National Asian American Theatre Festival (2007)

mixer and roundtable discussion

Thursday, June 21, 2007
Theatre Row Upper Lounge, New York, NY

The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts invited artists from the National Asian American Theatre Festival (New York City) to meet and mingle while sharing stories, reflecting on the impact of the Festival, and discussing the art and process of making theatre as an Asian American artist.

Selections from Festival Participiants

What sticks out in my mind about the festival is that it’s an Asian American theatre festival, yes.  But it’s more Asian really, and to bring to light for the Americans what the Asians can do with theatre.  Because I think it’s part of that struggle to get accepted in a much more open way rather than being looked as a curiosity for the stuff that we do.  We’re still having trouble with casting and all that, but that’s another issue.  What I want the festival to achieve is that, okay, you Americans, get curious now.  We’re here in your land and look at what we’re doing.  And if it’s interesting enough, pay more attention through the years and maybe you can invest or do something with it.  And make it part of your culture as well, you know.  And that’s been the longest journey, isn’t it?  Right?  We’re still sort of alienated.  In a huge way.

-ART ACUÑA, Performer, The Romance of Magno Rubio

I felt that the play [The Romance of Magno Rubio] itself was an American play and should be accepted as such…Basically, what he’s saying is the story is a story of all immigrants in America.  All the sacrifices you do for the people you love is basically what he’s talking about.  So it’s a very universal theme in that sense.  We might be very specific and talk about Filipino immigrants who were called stoop laborers who were underpaid and overexploited and who are not allowed to marry white women.  But those are details of a particular race and a particular time.  But still an American story because these are people who formed the fabric of THIS nation.  It’s also an important thing that should not be forgotten because all these people, different races, have their own particular histories and should be shared because, again, it’s part of this world.  And having said that also, Asian Americans, Filipinos in particular, tend to be invisible minorities.  We tend to assimilate so easily and try not to rock the boat so to speak that we have become practically voiceless.  But reminding people that we have important stories to tell and important histories that should not be forgotten.  And then showcase it as part of the mainstream.  It’s happening.  It’s a small contribution to that.  My teacher was telling me that evolution is a slow process, and this is part of it.  It’s a step towards something meaningful.  And hopefully, commercially viable and acceptable to the mainstream audiences.

-BERNARDO BERNARDO, Performer, The Romance of Magno Rubio

For our theatre company, when we first started as a group, we were actually called the Society of Heritage Performers and it was started by Soon Tek Oh who is one of the original folks at East West.  And he had envisioned a company that actually dealt with Koreans as an ethnicity and also by presenting their work because of the—as a direct response to the riots that happened in LA, the LA riots.  And for him, it was still very immigrant story.  And I think when he passed down this group to us and he asked me to come on board, the two original founders of the Society of Heritage Performers with Soon Tek, who were part of my generation, we sat down and talked about—if we were going to this, what is going to be like.  And we actually ended up creating our own theatre company.  As an homage to Soon Tek, we took Society of Heritage Performers and kept the name and have that as a sub-name but that’s where Lodestone came from.

But because we are in Los Angeles, there’s these rising ranks of kids who are second generational, 1.5, 3rd generational and even longer, and so they weren’t—what is Asian American at that point?  They didn’t want to hear those stories that their parents told.  They didn’t belong in the pop, hip, MTV or VH-1 or whatever community because they still didn’t see their face.  And honestly, we just wanted to see something crazy.  Like, let’s just put some crazy work that takes risks and tries to—not try to reinvent itself.  We didn’t want to become hip hoppers or performance artists—we just wanted to create based on the theatrical form something that we really just liked to watch, something that is more of our aesthetic.

We had months and months of arguments of what that aesthetic really is.  Our biggest problem was the one word called “edgy.”  We hate that word but it’s kind of appropriate.  We hate that word—we’re like “edgy,” “We’re an edgy theatre company” but what the hell does that mean?  It means—honestly, we don’t know.  We just know that for us we want to take the kind of creative risk that isn’t about “how we got here” but “how we live here.”

-CHIL KONG, Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder, Loadstone Theatre Ensemble

I was surprised to find in the festival there’s a fair number of pieces that are not about Asian American or Asian issues.  They’re about, by Asian or Asian American writers or performers, like Hanalei Ramos, her Guns and Tampons, which is about violence against women.  It’s not about Asian American women; it’s about all women.  And Living Dead in Denmark, Vampire Cowboys, is by an Asian American writer but it’s about Hamlet and zombies…I found that interesting in seeing them, all the different pieces.  And I think if you counted, it was probably a quarter of the pieces I can think of off the top of my head that are specifically not about Asian American issues but rather by Asian American artists.

-KELLY BURDICK, NAATF Marketing Coordinator

When you open up a book of traditionally considered the canon of modern American theatre, there’s the August Wilson play and then there’s the David Henry Hwang play.  There’s one for each little section of minority in America.  A splash of color…

But what’s great about the festival and what’s great about companies like Lodestone and Ma-Yi Theatre, is at the core of it, these companies are going to back to the heart of what creates theatre which is new writers, new work, you know, wanting to hear more of Alice Tuan’s voice, Julia Cho’s voice.  That’s the next generation after David’s generation and there’s a generation that’s coming after that.   And what you’re seeing is a multiplicity of forms.

