Tony Vo: Appreciate the Beauty of Your Own Story

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Tony and I met in 2015 when Douglas introduced me to the amazing members of the band he is a part of called, The Lobbyists! Tony and I met at the incredibly delicious Australian café, Blue Stone Lane and talked rejection, resilience, and what’s on the horizon! He recently closed The Great Leap at Atlantic Theater Company, made his TV debut on Queen Sugar on OWN,  and is currently in production at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop.

Drink of Choice: Cold Brew

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AF: We have Tony Vo on the blog! I met you in 2015.

TV: It might have been 2014!

AF: We became quick friends.

TV: It’s not hard… Annabelle’s so charming! Haha as she rolls her eyes…

AF: Well today’s already been a rollercoaster! We were supposed to meet at Maman, then it was closed, then we were going to go to Roasting Plant… it was closed. So we’ve ended up a Blue Stone Lane! Which is also great!

TV: Australian!

AF: Australian coffee is the way to go. So Tony what did you get? How is it?

TV: I got cold brew with regular ole milk… and you got cold brew with soy…

AF: What is your drink of choice usually?

TV: During the summer I usually get a nice cold brew with milk or I’ll order a cappuccino. I used to be a barista actually!

AF: Sometimes I think if you were a barista it’s a bad thing because you’re a little more of a coffee snob!

TV: It’s definitely a good and a bad thing. The good thing is that your palette becomes super aware of the different tastes. The bad thing is that you become totally addicted to coffee. I used to have about three a day!

AF: So let’s start from the very beginning. How did you get to New York City? What’s your backstory?

TV: I’m from Boulder, Colorado originally. I kind of fell into acting in a really roundabout way! The first time I did theatre I was in second grade. The University of Colorado was doing a production of South Pacific and I auditioned to play one of Emile’s kids. The creative team scouted our elementary school. I was the only Asian kid in my class and so that made it easy! It was such a cool thing I got to do after school. I did my homework while I watched people sing and dance! I remember being backstage and going on… it actually didn’t occur to me that I was performing. I did sports in high school and got into punk rock music. I learned how to play the piano because my mom made me take lessons when I was young. But then I got into playing the drums. I remember seeing this guy drumming at a talent show and thought he looked bad-ass and wanted to try it out.

AF: Are you self-taught?

TV: A lot is self-taught but I did take drum lessons for about two years. I did music, I was a wrestler, and then Junior year of high school I took a theatre class as an elective and the teacher encouraged me to audition for the upcoming show, A Christmas Carol. She said you should go to the thespian ice cream social to meet some fun people before auditioning.

AF: Networking!

TV: Networking! I just wanted to go for the ice cream! People were really nice. They convinced me to audition for the show, I got in… and was actually cast as Business Man Number 2 who talks badly about Scrooge when he dies. When I got cast I had to decide between the show and the wrestling season. At that point I was on the Varsity team and the coach was trying to groom me for the state tournament and I didn’t want to do that… I felt like it wasn’t totally me. I joined the theatre community because I got along really well with that group of people! I liked all the personalities. I liked how weird they were! I’m weird too! And that was okay! I joined choir, I auditioned for Madrigals and auditioned for their shows and our local community theater shows as well. Our high school has theatre but wasn’t super competitive. It gave me the courage to just try it out without judgment.  That’s not the case with all high schools so I know I got lucky!

AF: That’s awesome!

TV: I went to Fairview High School and their choir is insanely competitive. And then I transferred to Monarch High School my junior year… so I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for theatre if I had still been at Fairview.

AF: Crazy how things happen. So where did you go to college?

TV: I went to Ithaca College. Here’s a funny story. I went to Ithaca College and didn’t finish school. I was there for two years in their Acting program and I couldn’t afford school after sophomore year. I was applying for the Moscow Arts Program and got waitlisted. They suggested that I consider the National Theater Institute, which is another program at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Those programs are both through the O’Neill Center. You study in Connecticut and then London which sounded pretty awesome. I ended up going to NTI. But before going there, I booked my first regional theater gig, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Hangar Theatre. So that was an exciting experience going from the show, to NTI into the real world. I felt like I had these opportunities coming up and after NTI, I felt it really formed me as an artist and I felt equipped with these connections to go to New York. We had a lot guest artists and teachers who worked with us, many of whom are successful and are still working here in the city! It was like grad school, but even more intense and condensed into one semester! We had classes seven days a week with no weekends and we had classes from 8 am to 6 pm, which didn’t include rehearsals and homework. They taught us acting,  directing, playwriting, and designing.

