Chil Kong has come a long way from the 8-year-old boy who arrived in the U.S. from South Korea in 1976 and grew up in a trailer park in Woodbridge, Virginia. The son of a father who was a machinist and a mother who worked as a janitor, he graduated from Virginia Tech in 1991 and was awarded a full scholarship to study musical theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in Boston. He went on to direct theater productions in Boston, San Diego and Seattle (and serve as an artistic director in Boston and Seattle) before co-founding the Lodestone Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles in 1999. When the theater company closed 10 years later, he stayed in L.A. and directed two feature films, three television pilots and several short films.
Last August, he became the artistic director of Adventure Theatre MTC, which was founded in 1951 and has been a fixture of Glen Echo Park since 1971. Eight months into his new post, when the coronavirus forced local theaters to abruptly shut their doors, Kong took Adventure Theatre online, streaming weekly live play readings and other events on Facebook. We caught up with Kong at the theater’s headquarters before the pandemic—and again by phone in May—to ask him about growing up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and what’s in store for the area’s longest-running children’s theater company.
You grew up about an hour south of the Bethesda area. What was that like?
I was a Southern boy, including the twang. I’m a fairly tall Asian. I think I broke a lot of stereotypes because of the way I talked, and physically I was different from what people expected an Asian man to be. Woodbridge back then was a very black and white community, and both communities didn’t know where to place me.
Your parents brought you and your two younger sisters to the U.S. to give you all a better life. They were blue-collar, but they wanted you three to become doctors or lawyers or accountants. How did you end up in theater?
I got to high school and said, ‘Where are all the girls?’ and saw that a lot of girls were in choir, and choir was a thing that seemed like fun. Choir got me to a place where I was able to vocally express things that I wasn’t able to say. That started my slippery slope into the arts.
What was your first professional directing experience?
It was in Boston at the Chinese Cultural Institute, which is no longer there. My first show was in 1995. It was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—Tennessee Williams—and I didn’t get the production rights because I didn’t know I needed to do that. I was super young. A lawyer representing the estate of Tennessee Williams came to the show—apparently to shut it down. But he liked the show so much that they let me run it for, like, three weeks. I was really lucky.
When did your parents get comfortable with your career choice?
It wasn’t until I was [an] artistic director in Seattle. It was 1998. There was some big announcement in the Chosun Ilbo [the major South Korean daily newspaper] because I was the first Korean American artistic director at the time. I sent a copy to my parents—not thinking about how important it was—and my parents finally understood what I was doing. That was the turning point for them—seeing it in their language.
What drew you to children’s theater?
I had been creating musicals that my son couldn’t see—too much violence or death or bad language. At the same time, I was tired of taking my son to children’s shows that I couldn’t enjoy. I wanted to be part of a company that allows me to share a collective experience with my son, my family, and see stories that all of us can enjoy.
You’d like to produce more shows based on original stories and to work with more local writers. Any other changes in store?
I want for Adventure—as a theater company—to be more multigenerational as opposed to being purely focused on the kids. I was fortunate in that I saw a lot of amazing family theater in Seattle, and I saw a lot of possibilities of how theater can inspire not just children but also their parents and grandparents, sort of the Pixar model.
Any upcoming projects you can share?
We’re developing a musical right now about a math monster—a metaphor for why girls don’t generally like math—and it’s a really fun piece that’s being developed by two local women about how you can overcome whatever issues you have. We’re about two years away from producing that.
What do you love most about Adventure Theatre?
I love that at Adventure, the kids get to influence the way the actors onstage tell the story, because [the kids] are reacting with visceral laughs and it’s contained within the storytelling. We are a funnel for all the theater in the D.C. area. If children don’t see theater before a certain age, they don’t go to the theater as adults. So if I want to preserve this craft, I have to make sure I’m taking care of the audience here and showing them really great stories.
In mid-March 2020, theaters across the region were ordered to close. What happened next?
We were doing The Snowy Day and it was tracking to be our highest-grossing show in a while. We had to stop in the middle of the run and cancel our next show, Lyle the Crocodile. Interestingly, the theme of Lyle is how to deal with something strange happening in your life. Anyway, we were able to start immediately producing two hours a week of live, online theater and making it available to everyone for free. My experience in TV and film helped us ramp up quickly. We were trying to take the proactive approach of giving moments of joy to people until they can go to the theater in person again.
What’s been the reaction to the online content?
The viewership has been really strong. And we can see kids commenting and clapping throughout the performance—lots of hug and love emojis.
You have a wife and 8-year-old son. Have they been with you throughout the COVID pandemic?
No, we have a place in New York City and my wife and son are there. I was planning to go up near the end of March, but there were emergencies here I had to address and then New York issued its shelter-in-place order. My wife and son are fine, but I’m here with my parents at their home in Woodbridge. My room in their house looks like the control deck on the Star Trek Enterprise, with my five monitors and all my production equipment.
Any plans for your wife and son to relocate closer to Adventure Theatre?
I’ve been looking for places in Rockville. Everything I want for my future is here. We’ll keep our place in New York, though. My wife [Erin Quill] is a Broadway performer—her career is just as important as mine.