Julia Cho and Artists at Play Blows Sh*t Up on the Stage

Asian representation in media has been receiving a lot of attention over the last few years. Starting with the progress made on TV by shows such as Fresh off the Boat and Master of None opening the community’s eyes to the possibilities of genuine Asian American stories being told on screen (by Asian Americans), and contrasted by the relative lack of progress in film shown by the continued whitewashing of parts that could, and some argue should, be played by Asians. While much of the conversation has been centered on the screen, there are also a growing number of producers and actors working to bring Asian American stories and characters to the stage as well. One of these leaders is Artists at Play’s Julia Cho.

A few blocks away from the Sunset Strip, Julia sits down with us in the lobby of The Lounge Theater. Her new production The Two Kids that Blow Shit Up, a play written by Carla Ching, had just opened for previews and she was graciously spending a few moments of her precious free time to talk.

Nicknamed the “Human Swiss Army Knife” by her peers, Julia is well regarded as someone who knows how to get stuff done. An actor by trade, Julia is also a founding member of Artists at Play, a Los Angeles based theatre collective made up of Asian American creative professionals.

“Artists at Play was founded by myself, Stefanie Lau, Marie-Reine Velez, and Peter Kuo.” Julia explains, “The four of us got together really because we wanted to do a play”

That play would become the collective’s first production Ching Chong Chinaman, a play by Lauren Yee. “As you can tell by the title a very subversive comedy upending Asian American stereotypes.” She laughs, “We were all theater geeks and we got together to put on that show and then things just snowballed and we realized that we really liked working together and the group was born out of that.”


Since that first production, Artists at Play have gone on to do even more productions and expanded their programs to include a summer reading and salon.

“We’re all about promoting, highlighting Asian American voices and stories on stage, and in turn providing opportunities not only for Asian American artists,” Julia says, “but making good theater and involving a diverse group of artists to help us along the way”

Artists at Play specialize in working with contemporary plays focused on Asian American narratives.

“The fact that Asian American theater exists is because we’re not as present in mainsteam American theater, I think people who aren’t familiar with that would think, oh there’s Miss Saigon and King and I,” she explains, ”but there’s so much more to Asian American theater than that. And I think at Artists at Play, we’re all about showcasing specifically Asian American stories. In the plays that we produce there’s always a fresh unique voice [and] a contemporary perspective. Our plays are not set in Asia, and it doesn’t always have to be about immigrant issues.”

Julia gives her current production of The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up as an example. The main characters, Diana and Max, are essentially “All-American kids,” but make references in their dialogues to culturally specific touchstones like Saturday school and frugal parents. Julia explained that these references were intelligently, and intentionally, planted in the play by the playwright Carla Ching “to let people know, you could cast this with white people, but you shouldn’t, because there are these clues here to inform you of these people’s specific heritage.”

The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up is a production that Julia is particularly excited about, not only because it is this year’s main stage production for Artists at Play, but also because it is the collective’s first world premiere of a work. The pressure has definitely never been higher for them.

“Usually our productions have been published works,” Julia explains, “with Carla, because she’s so present, she’s there with us every step of the way, we want to do the piece justice and we want to do right by her, so there’s definitely added pressure, but that pressure fuels us to do the best we can.”

To Julia, the pressure is worth it. “Writers like Carla Ching are people worth knowing and sharing,” Julia explains.


The Two Kids the Blow Shit Up tells the story of Max and Diana, two people brought together because of circumstances outside of their control and who can’t help but become, and stay, a part of each other’s lives.

“We jump around time from scene to scene. So they’re start at 38 as hardened bitter adults, and then we jump to when they are nine and they first meet as children, and so on and so forth,” Julia explains, “Seeing these scenes out of order but then being able to piece things together but then picking up clues from the previous scene and applying it to the next, I think there’s something really fun about that theatrically.”

To Julia and her colleagues, bringing these stories to the stage is their way of contributing to the growing conversation of representation in entertainment by showing that Asian American characters can be real human beings, and by adding to the canon of Asian American stories and characters. “There wasn’t a play like this when I was in college doing scene study classes,” Julia recalls. It’s her hope that by ushering this work into the world “young Asian American people can choose a scene from Two Kids the Blow Shit Up to perform in class that speaks to the in a truthful way and they don’t have to go to the default white playwrights.”

Staged Theater holds a special place in Julia’s heart, and she’s passionate to bring the art form to more and more people. We asked her to make a case for theater for entertainment. “It’s a big argument, especially in LA, which is a city that is so focused on TV and film,” Julia sighs, “but when it’s done well and done right, there’s something really magical about theater.”

