Kristina Wong is a woman who has made me laugh until I just about wet myself, then start crying, and soon return to laughter. She is a comedian/performer/artist/writer/educator whose all around hilarious and sometimes raunchy and uncomfortable bits can transform the absolutely painful into funny and absurd pieces. She was awarded both a Creative Capital Grant and a Creation Fund from the National Performance Network, a great boost to the live and often detailed shows that she is so well known for. She has been featured at such notable places as REDCAT, Comedy Central’s LA Workspace, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Bay Area Hip Hop Theater Festival, and the NYC Hip Hop Theater Festival. Not only that, but she travels across the country teaching workshops at colleges and universities and writes for Playgirl Magazine as well. To say that her resume and experience is chock full of goodies is an understatement that might not define all of the areas that Kristina has graced with her talent and humor. Now living in Los Angeles, she is touring her new show, Cat Lady, as well as a planning a well-deserved trip to Southeast Asia. Please welcome, the one and only, the fabulous Kristina Wong.
Persephone Magazine: People might know you best as the creator and star of the one-woman show, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Can you talk a bit about what that shows dealt with and why you created it?
Kristina Wong: Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian-American women. It’s not about me, though. You see, I’ve never been depressed before. Nor has anyone in my family been depressed. There’s no such thing as a depressed Chinese person. The show is all based on research of other women, outside the Wong family. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
OK”¦. So here’s the deal”¦ When I decided to make this show, my ego took over and I approached the task as a community martyr hellbent on saving my audiences from suicide. I thought for once, that I’d do a show that “wasn’t about me.” But this approach to making the show was a nearly impossible task and I was finding myself as an artist tangled in the questions: How do you do a show about something nobody talks about? How do you make everyone happy and “fix” a social problem with a theater show? How do you do a show on this topic without “outing” yourself as “crazy”?
I was drawn to the Asian-American women and depression topic because of how poorly my friends and family dealt with me as a teenager when I’d tell them I was depressed. I’d be dismissed as “a weirdo” and told therapy was for people with money who would never get jobs if anyone found out they were crazy. I learned to deal with depression by calling out someone else as weirder than me. The show is very much a reflection of how difficult the show was to make. In the show I play an overachieving character named “Kristina Wong” who insists that she will offer a cut-and-dry explanation for the high suicide rates, save everyone with her show and do it all along the dramatic arc of fiction. She ends up unraveling pretty quickly and falling prey to the depression she’s trying to tackle.
PM: When you call it a one-woman show ““ you really mean it. You put this on and were involved in every single aspect. It’s your flesh and blood, physically and mentally. Did you experience any personal exhaustion or depression from the whole thing?
KW: Ha! YES YES YES. I premiered that show in 2006 and still tour it today. And it’s been the best of times and the worst of times. Imagine how awesome it must be to be a Broadway actor who gets to sing and dance for a living”¦ and then imagine singing and dancing the same song for four years”¦ and imagine that song is about suicide and depression”¦ and imagine that your audience can’t differentiate you from the character you played onstage after the show is over”¦ and imagine that you are in the crappiest relationships to support you emotionally through this time”¦ and imagine that you are performing, producing, and working on a non-profit scale all by yourself”¦.
So YES, it’s been totally amazing and totally exhausting. I had multiple existential crises during the whole time. I was living larger than I ever imagined possible, but was freaking out that my art only had monetary value if it was about depression and suicide. I am glad that Cuckoo’s Nest was not the last show I had in me and have since premiered two new and very different shows.
PM: How do you think that we can better talk about mental illness? There are these huge stigmas around them that render them at once invisible and on the other end of the spectrum of just being “crazy.”
KW: Well, not to sound like a cornball tooting my own horn, but many members of my audiences say they come out to my show because they are interested in the issue as harvested from a place of humor (though not at the expense of victims of depression and suicide). I think unfortunately, public dialogue about depression and suicide seems to mostly happen sporadically when there are tragic public suicides like the rash of gay suicides a few months ago.
PM: How have you been able to deal with your own mental health needs and the conversation around them?
KW: I have declined many interviews where the reporters wanted to interview me as “a woman who suffers from depression.” I’d much rather talk about the show than posit my own life as a subject for scrutiny–and yes, there is a difference between my life and my life in my shows. I just find that once someone get labeled as “depressed,” it’s this sad cloak that takes away everything else from their identity. The show has been misrepresented in the press as “Kristina Wong’s show about her lifelong battle with depression,” which I firmly reject. It’s so much more interesting than that. And so much more funny than that. And so much more sculpted and fictionalized. In general, I prefer to not be interviewed as “a victim” of depression because that characterization takes away from who I am as an agent of my own destiny. And who the fuck hasn’t been depressed before?
