A scene from the Ordway Center for the Performing Art’s upcoming production of Paint Your Wagon. Actor Steven Eng stands house left, holding a shovel. Photo by Tracy Martin.
The summer heat may have ebbed outside, but over in St. Paul things are still heating up at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Rehearsals are underway for Paint Your Wagon, a 1951 hit musical by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe that is best known today for its film adaptation and the song “They Call the Wind Maria“. Know the show? Probably not this version – the 1969 film was significantly rewritten and had extra songs by André Previn inserted. The version opening at the Ordway goes back to Lerner and Loewe’s score, pairing it with an all-new book by award-winning playwright Jon Marans that has earned lauds for its compelling storyline and nuanced treatment of race on the American frontier.
The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine sat down with actor Steven Eng to talk about his career and role in Paint Your Wagon.
You’re one of the cofounders of the National Asian Artists Project. In-between your teaching at NYU and your involvement with NAAP, how do you manage your own acting time? Do you take the stage as an actor during the school year as well as during the summer?
It’s important to me as well as where I teach that I maintain my professional practice in the industry. But it’s certainly a challenge, particularly since an actor’s career requires a flexible schedule to accommodate last minute changes and opportunities. That being said, I’ve had to become more selective about the work that I pursue and accept. My students are my priority, so any potential conflict of schedules has to be carefully weighed. Sometimes that means I’ll miss some class time, or sometimes that means I’ll turn down an offer. When an acting job has the potential to offer me a rewarding experience, I’ll bring back to my students what I had learned.
You were involved in NAAP’s proposed all-Asian production of Show Boat in 2015, which was cancelled after a very public discussion. That show has, of course, been done in a large variety of castings, including innumerable all-white and all-Black productions. Now that there’s been a little more distance from that event, what do you think is the future all-[insert identity here] productions of works from the standard theatre repertoire?
It’s still my hope that “traditional” works with “non-traditional” perspectives continue to be embraced anew. It’s disappointing when artists and audiences place limits on how a classic work should be experienced, especially when the approach is with great care, thought, and humanity. But unfortunately, that’s a current reality and we should all keep striving to put ourselves in other people’s shoes to understand each other. That’s what great works of the theatre are meant to do.
Do you believe that it should matter if such a production takes place in this country or another one?
Geography shouldn’t limit our abilities to explore the human experience. When we create those boundaries, we’re choosing to limit our own capacity to learn.
What’s up next for you and NAAP?
Right now, NAAP is the little engine that could. We’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished in our short existence, and we’re now solidifying our long-term plans with our existing programs, which include two performance series (Discover and Rediscover), a semi-professional adult chorus, and our afterschool education program.
Tell us how you first got involved with this production of Paint Your Wagon.
I was brought on board not long after I completed the run of Waterfall at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. I had such a rewarding experience with that production, and when I was offered the opportunity to return to the 5th under the direction of David Armstrong, it was impossible to turn down.
To borrow a phrase, “this isn’t your parents’ Paint Your Wagon,” with some considerable rewrites to the script and changes to how certain characters and types appear. Tell us a little about your role. How do you feel about updates like this to shows in the classic repertoire?
I play the Chinese miner Ming-Li, who with his brother has come to California to find wealth that would alleviate the suffering of their poverty stricken family in rural Canton. With that primary focus, he comes to Gam Saan (“Gold Mountain” in Cantonese) with the intent to make as much money as possible and then quickly return to his wife and family back in China.
I’m thrilled that playwright Jon Marans has chosen to highlight this story and the intense racism experienced by Chinese immigrants in the United States, which would eventually become lawful bigotry that followed the Chinese in America for almost an entire century. As an American child of Chinese immigrants, I am grateful that such a classic of the musical theater is being re-examined with a more open and accurate portrayal of American history to include stories like that of my family’s heritage. Both Jon and David have added important updates to Paint Your Wagon making it much more relevant to modern audiences and it’s a great honor to be a part of its creation.
What’s a favorite moment in this production?
One of my favorite moments occurs towards the end of the show. Without giving any crucial plot points away, I’ll just say that I get to listen every night to a disturbing scene of human conflict challenging the audience’s sense of right and wrong, knowing this scene could very well have taken place today. It’s thrilling to me.
I hear that you were off in Ireland recently. Business or pleasure, and what did you do?
Thanks for asking! My time in Dublin was related to my role as a voice and speech teacher at NYU. The first week, I was participating in a wonderful workshop for Knight-Thompson Speechwork®, a radically innovative approach to actor speech training. The second week, I was participating in the International Fitzmaurice Voicework® Conference, a creative and energizing vocal practice that I think is incredibly useful for actors, which I also teach in my spoken voice classes. It was the perfect excuse for my first trip to the Emerald Isle.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.