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IT'S THE BITCH OF LIVING
By Erin Quill for US Asians

Interview with Pun Bandhu

One of the Producers of the new Broadway smash, SPRING AWAKENING.
The show has been nominated for 11 TONY Awards and
He is one of the only Asian American Broadway Producers.

 

Encouraged by the success there, Bandhu eventually met his future producing partner, Marc Falato, with whom he founded ZenDog Productions.
“He had worked in Singapore. A friend of mine at Yale was the cousin of his friend in Singapore. Both of us were looking for change - his background was banking, mine was theater. When we first started the company, we thought we would be producing new plays Off-Broadway. We brashly thought that we could find a way to make Off-Broadway economics work. After more research and almost producing an Off Broadway project, we realized that a greater institutional paradigm shift needed to occur before Off-Broadway commercial productions could become more attractive to investors.

The fact of the matter is that the Off Broadway audience base has shrunk in the past 5-10 years, and with costs increasing, House sizes being smaller, and ticket prices lower, the possibility of an Off Broadway show recouping becomes much more remote. It made more sense to produce on Broadway.

We chose the name ZenDog Productions. We had been networking and going to readings constantly since we started. We happened to meet Jeffrey Richards, a Broadway producer. He invited us to a reading of an Off Broadway play, and we sent him a page of notes. I suppose he was impressed, because he invited us out for a meal and asked if we were interested in helping him produce his next project, 'Glengarry Glen Ross' on Broadway.

We thought this is HUGE and certainly not what we envisioned our first project to be! Could we raise this much money is such a short period of time? What ensued was a dash of phone calls to friends and family, networking events to cultivate potential investors, and setting up meetings on recommendations of our friends.

It was a tough project to sell, even with the names attached, because it was a limited run,but we pulled it off and were able to return a tidy profit to our investors.

Then of course we won the TONY! When I replay that memory in my mind, I can't believe we had the audacity to have our first production be one on Broadway. I guess we didn't know enough to be fearful. We were so green, 2 years ago, and very, very lucky. It was a huge learning curve, so much has changed."'

WHY ARE THERE NO ASIANS ON TV (ERIN QUILL)
Erin May Ling Quill

From an insider's perspective, the fact is that Asian Americans play significantly into our own lack of representation. . . in many ways, we may also be our own worst enemy. . . .

For those of us working on representation from within the industry, finding remedies requires tackling the problem from both sides. . . . . .

Then we both had nothing to say, because that CD, for whatever reason, had seen "enough" Asian actors to determine that there were no qualified, talented Asian actors. The fact that some of the top CDs working for networks ARE Asian American is just another nail in the coffin – because, to a white guy/gal – if your Asian CD comes back and says "There aren't any," you are going to believe them. . . .

We do not see Asian Americans on television because only a small, dedicated group is asking for that -- and it largely comprises lawyers and actors. . . . .

We want to see ourselves represented in media, but we only want to see it if it fits within rigid confines of community approval. We want to see ourselves in the lead, but only if we play roles representing the 'good guy' in the white suit that comes to save the day. We want to see our stories told within mainstream American culture, but only if they are 'traditionally' grounded and supportive.

That doesn't wash. It takes, will take and has taken, an Asian American village to get this far. We have to keep going.
To read her complete response, click
HERE
Erin's FYI: Actors to look out for that are working (but not enough) -
Alex Mapa, Rodney To, Chil Kong, Suzanne Whang, Esther K. Chae, Eddie Shin, Ryan Yu, Kennedy Kabasares, Telly Leung, John Cho, Kerri Higuchi, Tamlyn Tomita, Greg Watanabe, Manu Narayan, Lauren Tom, Golda Inquito, Marita de Lara, Parry Shen, Justin Chon, Eddie Mui, Elaine Kao, Kelvin Han Yee, Tony Lee, Sung Kang, Karin Anna Cheung, Lindsey Price, Deborah S. Craig, Mia Riverton, Minerva Vier, Michael K. Lee, Melanie May Po, Scarlett Lam & Peter Kim.
Actors that went to a Conservatory include the following:
Carnegie Mellon (Kim Miyori, Ming Na, Telly Leung, Manu Narayan), Yale (Esther K. Chae, Peter Kim), NYU (Alec Mapa), Julliard Arts (Rodney To), Syracuse University (Marita de Lara) and Boston Conservatory (Chil Kong).

