By Grace Jasmine
Min Kahng is an inspiring and inclusive force in the San Francisco Bay area theater scene. The world premiere of his most recent play, The Four Immigrants (based on the historical, groundbreaking manga panel-drawn comic strip by Henry Kiyama), premiered at the innovative TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley, and won the Theatre Bay Area Award for Outstanding Original Musical, the Edgerton New Play Award, and an NAMT Production Grant. The Four Immigrants chronicles the lives of four Japanese students as they immigrate to the California bay area. Kahng has also been the recipient of the Titan Award for Playwrights. His other original works include: The Song of the Nightingale, Inside Out & Back Again, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Bad Kitty on Stage! and Tales of Olympus. He was included in American Theatre Magazine’s “Nine Musical Theatre Writers You Should Know” issue. Min Kahng is a prolific writer with many projects in development including: Calafia: A Re-Imagining, GOLD: The Midas Musical, and Kinda Home.
To say Min Kahng has immersed himself in the theater is an understatement. One look at his expansive resume makes it quite clear that before deciding to write for the musical theater full-time as a lyricist, librettist, and composer, he has been a true generalist. His experience as an actor, a song writer, both a director and a musical director, a vocal teacher, an educator, and a pianist is vast. In addition to working on the creative side of the theater, Kahng has also done the “business side,” working as a casting director, a publicist, and a marketing director. In short, he has made the theater his home and explored as many facets as possible of what it takes to make live theater happen.
One fascinating and relatable thing about Min Kahng is that he started by not believing in himself as an artist and doing what so many artists do—working in the corporate sector with that nagging feeling that something else, closer to his purpose, was just beyond his reach. He just knew he wanted to do something in the musical theater. At first he called himself “a person writing a show” but didn’t see himself as a writer or a composer. After leaving his corporate marketing job, he took survival jobs in the arts. However, to say he “survived” is a misnomer—he experienced. Eventually he realized his path was writing for the theater.
I had the opportunity to interview Min Kahng for The Coachella Review; here are some of his thoughts on his career in the musical theater, how it has evolved, and how he sees himself as an artist.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: What made you decide to pursue the musical theater? What led you to the decision?
MIN KAHNG: I have always been a storyteller since I was little. I would create comic books, songs, films, etc., in my free time. But I also grew up in a Korean immigrant household in which the arts weren’t cultivated. My parents didn’t quite know what to do with my creative leanings. So, becoming a musical theater artist as a career was never presented to me as viable option for myself, though I still majored in music with a double in rhetoric at UC Berkeley. After college, I was pretty lost. I got a corporate job, starting as a temp and eventually worked my way up to manager. During that time, however, I decided to take my first acting class at a community college. And then I started to get involved with local productions as an actor, pianist, and music director. Along the way, I was also writing a musical on my own time. I reached a point where I knew that if I didn’t try going full-time as an artist, I would always regret it. So, I left my corporate job and started doing as many theater gigs as I could!
TCR: How did your background as a musician inform your decision? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MK: When I music directed and played in pits for shows, I learned how other composers had constructed their musicals and realized that I had the training in music to be able to do the same. Also, I was able to make a fairly consistent income using my music background to teach voice lessons, which allowed me to run around doing all manner of theater gigs in my extra time, including my writing on the side.
TCR: What sort of message or central ideas do you want to get across in your work?
MK: My desire is to widen people’s eyes and perspectives. It’s less about prescribing a specific message, and more about bringing something to audiences that they may not have considered, seen, or thought of before—as well as bringing stories to the stage that have not often been told.
TCR: Your work touches on vital human issues that affect us all in the world today. Tell me a little bit about your quest to bring stories about human rights issues like immigration to the forefront of theatergoers’ consciousness?
MK: Creating work that relates to voices that have not yet been seen or heard on the American musical theater stage is very important to me. In the case of The Four Immigrants, I was initially drawn to the story simply because the book upon which it’s based—an obscure comic series drawn by a Japanese immigrant artist named Henry Kiyama—was so fascinating to me. The human rights issues that came up as a result of my adaptation only felt natural in telling the story of The Four Immigrants, because the discriminations early Japanese immigrants faced is a part of their story. I don’t think I overtly set out on a quest to address human rights topics. However, I do think when you decide to tell stories of marginalized groups or identities, oppression and prejudice often factor into the bigger picture.