Julia explains that the live nature of theater is really what sets it apart from anything else. “It’s all happening in front of you and it really depends on the actors, the design elements supporting their performances, and also there is some investment on the audience members’ part, they need to be in on it with us so it’s not as removed,” she explains, “we’re all in the same room breathing the same air together and there’s a certain level of trust and commitment that needs to be in every single one of us, performers and audience alike, to make this thing happen and I don’t think there’s anything like that you can recreate on film or screen.”

In addition to their annual main stage productions, and despite being a small team with limited resources,  Artists at Play have also started to expand their footprint in the community. These programs include their “Spring Readings,” where they develop and showcase new works by Asian American writers (and which The Two Kids that Blow Shit Up was actually a part of prior to going into production), and their “Summer Salon,” where they take a well known play and cast it with veteran Asian American actors to show not only that such castings can be done, but also that these actors are perfectly capable of carrying the works. The latest salon featured John Cho in Donald Margulies’  Dining with Friends, actually pre-empting the summer’s popular hashtag movement, “we literally starred John Cho,” She laughs.

The  success of these programs invigorate Julia, and she is optimistic about the future of Asian American Theater.

“Theater is a little behind I think, there’s a lot of talk with film right now in terms of furthering more representation of Asians and Asian Americans and I’m excited to see all these conversations happening, and I think that will eventually lead to actual tangible changes [that] I’m hoping that will trickle down to theater as well,” she explains, and she’s confident that Artists at Play can play a big part of that. “Look at all these diverse stories, if there’s just one idea you have about Asian American Theater, there’s so much more than that,” she concludes, “we hope that we can provide some new perspectives.”

“The Two Kids that Blow Shit Up” is moving into its 2nd week and final week of production at the Lounge Theater in Sunset (Address: 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038), and tickets are currently available for purchase.

Learn more about Artists at Play at artistsatplayla.blogspot.com and follow Julia on twitter at @thatjuliacho.


Images and video via Artists at Play

New Play “Office Hour” Tackles Issues of Mass Violence, and Korean-American Identity that Hits Close to Home

Weighty topics of mass violence and bullying have unfortunately become all too prevalent in present-day American life.  Office Hour, playwright Julia Cho’s latest work which premiered earlier this month at South Coast Repertory, tackles these complicated issues.  The play opens with three English faculty members discussing a troubled college student named Dennis (Raymond Lee). Dennis, a sullen outcast, has alarmed the faculty with his violent and pornographic writing—and ultimately gives rise to a fear of him committing a campus shooting. One teacher named Gina (Sandra Oh), ultimately invites Dennis, to her office hours to see if she can get through to him.

Inspired by the tragic events of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the play dives into very serious issues of mental illness, racism, mass violence, and the immigrant experience, and more importantly, how these themes are deeply intertwined with the fact that both Gina and Dennis are Korean-American. This is clear from the opening scenes, where Genevieve (played by Sola Bamis) and David (Corey Brill) both suggest that Gina should be the one who approaches Dennis, not only because she is his current teacher, but also because of their shared cultural background. Dennis, who wears dark clothes, hoodies, and black, opaque sunglasses, is unmistakably an outsider—but the play eventually reveals that it’s not for the reasons you may think.

“I think part of the reason why Dennis is less apprehensive to open up to Gina is because of the shared background,” Lee said, “and I think the sheer fact that Gina mirrors Dennis’s appearance and culture is important to the play.  There needs to be an affinity so people are comfortable going to a place of opening up. Especially if Dennis is a person that has been victimized by people for his appearance.”

Oh echoes these sentiments, and said “There is a deeply introspective and brutally honest look at both characters [Gina’s and Dennis’s] sense of loneliness and self-loathing that comes from a cultural place.  That is definitely held by the character of Dennis, and the effect of being invisible culturally and emotionally is something that speaks to this play.”

Their shared cultural identity, which initially serves as an unspoken icebreaker, clearly develops into something more. Lee, like Dennis, has also experienced bullying because of his appearance and noted that the feelings of alienation he had “…never leave you. Those feelings of alienation, the feeling of being made fun of for having done nothing other than the way you look, the way you’re born?  Those feelings never leave you. Dennis has dealt with that form of isolation his entire life and he didn’t acclimate so well, and it ends up cementing into something very ugly. and he ended up having a lot of aggression towards these people that treated him unfairly. It became a real cyclical spiral, and he spiraled down into a place where he’s borderline suicidal. Yes, we can all relate to these things. But for Dennis, I took it in a much more personal and drastic way.”

Oh, who has experience playing strong, and emotionally complex female characters (such as her decade-long stint as Cristina Yang on Greys Anatomy) also took a very personal approach to Gina. “The style of this play and the subject matter of this play is very different [from some of her other roles]. It’s about gun violence, and mental health, and all these things.  But honestly, I approach each of these [roles] in a similar way with similar seriousness. I want to play a character that can speak to young women and tries not to spend all their lives thinking about boys too much. So that kind of intention is the same within the kind of intention with which I approach Gina in “Office Hour” and in her efforts to reach Dennis.”


