The American Theatre

I moved to New York three weeks ago. Since then, I have seen a few plays, auditioned for many, and submitted work for consideration all over. But one thing I have noticed in seeing theatre and in auditions is this: that the majority of plays being produced are not the ones we should be paying attention to. Why is it that of the plays I have seen, I have only seen two people of colour on stage? Why is it that as I watched one of these productions end, the spotlight faded on a young, white man as the two women in the play swept up the broken glass on stage? Or that the only hispanic man in a production was relegated to the role of “person of colour” and given a “backstory” to justify his presence on stage? Why is it so hard to find good theatre that isn’t masquerading as “important” by throwing in buzzword themes: race, diversity, immigration, building walls, joining communities? Why are there not more female playwrights, directors, and playwrights and directors of colour being asked to lead projects? Instead, we are relegated to seeing productions written, produced, and directed by mostly white men, and which dress themselves in complex progressiveness by using actors of colour but without actually addressing the underlying realities.

As I sit at my table at home, reading another script for yet another audition, my jaw falls open. The script follows an Asian female lead character whose story begins with an auction. She is a prostitute. She sells her body to customers, white men who pay for the company of an Asian woman. Her story, however, is not one of inverting the norm, or of peeling back the layers of this true history, but rather it is one of how this Asian prostitute enjoys her work in serving white men. It is a story of how she persevered as a prostitute, and with the help of her customers, was able to westernise herself. This is the kind of work that is being produced and that hundreds of Asian actresses in this city are being asked to audition for?

I’ve come to see how much of a privilege it is to be able to self-identify as “just an actor,” as Chris Reyes so gracefully put. To be “just an actor” is to know that there are roles out there for you, that there are opportunities you are able to take. To be “just an actor” is to either be incredibly lucky and to have worked hard at stereotypical roles for years until you are able to choose not to, or to have a market so wide open you have the choice of complex human characters whose shoes you can fill. In other words, to be “just an actor” is to be the majority. Do not be mistaken, I have met and known countless actors of color and women who are incredible at what they do and adhere to what they believe in, but to be an actor with responsibility is so much more difficult than it is to be “just an actor.” And to be a minority (a word so tainted in minimizing, of being “minor”) is to be shrunken, to be diminished, and unable to be “just” so. And so I am beginning to see where the hard work comes in. I am beginning to see that in order to make the theatre I want to see, I have to be more than an actor. I have to be an artist, a writer, an advocate for myself and the work I want to see. Because I do not want to be standing on stage giving a backstory on how my family travelled to America on boat all the time. I do not want to be giving a story about how I was adopted, which is why I look nothing like my siblings. I do not want to justify my face in any narrative, because being human means more than that and I am tired of seeing “professional” theatre that denies the human experience so many of us know so well, especially in New York City.

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Berlin: Point B

Writing this means admitting another period of time has passed. I hate when time passes. It’s been five days since I left Williamstown, and four since I’ve been in Berlin. I’m always so wary of talking about things in retrospect. Williamstown is now something I think and talk about in retrospect. I think that means I’m an unreliable narrator.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about Williamstown with a sense of honesty that actually conveys what my experience was like, and what I got out of it. And I think so little of it had to do with my experience in the “theatre” as normally defined.

There were several things that happened in my last few weeks that really hit home for me:

  1. I found an incredible group of artists who worked with me to put up a reading of my new play, delicacy of a puffin heart.
  2. I was asked to be a part of a reading involving characters I found stereotypical, problematic, racist, and sexist in their portrayal.
  3. I hit a deer with a car that belonged to someone I respect and care about.

And here is what I learned:

I love working with these people. I love being able to say, “what did you think of the draft?”, talk through minute edits, think about the things that may or may not make sense, make a timeline of a world that did not exist prior to its creation on the page, and to tell another group of people, of actors: here, take this, make something with it. This staged reading was, by far, the most wonderful process, to write, to act (because I was in it, due to the lack of Asians in Williamstown, to be discussed further down), to think about, and to hope will get further development. I worked with the best director I think I have ever had the chance to work with, the most thoughtful, hardworking, and caring actors, and found myself rewriting night after night with no complaints.