TCR: What have been your biggest challenges in writing for the theater?
MK: I think the biggest challenge for me has been truly believing in myself as an artist. Because I didn’t grow up in a household that celebrated the arts, and because there aren’t a lot of Asian American role models in theater (though that is changing nowadays!), it has been a struggle to proudly say “I am an artist” or “I am a writer.” Believing that I have something to say and contribute to musical theater has been an ongoing journey.
TCR: Can you tell me a little bit about your theatrical path?
MK: The first production of my work happened because I was working as a teaching artist for Bay Area Children’s Theatre. My bosses at BACT heard I was also writing a show (The Song of the Nightingale) as a personal project. They were exploring starting a middle school–oriented theater class and wondered if I would like to string together existing Broadway songs into a sort of cabaret-style performance for tweens. The scripts I wrote for that program were my first world premieres. Those small productions boosted BACT’s faith in me as a writer, which led to an ongoing partnership—all of my commissioned work so far has been through their company—that lasts to this day. My connection to regional theater (and what ultimately led to the world premiere of The Four Immigrants) happened because I won a Titan Award from Theatre Bay Area, which got me connected to a mentor, Leslie Martinson, who at the time was Associate Artistic Director at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Through her, I had access to resources at TheatreWorks. It’s still all about making connections. I try to make a trip out to New York every year and attend theater conferences to meet up with folks and stay connected to the national theater scene.
TCR: What Broadway shows, past or present, have impacted your work as an artist?
MK: In childhood, I was heavily influenced by Alan Menken and the “Disney Renaissance.” Menken’s melodies are incomparable. The VHS copy of Into the Woods was on repeat during my teen years. From Sondheim I learned a lot about interweaving characters and usage of motifs, as well as how to build your composition off of musical ideas, rather than just simply writing a generic “pop song.” Though I don’t mind pop songs in shows. In fact, I love the breadth of musical theater we’re finding today. Some more recent shows that I’ve been captivated by have been Waitress, The Band’s Visit, Grey Gardens, and The Light in the Piazza.
TCR: Do you have a favorite musical theater song or lyric—and why?
MK: I have so many! I love when songs are inextricably theatrical. “Satisfied” from Hamilton to me is a song that can only exist as a moment of theater, with its rewind conceit relying completely on the song and action that came before it during Eliza’s “Helpless.” One of my favorite songs as far as melodic and harmonic structure goes is “So in Love” from Kiss Me Kate. The tension built up until the melody finally climaxes in the final moments is so evocative of unspoken desire. I think “What You Want” from Legally Blonde is a case study in how to accomplish multiple things at once in a song. In one number, you have desire, action, conflict, time passing, and resolution to launch us into the new setting for the rest of the show. There are a lot more songs I could talk about, but I’ll stop there.
TCR: What’s the most difficult part of music or lyric writing for you?
MK: I think when you’re working on a song but not able to find the exact angle. Sometimes the hook or the imagery just jumps out at you. Other times, no matter how much time you spend on a number, it can feel very functional and lacking heart. At those times, it can be difficult to know what is needed to make a song come to life and work in the way you want it to.
TCR: How about collaborators?
MK: Since I’ve primarily written book, music and lyrics, writing collaborations are actually a relatively new experience for me. For each of my projects, though, I do consider my directors and dramaturgs to be close collaborators.
TCR: What was the most challenging experience you ever had as a collaborator and how did you get through it?
MK: I don’t have any specific moment that stands out, but when you’re working with other artists, there are going to be moments where you do not see eye to eye. When those situations arise, you really have to put your communication skills to work. Try to listen and understand the other point of view. Then try to clearly explain yours. Often times it’s a matter of being able to argue a point well. If you can provide sound dramaturgical reason for your view point, you’ll be more likely to convince others (and it works the other way for someone to convince me of their point) than if you just use vague words like “good,” “bad,” “like,” “hate,” or speak purely from your emotions.
TCR: We know that, as artists, our primary goal is to create amazing theater—but without a place to show that theater, it would never be seen. How have you navigated the business side of the theater?
