After a five-month national search, Theater Mu has selected Lily Tung Crystal as its new artistic director. Crystal is a well-traveled Renaissance woman who most recently worked as a director, actor and theater founder in the Bay Area. She begins her new role with the 27-year-old company in September.
Crystal "brings both artistic and organizational expertise to our team that will enhance our mission and values for years to come," said board chair Reginaldo Reyes in a statement.
A Los Angeles native with an English degree from Cornell University, Crystal spent the 1990s working as a freelance journalist in Shanghai. She covered arts and culture for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NBC News and Public Radio International's "The World," among others. She also launched Shanghai Talk, a publication she called the city's first English language magazine. Meanwhile, Crystal also acted on stages in China, most notably as Amanda in Noël Coward's "Private Lives."
Crystal worked in media on her return to the U.S., all the while keeping a sideline in theater and earning certification as a leadership coach from California's Hudson Institute. She also worked as a writer and producer for the 2015 film "Steve Jobs."
In 2010, she co-founded Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, built to nurture and expand Asian-American stage talent in the Bay Area.
"Theater is the hobby that became a job," she said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities to look for housing.
Crystal succeeds Randy Reyes, who was fired by the Theater Mu board in December due to unspecified misconduct (no relation to board chair Reginaldo Reyes). We caught up with the incoming artistic director in between appointments. The conversation was lightly edited.
Q: You have been around the world. Have you been to Minnesota before now?
A: Yes. In 2005, I spent 10 days here. I used to work for GM at the car shows as a product specialist and presenter. I came here for the Minneapolis Auto Show. It was super cold.
Q: And now you are coming to lead Theater Mu after a rupture. Is part of your mission to heal the organization?
A: Yes. I don't know a lot about what happened at Mu. I have pieces of the story, and that the community is fractured. I would say part of my charge is to come into the community and listen and empathize and also make decisions to try to reunite those factions.
I'm also a leadership coach, so I know that, baseline, any transition in leadership is difficult. We, as human beings, are resistant to change. And because organizations are made of human beings, they're resistant to change. If I came under quote-unquote normal circumstances, I would come in, meet with people, listen to them, and find out what they've liked about Theater Mu and what their challenges are. Then I would take that forward with Shannon [Fitzgerald, managing director]. That's part of my charge.
Q: As a leadership coach, you must have a keen awareness of the pitfalls inherent in the job?
A: There are some leaders who make decisions but don't listen. There are some who can't make decisions. Every leader has their strengths, and their strengths also have dark sides. One of my strengths is to listen but also make tough choices.
Q: Theater Mu helped to develop the Asian-American canon nationally and to build the talent pool in the Twin Cities. Will that continue?
A: Mu has done an amazing job of cultivating a pool of actors who can get work on a national scale. From what I hear, there are fewer API [Asian-Pacific Islander] designers and directors. In the Bay Area, I can name 10 API directors, and there's a huge pool of designers. So, yes, I will continue to nurture the actor pool but also nurture designers, dramaturgs, directors. I don't have to direct all the shows. For me, the most successful companies have multiple directors and multiple perspectives. And they're also building the next generation.
Q: Theater used to be your hobby, now it's your career. Have you taken up other hobbies?
A: I started rock-climbing recently and it's almost spiritual for me. One thing I love about theater, love being onstage, is that you have to be totally in the moment. People tend to think in the present and the past. But if you're climbing a rock, you only have to think about what's in front of you.
Q: Tell us about your family.
A: My husband [Eric Crystal] plays sax, piano, guitar and melodica for Boz Scaggs. He loves to cook, which is good, because I can't cook. We have a son, who's 10. I'm a huge arts lover. That's where my passions lie.