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I am no longer surprised when something racist happens. When I am asked to play “Mr. Ling, a 50 year old Asian math teacher” because there are only two East Asian actors in the entire Williamstown Theatre Festival, both acting apprentices, both women, and both barely twenty. I am no longer fazed by the logic of, “oh, but he’s such a big shot director or writer, he’s been on broadway, how could you turn that down?” Because the work I choose to be a part of and choose to support matters so much more. Because when you ask an actor to double as both Japanese and Chinese, you are saying, “all Asians are equal,” you are saying, “no one can tell anyway,” you are saying, “the languages all come from the same background, no?” you are saying, “quota is a convenience.” And I refuse to let that go. It also means that if the lack of representation means writing work that brings that forward, if it means having to play a character in my own work because there aren’t other Asian actresses, then that’s what I will do.

I hit a deer a week and a half ago, at six in the morning, and my body went into shock. I spent the next ten days crying out of the blue, and shaking at times when nothing particularly shocking or scary or sad was occurring. It was simply my body’s reaction to recorded trauma, remembered trauma. When the accident first happened, I had two thoughts: is the deer ok? (it was) will my friendship with the friend who lent me the vehicle be ok? (it was) but it never crossed my mind to think, am I ok? When I called my parents, and my grandparents, it only then started to dawn on me what this meant: another accident, another scraping past mortality. What a weird thing to think? That death is just constantly around the corner looking you in the headlights?

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Which brings me to Berlin. Now. Sitting at this desk in my studio space in Neukohln, I am bewildered by the lack of organization in my brain. I have no idea what I’m doing. When my mentor asked me, “how do you write plays?” I answered, “well, uh. I just sort of do it?” I have no methodology. So I’m coming up with something now. Mapping something out that might be more than I can take on for the next month – definitely too much, but perhaps crucial to the work I do for the rest of my life. I am finding an interest in what it means to contain. Whether it be in the form of a box, a jar, a cup, a glass, a sieve (yes, a sieve can contain if it is containing something it was not meant to be used for, i.e. you can put potatoes inside and they won’t sift through), the mind, a body, a house, a burial ground, an ambulance, a car. And what it happens when a container fails us? Is life just a series of looking for the right containers to keep things in? Is the body just a container in which we try to keep life in?

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On a less my-brain-has-been-grieving-for-three-days-now note, I love being here. Berlin is beautiful, and calm, and I have a routine, and a lovely place where I am living, and all this stimulation and interest in what I am doing. I am reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I am reading and listening to and watching all this material so many wonderful people have sent me about grief and bereavement, and loss, and containment. And I am so lucky to be here, even if the time passes.

 

If You Only Spend Money on Theatre Once

I don’t know how to say this in any other way: if you only spend money on theatre once, do it on Model American, a new play by Jason Kim up here at Williamstown. The play moves with Gabriel, a Colombian immigrant to the United States after being kicked out of his home for being gay, and what it means to be, stay, and keep, find, or lose yourself in America. But this play isn’t about Gabriel. It isn’t even, arguably, about immigration. In fact, throughout the entire play, the word “immigrant” is never mentioned, not once. But there is so much to it – race, language, the friendship between a Korean immigrant and Columbian immigrant sitting in a shelter watching Price is Right. There is the promise of what America can do for the people who come to it, new, bright eyes, or squinting under that supposedly perpetually shining sun on green grass, the promise of what it means to build bonds in this country only to find that rising up through the ranks might mean forfeiting them. Sitting in the audience the first time, before we started working on deck crew, I was struck by how quickly the play became about me, even though there was none of my specific culture or background in it.

