Desdemona Chiang – A Great Leap

Like many theater artists, this noted director has been perfecting the virtual reading which has evolved as its own art form during the pandemic. Hear her thoughts on directing, racial equity, sound design and her concern for her parents and relatives during COVID-19.

For Asian Pacific American Heritage month in May, Dmae Roberts features theater director Desdemona Chiang. Chiang is directing Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, online May 1-9 from the Portland Chinatown Museum. At a time when virtual play readings are an everyday occurrence, Chiang is directing an enhanced reading based on her direction of Yee’s play at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 2019, with three of the original cast members.

Desdemona Chiang. Photo: Cheshire Issacs

Inspired by events in Yee’s father’s life, The Great Leap centers on Manford Lum, a 17-year old rising basketball player who brashly convinces a coach to include him in an American college team traveling to play in Beijing, China, for a friendship game. The play travels between 1971 and 1989 from Beijing and Chinatown in San Francisco. Those are two crucial times in U.S. and China relations. It wasn’t until 1972 that President Nixon visited China to open relations between the two countries, and 1989 was the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre.

Lawrence Kao (L.)and Kurt Kwan (R.) in the Guthrie Theater production.
Subscribe and listen to Stage & Studio on: AppleGoogleSpotify, Android and Sticher and hear past shows on the official Stage & Studio website. Theme Music by Clark Salisbury. Sound design samples by Robertson Witmer.

In this podcast:

On racial equity in theater: “I want to believe in the ability for people to activate. But I also know how deep the fear of disruption can be. … Somehow moving that needle is so difficult. And I think for some people the conversation of racial equity is abstract because it doesn’t really affect them on a personal level…it’s not a lived experience….Until it’s a matter of life and death for you, and a matter of survival for you, it’s all good intentions.”

 Regarding anti-AAPI racism: “Where my family is at, it’s actually (a) heavily Asian immigrant community and it feels a little bit different because we’ve always been our own enclave… the reality of what’s happening to Asian folks in non-Asian centered communities…I feel like there’s more vitriol.”

About COVID fears: “My concern has always been my parents and my grandmother and all of my aunts and uncles in their 60s and 70s…making sure they are safe and they can go to the grocery store and not feel endangered.”

On directing a fast-paced live virtual production: “It feels a lot like what your broadcast news director would be doing … like when do I cut to the graphic, when do I bring in this person? It feels like that. … We’re using the software Vmix and I think a lot of theaters have pivoted to those types of platforms because Zoom is limiting in its ability to be production (focused) or creative.”

Inspiration to direct a play without a bouncing basketball on stage: “[‘99%Invisible] does a fantastic episode about the Sound of Sport. … Things like basketball, the sound of the crowd, the sound of the net, you NEVER hear that net in real life. If I was in Staples Center in L.A. watching the Lakers play, I would never hear the sound of the net, but at home I feel like I’m courtside. … but it (the episode) was a fascinating exploration around how sports sound design is done and I sent it to my sound designer and said listen to this, I would like to capture that feeling.”

Lee Sellars (L)., Kurt Kwan (R.) THE GREAT LEAP– Guthrie Theater Production

Desdemona Chiang is a stage director based in Seattle and Ashland, Oregon, and co-founder of Azeotrope in Seattle. Directing credits include the Guthrie Theater, Alley Theatre, South Coast Repertory, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, California Shakespeare Theater, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Playmakers Repertory Company, Long Wharf Theatre, ACT Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Aurora Theatre Company, Shotguy Players, Crowded Fire Theatre Company, Azeotrope, Impact Theatre, FringeNYC, Playwrights Foundation, Golden Thread Productions, Washington Ensemble Theatre, One Minute Play Festival, Ohio Northern University, University of Washington, and Cornish College of the Arts, among others. Assisting and dramaturgy credits include Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Intiman Theatre, Playmakers Repertory Company, ACT Theatre, California Shakespeare Theater, Arizona Theatre Company, Mark Taper Forum, Magic Theatre, Theatreworks, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, among others. She has been an Intersection for the Arts Triangle Lab Artist-Investigator and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Awards and affiliations include the Princess Grace Award (Robert and Gloria Hausman Theater Honor), Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Theatre, SDC Sir John Gielgud Directing Fellowship, Drama League Directing Fellowship, TCG Young Leader of Color, Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and Directors Lab West. Des is the recipient of the Gregory Award for Outstanding Direction. She received her B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, and her M.F.A. in directing from the University of Washington School of Drama.

