Henry Ong: The Shyest Man in the Theater
By Steven Leigh Morris
Henry Ong is a playwright who has lived in Los Angeles for “about 35 years, since the early 1980s,” he says. Those in the LA theater community may know him for his promotion, not of himself, but of individuals within our community on social media. He attends plays as a matter of habit, as an Ovation Awards voter. In the lobby or outside whatever theater he may find himself at, he pulls out his cellphone and snaps photos of people hanging around – but only with their permission. You may find these photos on Facebook, usually with the caption, something like : “Who are these famous people?”
And though he admits his habit is partly a joke, it’s also a sign of respect for people he feels have accomplished more than himself, which Ong feels is almost everybody. In our phone interview, he confessed that he didn’t know why he was being interviewed, that he had little interesting to say, about anything. This is not true. It may be true from Ong’s perspective, but it has no bearing on objective reality – whatever that is. He speaks in measured, soft-spoken cadences.
“I have no idea how this came about,” Ong explains about his penchant to promote anybody but himself. “I’m a very, very shy person. I’m socially awkward, and very private. I always found myself among people who have tremendous credits and so, I find that when I discovered the iPhone, I would take pictures and post them and ask, who are these famous people? I don’t think I could ever be an actor because [I have] so much insecurity. When I say ‘famous,’ it’s tongue in cheek, but I feel that everybody deserves to be seen, and wants to be seen. So anybody who lets me post their picture, I post their picture. I’d rather not be in any of these pictures.”
And there you have it: Henry Ong is the living alter-ego of an entire city, and even a culture, whose reason for being is self-promotion. Henry Ong is the shyest man in the theater, any theater, anywhere.
Stage Raw: How old are you? (silence) Henry, are you there? How old are you? (silence) Okay, how about I re-frame the question: What year were you born?
Henry Ong: We live in a very youth-oriented culture. It never bothered me before but people tend to peg you because of your age. I feel very conscious about that. When I did the CTG writers’ workshop, I thought, gosh, some of these writers could be my grandchildren. They say age is just a number, but does anybody really believe that?
Stage Raw: Okay, how about I write, “Henry Ong claims that he’s 25 years old.”
Henry Ong: That would be fine.
The Birth and Youth of the Shyest Man in the World of Theater
Henry Ong was born in Malaysia, and was educated in Singapore where his parents lived. “
I lived in Singapore as a teenager,” he explains. “I felt trapped in Singapore because I was gay, uhm, I am gay, and I felt very stifled there. My one aim was to leave Singapore, and the only way I could leave was to go to school. I applied for school in the US, got into Iowa State University. I got a scholarship, because I studied biology.”
Ong received his bachelor’s degree in biology, then returned to graduate school at Iowa State, where he received a masters degree in journalism.
“When I graduated, I figured it was either LA or New York. I decided on L.A. because of the weather.”
Stage Raw: Were you always enamored of the theater?
Ong: It was kind of slow, because when I first came to LA, I was more preoccupied with making a living. Also, I was what you would consider a closet playwright. Mainly because I didn’t have the training. I harbored an interest to write. When I was a child, I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she cried and said, “How are you going to make a living?”
Not Even His Mother’s Tears Could Stop Henry Ong from Becoming a Playwright
It wasn’t until Ong took a play writing class at UCLA Extension that he seriously considered the possibility of being a playwright, a public playwright.
“But I was insecure because I wasn’t trained to be a writer. I thought I’d write a one-person play because it might be easier. Boy, was that a mistake.”
Ong wrote a play called Madame Mao’s Memories, which he submitted to nine different theaters in Los Angeles that produced new works. He heard back from none of them. One of them included the Cast Theatre, which used to be on El Centro Avenue in Hollywood, under the artistic directorship of the now late Ted Schmitt.
“And then what happened was, I happened to be at a party, and I met Ted Schmitt. I told him I’d sent him my play. He said ‘Okay, great, I’ll take a look.’ He called me the next day and asked me if I wanted a reading, I said ‘Sure.’ I went back and looked again at the play and was horrified because it was awful. I went back to work on it.”
The Cast Theatre did stage a reading of the play, but not, as Ong points out, because of the play’s merits.
According to Ong, Schmitt later told him, “’Henry, I never read your script. The only reason I did that reading was because we had a grant to do readings of minority writers.’”
“I think the lesson there for me was you can do whatever you want to try to promote your work, the universe might have some design for you. If it was meant to be, it will happen. If not, not.”
Madame Mao’s Memories was later presented, either in workshop or as a production, at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Latchmere Theatre in London, and at TheatreWorks in Singapore. In other words, it wasn’t half as bad as Ong feared it was. In fact, it was actually pretty good.
A Playwright is Born, i.e. Looking for Real Work
In his early years in Los Angeles, Ong tried to use his journalism degree by working as an editor for a number of “throw away” papers.
