Tisa Chang (born 5 April 1941) is a Chinese American actress and theatre director from Chongqing. Her father was a diplomat and her family moved to New York City when she was a child. Chang was interested in theatre and decided to study acting at the High School of Performing Arts and at Barnard College. Soon afterwards she started her career as an actor performing in Broadway plays and musicals, including Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. She also appeared in a few films such as Ambush Bay and Greetings.
Chang turned to directing theatre in 1973, when she began working at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. With money earned from her Broadway acting she established the theatre group Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in 1977, with the intention to make Asian American theater more popular and to open up for Asian Americans actors to find non-stereotypical roles. Chang has received several awards for her work, including a Theatre World Special Award in 1988. She remains active as artistic director with Pan Asian as of today.
Tisa Chang was born on 5 April 1941 in Chongqing, Republic of China. At the age of six, she and her family moved to New York City where she was brought up. Her father, a Taiwanese diplomat named Ping-Hsun Chang, was appointed as the Republic of China's consul general to the city in 1946. He moved back to the Republic of China in 1957 to serve within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to TV Times, "for 11 years, [Tisa] Chang was steeped in the subtleties and protocol of diplomacy. Her deep diplomatic connections extended as far as Ottawa where the ambassador from the Republic of China, Liu Chieh, was a friend of her father's and she called the Canadian-based diplomat uncle." Chang chose to stay in New York with her three siblings instead of following her father to the Republic of China.
Chang became interested in theatre at a young age, and was taken by her mother to see operas and plays. She even performed her own rendition of Cinderella for her nanny in the family's kitchen when she was ten years old. Her father was also interested in acting and performed in school plays when he was younger at Nankai University together with Zhou Enlai, who went on to become the leader of China. Chang studied acting at the High School of Performing Arts in New York and then at Barnard College.
Following her education, Chang performed in several musicals as a dancer. She then started acting in Broadway plays and musicals, including Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (1970–1971), The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1977), and Pacific Overtures (1976). She also appeared in films and on television as an actress. She had roles in Ambush Bay (1966), Greetings (1968), Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper (a 1981 television film by Lamont Johnson), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1983 television film), A Doctor's Story (1984 television film), and Year of the Dragon (1985). In Escape from Iran, she had use of her diplomatic background as she played the wife of Kenneth D. Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran during the Iran hostage crisis.
After having done acting for some years, Chang went into directing theatre. She made the career change because "it was a chance to work on projects that resonate deeply and personally and highlighted my world [...] of coming from a divided China that was still in the throes of revolution but steeped in culture and history. As a director, I had more autonomy in choosing projects, and felt I was contributing to American theatre with stories drawn from China's vast literary legacy. I had been acting and dancing professionally for 10 years on and off-Broadway, so I had a very good immersion into mainstream theatre. With directing, I can help shape what the audience experiences and walks away with."
Chang began her directing career in 1973 at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where she directed for Ellen Stewart's Chinese Theatre Group. She produced bi-lingual versions of classical Asian and western plays, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream in which both Mandarin and English were used, and Servant of Two Masters in which all the asides were spoken in the characters' native language. Chang was working as an actress and dancer at La MaMa when she decided to ask Stewart for the opportunity to direct her own play. Her first work was the Peking opera The Return of the Phoenix, which was released in 1973 during the Independence Day weekend. Chang described this date as "the death slot" when it comes to theatre visitors, but "fortunately, Richard Shepard of The New York Times came down to East 4th Street and loved the show, praised it."
Chang is currently the Producing Artistic Director of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, a theatre group that she established in 1977 to help the emergence of Asian American theater. She has said that "the extraordinary talent and dedication of the actors [at Stewart's Chinese Theatre Group] inspired me to formalize the group into Pan Asian Repertory Theatre." The money she earned from The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which she starred in that year, was used to fund the establishment. Chang's main principle with Pan Asian has always been to "promote opportunities for Asian-American actors to be seen in context of who we really are and what we are capable of achieving as artists." According to Chang, Asian Americans had difficulties finding roles in New York City before she established Pan Asian. They were usually limited to playing stereotypical Asian characters such as geisha girls and houseboys. It was easier to get roles in Los Angeles, where the East West Players theatre group had been founded in 1965. Many people in the theatre business doubted that Pan Asian would be successful and wondered if anyone would pay to come and see their plays. Chang has said that "because we were considered a curiosity or something very new and unique, people did come." TV Times wrote in 1981 that Pan Asian was "the most respected experimental theatre group in New York City." As of 2009, it is the world's largest producer of Asian American theatre.
Since Chang started Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, a lot of progress has been made for Asian American actors in American theatre. However, as The New York Times writes in 2007, "the struggle continues, and not only in the live theater." Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean American actor who first worked with Pan Asian in 1990, told the newspaper that "whereas it’s gotten better for ethnic minorities in terms of general representation, what hasn’t really improved is the complexity of the roles that we’ve been given to play. Many of the parts I see Asians playing onstage, as well as on screen, are smaller supporting roles whose function is to provide exposition or support to the leads." Kim is famous for TV show appearances in Lost and the new Hawaii Five-O.
In addition to her work as artistic director at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Chang has also directed some own plays and musicals for the group. For example, she directed the world premiere of Shanghai Lil's at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in 1997, returns to direct this new production for November 2011 at the West End Theatre in NYC. In 1988 she was awarded a Theatre World Special Award for her directing work and the establishment of Pan Asian. Other awards Chang has won during her career include the 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from Organization of Chinese Americans, the 2001 Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women, the 1993 Chinese American Cultural Pioneer Tribute from New York City Council Andrew Stein, and the 1991 Barnard Medal of Distinction. She is currently a part of the executive board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
Chang married Ernest Abuba on 25 January 1976 at the La MaMa Annex. He worked as an actor, playwright and director at Pan Asian. The couple broke up and divorced in the beginning of the 1990s, although they remained friends. They had one son together, named Auric Kang.