Sylvia Kwan and Jacob Yeh

Headshots of a woman and a man side by side.

Sylvia Kwan, photo by Paul Smith and Jacob Yeh, photo courtesy of Signature Theatre

Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free music Archive

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works I’m Josephine Reed.

Today, I’m speaking with actors Sylvia Kwan and Jacob Yeh who are performing in Signature Theatre’s production of Lauren Yee’s The King of the Yees, which is directed by Jennifer Chang. Before we get into my conversation with Sylvia and Jacob —let me tell you about The King of the Yees which is very funny and often profound meta-theatrical look at a woman reconnecting with her Chinese- American roots and culture. It’s also a hall of mirrors—The story opens in San Francisco’s Chinatown with actor Sylvia Kwan introducing herself as Lauren Yee, a playwright rehearsing her latest play King of the Yees, which is about her father Larry Yee performed by Jacob Yeh. All seems to be going well until the “real” Larry Yee arrives startling the “real” Lauren Yee who’s been sitting with us in the audience. He derails the rehearsal with his own ideas to Lauren’s frustration.  The rift between father and daughter becomes clear: His life revolves around the Yees and its family association and Chinatown:  Lauren has moved away from them all. She went to Yale, married a non-Asian, changing her name to her husband’s  and is about to move to Europe. However, when Larry suddenly goes missing, Lauren goes on a wild quest to rescue him through a fantastical Chinatown where She encounters stylized, exaggerated versions of its residents and its ghosts: including gang members, elders, shopkeepers, and model ancestors. We meet well over a dozen characters—and they are all played and played brilliantly by three actors. I’m speaking with two of them Sylvia Kwan and Jacob Yeh—here’s our conversation.

Jo Reed: Jacob, Sylvia, let’s state the obvious: The King of the Yees is not a straightforward play . How many characters do you each play?

Sylvia Kwan: Oh boy.

Jacob Yeh: I don't know if we've counted. I feel like it's maybe five or six. I mean, yeah, it feels like a lot. It definitely feels like it's...

Sylvia Kwan: Yeah, somewhere in there.

Jo Reed: Well, you play them all so fully and robustly, how do you prepare for that as an actor? And Jacob, I'm throwing that to you first.

Jacob Yeh: Sure. I feel like this is kind of the dream role sometimes because as actors, I get the question,” oh, you're an actor. What do you like to do? Do you like to do drama? Do you like to do comedy? What do you like to do?” And I go, “I kind of want to do everything.” And so this is a play where you can sort of do everything in one sitting, and it's exhilarating to be able to change between the characters, I feel like every actor would like to think of themselves as very versatile and having a great range and so it's really neat to be able to do this. It's also sort of refreshing. I tell people if I screw something up in one scene, I have zero seconds to worry about it, because I have to hurry up and get changed and get into the next scene. If I sit and even think about it for 10 seconds, I'll probably be late for the next entrance. So, it's exciting, and it's lovely, and it's fun, and I think the audience is picking up on the fact that we are having as much fun doing the roles as it seems like the roles would be to play.

Jo Reed: That makes me really happy to hear, because I actually said to my friend who was with me, I said, my God, I hope they're having as much fun as I think they're having.

Sylvia Kwan: Yeah, we're definitely having an incredible amount of fun. It's been a wonderful experience and for me personally, part of delving into each of these characters is A, this is definitely a comedy, but I definitely want to be authentic, I want to be grounded, I want these people to be real. So, part of that process for me was doing my research, right? Observing different people of different types and then how do I find that physicality within my body? And because this play has been so physical for me, that actually has really, really grounded me so that, like Jacob said, when we have to transition so quickly from scene to scene, I don't have time to think about it. But my body knows what that is for me. My body knows immediately what character that is. So if I'm thrown in a scene, even if it's out of order, and they say, okay, do this character, I can do it because I've grounded that character in my body.

Jo Reed: And I have to think the costumes can help as well and Helen Huang is the costume designer and my God, they're glorious. But you had to do such quick changes. What's the backstage choreography like?

