Yesterday, I was invited to talk about The Four Immigrants on local station KPIX's Bay Sunday TV show. The segment will air tomorrow. Here are a few photos I was able to capture while I was there!
Sean Fenton, who plays Xiao Hai in The Song of the Nightingale, is easily one of the most talented individuals I know. He has also become a good friend of mine over the past five years, and I've had the privilege to work with him on all three of my productions to date. Below, he discusses his role & creative work as well as his arts-related day job as the Intrinsic Impact Program Manager for the arts consulting firm WolfBrown.
MIN: Describe your performance/theatre background.
SEAN: I’ve been active as a theatre artist in the Bay Area for over a decade, as an actor, director, music director, communications manager, marketer, and consultant. As a long-time company member and contributor to both Bay Area Children’s Theatre and Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre, one of my passions is theatre for young audiences—particularly the creation of new works. Through BACT, I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredibly talented people on a number of world premieres and national tours, including The Magic School Bus Live: The Climate Challenge, Ivy & Bean: The Musical, and Strega Nona: The Musical.
Currently, you might say that I’m in my “Min Kahng Period.” From Tales of Olympus to The Song of the Nightingale, and now, the upcoming Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, my theatre life right now seems to be “All Min, All the Time.” And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
M: That's hilarious. I've never thought of myself as being an epoch in someone else's life. Focusing specifically on Nightingale: do you relate to your character Xiao Hai? How are you different from the character?
S: I do relate to Xiao Hai. He’s idealistic and principled, and he can also be a little bit impulsive and hotheaded. But at his core, it’s his love for his community, his family, and Mei Lin that drive him. And even when he’s profoundly disappointed in the choices others make, he still ultimately comes from a place of love. I think I can definitely relate to that, though I might be a bit more logical than Xiao.
The roller-coaster Xiao goes through with Mei is also relatable to many folks, I think. In “The Girl I Know,” he sings about how Mei has become a person whom he no longer recognizes. I think that moment of discovery -- that simultaneous feeling of disappointment and loss -- is very relatable for many. But Xiao also has to learn that he can’t change someone else, most especially not someone he supposedly loves. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let someone fly…even if you prefer the ground. I love the moment when Xiao makes this realization.
M: I've mentioned this before, but I truly feel like "The Girl I Know" has become more your song than mine. You bring so much to that number that I can't imagine it another way anymore.
Your day job is also related to the arts. Can you describe a bit of what you do as the Program Manager for Intrinsic Impact?
I assist arts organizations with collecting and analyzing high-quality audience data, with a focus on assessing and measuring the intrinsic benefits of arts attendance and participation. My clients are theatres, orchestras, and dance companies throughout the U.S. and abroad. I love what I do; my work lies in the perfect intersection of my passion for the arts and my fascination with data.
M: What is the value or the purpose of emphasizing and measuring the intrinsic impact of theatre?
S: As artists, whether we’re writing, directing, producing, or acting, we all want to make some sort of an impact on our audience. Yet when it comes to actually measuring audience impact, most companies lack the capacity to do so effectively.
Perhaps this is easiest to explain when we think about the missions of arts organizations. Just about every theatre company has a mission statement or a purpose. But how do theatres know how well they’ve achieved their mission? How do you measure success when your mission is, say, ‘to create work that illustrates the common humanity connecting all of us,’ or ‘to provide thought-provoking theatre’? Just how do you measure that? How do you measure the value of art?
What tends to happen is that “impact” becomes reduced to attendance numbers and ticket sales. This may be a great indicator of popularity or raw reach, but not necessarily for measuring how well the company has fulfilled its mission or how the artistic work actually affected those who viewed it.
And when people do talk about the benefits of the arts, the conversation is often framed around instrumental or secondary benefits of the arts: the economic, social, and educational benefits -- or the societal by-products of art, if you will. The fact that arts programs can, say, boost academic scores or lower crime rates is compelling, and perhaps very important. But the arts can also provide pleasure, inspire awe, touch us emotionally, stimulate our brains, expand our aesthetic tastes, and bring us together. These intrinsic benefits are what make the arts unique and irreplaceable.
My work helps arts organizations remember why they are important – and then provide the data they need to show it. This level of assessment, then, provides arts organizations with the competitive advantage they need when demonstrating their impact to boards, funders, and other internal and external parties.
