Busy Chay Yew gets creatively Stuck at ACT

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Chay Yew, in addition to directing shows at the country’s top theaters, is also the artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. He is directing the world premiere of the musical Stuck Elevator at American Conservatory Theater. Photo courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater. Below: Joel Perez (left) is Marco and Julius Ahn is Guang in Stuck Elevator. Photo by Kevin Berne.



How does Chay Yew manage to be the artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater and hopscotch the country as an in-demand director?

“Consummate scheduling,” Yew says.

He’s in town to direct the world premiere of Stuck Elevator for American Conservatory Theater. This inventive new musical, with music by Byron Au Yong and a libretto by Aaron Jafferis, is based on the true story of Ming Kuang Chan, a deliveryman for Happy Dragon Chinese restaurant, who got stuck in a Bronx elevator for nearly three days in 2005.

It’s an intriguing concept — one guy in an elevator, and it’s a musical.

Yew, whom Bay Area audiences know as a playwright (Porcelain at Theatre Rhinoceros in the early ’90s, Red at TheatreWorks in 2004) and director (Alec Mapa’s I Remember Mapa in 1998 and Dael Orlandersmith’s Black and Blue Boys/Broken Men at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last summer), knew composer Yong from his days in Seattle and was intrigued with the idea of what was originally a solo show.

“All these other voices kept creeping in,” Yew says on the phone before heading into a rehearsal at ACT. “It became interesting to explore the life of this person, not just in his present reality but also outside of it with his memories and fantasies. We started to hear the hymn of the immigrant in America.”

By the time Yew joined the Stuck Elevator creative team as director in 2009, Yong and Jafferis had already been working on the piece for several years. Readings and workshops, including some valuable time at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab, led to a five-character theater piece that is part opera, part hip-hop, part avant-garde theater piece.

“I had always hoped the show would find some space like The Marsh, but I really never thought it would play the regional theaters because they wouldn’t know how to platform it,” Yew says. But when ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff saw the show at Sundance, she wanted it for the Geary, which is anything but a small, intimate space.

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“On this enormous stage we’re really finding the theatricality of this story,” Yew says. “Once you break out of the elevator, the look and the imagination of the piece becomes fertile and huge. Being alone with yourself for three days. What would you think? What memory seeps in? So we invade the space with tension between the real and not real, between China and America. Sometimes the elevator is even the oil tanker on which the man was smuggled from China to America.”

Describing what Stuck Elevator sounds like is challenging for Yew. “There are moments where it defies musical theater structure,” he says. “It has the most haunting, beautiful, melodic songs you’ve ever encountered. It’s something slightly new but also familiar. It’s a new form of musical theater that marries the traditions of opera because of its size. And it’s a traditional story exploring what it is to be an immigrant in America.”

Though demands as artistic director and director for hire loom large in Yew’s life, he says he’s still writing, though not as rigorously as he once did.

“I’d like to do a play every couple of years,” he says. “I direct more than I write.”

An immigrant himself from Singapore, born of Chinese parents, Yew is now an American citizen and very much part of the American theater’s upper echelon.

“I’ve been very privileged to be in two chapters of American multiculturalism in the arts,” Yew says. “I’ve been the gay person at the table and the Asian person at the table. Those were communities and cultures that were offered as samples at the theatrical buffet. But in the 21st century, it’s all about diversity. Your story is my story. The gay story is no longer the gay story but the American story. We don’t just want the black story for February but the black story for every day. It’s very exciting for me now, as an American, to be a theater artist. ”

For Yew, the story of Stuck Elevator resonates with all Americans, because at some point in our family trees, we were all immigrants.

“For 70 or 80 minutes we see into the life of a man who is like the men and women who sit across from us on BART or who we see around town,” Yew says. “We get to see what’s in his head and in his heart, why he is trying so hard to make a life for himself in a new country. For a little bit of time, he is not so anonymous.”

[bonus video]
Julius Ahn, who plays a Chinese restaurant delivery man stuck in an elevator, sings “Shame” in rehearsal for Stuck Elevator at ACT.

Stuck Elevator continues through April 28 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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