Sylvia Kwan: It is like controlled chaos. It's so much fun. It's part of the challenge of how fast can I change from one costume to the other, and I have to give Helen so much credit because she is such a collaborative costume designer. She has very, very specific and beautiful and wonderful ideas. But she also says, how do you feel in that? Feel this out, and I know when I put on something, "Oh, this is…" I feel more like the character than I've ever felt before. That's how you know that this is the costume that I love, right, and so first to have that wonderful gift and that artistry and that consideration for her actors and then also incorporating that with our incredible dressers that we have backstage that are so talented and so hardworking and they help us with everything and they really also guide us because when you first put this all up all together, you can't remember. You're like, wait, where am I going? And they're like, you are this character right now and you're like, oh, got it. They will help you do that. So that really helps with the learning process as well.  Our whole backstage team is really, really incredible and great.

Jacob Yeh: Yeah, she's absolutely right. For instance, there's one costume in particular for me-- that particularly gaudy costume really makes me fully that character.  I don't think I was fully doing that character until I got in those boots and got in that jacket and then I was, “oh, now I know exactly who this character is” and like Sylvia said, it is this dance now between us and the dressers where I'm zipping up this, and she's buttoning that, or I'm putting on this, and they're handing me a towel or handing me accessories or jewelry or whatever that that's needed for the next character. We have it down to a science and it is fun to actually see how fast we can get. It's kind of like in NASCAR when they have those-- they're changing the tires and everything and some of the costumes and stuff are super elaborate. I mean, you have to see it to really believe it, but it is pretty amazing that we can get those costume changes done in in as short of a period as we have and also, the director did try to at certain points add in slightly more time because some of them are just so complicated that that you do need an extra couple of seconds. So there's some fun surprises in there.

Jo Reed:  Well the surprises start right at the beginning of the play. It begins with you two playing Lauren and her dad, Larry. But when the “real” and I’m using air quotes here Lauren and Larry arrive onstage we the audience realize you are actually stage actors who are workshopping a show within the show. So it becomes meta theater—a comment on the process of storytelling. Jacob, talk about that theatrical device.

Jacob Yeh: Sure. And like you alluded to, it is a very meta thing, right? And I think Lauren uses it to great effect because she can kind of poke fun at herself and her dad a little bit and the culture, all sort of at the same time while exploring these things. And because it is meta, there's so many surprises that come about, and everything is sort of this Hall of Mirrors. It falls into sort of like an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole where she just meets all of these interesting characters, all based on things that she had been talking about with her father and people that her father had mentioned from Chinatown and reality intersects with fantasy. It's just super playful and super creative and super fun, and I think Lauren has a really good time with using that device to make it much more theatrical and much more funny. Because I think when you're talking about something where you're exploring your own relationship with your father, it can get tense, and it's nice to have all of these interesting characters and interesting situations just to break up the tension and allow people to laugh. Because I think once you get people laughing, I think you really can hit them with much deeper themes and concepts than if it's just sort of a straightforward drama.

Jo Reed: I agree. Sylvia, do you want to add anything?

Sylvia Kwan: Sure. I think like Jacob said, it's a very well-utilized device in the sense that it lets the audience know that Lauren and the play itself is very self-aware, and that utilization of this device plays in with the rest of the show. So especially in terms of the comedy, the audience is another player and so by already alluding to that so early on, it tips the audience in, oh, okay, we're part of this and we're all kind of on this journey together. But we're also looking at this journey from the outside together, much like Lauren is looking from the outside of this play as herself.

Jo Reed:   One of the many things I find interesting about this play, is that it's intimate, and it's epic at the same time. You're performing in The Ark, which is a very intimate theater with limited space. So, you’re extremely close to the audience which pulls us in and but, as I said, it’s also epic so you're using every inch of that space. Did that take getting used to?

Sylvia Kwan: I love how intimate the space is. I think during rehearsal, we were given the opportunity to play and create and be as big as we wanted. But then when preview started, that's when we really started being able to incorporate the audience as being physically in the space, as well as being another presence in the story and so this has been such a joy because it's such a creative and interesting experience, because we are in such limited space, but I think the power of doing that is forcing the audience, as well as ourselves, to use our imaginations in ways that we may not have used as much if we were in a bigger space with more props and more set pieces, right? But because it's a very intimate, small space, we are taken on this fantastical journey and we're taken for a ride, not only do we feel that everyone is a part of it, everyone in the space is a part of it, but we can all kind of delve into our personal connection with the story as well.

Jo Reed: Jennifer Chang is the director and I really want to know about the rehearsal process. How soon did she get you off book and on your feet? Sylvia?

