Saturday, April 24, 2010

Erin Quill and The Mikado Project

Erin Quill is a 5 foot 2 firecracker with attitude, both on and off stage. She was part of the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q, and as Madame Rita Liang in the 50th Anniversary production of Flower Drum Song, was called “a real chutzpah generator,” and “a one-woman wisecrack machine.”

This weekend she stars in The Mikado Project, an indie film that debuts at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, alongside Tamlyn Tomita, Yuri Tag, Ray Lee, David Lee McInnis, Allen Liu, Ryun Yu, Gerald McCulloh, Rizwan Manji and Freda Foh Shen. Quill is also credited as a writer on the film, which is adapted and directed by Chil Kong. Recently, I had the chance to ask Erin about the film and what it’s like balancing her crazy career in the entertainment industry.

Anytime I hear about a film that involves theatre, I’m interested. What kind of a story will audiences see when the film opens this weekend?
The Mikado Project is about a struggling theater company that loses its star to a TV show and is now scrambling to put up “something”, “ANYTHING” rather than lose their last shot at the grant that funds their theater. That “Angry Buddha” is an Asian American company who usually does ‘protest’ theater makes the artistic director’s decision to do the Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado, seem even bigger than the normal decision to put up a show. The company is very conflicted, and let’s face it, comedy is conflict.

Why do you think it will resonate with audiences?
Well everyone loves a ‘fish out of water’ story, and nothing could be more fish out of water than Asian Americans doing The Mikado. I think anyone that loves the underdog and the anticipation of ‘is it gonna happen’ will have a great time. And, we’ve got some amazing hip-hop choreography that made us way cooler than we are. I’m so hip now I can’t stand myself.

What was it like pulling double duty as both a writer and actor on the film?
I remember being tired but also energized. It’s an amazing feeling to write a joke on a page and watch it play out in front of you. Also, to memorize your own lines, when you’re involved in the lines for everyone present can be tricky. But in the end, you just do it. That’s what indie film is all about. You do it for the love of it, and you do it because you believe in it. And you do it because they feed you a lot of coffee. Outrageous amounts. You could bathe in it.

The Mikado Project was first produced by Lodestone Theatre Company as a theatrical production before being turned into a film. How did it make its transition?
The musical was directed by Chil Kong, who was one of the co-artistic directors at Lodestone. It received some really amazing reviews from the LA press, and audiences just kept coming in the door - which is very hard to do with Asian American theater. As we say in both the stage play and in the screenplay “Asian people don’t buy theater tickets”. So, full houses were a huge boost to the artistic staff and cast.When Chil decided to transition into directing film, he felt that his first piece should pay tribute to where he had come from so he chose The Mikado Project. But first he had to get the rights from the playwrights, Doris Baizley & Ken Narasaki, and he had to get the funding.

How did you become a writer on the film?
We began collaborating on the screenplay probably because I had been in the play - it was easier to work with me on it. We took a long look at what could stay from the original medium and what had to be changed to make it more accessible as a movie. The story definitely evolved - it became, not just about a theater company in turmoil, but about the people in the company and how they all change through this process.I have to thank Chil Kong for allowing me so much opportunity to explore writing and the thrill of seeing it get produced. It’s a remarkable feeling. He’s a rock star.

How did the rest of your cast come together?
When casting rolled around, we were just really lucky. Chil had always wanted to work with Tamlyn Tomita, and luckily she felt the same way. The story changed a little to reflect her grace and her elegance. Yuri Tag (America’s Best Dance Crew Kabba Modern) came in and then our ‘youngest’ rising star became more of a hip hop dancer.We had Raymond J. Lee from the Broadway company of Mamma Mia, and that was huge because the character of Teddy had to convincingly sing, dance, and act. Ryun Yu is hilarious, and brought a whole new level of paranoia and charm to the character of Ben. Rizwan Manji (Better Off Ted) plays the Tech guy Sam - a new character. Gerald McCulloch (CSI) also plays a new character named Dennis, who is the Music Director and the moral compass. David Lee McInnis (Typhoon) is our TV Star, Jace Kanzaki, a role he was born to do, and finally Allen C. Liu reprises his role from the stage production as Artistic Director, Lance Liu, who is just trying to hold it all together.

What kind of a rehearsal process did you have on the film?
I remember Ray and I drove people crazy because we can literally do annoying musical theater quotes and choreography at the drop of a hat. ENDLESSLY. One time, Tamlyn turned around and we were FULL OUT doing some ‘chores from Dreamgirls and she just stopped and said, “Music theatre people really ARE different”. I believe I was not ‘best quality crab’ that day. If there had been a vote, Ray and I and our musicals would have been voted off the island.

You have quite a musical theatre background. Do you have favorites and what is life like after Avenue Q?
After “Q”? Hmmm, I’m grateful that I was a part of an original Broadway company - that was something I always dreamed of since I was a kid. I was able to play one of the parts I most wanted to play, Madame Rita Liang, in Flower Drum Song. That was very cool - particularly because Nancy Kwan came to the show. She was in the movie and I remember how charged Emily Hsu (Linda Low) and I were that we had grown up on the movie and there was the quintessential Linda Low. And I got to share the stage and my life with Alvin Ing, who has done MORE productions of FDS than ANYONE...EVER! What a hero of mine!Another favorite was a reading I did of Honeymoon in Vegas by Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman. They wrote an original song for the character I played and I was completely honored to have been the first to sing it. It’s a good memory.

The last musical I did was Maltby and Shire’s Closer Than Ever and that was very profound. Definitely takes you to dark places that not a lot of pieces go to, and when you are singing “Life Story” several times a week, after your friend who was the choreographer (RedRunningbear Savage), passes away unexpectedly, it makes you very grateful for the borrowed time you have with everyone

What would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I sing Irish music - I worked with Tate Donovan on Damages recently and it turns out he plays the Irish fiddle. Who knew? I toured for three years around St. Patrick’s Day, doing traditional Irish music with some fairly well known Irish musicians, and that was hilarious. That will be a screenplay eventually.

Any final thoughts?
Right now, I just wish everyone would stop shouting at one another in this country. We ask our pre-schoolers to behave better than our politicians. I feel like I’m at a pageant, but really, let’s just all wish for world peace and organic food and better makeup for HD, because really, HD is kind of terrifying as you get older.

Maybe if we all ended our days like the Waltons did (G’night John Boy) we’d be kinder to one another, although maybe if your neighbor started yelling goodnight to you it might be terrifying, I don’t know. We need something though. Maybe just a song from Kristin Chenoweth.

The Mikado Project Saturday, May 1st at 9:30 pm
Directors Guild of America: Theater 1
7920 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90046


For more information about The Mikado Project and to view the trailer, go to
For more about Erin visit her website at

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