Editor’s Note: On May 29 at 11 a.m., Theater Mu announced it was postponing its weekend events, including the 24 Hour PlayFest. In its email, the company writes, “As we close out Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we cannot in good conscience continue with our planned weekend events knowing the hurt happening here at home. For that reason, we are postponing our Mu-tini Hour, PlayFest and Family Explorations program to a later date. We stand in strong solidarity with protestors, organizers, and activists seeking justice for George Floyd and other victims of racial violence.”
March 13 was when Theater Mu’s artistic director Lily Tung Crystal and her four-person staff went into lockdown and started working remotely. On March 31, they, along with the Jungle, announced the cancellation of their joint production, Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band. Within those 18 days, though, Theater Mu had already produced two virtual events, later branded as Mu-tini Hours. They had grown its periodic Mu Monday play readings into a near-weekly gathering, open to Asian artists around the world. And, when Mu artists transformed their developing youth curriculum into a virtual series called Family Exploration with puppetry, games, step-by-step cooking, and more in mid-April, the team was producing three events per week.
“The staff in general were very adaptable and spry because we’re the type of company that can make decisions very quickly,” Tung Crystal says. “I also think theater artists of color are so used to having to adjust to changing landscapes and to fight for representation. We’re used to making decisions and doing work very quickly and adapting really quickly.”
In a way, Theater Mu’s intense schedule perfectly coincided with May, the Asian Pacific American Heritage month. The weekly programming spans history and artistry, pop culture, mental health, resilience against racism: It’s a bouquet of topics, yet it’s united by the Asian American community both here in the Twin Cities and far away. They were even able to host a Mu-medley variety show one week.
As a finale for the month, Theater Mu is putting on a virtual 24 Hour PlayFest on May 29 and 30. Playwrights include Yee, Leah Nanako Winkler (Hot Asian Doctor Husband, Two Mile Hollow), and Theater Mu’s new resident playwright, Mellon grant recipient Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. Twin Cities theater fans will recognize Rick Shiomi, Jennifer Weir, Eric Sharp, and Sarah Ochs, but also joining them are national artists such as Amy Hill and Greg Watanabe.
[Editor’s Note: Because of the murder of George Floyd and the events surrounding it, Theater Mu has decided to postpone the 24 Hour PlayFest and all other events the weekend of May 29-31.]
A Growing Network
The names 24 Hour PlayFest brings in are not shocking after a month of star-studded Mu-tini Hours: George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Jay Kuo of the musical Allegiance. David Henry Hwang and Francis Jue of M. Butterfly and other amazing works. Michelle Krusiec of Netflix’s Hollywood series. Diane Phelan, the founder of the Broadway Diversity Project and the #RacismIsaVirus campaign. They’re just a few of the guests who have raised a glass with Tung Crystal. (And yes, you can watch and rewatch every virtual event on the theater’s Facebook page.)
Tung Crystal says she was able to quickly pivot during shelter-in-place because of her past experience producing television. She’s not afraid to do “the ask,” and she’s used to working with fast-paced, changing lineups. “I always joke that I took the job at Mu so I could concentrate on theater full time and I was ready to get out of TV,” she laughs. “Now look at me, seven months later, the COVID crisis hit, and I’m back to doing television again.”
Bringing the lineup together was a simple matter of reaching out to people Tung Crystal knew first, a hallmark of all burgeoning talk shows. She knew Yee prior to Cambodian Rock Band because of her work in the Bay Area. Hwang was on an advisory board for her old theater company, Ferocious Lotus. Tung Crystal was good friends with Kuo, and he helped bring in Takei (whom Tung Crystal knew peripherally) and Salonga (whom she had crossed paths with before). The only cold call so far was Krusiec, who started following Tung Crystal on Instagram after the Hwang/Jue Mu-tini; Krusiec had worked with the two on the tour of Chinglish.
“The APIA [Asian Pacific Islander American] performing community, it’s big and it’s also small. If I didn’t know a person myself, I probably had two degrees of separation,” Tung Crystal says. Plus, as she likes to point out, Theater Mu is not just the only Asian American theater company in the Twin Cities; it’s the second largest in the country. With online participants from places like the Philippines, China, India, and Australia joining our local community, this status is felt more than ever before.
Creating During COVID-19
Each event is an opportunity to pay Mu staff and artists, but especially with Mu Mondays and Mu-tini Hour, it’s about meeting people where they’re at during the pandemic. The creative time that Mu Mondays offers can be life giving to artists who don’t have that anymore, Tung Crystal says. It’s also a safe space for them to frankly talk about how they interpret Asian American plays through their own lives and through everything that has happened and is happening.
Since Mu-tini Hour is a more public event, Theater Mu tried to be sensitive and empathetic to everyone’s COVID experiences. “People are dealing with life and death situations, so I wanted to create a space that was respectful that was still light hearted,” she says. “I wanted it to be where people can come wherever they are. They can talk about racism, COVID-related racisms, serious issues in terms of grieving the loss of theater, or they can come and have a good time and have a drink with us at happy hour, Mu-tini Hour.”
Theater Mu’s Facebook videos have been viewed thousands of times (with the Takei, Salonga, and Kuo video standing at about 110,600 plays). Those numbers are just a small quantifier of the impact Theater Mu is having and a very large quantifier of how incredibly nimble the team has been. At the same time, you have to ask: How long will this small staff continue to crank out these events? When will they have to stop and regroup?
“We ask that of ourselves every week,” Tung Crystal laughs. After Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is done, the staff is going to do another planning meeting for the long term. There is no doubt programming like Mu Mondays and Mu-tini Hour will continue, but perhaps they will be at a different frequency or in a slightly different form. At this point, February is the earliest Theater Mu is hoping to produce a more traditional show.
Nine months seems like an eon in the world of theater, so it’s unsurprising that one of the board members, Jon Jee Schill, asked about what it would take to create a play tailor-made for a virtual performance. (For a high production version of this idea, look no further than Searching, starring John Cho.) The idea had merit but not the right timeline. The 24 Hour PlayFest format did, and it had the added bonus of being able to bring together national artists that Theater Mu had wanted to collaborate with already.
The 24Hour PlayFest, like all of Theater Mu’s virtual events thus far, is free to attend. If you don’t know the format, here is the breakdown. On Friday, March 29 (the traditional Mu-tini Hour time), you’ll meet the playwrights, directors, and actors. Then you can spend the rest of your evening and most of Saturday doing as you do in quasi-quarantine: go for walks, bake some banana bread, binge watch more TV shows. Just make sure to set your alarm for 7 p.m. when everyone comes together again to show their performances. With 30 artists from around the country, there’s no better way Theater Mu could end Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this year.
No matter how Theater Mu changes its programming in the coming months, the team has undeniably gone all out in a jaw-dropping, packed schedule to help us feel a little closer—and a lot less bored—when we’re six feet (or more) apart. So consider celebrating with Theater Mu during its 24 Hour PlayFest. Show solidarity with Asian Americans, support artists with your donations, or simply enjoy theater in a time when it straddles the worlds of luxury and necessity.