Interview with Michelle Krusiec, Writer and Performer of “Made in Taiwan”

While I can’t vouch for the nearly 200 other shows playing at the New York International Fringe Festival over the next two weeks, I feel confident in declaring Michelle Krusiec’s one-woman show Made in Taiwan one of the must-sees.  This hilarious, audacious, profane, and ultimately moving play is an autobiographical piece centering on Krusiec’s contentious relationship with her mother.

Krusiec, a seasoned actress in theater, film, and television best known for her acclaimed role in Alice Wu’s film Saving Face, has been performing Made in Taiwan since 2002.  It has now been honed into a 75-minute show that takes us through her life from a young girl to post-graduation, the major constant being her mother’s needling, nagging, and an approach to parenting that could be most charitably described as tough love. Extremely tough love, which eventually leads one night to her mother tackling her to the ground and biting her. 

Krusiec plays five roles in the show: herself, her mother and father, and two rather eccentric aunts.  She binds the show together with her narration looking back on life with her family, but the most indelible impression is left by Krusiec’s portrayal of her mother, who in the show is a foul-mouthed, embittered, untrusting woman suffering from “unhappiness disease.”  She stalks across the stage crouched over, giving her daughter sharp-tongued criticism and advice to marry rich and not end up like her.  Her mistrusting paranoia causes her to suspect her husband of having an affair.  This leads to a rather frightening confrontation between the parents late in the show, but the main conflict in Made in Taiwan is the pitched battle of wills between mother and daughter, and the daughter’s struggle to free herself from her mother’s oppression.

Made in Taiwan is best suited to the small, 250-seat theater where it will be performed, as it is an intimately-scaled piece, mining very personal material.  The stage is mostly bare, save for two black boxes and three slabs of sheet metal.  This puts the focus squarely on Krusiec’s energetic performance, which vividly paints her chaotic family life with broad yet precise strokes.  The show starts out as broad comedy, much of it arising from the mother’s battles with her daughter, her husband, and the world.  This gives way late in the show to a much more poignant tone, which gives us a deeper understanding of what drives the mother’s actions, and what at first seems like a settling of scores becomes a very affecting, and loving, portrait.

I sat down with Ms. Krusiec a couple of days after her first Fringe Festival performance to discuss the origins of her show, and her evolving process of writing and performing the piece.

Christopher Bourne: I attended your first Fringe Festival performance, which I very much enjoyed. Have you performed this piece in New York before?

Michelle Krusiec: It was a part of the Asian-American Theater festival two years ago.  But in my opinion, that was a workshop.  I was still developing the piece, and we didn’t have any reviewers coming out for it.  Now we have reviewers.

What kind of reactions did you get to the performance on Saturday?

People have emailed me or Facebooked me, and almost everyone who has contacted me has said really great things about the show and their experience.  I imagine people aren’t going to contact me to say negative things, but you never know.  Overall, the reception felt good.

You premiered this show at the Aspen/U.S Comedy Arts Festival in 2002, but obviously you had the initial idea well before that.  So could you take me through when you got the idea to when you first started performing it?

Originally it was a college thesis, for English Lit.  I was doing literary criticism, and I started to deconstruct my relationship with my mother.  I was also a double major in theater arts, and in the playwriting course I was taking, I was trying to come up with a play idea.   At the very last minute – I think it was the night before my play was due – I decided to write about my family.  So it grew out of those two courses, and eventually I had the idea of turning it into a performance piece.  I then went to Los Angeles and started studying with [director and acting coach] Larry Moss, who had an exercise where you would depict an event.  I decided to depict the night my mother bit me.  So from there, the piece continued to snowball and evolve.

What has been the evolution of the show from when you first began performing it to now?

It grew from 14 pages to what it is now, about 24, 26 pages.

So it was originally shorter.

It was shorter and much more like vignettes.

Do you perform it the same way every time, or do you tailor it to each audience?

That’s what we’ve been tinkering with for the last two years.  It used to be kind of a stand-up piece, and then it suddenly became a play.  And now we’ve tried to integrate the piece so that now we have a narrator who’s present throughout, and is taking you through a series of memories.

You’ve performed this piece many times by now.  Although this is based on your story, are you able to now look at it objectively as a performance?

That’s a tough question.  While the answer to that is yes, the truthful answer is that in order to play the character, I’ve had to become more subjective.  The objectivity I used to have when I first wrote this was not really servicing me as a performer.  It was keeping me at a distance from the material.  And now that I’ve been working at it, and chipping away at what this story is about, I’ve had to become more at ease at having a point of view that’s mined for the piece, as opposed to stepping away and trying to decipher it.  I think one leads to the other; I’ve had to become objective to learn what the subjective point of view was.

You play multiple characters in this piece – yourself, your mother, and your father.

And my two crazy aunts!

Right.  And that reminded me of other solo performers who play multiple characters in their shows, for example Eric Bogosian, Anna Deavere Smith, Sarah Jones.  Were there any other performers you looked at while developing your piece?