I thought about my mother, at age eight, riding on an airplane with her entire Taiwanese family, the only English word she knew “orange juice” and ordering orange juice for their family of six over and over again, with no clue how to order food, because that’s when her understanding of English began. I thought about my father, who never really talks about his college experience here in Massachusetts, probably because of the same reason Jae Won decides to return to Korea, because of the blatant racism that occurs as a means of “making fun” or “teasing,” because “China man” and “eating dogs” are things that are meant to be funny, endearing, not seriously offensive. I thought of myself, how my accent changed, how it adapted so quickly in my first year and a half here to being completely assimilated, fluent, not only in the language (because I was already fluent) but in the culture, society, and lingo of being Asian American, not Asian living in America. I thought about myself, staring at the face of my thirteen year old presence, denying its presence in myself, wanting to be one hundred percent here, and not back home in Hong Kong. To think of all the people who come to this country and decide to stop speaking their home. Not just the language, but the entirety of what home means. I don’t want to give a synopsis of the play, because that’s beside the point. I’m not a reviewer. If you want a review, you can read one here. 

But for anyone who has any moment in the next week to make a day trip here to Williamstown, this is a play worth spending time, effort, money, and thought on. If I had my way, everyone I’ve ever loved, hated, or disagreed with would see this play. I remember the first time I wrote a story about my family my senior year of high school, and a girl next to me turned to me after I read it out loud and said, “gosh, Stefani, can you stop writing about Asian stuff?” and then laughed. I laughed, too. I want her to see this too. To think about what it means to not only propel your own erasure of identity, culture, or self, but what it means to be a white person in America and propel that sense of desire to erase in others. Or what it means to have come from somewhere other than this place, which is all of us. This place was built on immigrants, who come from the bottom up and perhaps forget, when they get to the top, what it means to have started at all. This play will make its way elsewhere, so see it now, while you can. See it now, because you can. It has reminded me of why art is important, why theatre is live, and alive, and what it means to be doing work that is going to take the world somewhere else.

勇氣

Day ten at Williamstown. I walk into the audition room and when asked the song I will be singing, I hesitate. “I was thinking –” I stop, “I am going to sing a song in Chinese.”

I’m finally at a point where I FEEL like “I am Asian, proud of it, and if who I am is part of my art, then this can and should be too.”

Let’s be clear: I am not a singer. I am not good at singing, nor am I good at dancing, frankly, but I am getting better at being myself. Two days ago, at a panel with Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I raised my hand to ask a question. Eyes puffy from a night of crying and anxiety, I decided to air out all the insecurities I had been feeling, “I am struggling with something of a paradox in the industry. We are told, when we walk into a room for an audition, or when we send a script in as a playwright, or when we interview for a position as the director, or anything else, that if we are not chosen for a part or role it is because we are not the right type, that it is not about us and our talent but about what they need. But at the same time, we are told that if we are good enough we should be able to change anyone’s mind about what they’re looking for and what they want and need. So, to that end, how do you know when you’ve tried enough, when it’s not that you’re the wrong type but that you’re really just not that good and should stop?” It was a release of an insecurity I have been feeling, heavily, and which perhaps is an indication that I shouldn’t be doing this, but more than that, I think it is an indication of how well I need to know myself in order to gain resilience. Her answer was essentially that we have to trust the honesty barometer in ourselves to know when someone offers criticism, or rejection, or approval and affirmation, if what they are saying about you is true or false, deep down. And that requires a sense of self-knowledge and self-worth that I think I am here to find this summer.

The past week has been filled with new things – new friends, new auditions, new rejections, new artistic endeavours, and ideas too. From going to Walmart,

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to going to a pop up shop where I really wanted to purchase a useless shirt

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to going to Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachussets, on a beautiful sunny morning

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to going to Mass MOCA and seeing the incredible beauty in visual arts

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being here with new people, new faces, and new work has been really lovely, enriching, and also difficult, all at once.

Yesterday, one of the most important people in my life came to visit. Kristy, my person/Christina Yang/soul mate of sorts popped into my Williamstown life, and I was reminded of who I am outside of this place, and how that identity is not only vastly important here to maintain, but that it is who I am, always, regardless of where I go.