Sylvia Kwan: Well, I have worked with Jennifer before, and I really, really enjoy working with her. So I was so excited when I got this opportunity and my process is, from when I first started acting, I like to be completely off book before the first day of rehearsal and that's just my personal preference. Some people like to learn on their feet, but for me, I know that there's a part of my brain that knows all the lines, and then when we start doing blocking and creating, I'm going to lose some of those lines, but they all kind of mesh together at the end when I can put everything together. But if I'm off book and I know what my character is doing in each scene, I understand the arc of each scene before we even get to rehearsal, then I have the freedom to play and I love and I crave that freedom and so that's why I like to put in the work even before we get started, because then I have those beautiful few weeks of rehearsal when I can just try things out. I can fail. I can succeed. I can do whatever because I don't have that burden of having to learn my lines.

Jo Reed: And what about for you, Jacob? What's your process here?

Jacob Yeh: Yeah, I would love to say that for every show that I've done that I've been always been off book by first rehearsal, but that would be a lie. But I will say that whenever I can do it, it is great, as Sylvia said, because you just are that much more free. There's one less thing in your hand and in your mind to worry about. I will say for this process, I feel like and I think Sylvia was a good example of setting the tone of it. And then that sort of in a positive way pressured the rest of us to do it and I feel like we were within the first week, maybe eight days, we were pretty off book. Not that we didn't call for line, not that we didn't mess things up or jump ahead or anything like that. But it was pretty quick, and I will say that did help the process tremendously because there is just so much more time to play, and then for the director to be able to tweak things and just modulate, oh it needs more salt here or it needs a little pepper here or needs, to go with the cooking metaphor, it needs more sauce or more vinegar here or whatever. I think it does. It does help with that and the process was delightful. I mean, we had we were having as much fun as we have performing. We were having that much fun in the rehearsal room, just being able to to mess around and try different things and it was such a collaborative process. There was no there was no ego, it was all like best idea in the room, and and people could could speak up and it was. It was just a delight, we had we had a really great time.

Jo Reed: Just just some brass tacks. How long did you have for rehearsal?

Jacob Yeh: I think three weeks. Is that right, Sylvia?

Sylvia Kwan: Yeah, I think so.

Jo Reed: Is it daunting when you first begin? Is it daunting on that first day of rehearsal?  

Sylvia Kwan: Gosh, I don't think daunting is the word. I think it's just really exciting, because you don't know, you never know how a show is going to play out, right, and I think especially this show, we became friends so quickly and it was such a safe environment that it never felt daunting or it never felt particularly challenging. But if it did, it was exciting challenge, if that makes sense. It was exciting to see, oh, my gosh, what can we create together? What is the funniest thing? And you would always know what the funniest thing was because your castmates are rolling on the ground laughing, or you're cackling during someone else's scene and you don't want to disturb them, but they're making you laugh so much. They're like, oh, okay, so this joke is working. So I can for sure say that in this rehearsal, I never felt like it was a daunting or intimidating process. But I definitely felt like it was just pure collaboration. It was pure fun, it was high energy, it was zany. It was it was pretty great.

Jo Reed: Is that true for you, too, Jacob? How did you feel the first day?

Jacob Yeh: Yeah. So let me tell you this story. So the first day of rehearsal, I think we started at 10:00 a.m. on a Friday, and I get there at nine fifty eight. I remember specifically looking at my watch and going, okay, great. I am two minutes early. I was, however, the last person to arrive, and as soon as I walked into the room, everybody else started this slow clap, like the embarrassing slow clap that increases in tempo and I was like, oh, okay, this is the room that we're in, and it was such a wonderful and funny, delightful, introduction and welcome and I think Jen really set the tone. The director really set the tone for that and so immediately I was like, oh, we're here to have fun in the best possible way, trying to to tell the best story, but have as many laughs and as much joy in this process, so it was utterly delightful, and I knew literally from the first minute that I stepped into the room, I was like, okay, this is what this room is. Great. Let's play.

Jo Reed: There was also two lion dances in the play which to quickly explain is a  traditional dance in Chinese culture  in which performers mimic a lion's movements in a lion costume. And there’s puppetry involved for the actor who’s in the lion costume.  Sylvia, you were the lion, weren't you?

Sylvia Kwan: Yes, I was. I was a single lion and then Nick and Grant were the double lion, the two person.

