Tisa Chang: Theater Pioneer
Thirty-one years after founding the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Tisa Chang still likes to be in her theater at curtain time. Though she might not always stay for the entire performance, she believes the artistic process should be “hands-on,” and she wants people to know how much she cares about every detail, including front of house, on stage, and behind the scenes.
Nor has Chang’s commitment to the theatre’s original mission diminished. Pan Asian strives to introduce works by Asian playwrights to American audiences, showcase the talents of both new and veteran actors of Asian descent, and cultivate a new generation of theater-goers. Additionally, all its works, Chang told Education Update, have both historic and educational value.
Born in China, Chang was raised in New York City, and attended Performing Arts H.S. and Barnard College. She studied piano, ballet and other dance since age 6, and knew early on she wanted to work in theater. While in high school she attended theater three to four times a week, taking advantage of tickets reduced for students and standing room. A 1959 performance of Martha Graham “revolutionalized” her, she said. “It was electrifying how someone could, through dance and drama, synthesize the human condition.” Chang earned a scholarship with the company and pursued a dance career for the next 15 years, including an 11-month tour in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” that took her to 40 states. Though her parents were disappointed she left Barnard after one year, they accepted her love of theater. “They knew I was a pioneer, that I dared to be different, and had to follow my own star,” she said.
Though the majority of works produced are by Asian writers, the company features a classic each season. “Shogun Macbeth”, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” set in 13th-century Japan is running through Dec. 7. Shakespeare’s “eloquence and universal relevance” appeal to Chang. The witches have been replaced by “yojos” and the kilts by samurai uniforms, but the themes of the original play remain.
Matinees have been particularly popular with high school and college groups from around New York City. Pan Asian provides study guides for teachers and actors participate in talk-back sessions with the audiences after shows.
Funding creates a challenge, enhanced further by the current economic crisis. Chang has seen a decrease in government and foundation support, and most recently, a slowdown at the box office. She offers a variety of discounts to fill the theater. “We don’t like to turn people away,” she said. And she’s convinced the theater will endure. “We’ll weather the storm. Working hard is nothing new to us.”
When not at her own theater, Chang sees many plays. As a member of the executive board of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC), she’s on the Tony voting committee, so attends every Broadway show, which she says is “eye opening and edifying.” She unwinds by reading mysteries and poetry. Mysteries, like drama, reveal human behavior, and poetry celebrates language.
And for Chang, the work isn’t done. The Asian American community represents varying degrees of “assimilation and acculturation,” she said, noting how she’s presented works by writers from India, Tibet, and Cambodia. “I’m proud that I can straddle a world of classical, experimental, and international theater.”