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we got to do a beautiful hike up Pine Cobble with two other amazing young ladies I’m so glad to have gotten to spend time with here, Julia and Haley

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(spot Julia’s small face under her bucket hat in the bushes here)

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and we had some AMAZING Indian food that I am still digesting, 16 hours later, as I sit at this coffee shop, writing this

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Something I am struggling with is the difference between who I feel I am, and how I am perceived. And I don’t mean just my race, my gender, sexuality, hometown, or any of that, though of course it all matters and is impactful in my daily life. But I often feel like I have an armour on, one that is polished, painted, colorful, vibrant, beautiful, and composed, while on the inside it is a wild, wild zoo of small chipmunks, rampant squirrels, and worms who are bumping into things because they’re blind and in the dark. This is probably one of the worst analogies I can make, but that’s how it feels, and I am trying very hard to air out the mess. I am trying to be myself in my art, not only in terms of culture, language, and background, but in terms of how I feel, how I am able or unable to express those feelings, and rather than only speaking when I have figured myself out, to use language and art to process them. Being here as an apprentice, I feel the need to do  so much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited. Excited to work on deck crew, to do a reading of a new play, to meet people, and see new things, but I am also excited to just fuck up. And do things that I need to fail at in order to learn about how to do things better for myself, and know myself better through it.

 

Back to Massachusetts & Whiteness

It is 8:57 pm, I am in bed, wanting to go to bed, but no. A callback at 10:40 pm, and another at 11:25. I look down the callback list and the slots go until 1:30 am tonight (or rather, tomorrow morning). And so my next two months at the Williamstown Theatre Festival begins.

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~ on the road ~

I arrived here in the afternoon yesterday, which I owe to the wonderful driving skills of a girl, Chrissy, who offered to let me take up a spot, along with my belongings, in her car. We drove up from New York city and as we approached our destination, watched the landscape turn more mountainous, greener, and more like bum-fuck nowhere Massachusetts. (Pardon the language, that was meant to be endearing, because I love nature.) I figured no one else was bringing much, so I only brought a big suitcase, and some pillows and a fan. Turns out, I might have thought wrong?

List of things I should have brought that might have been helpful or would have made my stay minutely more comfortable:

  1. my tempurpedic extra-long twin mattress pad from college
  2. my shower caddy from college
  3. zip lock bags (I spent all of today looking for some and refused to buy a $10 box of 15 ziplock bags, so now I just have some of the things I need in ziplocks in free red solo cups)
  4. some sleep so I can compensate for the sleep I won’t get here

It has been a long day and a half already, since being here. I am beginning to get used to this room and this place, but I am still quite shocked by the lack of diversity here. Upon arrival, I started a joke instagram photo stream of the extreme whiteness I witnessed arriving on campus, talking about how I had yet to see a person of color walk by me.

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At orientation, however, I sat down in the auditorium and looked around. Of the 70 apprentices who sat in the same area, it seemed only around 10 were people of color, including myself. That’s not a pretty percentage. Only 2 were East Asian. Only 2 were international. Yikes. I sat there, in the auditorium, looking around, when the girl next to me asked, “what are you looking for?” “Oh,” I bumbled, “uh (do I tell the truth?!) I’m looking for people of color. Counting, I mean.” “I hope you’re having fun?” She laughed. Well, that was awkward. Ten. I counted. And the dorms were segregated by gender. That’s also very heteronormative, isn’t it? We spent the evening at orientation and then at a barbeque, which was then followed by an evening of me trying to memorize my audition monologue for today.

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Disclaimer: I love my monologue. I love Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. I love Young Jean Lee. But I always feel a little bit too bold for myself, a little bit out of place when I go up to do my monologue about the pervasive whiteness of the theatre industry and world, and my own innate desire to be white (is this the character or me speaking?), and about the impossibility of being a minority and wanting to be able to just enjoy white privilege, even for a split second, when the audience is almost entirely white. Maybe that’s the point. I think that’s what I gleaned from today, that maybe the point is to do pieces that are a little too bold for myself in front of an audience that is vastly more uncomfortable than they make themselves out to be.