Jo Reed: Tell me about mastering the choreography and the puppetry that was involved with that.

Sylvia Kwan: Well, so I have siblings and they actually used to do lion dance as well and we were lucky enough to have Chua martial arts, which is a martial arts and lion dance troupe come coach us and show us the basics of lion dance. I also grew up doing a lot of martial arts, so I had the advantage of already knowing the stances and also having been exposed to a lot of it growing up. So, after having their help and getting the basics, what was really creative for me was being able to choreograph kind of my track, because it has to also work within the story and the confines of the play, and also like what I'm physically able to do, right.  I'm only one person in the lion, so I can't do as many tricks, but I can sell this idea of the lion and what personality this lion has, and what is the function of the lion in the story and also, of course, it's like such an important part of our culture. So it was really, really interesting for me and it does continue to be interesting for me to like continue to be this lion and every day try to improve and make it better.

 Jo Reed:. You are both in a highly choreographed shootout scene sort of done in this slow-mo style. That was hysterical, but clearly very choreographed. How did this come together, and who was the choreographer?

Jacob Yeh:  So, this moment is supposed to be a John Woo-esque gunfu, so talking about sort of the mid 80s to early 90s, John Woo was a was a Hong Kong director, and he directed all of these  sort of over-the-top gangster cop movies, many of them starring Chow Yun-Fat. And so the choreographer, Casey Kaliba, who's about my age and so grew up in the 80s and 90s, too, was just sort of perfect for this because having grown up watching these movies and it's so over the top, there's like a trillion bullets there's people flying through the air, it's very cinematic and very dramatic. He just sort of ate that up and dove headfirst into, “okay, this is what I think should happen and maybe we can add this part”  and again, I think people had different ideas coming in of what things to add. And everybody was just super game with everything. There's there's slow motion, there's speeding up, there's a Weekend at Bernie's moment. It's it's all just silly craziness.

Jo Reed: Oh, it's very funny. Sylvia, how was it for you?

Sylvia Kwan: I mean, this is one of my favorite parts of the entire show, if I'm going to be honest. I would love to be in an action movie one day. I'm a very athletic person and I've always done martial arts, so having the two worlds combined where you get to fight and you get to act is a dream come true. I know that Jen really was the one who had this vision for this scene and she was very specific in what she wanted in terms of the action looking incredible, but also having a ton of comedic elements. I think, Jen, one of her strongest traits is being able to collaborate with people and allowing people to shine and have their ideas, but also knowing what she wants as well and that's really what happened. It's one of my favorite scenes to do in the whole show. I love it, and I also have to speak to I work with Jacob a lot in all of our scenes and he's an incredible partner, acting partner, and he's also a very generous actor, and so this also translates to this fight scene and I love doing this scene where we're shooting at each other every day. It's pretty great.

Jacob Yeh: It is delightful and Sylvia is wonderful in playing sort of the straight man in the fight scene, and we just have a great time. It was a delight to choreograph and delight to practice and a delight to perform every night.

Jo Reed: And it was a delight to see.  You do play off each other well and you play the actors, as I said, playing Lauren, the playwright, and her father, Larry, in the play within the play and we learn about your characters as you're waiting backstage somewhere to be called back into rehearsal, and you give each other lessons in proper accents and we also learn about looking for work as Asian American actors and it was satirical and it was funny, but I'm sure it also had to have been familiar to you.

Jacob Yeh: Yeah, in fact, it sometimes felt so familiar that I was like, did Lauren Yee peek into my journal? Because there is so much that is almost autobiographical. I mean, I have three kids. I have a daughter who's age 10, and my character has a daughter who's age eight. My wife earns an income that is much steadier and much larger than mine as an actor, and that's played upon in the script too and then, yeah, just sort of the things that only Asian actors would understand about being called in for every Asian role, regardless of sort of the specific… whether it's Chinese or Korean or Filipino or Vietnamese. Like we've all done things that are not our particular culture or heritage, and sort of the comments that we've gotten or the trials that we've gotten to get there. Lauren has very cleverly, again, uses comedy in a great way to drive home these points that are very poignant and very sharp. But because it is masked in the comedy, you can sort of say even, not necessarily outrageous, but you can say sharp things about the industry and about the process, and not have it feel like it's being preached at you because it is so funny.