M: Could we have done this type of work with Song of the Nightingale? What might that have looked like?
S: Oh, for sure. Not only would we have been able to survey audiences to see whether or not they liked the show, but we’d also then be able to put into measurable, quantifiable data, exactly what kind of impact we’ve been making – and get that data in real-time, as the show is running. For example:
- In what ways does Nightingale bridge cultural divides or bring communities closer?
- Does the show resonate emotionally more with women or men?
- How does the length of the play matter to different age groups?
- If audience members read the critics’ reviews or other posts on the Altarena website beforehand, did that have an impact on how captivated they were during the performance?
- Would pre-show talks or panel discussions be beneficial next time?
- Does reading your blog influence how many questions someone has after seeing the show?
- Was there a difference in overall satisfaction between subscribers and single ticket buyers? How about donors?
Intrinsic Impact empowers arts organizations to have the answers to all these questions at their fingertips. And this data, in turn, can lead to immediate, actionable steps to improve the audience experience and further the theatre’s mission.
M: I remember first reading about Intrinsic Impact and being so intrigued by the work, as well as surprised that such a feat is only now being tackled by the arts world. But I'm glad it's happening. I think it will serve arts organizations tremendously especially as the world gets more and more reliant on data.
Anything else you’d like to share on any topic?
S: Just a big thank you for including me in this amazing experience. So rare is the opportunity to be able to participate in a project’s development for almost its entirety -- from that first reading in your living room, to the staged readings, and then to a fully produced show, backed by a truly extraordinary creative team. I’ve been lucky to have had many wonderful arts experiences in my life, Min, but I think this one just might top the list. Thank you for the impact you’ve had on all of us and for your contribution to the arts.
M: You might call it my Min-trinsic Impact. No? Too soon?
S: [rolls his eyes]*
*Sean may not have actually rolled his eyes as this interview was conducted through e-mail. It was just my best guess at his response to my pun. And if you haven't already seen The Song of the Nightingale, it closes Sunday November 24th. Get your tickets before they're gone!
I suppose it's late enough in the run to talk about the character of the Fake Nightingale. I wanted the Fake Nightingale to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from the real Nightingale. While her music is live and purely instrumental. The Fake Nightingale's music, however, is pre-recorded and takes its cue from mass-produced pop. His appearance in the story is one of the surprises I'm most fond of, and Mike Tran's performance has delighted the audience each time I've seen the show. You might be interested to know that Mike is very different from his flashy and superficial mechanical alter-ego. He's grounded and humble and works hard to get his character just right. (Oh, but the dance moves he exhibits are his own.) Read more from Mike Tran below.
MIN: How did you start performing in theater?
MIKE: I've been doing theater since sophomore year of high school. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I loved it. My confidence boosted, I was making new friends, it was euphoric to be up on stage. I've mostly done school productions, after high school, continuing into college. Just recently, I have gotten out of that comfort zone and started doing community theater. This is my second time doing community theater, the first time being in Little Women with the San Leandro Players. I also play the drums in a alternative pop rock band called Six Steps North, and have performed a number of shows with them as well.
MIN: What is your day job?
MIKE: I am a repair technician and salesman at Central computers in Newark. I spend most of my time repairing computers, and I am also somewhat of the handyman there as well. I change out light bulbs, replace electronic equipment, etc.
MIN: It continues to astound me how everyone in the cast has a different line of work or non-theatre talent/ability! I've been asking everyone else this same question: what has working on The Song of the Nightingale been like for you?
MIKE: Working on The Song of the Nightingale has been a wonderful experience. This is my second time working on a world premiere, and it is exhilarating. Theater is always creating, but when you work on a world premiere, it truly is something special to create something brand new. You have no reference to go off of other than the playwright's words. This makes the creation truly original. This makes the piece of work very much our own.
MIN: What has it been like playing the character of the Fake Nightingale? What was the most challenging part? What has been the most rewarding part of playing the role?
MIKE: Playing the Fake Nightingale has been a blast. The persona is ridiculous and so much fun to put on. The most challenging part was finding that persona. The Fake Nightingale is very up in your face and exuberant; I'm very laid back. Finding this persona and transitioning into it were pretty difficult. As an actor, I've faced such challenges before, and I have found that finding a model for the character is helpful. My model was AJ from the Backstreet Boys. Having that model in mind helped me find all of the idiosyncrasies that the Fake Nightingale needed. The most rewarding part of playing this role is the audience's reactions. Hearing their laughs and gasps is what fuels my drive.
