Forest Hills couple to share passion project

‘The Monkey King: A Kung Fu Musical’ coming to Queens Theatre

By Jessica Meditz

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Jonathan and Kimbirdlee Fadner.

Husband and wife team Jonathan and Kimbirdlee Fadner first moved to Forest Hills from California about a decade ago to experience the buzzing musical theater scene that New York City has to offer.

After years of experience and community engagement, the duo looks forward to presenting their passion project, “The Monkey King: A Kung Fu Musical,” for the first time as a fully realized production for young audiences at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.

This performance will take place at 3 p.m. on Feb. 11 and 12; however, “The Monkey King” has been a large part of their creative lives since 2018, upon receiving a grant from Queens Council on the Arts.

“That was one of the pinnacle moments for us,” Kimbirdlee said. “At the same time, we both started working with Queens Theatre doing different things like teaching artists’ work, directing, music directing…so that led to us to start to develop ‘The Monkey King.’”

Around the same time, the couple also started working at Main Street Theatre and Dance Alliance on Roosevelt Island.

“It’s been really a wonderful, wonderful thing for us and then just growing with that community and helping that community grow,” Jonathan said.

When co-writing “The Monkey King,” the Fadners took inspiration for the main character from “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, a classic Chinese novel that dates back to the 16th century during the Ming dynasty.

Their production is unique in that it features a big twist: the Monkey King character is female, portrayed by Kimbirdlee.

As an experienced writer, composer and music director, Jonathan said this was a conscious decision as it pays homage to his wife’s Chinese heritage and opens up a window of opportunity for Asian women in theater. “The Monkey King” is also completely powered by Asian cast members.

Throughout the course of her career in musical theater, Kimbirdlee found that there were not many roles written specifically for Asian women such as herself, and wanted to take initiative and change that.

In “The Monkey King,” despite what its title suggests, the lead character is female. Co-writer Kimbirdlee Fadner will portray her.

She said that New York City is the place that allowed her to truly be herself and excel doing what she loves most: performing and entertaining various audiences.

“It’s really here where I discovered that my own Asian female self, it’s kind of a funny thing to say, but I grew up in the Midwest, not being around too much Asian culture and then moved to California where I felt that there was non-traditional casting going on,” she explained. “But it wasn’t seen through the lens of ‘Let’s actually feature the Asian female actor.’ So that’s one of the really profound things that has happened in my career since moving to New York.”

A story of girl power, anti-bullying and representation, “The Monkey King” follows a tribe of monkeys, living on a mountain, under the oppression of the Demon of Havoc.

In hopes of discovering a magical monkey that will come to save them from all their troubles and lead them to the promised land, the Monkey King shows up…and is a girl.

She tries to increase her power in the world – not just for herself, but for her tribe – and conflicts arise throughout the storyline.

“It’s so cool because never has the Monkey King appeared as a girl…ever,” Kimbirdlee said of the role.

Jonathan said that another unique aspect of the show is that since it is a kung fu musical, the choreography (set by Max Erhlich) is based around the martial art form. In addition, “The Monkey King’s” soundtrack features a mix of classical and rock musical elements.

Jonathan and Kimbirdlee thank the cast and crew for making this production possible: Steven Eng, director; I Chen Wang, projection designer; Erin Black, costume designer; Madeline Goddard, set designer; Kelly Ruth Cole, stage manager; Charlotte Fung Miller, artist; Jerry Fadner, graphic designer; Sarah Lam Chiu, Ellis Gage, Brian Jose, Charles Pang, Gage Thomas, Bella Villanueva and Annie Yamamoto – cast members.

As the parents of two young children, the Fadners understand firsthand the importance of sharing arts and culture with youth.

“The Monkey King” was actually staged as a children’s theater production at first, and being able to share that experience with young people has been incredibly powerful, Kimbirdlee said.

“One really special experience I had was teaching it as an in-school residency early on, and the ending showcase was the entire fourth grade performing a version of ‘The Monkey King’ all in unison,” she said. “We were able to teach the lessons that we were so inspired by with girl power, Asian culture, anti-bullying and just this overall empowerment, in a universal way that every child in this fourth grade could comprehend, could get excited about and then could actually perform it together.”

Taryn Sacramone, executive director of Queens Theatre, is proud to have such a great relationship with the Fadners through the dedicated work they’ve done at the institution.

She said that audiences can expect to be completely delighted and to discover an exciting, action-packed musical in a way that hasn’t been done before.

“We knew this was a passion project and that there was a gap that they saw in the world…you don’t see many of these stories with an Asian actress in the lead and taking an important folkloric tale and telling it in a new way, reaching multiple generations with it,” Sacramone said. “They had this really compelling vision, and they’re also just wonderful people and parents themselves, so they really understand young audiences and what people respond to.”

She shared that years ago, they did a reading of an earlier draft of “The Monkey King” at Queens Theatre, which was extremely well-received.

Sacramone also feels that “The Monkey King” as a production truly aligns with the mission of Queens Theatre, which is to reflect and celebrate the diversity of local communities.