PM: What do you think (if you do think there is) the biggest misconception of your work? What about being an artist in general?
KW: When I used to watch autobiographical based stage work I used to think, “How awesome! They get to process their trauma for a living. They basically “˜live’ onstage and we pay them to do it.” WRONG. There’s a certain level of therapy for the artist, but the work is in no way a substitute for therapy and this can be some hard work.
PM: One of my favorite moments in Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is when you confront people on the potential ignorance they carry around and generic stereotypes that run amok, often unquestioned. But you do it in a really hilarious manner. Do you think humor can be a form of social activism? Does it make the medicine go down?
KW: Completely. If it’s anything we learned from watching the Kardashians, Jersey Shore, and now, Ice-T and Coco, it’s that ignorance and stupidity make life more bearable. The more fun it looks, and the bigger the ass, the more we can get people in on it–that didn’t sound right. This is not to say sincerity doesn’t have a place in social activism. I just think we could sure stand to be more funny.
PM: What originally drew you to performance?
KW: Lack of a good therapist. Um, even though as I said earlier, I’m not crazy, nor has anyone in my family ever been crazy.
PM: It’s often stated that being an artist is dedicating 97% of your time to paperwork, so you can concentrate on the 3 % time to create. Does that apply to your own life and career?
KW: Unfortunately, yes. There is a lot of administrative work around what I do, especially because I do this for a living. I pay my mortgage, health insurance premiums (which are insanely high no thanks to a lack of a good public option), and feed myself all with my art. And the system of funding and gig-making is very tedious. I used to wonder if I’d actually have more time to do my art if I just had a job unrelated to the arts and did my art occasionally as an unpaid hobby, but when I pursue things (like this career) I go whole hog. I’ve made the administrative work more bearable by making it creative. I look at my monthly email blasts and marketing as an opportunity to write jokes, not just whorey shameless self- promotion (though it’s that too).
PM: Your newest show, Cat Lady, is just coming out, which is about your relationship with your cat and “real life” adulthood. Can you elaborate a bit more on the themes it deals with, what it was like to make it, and where all that good stuff came from?
KW: Being alone on stage doing a show about depression and suicide for four years straight isn’t too great on your personal life. Touring is slightly glamorous and totally lonely. And it was really hard to date new people and have to answer the dreaded questions: “So what’s your show about? Oh, depression and suicide? Is it autobiographical?” It’s like the only thing I knew how to talk about was the show and the only way people could get a conversation going with me was to talk about the show. My life offstage was my life onstage. And the reality from coming home from tour was that I’d be alone at home with my spraying cat.
I was having a hard time figuring out who I was anymore because I spent so much time honing the character from my show. And I realized I was no different than male pick-up artists– a subculture of guys who spend thousands of dollars to how to pick-up on women. Their “technique” was fascinating to me as an actor who plays a version of myself for a living. These guys were also trained as actors are, except their performances were at bars and clubs. They’d create characters, rehearse routines and feign sincerity with their “targets.” Instead of applause, their performances are rewarded with a “fuck close.” And they do their pick-up routines repeatedly until they stop connecting altogether with the women they are picking up, just like I was unable to cry anymore on cue when touring Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so much. The show deals with the existential crises experienced by myself, pick-up artists, and my cat. It also looks at domestic violence, the performance of gender, and finding true human connection in a pixelating age.
PM: What’s on the horizon for the future? What else can we look forward to seeing from you?
KW: For the first time in years I’m going on a multi-week vacation! Abroad! A real vacation that is not just spending an extra day in the city I’m touring in. I decided to go to Southeast Asia because I can probably get away with traveling there for 7 weeks for less than $3k! I am totally terrified about being alone a lot of the time, only having a fluency in English to get me by, and traveling during monsoon season– but I figure it’s character building. I’m also touring Cat Lady and a new solo show called Going Green the Wong Way about the triumphs and pitfalls of sustainable living. I have a long history of trying to do the “right” and more sustainable thing. Right now I’m attempting to be an urban farmer and am co-raising chickens in a yard in Highland Park. That adventure will likely make its way into a show.
But most important to plug is that Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a DVD available for educational use ! Your readers can preorder the DVD here.