Rick Shiomi – Artistic Director, Artistic Director, Mu Performing Arts (2005-2006)
IN YOUR VIEW AND EXPERIENCE, WITH RESPECT TO DIVERSITY, WHAT CHANGES HAVE HAPPENED IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS?
In the past five years, I think the growth and change in the Asian American theater movement has been significant. Between 1980 and 2000, I saw the Asian American theater movement grow in many ways but it was mostly measured in the individual success of playwrights like David Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda or actors like John Lone, B.D. Wong, or Amy Hill. The theater companies grew, with new ones like Ma-Yi Theater, Theater Mu, and the National Asian American Theater Company setting their foundations, but our companies remained relatively separate entities, all of us knowing each other but not necessarily working or collaborating together toward a larger national platform.
In 2003, the Theater Communications Group sponsored a retreat for Theater Companies of Color at the White Oaks site in Florida. It was good to share stories and challenges that we all have experienced and out of those meetings, the representatives of a number of Asian American companies held a caucus and decided to work together to organize the first national conference, which was eventually held in Los Angeles in June 2006 and hosted by East West Players. It was called NEXT BIG BANG: The Explosion of Asian American Theatre and it was a huge success, bringing Asian American theater companies and individual artists together. And in a planned evolution, there will be the first Asian American theater festival held in New York City from June 11 to 24, 2007. These events are the stimuli that can foster our own awareness of the artists and artistry happening in the Asian American theater movement nationally, encourage national collaborations based upon that awareness, and push the national profile of the Asian American theater movement itself. And a proposal for a future national conference is already being put forth from theaters in Minneapolis/St. Paul. So for the first time, on a national scale, Asian American companies are working together toward a broader goal.
In terms of individual artists, I am seeing another exciting new wave of playwrights, actors, and directors. Among the leading new playwrights nationally are Julia Cho, Young Jean Lee, Lloyd Suh, and Michael Golamco, with newcomers like Aurorae Khoo, Ed Bok Lee, Kenneth Lin, and Clarence Coo likely to make an impact in the next five years. Locally, in terms of actors in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, we have a number of talented artists including Sun Mee Chomet, who made a great splash with her performance piece at the NEXT BIG BANG showcase, Sherwin Resurreccion, Sara Ochs, Kurt Kwan, and Mayano Ochi. Also in the Twin Cities, we have emerging new directors like Jennifer Weir, Randy Reyes, and Brian Balcom. And from my encounters at NEXT BIG BANG, I believe there is a wealth of new, young performers who will be worthy of national recognition. (For me, people under forty qualify as young.)
Almost as an encapsulation of this whole phenomenon, I would mention Paul Juhn, one
of the leaders of Mr. Miyagi’s Theater Company, which created and performed the recent hit show, SIDES: The Fear Is Real… It was self-produced in New York, then presented by Ma-Yi Theater, then ran Off Broadway, and was most recently presented by East West Players in Los Angeles. Paul got his start in theater with Theater Mu here in Minnesota and did his M.F.A. at UC-San Diego before relocating to New York City in the late 1990s. He is a prime example of a national kind of talent that is a reflection of the new wave of Asian American theater artists; creative artists/performers with both home-base and crossover appeal.
And again, locally, there is a growing recognition of the emergence of Asian American theater artists in the general theater community. Actors like Jeany Park, Sun Mee Chomet, and Randy Reyes are appearing at a range of companies, from the Guthrie to Mixed Blood to the History Theater to Thirst Theater. Jennifer Weir and Randy Reyes are getting offers to direct at other companies and the Guthrie is both in the process of developing a new work by Naomi Izuka and planning a development program for writers like Jeany Park, Young Jean Lee, and Kenneth Lin. This is not to say there are not still many challenges facing Asian American theater artists here, but the landscape of opportunities has been changing in the past five years.
So in terms of the national Asian American theater movement, I think there has been tremendous development that bodes well for the further growth of our companies, artists, and artistic work.
HAS YOUR OWN WORK BEEN AFFECTED BY THESE CHANGES?
I think my own work has clearly been strengthened by the development of Asian American theater artists both locally and nationally. Locally, I feel I am now surrounded by a rich wave of talented, creative, and ambitious artists and I gain tremendous energy and excitement from their ideas and work. With our acting pool so rich, I had a wonderful experience directing an Asian American version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using taiko and Korean mask dance as integral elements of the play. We had actors who could handle the language, acting and action challenges of my particular vision of the play, and we received wonderful reviews. On a national scale, we have been looking closely at scripts from companies like Lodestone Theater in California and are hoping to produce one in the near future. Lodestone is a company full of dynamic emerging artists who are pushing the boundaries of Asian American theater. As a playwright, I have found my main work has shifted into writing the books for some new musicals recently produced by our company. Again, this shift has been predicated on the unexpected reality that we have musical theater artists (composers/lyricists, and performers) in the area who can make this possible. This is not the type of writing I would ever have dreamed of doing, but the opportunity has presented itself because of the talent in our community.