Lee, who is also Korean-American, said he relates to Dennis in various ways. For him, understanding Dennis’s character was a full-time job.  Along with reading up on various manifestos and blogs from other proponents of mass shootings, “I had to dig into my own life and think about the times that I’ve been mistreated and bullied. As an actor, you start having to use your imagination and you have to imagine the way you’ve been treated and the way they’ve been treated. Then, you start to let that build inside of you, and you water it like a plant every day at rehearsal. You go home, and you feed it some more. Then it starts to grow, and the next thing you know it starts to have a life of its own. I kind of take it upon myself to have a responsibility to show the audience every night, as truthfully as I possibly can, what these guys were going through right before the incident. It’s a process that involves a lot of searching, and at the end of the day I have to love these guys. I have to love Dennis with every part of me to show the humanity and not just a killer.”

Oh goes on to say that “we [her and Raymond] are both Korean-American. It just is, and it’s shit you don’t have to talk about but I know that’s what ties Ray and I together on stage.  And it ties Gina and Dennis together very strongly too. Gina understands Dennis because she herself is a broken person, and she understands Dennis in ways that I think Genevieve and David, who Sola and Corey play, might not.”

While the relationship between Dennis and Gina is certainly helped by their shared cultural background, Dennis and Gina’s complex feelings are part of a bigger picture within the AAPI community.

Lee discusses this more in depth. “I think in Korea, and along with a lot of Asian cultures, silence is a virtue. You don’t react, you stay patient; you kind of just take it in, and it ends up coming out in really ugly ways. Along with Dennis having his issues of being made fun of and whatnot, there is also the expectation to keep it all in. So that can really hurt a person. And that is a cultural aspect and a cultural effect.”

“The great thing about this play,” Oh says, “is that you could open up fields of the immigrant experience.”  The shared bond between Gina and Ray comes from their shared, immigrant ancestry—which would still exist regardless of their particular ethnicity/race. “But in this production, Gina and Dennis (and the playwright as well) happens to be Korean-American.  It has a very specific flavor that we bring to it, as actors.”


Lee reflects on one specific moment where Dennis and Gina enact an imaginary phone call. “Gina plays Dennis’s mom in a kind of roleplay. This is the scene that cracks open Dennis the most because of the way Gina talks to him—it’s like his mom.  And that authenticity has to do with being Korean.  There is a lot of guilt there that comes from a combination that values men to be silent in the household and also values success.  I believe Julia, she’s brilliant, wrote it specifically to tell a Korean-American story. Especially…just as an Asian man, there’s all these things in the media now that de-masculinizes Asian men all the time.  Look at all these dating apps. Asian men are the least desirable, and that is a direct result of media and a direct result of what’s been said to us growing up.”

“To see a young, Asian male character, who is in university, filled with rage is super important to see.  Because it is a part of who we are, and a part that we need to deal with, and I think it is a part that cannot be ignored” Oh said.

Thoughtfully, Lee mentions something similar.  “We may be the last generation of Korean-Americans to have this specific story.  We all have stories.  I think we’re an amazing group of people and it would be great to be remembered as such: as a really resilient group of people.  So, I just really want to urge the storytellers to step up and do it. and make it a responsibility on your own to do it.”

Beyond the complicated issues that the play sheds light on, Oh finds Gina to be a role extremely fulfilling as an artist and an actor. “Being so present doing this play is constantly reminding me of why I do work, and why I choose to do the work that I do. You don’t always have a choice. and I’m extremely lucky that I do have a choice. I am very conscious of that. and I feel that if work is not as important as this play, and is not as great as a character a Gina, then this is the only kind of work I am interested in doing. There could be a million of those movies that have us in it or don’t have us in it [authors note: Ghost in the Shell, anyone?] and I just can’t follow that.  I’m going to bust my guts out for 250 people then talk to them probably after the show, and then do that hour drive home. I mean, that’s what I do. That has more meaning to me than any of the other bullshit out there.”

“It’s such an incredible experience, they’re so smart. Everyone is so smart.” Lee said. “This is what I cherish the most. being able to do something meaningful, to continue to try to make an impact, and to have Asian voices be heard, goddamnit!”

The relationship between Gina and Dennis (and Oh and Lee) extends to the cast and playwright Julia Cho as well. Both Oh and Lee had nothing but good things to say about their “incredible” cast-members.

“Office Hour” is playing at the South Coast Repertory until this Sunday, May 1st. Be sure to see Cho’s amazing new work, and be sure to stay for the incredible performances by the entire cast. Tickets can be bought here


Images via South Coast Repertory