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An Interview with Telly Leung - 8/13/2022

Interview by Claire Liu - Illinois, USA

Working in the arts often requires people to gain expertise in a variety of different fields, from performance and tech to production and writing. Telly Leung, most famously known for his work as a performer on Broadway (Rent, Allegiance, Aladdin) and TV (Glee, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), is imbued with this versatility, working as a director, producer, recording artist, performer, theatre arts teacher, and storyteller.

Leung was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY to a Chinese immigrant couple who worked in Chinatown. As an only child, there was an early expectation for him to carry his family name, marry a girl, have children, and become a doctor. “I always jokingly say that none of the above happened,” Leung joked. The path of success seemed clear: attend a top high school (Leung is a Stuyvesant High School alumnus), go to an Ivy League college, then acquire a job with stability. He was encouraged to move up socially and economically in a way that wasn’t as open to his parents. “They were hoping that their kid was going to do better than they did when they got here,” Leung stated.

Despite ultimately diverging into his own career path, Leung cites the work ethic that he built during this time as essential to his later success in the creative industry. “I was a hard worker. I think that was definitely something my parents taught me a lot about, which ironically has served me really well in my show biz career because nobody makes it in show business unless you work really hard and you’re disciplined at it. So I took the discipline and all of that and I applied it towards what I wanted to do,” Leung commented.

Leung’s interest in theatre was born in his childhood, piqued by experiences watching Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, as well as the filmed OBC production of Into the Woods. Especially after he entered high school, he was eager to break from the academic rigor of classes after school and make theatre.

“There’s something about making theatre after school, it’s the most inclusive place ever… You were automatically included in something collective and bigger than you, in a community,” Leung stated. He emphasized that regardless of personal talent or skill, there was a place and role for anyone who wanted one in theatre. He echoed the importance of this inclusivity as the “magic sauce” he saw in the TV show Glee (where he portrayed Wes, a Warbler): “Those misfits, the people who felt like they didn’t fit in… it didn’t matter what social clique they were in during the first 8 periods of school, during that last period glee club where they chose to be together in that room… you belonged,” Leung said. He soon realized that every morning when he woke up, he wanted to do theatre, and it existed as an actual profession he could pursue.

After a lot of debate (and some help from CMU professor Claudia Benack), Leung committed to the incredibly competitive and rigorous musical theatre program at Carnegie Mellon University, which currently admits only 12 students each year. Upon entering this program, Leung reflects on needing to change his mindset towards acting. “I remembered my freshman semester of acting, I got a C… it rocked my world and my acting teacher pulled me aside and said… this C is not for your work ethic or how you are as a student… now you’re in a discipline where there is no right… it’s not about getting the scene right, you’ll never get the scene right. It’s about your approach as an artist and picking up that sort of fearless way of working,” Leung reflected. He learned to shift his focus onto the process of being an artist, stating that “this process as an artist is about process… if you shift from result to process, then there is no grade at the end.” He has incorporated this focus on process and discovery to his career as a performer, as well as an educator, by advocating for the sense of “I-don’t-know.”

Leung’s experience at CMU also supported him in obtaining his first role on Broadway in Flower Drum Song (2002) after starring as Bobby in his senior musical production of Company. Iconic actor and Broadway legend Billy Porter (Kinky Boots, Pose, Miss Saigon), a CMU alum himself, returned to CMU to direct the production of Company and advocated for the Asian students in the cast to his friends working on the Flower Drum Song revival. “He was the person that picked up the phone and opened that door for us,” Leung recalled. Leung was eventually cast in the show as a member of the ensemble and understudy for Wang Ta.

After Flower Drum Song, Leung began his venture into theatre careers outside of acting to fill an absence of opportunity in the industry. “There were no other Broadway shows at the time that featured large Asian casts. Either you were going to be the token in that one show… the producing thing started because I started producing my own cabaret act, for myself. I produced work for myself because there was no work for me,” Leung stated. He described his first experience producing as a total top to bottom learning experience and his skills continued to grow as he began producing concerts, both for himself and featuring other Broadway artists, and finding funding/acquiring investors to produce his own album. “In making my own work, because there wasn’t always opportunity for people that looked like me, I learned a lot. You had to wear other hats, out of pure survival,” Leung said.

