Theatre spotlight: Philip Eng

Photo courtesy Jeff Laydon
Kenny Tran (left) as Ching Ho, and Philip Eng as Bun Foo in Thingamajig Theatre’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

By Cynda Green
Special to The PREVIEW
It seems that most young actors with the dream and grit to turn professional have their family cheering them on.
But not all.
Philip Eng, ensemble actor for Thingamajig Theatre Company’s 2018 summer repertory season, is one such actor.
What led Eng into the world of professional theater?
“Many kids start theater in elementary school. I didn’t start until I was 13. Before theater, I was a pretty boring kid. I didn’t do anything, except school, because my parents were so academically focused.”
Eng grew up in the suburbs of Westchester, N.Y. His dad is from Toy San, China, and his mom is from Hong Kong. They owned a restaurant together.
He explained, “I found theater by accident in seventh grade, when a friend invited me to see the school musical, ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ That was the first show I’d ever seen, so it’s funny that it’s playing at Thingamajig right now.
“Theater looked like fun, and I needed a way to get out of the house. So, in eighth grade, I auditioned for ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ and was cast in the ensemble.
“It was fun to rehearse and not just focus on school. I didn’t know I was going to like it so much.
“In theater I found what I had subconsciously been looking for — a supportive community that worked together towards the common goal of creating something special.”
Family.
How did Eng’s parents react?
“They asked ‘Why?’ They thought theater was a distraction and didn’t see the point,” he said. “When my parents went to school back in China and Hong Kong, there were no after-school activities.”
Eng was also on his own financially to advance his interest in musical theater.
“When I was a freshman in high school, I had to get a job to pay for my voice lessons and dance classes. It may have not been ideal at the time, but I know this benefited me in the long run because I developed a strong work ethic. I learned that you have to fight for what you want. The only thing I knew was that I truly loved performing and giving audiences something magical. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me,” he said.
Eng’s persistence led him to audition for college theater programs and, in May 2017, Eng earned his bachelor of arts in theater, with concentrations in musical theater and acting from Temple University.
Eng explained his parents have gone to one of his shows.
“They went to one show — in college. They didn’t like it,” he laughed.
There was no bitterness in his voice. Just an accounting of facts.
“It’s honestly OK. I love what I do and that’s all that matters. I’m just starting my professional career and I’m very happy with where I am right now,” he said.

Photo courtesy Brian Offidani
Thingamajig Theatre Company’s Philip Eng.

This summer is Eng’s first repertory theater experience.
He explained, “Dennis Elkins (director of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’ actor, writer and teacher) said it best when he said that rep theater is the best kind of training an actor can go through. I can say with confidence that I have learned more this summer doing rep than I did in four years of college.
“Rep requires long hours. You’re in rehearsal for all these shows at the same time. If you can handle that workload, and those hours, it makes you a better actor. It expands your mind, and your ability to learn more and pick up material faster. Switching from one show to another is great practice. You never get bored.”
For the next five to 10 years, Eng plans to continue working at regional theaters across the country.
“There are many theaters I would love to work at and, of course, revisit in my journey,” he said. “I mean, the number of actors that return to Thingamajig speaks highly of Tim Moore (artistic director) and Laura Moore (executive director). Actors get tied to this theater and to this community. The people I’ve met in Pagosa Springs have quickly become my favorite part of working here.”
What acting roles does Eng see in his future?
“As an actor of Asian descent, I sometimes still have difficulty seeing myself in certain roles, but I’m slowly starting to realize I can’t limit myself like that anymore. Working at Thingamajig and doing rep is helping me solidify this. Some examples of roles I’d love to play right now include Arpad Laszlo in ‘She Loves Me’ and Robertson Ay in ‘Mary Poppins.’ As long as the character’s race doesn’t affect the story, there’s no reason I can’t play it,” he said.
In “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Eng plays Bun Foo alongside brother Ching Ho, played by Kenny Tran. These lovable scene-stealing characters actually speak in Cantonese and sing in Mandarin and dance, thus providing some of the best comedic moments of the musical.
What does Eng have in common with his character, Bun Foo?
“Bun Foo has a goal and that’s all he can focus on,” he said. “When his brother Ching Ho gets off track and falls in love with Miss Dorothy, Bun Foo gets frustrated because they are in America to send money to their mother to come from Hong Kong.
“I don’t like to be distracted, either. Bun Foo and I sometimes take things too seriously.”
Thingamajig’s “Broadway in the Mountains” summer rep season includes “Legally Blonde the Musical,” “West Side Story,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Pinkalicious.” For show and ticket information, call 731-SHOW (7469) or visit pagosacenter.org.

This story was posted on August 18, 2018.