Jo Reed: Did you find that too, Sylvia?

Sylvia Kwan: I actually don't identify with my character as much as Jacob does. I don't have as many things in common with this character, but that's, I think, why I enjoy playing her so much because she is so different than I am and I think also, I do know people that are like this character though, right? So there's the truth of that and I can understand where this character is coming from, even if I don't personally identify with her. I do think that because, like I said, from the get-go, Lauren uses this self-awareness to clue the audience in of what perception to observe the show with, right? And so it's a very self-aware show, even though these characters may not be as self-aware, and because of that self-awareness, there's commentary.  And so it's like what Jacob said, instead of just hitting people with statistics or historical facts, what you're doing is giving them a very specific slice of life, a very specific perspective in a very clever way, so that people can understand Asian American actors, these two specifically, because of course they don't speak for every Asian American actor out there, but in a really engaging and funny way.

Jo Reed: Well, this production is an Asian American cast. Asian Americans are key people in the creative team. How often do you find yourself in a production that has that kind of specificity to it?  Is this unusual or are you finding this to be more frequently the case?

Sylvia Kwan: I think I've been really fortunate in my career. I worked in Shondaland for a few seasons, and that was really incredible, because it does have that diversity. I think Shonda Rhimes has really made incredible strides forward to change the landscape of TV, where her shows are incredibly diverse and not just diverse, but they showcase such humanity and different perspectives from different cultures. So I've been very, very lucky with that. I also recently shot a movie, “List of a Lifetime,” and that was also a majority Asian American cast and crew, and it was an Asian American story, and so there's something really special when you get to tell specific cultural stories and the people working in front of and behind the scenes are also specific to that culture. So in my career, I've been very, very fortunate to have those experiences.

Jacob Yeh:  I think it's very important, and I think it is increasingly become not so much a rarity. I would not say it's common and it goes back to, are there Asian plays being written? Are there plays featuring Asian characters? And then I think people are getting the understanding that, oh, it is important to have an Asian director, or designers that are Asian that can understand this story. Because this is a Chinese American story, but it is generally, I mean, the characters make fun of it too, that it is a general Asian story too, right? But I think Asian people will understand this at a gut level and I think that's the authenticity that comes through because the director herself was a San Francisco, Chinese American kid who didn't speak the mother tongue of her parents. That lends an authenticity and a realness to the experience and we get it, right? We understand the text on a deeper level and there's no, there's just, the authenticity matters, and it really shines through, I think.

Jo Reed: One of the many characters you play Jacob is Shrimp Boy who is a real person—he was leader of a gang in Chinatown and I believe still in prison.  Your portrayal of him is a showstopper—it’s over the top and exuberant. How would you describe Shrimp Boy in the world of the play.

Jacob Yeh: Exuberant's a good word. He lives life to the fullest because he really isn't sure if every day I think is going to be his last. There's a definite urgency to what he does. I think when you live a tough life like that, you find pleasure in just being alive and maybe that's what led him to a life of crime, but he doesn't really care about the consequences because I feel like he's like, well, it's all going to end soon anyways. Might as well have a blast as I'm going out.

Jo Reed: Did the director Jennifer Chang work closely with you in developing Shrimp Boy?  

Jacob Yeh: Yeah, I feel like I had a pretty good idea of who my character was going to be and I think obviously, it's evolved. Jennifer has helped a lot. She's got a really great ear for like tone and like mixing things. She wants everybody to bring their best ideas. But then she will definitely curate, she will definitely say, okay, this is working and this isn't working and add a little more of this, or what about if you did it like that. She's definitely got a hand there and knows her vision of what she wants. Because the character he could be funny, but if it doesn't serve the purpose of the play and the longer arc of Lauren's journey, then it's not helpful. So I think she was great at sort of refereeing and pulling out certain things and knowing the right tone and balance to strike with the character. But in terms of his general character, I feel like I kind of, I mean, a lot of it, again, also goes to Lauren. She wrote it very funny, and so I feel like the interpretation that I came up with came pretty quickly and I think maybe even at the audition.

Jo Reed: Every actor I've ever spoken with says comedy is so hard to do, and I'm just curious what your thoughts are about playing comedy and Sylvia, why don't you go first?

