I had moved to San Francisco in 1990 to develop as a stand-up comic and had started to study in acting in 1994 with veteran character actor Cliff Osmond. But for some reason in 1996, I was frustrated with both comedy and acting and felt that I needed another way to express myself. I began developing “Paper Son” in the summer of 1996 when I took a solo performance workshop with well known SF solo performer Charlie Varon.
By the end of 1996, I had developed a ten minute piece that would become the opening scene of my show. But I had no idea where it would lead. More than anything else, I realized that I didn’t know myself very well nor did I know anything about being Chinese-American. My father, who passed away when I was eleven, was something of a mystery to me. He never spoke about his background and I remember vague inferences about his past. On the other hand, my mother was born in the US as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat and I knew way too much about her side of the family, my aunts and uncles, and especially my cousins. So I began to ask questions about my father to my mother and could never get any specific information.
I started to research the history of the Chinese in America and was startled by some discoveries. There were discriminatory laws, especially the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and references to overt acts of racism. And that immigration from Asia was severely restricted until there was a major reform of immigration laws in the 1960’s. I had grown up in the 60’s in Oklahoma where there were just a handful of Chinese families in all of Oklahoma City. While my parents would frequently talk in Cantonese around the house, I desperately wanted to be American so I shunned all things that might make me “Oriental”.
A friend of mine with a PhD in History from UC-Berkeley suggested I research Angel Island. Now I had lived in San Francisco for six years and kind of knew of something called Angel Island but wasn’t quite sure where it was. It happens to be the biggest island in San Francisco Bay and sits just a few hundred yards offshore of Tiburon. For those of you who’ve seen Alcatraz, it’s the larger, looming island to the north. At Angel Island was the Angel Island Immigration Station which was open from 1910 to 1940 where Chinese immigrants were detained from two weeks to two years and interrogated before being allowed to land on the US mainland. Interrogations? That certainly peaked my interest and I investigated further. I knew that my father had come to the US before World War II. And apparently there were records of these interrogations somewhere in the National Archives but I didn’t know where to start.
In January of 1997, Charlie Varon stopped teaching solo performance to work on a new show and I began to study playwriting with Amy Freed. Amy was teaching playwriting in the evenings at American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco and was finishing up writing “Freedomland” which went on to become a Pulitzer Prize Finalist that year. As I began to write and develop more scenes, two things significant things happened that February that propelled the show further. First, I set a deadline for myself by applying for and getting into the 1997 San Francisco Fringe Festival to be held in September. Since the Victoria Fringe was just before in late August, I entered that so I could try it out before I debuted it in San Francisco. And the second thing was the discovery of a name of a relative that would open all the doors to my father’s history.
I knew that my paternal grandfather had died when my father was a young boy. What I didn’t know was that my father came to the United States claiming to be the son of a man by the name of Yee Wee Thing. Yee Wee Thing was in actuality my father’s oldest brother, my Uncle. I called the National Archives in San Bruno, California and asked if they could find an immigration file for Yee Wee Thing and within five minutes the archivist had found it. I took off work the next day and headed to San Bruno.
What I had in my hands was the immigration and investigation file of my Uncle, Yee Wee Thing. It was a series of reports, interrogations, and letters all pertaining to my Uncle. And in the last few pages, I found a reference to my father (listed as Yee Bing Quai) and his entry into the United States through Boston in 1938. And on the last page was a small black and white picture of my father from his US Citizenship Application when he was twenty nine years old.
My sister, Corinne, was living in Boston at the time and she immediately found our father's file and sent me a copy. Between my Uncle’s and my Father’s file, I was able to reconstruct my history on my father’s side.
It was through these files that I began to discover a lost relationship with my father. He spoke with a thick accent but in my mind’s eye, I don’t remember that. I remember a father who did not say much to his son and a son who didn’t want to be like his father.
As the deadlines for the Victoria and San Francisco Fringes approached, there was a mountain of material but no coherent story or structure. Amy Freed helped me immensely in finding the story and structure. And near the end, director David Ford helped put on some finishing touches.
As I flew to Victoria, BC on August 26, 1997, I had a piece that was self directed, self produced, and barely memorized. I ran through a tech rehearsal and opened the show to all of 15 people on August 28, 1997. The second night I had six in the audience, four of which were volunteers who got in free and of the two who paid, one had a senior discount. My take that night was $13 Canadian. I had four more shows over the next four nights and then I was back to San Francisco to open there.
I remember walking home that night to my billet. It was a clear night in Victoria and the moon was nearly full. I had just performed to six people in an empty store space on the fourth floor of Eaton’s Mall in Victoria, BC. As I did much soul searching on that walk, I became content in the fact that I had tried. I had completed my goal of writing and performing a one man show. I would complete the Victoria run, come home to San Francisco, do the show, and that would be that.
Well, a funny thing happened the next day. I guess some of the twenty odd people who had seen the show liked it and began to spread some word of mouth. The next day I had thirty people, the day after about fifty, then sixty-five, and my last show there were eighty. People would come up to me afterwards and tell me their own family histories and their own immigration stories. In my story, they had seen their own. As I got into a cab to head to the Victoria airport, I picked up a copy of the Victoria-Times Colonist where I got my first notice from Adrian Chamberlain. He had liked the show and gave me three out of four stars. I was very surprised.