HAS THE WORK OF OTHERS BEEN AFFECTED BY THESE CHANGES?
Locally, this gathering and development of talent has fostered the interaction of these young AA artists with the goal of creating new ensemble-style work together. At Mu Performing Arts, we are trying to encourage that through a variety of programs, including a New Performance Program supported by a Jerome Foundation grant.
And again locally, other companies are both recognizing the quality of the artists and the work emerging from them. The History Theater is producing a new play, 100 Men’s Wife by Jeany Park, in January 2007. In March 2007, Mu’s play, Circle Around the Island by Marcus Quiniones, is being presented by the Guthrie Theater at the Joe Dowling Studio. Also in March 2007, Mu is co-producing my new play, Journey of the Drum, with SteppingStone Theater For Youth in St. Paul.
A particularly great example of the growth of an individual Asian American theater artist would be that of Randy Reyes. He recently joined Mu Performing Arts as my mentee through a grant from the Theater Communications Group. In the past five months, he has been one of the busiest artists in town. He has acted in several productions (including a hit show at the Fringe Festival, our own production of a new musical Filipino Hearts, a series of short pieces at Thirst Theater and the Guthrie’s A Christmas Carol); has run several workshops for actors; is working as a dramaturge and director in our New Performance Program; is serving as Mu’s literary manager for our New Eyes Festival of Staged Readings coming in April 2007; and directed a play for another small company in January 2007, as well being in rehearsal as the director of our play at the Guthrie in March 2007! The fact that he can be so deeply involved at Mu and still be in demand at other companies, big and small, reflects a huge growth in opportunity that didn’t exist five to ten years ago.
WHAT IS YOUR PERCEPTION AND ASSESSMENT OF THE CURRENT CLIMATE IN TERMS OF OPPORTUNITIES AND ATTITUDES TOWARD ASIAN AMERICAN WORK?
Locally, I would say the whole theater world is opening up for Asian American artists. Whether this will continue to grow, and whether our artists can take advantage of this opportunity is unknown because there are so many factors involved—from the social/economic/ political climate to whether the best and most talented of our artists stay in the Twin Cities and establish longer-standing careers rather than move to New York or Los Angeles. To establish a really significant place for Asian American theater in the local theater community landscape, we need our best artists to stay for the next five to ten years and create a recognizable and respected body of work. If too many of these young artists leave this community (and that is completely possible), it would be easy for the general theater community to regress into viewing successful Asian American theater artists as an anomaly and not a part of a significant theater movement or perspective.
Nationally, I feel that the more mainstream companies are looking for the next new talent in playwriting (like the search for the next August Wilson or David Hwang). The emergence of August Wilson as a giant in American theater brought with it a tremendous amount of attention, excitement, and legitimacy to African American theater in general. David Hwang’ s success with M. Butterfly had a similar impact (though clearly not as considerable) for Asian American theater. There is always the quandary of whether it’s better to have one star playwright draw attention to a particular group or just greater recognition of the many other hard working and accomplished writers, but just as O’Neill and Miller brought some major significance to American theater, Wilson and Hwang did so for African and Asian American theater.
With that in mind, I feel as if mainstream theaters are looking at the newer playwrights like Julia Cho, Young Jean Lee, and Naomi Iizuka as potential major artists for the next wave of work, which could be seen as different by virtue of the fact that it is both Asian American and not Asian American. These playwrights have a vision that is more multiethnic and perhaps a different way of looking at America in the 21st century. And this follows the work of Diana Son, whose plays Stop Kiss and Satellites are coming from an Asian American writer and have Asian American characters but may not necessarily be about Asian American issues. Their plays are full of characters who now fill the streets, cafes, subways, and condos of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Their plays may be about a broader range of issues—personal, social or political—that reflect a mixture of races and ethnicities. And in that sense, I congratulate leaders like Oskar Eustis of The Public Theater in New York City for the role he has played in this shift. This new reality is already there on our streets but relatively new to our stages.
Locally again, even though I feel the general landscape is opening up, I believe there is still a strange kind of resistance to Asian American theater artists coming from parts of the more mainstream theater community. This may be because given the American theater canon, there is still a heavily black-and-white axis, the Arthur Miller/August Wilson polarity that, though it’s a tremendous artistic standard (You can substitute Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill for Miller and Suzan-Lori Parks or Lorraine Hansberry for Wilson), tends to exclude a place for Asian American artists (so Latino/Hispanic and Native American artists can fill in for the AA’s here). From this comes the attitude that if a bigger company produces an African American play, then all the minorities have been served. In the past fifty years, there has been tremendous expansion and diversity in terms of African American theater artists, and rightly so, but the door is only beginning to open for the rest of us.