MIN: Anything else you'd like to share?
MIKE: I am so happy to be part of such a talented team. Everyone, cast, crew and design team, worked hard to create this show, and I am proud to be a part of something bigger. The professionalism and work ethic in this group is phenomenal, and I appreciate that.
Alexis Wong plays Madam Wu, the brilliant but trampled-upon sister of the Emperor. In addition to her day job, she has also worked as a producer for theatre. As you'll read below, she is multi-talented, multi-facted and extremely insightful - and yet so gracious about it all. I was interested to learn more about her performance background as well as how being a producer has helped her as an actor.
MIN: Can you describe your day job for me again? I know I've asked many times, but I always seem to forget the specifics.
ALEXIS: I'm an online ads campaign coordinator at Warner Brothers Digital Entertainment. Which means I get to look at cool internet properties like Rotten Tomatoes, TMZ, Ellen and Flixster all day long, for work! Originally, I got my degree in architecture and did that for 6 years, mainly working on multiple single home communities for Mount Diablo Habitat for Humanity. Ironically, after getting laid off in 2009, it was my theater hobby that took me in my new path. A friend whom I had done a show with was looking for someone to work with her at Flixster, and I applied and got it! I've been there ever since.
M: Tell me a bit about your performance background/history? How did you get into theatre in the first place?
A: I was your typical quiet high school academic; throughout primary school I played violin, and then swapped it out for viola in middle school. I never joined choir because I was pretty scared of being singled out and I was taking two electives my senior year already. I always loved singing though; while I'm not revealing where you could get it, there's a recorded phone call of me warbling the Lea Salonga part of 'A Whole New World' at 13. And I'm pretty sure I drove my college roommates crazy singing 'Reflection' [from Mulan] ad nauseum. When I was 22, I happened across a vocal class at the, now sadly gone, SF Music Center, taught by Richard Nickol. Richard was one of the few teachers who had the credentials and chops to teach: opera, musical theater, jazz, rock and pop. It was an incredible turning point for me, Richard took the shy, bookish girl who loved to sing and really brought out the true performer and musician. He taught me that anything was possible with patience, training and faith.
I originally came to Richard because I wanted to sing rock music - but ended up really falling for musical theater. I studied with Richard for nearly 10 years up until he passed away in 2012. Since starting my training, I've been performing in everything from experimental theater, cabarets, new works - I just finished Vienna Teng and Tanya Schaffer's incredible collaboration The Fourth Messenger in March of this year, and now The Song of the Nightingale!
M: You have also worked as a producer for theatre productions. What do you enjoy about working as a producer? Are there any insights you've gained from working as a producer that informs your work as an actor?
A: Yep! I've happily been serving on the artistic production team of Ray of Light Theatre since 2009. First as an Associate Producer, then Executive Producer and then after our reorg last year, Finance Manager. I got into production, initially because I had zero background in theater and I wanted to see how it worked. Production for some people is a chore, but I love it! It's fun and incredibly important to any show moving properly. It must have something to do with the part of my brain that also really loves architecture; the artistic combined with the technical execution. I really enjoy problem-solving and helping to see pieces of a show come together - from the design to casting to rehearsals. It's a wonderful thing to stand at the back of a house on opening night, seeing audience members LOVE your show and knowing all of the intricacies that had to come together perfectly to make that happen.
I've recommended this to a couple of fellow cast members, but being on the "other side" and sitting in on an audition or casting has helped me in so many ways. I've started to understand how producers, directors and casting directors think. We don't always cast the best singer or the best dancer; we pick people that fit together. A show is a collaborative group of people that have to be able to work both on stage and off. While it doesn't make the audition process any easier, it makes understanding why I didn't get called back or didn't get cast that much easier to swallow.
One of the most important pieces of advice I've ever received as a producer is: "Never say 'no' outright. Always say, 'We'll look into that.'" I think that mantra has really served me in that I start to really consider the possibilities of something I may think is too expensive, too difficult or too ridiculous to entertain at first. What is theatre, honestly, but entertaining the impossible? Say YES!
