Lily Tung Crystal thought her TV days were behind her. After years in broadcast news, she’d gradually returned to her first love – the theater – including starting Ferocious Lotus, a small theater company in San Francisco, in 2010.
In 2019, she was named new artistic director for Theater Mu – the second-largest and longest-running Asian American theater company in the United States. It would be all theater now. She arrived in the Twin Cities in late August that year and directed the Mu mainstage production “Peerless” in early February 2020.
And then, the pandemic shutdown. Stages went dark in mid-March. Live theater was suspended.
Theater companies found ways to adapt, moving online and presenting virtual events and productions.
“It was great not to have to do TV anymore,” Tung Crystal said of her move to Minnesota. “Six months later, it was back to TV.”
Her broadcast skills helped Mu shift directions quickly in the shutdown. The St. Paul-based theater company started virtual events including “Mu-tini Hour,” a weekly online hangout with Asian-American artists; Mu Mondays, virtual table readings for Asian-American artists; and Family Explorations, a Saturday morning online program where an artist teaches a family activity.
The COVID closure started March 13, and Mu had it’s first virtual event on March 16, says Tung Crystal. She credits Mu’s “hugely flexible and incredibly skilled staff,” along with her background in television. Mu has done about 40 virtual events since the shutdown.
Next weekend, Theater Mu takes its virtual programming outside the now-familiar screen squares of a Zoom event for its first mainstage production since the pandemic shutdown. “Today Is My Birthday” will be a live theater event that uses TV production technology. It will be broadcast online.
“It will be unlike anything seen in virtual theater space,” says Tung Crystal, who is directing the production. It’s a hybrid artform – TV and theater and video, she adds.
The actors in “Today is My Birthday” will be performing from their homes (three in Minneapolis, one in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles) and a streaming editor will put the live performances together in Tennessee. Fully produced and fully designed, there will be eight live performances, including the preview.
“It’s not TV because it’s not edited,” Crystal says. “It’s not theater because it’s not on stage.”
Written by Susan Soon He Stanton, “Today Is My Birthday” was first staged in 2017. “She must have been prescient,” Tung Crystal says of the playwright. It’s a story of people trying to find a connection despite isolation.
“It spoke to me about the reality today,” Tung Crystal says.
“Birthday” is the story of Emily, a young women who is almost 30 and “her life is a mess – professionally and personally,” Tung Crystal says. She moves from New York back home to Hawaii to try to rebuild herself and gets a job on a radio dating show.
Emily’s story unfolds through voicemail, phone calls, Facetime, radio spots and intercom.
Tung Crystal started her career in Shanghai, working as a journalist and foreign correspondent in print, TV and radio for most of the 1990s. She returned to her home base of San Francisco in 1999 and worked as a writer/producer for KRON-TV. She also produced segments for Discovery and National Geographic channels.
But she’d always worked as the theater artist, and she missed it. She started out as a singer and spent years working in musical theater. She was in a blues/rock band. (That band’s background was going to be put to good use as Mu and the Jungle Theater were set to stage “Cambodian Rock Band” in the summer of 2020 and Tung Crystal was going to direct. The two theaters plan to stage it sometime in the future.)
“Today Is My Birthday” is Mu’s mainstage season opener. The first half of the season is planned to be virtual, the theater hopes the second half can be live.
Tung Crystal says even after live, in-person theater returns, she expects some virtual elements to remain. Mu’s annual New Eyes Festival of new works from Asian-American playwrights could work in a hybrid format, she says.
The theater’s TwentyPho Hour PlayFest in mid-September had some online success, with 30 artists given one day to write, rehearse and present six 10-minute plays created to be shown virtually.
Online meetings have given Mu opportunities to work with Asian-American artists across the U.S., says Tung Crystal. Mu Mondays, which feature readings of new works, has become “a space where Asian-American artists can gather,” she says.
And MuTini Hour, Mu’s weekly online hangout, counts a virtual gathering in April as one of the theater’s most successful events. That session featured actor/author/social media superpower and activist (and original “Star Trek” alum) George Takei and actor and singer Lea Salonga. It got more than 100,000 views from around the world.
“I joke we had more (audience) in one night than in five years” of live theater performances, says Tung Crystal.
Virtual stagings can make theater more accessible, Tung Crystal says. “Today Is My Birthday” can be viewed from anywhere. It will have an audio guide for the visually impaired and will be closed captioned.
“This makes our art so much more accessible for anyone to tune in,” Tung Crystal says.
THEATER MU’S ‘TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY’
- What: “Today Is My Birthday,” Theater Mu’s first mainstage production of the season
- When and where: Live performances will broadcast online Feb. 6-14 (with a preview on Feb. 5), and a video on-demand recording of the show will be available to stream Feb. 15-21.
- Cast: Katie Bradley, Greg Watanabe, Emily Kuroda, Jomar Tagatac, China Brickey and Eric Sharp
- Tickets: Tickets are “pay as you are,” on sale through the box office at 612-789-1012 and online at theatermu.org. “Pay as you are” pricing asks those who routinely pay $35 for theater tickets to choose to pay that; it is the fair market value of the ticket. If an audience member needs to pay less, they can choose to do so – as little as $5. A minimum of one ticket per household is required to watch the show.
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