Sylvia Kwan: Sure. I actually don't do comedy very often in terms of theater or TV and film, so this was actually probably my biggest comedic role or roles that I've had. I had a great time and I do think that lessons that I've learned throughout my career are if you want to play it funny, you have to know the truth of it. You have to know the realness of it, right, before you even try to make it funny, and sometimes that's what makes it funny, ironically enough. And that's the beauty of the show that we can laugh at things that sometimes things are so real that it's funny, and the only thing that we can do is laugh and I think that's where kind of like the basis of my theory of how to do comedy is. So especially for example, actor one and actor two, what they are talking about is very serious to them, but to us, the audience, it's funny, right, but me as an actor, I have to play it real. I have to play it serious because this is their world. This is their life, right, and so, yeah, so that was really my approach and also just having fun and being creative and playing off the other person and throwing things at my fellow actors and seeing what they throw back at me. Yeah, it's been really great.

Jacob Yeh: First of all, I have to say that it is a crime that Sylvia Kwan has not done more comedy, I've done comedy, I've done a bunch, and I feel like there is sometimes just people have-- There's there's people who naturally understand comedy and Sylvia is definitely one of those people. At the first read, I was like, oh, we're going to have a great time. We were laughing during every rehearsal, every time we did any of these scenes. So I think, yeah, comedy is really tough because it's a lot of it, so much of it is the timing of it, and if you're off by half a second, it'll ruin the joke. I agree 100% with what Sylvia said that the comedy can't seem funny to the characters themselves, but the situation of it and the timing of it, that's what really sells the comedy of it, and it's been great because I feel like we you know, this is an entire cast of very, very funny people and people who intuitively know comedy and understand timing. And I love that we're still like even now in performances, we're still playing. We're still trying to find it. We're still trying to find the right timing. It's it's delightful and again, it starts with really funny people. I mean, the actors assembled are all really, really good comedians and that's just invaluable.

Jo Reed: And Sylvia, you give a very understated and to my mind, a really devastating performance as the whiskey seller…an immigrant woman who works in a liquor store in Chinatown and who helps Lauren on her quest.  Can you walk me through the process of bringing that character to life as vividly as you did?

Sylvia Kwan: Thank you so much, that that really means a lot to me because I love that character so much. I think. For me, that character is like there are people in society that are often overlooked and I feel like she's one of them. And what she says about working seven days a week, 18 hours a day for less than minimum wage, that's the reality for a lot of people. So how can I give voice to those people and honor them in such a way so that they are being represented authentically?  The other thing is the way that I see that character is, there are people in your life that may be rooting for you and may care about you, may love you, but they're not going to pave the way and make things completely easy for you because they know that you have to find your own journey. They know that you have to fight your own battles, that you have to overcome, and you have to develop that in yourself, and they cannot give that to you. If they give that to you, they're doing you a disservice. So, to me, she is that kind of tough love that pushes people forward, that pushes because she has so much care in her heart. And I really do feel for people that work so hard for their children and because they're working so hard, they don't even see them that often. They cannot communicate with them that often because they're living in different worlds because everything they do is for their children. This is one of my favorite scenes of the entire show because I hope that I can convey that care, that compassion, that love, even if it may not be so obvious. So yeah, that scene was actually, I think I was a little intimidated by that scene when I first started, but now it is one of my favorite scenes to play, and it's my favorite scene to mine over and over and to play with the different nuances, and to see what other physicality I can add and to find out more about this character as I'm playing her and as I'm performing every night.

Jo Reed: It rang so true to me. So thank you.

Jo Reed: Jacob, how did you come to acting? Was theater something you saw as a kid? How did you get into this?

Jacob Yeh: Yeah, that's a great question. I'm not sure you have time for the entire story, but I will say I came to acting later.  I think I probably always loved it, but I don't think I thought of it as a viable adult profession, and again, this harkens back a little bit to sort of the Asian mindset and the immigrant mindset that there are serious jobs and there are there are the fun hobbies. And to go into something that most Asian parents would probably consider the fun hobby and to try to make it has been a journey in and of itself. So, I came late to it. I didn't start acting until I was in my 30s, and as soon as I started doing it, I knew, oh yeah, this is it, and even if I don't make a whole lot of money doing this, this is my calling. This is what I'm meant to do on this planet. And it's funny because I started acting the same year that my son, my oldest son was born and yeah, it's just been this crazy journey, which on the outside sounds a little ridiculous.  You have a wife and kids and you're going to do what for a living? But I mean, my kids will tell you, “Oh yeah, dad is much happier when he's acting. he's in his element” and that's why this particular show has been so wonderful. I mean, I did a lot of stuff early on when the kids were pretty young, and they couldn't go see stuff or really understand, although I've done and continue to do quite a bit of children's theater. But for them to be able to come to see see this at Signature Theater and then for them to go, “Oh yeah, Dad's okay. You know, Dad's not too bad.” It's just been the thrill of a lifetime.