AF: And you’ve applied all of that to your career thus far!

TV: I believe as an artist you have to learn all these other art forms because it informs who you are as a human being and that translates to all the other aspects of your craft and your life. Yeah, NTI was really informative.

AF: I think I knew that you didn’t finish school but didn’t realize you did that incredible program!

TV: I’m absolutely not bashing other schools that have cut style programs but I’ve watched a lot of my peers deal with that kind of pressure and rejection in a negative way whereas at NTI, they found the individuality of the specific actors and they nurtured that and tried to bring that out. You could be fat, skinny, tall, short and they would find a way to bring out the artist in that person and nurture that creativity. I believe in that.

AF: It’s about finding what is unique about you and not trying to fit into a certain mold the city deceives into thinking we need to be!

TV: That’s what I really like about NTI. It really shaped me into who I am.

AF: So then you move to New York… what has been a high and what has been a low?

TV: A high has been doing These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea Theatre.

AF: Everyone talks about that!

TV: It was my first show in the city. Through the NTI program they referred certain theatre companies to us and The Flea was one of them. It’s a great company for young, hungry actors to go and sharpen their teeth. They were having open auditions. One of my classmates from NTI auditioned and got in, and she was in the company before I got into the city. She recommended I check it out and so I auditioned and was cast in These Seven Sicknesses. It was a cast of thirty-four people. It was life changing. The group of people that I met through that show… many of us are still very close. Besides your husband all the Lobbyists formed out of The Flea Theater! Because of that show the band was formed because the director asked for musicians to play in the lobby to sort of warm the crowd up. So Tommy and Will, who were the music captains were like, “Let’s jam in the lobby”- because they jammed at Yale in school, and Alex was like, “I have a mandolin can I join?” and I said, “I have an egg shaker, can I join?” and thus a band was created!

AF: Also how cool we’re meeting on the day of your Lobbyists concert!

TV: So apropos!

So that was a really big high. Another high was the creation of Seawife, written by Seth Moore and directed by Liz Carlson. The Lobbyists formed out of the Flea, the show closed, and we played at a ton of dive bars and venues and decided we wanted to tell stories because on top of being musicians… we’re all actors. Alex, Tommy, and Will came up with the idea of a Nautical Ghost story because they were playing at this benefit in Sag Harbor. The Flea Theater’s producer, Carol Ostro, she has a place there and they were convinced that the place they were staying at was haunted by a Sea Captain. Alex wrote a sea captain song and that was kind of where the concept of the ghost story came about. And Seth Moore, the playwright, an actor in Seven Sicknesses as well, randomly had a radio play written about a captain at sea who was haunted by his wife.

AF: I did not know any of this!

TV: Yeah! And we were asking around and we got connected to Seth through our costume designer friend Loren and she was like, “Yeah Seth has a script… you should check it out.” And we read the script because we knew Seth, it was perfect. What’s even crazier is Seth sadly had a heart attack during Sicknesses. It was a pretty traumatic experience for him and for all of us. He was in a coma for a couple of days. Eloise (the woman of the Lobbyists!) visited him in the hospital and gave him a notebook as a get-well gift. The first pages of Seawife was written in that notebook!

AF: Woah! I just got chills all over my body!

TV: How serendipitous that it all came together like that.

AF: That’s like a rebirth with a new show. That’s amazing. Seawife was life changing for all of you. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

TV: Yeah! After Seawife closed we got nominated for two Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Lighting by Jake DeGroot because he’s freakin brilliant… and for Outstanding Music in a Musical. It was nuts! We didn’t expect much with the show but when we got nominated it really validated the group and made us realize…we must be doing something right. It was also validating because our names were next to Andrew Lloyd Weber, Sarah Bareilles, Michael John Lachiusa and Steve Martin. We were the new kids on the block! It was pretty humbling. It gave us reason to continue creating.