Lee Sellars (L.) and Lawrence Kao (R.) in the Guthrie Theater production.

THE GREAT LEAP

by Lauren Yee

Directed by Desdemona Chiang

With sound design by Robertson Witmer and visuals by Adam Wiley.

May 1-9, 2021 – Running time is approximately 95 minutes with a 5-minute intermission. Note: The play contains profanity and racial and ethnic slurs.

The enhanced virtual reading features three of the original 2019 Guthrie Theatre production directed by Chiang:  Lawrence Kao as Manford, Lee Sellars as University of San Francisco basketball coach Saul, and Kurt Kwan as the Beijing University coach. Completing the cast as Manford’s guardian/friend is Barbie Wu,  resident artist and educator at Artists Repertory Theatre and Hand2Mouth.

Lawrence Kao has appeared with East West Players, South Coast Repertory Theatre, and San Diego Repertory Theatre as well as television shows such as the Netflix original series, WU ASSASSINS.

Lee Sellars has appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, the George Street Theatre, Alley Theatre, and La Jolla Playhouse and TV shows and films such as BILLIONS, LAW AND ORDER, ER and the upcoming film, NAKED SINGULARITY.

Kurt Kwan has worked extensively with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Theatre Mu, and the Children’s Theatre Company, among others.

Lauren Yee (Playwright) received her bachelor’s degree from Yale University, and her M.F.A. in playwriting from UCSD, where she studied under Naomi Iizuka. Her play Cambodian Rock Band, with music by Dengue Fever and others, premiered at South Coast Repertory Theatre with subsequent productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, Victory Gardens, City Theatre, Merrimack Rep, Signature Theatre, and Jungle Theatre. The Great Leap has been produced at the Denver Center, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Atlantic Theatre, Guthrie Theater, American Conservatory Theatre, Arts Club, InterAct Theatre, and Steppenwolf, with future productions scheduled at Long Wharf, Cygnet Theatre, and Asolo Rep/Miami New Drama. King of the Yees premiered at The Goodman Theatre and Center Theatre Group, followed by productions at ACT Theatre, Canada’s National Arts Centre, and Baltimore Center Stage.

Showtimes: Matinees at (2 p.m.) May 1, 2, 8, & 9 and evening showings (7:00 p.m.) May 5, 6, & 7.

A live talkback and Q&A session will follow each reading, featuring different members of the cast and creative staff.  All ticketholders will receive an invitation to the May 8, 2021, 4 p.m. talkback following the matinee performance, which will feature a live conversation with Lauren Yee and Desdemona Chiang.

Ticket prices are $9 for students and seniors, $15 for general, and $25 for households.  There is a discount for museum members, as well as patron tickets at $50 and $100 that include a donation amount to the Portland Chinatown Museum.

Tickets can be purchased via BookTix here. For more information about the production, please visit the Portland Chinatown Museum site.

About the author

Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody winning radio producer, writer and theatre artist. Her work is often autobiographical and cross-cultural and informed by her biracial identity. Her Peabody award-winning documentary Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song is a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during WWII. She adapted this radio documentary into a film. She won a second Peabody-award for her eight-hour Crossing East documentary, the first Asian American history series on public radio. She received the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Civil Rights and Social Justice award from the Asian American Journalists Association and was selected as a United States Artists (USA) Fellow. Her stage plays and essays have been published in numerous publications. She published her memoir The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family in 2016. As a theatre artist, she has won two Drammys, one for her acting and one for her play Picasso In The Back Seat which also won the Oregon Book Award. Her plays have been produced in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, NYC and Florida. Roberts is the executive producer of MediaRites, a nonprofit multicultural production organization and co-founder of Theatre Diaspora, an Asian American/Pacific Islander non-profit theatre that started as a project of MediaRites. She created the Crossing East Archive of more than 200 hours of broadcast-quality, pan-AAPI interviews and oral histories. For 23 years, Roberts volunteered to host and produce Stage & Studio live on KBOO radio. In 2009, she started the podcast on StagenStudio.com, which continues at ArtsWatch.

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