October 01, 1998
How Far Can Loh Go?:
by Rob Kendt
When I first met Sandra Tsing Loh in the spring of 1987, she was working as a teaching assistant in a "thematic option" program for exceptionally bright underclassmen at USC while she toiled at her own Ph.D. in English. Her reputation had spread as the kind of cool young T.A. who semi-fraternized with the students, and who had them do things like mount performance art pieces as their midterms.
I wasn't part of that special program for geniuses but counted a few among my friends, and thus happened to swing an invite to a term's-end soiree at Loh's Pasadena apartment. I remember little about the party except how maddeningly brilliant everyone was, not least my hostess, who, I was informed, was a kind of L.A. Renaissance woman—a writer and journalist who happened to have a degree in physics from CalTech, who wrote quirky neo-classical music (like a suite to be played on your tape deck as you drove through a Valley car wash), and who apparently dished up a unique performance art salad of all of the above at local clubs and theatres.
I've been a bit nonplussed by Loh's extraordinary and inspiring success since then. It's not the number of times she has turned up in the last decade that has given me pause, but where she's turned up—as the performer of such meta-cabarets as ShipOOpeE, a deconstruction of the American musical; as the writer of the column "The Valley" in the late Buzz magazine, later culled into the definitive comic classic Depth Takes a Holiday; as the humorous, often manic narrator of "The Loh Life" on National Public Radio, and as the one-woman writer/performer of such shows as Aliens in America, about her German mother and her Chinese father, which played Off-Broadway and at various Southland theatres.
Loh's success as a humorist and personality has reached a point, she admitted in a recent interview at Greenblatt's Deli, that she is at last finding ways to do all the things she set out to do years ago, when, she said, "I was trying to do everything." She was by turns a playwright, a fiction writer, a composer, and a performance artist. Now, in addition to writing and recording her NPR pieces, she finds an outlet for her music by scoring documentaries; in addition to her book of essays, she published a novel, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home by Now, in 1995, and she's currently developing a network sitcom about modern dating, a pet subject about which she's written with hilarious, often harrowing frankness and perception.
And she's opening this weekend in Bad Sex With Bud Kemp at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood, a one-woman exploration of desperate singlehood (well behind her—she's happily married) directed by L.A. theatre maestro David Schweizer after its successful Off-Broadway run.
"You imagine a certain career ladder, but it's never going to be that ladder," she said, looking back on her dual if dovetailing careers as a performer and a writer. "You never know where the rungs are going to be."
Indeed, in the 1980s, around the time she was at USC, she was working to be a playwright and a famous fiction writer a la Tama Janowitz or Bret Easton Ellis. But then came the music/performance art career, which led to such memorable stunts as playing a grand piano on a flatbed truck in rush hour traffic on the Harbor Freeway, or leading a 35-piece orchestra to accompany a grunion run in Malibu.
Loh's solo cabaret and theatre shows, meanwhile, took a page from her advanced English studies to "deconstruct" everything from Broadway musicals to Stravinsky. "It was a Victor Borge act," Loh said. Soon she found herself talking onstage between pieces more and more—a performance exigency which coincided with her revelation that the arts-grant gravy in early '90s L.A. was flowing to "multicultural" theatre, especially autobiographical one-person shows.
Thus was another solo performer born—though not without some cultural correction.
"Here I was doing these Eurocentric drag shows about Oklahoma! and The Rite of Spring," she said. "I couldn't get a grant from an Asian theatre festival or from a women's theatre festival; it was not standup comedy, it wasn't music. I could not have fallen through more cracks.
"Finally, Dan Kwong invited me to be part of an Asian theatre festival at Highways. I was working really hard at orchestrating my own pieces, practicing the piano—and seeing a lot of autobiographical one-person shows about people's multicultural backgrounds. Now, I was also a short story writer, and I had all these stories about my Chinese father, and I thought, Well, I could get up and tell something like that, and I wouldn't have to kill myself practicing the piano."
Aliens in America and My Father's Chinese Wives were two pieces that came of Loh's "multicultural" period and boosted her profile in the "bastardized form" of solo theatre, in which she admitted the long-term success stories tend to be artists like Spalding Gray, Danny Hoch, John Leguizamo, Holly Hughes, or Rick Reynolds, who have developed a "sort of cult of personality," as well as the requisite sense of narrative structure and such indispensible tricks as "fake intimacy"—faux-confidential lead-ins like, "OK, I'll tell you this terrible secret, but just this one."
Meanwhile, a career in freelance journalism that began with music reviews in L.A. Weekly landed her at the L.A. magazine Buzz, where she wrote her beloved monthly column on her "schlubby" life of creative struggle and inconspicuous consumption in the far San Fernando Valley.
From her current semi-famous vantage point, she can look back happily on the scrappy climb that has spanned the years since she was encouraging young fellow geniuses at USC and now.
"In the guerrilla campaign to be an artist, you take any form that comes along," she said in summation. "I had to narrow what I do into a genre to get my foot in the door. Now..." The possibilities, if not endless, have multiplied. "I'm just amazed that I have a roof over my head, and I don't have to pay to make creative work."