Jo Reed: And Sylvia, what about for you? How did you come to acting, and was theater something you were involved with when you were young?

Sylvia Kwan:  I've always wanted to be an actor and I did community theater and plays growing up. But when I really decided to make this a career, there's always a lot of self doubt. But the more I did it, the more I think kind of like what Jacob said, I came into myself and I realized that this is who I am, and so, yeah, so this is actually, I haven't done theater in the last few years, actually, because I've been doing more film and television, so actually this show has been a huge blessing for me to be able to step back into a theater and work on something with so much joy and so much complexity. It's been a really, really huge gift for me.

Jo Reed: I mentioned the pacing of ”The King of the Yees” and I'll mention it again, and the extraordinary physicality you all portray on that stage. How do you keep up your stamina for the night, and for the week, and how do you just physically get ready for that and keep it going through a performance?

Sylvia Kwan: Sure. I'm going to tell Jacob, I'm going to tell people of our pre-show ritual.

Jacob Yeh: Sounds good.

Sylvia Kwan: So Jacob and I, we actually do an ab workout before every show and at first it was just because we wanted to exercise, but then it turned into, it actually really helps us get into our bodies and out of our heads, and it energizes us right before the show and it's really great because since we have so many scenes together it's kind of our way of connecting as well. So that has actually been a really fun discovery for us before the show. But also for me personally, I always make sure I'm taking care of my health. I make sure I'm drinking a lot of water. I make sure I'm getting enough rest, because doing eight shows a week, it requires endurance, especially when it's so physical and I want to be able to give the audience the best that I can give them every single night.

Jacob Yeh: Yeah, no, I agree. The ab workout thing has been really fun and it's just a wonderful way to connect beforehand, and it does, it gives us energy, which is strange because you would think that would make us more tired. But the show is tiring, but I think we're constantly drinking water on stage and off.  You definitely do have to stay hydrated. But it is a great adrenaline rush. I'm tired at the end of the day, but then when I get back the next day, I'm super excited. I think we're all super excited to get back to it. The two show days are tougher, but we get a nice break in between, take a nap and stuff and yeah, drinking water, I will say also, I'm a little quieter when I'm at home, just trying to save a little bit of my vocal energy for the shows.

Jo Reed: Well, thank you for using your voice and talking to us. I really appreciate it and thank you, Sylvia, I really appreciate you giving me your time because I know how precious it is, especially when you're doing a show like that. But it's a wonderful play, but it just requires a stellar cast and great direction and boy, does it all come together in this production.

Sylvia Kwan: Thank you so much. It's very kind of you to say thank you.

Jacob Yeh: Thank you, Josephine.   We've had a great time. Yeah. Thank you for taking the time to interview us.

Jo Reed: Not at all. Thank you for giving me your time. That was Sylvia Kwan And Jacob Yeh—They are performing in Signature Theatre’s production of The King of the Yees, written by Lauren Yee and directed by Jennifer Chang. It runs through October 22. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps people to find us. I’m Josephine reed. Thanks for listening.

In this podcast, actors Sylvia Kwan and Jacob Yeh discuss their many roles in Lauren Yee's play The King of the Yees—a semi-autobiographical comedy about community, culture, and the connection between fathers and daughters—now playing at Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre. It is funny and wildly imaginative— with Act II centered on a fabulous quest through San Francisco's Chinatown. Kwan and Yeh discuss the challenges and fun in playing multiple characters in the play, the intricacies of comedic timing and physical comedy while ensuring authentic portrayals of the characters, as well as the meta aspects of the play and continual breaking of the fourth wall. The actors talk about working in a play that puts Asian American stories front and center with a creative team that was largely Asian American. They also discuss the play's physical demands: rapid pacing, choreography, puppetry, and quick changes and their strategies to maintain their stamina as well as their individual journeys to acting.  

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