by ADA TSENG, Audrey Magazine
When college students Randall Park, David J. Lee and Derek Mateo founded a theater group at UCLA 20 years ago, little did they know that they would lay the foundation for what would become perhaps the closest thing Asian America has to our own Saturday Night Live: a group of young creatives thrown together to write, act, direct, and produce an original show from scratch every quarter. LCC Theatre Company would inspire a generation of Asian Americans working in art and entertainment, creating a lasting bond among its members — despite the occasional drama — with each incoming class, in turn, leaving its mark on LCC’s evolution.
In 1995, the same year Margaret Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl got cancelled after only one season, Derek Mateo, David J. Lee and Fresh Off the Boat star Randall Park — college students at UCLA at the time — started their own theater company called Lapu, the Coyote that Cares. The name was an amalgamation of the three nicknames they acquired while volunteering at UCLA’s official charity, UniCamp: Derek was Lapu (after Lapu-Lapu, the Filipino warrior that defeated Magellan), Dave was Coyote (his spirit animal), and Randall was CareMoose (like Care Bear, but Moose).
Little did they know that it’d take two decades (and one of their own to get old enough to star as an onscreen dad) for there to be another network sitcom starring an Asian American family. Or that their beloved group, now referred to as LCC Theatre Company, would, in 20 years, not only still exist but also become the largest Asian American college theater group in the country, spawning numerous alumni working in the industry today.
In that timespan, LCC Theatre Group has performed over 60 shows of mostly sketch comedy and improv, with content ranging from identity issues (sketches titled “Asian American Idol” and “Super Anti-Asian Fetish Woman”) to the apolitical (a story of four shirtless Asian men who gain confidence by taking a class on how to dance freaky; and an Asian frat crime mockumentary that’s basically an excuse for an extended penis joke) to dramatic pieces that blur racial lines (a recent piece had Asian American actors playing Vietnam War veterans dealing with memory loss and alcoholism).
The original “coyotes” of LCC Theatre Company and friends, circa 1995.
Nowadays, young “coyotes,” as the members call themselves, are joining a theater group with a long history and a notable group of alumni they can look up to. But 1995 was a different time. To illustrate this, in one episode of Fresh Off the Boat, which, incidentally, also takes place in 1995, Jessica Huang disapproves of her sons acting in a school play. “Why?!” she exclaims. “You’re not going to become actors. You think they’re going to put two Chinese boys on TV?” But even if it didn’t seem like a good idea to consider entertainment as a professional career in the mid-’90s, that didn’t mean there weren’t Asian Americans with the passion and talent to perform.
Park, Mateo and Lee first met each other at UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino Cultural Night. “At the time, the culture nights were the place to perform if you were an Asian American in college who wasn’t a theater major,” says Lee, a filmmaker who recently won Best Writer at the 2014 NBCUniversal Short Cuts Festival for his film Paulie. Out of all the Asian culture nights, they remember the Filipino culture night as the biggest one. “Producers consistently failed their quarters to produce that show,” says Lee. “That’s how big of a deal it was.”
But there were limits to what could be performed at culture nights. The casts were huge, the shows were notorious for being four hours long, the scenes had to be interspersed with certain dance performances, and there was a very specific agenda.
But what if they could just start their own theater company to stage plays they wrote themselves? The trio started by performing short sketches in the beginning of Asian American studies classes to announce the arrival of their new Asian American theater group and recruit new members.
Some of the early members of LCC Theatre Company 20 years ago. From left: Randall Park, Kristina Wong, David J. Lee and Freddie Sulit.
“For one [sketch], Randy put ketchup in his mouth and didn’t say anything for the entire skit, until I punched him in the face and he spit ketchup onto the chalkboard,” remembers Lee. “It did not go over well at all. It was just silence and a little bit of shock because some people thought it was real blood.”
“The professors had no idea,” says Park, laughing. “It’s not like they pre-approved it.”
They were young and audacious, and they made it up as they went along. The first time they auditioned cast members, they basically took everybody. Their first play, The Treehouse Bachelor Society, was a satire mocking a group of Asian American college guys, complaining that they couldn’t get girls. It was Park’s first play, Mateo’s first time directing and Lee’s first time producing — and the first time acting for a lot of their 27 cast members, many of whom were future doctors, engineers and scientists who had no intention of going into entertainment but were excited about the idea of an Asian American theater group.
