ALAMEDA -- There's no doubt the Bay Area's vibrant musical theater scene has been red hot for years. But with skyrocketing housing prices in San Francisco and tough commutes from the Tri-Valley, a certain gravitational talent pull is leading playwrights and composers -- especially fast-moving, up-and-comers -- to land in Alameda.
Recently, the Island gained a Danville transplant: 31-year-old Min Khang. With a Bay Area Children's Theatre Company (BACT) production of "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" in full swing through March 16 at the Osher Studio, 2055 Center St., Berkeley, and an increasing presence on regional theater stages, Khang said his new home's location offers unbeatable convenience.
"Being in Alameda is affordable and lovely," he said. "It's close to my theater work. The charm of the neighborhood is that everything is in walking distance, with local markets that have that mom-and-pop shop feel."
Growing up in Danville, Khang's father was a small business operator, consecutively owning a restaurant, liquor store, and video outlet. His mother cooked traditional meals from their Korean homeland. Along with his two older sisters, Khang lived in two distinct worlds: "school was one world, home another," he said.
Korean language and food at home meant English and roast ham were uncommon. An Asian church provided community, but Khang suggested a division existed between his parents' ideas of a good future -- to become an accountant, lawyer, doctor -- and his own.
"There were high standards about getting good grades, although my parents weren't stern. I felt the pressure internally," he said. "I was making songs, drawing, writing. My creative side wasn't celebrated. It wasn't a viable option or wise career choice."
Khang attended UC Berkeley and recalled his decision to major in music and rhetoric as "a wrestling point" with his practical-minded father.
So when BACT Artistic Director Nina Meehan came to him with three ideas for a new play, one option sprang to the forefront.
"Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" is a musical adaptation of Grace Lin's Newbery Honor Book children's book. Inspired by Chinese folk tales and the New York Times bestselling author's own vivid imagination, the book tells the story of Minli, a young girl who longs to bring good fortune to her hard-working parents. Alternately willful and wonderful, Minli is not unlike Khang: a young person willing to attempt "the impossible."
"When I first read the book, I thought 'No way can this be a play,'" Khang said. "But the rich story and the message resonated."
Through a series of collaborative experiences he called "intense," Khang fleshed out a musical theater rendition. An actors' workshop eliminated a big, Broadway-belter type song that he loved, but realized wasn't serving the show. A fortuitous find -- erhu virtuoso Brian Chow -- enabled him to compose a soundscape using the traditional two-stringed Chinese violin (an erhu) and piano.
Director Mina Morita and dramaturg Oona Hatton "dug into the script" with the playwright and he said they "never allowed each other to be sloppy." Final editing added clarifications and careful plot clues after an invited audience provided feedback.
Magic and music are woven throughout the show from shadow puppets to drum-playing cast members to climactic moments, which, if not Broadway, are all the more grand for their connection to ancient, mythical China.
"My hope, when I wrote this show, was to provide Asian kids with proof you can create a career in the arts," Khang said. "Having grown up in a family environment where that wasn't an option, I hope kids will be inspired to make a similar choice if that is their calling."
And with the circularity of a well-crafted folk tale, Khang's aspirations and two recent awards have angled his career path closer to his parents' ideals. A 2013 ATLAS for Playwrights experience taught him business skills for achieving his long-term mission to become "a known musical theater composer and playwright."
A 2014 Theatre Bay Area Titan Playwright Award provided a $1,000 prize and a yearlong mentorship with an arts professional. Khang will use the funds to attend a festival in New York and work with TheatreWorks Associate Artistic Director Leslie Martinson.
In the meantime, Khang will hit the road, traveling between Berkeley, Alameda and Pleasanton. He'll appear onstage in Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre's production, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," which opens March 1.