Asian American Arts and Activism

A Conversation with Tisa Chang

Tisa Chang (2010) by Phil NeeAsian American Arts Alliance

Tisa Chang

Tisa Chang is an award-winning, Chinese-American actress and director. Tisa is the artistic director of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

Tell us about Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. How and why did you establish it?

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is the pioneer, award-winning Asian American theater
company on the East Coast, and the second most veteran in the nation. With the
help of the late Ellen Stewart, and core Asian American artists at La MaMa E.T.C., [I] founded Pan Asian Rep in 1977 with the vision that Asian American artists can equally follow their artistic aspirations to reach the zenith of American Theater. The company nurtures thousands of artists, and is a “who-is-who” of Asian American theater history, with notable alumni/ae including Ernest Abuba, June Angela, Tina Chen, Dinh Doan, Philip Gotanda, Wai Ching Ho, Michael G. Chin, David Henry Hwang, Daniel Dae Kim, Cherylene Lee,, Lucy Liu, Lu Yu, Rosanne Ma, Ron Nakahara, Edward Sakamoto, Jon Shirota, R.A. Shiomi, Shigeko Suga, Elizabeth Wong, Lauren Yee, Henry Yuk, and many others.

Film Chinois (2015) by Pan Asian Repertory TheatreAsian American Arts Alliance

Fim Chinois - Pan Asian Rep, NY premiere, 2015

Photo Courtesy of Pan Asian Rep

How did you connect with A4?

One of the early artist/activists who spearheaded A4 was Corky Lee, who was
the photo archivist at Pan Asian, and Pan Asian, as a pioneer of Asian American
arts, naturally supported the launch of A4.

How is A4 a part of your organization’s history?

Pan Asian has worked with A4 introducing younger groups like SLANT and offering access to our shows to all A4 members. We worked with former A4 Board Chair Rocky Chin and former Executive Director Andrea Louie to underscore the importance of A4 in terms of community service to audiences and funders.

Do you have a fond memory of working in collaboration with A4 that you would like to share?

During the height of the 2020 pandemic, A4 took the lead and created a series of online programming. AAPI organizations were all shifting in-person events to be done virtually. The platform gave us and many others a chance to share our work while navigating the new way of showcasing artistic works. Pan Asian was invited to be the keynote speaker of one of the events. We talked about our collective history, and accessible programs to reconnect with new and old friends. It was particularly important to have community solidarity in those trying times.

What are you most proud of in the organization’s history?

As the pioneer AAPI theater over the past 45 years, Pan Asian has launched many young Asian American theater artists’ careers, and inspired the founding of new Asian American orgs such as NAATCO (the National Asian American Theatre Company) and Ma-Yi (Ma-Yi Theater Company) in New York, and Theatre Mu in Minneapolis. Our plays promoting social justice give voice to those seldom heard in America.

One of the capstones of Pan Asian’s history was the creation of “Cambodia Agonistes.” The musical was written by Ernest Abuba, composed by Louis Stewart, and directed by Tisa Chang. The project went on tour in South Africa just after Nelson Mandela had become president. The production excited and inspired South African audiences when the country was still healing from apartheid.

What are your future hopes for the company? What do you see as the legacy of the company?

As we enter our 45th season, Pan Asian remembers our genesis in the ‘70s, inspired by the civil rights movement and global independence from colonization. Pan Asian preserves our legacy for artistic excellence, equity, and access for diverse artists. The road ahead may have bumps, but we are resolute to fight the good fight for the right reasons and for the long term.

What challenges are you currently facing?

Pan Asian, with Tisa Chang at the helm, is a recognized Asian American leader in the theater arena. However, as an artist centered company with a limited budget, it is unbalanced to compete for funding with theater companies that have become multi-million dollar organizations. Pan Asian continues as a home for diverse, innovative AAPI artists working under professional standards and fair compensation.

How do you think the company and A4 are shaping the future of AAPI culture, leadership, and/or activism?

A4 has become a major voice as the service organization on behalf of AAPI groups - old, new and growing. As for Pan Asian, we will do what we have done for five decades; both expand our formidable presence to illuminate the national playing field.

To learn more about the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre or to support their efforts, visit their website:

https://www.panasianrep.org/

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