In a recent news article, the Guthrie Theater was taken to task for a lack of diversity in its programming for its two main stages in its inaugural season in its huge new building. In some ways, looking at that lineup, I felt somewhat discouraged by the mainline plays selected. However, on its third stage, the Joe Dowling Studio, the Guthrie has chosen to produce and co-present challenging works from Mixed Blood, Mu Performing Arts, and others and I can only hope that success in that area will instigate broader, more diverse overall programming in the future. In another way, led by the work of Michael Dixon, the Guthrie is providing support and access through serving as the site for national conferences and has even offered to provide the site for a proposed Asian American conference in June 2008. The Guthrie has an opportunity to become a leading light in the American theater world of the 21st century and I can only hope they will take advantage of it.
Another local example of expanding boundaries is the work being done by Penumbra Theatre, which, with its renowned connection to August Wilson, has traditionally done African American–based work. In the past five years, the artistic director, Lou Bellamy, has chosen to produce a few plays that have either an Asian American element or playwright and specific issue. He has recognized the commonality of our experiences and some of the issues embodied in our encounters and has boldly entered into that territory. One of their recent productions was Slippery When Wet by Suzen Murakoshi, which was directed by Ching Valdez. And Jack Reuler of Mixed Blood has long been a standard bearer for multiethnic plays, casting, and creativity and like Lou, was recently recognized by the local theater community with an award for lifetime achievement. In many ways, both have played key roles in the past thirty years in laying the foundations for opening minds and perspectives for both their peers and their audiences. Now is the time for that sense of diversity and inclusion to be opened up in terms of overall reality, locally and nationally.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION WITHIN YOUR WORKPLACE / INSITUTIONS / STAFFING / CREATIVE TEAM / COMPANY WITH RESPECT TO DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION?
We have been fortunate at Mu to have had a diverse staff and creative team. Though we are a company with a specifically Asian American mission, this mix has enriched our perspectives and understanding. Our reality is that Asian Americans represent only about 5% of the total population here and our audiences are about 75% non-Asian. And we were told that the typical theater-going audience in terms of the Asian American community (native English speakers, university graduates, middle income, over 30 years old, etc) was a tiny fraction of that 5%. So rather than remaining isolated and serving only our own community, we have chosen to reach out to the broadest spectrum, seeking to bring audiences of widely divergent perspectives, experiences and expectations together to share our vision and artistic work.
As with any small company trying to grow to mid-level size, there are many financial pressures on our staff and company, but we have been fortunate so far in gaining enough funding from foundations, corporations, and individual donors to survive and begin to thrive. And one of the keys to our growth has been our ability to generate 50% of our funding through earned income (from box office, outreach programs, and educational classes).
WHAT ARE THE REMAINING BARRIERS AND WHAT STRATEGIES WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO HELP BREAK DOWN THESE BARRIERS?
Locally, I think the primary remaining barriers are still in casting. When I feel it is as likely that I might see an Asian American actor in a production of Miller or Williams or Wilson, as I might not, then I will feel our actors are getting a fair shot. This kind of mixed casting (perhaps to be considered colorblind casting. or multiethnic casting, or whatever) could be based in a particular interpretation or setting or simply a reflection of casting the best actor for the role. But it would signal to our audiences that we as the creators of theater are leading the way to a more open America, rather than being dragged into the 21st century by demographic realities. This same feeling could apply to Asian American plays, directors, designers, etc. Some people say this might dissolve the need for specific ethnically based companies like Mu Performing Arts. I simply don’t see that because we are constantly feeding the field and developing new talent that does not get the same kind of opportunity in more general theater settings. And we provide both a particular perspective and experience and an artistic sensibility and vision, that is an art form unto itself.
Nationally, there is a real need to have greater representation of students of color in the booming M.F.A. programs. The future is being trained in our schools now and if we don’t get more students of color into these programs, our artists will be less well trained and less connected to those who are moving ahead. At the same time, it is important to have artists of color teaching in those programs to establish a broader sensibility in the America theater psyche. I know of a number of Asian American theater artists who have been through M.F.A. programs and I believe their training has played a key role in their success to date. But we need three or four times their numbers in those programs to make and sustain a significant impact.
Nationally, Mu is involved in an online chat series run by the Kennedy Center with the sessions led by Michael Kaiser, its president. And once a year they bring participants out to Washington, D.C. for a conference for performing arts companies of color. The focus is mostly around organization, marketing, board, and donor development with the goal of helping them overcome some of the classic barriers to companies of color. The sessions have been very helpful to Mu, particularly in the development of individual donors.