“The reality is that the power structures of Broadway, of show business let’s just be honest, it’s still predominantly white,” Leung stated. Nevertheless, Leung also recognized the growth that has been made in more recent years for diversity in the theatre world. The spike in popularity for the Black Lives Matter movement during 2020 played an instrumental role in opening conversations about race and social justice that greatly influenced the theatre industry by supporting dialogue on systemic and long-lasting imbalances of power. “Especially now in 2022, having our industry completely shut down and having to restart it again, I think that the biggest question was: well if we’re going to restart it then there’s some stuff we’d like to change,” Leung commented. “There’s an impetus to ask why. And I think that for us creatives and for producers, and directors, and people in power… they’re going, ‘why not?’”

Leung also emphasized the importance that audience members play in supporting and investing in the beliefs of equity and diversity in the arts. He specifically highlighted the concept of financial accountability as an essential point of consideration for patrons of the arts. “I consider the dollars I spend to be me voting with my dollars… I believe in this piece of art existing and I want more of this… at the end of the day it’s show business, and money talks,” Leung stated. For people who are able to, Leung emphasized the power that money has in supporting art. This can be exhibited through paying full price to attend a show, even if a free opportunity is available for those who are financially able to pay it. Another powerful method of support that Leung highlighted was the impact of conversations and recommendations after a show. “There’s nothing more powerful than word of mouth,” Leung said. “If you see something great, tell everyone about it.” Whether it is through friendly conversations or social media posts, recommending and publicly supporting a piece of art is an important way to invest in projects that you believe in.

The power and impact that these pieces of art can have is exemplified through one of Leung’s most well-known shows: Allegiance. Inspired by Star Trek legend, actor and activist George Takei’s personal experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II and written by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione, Allegiance follows the Kimura family as they are forcibly moved to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in the years following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The original Broadway production opened in 2015 and starred Takei, Leung, and music/theatre icon Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon, Aladdin, Mulan). Beyond fulfilling one of Leung’s personal dreams to originate a role on Broadway and providing many Asian musical theatre performers their Broadway debut, the show was especially powerful in telling a truly American story. “It meant a lot to tell a story that I feel like many people in this country have, but has not really been told in this way before,” Leung recounted. He was particularly aware of the power this story has when told through theatre, expressing that “all of us theater artists knew… theatre has a way of changing people’s minds… You make them feel something, they leave and that changes their whole world.” He was also excited by the potential that conversations after the show held. “You’ve gone to this theater with people… so then to be able to go, ‘now I want to go talk about what we just experienced together, we’ve shared an experience together, and now I want to talk about it,’ that to me is where the real magic of it happens,” Leung stated. He emphasized that whether conclusions from the show were positive or negative, they would help inform what to create or consume next.

This past summer, Leung made his professional directorial debut with Yellow Face at the Theatre Raleigh, a production that further demonstrates the influence that art has on the world. Written by the prolific playwright David Henry Hwang, Yellow Face is a semi-autobiographical comedy that ultimately confronts the complexities and nuance of racial identity. Leung highlighted the power that comedy has in allowing people to re-evaluate themselves as laughter often forces us to face discomfort. The play is especially poignant as it features a fictionalized Hwang as the protagonist. Leung pointed out the importance of this choice as it opens up difficult questions and conversation for the audience. “He’s [DHH] able to deal with something so complicated and weighty like race, and he’s able to deal with it with humor, humility, and he purposefully writes himself in the play as the fool of the play so he allows the rest of us to mess up and make mistakes,” Leung stated. “In the messing up he learns a lot about himself, and he learns a lot about race and identity. It is his hope, I think, that in watching his character mess up, that we learn about it too.”

