Modern Renaissance Man: Meet Resident Artist Phil Wong

Our Resident Artist company is one of SF Shakes’ most unique features, and we’d love for you to get to know our RA company better. The Resident Artists of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival are a core group of actors, designers, directors, and teaching artists who bring their expertise to all of our programs. They uphold SF Shakes’ artistic values and serve our mission to provide access to Shakespeare and theatre to everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, financial status, or level of education.

Today’s featured RA is Phil Wong, whom SF Shakes audiences might remember seeing as Grumio in 2014’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew, or as the Clown in our 2016 The Winter’s Tale.

Phil Wong loves seeing the moment when students realize that Shakespeare is much easier to understand than they think.

“I always write the word ‘Shakespeare’ up on the board, and have them do free association of words,” he explains. “They start throwing out words like ‘boring’ or ‘old” or ‘complicated.’ That’s when I tell them they’ve been reading Shakespeare for too long, that they should just say the words. The more you speak the words out loud, the more you can naturally infer context.”

Phil has been teaching for SF Shakes since he joined the 2014 Shakespeare on Tour production of Julius Caesar, which was his first professional acting job out of college. From there, he went on to Free Shakespeare in the Park roles in The Taming of Shrew and The Winter’s Tale. He describes the experience of Shrew as especially formative for him because of the inquisitive environment that Artistic Director Rebecca Ennals fostered in the rehearsal room: “From day one she approached the production asking, ‘This show is super sexist, so what are we going to do about it?’ It really made me think about how the classics are problematic, and we should talk about that fact.”

When not performing for us onstage, Phil has taught every program that SF Shakes offers – summer camps, playshops, residencies, Shakespeare for All, and Midnight Shakespeare in Oakland. (As an Oakland native and current Oakland resident himself, he’s always felt a particular affinity for our ongoing partnership with the Oakland Civicorps program.) SF Shakes audiences also heard his original music in Shrew, Winter’s Tale, and Shakespeare on Tour’s Twelfth Night in 2016-2017.

Phil says that working for SF Shakes so soon after he graduated from Oberlin College opened lots of doors for him artistically – he describes Free Shakespeare in the Park as “massive exposure instantly” – and he’s received audition invites and been seen on stages across the Bay Area. His non-Shakespearean appearances in recent years have included Shotgun Players’ acclaimed production of Kiss this past fall, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga at TheatreWorks, Reefer Madness at Ray of Light Theater, and Killing My Lobster’s 2017 holiday sketch comedy A Bag of Dickens, for which he received a TBA award nomination.

Yet while he may share his considerable talents across the area, Phil considers SF Shakes his “artistic home” because of the Resident Artist company. “It’s great to have a group of people you’re checking in with all the time,” he says, “and have a hand in seeing how a company like SF Shakes works, the process of producing shows. That’s valuable to me as someone who maybe one day would like to have his own company.”

For now, Phil is taking a relative break from acting to focus on other creative outlets for a short while. He has a few jobs booked in 2019, including Goodnight Gorilla at Bay Area Children’s Theatre, a Theatre for the Very Young show intended for aged six months to three years old (he calls this age range “the most receptive audience you’ll ever get”). He’s thrilled to be directing Killing My Lobster’s first show with an entirely Asian-American cast, Model Minority Report, which will explore the inherent privileges and disadvantages of being Asian-American through a dystopian lens.

Beyond those projects, Phil is occasionally performing standup comedy, trying to play a little music every day for the first time since college, and immersing himself in the improv community. He believes the latter in particular will make him a better teaching artist and performer. “I did improv in college, but I wasn’t very good at because I was trying too hard to be funny or do something clever,” he explains. “It’s less about cleverness and more about empathy and listening to people, about understanding circumstances and relationships. You have to be willing to take something unusual and explore that to its fullest extent.”

In the meantime, Phil will continue to foster “ah-ha” moments by teaching theatre to kids across the Bay Area with SF Shakes, CalShakes, and other companies in town. Keep in touch with us on Facebook and Twitter to keep track of where to see Phil next!

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