Phyllis S. K. Look (1993)
Although I had known I had wanted to be a director since that first taste directing a high school musical my senior year in college, I didn’t make the switch from acting to directing until I applied and was accepted to the graduate directing program at Yale in 1983. So, since I’ve been directing professionally for a relatively short amount of time, it’s difficult for me to comment on whether there is more opportunity for directors of color now than there was “then” or whether the atmosphere has changed significantly. I think I came of age as a director in the already “liberated” age of cultural diversity, so I’m sure it’s been a little easier for me than it was for my predecessors.
In terms of my own experience as an Asian American woman, I’ve only just begun to get enough freelance work to consider myself a professional director, and that primarily due to the repeated opportunities to direct a play which I helped create. The play, Dragonwings, an adaptation of Laurence Yep’s award-winning children’s novel, delves into some early Chinese American history, and employs some stage techniques from the Chinese opera with which I am somewhat familiar. So, I’m primarily getting work based in what is thought of as Asian themes or requiring Asian stylization.
There are a few enlightened artistic staffs, however, like Larry Eilenberg and Mame Hunt at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, who will look at my work or take the opportunity to get to know me as a person, and see that I’m also qualified to direct a production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz. And they have my everlasting loyalty because they gave me a mainstage slot. You see, the stereotype of the Asian female is anything but comic, raunchy, emotional, or concerned with contemporary issues like AIDS. Nor, supposedly, do directors of color know anything about deconstruction, episodic structure, or anything besides psychological realism. And we’re always emerging, always apprenticing, never really “ready.”
I’m often privy to the conversations which transpire at the regional theater level and I know that the names of directors of color do not come up as frequently as the “old boys” when it comes time to plan next year’s season. It seems that in order to win entry into this network one must assimilate and adopt the approved way of behaving and communicating — which is self-promoting, aggressively verbal, and “intellectual.” Feeling daunted by this one day, a good friend of mine, an African American man, gave me the advice his father had always give him about “the squeaky wheel.” Later, an Asian American girlfriend and I quipped that “Asian girls aren’t raised to be squeaky wheels; in fact, we’re taught to always carry the ‘can of grease’!”
Because cultural diversity is still an infrequent selection on the regional theaters’ menus, I find that theater producers often look to me to cast actors of color, hire designers of color, or produce writers of color. Fortunately, those are all practices I’m committed to, as well as to finding opportunities for women and other “minorities.” But I’m not just interested in telling a single group’s unheard stories.
My work — which I hope presents a vision of various people living and working together — is colored by a sensibility which I owe to a childhood in beautiful, multicultural Hawaii and is a reaction to what I perceive to be the deadly, nationalistic, and separatist tendencies in current American culture. Imagining a hopeful future is an especially vital factor for the young audiences for whom I often work.
Currently, I’m planning a festival for Berkeley Repertory Theater and San Francisco’s Asian American Theatre Company to showcase Asian American theater artists from around the country. Chiori Miyagawa, my co-curator, and I have been discussing just what kind of work we want to present. Very early on, we decided not to include the purely traditional or folk artists who have already found a kind of forum in the West. Instead, we will be focusing on those artists who present a riskier “commercial” profile because they challenge our preconceptions about what is Asian American and refuse to be the exotic flavor-of-the-month. These artists of color, like gay, deaf or physically-challenged artists, who know the intricate landscape of their cultures and experiences, need to be identified, encouraged, and empowered, for their voices speak of a brave new world, rather than perpetually recalling the old one.
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