“None of us knew how to run a rehearsal,” says Lee. “Randy didn’t even finish the script until the night before the show.”
Park laughs. “There was a monologue at the end that Dave’s character was supposed to deliver, and I said, ‘Dave, can you write your monologue? I’m so tired.’”
They had advertised the show with flyers all around campus, and on the night of their debut, there was a line around the theater. They not only filled a 350-seat venue but had to add 30 extra chairs in the back and turn people away because of fire code restrictions.
“We had hit a nerve,” remembers Michael Golamco, a current staff writer for NBC’s hit show Grimm, who was part of the original LCC cast. He still remembers the beginning of the play. “It begins with Randall coming out on stage. He says, ‘Hi, I’m Randy. I wrote this play, and the first thing I want to tell you guys is that it’s about frustration and anger. So if anyone wants to yell out the word ‘f-ck’ at any time, they can. Let’s try it.’ That set the tone: that we’re self-aware, we’re not taking ourselves too seriously, and this is going to be fun.”
“We were walking on water that night,” says Mateo, now a film professor at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “It was special, we all knew it, and I can only hope [current LCC students] are having that same sense of discovery.”
Once they graduated, the founders did their best to structure the organization in a way so that it would survive without them. Two decades later, much of the structure has remained consistent. There are new leaders (who they call “producers”) every year and new shows every quarter, though it very quickly evolved from producing one writer’s full-length play to a combination of shorter sketches that smaller groups of people could collaborate on together.
“[The structure] can’t change so much because of the nature of college,” says Golamco. “New people come in every year, and just when everyone finally knows what they’re doing, they graduate and leave, so they always think they’re on the verge of dying, even though they’re not. You’re always looking for these moments of great acting and great writing, and that sustains it.”
Incoming “Generations,” as they label themselves (the original members are called OGs, while each year’s new cast thereafter is called G2, G3, all the way up to G20), honor and pass along LCC traditions and philosophies. They have annual camping retreats where they hold workshops, and alumni often return to mentor and give back to the LCC community.
The current producers, Mark Quintos and Peter Ngo, take the process very seriously, knowing that they’re responsible for properly passing on the torch to the next generation. “We look for things that are very ‘lapu-like,’” Quinto explains, when selecting new members. “We toss around this acronym IGYB, which means ‘I got your back.’ Because of how the group operates — it’s very small and grassroots — group dynamic is really important.”
Though Quintos and Ngo plan to pursue careers in entertainment when they graduate this year, the majority of the current LCC cast do not. Like 20 years ago, there are still the math and science majors who just happen to be great performers. That’s what makes LCC stand apart from other theater groups on campus — they’re not looking for experience; they’re looking for potential. “We’re looking for kindness, warmth and heart,” says Ngo. “People who are willing to work together to develop, experiment and try different things.” He smiles. “I love that about us!”
An early LCC show starring Randall Park, left, and Rick Lee.
Even insiders joke that the LCC community can seem almost cult-like—the starry-eyed nostalgia when reminiscing about their time there can last decades after they graduate—but for many, especially for creatives currently working in entertainment, LCC was one of the most formative experiences of their lives.
“LCC really gave me the confidence to write,” says Ali Wong, now a stand-up comic and staff writer for Fresh Off the Boat, who considers Park and other LCC alumni among her best friends. “I knew it was such an incredibly rare opportunity to have your work produced into an actual performance, in front of an audience, with a team, in such a short amount of time.”
Ignatz Award-nominated comic book artist Yumi Sakugawa credits LCC with shaping both her creative career and her Asian American consciousness. “I think once you’ve made a full-length theater and improv show out of thin air in less than 10 weeks while being a full-time student,” she says, “you are infected with the creative bravado to continue making your own material on a shoestring budget and sharing that with as many people as possible.”