I flew back to San Francisco, did my tech, and opened on the first night of the festival. I had two more performances the first weekend with my last show on the following Saturday night. In between the two weekends, I got my second review from Brad Rosenstein at the SF Bay Guardian. It again was most kind and he said it was the best show of the festival he had seen so far. My last performance was an overflow crowd and I was named “Best of the San Francisco Fringe” and came back two weeks later for an encore weekend.
At that point, the fear kicked in. I realized that I had “something”. It was my personal story that seemed to striking a chord in some people. I began to rewrite and re-exam the show now that I had audience and critical feedback. My first major revision was at the 1998 Seattle Fringe Festival in March. And I was invited back to the Uno Festival of Solo Performance in Victoria in April.
By then I had become good friends with two Toronto actors I had met the previous year in Victoria, Anne Marie Scheffler and Scott Maudsley. Anne Marie had been doing solo shows in the Canadian fringe circuit for years and had talked me into coming up to Canada to do the Toronto and Edmonton Fringes in the summer 1998. They graciously offered to put me up when I came to Toronto and Anne Marie mentored me on how to promote and position my shows in Canada.
I made more revisions and Toronto became my next big breakthrough. I opened in the first time slot of the first night in front of twenty people including critics from two of the major dailies. The next morning I awoke to being the lead reviews in the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun. Again I was stunned with such kind words and was overwhelmed by the audience responses that followed.
But I must say, I have never experienced anything like the 1998 Edmonton Fringe Festival and if I am a lucky man, I hope sometime in my lifetime I can do it again. (As fate would have it, I won the 2003 Edmonton lottery and returned for a warm up of the show prior to my LA premiere) Edmonton is the largest theatre festival in North America. There are over twenty venues with shows going from Noon to past Midnight for nine days and approximately 40,000 people per day in the Fringe site.
I was assigned to the Yardbird Suite, a converted Jazz club during the festival with 105 seats and a tiny stage. My first show on a Friday night, I was startled to find out as I came to the theatre that I had sold out. I had made yet another revision and had added a new scene that was risky at best. I finished my performance, walked off stage, came back for my curtain call, and was blown away when I got my first standing ovation. My second show on a Sunday afternoon was nearly sold out and I got a second standing ovation. Then Monday morning, I got the reviews from the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun and was literally speechless. I got five stars out of five from both papers (along with five out five from both Edmonton weeklies). If there was an actor’s nirvana, I had found it. The rest of the run was sold out, I continued to get standing ovations, I had people from all over wanting to talk with me after the show, but most importantly I made friends with many actors from across Canada and overseas.
I then took the big step and opened the show in San Francisco for a legitimate run. We converted my acting coach’s studio into the Cliff Osmond Theatre, a small sixty seat theatre near Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Some friends in my acting class, Katie Hemmeter, Lawrence Radecker, and Josh Kelling wanted to produce me so we went for it. We hired Carla Befera & Associates as our publicists. But more importantly, we opened on the first Saturday after the new year when we didn’t have any competition from the major rep houses, established theatre companies, or touring shows.
“Paper Son” opened in San Francisco in January 1999 for a legitimate run. We ran for three and a half months and I did sixty shows. It was exhausting but I also learned so much about acting and performing. I continued to get strong reviews and great word of mouth. I was booked into the Northwest Comedy Festival in Seattle and the University of Minnesota. And I decided to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I got a late start and didn’t get the offers I wanted from the three major Edinburgh venues, the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance, and the Assembly Rooms. But I felt I had to go and found a 6pm time slot at the Café Royal. I booked a hundred and thirty seat theatre and hired Scott Maudsley from Toronto to stage manage my show. The 1999 Edinburgh Fringe was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I did the show for 26 days straight during the same time slot. There was so much competition there and so little audience to go around that I could never get much momentum going. The show just didn’t translate and reviews were positive but not as enthusiastic as I had gotten in North America. I did the show for two people on a Sunday night one time. As an actor, I learned so much about gutting a performance out and concentrating on the work. As a producer, I learned about failure in a big way. I believe I probably lost about $14,000 doing my show in Edinburgh.
This was a painful lesson to me about art and commerce. I am so passionate about this show and want to tell it and had not known adversity until this experience. The simple fact is that the work didn’t connect to the Scottish/English crowd. They couldn’t relate to the immigrant experience. I still got the connection with North Americans but it was nowhere near enough to make up for my investment. So my advice to anyone who has read through this and has aspirations of taking a show to Edinburgh, do it for the love of the art and assume that you will not make a dime (or pound in this case) when you go. It will make your experience much more enjoyable knowing you’ll lose all your money.
The one good thing to come out of this experience is that I met some actresses from New York, one of whom worked for a Professor at Columbia University. I was invited to Columbia in early 2000 to perform the show in conjunction with a Migration Studies program. Columbia is on Broadway, so technically, I made my Broadway debut!
In the summer of 2000, I took the show to the Winnipeg Fringe Festival where my friend Rick MacPherson (whom I had met in Edmonton two years earlier) stage managed the show and got me into a three hundred seat venue where I drew the biggest crowds and made my biggest box office of my fringe experiences. Thanks, Rick.
So now I'm in LA and I've had a successful nine week run of the show. If you're considering doing a solo show, I hope this gives you some insight into the process.