But it’s interesting, Kelly, that you talk about the idea of that these are non-Asian—that there are companies that are doing non-Asian Americans issues per se.  And this is a discussion that sort of pertains to what Ralph had mentioned at the previous panel which is: What is Asian American theatre?  Is it the point to showcase us for larger roles within the American theatre?  That’s the side effect, I think, of creating good work and new literature and new plays and even new ways of storytelling that are a unique fusion of, not just Asian theatre traditions and not just American theatre traditions, but you know, they’re taking from all these different places and we have these new voices.  But at the end of it, one of the things that you watch younger artists sort of take hold of these new techniques and new forms is, what’s missing about this, is you can see all the way from David and Ma-Yi and Lodestone all the way to the very new beginnings of something completely new, you know, in someone like Hanalei Ramos or even Youth Speaks.  You’re seeing literally a continuum from the very beginnings of this tradition in America to now.

When I was in undergrad or graduate school, someone said that all ethnic specific theatre is about three essential things: it’s about identity; it’s about assimilation; and it’s about oppression.  And there are always these three forces.  And even in the young—like in Youth Speaks—as much as the younger generation says “We’re tired of hearing about what a struggle it is to be Asian,” it’s exactly what they’re talking about… The difference between what you’re concerned about at 20 and what you’re concerned about at 50 is really not that great; you’re just more aware of how many more questions are there to be asked.  And what’s so fascinating is watching these people, “What do I do about America?  What do I do about racism and violence and immigration?” And “I can’t get a role because I’m Asian.”

-NELSON EUSEBIO, director

The only that right now as ethnic communities, we are still ahead of the curve.  We’re still doing the same struggle which is we’re struggling with money, but because of that we’re still trying to connect to our community in a very different way while a lot of these other theatre companies, it’s all about $95 ticket prices; how do we justify it?  And I think, if anything, ethnic theatre companies still maintain the heart of the artistic theatre community in the United States.  I can’t honestly say that’s true for mainstream theatre companies.

-CHIL KONG, Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder, Loadstone Theatre Ensemble

There’s actually a lot of Asian Americans working.  And where Asian America is doing a disservice also is not acknowledging a lot of the mixed race performers and writers that are out there.  For example, Avenue Q was written in part by Bobby Lopez and Bobby is half-Filipino.  And that is why there is an Asian character in Avenue Q because that Asian character represents his interpretation or one of his interpretations he has of his mother.  And Mike Dougherty who is half-Vietnamese and half-Irish is one of the most prominent screenwriters in Los Angeles and he wrote the X-men movies and Superman.  Say what you will, they are commercially viable films but Kelly Hu was in them, you know, we finally had an Asian American action star whereas where you looked before these big Hollywood blockbusters, where were they?  They weren’t there; so people are making a difference.

-ERIN QUILL, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble

We, as Asian American artists and arts institutions, that we are finding that our voice, why we need to speak, isn’t because we want to belong.  But because we just need to speak like all artists do.  We have a story we want to share but it just happens to be with our face and with our story.  But I think what we are finding, too, isn’t necessarily about belonging anymore…the progression of Asian American theatre is an amazing thing that is happening within this festival and within the conference.  And because of that, we can see us as a group moving another step towards becoming a true arts institution as opposed to an ethnic specific one.  However, in doing that, we’re becoming a true arts institution that is sharing a specific story, and the more specific they’re becoming, the more universal they’re becoming.  And that’s the interesting dichotomy of what we do is that the more specific that we become, the more people will understand our story.  And I think in the end, we’re not sharing these stories to say, We belong here.  It’s that my story is just like your story; it’s just like the Irish immigrant story.  It’s just like all these things.  We all have the same suffering; we all have the same love and same joy.  We all have the same things and we all, in a way, have the same fears, but we are just telling it differently.

And I think the joy is watching all these different things is that we’re actually can now connect all these different companies.  And yes, we all have different aesthetics, and yes, we’re all telling different stories.  But in the end, it is showing now a wide colorful spectrum of Asian American experience as opposed to “deli,” “the laundry guy” and “the delivery boy in Chinatown.”  It’s not that anymore.  Now we’re using a larger spectrum of paints.  And in one event, we get to see all the colors as opposed to what’s happening in one city, one town, one theatre.

-CHIL KONG, Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder, Loadstone Theatre Ensemble

And I think that’s also why when there’s just one part on television where people get identified.  For example, Masi Oka [of NBC’s Heroes].  And some people like it and some people don’t.  Well, the reason why they’re having such a strong reaction is because they don’t have the breadth of choice that they would have, for example, if they came to the festival and saw all these different voices.  And saying this is not just one voice that represents everyone.  But when you see, when you turn on the television or when you see a movie, and there’s one guy, and he’s it, then you’re like, “I’m not like that!”  Well, of course you’re not like that, you’re not that one guy.  So now you get to see a whole panoply of artists.

-ERIN QUILL, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble

Other Festival participants at the mixer included performers and representatives of the theatres: Sunshine Lampitoc (House Manager for Abingdon Theatre; MFA Candidate for Theatre Management and Producing, Columbia University); Dan Rech (Marketing Director, Ma-Yi Theatre; Associate Producer, Vampire Cowboys); Pai Sen Wang, performer (LEE/gendary)

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