AF: And now you guys are working on…

TV: It’s called The Golden Spike and is about the Transcontinental Railroad. We’re working a brilliant playwright named Don Nguyen. It’s about the Chinese immigrants and Irish immigrants working to build the railroad from opposite ends of the country. It’s specifically about a character that I’m playing… he’s trying to get back into America after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Pretty timely because the Muslim travel ban has been reinstated… The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first Immigration Policy of its kind. It had banned Chinese people from getting into America and they cut off the borders. So Chinese immigrants who were already in the country working, weren’t allowed to bring their family in or return after leaving. My character is being interrogated by an immigration officer and isn’t allowed back in… it’s very prevalent since it still happening right this minute. It’s a thing that we’re really inspired by and need to talk about. There are so many relevant themes in history. In Greek tragedies and historical events, there are so many parallels. We love mining things from the past and finding a modern context for them. We love taking modern music and making it really anachronistic… that’s something we’re really inspired by. We’re in the middle of a workshop right now. It’s been quite productive!

AF: And you can pull a lot from your own parents.

TV: Absolutely. This year I’ve been very lucky to be involved in some projects that are about Vietnamese culture and working with Vietnamese artists. It’s pushed me to learn more about my own roots and learn about my family’s history. I was on the phone with my mom for about four hours and I learned about her childhood in Vietnam. We had only talked about it vaguely but I hadn’t really asked her “what was it like growing up during the Vietnam war?”

AF: Were you afraid it would bring up too many bad memories?

TV: I never asked the hard question like, “What was it like to be six and hear bombs dropping all around you?” There were so many things I didn’t know. That has inspired me as a human being to be more empathetic and to do much more mindful and politically active work.

AF: It’s amazing that you had these opportunities to dive into things you can draw from. So you just came off of Atlantic Theatre’s, The Great Leap by Lauren Yee and directed by Taibi Magar. Tell us what that was about.

TV: The Great Leap is an underdog story about a Chinese American kid named Manford, from San Francisco who is a relentless basketball player. It takes place around May and June of 1989. He weasels his way onto the University of San Francisco’s basketball team. That basketball team goes to China and plays against Beijing University. China during this time was in the throes of the Tiananmen Square protests, which was more or less about everyday civilians demanding a more democratic government. The people were inspired by western society and wanted the same freedom. At the height of the movement, there were millions of people marching and protesting all around the country. The communist party eventually silenced the movement by exerting military force and declaring martial law. The Tiananmen Square Massacre happened on June 4th, where tens of thousands of civilians (the majority of them students) were tragically killed. So the basketball game kinda symbolizes USA vs. CHINA, West vs. East, at the height of the protests.  It’s politics and family and sports all into one play. Crazy fact, opening night of The Great Leap was on June 4th.

AF: All these things are so timely that you’re a part of.

TV: Yeah it is!

AF: So what are your words to live by? What’s something that’s ringing true for you now?

TV: This was my senior quote in my high school yearbook. It’s from a play by my friend Robin Feldman, she was a playwright in high school. “Appreciate the beauty of your own story.” I’ve had a very sporadic life. I moved around a bunch as a kid, didn’t have a lot of consistent friends, and then high school is confusing, switching schools, was in sports, and then theatre, and then dropped out of college… I think those are the words of wisdom I still find truth in.

AF: That’s something we should say to ourselves every day.

TV: It’s been really applicable to a lot of things. I went through a string of eight really big auditions last year… big projects: Film, TV, and Theatre stuff. I got zero callbacks, zero yes’s. The actors I’ve worked with who are in my eyes so far ahead in their careers, they go through the same thing!

AF: It never stops being hard.

TV: It’s just a matter of what your mindset is… always onwards and upwards. Grow that thick skin. Be in touch with who you are and your craft. The amount of adversity you’ll come across in this career is endless. We can’t let it deter us! When you get a yes you’re not going to expect it and when you get a no you’re not going to expect it. You’ve just got to take it as it all comes!

AF: I love that. You’ve shared so many amazing nuggets of wisdom. You’re a very talented and inspiring human with a bright future!

TV: Thank you!

AF: Cheers! Now you can eat! Hahah.

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