81 Hours Stuck In An Elevator? Sounds Like a Musical
Here is a story that you don't come across everyday: A deliveryman for a Chinese restaurant in the Bronx, New York makes a delivery to a high-rise building. As he comes down the elevator, he falls more than thirty floors to come to a halt somewhere between the third and fourth floor. One's instinct would be to call for help, but this guy, named Kuang, had just sold his cell phone to a friend. Pressing the emergency alarm brought no one, and he was afraid that by trying to talk to somebody over the intercom, would bring undue attention to him...for he is an undocumented immigrant.
The year was 2005, New York had witnessed a series of robberies and murders targeting delivery men. When news of Kuang's missing went public, the City started a search at his apartment, neighborhood and even a nearby lake; all this time, the man they were looking for was stuck in an elevator, for a good 81 hours! When Kuang was finally found, he was dehydrated and weak, having only survived on fortune cookies and sauce packets that he carries with him. For fear of being deported, Kuang went back into hiding after being rescued.
Composer Byron Au Yong and Librettist Aaron Jafferis were inspired by the story and started to write lyrics and music around this incident. The musical they call "Stuck Elevator" has evolved over a couple of years, arriving at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab, becoming a hybrid theater piece with elements of opera, hip-hop and avant-garde elements with Chicago-based Chay Yew directing the project. American Conservatory Theater's Artistic Director Carey Perloff was impressed by what she saw at Sundance and pushed for the musical to have its world premiere in San Francisco.
One may wonder, how do you structure a show around a man's predicament in an elevator? It would seem that the musical takes us through the various stages of psychological changes that would include hallucinations and dreams. Stepping into the role of Kuang is Boston-based tenor Julius Ahn. EDGE speaks to Ahn about his first foray outside the world of Puccini and Verdi.
EDGE: How is playing Guang (names slightly changed for the musical) different from your previous roles in opera?
Julius Ahn: The role is by far the most emotionally taxing role I’ve ever taken on. In many ways, the most important one because the story is so close to us right off the bat. I did not have to search too much for inspiration for it because it is already right there.
EDGE: How does this role of Guang speak to you?
Julius Ahn: I do not think it will ever stop speaking to me. I guess that is the best way to put it. Guang, obviously is a Chinese character but it is not just a Chinese story. My parents who came before me went through immigration. I have gone through immigration. My wife has gone through immigration. It is so important that everybody that we see on the street has a story of their own. Many of the immigrants to the United States become somewhat invisible to the mainstream. A lot of people view them almost as subhuman rather than human.
I think it is so important that we recognize each individual has such an important story, in that way, such an American story, because America is built by immigration, by immigrants who came over, seeking a better life, seeking freedom, seeking prosperity, this ideal of a better life. Whatever their life was before, their dream was to make a better life not just for themselves but for their family. One of the most important things about this story is that Guang’s love for his family is what drives him. That is prevalent throughout the story.
EDGE: Which aspects of his life do you relate to?
Julius Ahn: He left his wife and son back in China. It is his love for them that drives him through whatever struggles he faces. As a Chinese food delivery man, he makes almost nothing. Whatever he makes, he has to pay off his debts and send money to his family, but whatever struggles he has, he does it with the hope of seeing his family again, or bringing them over. Having a wife that I love dearly, it is not hard to make that leap to be in another character who is working so hard for his loved ones. I can only imagine if I had a son, whatever I have to do, I am sure I will do it.
EDGE: What is the most challenging part of playing this character to you?
Julius Ahn: It is the emotional toll. Rehearsals are six to eight hours, sometimes nine. For me to jump into character, I have to confidently do that on a daily basis. That is the most challenging thing. I would say that in opera, you do get into character, I certainly make it a point to do that, but the stories themselves are more ’broad strokes’ in terms of dramatic story-telling. There is a lot of emphasis on the music but in a theatre where drama is at the forefront, with this character which is so emotionally fleshed out, that is the most challenging thing. I am sure some of my cast members must not have enjoyed being around me when in some of the rehearsals, I would get frustrated or being fatigued from that emotion, going through that constantly.
EDGE: How did you overcome that?
Julius Ahn: My wife said something interesting to me one day. She said, "Honey, you’re not Guang. You’re playing Guang but you’re not Guang." As simply and funny as it is. We are telling the story. It is not something that we can wallow in. It is for the people to experience. It is simply for us singers and actors to tell the story. That puts it in perspective for me.
Learning the language
EDGE: As someone who does not speak Chinese, how do you prepare for some of the Chinese dialogue?
Julius Anhn: Being a Chinese character who speaks Mandarin, we got the text and script, we would come to rehearsal, sit down with Naya, the Assistant Director and she would tell us what those are. We would have the translation but she would tell us what each word meant. She would teach us how to say it, in what tone and inflection.
One of the workshops we did in the past, I said a phrase, I think I was telling what time it was, Naya shook her head, this was before we got into a detailed language coaching. She said, "No Julius, if you say it like that, instead of telling someone to go to sleep, you’re going to say, you’re eating dumplings," which is a completely different thing. I’d better had my head on straight for this.
EDGE: There are few theatrical works with a key Asian American character. How do you see that American theatre have changed over the years with respect to this?
Julius Ahn: I think Asian actors are becoming more prominent and deservedly so because they are not only talented, but also focused and driven. There are hardworking Asian actors and performers out there. We have so many of them in this cast and team. I would classify them as Asian story-tellers, directors, composers, writers, actors. I think that the fact that people are now discussing having Asian actors in the lead, not only in your small token characters, but also in the lead and integral characters in the story, I think that is an important step that American theatre is taking and I think it is a good sign. Just a few years ago, it was incredibly difficult to see Asian actors in a lead role in a featured play anywhere. The fact that a place like American Conservatory Theater is putting a story out there like this where a central character is an illegal Asian immigrant and cast with Asian actors is a huge step.
EDGE: Do you see this as a result of the mainstream audience being more interested in Asian stories or the Asian audience being more prominent and wanting to see more of their stories on stage?
Julius Ahn: I think it is all of the above. Asians are coming into prominence. When that happens, there is going to be more demand and certainly there are going to be more people who are going to be able to go to theatre and enjoy the performances, and because of that demand, when you put more Asians out there, more Asians are going to come. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg. I think it is all of the above. It is a wonderful time.
"Stuck Elevator" runs at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco till Apr. 28, 2013.