After years of looking for honest and diverse Asian American representation on the stage, in film and on TV, UC San Diego student Alex Luong is set to make change in the industry he has grown to love.
The Department of Theatre and Dance undergrad is one of only 15 students from across the United States selected for the inaugural cohort of The Cody Renard Richards Scholarship Program “honoring, uplifting and supporting the next generation of Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theatre makers.”
The scholarship comes with $4,000 in financial support, but more important to Luong is the chance to learn from and connect with other up-and-coming BIPOC actors, designers, directors and—Luong’s specialty—stage managers.
“As a person who’s primarily backstage, I’m not necessarily used to the spotlight,” he said laughing, more than a week after the announcement made headlines. “I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to tell, or who I wasn’t supposed to tell.”
Scholarship winners will meet three times over the next few months, establishing a network that can speak to the group’s diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. The sessions also give opportunity to learn about community building, leadership, mentorship, social justice and racial equity.
“The thing I’m most excited about is creating this small, sort of tight-knit, community where we can talk about our experiences more in depth. In theater as a whole, it’s generally a pretty white industry,” said Luong, a second-generation Vietnamese American who first experienced theater in high school.
“It’s a very new and fresh world for me, and it’s something that I’m sure a lot of BIPOC folks can relate to, particularly in regards to representation,” he said.
Alex Luong backstage.
Alex Luong, pictured here in a pre-pandemic production, said his stage management education allows him to be more comfortable with himself. Photo by Kristina Stahl.
A visibility report for the 2017-2018 season that was released October 2020 by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition showed BIPOC actors, writers and directors as “markedly less visible” on all New York City stages, where many UC San Diego graduates pursue careers. Representation is even less in the industry’s highest leadership roles: 100% of artistic directors in the 18 theater companies surveyed were white, the report finds.
“These students are consistently underrepresented in training programs across this country and that translates directly to underrepresentation in the entertainment industry as a whole,” said Lora Powell, a stage management faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Both Powell and Professor Lisa Porter, who is head of the university’s Stage Management MFA program, praised Luong’s commitment to the department, and Powell explained that Luong has achieved well above what most are able to accomplish in four years. In particular, Luong has taken several graduate-level, stage-management courses that are only open to the most advanced students.
Three of those classes came in 2020 alone: “Temporal Leadership,” “Ethics” and “Production Process: Anti-Racism, Activism, Advocacy, and the Stage Manager’s Role.” Porter, who invited Luong to take the upper-level courses, said his research was impeccable.
“Alex is a storyteller and changemaker. I have witnessed a substantial change in him as he has boldly shared his story and embraced his identity as a BIPOC stage manager,” Porter said. “This vulnerability has intersected with an understanding of and disappointment about the lack of representation of Asian American stage managers in our field.”
Luong came to the program at UC San Diego interested in set design and construction, and explored stage management off the suggestion of a friend. He was drawn to the position’s capacity to “really dig into a play, from start to finish,” he said, “working in tandem with the director to shepherd the entire production toward the greater goal of the play.”
Alex Luong with actors on stage.
Luong (center, back) continues supporting department productions virtually. This photo was taken prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Manuel Rotenberg.
He said one of the biggest takeaways from his training is that it allowed him to focus on who he is, and who he can be: “If anything about stage management in this program, I’ve learned to really be more comfortable with myself.”
A double major in Theatre and Dance, and Communication, early on Luong served as assistant on two larger productions, “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Balm in Gilead,” and has been assistant stage manager on multiple others, including the dance-focused “New Directions,” and a world premiere presented at the department’s acclaimed Wagner New Play Festival.
As his trajectory continued, Luong was stage manager for one act of “Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play,” presented spring quarter 2020 as a first “virtual” production due to the pandemic. In January, he was the stage manager for “Exotic Deadly: The MSG Play;” a dream come true, he said, with a primarily Asian cast and creative team directed by Jennifer Chang, head of the undergraduate acting program and honored for her work by the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theater.
“Witnessing Alex’s growth over the past years has been remarkable,” said Porter. “He is an authentic leader who is learning the power of taking risks, embracing mistakes, and growing into who he is as a human who stage manages.”
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