The Fadners feel lucky to maintain and grow relationships within the performing arts community, including with Queens Theatre.

“I think that’s one of the beautiful lessons that we’ve learned coming to New York,” Kimbirdlee said while tearing up, “To have an organization like Queens Theatre believe in us and in our work…means so much to us.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: https://queenstheatre.org/event/the-monkey-king/, or call the box office at (718) 760-0064.

Queens Theatre launches campaign to support disabled actors

By Stephanie Meditz

[email protected]

Vincent D’Onofrio teaching (Photo: Ari Mintz)

Queens Theatre dedicated this Disability Pride Month to raising funds to advance inclusion in the performing arts.

Its annual Theatre for All Actor Training program allows Deaf and disabled actors to take classes and work with other professionals in the industry, giving them the opportunity and tools for success completely free of charge. 

Some of the many classes offered to students in the program are Acting for the Camera, Acting for the Stage, Improv, and Movement. 

The program also encourages growth with two separate tracks for beginners and working actors. 

Taryn Sacramone, executive director of Queens Theatre, sees the TFA actor training program as a rewarding experience for everyone involved. 

“Our artistic family expands every year. The students stay in touch with each other,” she said. “And it’s amazing to see them working elsewhere and building their careers or supporting each other. It’s just turned into a great alumni network in addition to the classes themselves.”

When it was launched in 2018, the program was funded by The New York Community Trust and has received funding from various supporters over the years. 

With this funding, Queens Theatre has been able to keep the program running every fall at no cost to the actors. 

“It’s important to us that we continue the program free of cost for the students,” Sacramone said. “We want to eliminate that barrier.”

This year, Emmy-nominated actor and TFA instructor Vincent D’Onofrio pledged to match the first $15,000 donated to the program. 

D’Onofrio has been involved with the program since its inception in 2018 — first as a teacher in the Theatre for All actor training program, and later as a director of the Theatre for All Short Plays. 

Sacramone, knowing that D’Onofrio was a teacher of method acting, asked him to teach a screen acting class in the program’s early days.

“He came out to the theater and was really just extraordinary,” she said. 

Students in the TFA professional training program for Deaf and disabled actors are selected through an application consisting of a resume, cover letter and interview. 

Selection is not based on experience, but applications determine a prospective student’s placement. 

Applications for this year’s program will open in the middle of August, and for the first time since the pandemic began, classes in the fall will be offered both on-site at Queens Theatre and online. 

When she first moved to New York, Sacramone was unsure about her career, but quickly learned that she wanted to run a nonprofit theater in Queens. 

She was the executive director of Astoria Performing Arts Center for eight years before joining Queens Theatre in 2013. 

Her time at APAC allowed her to learn more about people in Queens and develop strong connections with them. 

“We at Queens Theatre have a mission. It’s about serving our uniquely diverse community,” Sacramone said. “We do have a very unique community in Queens. But when people think about its diversity, they usually think of it in terms of ethnic diversity…So we started to really question whether we were being fully proactive and inclusive about reflecting and serving people with disabilities.” 

“I think that it’s important in considering diversity to remember how intersectional disability is,” she continued. “All of the various communities that a person might consider within Queens, Deaf and disabled people are part of those communities.” 

In addition to its professional training program for actors, Theatre for All includes other initiatives to make the theater a more inclusive and equitable place for creatives and audience members alike. 

“If you’re not intentional about being inclusive of Deaf and disabled people, then you’re falling short of serving all,” Sacramone said. “So we named our program ‘Theatre for All’ to make that point.” 

Queens Theatre has taken steps to work with disabled playwrights and give them a platform to tell their stories. 

When the Queens Theatre team recruited short plays by disabled playwrights or featuring disabled characters, it received more than 160 submissions. 

In November 2018, Queens Theatre presented readings of 10 of those short plays. This year, some of them were published by Next Stage Press. 

Queens Theatre also has a Theatre for All Children program in partnership with Queens public schools, including District 75 schools. 

In addition, the theater itself now includes ASL interpretations, audio descriptions and relaxed performances to ensure that it is a sacred space for everyone. 

“We’re looking at it very holistically,” Sacramone said. “We want to know who the performers are, we wanna know what roles there are for them, we also wanna make sure that our theater is fully accessible and inclusive…Everyone starts as an audience member.” 

In the coming year, Queens Theatre looks forward to continuing The Lark’s fellowship program to support disabled playwrights. 

Queens Theatre also hopes to develop international partners when its Director of New Play Development, Rob Urbinati, travels to Japan in the fall to teach a playwriting course and direct short plays for a festival. 

“We want more roles created for actors with disabilities, but we also wanted to really show people that there’s a robust pipeline of talented Deaf and disabled artists out there who just haven’t had opportunities yet,” Sacramone said. 

To donate to Queens Theatre’s campaign for its Theatre for All Actor Training program, visit https://secure.givelively.org/donate/queens-theatre-in-the-park-inc/theatre-for-all-matching-grant-campaign

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