Alice Tuan is a playwright inspired by “human wisdom” based in Valencia, CA. She vividly remembers “the first moment [she] became a playwright at the age of 17 in the kitchen with her grandfather, but worked outside the realm of writing as an ESL teacher and Universal Studios tour guide before professionally committing to her craft with the Mentor Playwrights Project. Her works include Last of the Suns, produced by Ma-Yi Theater in NYC, Ajax (por nobody) at SummerWorks in Toronto, Ikebana at East West Players in LA, and BATCH:A Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle in collaboration with New Paradise Laboratories. Tuan set a goal to write 40 plays, and is currently 8 original works in! She’s also “a playwright associate with East West Players, the longest running non-white theater” in America, which places special emphasis on Asian American stories and voices. Tuan’s advice for young artists is to discover and “follow [their] values” to create a path uniquely for them and their success. Read on to learn more about Alice Tuan and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Alice Tuan
Heritage: Los Angeles-American (Chinese descent)
Hometown: Chatsworth, CA
Current City: Valencia, CA
Current project: Writing a new play commissioned by East West Players
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
I am a lucky playwright, with productions that emerged my plays beyond what I had imagined:Last of the Suns, produced by Ma-Yi Theater in NYC, directed by Chay Yew, Ajax (por nobody) at SummerWorks in Toronto, directed by Zack Russell, Ikebana at East West Players in LA, directed by Lisa Peterson, BATCH:A Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle in collaboration with New Paradise Laboratories, directed by Whit MacLaughlin
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher before I was a playwright. I would teach the English language all day, and then for 2 hours every night, I would write my own language. Also, for 2 summers, I was a Universal Studios tour guide.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
I remember the first moment I became a playwright. It was even before I started writing: I was awakened one morning, when I was 17 years old, by a series of beeps. I go to the kitchen and find my 90-year old Chinese grandfather hunched over the microwave, endlessly pressing buttons (beep beep beep) to warm his tea -- he can't find the start button. Once a Lt. General in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Army, he was now hard of hearing (HAH?) and befuddled by this 'broken' box. After LOUDLY explaining it wasn't broken, ('HAH?' 'It's not broken' 'HAH?') over and over, I guided his finger to press the 'Start' button -- he then thought it was magically fixed. This very loud, repetitious conversation trying to explain to my dear Yeh Yeh was, seven years later, the first scene I ever wrote. Over 10 years and 13 drafts, it became Last of the Suns,a 3-generation Chinese family drama, produced first at Berkeley Rep in Cali and then Ma-Yi Theater in NYC. In March 2019, before the world turned, a bilingual (Chinese/English) version of this play was commissioned and performed by the Chinese International School in Hong Kong. In July of that same year, there was a staged reading performed in Harare, Zimbabwe by African actors in English, directed by Zaza Muchemwa.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Follow your values. Find out what your values are. Live your values.
I found growing up in a household with Chinese values -- family, patience, endurance, save money -- was so opposite and so contradicting of what I was learning in my San Fernando Valley schools -- self, instant gratification, freedom, consumption. Trying to live these opposite value systems confused me and I felt like I had cultural schizophrenIa. So I was drawn to the arts to practice the first amendment of my citizen rights: freedom of expression. Through the arts, I sorted out my values, what I believed in, what was true for me, what put me at the center of my existence. As an Asian in a white system and a woman in a man's world, you have to provide yourself that place in the center, cuz the default is not set up for you. So know what your values are and provide yourself the space to live them. This is a meaningful path to a life in the arts that is not dependent on the success of markets (which can hollow out your true voice). Your unique vision and artistry is the gem that no one can ever take from you.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
I'm a playwright associate with East West Players, the longest running non-white theater in our country. It primarily supports Asian American voices, but is now going beyond. For instance, I facilitate a monthly mixed playwrights group, curated by Artistic Director Snehal Desai, inviting folks of all types to write a play with at least one Asian character. We can't be monolith, anymore -- we have to try it all out and can't assume just if you're non-white, you are all in solidarity.
How did you get your start?
I started at the microwave with my Yeh Yeh, but my first professional invitation was with the Mentor Playwrights Project at the Mark Taper Forum.
Who do you admire?
So many! Angela Davis, Jia Tolentino, Ted Chiang, George Saunders, Raoul Peck, Taylor Mac, Bruno Mars, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Caryl Churchill, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Luis Alfaro, Kristina Wong.
Do you have any mentors?
Paula Vogel is my most important playwright mentor.
If you come from parents aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the arts?
My scientist Chinese parents definitely showed me the discipline and thriftiness that helped train me to endure an artist's life. Growing up middle class, I didn't understand why we had to keep turning the lights off when exiting a room and could only take 3-minute showers. My folks were uber conservationists -- just because you have it doesn't mean you should waste it. Very distressing as a teenager, but when income was limited because of my devotion of time to writing, I was able to make something out of nothing, and endure an austere life, yet still have a good time and be productive. My parents were horrified by my choice to go into the arts -- its instability, non-conformity, bizarreness -- but they saw that I never gave up (I could only live from my center) and saw that I utilized their thriftiness and discipline nevertheless.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
I think the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom said it best: 'How well I did was how well people could imagine me.' I can imagine myself in a huge way, invent to my heart's content, and it is in my body of work -- but if I am limited by the dominant culture, by narrow audiences to adhere to the few and undeveloped details which are marketable but not necessarily alternative or original, then I am a snake eating my own tail. Let us pull said tail out of mouth and see folks beyond the usual, be patient with strange or discomforting, pull through to see anew. Let us molt the old skins, yea?
What is your greatest accomplishment?
That I continue to grow as a playwright. The lockdown life gave me time to shift my writing process, with the goal of writing anew.
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
A few years ago, I vowed to write 40 plays. I'm like 8 plays in, so 32 more to go. And I wish to help nurture the new, creative, sophisticated Asian American voices into the world--whether Asi-Am or not. I like the idea of helping folks birth new plays into the world, and embrace my calling of 'doulaturg.'
What do you love most about what you do?
Infinite possibilities. Cultivation of ideas that attract affinity minds.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
Write a new play.
Do you have any mentors?
Paula Vogel is my most important playwright mentor. Morgan Jenness is my most impacting theater mentor.
What inspires you?
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