It’s not very often that I become speechless. You don’t have to know me all that well to know that I have an opinion about everything and, though, I pride myself in my listening skills (Samantha does mean “The Listener” after all), it’s putting tangibility to the unspoken thought that really makes me tick.
So, I do it.
I talk. A lot. I write. Not as much as I would like, but a decent amount. I feel as though I am always cooking up ways to make the written and spoken language a bit better. (Note: Alliteration is always key. It makes any joke funnier. Trust me.)
But after speaking to Bi Jean Ngo (Co-Artistic Director of Theatre Confetti and star in its upcoming production of EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM), I was speechless. Here she took my ‘20 Questions’ formula and filled it with such a dynamic and yet, composed personality that I was rendered speechless. I honestly don’t know if I can enhance anything she says to make it better, even if I add boatloads of alliteration. Just after a single interview, I can tell that this girl has ‘It.’ And, for once, there’s nothing more I can say, but to let the interview speak for itself.
Ngo grew up outside of Washington DC in an artistically inclined family of five where her pension for performance began at a young age.
“I remember being obsessed with these kung fu miniseries from Hong Kong that we used to watch obsessively as children,” Ngo begins. “I would act them out with my brothers. (Ngo’s older brother works in the theatre, while her younger brother works as a musician.) We didn’t have cable, and we didn’t have much money, but we had each other and we had the outdoors, and we had imagination. I guess that sense of play acting just grew and grew, until I realized that I needed to be an actress.”
Her parents, both Vietnam refugees, also took part in her development as a theatre artist.
“My father is also a writer,” Ngo explains. “He has this amazingly resonant voice, so people always listened when he spoke. He told the best stories. I think I inherited that fondness for storytelling.”
After attending school at Boston University (Film and Television program with a focus on screenwriting) and earning her MFA at the Actors Studio Drama School (NYC), Ngo was eventually brought to Philadelphia by her older brother who was working in Philadelphia at the time.
“There’s an industry paper called Backstage in New York, and they had run an article about me and my friends. A Philly casting director, who had worked with my older brother, incidentally read the article, turned to my brother, and asked him why he hadn’t brought me down for a project. Two months later, I was down here performing onstage for a joint production between Philadelphia Young Playwrights and Philadelphia Theatre Company. I fell in love with Philly, its theatre scene, and its food scene.”
And Philly is falling in love right back. Ngo has been active in this town for seven years, working with the aforementioned PTC, Wilma Theatre, and Arden Theatre and, alongside the work she does with Theatre Confetti, is currently working with Theatre Horizon, 1812 Productions and InterAct Theatre Company.
“Philadelphia is an amazing place to be an artist. It’s a big, small town, so once you start working here, your network grows exponentially. I love that. The theatre community here is a wild, extended family, and we take care of each other. That has a direct effect on the work I do, because there is so much love and respect between the theatre artists in this city. I feel incredibly nurtured here,” Ngo gushes about the city she calls Home.
“What’s also great is that Philly is a tough city, and the people are real,” she continues. “This is the home of the hybrid artist, and that’s unique. I am constantly inspired by the quality of performer in this city, because so many theatre artists here are multi-talented. The hybrid artist not only acts, sings, and dances, but he/she writes and develops new work, plays a variety of musical instruments, can climb circus silks, crafts puppets, and masters a number of unexpected skills. Being surrounded by great artists is helping me grow.”
And that growth, both on the personal level and on the city-wide level is becoming evident.
“I think there is a paradigm shift happening in theatre, and it’s been happening. There are more and more theatre artists who yearn to create their own original work and collaborate on projects with non-theatre artists. There are audiences who want something different and cool. I think Philadelphia sets a great example of how theatre is changing for the better. There are a lot of theatre artists in this town, and we all strive to collaborate with each other and stretch the boundaries of what constitutes theatre through dynamic content or spatial design.”
Theatre Confetti, formally the Nice People Theatre Company, is aiding in bringing that shift to Philadelphia. Ngo, who co-artistically directs the company alongside Nicole Paloux, believes that Theatre Confetti is bringing the performing arts to young, hip audiences who may not have experienced a reality quite like this one before.
“Over the past year, we’ve created several events that immerse our audiences in an explosion of design, music, dance, food, and original scripted text. Just last week, we created an event entitled UMAMI. We brought over a hundred guests down into the basement of the Power Plant building in Old City, which our talented collaborators, Creme Design, outfitted with thousands of blue balloons with strands that hung like a forest around our guests. There, they were welcomed by an actor who played host to our confetti of artistic creations. Chef Shola Olunloyo crafted whimsical, unexpected small bites like an everything bagel ice cream. Dancers performed a hip hop infused ballet choreographed by Nancy Berman Kantra. Rap artist, Kuf Knotz freestyled a jam, and the West Philadelphia Orchestra closed out our night with a dance party. It was really great to see so many people out, enjoying a creative, cultural experience on a random Wednesday night.”
Now, she says Theatre Confetti’s job is to introduce these party people with EDITH…, a play set in an interesting environment.
“Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them is about three teenagers growing up in middle America,” Ngo explains. “They are lonely, having been physically or emotionally abandoned by their parents, and they turn to each other for support. It’s a story about two boys falling in love and how they deal with their sexual identity, and it’s about the title character’s inability to enjoy her childhood. Edith (12) runs around trying to protect herself, her older brother, and his best friend. […] They’re forced to fend for themselves.”
Performed in the basement of the Old City Power Plant, co-Artistic Director Paloux says of the piece: “Edith was the most talked-about play to come out of the 2011 Humana Festival. It tells a beautiful story about love, loneliness and discovering who you are, and gives us the opportunity to create an immersive environment where the audience can really be thrown right into the world of the play. And it packs that punch that our company has become known for. With our all-star local cast, it’s the perfect show to kick off our new image as Theatre Confetti.”
Ngo couldn’t agree more, explaining that Theatre Confetti’s mission: “is to produce original plays that are Philadelphia premieres. This play is filled with young, edgy, dynamic characters, who are also completely grounded.”
The all-star local cast is rounded off by Justin Jain and Steve Pacek and is under the director of Philly Jack-of-all-Trades, Aaron Cromie.
“Cromie is pretty brilliant,” Ngo beams. “Many people already know his genius in puppetry and in devising new work. He’s a generous director who creates an atmosphere of support in the room. […] He responds enthusiastically to what we bring to the table as actors, and then he gently guides us to find more nuanced behavior and more emotional layers as we rehearse. […] I’m a big fan of Cromie.”
And, if asked, I’m sure he would say the same. Ngo has a bright disposition and an even brighter future creating, developing, and producing work in Philadelphia. I, for one, look forward to seeing what else she can bring to the table.
“I am the luckiest woman alive,” Ngo says. “I get to hang out and work with smart, talented, funny people every day and call it work. So, in that respect, I’m totally successful and could say if I died today, there’d be no regret.”
Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them runs March 7 – 24, 2013 (press opening is Friday, March 8, at 8 p.m.), at The Power Plant Basement, 233 North Bread Street in Philadelphia (access off of New Street, between 2nd and 3rd). Tickets are $10-35 and are available online at theatreconfetti.com.