Actor and writer Chris Dinh, most known for his work with the popular online filmmaking group Wong Fu Productions, says he often runs into fellow LCC alumni in the industry. “At the 2010 NBC Short Cuts Film Festival, Randall Park won best actor for Blueberry [directed by Lee], and Crush The Skull [a short Dinh co-wrote and starred in] won Best Short Film,” he says. “I accepted the award, and I remember looking down and seeing a bunch of LCC faces in the crowd. And I thanked Randall and David J. Lee.”
An LCC production in 2007
That’s not to say it’s been a smooth 20 years. That first Treehouse Bachelor Society performance set the bar extremely high, and it led to a faster and steeper crash. Their subsequent shows were unsuccessful. Some complained it was too much of a boys’ club. Creative differences led Mateo to depart from the group. Arguments erupted when actors felt they should have been cast in roles they didn’t get. And what some saw as strengths — a mix of aspiring professionals and nonprofessionals, avoiding the overtly political — others saw as limitations.
“LCC was an immediate family, for better or for worse,” remembers Kristina Wong, a performance artist who was part of the cast during the early years. Though she stuck around for all four years of college — at the time, the idea of leaving felt like “disowning her family,” she says — her experience left her feeling unsupported, tired of being surrounded by “a gang of insecure creatives” and realizing she needed to break out on her own.
As with any long-term organization — especially one like LCC, which is forced to reboot with new leadership and new members every few years — for every relationship it spawns that blossoms into a happy marriage, there are dramatic clashes, hurt feelings and bitter exes that feel distanced from a community they put so much energy into building.
Despite her “messy” time with LCC, Kristina still credits Park’s writing with informing how she discusses race in her comedy. She remembers a sketch about a Taiwanese director who had his actors play out stereotypes. But the actors all rally against him, break out of the stereotypes and become human. Half an hour before their second performance, the Taiwanese Student Union tried to get audience members to boycott the show because they were offended that the only antagonist was Taiwanese. LCC panicked and changed the ethnicity.
Incidents like these caused LCC to question what they wanted their mission as an Asian American theater company to be. How obligated were they to represent Asian Americans positively? Did they want to tell specifically Asian American stories, or was it enough that they were Asian American? How much should they listen to audience feedback versus encouraging their artists to take risks that might cause them to bomb? Nowadays, Wong believes that Asian Americans must not be afraid to be political and show the ugly contradictions that make us human, but these questions often don’t have simple answers, and they need to be revisited again and again.
A sketch from LCC’s March 2015 show.
And the most recent debate among LCC alumni asks the most difficult question of them all: What happens when a group that is rooted in Asian America starts to become less “Asian American?”
Though G20 is still led by Asian Americans, the current group of cast members is approximately only about 50 percent Asian. The company’s diversification has been evolving for the last decade.
“To be honest, a lot of the marketing surrounding LCC when I first joined wasn’t centered around being Asian American,” says Quintos. “It wasn’t until afterward, when I was immediately cast in a leading role in my very first show, that I realized there was something different.”
For younger generations, the prospect of creating original work with a diverse team has been a bigger draw than the need to identify with a specific ethnic community. “Maybe I’m an optimist, but the world is becoming more mixed,” says Ngo. “[All Americans] have to be aware of other races. So I do cherish being Asian, but at the same time, we’re not coming from an environment that was as politically charged as it was 20 years ago. Growing up in the Internet world, the ‘other’ isn’t as scary or foreign anymore.”
The current producers of LCC, Mark Quintos and Peter Ngo.
For Park, he acknowledges that the Asian American aspect is important. “But at the same time, it’s not ours,” he says. “It’s theirs. That’s why we let it go.” His co-founders Mateo and Lee agree. After all, they remember when they were in college, resenting those guys who couldn’t let go of the past.
Time moves on and LCC may well evolve — into what remains to be seen. And yet some things stay the same. For many students, college is the last time they can be pure in their creativity, without having to worry about practical, “real world” considerations that make it more difficult to be uncompromising as an artist. “That’s the blessing of LCC,” says Golamco. “You never know who’s going to be really great at something, and LCC gives them a chance to try.”
And that may be the secret to the longevity of LCC Theatre Company — it continues to capture such moments onstage. Says Mateo, “It’s humbling to know people love it with the same fire and intensity that we loved it 20 years ago.”