Perhaps you’re an alumnus of The Greenhouse and have participated in one of the Creative Lab courses or the Writers Group. This could even be your first time checking out the nonprofit organization which equips artists to create quality projects that enhance both local and global culture. Either way, it’s important to know the people behind The Greenhouse, starting with its president and creative director. Besides his role at the organization, Shun Lee Fong is also an actor, writer and producer, as well as a former trial attorney. The multi-hyphenate leader took time out from his work maintaining current programs and orchestrating exciting next steps for the organization to answer some questions about himself, as well as The Greenhouse. Keep reading for more on the man behind the organization, as well as a bit of its “origin story.”
What led you to transition your career from law to the arts?
Well, that’s a very long story. To make it short, though, I had practiced law for five years and was at a very nice firm in Omaha, Nebraska, practicing intellectual property, corporate transactions, media, entertainment and other areas of law that surround those topics. But I realized that the creative side of me wasn’t being nurtured or being given the opportunity to create. After a lot of time in prayer and talking with mentors and people I trusted, I recognized that the next season for my career needed to feed that creative side. I already had a talent agent in Omaha who was sending me out, and I had seen some really good success as an actor there. If you think about it, both a trial attorney and an actor stand up in front of a group of people to try to tell a story that convinces them on both an emotional and rational level. There are some different skills involved with acting, but it didn’t feel like a huge leap for me to go from being a lawyer to being an actor. So with all that in mind, I closed up my law practice at the firm and moved out to Los Angeles.
What is the origin story of The Greenhouse?
The Greenhouse started as a small community of artists. It was a mix of actors, writers, producers, musicians, etc. There’s something really important about the collaborative community with how it feeds creativity, but many artists lead very solitary lives. So I pulled together a handful of industry friends to get together weekly and just talk about what it means to be an effective creative artist in the entertainment industry. We came together to discuss what that looked like and the elements that went into it. We explored the idea that being an artist is a holistic practice. It’s not just the creative or the business side of things. There are also all the other aspects—relational, emotional, spiritual and more. We want health in all the areas of life, and that actually informs our creativity and makes us better artists at the end of the day. When we started, I said to the handful of people who were doing this with me, “If there’s anyone else who wants to be a part of this process or someone you feel needs to be a part of this discussion, invite them.” Since then, we quickly outgrew the building we were meeting in and have had approximately 9,000 people come through the programs at The Greenhouse. We’ve had the opportunity to meet and be sponsored by some of the great industry organizations here, including CBS, Netflix, Warner Bros., and many others.
How do you bring your own experience in front and behind the camera to your role as president and creative director of The Greenhouse?
The beauty of having a background in law and business, as well as in the creative world, is that I can speak all of those languages. Being able to bridge the gaps between them in both communication and in practice has been vital for leading The Greenhouse. It has helped our mentorship of creative artists, as well. We’ve been able to sit down with them and help them come up with both creative and business strategies. That includes copyright, option/purchase agreements, and things of that nature. We’re able to help them navigate those areas and avoid the land mines that can come with them. So that’s been helpful from a leadership perspective. I also get to utilize my on-camera experience to host The Greenhouse Studios, as well as getting to direct, write, and act for the Creative Lab films that we do every other month.
What do you believe makes The Greenhouse stand out from other organizations?
We have a focus on solving the problems that other people have, not just our own. By looking at the much bigger picture, we have the opportunity to use our skills and our talents for more than just our own gain. When people see that heart of service and desire to help others, they gravitate towards it because it’s the natural human experience to help one another. There’s something very freeing and illuminating about it. You learn so much from serving a community that’s larger than just yourself. I think that’s what really has caused us to stand out, and we’ve been fortunate to have some of the top names in the industry connect with us because of our approach. We encourage everyone here, no matter what level they’re at, to use their skills and talents to benefit both local and global communities.
What’s a favorite pastime of yours outside of The Greenhouse that feeds your creativity?
The different elements of creativity feed various parts of who I am as an artist. For example, I love to write because it’s an opportunity to read the world around me and put it in perspective using characters and story. I’m currently writing fiction, and I also have a non-fiction book out right now called The Saints & The Poets. And then there’s acting, which is an outlet for me by which I get to be more than just myself and let everything out. Music taps into my more introspective and mathematical aspects. I love the opportunity to perform vocally and instrumentally. And producing film projects caters to the business side of me, as it provides the opportunity to be logical and put together the pieces of the puzzle.
What’s a motto you live by and share with those you mentor?
When it comes to the industry, the thing I tell everybody I mentor is, “Your value in the arts and entertainment industry is proportionate to your ability to solve other people’s problems, not just your own.” The idea is that when you’re outwardly-focused, you’re set apart from the crowd, and it’s a healthier way to live. Another piece of advice I often offer is, “When you have to choose between the two, it’s better to do the things worth writing than to write the things worth doing.” I want to remind people that it’s not just about bringing beauty and truth to the page, screen or symphony. Even more so, they should be bringing those aspects to their lives with every footstep.
Now that you know more about the president and creative director of The Greenhouse, you can better understand the vision behind it. As Fong tells us, the organization is built on the principle that artists should use their gifts to benefit others and the community as a whole. Additionally, a strong emphasis on mentorship and community is at the core of The Greenhouse, and Fong helps mentor its artists on the importance of balance and harmony in their lives. At the end of his interview, Fong added onto his advice in that area, stating, “If I can remind someone of what they’re called to be as an artist, it’s to tell them that they are at once the poet and the poem.” So no matter where you’re at in your journey as an artist or whether or not you’ve connected with The Greenhouse, you can take these wise words from its president and creative director to heart.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cat Elliott is a writer for The Greenhouse Journal. After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism, Elliott moved to L.A. to work as both an entertainment news writer and a SAG-AFTRA actor. Her industry knowledge and TV/film experience lend themselves to both positions. Two of her favorite on-set moments include “giving birth” during a period piece entitled The Mistress and laughing her way through a fun Honda spot. Elliott’s on-camera work also includes a stint as a reporter and anchor for an NBC-affiliate news station. In an example of art mimicking life, the actor is often solicited to play reporter roles. She additionally has some casting and directing credits under her name and draws from this unique mix of entertainment experience to craft articles for The Greenhouse Journal.