By DAVID LYMAN
Eric Ting’s resume is impressive. Like, really impressive. That’s probably not a shock. You don’t expect the newest associate artist at the Playhouse in the Park to be a slacker.
At a youthful 43, Ting still has the hallmarks of an over-achieving whiz kid. He’s directed all over the world, from Chicago to New York, from Singapore to the Czech Republic. He spent eight years as associate artistic director of New Haven’s venerable Long Wharf Theatre. He won a 2013 Obie award for directing “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation…” Then, in November, he became artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater.
That doesn’t even include his work as a painter. Or as a puppeteer. Or studying Balinese Topeng. Or the time the The New Yorker referred to him as “a magician.”
But as I read article after article about Ting, each one breathlessly recounting his accomplishments – as I just did – it dawned on me that something was missing. The most interesting part, really. No one talks about what a nice guy Eric Ting is. He’s approachable and observant and quick to laugh. He’s a good listener, too. And he’s incredibly smart, but never in a way that makes you wish you’d studied harder in school.
He is one of those guys everyone seems to like being around. You know how it is. The room is a better place when he walks into it.
Playhouse artistic director Blake Robison is a fan. He met Ting in Knoxville in 2000. Robison was the incoming head of the University of Tennessee’s theater department and artistic director of the university’s professional affiliate, the Clarence Brown Theatre. Ting was a graduate student.
“He was at the very early stage in his career,” says Robison. “He was just dabbling in directing at that point, but right away, he made a strong impression on me.”
Blake found Ting’s overwhelming curiosity appealing.
“In an actor-training program full of people who wanted to move to New York or Los Angeles, Eric wanted to go to Bali and study puppetry and mask-making,” recalls Robison. “That made him even more interesting to me. I think he is one of the most creative and inquisitive theater artists that I know. And I know a lot of them.”
That Ting was involved in theater at all was more of a long shot then Robison could have realized.
Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, Ting didn’t see his first play until he was already a student at West Virginia University.
“I was a late bloomer in many ways,” says Ting. “I killed two birds with one stone. I went to see my first play with my first crush.”
That play, incidentally, was “Annie.”
Now, to most theater world intelligentsia, the very mention of “Annie” is an occasion for snickering. Or maybe a self-important snort. After all, it’s a musical. A populist one, at that. How could someone – especially someone like Ting – take it seriously? But Ting, who has become known as a champion of new plays, will hear none of it.
“It was great,” he insists. “I’m really happy that was my first encounter. I thought it was amazing.”
Soon, he added “Cats” and “Oklahoma” to the list of shows he’d seen. He was entranced.
“I never thought I could be a part of anything like that.”
Before long, though, he was majoring in theater. (He had been studying biochemistry, incidentally, leading the way for his younger sister, Tracy, now a pediatric rheumatologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.)
When it came time to add a few extra credits, he signed up for a class in puppetry. As he had been with theater, he was captivated with modern-day puppetry. It was edgy and extraordinarily visual and, at its best, every bit as challenging as theater.
And, in much the same way that “Cats” had connected with him, he found that puppets had a profound impact on audiences.
It’s a theme you hear over and over in conversation with Ting. For all of his East Coast-A-list-experimental-sounding theater credits, Ting wants to make theater that connects with real live people. This is not for art’s sake we’re talking about. We’re talking about art that moves people.
“I was – and still am – struck by the humanism of theater,” says Ting. “The community of it, the liveness of it. I loved – and still love – the collaborative core of it. For me, it was in many ways like true love. You were just transformed by your first contacts with it. You couldn’t imagine living without it.”
Ting was announced as the newest Playhouse associate artist back in December 2014, joining a team that already included Timothy Douglas, Michael Evan Haney and KJ Sanchez.
Like the others, Ting will spend a limited amount of time in Cincinnati. He’ll spend most of his time in the Bay Area, along with his wife Meiyin Wang (co-director of the Under the Radar Festival at New York’s Public Theater), their infant daughter Frankie and dog Henry, “a poodle terrier mutt that we saved from a shelter.”
He will be in Cincinnati to direct at least one show a season. Just as important, he’ll be another set of eyes and ears, helping the Playhouse discover the works of the new generation of playwrights that is developing all over the country.
“It’s a fascinating model,” says Ting. “Theater should never be an insular experience. We all talk about the cocoon of the rehearsal hall. But even as we’re looking inwards, we have to be looking outwards. It’s difficult because the nature of the art form is that you spend all this time in a room with something that you’re eventually going to present to the world.”
That’s his challenge with his first directorial effort at the Playhouse. “To Kill a Mockingbird” opens in the Marx Theatre on March 10, with previews beginning March 5. But this won’t be your run-of-the-mill production, with a clapboard house and the dusty, forlorn world of Maycomb, Alabama.
The first sign we’ll get of that is when the play’s narrator, Jean Louise – alter ego of author Harper Lee – starts speaking. Usually, the role is played by a woman in her mid-20s, roughly Lee’s age when she wrote the novel.
“But we cast Dale Hodges in the role,” says Ting, referring to the revered Cincinnati actress who is well into her 70s. “We wondered what would it be like if she were looking at this memory play not through the eyes of a woman in her 20s, but through the eyes of a woman at the end of her life. What would it be like if she were a person not remembering the story in the 1950s, but having experienced all of the events that have transpired all the way to today?”
And instead of a rich and intricate set, you’ll see more of a barebones “Our Town” approach.
“Thornton Wilder wrote ‘Our Town’ around the time ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is set,” says Ting, “so it’s not completely inappropriate. What we want to do is strip away all the traditional trappings of theater and get at the human beings onstage.”
It’s a concept Robison has come to embrace, too.
“It starts with the basic understanding that film and theater are two different things,” says Robison. “If we try to put the film onstage and re-create what everybody has come to know and love, we can’t beat Gregory Peck. We can’t beat the beautiful cinematography. It would be a mistake to try to do that. Once you’ve made that decision, you move on to figure out how can we bring this story to life in a uniquely theatrical setting. And that led to this ‘Our Town’ approach to the storytelling.”
Robison knows some people will miss a more traditional physical approach. But he’s enthusiastic about Ting’s concept. And in the end, it reinforces all the reasons he wanted to bring Ting to the Playhouse.
“I think he’s a great example to any young person that you can forge your own path in this business,” says Robison, sounding more fatherly than a man who is just six years older than Ting. “He’s someone who has stuck to his vision and to his principles. Rather than compromise those, the industry has come around to believing in him. And I think the ultimate beneficiaries of that are audience members. You’ll see.”