Throughout his career, Leung himself has faced the pressures that come with the intolerance of mistakes, often due to the raised standards and responsibilities that differentiate what it means to be an “Asian in the business” or a representative from a minority from purely being himself as a person and artist. “I speak for myself and I happen to be Asian, but then you also assume the responsibility of going ‘right, I do look the way I look and we are a marginalized group of people.’ There aren't enough of us for me to not have that responsibility… you hold yourself to a standard that white people never have to hold themselves to in this business,” Leung said. He describes feeling an intense pressure to make everything he works on “good,” “authentic,” and “moving” because a failure to do so could close opportunities for other Asian-American artists. “We are living in a world where we can’t just be ourselves as artists… we walk with all of that representation on our backs and that is something that we are proud of but it also is a burden,” Leung stated.

This pressure is made all the more weighty when considering the lack of control that creators have over how their work is actually perceived. “In some ways, I think every artist has to come to terms with the fact that they have to make the art and how people receive the art then is out of your control… the person making it has to let it go and let people react how they react,” Leung commented. At the same time, he reminds audiences that the relationship needs to go both ways. Just as artists cannot control how an audience perceives their show, audience members only see a snippet of the artist at a specific moment of time.

When reflecting on his own career, Leung expressed a sense of distinct realism. “Nobody puts in a Playbill bio all the jobs they didn’t get… just imagine that for every credit you read in my bio, there are like a hundred jobs that I auditioned for for each one of those that I didn’t get,” Leung said. He also noted that while he can look at discrimination objectively and see a lack of opportunity for himself compared to his white counterparts, he cannot focus on that or walk into work with that in mind. “This is what I have and I’m going to make the most out of this, this thing that I do have. And if the business isn’t offering me this, how do I make this for myself?” Leung questioned. While he admits that his Chinese-American identity is a part of himself that took him a while to love, including his own experiences with a “lunchbox moment,” he now describes it as his superpower. “Me as the Chinese-American, born and raised in New York City, in Brooklyn, like, I feel American. I am American. It’s for the people in this country who will never see me as American, it’s for them to wrestle… I feel very Chinese and I feel very American,” Leung stated.

Looking into the future, Leung emphasized a need to resonate with and find meaning in his projects, regardless of their genre. Particularly after Broadway was shut down and the live theatre industry largely closed due to the COVID pandemic, Leung found himself reflecting on the work he hopes to create in the future. “Yes it has to be a great job but also something that means something to me because nothing is guaranteed. To have my whole industry completely swiped out from under me for two years, to get this opportunity to do it again, I only sort of want to do things that resonate… it has to be something where I feel that we’re putting something positive in the world,” Leung said. One of his upcoming projects which looks to have such an effect is a production of Allegiance opening in London, which sees Takei and Leung returning to their roles in the show. Readers can also see Leung in the new season of Warrior, a Bruce Lee-inspired show that started filming its third season this past summer.

Ultimately, just as the arts have the power to make great positive impact, they also have the ability to make immense negative impact. Leung emphasized and returned to his point about the necessity of investing in art that creates the impact audiences want to have in the world. “Invest in the kind of art you want to see and if you don’t see the kind of art you want to see, invest in yourself making it,” Leung stated. “If you can afford to buy the ticket, buy the ticket. If you can’t afford it, a tweet, telling a friend about it is also an investment. It’s an investment of your time and your energy into the kind of art you want to see, and applaud it and support it in that way.” When it comes to the need to balance survival in the industry and advocating for your beliefs, Leung advised artists to ask the question, “Can I bring some sort of humanity or integrity to this, or am I sacrificing a little part of myself and my beliefs to do this?” By asking these questions, opening after-show conversations, and embracing the sense of “I-don’t-know” and “why not,” audiences and artists alike can continue pushing for a world they believe in through everyday interactions and the world of theatre.

This or That with Telly Leung:

1. Books or movies? - Movies (Moonstruck is his all-time favorite!)

2. Winter or summer? - Summer

3. Singing or dancing? - Singing

4. Cake or pie? - Cake (Amy’s Bread pink cake is his top recommendation)

5. Chocolate or vanilla? - Vanilla (it’s very versatile!)

Connect with and follow Telly at the following links:

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