One of our most successful strategies in working against the remaining barriers has been our use of co-production collaborations with other companies. Over the past five years we have had at least one collaboration or co-presentation a year. This has allowed new audiences and reviewers alike to see our work in a different framework, not simply as the marginalized company whose work they may not know how to assess or respond to. This strategy has also created a real degree of organizational credibility in the professional way we operate in collaborations. The collaborations have helped us break out of the sometimes self-imposed, sometimes socially imposed isolation and marginalization that happens to ethnically specific companies. But collaborations mean that other companies have to be open to working on productions with us and for that we thank such companies as Park Square Theatre, SteppingStone Theater For Youth, Stages Theatre Company, and the Guthrie Theater.
A second strategy that has worked has been to use a wide range of experienced mainstream and Asian American directors to work with our actors while at the same time giving breakthrough opportunities to emerging Asian American directors. Having had such directors as Gary Gisselman and Jon Cranney both establishes a certain degree of recognition and credibility, and spreads the word that our company has the kind of talent that can attract this level of director. We have also brought in directors such as Raul Aranas, a veteran Asian American theater artist from New York and Cecile Keenan, a longtime director from Chicago. At the other end of the spectrum, one of the hottest new directors is our own Jennifer Weir who directed a successful premiere production of Happy Valley by Aurorae Khoo, which we will remount at the Asian American Theater Festival in New York City in June 2007. And we have chosen Randy Reyes to direct our production at the Guthrie, which we believe will launch his directing career with a big splash. It is a delicate balancing act to bring in both experienced directors and give the right opportunities to emerging talents, but we believe the right mix has been extremely valuable to our growth as a company.
WHAT KIND OF WORK MOST ENGAGES YOU NOW?
At this point, it is almost impossible for me to say there is one particular type of work that engages me most. I can list several aspects of theater that excite me, such as discovering new Asian American plays/playwrights, actors, and directors; helping to create Mu signature works that often involve a fusion of Asian and western performance forms; working on the book and lyrics for new musicals; re-envisioning Shakespeare through the Asian American lens, and seeing fascinating and memorable ways to create performance, like the Mabou Mines production of A Doll’s House, the production of Gatz by Elevator Repair Service, and Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven by Young Jean Lee, which I consider a remarkable piece of theater (I saw all of them at the new Walker Art Center).
The issues of inclusion and diversity have been two of the pillars of my belief framework, which is based in Asian American theater as a distinct art form both in style and substance (I truly believe my theater muse is in my Asian American identity and experience, actually Asian Canadian as I was born and raised in Canada, but the parallels are so evident that shifting from one side to the other takes little adjustment). And I expect they will remain that way in my lifetime (I am now in my late fifties so time is already running out). I feel that my calling is to help feed the field, both in terms of discovering and cultivating new work and artists and having them make a real impact on the cultural landscape of the world we live in. I will always owe a great debt to those who helped me in the development of my own career as a theater artist and I feel I am fulfilling a certain pay-it-forward karma.
I do want to reflect upon a personal and professional relationship that has changed my life and could serve as a kind of paradigm for a lot of what I’ve been talking about. The primary reason I have remained in Minnesota is because I married a woman living here and she has played a key role in both the development of Mu and my own personal artistic journey. She is a professor of theater at Augsburg College, a small private college in Minneapolis, and she is not Asian American. But the huge cultural and artistic encounter that continues within our personal relationship has deeply influenced much of what I write here. And the dialectic of our lives and artistry has in turn had a huge impact on the development of Mu. In fact she was one of the founding members of Theater Mu and remains a member of our Core Artistic Group. Martha Bancroft Johnson is my wife and fellow artist and much of what I have learned about theater and life has come because of our work together.
My final comment is that I believe we are entering a period of great fluidity in the theater world, where the field may finally be tilting toward greater openness in terms of Asian American theater art and artists. This may be true and my crystal ball works, or it may not be and I am simply an optimist, but it seems to me that more and more opportunities are emerging and we should take advantage of them as much as possible in the broadest contexts. My particular field of work is in Asian American theater and its impact upon and place in the general American theater landscape, but the parallels in terms of challenges to other issues of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, orientation, accessibility, and usability are clearly there. We should celebrate our great traditions in Euro-American theater, but we should not ignore the great performance traditions of the rest of the world and never let ourselves be trapped into mechanical reproductions of one form or style. So today is a good day to be a theater artist in America because the future feels full of new possibilities.
So thank you for taking the time to read my commentary and if anyone would like to respond or ask questions of me, please contact me at
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