming with multiple cameras and letting audiences choose their view like they choose their seats in a theater. During the pandemic, we started to do very high-quality live streamed performances at Mu, and it’s something I want to continue to explore.

And because of my background in television, I’m also curious about how video can be incorporated artistically in theater. Not for every show, but there are shows that live video can help make sing. Some of that work I started at Mu; we’re incorporating some video into this piece we’re premiering now [“Blended 和 (Harmony): The Kim Loo Sisters”], a musical about mixed race Asian American sisters who made it big during the swing era.

What excites you most about returning to Southern California?

I’m looking forward to being back home — the warm weather, the proximity to the ocean, the vibrancy of making art in a city that’s the art-making capital for so many disciplines. And I’m looking forward to the food.

But I’m really not looking forward to the traffic.

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