Stars Behind the Stars: Annie Jin Wang
BY Robbie Armstrong, February 18, 2021
Stars Behind The Stars is a bi-weekly series featuring theatre makers behind the scenes.
This week, we sat down with Alumna Annie Jin Wang ’20. Wang is a Taurus who is on staff at The Play Company, Theater Mu, and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Wang started working for The Play Company in October.
Tell me about your first time in Theatre.
Annie Jin Wang: I have been preparing for this question! My first notable time doing theatre was in children’s church musicals that my neighbor recruited me into in the fifth grade, despite not having any previous ties to Western religion. I remember there was a baseball-themed musical called Sermon On The Mound, that was cute. I started feeling weird about it after a while because I knew I was doing these musicals primarily because I wanted solos, and the spotlight should probably go to children who are actually of the faith. I was never officially a member of the church, yet they pulled me aside for promotional flyers—my parents still have one on our fridge where they painted white mustaches on me and three other white children with the caption “Got Christ?” So that was my first time in theatre and in tokenism.
How does being a Taurus appear in your work?
AJW: I’m a Taurus sun, Capricorn rising, and Cancer moon, and I feel very strongly in alignment with my placements. I do my best to appear steady and dependable, but on the inside I’m more like Charybdis, just constantly navigating whirlpools of emotional chaos. I find that earth signs often make great dramaturgs because we are often a grounding presence for other artists.
I see Astrology as less prescriptive and most useful when offered as a lens through which to look at how you might approach work styles and relationships. My ride-or-die astrologer is Chani Nicholas; she’s very holistic with her readings and uses them as a framework to do deeper self-reflection. It’s very dramaturgical.
Tell me about being a Theatre Artist and Dramaturg.
AJW: I define my dramaturgy as being a facilitator of artistic process. I strive to help people articulate their creative goals for a piece, or for themselves, and then we work together to figure out a process that will get them there. The Columbia program constantly challenges you to define the meaning of dramaturgy for yourself, and the program really made me consider what I have to offer as a first-generation Asian American artist. I live and create at many intersections. What does it really mean to be a part of a community, to hold ourselves and others accountable to the society we want to live in as we emerge out of this pandemic? Artistically, socially, and civically, those are often the questions that inform my work.
The smaller companies I work with, like PlayCo and Theater Mu, have been so agile in navigating through this crisis in our industry because of how embedded they are in their communities. In the model of scarcity that the current industry has been operating under, I think we often struggle to meet this core question of who we serve because we’re all trying so hard just to survive. We need to shift towards a model of abundance, this idea that there is in fact enough to go around, and that expending resources on things like making your productions and company structures more equitable and anti-racist is a worthy investment.
You work at a lot of places.
AJW: Haha, what else is new? Right now I’m the Communications & Marketing Manager at The Play Company in New York; I work with Theater Mu in the Twin Cities; and I’m the Literary Manager at Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company in San Francisco. All of these theaters are helmed by resilient, visionary women and I’m really proud that in my comparatively short career, I’ve been guided by the kinds of role models that the American theatre deserves.
What are you working on right now?
AJW: We just opened Theater Mu’s virtual production of Today Is My Birthday by Susan Soon He Stanton! The play premiered at Page 73 a few years ago; the director [Lily Tung Crystal] and I both loved it when we read it earlier last year and thought that it spoke to and beyond this moment. Through comedy, it touches a highly-specific nerve of millennial ennui that a lot of people in our generation are experiencing regarding isolation, intimacy, and professional fulfillment (or lack thereof). A loss or limiting of connection seems to be a resonant theme right now—Is It Supposed To Last?, showing at PlayCo, touches on many similar questions.
Production dramaturgy in this hybrid format has been a major learning experience—I could talk about it forever. Because our actors are performing live each night and we’re using multiple cameras, every artistic decision requires both theatrical and cinematic consideration. What sorts of meta moments read in a theatrical setting that need to be adapted for this heightened digital format? How do we evoke a mise-en-scene that feels authentically Hawai’ian without dipping into stereotypes, especially when some actors are in their homes in snowy Minnesota? Editing is live, so how can we keep the pace of the play as fast as it needs to be while still allowing actors enough time to go through their quick changes or reset their limited spaces?
When we say “experimental theatre,” I don’t think this is exactly what most people would imagine but Today Is My Birthday is absolutely that for me in how its technological risk and artistic vision inform each other. I hope that this opens up opportunities for other companies to experiment; working with this creative team has certainly made me a braver artist in every way. I miss in-person theatre so much, but I also hope that audiences of all disciplines who watch it also see how transformative this new medium can be.
What else are you working on?
AJW: I am helping my good friend and classmate Julián Mesri ’20 (Playwriting) develop a few pieces, including his thesis play Telo, which takes place in a love hotel in Buenos Aires during three periods of political unrest in Argentina. Not only is he both the composer and the librettist, but he has one of the best work ethics of any playwright I’ve worked with, so it’s been really rewarding to join him on this journey.
It’s funny, at this time last year, if you asked me that question, I could have listed off half a dozen projects. In the past year, I’ve been working hard to only say “yes” to things that I’m truly passionate about. A lot of the decolonizing in my own generative and dramaturgical practices that I’ve accomplished in the past year has only been possible because we’ve collectively taken a good, hard look at whether our institutional models are working for us. I find myself prioritizing the wellbeing and safety of my collaborators over the product in a much more intentional way, and I’m much happier devoting more of my time between fewer projects.
What’s a lesson you learned from your time at Columbia?
AJW: Set and check expectations early on in the artistic process. I think a lot of disappointment comes along because expectations within a team become misaligned. When a creative team stops being able to communicate openly and honestly with each other, the production may continue but the process stops; you can’t make work you stand behind without trust.
For people of color, find your people and hold on to them because our institutions aren’t always built to support us. Being a part of affinity theaters like Theater Mu and Ferocious Lotus—the latter of which allowed me to transition out of my previous industry and empowered me to apply to MFA programs—is where the majority of my spiritual growth as an artist has happened. I really encourage my fellow global majority artists to find and/or create those spaces for themselves and each other.
If you could be any famous child, who would you be and why?
AW: At this point, I just hope that in my next life I’m lucky enough to come back as a baby elephant. Elephants are just as smart and empathetic as humans, and probably happier because they have no idea what an economy is.
What’s your favorite play/musical?
AJW: Bear with me—I genuinely think that even though T.S Elliot is a big ol’ racist, Cats is an artistic challenge that people really underestimate. It’s easy to reduce the show to people in cat costumes with no discernable plot, but, even beyond the physical and artistic rigor, which I appreciate, I argue that it’s asking us to understand societies in abstraction. In the stage musical, the audience relationship to the Jellicle Ball is that of a guest. We aren’t entitled to narrative clarity, or exposition into the campy and macabre rituals of this anthropomorphic cat colony. The film suffered precisely because it treated both the world and its audience with contempt and tried to compensate with poorly-threaded exposition instead of accepting its inherent ambiguity; typical colonialist mindset. We should stop asking Tom Hooper to direct mega-musical films and give those jobs to directors who actually understand and appreciate camp.
What’s coming up next for you?
AJW: Now that TIMB has opened, I’m looking forward to taking a bit of a breather from production dramaturgy, celebrating the Lunar New Year with my family, and continuing towards my tertiary journey of becoming a professional bookbinder.