Remember this was the first thing we had produced as ZenDog, and then it won The TONY Award. The TONY opened up a lot of doors, we had tremendous opportunity to jump right in to producing something else, but we waited – nothing seemed right until we saw Spring Awakening at the Atlantic Theater”

Spring Awakening has had a tremendous journey as a play. Written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, it’s frank treatment of teenage sexual awakening was banned several times, and never received a full production for almost a 100 years after it was written. It hinted that teens masturbate and are intrigued by sexual matters of all kinds, including sado-maschism, homosexuality, and rape.

In the spring of 1999, playwright Steven Sater gave a copy of the play to musician, Duncan Sheik. Sater had worked with Sheik before, writing lyrics for Sheik’s music. It took them seven years of writing together to launch the musical the would become Spring Awakening. Sheik has called it his most satisfying work to date, and has been involved in every step of the process. When joined by director, Michael Mayer and choreographer, Bill T. Jones, Spring Awakening made a startling NY debut at The Atlantic Theater Company, known for pioneering original, gritty work. The show combines pop/rock song treatments as inner monologues for the 1891 characters from a small Germanic town. ZenDog was invited to come and see the production at The Atlantic, and were instantly intrigued as to it’s Broadway potential.

After the TONY, it was so tempting to do another project, but we had to step back.
We saw Spring Awakening at the Atlantic, and we loved it, but now you have a responsibility to your Investors, to yourself in terms of establishing a career in this marketplace. We had to ask ourselves tough questions - Did it have commercial viability – we always have to analyze the Broadway scene.

We decided that whether you love it or not, you will never forget it. Did we think that it would find favor with the critics? Yes, the critical community would support it. The difficulty with Spring Awakening is, it’s not instantly brand-able. It is not a juke-box musical, or based on a popular movie, it’s based on a play written in Germany in 1891. We had to be ok with that as Producers.

The creative team was incredibly exciting – Michael Mayer, Duncan Sheik, Bill T. Jones, Steven Sater, these are people you want to work with. These were all factors, but initially, it was a gut feeling.

This is a word of mouth show, it’s going to grow over time, we need to let it gestate. There are different marketing possibilities here that do not come with more of a ‘name brand’ show, which excited me. It was a creative fusion that Broadway has not seen before, so fresh, and something we would be proud of.”

When reflecting on his Investor pool and asked how many Asian Americans were part of it, Bandhu admitted that it is ‘less than 10 per cent’, he was told by many that they would rather invest in something more stable than Broadway, like real estate, for which he holds no grudge. “Our Investor pool is diverse. It takes a certain personality to invest in a show, you have to be a bit of a gambler, and you have to be ok with the fact that the show could close, you could lose your investment. It’s not a question of race, it’s a question of individual personality.”

We discussed the audition process for Spring Awakening, which is set in a small German town. The cast is largely Caucasian and look to be in their late teens. Many of the cast members were initially found through their websites on My Space. That list includes actress, Lauren Pritchard. Lead actress Lea Michelle had a few Broadway credits previous to this show as did TONY Nominee, John Gallagher Jr. The casting was unique and included calls to conservatories, open calls, internet searches, and regular casting channels.

I think it was Spike Lee
who said that
‘The more specific you get
the more universal it becomes’.

The casting process was arduous, as is the daunting task of maintaining the show through an extended run. If, and given it’s 11 TONY nominations is very likely, it follows the usual blueprint for musicals - national tours, the casting will continue to be an issue. The youthful appearance of the cast is not a feat of lights and costuming, the actors in the show are young.

Bandhu dismisses the idea that there will ever be ‘stunt’ casting with the show, saying “This is a dynamic ensemble show, and it’s not easy – vocally or otherwise. What we were looking for, and will continue to look for in the big picture, are actors that can sing the music and perform what is mainly a classical text.

Our Casting Director, Jim Carnahan did an outstanding job, it was not easy. I would have a hard time picturing anyone being able to do this show without rigorously auditioning, no matter what kind of ‘name’ they might bring with them – it’s not that kind of piece. Talent is always the determining factor.”

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