“Every two years I would be out of a job, and that point I decided I wanted job security, and that’s when I started working for the city of Los Angeles, [in public relations] at the Department of Water and Power. I figure I’d pay all my bills after three months, and then I can do what I want.”
Henry Ong remained in the public relations section of the LA Department of Water and Power for 25 years.
A Theater Supporter is Born
When Ong first came to Los Angeles, even when as he was writing his “closet” plays, he had no intention of seeing other people’s plays. But then he became an Ovation Awards voter, and that changed his life.
“That was maybe six, ten years ago? Memory. I don’t remember. But I was consistently seeing theater productions, and I would see as much as I could. I just love seeing theater. I love seeing theater and I look at it as my form of education, my form of education I did not have in any drama school.
Psychic Damage from Seeing Too Much Theater in Los Angeles? Not So, Says Henry Ong
“People say, ‘Don’t you see a lot of bad plays?’ I say, ‘Yes, but I don’t look at them as bad plays, but as plays I can learn from. Nobody does theater to do bad theater. I can appreciate the effort that goes into them.’”
In a letter that playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote to his brother, the Russian master said pretty much the same thing. This is not in any way meant to reinforce Henry Ong’s ridiculous proposition that he has nothing interesting to say, but to underscore the objective truth that in the world of the literati, Henry Ong may well reside with the masters.
Henry, being his usual modest, shy self, says that though he’s been seeing theater in Los Angeles for decades, he’s not a good enough critic to observe trends. He then contradicts that assessment with the following observation: “When I first started watching plays, everything was two acts and two hours long. Now everything is 90-minutes and without intermission. I see people trying to condense things. I think playwrights are trying to be more succinct in what they’re trying to say.”
Henry Ong: Am I talking too much?
Stage Raw: This is an interview. You’re supposed to talk. It’s what’s expected.
Henry Ong: Oh, okay. . . .
So What Does Henry Ong Write About? Given His Claim That He Has Nothing Interesting to Say?
“I have no themes. I just think of something, and I say, Okay I’ll write about that. Like a play about a refugee who flees death and destruction in his homeland, and then gets killed in L.A. The irony. Lately I’ve been doing a number of adaptations. I’m a big fan of Anthony Trollope. I’ve adapted two of his novels. My play Blade of Jealousy came about not because I was seeking to adapt a Spanish-language play, but because Jon Rivera [artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena] invited me to be part of UCLA’s Golden Tongues (adaptation of Spanish-language classics) program, or I would never think of adapting a Spanish language play. I don’t speak Spanish. I was told don’t worry. You can write it from English translations. I’m always game and willing to fail.”
Henry’s Ong’s Fight with Cancer, and His Fight with Kaiser
A year ago Henry was told by his doctor at Kaiser that he had a tumor in his liver. And his doctor suggested that he have a liver transplant.
“It was a shock to me, I thought, okay, if I need it I’ll get it. Then they did a series of tests and they found I had clogged arteries that I needed a bypass. I said, okay I’ll do a bypass. Then they told me this is risky because my [blood] platelets were low. But the cardiologist told me no, you need the bypass to get the liver transplant.”
Ong found a program at UCLA Medical Center, a “heart reversal” program, an experimental, holistic treatment for clogged arteries.
“I took that program, even though Kaiser would not recognize [or pay for] the program. I did it anyway and it helped a lot. I feel much better, I feel more energized. My cholesterol level went down, and the tumor disappeared. So I think it all relates to life-style and how you eat, and exercise and meditation. So, right now, they have taken me off the liver transplant list, mainly because I can’t decide to do a liver transplant just for the sake of it. If the tumor is gone — why? They [Kaiser] said, ‘because the cancer can come back.’ I said, ‘Okay, if it comes back, I’ll worry about it then.’”
Ong says he’s read about the after-effects of a liver transplant being “not so rosy. . . You can’t go out in the sun. I had this big argument with my doctor. Right now I feel that I’m cancer free. Until it comes back, I’m going to say I’m cancer free.”
Is Henry Ong Really a Playwright? Really? A Professional Playwright?
Henry Ong has had plays presented by the Grove Theater Center (Southern California) , Queens Theatre in the Park (New York), Company of Angels (Los Angeles), Singapore Repertory Theatre, Nomad Theatre (Surrey, England), Pacific Resident Theatre (Venice California), Theatre East (Los Angeles), Center for the Arts (Eagle Rock/Los Angeles), Playwrights’ Arena (Los Angeles), and, as mentioned above, Old Globe Theatre (San Diego), the Latchmere Theatre (London), and TheatreWorks (Singapore), and countless other venues.
Many people in all corners of the world, though not Henry Ong himself, believe that Henry Ong has something to say. In the meantime, hope that you run into him at the theater. With a click from his iPhone, he could make you famous.
The Blade of Jealousy, a play adapted by Henry Ong from Tirso de Molina’s Jealous of Herself, will receive a staged reading on Monday night, August 29, 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Theatre. Suggested donation $10. Tickets here.