M: What has working on The Song of the Nightingale been like for you?
A: Uh...awesome? I've been so incredibly lucky to be part of the original stage read cast that was recast for this run. Over the last two years you've also included me in other readings, and I've been so blessed to see all the developments and iterations of the show. I remember coming home from the Altarena call backs thinking to myself how much I really wanted to be a part of the premiere and how important this story is, right now. To be part of an all Asian cast presenting a new piece of musical theater is nearly unheard of, and I think we're very blessed in that way.
Nightingale is also one of the few productions I've been a part of that I can invite my entire family to! I've even had some family members come twice! There's something about this show that speaks to so many people, the themes are universal and very thoughtful. Speaking of family though, this cast is truly one of the most amazing ensembles I've been a part of; I don't think there was one rehearsal - even during tech week - when I didn't laugh hysterically at something that happened or something someone said. It's so amazing to be around such a positive, cheerful and hard-working group of actors. And on the other side, to have people like Christina Lazo and you leading this group through our paces and still taking time to laugh and acknowledge one another is such a gift. It's an experience that I'll carry with me for a long time.
M: Describe a little bit about your approach to the character of Madam Wu. How is the character similar to you? Different?
A: We've talked about Madam Wu being a throwback to traditional Asian female values; demure, soft-spoken, conciliatory and that she really needed to come across as initially weak. She's the power behind the throne but honoring her mother's dying wishes gives her a bit of a martyr complex. She goes a little too far with kowtowing to the Emperor. Instead of confronting him on what she knows is the right way to run the country, she just does all the work herself. She thinks she's doing the right thing. It's challenging to play someone who actually has a ton of power and say in the court, but isn't supposed to appear powerful. There's a danger of making her come across with modern "lean in" strength values, so I had to learn to pull that way back. I think it's so much harder to do that because of a personal internal struggle to marry traditional Asian values with what is currently being touted in Western Society as the "right" way to get to the top.
In this story, Mei Lin is an instantly recognizable heroine for modern girls - she's feisty and ambitious which Madam Wu responds to and admires. Madam Wu has to go through her own transformation from a placating doormat to her own personal hero. She doesn't really have the room to wear her heart on her sleeve, but I've tried to find moments where her true feelings come through. I think people can relate to having to hide their feelings for the greater good. I personally admire how much tenacity Madam Wu has to put up with her brother for all those years, which she does out of love - not only for her country and family but also, truly for her brother.
Madam Wu and I share a lot of quiet strategic thinking. She's the type of person to really observe and reflect on situations before acting. I adore that Madam Wu is so adorably awkward, and I think that's what helps her be so likeable; she's a complete spaz, but as she comes into her own she starts to embrace her own image. I'm definitely one of those people who will trip over her own feet, so that's very me.
M: I'd like to add that Madam Wu truly has a special place in my heart. Her coming into her own reflects a lot of my internal history and story. And, I have gotten feedback from a handful of people who really identified with her. In the scope of the grander story, I do wish we could spend more time with her - but alas, the show is already the length of a pre-1960's musical, and for most audiences today that's long enough.
A: I'm really sad that 'Running the Palace' [Madam Wu's song in previous iterations of the show] was cut. One of these days, I intend to write a one-woman cabaret show and I'll be asking if I can include it.
M: I'll tell you right now - of course you can include it! Anything else you'd like to share?
A: Little known fact, I was not the original Madam Wu. I auditioned, but there was another actor cast in the staged reading that eventually left for a long-term gig. I went to see a friend of mine in Altarena's production of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which you music directed. You saw me in the audience, came down to chat with me and the rest is history! So lesson learned kids: SEE YOUR FRIENDS' SHOWS!! You never know what's going to happen!
It's been something that a lot of other cast members said, but I am so grateful to you, Christina and Altarena Playhouse for including me in this production. An original work, 20+ years in the making that has great story, book and music comes along so rarely. Everyone who's worked on this show has thrown their heart and soul into it; from the crew, designers, to musicians, and the community is really responding! Sold out shows and extensions are the best compliments we could ever receive for a job well done. Here's to you Mr. Kahng and to the many, many more to come.
M: Don't forget the standing ovations you've all received as well! Thank YOU for being a part of this show and for taking the time to share your thoughts!