At the Larry Moss Studio, where I was developing it, he was also developing The Syringa Tree at the same time, which won a number of awards.  That piece was quite different from mine, but I was very inspired by that piece, just because I felt [actress/playwright Pamela Gien] was trying to tell a deeply profound story.  And I was trying to figure out how I could relate my story in a way that was universal.  But a real muse of mine was John Leguizamo’s Freak.

How do you work with your director, Andy Belser?  When did he come on board?

I had two directors, and they’re both really great.  My first director was a guy named Chris Stone, and he was with me during the Larry Moss Studio days.  We mined every moment in this piece, probably to the point where it burnt him out. (Laughs) He’s a wonderful director, but at a certain point there just needed to be a fresh set of eyes.  So then Andy came on, and he basically did the same thing that Chris and I did, except he and I tried to find a through line that would integrate the comedy and drama.  The piece started out as very comedic and then it turned very dramatic, and the goal was always to have it integrated.

That was what struck me most about the play; it starts out as very broadly comic and at a certain point takes a darker turn.  This leads to a very moving ending that completely changes how we see the mother character.  How did you come to shape the piece in this way?

I don’t like to have an agenda, but I wanted the comedy to disarm the audience.  I wanted them to feel comfortable to laugh with me at my family, and to laugh at me.  So when I revealed the internal tumultuousness that existed within the family, I wanted them to be surprised.  Because that was how I hid. I hid through comedy, I hid through a lot of laughter, I hid through a lot of stories that were funny.  And underneath all of that, there’s a vulnerability that I think we all connect to.  It’s the thing that we live with inside our homes, inside ourselves, and I was trying to figure out how to capture that.

You were acting in film and television at the same time you were developing Made in Taiwan.  Did your experience performing the piece carry over into your film and TV work?

I would definitely say the work I do on my show permeates my other work.  Trying to do a show about your family is really hard because if you had it all figured out, you would have yourself figured out.  And most people don’t have their family figured out.  In fact, they’re mostly running away from their family.  That’s one of the themes of the show, how fast we’re trying to run away.  In order to understand my show, I’ve had to break it down over and over and over again, because when you arrive at something that you write initially, you stay pretty close to the surface.  It’s hard when you’re talking about yourself, because you’re trying to understand what your feelings are.  And the technique I would employ to understand that would change, and then, of course, my acting would change.  As I started to see what was really effective, I would always take that into my TV and film work.  This piece has really been the biggest tool I’ve been able to give myself, and I would strongly advise every performer to do a one-person show.

What do your parents think of the play?

When my father first saw the piece, he was just thrilled.  I think he was surprised that I was able to actually capture our family.  With my mother, I think her take was much more like, how can you do such a physically vigorous show?  She wasn’t so concerned with the actual themes, or the implications, or the overall journey of the piece; she would say, “You’re like a monkey on the stage.  Why do you move around so much?” (Laughs) This piece is meant to be an homage to my mother.  It is really her piece, and I have to struggle to make it my piece.  I’m trying to flesh out a very complex character with as much humor as possible, and love toward this character.

Yes, that really comes through in the ending where you go back and forth between being yourself and being your mother.  It’s almost as if you’ve become the same person.

Yes, I think we’re all facets of our family.

Have you contemplated adapting Made in Taiwan to other media?

I’d like to adapt it as a feature film.  I have two goals: one is to be the best actor I can possibly be, and the second is to try to create more content and opportunities for Asian-Americans.  To me, this would be an interesting project to try to adapt.  The mother character would be an Oscar-worthy role for any actress, because it’s a really complex character, as is the young woman.  So I would love to see if I could execute that.  At the same time, of course I enjoy performing it, but it’s really challenging.

Yes, I imagine it would be tough to have to perform it every night.

Well, I actually feel like I could.  I once did nine shows in a week, and I almost died.  But you know, that is the nature of theater.  And this show is an hour and ten minutes, so it’s doable.  You could do this show for a six-month or year-long run, and it’d be OK.

Have you thought of perhaps writing a memoir?  I’m sure there’s a lot more material that you couldn’t fit into the show.

Yeah, I have.  My director and I have talked about doing a follow-up piece, sort of like a sequel following the young woman.

What are your future plans for this project after its Fringe run?

We’re looking for a producer, and we’re looking for the run to get picked up.  I will probably go back to Los Angeles; since I have a pretty solid base there, I could probably do it there if I wanted to.  I’ve been asked to possibly perform it in Asia, but I don’t know, the comedy is very American to me, so I’m not sure if it would play there.  So there’s a lot of potential.  I would want to foster it here in New York, or give the material to other actresses, to see if they’d want to play the piece.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m still doing my recurring role on [the ABC Family TV series] The Secret Life of an American Teenager.  And Larry Moss is directing a film, Relative Insanity, and I’ve been cast in a pretty incredible role.  It’s a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, set in the Hamptons, starring Juliette Binoche, and hopefully we’ll start that soon.

Made in Taiwan continues for three more performances during the 14th Annual International Fringe Festival, at the New School for Drama Theater at 151 Bank Street.  Performances are August 20 at 9:30 pm; August 23 at 9:30 pm; and August 24 at 9:30 pm.  Tickets can be purchased at the Fringe Festival’s website.  More information on the show can be found at the Made in Taiwan website and Michelle Krusiec’s webpage.