As I looked around the auditorium last night, I wondered to myself, why in the world am I here? In the Berkshires? With all this whiteness? And maybe this is why. I was encouraged today by the number of people who asked me about the piece and the play after, and who talked to me more about the content of what I performed. There is such a difference between good art and important art, the best ones are both. And I want to be making both, constantly. I had an infuriating conversation today, with a girl who came up to me and said (to my Yale sweatshirt), “Oh, you go to Yale? Do you know (so-and-so)? He just graduated and he tends to date a lot of Asian girls? Wow, that sounds a little racist, haha?” But she was dead serious. And the infuriating part wasn’t what she said, but that I had no idea how to respond in a way that wouldn’t sound like what my monologue was talking about today. As Young Jean Lee says, “the truth is, if you’re a minority and you do super-racist stuff against yourself, then you’re a cool minority and white people treat you like one of them.” And it’s sort of true. Here are the things that I heard in this conversation:

  1. A white boyfriend’s mom will be like, “let’s bake bread!” An Asian boyfriend’s mom will be like, “what are you career goals and aspirations?”
  2. I don’t really date white people. I date out of my race.
  3. How do you speak English so well?!
  4. Since Hong Kong is so homogenous, racism must be much less of a thing?
  5. Is it hard to be an actor as a non-white person?
  6. I like to write plays that are sort of fantasy-esque, so I think it contributes to opportunities for people of color because those roles aren’t grounded in reality and can be played by people of all ethnicities and I make it a point of saying so.
  7. Are you sure you don’t know this person? He recently took a photo with his ex-girlfriend who was in a Japanese kimono and he was wearing Japanese clothes too.

And my response to all these things? Mostly smiling, and laughing, and fending them off because I was so shocked I didn’t really know how to respond. These things hurt. These things hurt in conversation, on the stage, on the page, in the theatre, outside of the theatre, as human beings. This is why having diversity matters. This is why listening matters. This is why art can be important, but also so divisive if an audience is only listening selectively.

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I am nervous for this summer and these two months, but perhaps it will be one of intense reflection, of voicing painfully important opinions and understanding why they matter, even in times of isolation.

AppendAixItis

This is probably my most exciting post ever this year, because I finally came up with a new pun. The good news is that it’s a good pun. The bad news is that it is actually related with appendicitis. The other good-ish news is that I might not have appendicitis, the bad news is that if I don’t then it means I have peptic ulcers and either I have to get surgery tomorrow in an appendectomy or get a gastroscopy. Which means anaesthesia and lying on a bed with a stick down my throat or a knife in my tummy.

I’ve been in Taiwan with my grandma, uncle, and cousins, and it’s been nice because I finally slept like a regular person last night, but I’ve been having a lot of stomach pain, which today I realized was coming from near my appendix. And so now we wait for the doctor to come and tell us if I do or don’t have appendicitis. This could really be the worst time for appendicitis, given the fact that I have to go back to school and go do things that I’m supposed to do (although I feel like nobody will care if I don’t do them), but at least I’ll get my appendix out for good and never have to deal with my stupid hypochondriac fears of having appendicitis all the time. My grandmother also just informed me there’s a typhoon coming this Friday, which means if I have an appendectomy I can’t really leave here until next week, which might be a good or bad thing, depending on whether or not I can eat after surgery (my guess is no, which sucks).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chances are, I don’t need surgery, and I don’t have appendicitis. But just a bunch of peptic ulcers because of some magical source of stress and stomach acid. Maybe?!

Politics Turned Poetry

This past weekend I watched my mom do two talks about her experience as an investment banker turned professor and on her new book (which everyone should buy) about Taiwan’s China Identity. And the only thing I knew to do was to write a poem about Politics (Sorry mom if this turns your speech upside down)