Actor, writer, film-maker, and internet-prankster Kristina Wong is perhaps best known for her solo theater performances, but that by no means exhausts her talent. Wong is a frequent contributor to magazines and literary anthologies, and is completing her first novel with the help of a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellowship. She launched the satiric mail-order bride website bigbadchinesemama.com in 2000. Now, Wong has come to UChicago as the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture's artist-in-residence to lead an acting workshop and perform her latest solo show, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Cuckoo's Nest dramatizes the high rate of depression and suicide among Asian-American females with characteristic humor. In a phone interview, I talked with Wong about her many interests as well as her goals here at the University of Chicago.
Chicago Maroon: You've written and performed two other solo shows (Miss Chinatown 2nd Runner Up and Free?). How has your style changed over time? Kristina Wong: I think Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is more developed and well-though out. Before, they were a lot of vignettes strung together that were less accumulative. In this one, I had to think a lot more about content and delivery. It was a creative process, and I had the luxury of more resources.
CM: What draws you to the format of the solo show? KW: I have worked with ensembles before, and I think I can be kind of a stubborn personality that needs my way or no way. Some of it is just basic economics. It doesn't mean that it's easier-it's very hard for me to be on top of things and be diligent, whereas if I had a company that was very consistent, we might be much more prolific in terms of generating content.
CM: What inspired you to create Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? KW: I was at Wesley College touring my last show, and there were things that were very utopic about that campus. It was very progressive, and the women were very intelligent. I thought it was an amazing place to learn. So I'm walking along the beautiful campus lake with my student host, and we stumbled onto the topic of suicide attempts. They were talking about people on their campus who had been depressed and I-very naively-asked how something so awful could happen in such a beautiful environment. I was thinking of my next show and how Asian-Americans have such a high suicide rate. The statistic was one I simultaneously got and also found shocking. [I thought this show would be] a great way for me to do research on other people and not have to mind my own family or neuroses. I would actually be an anthropologist and examine other people. I was also egotistical in my approach and thought, "Oh, I'll save them and liberate all these women." We artists are drawn to topics because they are personal and they strike an emotional core within us, and I was approaching this topic thinking I wouldn't have to be invested in it. So I went about this process, not realizing what a huge minefield I had stepped in, that it wouldn't be as easy as me interviewing people and telling their story. There was a lot of pressure. Everyone had an opinion on how the show should go. I found myself like a waitress taking orders. Every piece of advice I got was so irritating to me, the agony of trying to create this impossible show on this impossible topic. I didn't really like the approach to this kind of idea of creating a catalogue of characters because it's not just about "let's as an audience observe these people who might be crazy from the safety of an audience where it's they're crazy and I'm not." I didn't like the idea of being educational, of creating this pandering theater where people feel wowed and fascinated by these subjects. I felt like we all need to be implicated in this issue. This show is more about me as a character named Kristina Wong. I am going to try to fix the problem, but every attempt backfires as I try to fix an impossible problem.
CM: What is the relationship between Dale Wasserman's play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and your show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? KW: I did not see his play. I had gone through impossible titles for the show, and I did a survey on instant messenger. [The show] wasn't even written yet, and I got the worst suggestions in the world, like Yellow Fever. My friend shouted out Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There's a little bit of a wink to the movie at the end, but it's not me trying to do that play or anything or tell that story.
CM: How does both writing and performing in a show affect you both as a writer and as an actor? KW: When I finished school, I thought I'd be more of an actor, and I was just very agitated by that whole process. A lot of the things I was auditioning for were not the best use of my facilities, and a lot of them were poorly written. I feel like, as an actor, there's so much performance that happens in [a solo show]. It's not just me reciting lines or replicating emotion. It's also the aesthetic that I play within the bigger category of performance. It's exciting that there are no rules. I also have license to improvise in more ways, and sometimes I find great moments in the audience. Improvising is what I know; it's what feeds me. I like being subversive and talking to the audience in the show.
CM: In addition to the play, you are also teaching a workshop and giving a lunchtime talk on Thursday. What are your goals for of these events? What do you hope students will get out of them? KW: When I was in college, the one thing that really gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel really alive and active and participate in my community was making art. I really hope that in these workshops I teach and in the show that people begin to recognize the power that the creative path and small creative gestures have in their lives.
CM: What advice do you have for inspiring actors and playwrights? KW: For actors, I would really recommend writing and watching as much work as possible. It's really important to define heroes you would like to emulate. Read the bios of artists you like. I would look at artists who had amazing careers, and it gave me a shape to follow. On the creative level, I think it's important to constantly have new projects, and if you become known for doing one thing as well, it's important to not sit on your laurels. It can be a very unstructured life, so it's important to have a community of artists around you. What I do is I sign up for open mike situations and try out new work so that I won't get complacent. I have to constantly think about what other questions there are to ask, what other ways there are to tell a story. I don't necessarily recommend that every person who is interested in being an artist pursue it as a living, because it's so hard. There are ways to maintain a creative life and have a job that pays well. I think if not make art, watch art. Support art.
CM: You work in a variety of fields, from writing to internet pranks to film. What does working in these different fields allow you to accomplish that you could not otherwise? KW: One reason why I work in so many media besides the theater is the need to work. They were paying me and I was like "Okay, yay money." A big objective of my work is to point out performances in daily life that we don't even know are happening, so I try to use public spaces because that's part of my aesthetic. I like to find audiences who are just going through their daily routine and point out the absurdity of the daily theme. I think a lot of the different venues are about finding more different ways to reach the audience.
CM: What are your plans for the future? KW: I'm working on a new show about a cat. I will hopefully finish this novel I started eight years ago. I'm actually trying to transition into work that is more commercial because I'm getting older. So I'm working on a sex book, writing stuff for television-you write a pretend script for that show. I'm also working on new projects, and I'm kind of in a place of reinvention, thinking about what is that next subject.