MEMBER MONDAYS | Leng Wong
MEMBER MONDAYS is a weekly interview series highlighting current members & alumni of the Austin School of Film + Austin Cinemaker Space community! Each week, we’ll be featuring one of our incredibly eclectic community members, and doing a deep dive into their work. Insight into what makes them, them.
Leng Wong is the founder and Executive Director of Lucky Chaos, a production company that focuses on producing creative works by Asian Americans and under-represented voices. As a member of Austin Cinemaker Space, she and the Lucky Chaos Team host an open mic dubbed "Leave It At The Mic" at Motion Media Arts Center every first Thursday of the month, with the show's focus being creating a safe environment for people living with mental health conditions. We sat down with her to chat about her experiences in founding Lucky Chaos and her journey as a storyteller.
Can you describe how your passion for theater and film began and why you wanted to start Lucky Chaos?
Leng Wong: I’ve always loved storytelling, regardless of the medium. I’ve been doing theater since I was young, but I took a break during college for a few years due to family financial obligations. I restarted in Austin, did theater, left that to do mostly film work, and then came back to theater. After all those years of acting, I was very frustrated that there were no roles or stories that portray Asians as complex beings with nuanced experiences. Basically, it made us seem less human. I didn’t really decide to start a company, but I really wanted to tell my story--our stories. I also wanted to change the narratives about being Asian and being an artist who is Asian. Since I couldn’t find a company that does that, I decided, why not?
I really admire how you focus on mental health and diversity to create and share authentic and personal stories at Lucky Chaos. Can you share why you wanted to focus on these two aspects? Was there a point in your life that fueled this involvement?
LW: Again, it goes back to my love/obsession with creating stories. I feel that we don’t really need to wreck our imagination to create stories. I believe that each person is a universe of stories, and we just have to get those stories out. I created many shows using a process that facilitates that. After working with many performers, I can tell you that most people don’t realize how interesting they are. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a question of self-esteem. It’s that we are so used to “being us,” that we can’t see it. I usually spend half of rehearsals getting the stories, and the other half, crafting a way to tell the stories. Because the stories are authentic, based on personal experiences, and the insistence that we don’t water it down because it’s “not interesting,” the result is something that feels fresh and unexpected. Obviously, every creator wants that! But what I didn’t foresee, was how much that experience changed the performer and the audience. Because I work mostly with people of color, it’s amazing to get feedback from the performer and audience that they feel validated, because they see stories on stage that they can identify with. That is exactly what I wanted for myself and that’s why I started the company. That’s why it became the main part of our mission, to work with diverse performers and tell personal stories.
Regarding mental health, when I was denied by all insurance companies due to my diagnoses of depression and anxiety, I felt helpless (this was before the Affordable Care Act). Then I felt angry, and I fought back the only way I knew how, which is to create art. I decided to create a show called The Depression Chronicles and casted people who were also diagnosed with mental health conditions and each segment of the show is based on the experience of a cast member. After the first show, the rest of the run were sold out every night. Telling stories about and by under-represented voices DO bring in an audience, so I encourage others to do it! We do have a mantra, though. Do everything with compassion, especially when someone is brave enough to share their story. We have to respect that trust.
You have a works-in-progress event thrown every other month that provides space for artists to share and get feedback on their work. How did you get this idea and get this started?
LW: I read somewhere a long time ago that to succeed, you have to fail many times. I keep telling myself, you haven’t failed enough. I have to keep practicing my art, and I feel like there are others who feel the same way. I decided to create this space so there’s a regular place for artists, especially artists of color, to practice without high stakes, and I’ve found, non-artists also like watching the creative process at work. The format and medium are open, and as long as you don’t hurt yourself, or others, and you keep it less than 20 minutes, anything goes...Well...maybe not ANYTHING anything. You get the idea.
In addition to the works-in-progress event, you provide an open mic for mental health along with workshop classes. Why do you think the Austin community needs the resources you provide through Lucky Chaos?
LW: Running Lucky Chaos over the years, I’ve come to realize that we are not just creating art, we are creating a community. During the summer in 2017, Lucky Chaos went through a reorganization which included expanding our programs. We also became a 501(c3) organization. These are the ways we are actively recognizing the community-aspect of our work.
How did you get involved with our Austin Cinemaker Space community?
LW: Since our re-organization last year, we’ve been looking for a space as our base. Jeff “DaShade” Johnson, a regular collaborator of Lucky Chaos, told us about the space. It’s been great. We feel welcomed, and most of all, we feel ACCEPTED. The creative energy here is amazing.
What do you hope your members and audiences will gain from participating in your programs/performances?
LW: You are part of a community where being diverse is normal. You will see others like you. You will experience the joy of seeing others exposed to stories that you identify with, but are hardly told in public spaces. You will feel the sense of empowerment seeing someone who looks like you in a starring role. People who are not from your cultural background will cease to see you as “other” because you attend the same workshops regularly, you experience art together regularly.
You have an upcoming show this May that’s currently in the works. Can you give us a little preview of what audiences might expect?
LW: Surprise, surprise, it’ll be based on experiences of the cast members. It’s a high-energy, fast-paced show with audience interaction. We have done a similar format the last couple of years, and the audience always has a blast. And oh, the ticket price is partially based on a game of chance that you play, so bring your lucky rabbit foot (but not a real one, it freaks me out).
As an artist, what do you feel is most vital to you to shaping your craft?
LW: To not lose my sense of wonder, and be around others who inspire, motivate, and appreciate me. And don’t wait—create now. In 5 years, I will have different stories to tell, and today’s story will never be told. Don’t wait for the “perfect” time.
INTERVIEW BY: Janet Lee