MK: My years in the corporate world gave me a good taste of how other industries function, and how that can translate into the theater world. I have also been fortunate to participate in programs that helped develop my business brain: a workshop with the Center for Cultural Innovation and Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS program. I encourage all artists to take advantage of these kinds of offerings. As a result of this training, I now think of myself as a business. I schedule check-in meetings with myself like I would if I were an employee/manager. And I treat my business as if there were different departments: finance, marketing, product development, etc. I also worked in marketing for Bay Area Children’s Theatre for a stretch, which gave me a sense of what theater companies are looking for when planning their programming.
TCR: What has been the biggest surprise for you there?
MK: I think the biggest surprise for me has been discovering that I’m quite good at the business side of things. I know that’s not the case for every artist.
TCR: And the biggest obstacle?
MK: Sometimes, it can be tough to discern how best to spend my time. “Should I be working on one of my creative projects right now?” “Should I be spending the day applying for grants?” I don’t have an easy solution to this. Only, I’m learning to lean into my instinct more: write when I feel like it, only apply to programs and opportunities that actually excite me, remember that self-care is crucial, etc.
TCR: What to date has been your favorite personal project? Why?
MK: It would have to be The Four Immigrants. This was a project that I took on because I was passionate about bringing it to the stage (it wasn’t a commission). From navigating rights, to conducting extensive research, to committing to the development every step of the way, I feel like I learned and grew so much in creating the show. I’m also quite proud with how it turned out. It was well-received by critics and won a few awards—and there are lots of fond memories shared with everyone who was involved with it.
TCR: Can you speak to the importance of establishing a theatrical community around you? How have you done that? Any advice for newcomers?
MK: Theater is by nature collaborative (unless you self-produce and self-direct one-person shows), but sometimes we are tempted to think we’re the only ones trying to create the kind of theater we want to create. Thankfully, in the Bay Area, it is easy to locate other artists who are doing what you do. There are ample connection opportunities from the Theatre Bay Area conference to one of the many playwrights groups, to even just taking a chance and asking if someone would like to meet up for coffee and chat. I’ve found that most theater artists are interested in making connections! I encourage newcomers to get involved with their local theater community in a way that makes sense for them (volunteering, applying as staff, going to social events). Chances are there’s someone out there in the world who is on your wavelength. Do what you can to find them! And if they’re not near you physically, then use your internet resources! Also, try not to be snooty about folks who do theater that’s different from yours. I’m a big proponent of “theater pluralism.”
TCR: And finally, what’s your best advice for an aspiring lyricist, librettist, or composer?
MK: First, define success for yourself. Be careful that you’re not buying into someone else’s version of success. Be honest and bold about it, but also it’s OK if success for you doesn’t follow the typical mold. Then, I like to say that achieving that success has three parts: developing your skills, connecting to the right people, and chance. I include chance, because there really is an element of the journey that we have no control over. However, the other two things—skills and people—we do have a large measure of decision-making power over. For skills: keep growing in your craft, keep learning, keep seeing other people’s work. For people: learn how to be a professional, try to find kindred spirits, trust your gut when it comes to connections you make. And don’t be a jerk. Not every connection you make will be magical. But every connection you make has the potential to spread awareness of you and your work, so careful not to burn bridges. I think if you grow in your skills and your network, you increase your chances of opening doors to new opportunities.
Min Kahng’s website can be accessed at: www.minkahng.com.
Grace Jasmine writes in a variety of genres. With 47 nonfiction books in print, she decided to return to her first love, writing for theater. Shows include: Rainbows, Tim Doran, composer (produced off-off Broadway); The Lover—A Tale of Obsessive Love, Ron Barnett, composer (Lonny Chapman Theatre premier). Jasmine had two original musicals premiere at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Her creative nonfiction piece, “My Mother’s Stroke,” was published by New Thought Vortex. Her dramedy piece “The Chemo Show” appeared in Memoir Magazine. Jasmine’s piece on death and grieving, “Your Order Is Up,” recently appeared in The Helix. She is currently working on two musicals: Skin Deep and The Suicide of Sparkle Jones, and two straight plays: The Rage of Ordinary People and The Masher (the latter will be seen as a staged reading in Los Angeles in early Spring 2019). Jasmine was recently selected by the Phoenix Art Museum in cooperation with Now and Then Creative Company to create a short original play based on a three-dimensional modern sculpture. Jasmine is pursuing her MFA in Screenwriting and Playwriting at the University of California at Riverside, is a native Californian living in Arizona with her family, and is an avid dog lover.
Photo Credit Kevin Berne