First published on 19 Jul 2012. Updated on 19 Jul 2012.
How did you get started in showbiz?
When I was a little girl, the casting agents from The King and I came to Chinatown, where my [Chinese] father and [East Indian] mother had a restaurant, and said they were looking for children – [and told us] if you have kids, to send them down. I went, and I got chosen for the role of the young princess! I didn’t sing, act and dance before that, but I saw the dancers and singers, and [knew] I wanted to become one.
And you went on to play all kinds of incredible characters – like 4ft 10in Asian dancer Connie Wong, in the 1975 premiere of A Chorus Line – as well as other productions of the show. Then, over the years, you even got to direct it, in more than 35 productions all over the world.
It wasn’t easy! A Chorus Line
was the original reality TV show: the first director got a lot of dancers together for workshops, and created a script based on their lives, and how hard it was for them to get a show. Before I got that, I had to study very, very hard, perform in Broadway shows and meet a lot of people.
Finally, years later, I was given a chance to direct A Chorus Line. After that, people knew I was a director – and I was asked to direct The King and I and Jesus Christ Superstar, which I’ve also performed in. I’ve directed quite a few shows since. But it took many, many years of trying. It’s very hard, being an Asian woman on Broadway…it’s a man’s world.
Why do you think it’s so hard for Asian women to get work on Broadway?
I think there are more roles for men than women, though it all depends on the show. And I think for Asian actors, there are only a few theatre shows. Miss Saigon, one role in A Chorus Line, Flower Drum Song… There are more roles in TV for male actors, definitely. For the rest, it’s happened so many times – at 4ft 10in, I [a Chinese-Indian] go in to get a job and they are looking for blondes who are 5ft 8in, long legs, hot hair. I go in and they just say, ‘Thank you, we’re not looking for your type.’
But once in a hundred million times, someone says, ‘You’re perfect.’ And then I’m happy that I went to all those auditions and took all those ‘nos’ for one ‘yes’. Because if I had not kept going, they would never have seen me. You have to keep going. And you have to study and work hard, because when you get in there you have to prove that you deserve that job. In between bigger roles, I survived by auditioning to play child roles. That’s how I got most of my work.
Do you think it’s easier now for Asian performers on Broadway?
No, I don’t think it’s easier now. It’s even harder. There’s more competition and [fewer] jobs. Also many people study performing and are armed with more of a CV. And more women and Asians, and dancers in general, are coming to the Western world to get jobs.
We hear the actress playing Connie Wong in the Singapore production, Filipino-Australian Leah Lim, went to New York to stake you out and ask you about surviving as an Asian actress in a Caucasian society. How did you feel about that?
[Laughs] Well, we had some friends in common. That’s a good thing. She wasn’t a stalker. And when I met her, I welcomed her because I saw her passion. It was the same passion for the theatre that I have. That’s very important in theatre, something nobody can give you. If you don’t have the talent, dedication and passion, people can only give you the technique and the style. I saw all those things in her.
So what advice did you give her?
I just told her, ‘Don’t change. You’re doing the right thing. Continue to study and work hard, go to auditions so that people see you.’ The most important thing I said to her was, ‘Don’t ever give up on your dream.’ Well, I remembered her and when she came to audition in Australia, I hired her for the Tel Aviv production of A Chorus Line. Then for the Singapore production, it was just so obvious that she was going to be hired.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Never, never, never, never, never – even though the door is closed all the time for Asians. If you had one of your big Singapore stars come to the United States, they might be coming as a special actor for a special role, but if they came to just start from the bottom, it would be unbelievably hard. We have triple threats, and for them each discipline is just as good as the next.
Now, at 65, I’m not really able to perform anymore. But I still perform every day, in a way, when speaking to people and teaching them. That’s the only way I can still perform. I love directing because I can take young people, give them good values and mould them.
Tell us about the ways you mould young people, especially young Asian performers.
I was asked to open a theatre school by Lotte [a large business conglomerate] in South Korea. They were starting a theme park, Lotte World – they needed dancers and singers for all of their venues, and we started a school there to train them. They also built a theatre there to put up Broadway shows. It was a totally different experience to work somewhere where everyone is Asian like me! It gave me opportunities to think about forming a conpany for Asian dancers and singers.
I founded the National Asian Artists Project in 2009, in New York. We put up productions like Oklahoma!, Carousel – classics, plays, musicals, comedies – and audition Asian performers for each production. We also ask writers to submit 30-minute musicals, choose three or four and put them on the stage with an all-Asian cast. We have our outreach programme in a public school in Chinatown, with two classes of 25 children each learning songs from musicals, and we also give them the opportunity to perform.
We did Guys and Dolls with them two years ago, and we’re doing Mulan this year. We’re giving them a foundation for musical theatre, which they otherwise would not be involved in because we have tiger moms here [laughs]. They’d have violin and tai chi and maths lessons, but this is a club which gives them something that’s not on the parents’ radar.
So why should people watch A Chorus Line if they are not in the showbiz industry?
First of all, it’s entertaining. If you like reality shows, we are the first ever reality show. But it goes deeper than that. I like some reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance, because dance shows have given a push to the dancing schools, which is great. People are watching soap operas less, watching professional dancers, taking lessons, being more fit. And they’re learning to form opinions of dance.
I think it’s really good. That’s very different from American Idol when people become instant stars with a recording contract. It gives people the false impression that all you have to do is get on a reality show to become a star. That’s not the reality of the business; you have to work hard, study, pound the pavements, send your pictures in if you want to survive.
And A Chorus Line talks about that. It’s a musical play about regular people who happen to be dancers – but their lives are challenging, or funny, just like the people who are watching. So the people will see themselves or their family when they’re watching A Chorus Line. It goes deeper than just the spectacle.
Time Out's interview with A Chorus Line's Debora Krizak
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