JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
CARMEN WONG: I was raised by a grandmother who lived for movie musicals (she saw “The Sound of Music” seven times when it came out in the theatres, “My Fair Lady”, “Mary Poppins” and “West Side Story” were marginal favorites). She would sing snippets of these classics to me as a child, a gateway drug to theatre I suppose, as I was soon performing and presiding in school drama clubs, saving pocket money to see actual musicals when they made their way to our tiny island state of Singapore, which also exposed me to street storytellers, Chinese opera, Javanese shadow puppets.
My aesthetics and enjoyment of theatre has since expanded and morphed, in large part due to my involvement almost a decade ago with Dorky Park, a quirky dance theatre company based in Berlin headed by choreographer Constanza Macras. For the first time I saw how differently a performance could be shaped, with narrative, dance, video and spoken text meaningfully woven, fluidly hybrid, and unapologetically so.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
CW: I suppose I created this position for myself without knowing all it entailed. Today, 8 years since our first project, we are discovering not only what kind of work we’d like to keep creating, but also what kind of innovative, sustainable, responsible institutional entity we could be. The mission - to create our blend of avant-pop immersive experiences - keeps me going and keeps us creating work that challenge definitions: of relationships and ethics between audiences and performers; of boundaries and hybridity in artistic concept. I love that we keep finding new, unorthodox ways to ask those questions, investigate new answers.
In many ways we've only just begun, as we grope our way about, finding new organizational models to adopt, molding our audiences who are getting to know us, or accepting the help of supporters who can help us get to where we need to be. There is so much to learn and grow into, from individual artistry, to collaborative relationships, project orchestrations, and now organizational goals, and I hope we never stop learning and adapting to find the right fit at any given moment.
JL: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure? Also, what skills and traits do you feel a successful artistic director should have to support the health and growth of an organization?
CW: Many more important lessons, I sense, are still to come, particularly on how to take care of the health and growth of an organization, but here are some applicable nuggets:
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
CW: The magic of a collaboration going well (hitting all the sweet spots of communication, vision, timing, connectivity) is thrilling, and for us extends to the audience too. I savor the moments of just watching, not even taking notes, but just seeing/feeling the dynamics in the entire space where a banished? project unfolds. I find it a luxury being able to observe and adjust what I am doing.
Conserving energy is a huge challenge for me personally, and I'm learning to lean and lead, relying on the strengths of folks around me, and know I don't have to do it all. I'm also learning to let things come together more organically, with patience (not at all a strong suit) and trust in intuition.
JL: If your work as an artistic director doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? Also, how do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as a director? Are you ever able to direct outside of your company?
CW: I have a part-time job with a mediation non-profit and find the odd gig with farmers’ markets, where I'd worked prior (as an EBT coordinator, interfacing with food stamp users at market) for the last 3 seasons. These jobs actually keep me grounded, nourished, self-aware and balanced.
I'm continuing to learn to separate the different kinds of work in banished?, and learn how to nurture each part (the administration, the leadership, the artistry and more...) and identify what I need in order to do that in a way that is more fulfilling.
As for directing outside: yes! I'm thrilled to be directing/crafting a piece with Wit's End Puppets, whose 'The Amazing & Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet' the premiering in April 2013 at the Mead Theatre Lab in Flashpoint DC. It has been lovely working without my producer hat but sharing my experience and insights with two super talented women Cecilia Cackley and Genna Davidson.
JL: Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and a director, how conscious are you and selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season? Also, when it comes to hiring administrators, designers and other directors do you take race and gender into consideration?
CW: I remember being very clear on how I wanted to cast an all-female and multi-racial version of "bobrauschenbergamerica" with male characters only appearing in the 2-dimensional world of video. The body of work and core team has been somewhat women-centric, but I am ever cognizant of diversity within banished? I feel lucky that we have had a good mix of colors, ages and voices since the start, from actors, interns and advisors and I want to be able to maintain this going forward.
JL: DC audiences are ...
CW: The best challenge and resource I have.
JL: DC actors and designers are ..
CW: Just dandy and fine (waggle brows).
JL: DC playwrights are ...
CW: Such hard workers.
JL: DC critics are ...
CW: Audience members too, but with different ethics and responsibilities.
JL: What advice do you have for up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
CW: Do your thing, do it well, be open-eyed and -hearted and find opportunities to step outside your comfort zone. See as much as this city has to offer and of course, leave your imprint.
JL: What's next for you as a director and your company?
CW: Change and growth! More projects and events that bring us to amazing people, lessons, unexpected twists that keep us on our toes. I'm currently working on a completely different version of Tactile Dinner and hope it finds some interest and traction.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!