Kristina Wong On Winning A Life-Changing Award and Our Hearts
Kristina Wong is a performer who is so captivating, you simply can’t take your eyes off of her. A performance artist whose work spans the globe, her latest project Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord tells the true story of going from unemployed artist in the early days of the pandemic to leader of an “Auntie Sewing Squad” as she refers to it. Using her Hello Kitty sewing machine and any materials she could find, Wong assembled a crew of hundreds of volunteers around the country to do all they could from their homes to make masks and protective gear in a time of crisis. After a celebrated run at New York Theatre Workshop in 2021, Wong has toured the show and is finally bringing it to her home state of California at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
Wong was also recently named as one of this year's recipients of the Doris Duke Artists Awards, a program that supports individuals with unrestricted grants to help further their creativity and take risks within their work. The award comes with a grant of $550,000, the nation’s largest award for individual performing artists.
I recently caught up with Wong via Zoom from her dressing room at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to chat about the significance of this award to her career, playing Wordle everyday (yes, still), and finally bringing Sweatshop Overlord home.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Theatrely: Well to start off, you are now a Pulitzer Prize finalist! How has that changed your view on the arts over the past few months?
Wong: It's just so incredibly validating. You know, I applied as a joke six years ago and I never thought this would ever happen. When I look at the names that get Pulitzers, they're fancy people, not like crazy lady running around her apartment! Two years before this moment, I was cutting up bra straps to make masks — this is the last thing I had expected.
I guess what feels so significant about the Pulitzer is it's part of American history. It feels really powerful to actually be a part of our history and culture. I'm not just this token thing that they had to book so that the venue is not accused of being racist. It feels really significant to be acknowledged for my craft.
After your run here in New York, you have since performed Sweatshop Overlord at La Jolla Playhouse and at Portland Center Stage. Can you tell a difference when performing the show in different cities?
It’s been so interesting. I had to join Equity for the first time for this! I've never performed my shows in an Equity situation and lately I’ve been introduced to the phenomenon that is subscriber audiences and their base. It doesn't look like my audiences of the past. New York's audience was much more diverse, though even there it was still a much older audience base that I'm not used to performing for. La Jolla is near a military base and tends to lean a little more conservative. They enjoyed the show, overall, but there were certainly moments that I could clock.
And you are now taking your show back home to Los Angeles. What does it mean to be performing on your home turf?
It just means so much. The show was birthed here in Los Angeles. I grew up in San Francisco but I really learned to be an artist here. I couldn't afford graduate school or fancy acting programs so I just watched a lot of stuff and was really interested in the community based programming. I feel like I've come to this sort of creative womb that birthed me.
This is where the Auntie Sewing Squad started and we have a huge base of aunties here in town so that feels very meaningful. We lost an auntie in the pandemic and her husband will be flying in to see the show. It is such an awesome community out here and I'm so happy I can come home.
Has the show changed at all over the few years you have been performing it?
There's a few lines at the end that I added in. I caught COVID last year and a lot of the aunties caught COVID and then the whole world just kept changing. So I went in and added an epilogue to tie it together.
I just have to say congratulations on the Doris Duke Artist Award. What an incredible achievement. What was your reaction when you found out you were selected to be a recipient this year?
I was just screaming. Like profanities and then laughing simultaneously. And I was just also like, this can't be!
I was just so stunned. I realized that there was going to be a future. I have so many little side hustles to let me do what I do. I am always just hustling to try to keep myself alive and I do feel like the work sometimes suffers because of it. And it was just this moment where I realized I can take a breath and focus on the communities I care so much about. There is now this incredible safety net that just appeared where there's never been one before. You know, my life may end up covered in cat hair and someone won’t find my body until five days later but at least maybe I will have some support and I am so grateful!
One thing I admire about you as a theatre artist is that you are not afraid to take risks in your work—and that clearly shines through in your performances. This honor includes an incredibly large grant to help foster new levels of creativity. How is this award going to help you with all of your future creative works?
With this award comes the ability to hope and to dream and to imagine. I am grateful to all my peers who were part of that nominating process and I can’t wait to get back to the work.
You are joining a very distinguished list of alumni of this award - what does it mean to be in their company?
I am just so speechless. I felt like that with the Pulitzer. I think that's Thornton Wilder's name, and then you scroll up and there's my name. It’s so surreal. And also it gives me a sort of sense of responsibility. With this confidence and this trust, I feel like I can help move the culture forward and really think about what culture and art and theatre can be.
The most important question I have for you. I see on Twitter you still play Wordle every day. Do you start with the same word or do you switch it up?
I have been so busy I have missed the past few days. I try to actually look around around the room or think of a five letter word in my life or in that moment. Or you know, sometimes I just do something so filthy and one of these days it will be that!
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord is now in performance at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles. For tickets and more information, visit here. And for more information on the Doris Duke Foundation, visit here.