Producing Success in the London Theater

Photo credit: Simon Annand.

Kevin Shen, WG’08, during a performance of “Yellow Face.” Photo credit: Simon Annand.

Kevin Shen, WG’08, is currently producing and starring in the play Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of an off-Broadway Obie Award. I have met several Wharton alums who explored talents in theater and the arts before Wharton, and some alumni who have moved into the arts and theatre careers many years after graduation. In Kevin’s case, shortly after graduating Wharton he recognized that theater was where he was meant to be. He’s using his business acumen to capitalize on larger trends, making an impact on London’s dynamic theater scene.

Obtaining the rights to Yellow Face and producing David Henry Hwang’s first play in the U.K. in more than 20 years was no small feat.  A solid understanding of finance is critical for a producer’s success, and Kevin has developed significant expertise in the use of innovative fundraising schemes available in the U.K. that allow significant tax incentives for angel investors. He also managed to convince Hwang to fly to the U.K. for the opening week and generously arranged a Q&A discussion with the playwright, followed by some authentic Chinese cuisine, for the Penn Club of the U.K.

The Q&A with Hwang, the first Asian to have a play on Broadway and the 1988 Tony Award winner for his play M. Butterfly, gave the audience a chance to hear firsthand about his development as a playwright, as well as the business side of engaging with producers to bring his plays to life around the world. Hwang’s role in leading the protests of Jonathan Price’s casting as the Engineer in Miss Saigon (Price is Caucasian and the Engineer is Vietnamese) also had particular relevance for the U.K. Last October, the Royal Shakespeare Company came under significant criticism after casting only three actors of East Asian heritage in a play that is often referred to as the “Chinese Hamlet.”

David Henry Hwang. Photo credit: Lia Chang.

David Henry Hwang. Photo credit: Lia Chang.

After the discussion, the Penn group had the opportunity to chat over drinks and spicy Chinese food in the newly opened Park Theatre—one of the most exciting theater developments in London in recent years. Architecturally, the space was a superb place to enjoy the blazing London sun before the show.

The actual performance did not disappoint. Heralded as a “triumph” by The Guardian, Penn grads were proud and amazed to see our very own Kevin in the lead role as David Henry Hwang—particularly only hours after meeting Hwang in person and experiencing his playful and self-deprecating demeanor. Kevin pulled it off with aplomb.

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