And the rest of Kumiko’s trip to New York..

Ma-Yi Writers Group

If any of you have been following my blog on my trip to the States you may have noticed  that Chinese New Year and the dates of posting don’t quite tally.

I confess, the blog was written whilst in the States but due to my technical issues with the new site, the blog was not posted. Once back in the UK it was straight in to preparing for Typhoon and then on to applications and Yellow Earth Academy, Constellation Creatives Bursary, and prep for new productions, meetings, fundraising and the list goes on.  So here is the rest of my trip in one go from Day 7 to Day 13

Day 7

Meeting at the University Settlement, a social services enterprise set up in the 1800’s to enable immigrant families to settle into their new life. The organization has always considered the arts a way of helping that integration and their model for an artistic programme involving artists-in-residence is an interesting one. Artists are invited to come and workshop and develop ideas culminating in performances at the lovely theatre/dance space at the Settlement. Each artist will develop their work in consultation with the arts team over the course of a year. There is no one size fits all for the artist so they develop their work with as little or as much engagement with the local community as they wish but the stipulation is there has to be some kind of engagement.

The organisation’s mission is to work with local people ‘from the womb to the tomb’. They have a programme for local young people post education and not in employment – what we would call NEETS – and they run the after school programme. A new fellowship programme is being developed so that these young people can become teachers and gain much needed experience and understanding of using the arts in the curriculum. I wanted to find out more about the local Chinese community engagement but failed miserably. The community engagement has to be integrated and not forced I was told, many of the communities stick together and tend to have their own group interest but apparently Ballroom Dancing is one area they do come together, good old Strictly or as the Americans call it Dancing with the Stars.

Met Ma-Yi writer Clarence Cho – also a writer at the Lark and we saw Ma-Yi’s current show Washer Dryer, which was a lot of fun and apparently different from the usual more overtly political work .

Post show met with Mia Katigbak actress and also artistic director of NAATCO (The National Asian American Theatre Company) Love the grand title. Founded in 1989 by Mia the company started out presenting Western classics with all Asian casts with no cultural reset in any way, purely as a means to give actors a chance at the classics. They then went on to present classics adapted by Asian American writers and now new writing , preferably world premiers written by non Asian Americans not for Asian Americans but realized by an all Asian American cast. V interesting approach and just demonstrates the range of Asian American theatre companies there are , all with very clear and specific aims and remits. Is this partly so they don’t feel they are treading on each others toes? Interesting to note however their last production was Charles Francis Chan Jr’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015) by Lloyd Suh which rather goes against their stated aims but then who cares if good work is getting shown? Mia as with any AD is looking for the best work. She doesn’t direct but produces and stars in her own productions as well as works as a freelance actor – no surprise to find she has boundless energy. How does she manage to do everything? She replies she’s a control freak.

Day 8

Ping Chong and Company. Ping is currently researching indigenous communities in Alaska so met with general manager Bruce Allerdice. Ping’s work has spanned over 30 years in the US making a name for himself and the company creating performance-based work experimenting with mixed media, projection, sound, light and puppets creating a real varied body of work over the years and has come to specialize in working with disenfranchised and marginalised communities. He has pioneered an oral history performance model – Undesirable Elements working with life stories. It’s a long and involved process that involves hours of research and interviews, recording personal stories then inviting a few of those participants to then perform their stories together as a group. They have worked with survivors of sexual abuse, and currently have a piece called Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim identity . 5 young Muslims who all came of age during 9/11. It’s in high demand and I can see why. I am invited to see a performance at the Lincoln Education Centre, it’s very simply staged but well constructed and performed with precision and honesty. It’s deeply unsettling to hear what they have experienced in their young lives so far. The Q&A exposes the ignorance about Islam amongst the audience, the young people must have to deal with this after every show, I salute them – this is a much needed and important project and judging by how much this show is in demand I’m pleased to know that there are people in the States who acknowledge this. With Trump rampaging through the American heartlands with his brand of jingoism and nationalism this play has to be heard.

I drop in on Melissa Hardy at Playco – a highly successful theatre company run by 2 women who are just too busy to meet with me. The company only presents new writing but with a real commitment to international work and by ‘international work’ that’s not just English language work but also new plays in translation. They have a translators group who as well as bringing plays to the attention of Melissa, also translate for the company. They have had success with a number of plays in translation eg Toshiki Okada’s Enjoy and The Sonic Life of the Giant Tortoise. Christopher Chen’s piece Caught will be on in the summer.

Then on to Ma-Yi finding out how the company works with new writers. They have a writers group who meet fortnightly. Whoever has ‘pages’ sends them ahead of the meeting for them to share and comment on. Once you are part of the group you can stay indefinitely but people tend to come and go but so long as you stay in contact you appear to remain in.

The company has a commitment to produce the plays coming from the group and the group is made up East Asian and South Asian writers. The level of writing and conversation is sophisticated and the evening I attended there were 9 writers.

One writer had a full length two hander and others had short pages. Discussion was lively and supportive. The writers read for each other but I was impressed how well that actually worked –due to practice but also I suspect there were some actors amongst them. The evening was loosely guided by Mike who along with Ray is in charge of the group meetings and himself a Ma-Yi writer. We hope to stay in contact and exchange scripts when and where appropriate. They certainly helped us find writers for Typhoon.

Day 9

Skype with Rick Shiomi currently in California.

An established figure in the Asian American Theatre scene, founder of Mu Performing Arts, Minniapolis and now working on the Philadelphia Asian Project with white led theatre companies based there to;

  • Increase the number of theater productions here with Asian American content, creators and
  • Build demand for Asian American theatre.
  • Develop the local Asian American theatre talent pool.
  • Increase attendance by the Asian American community at live theater performances in the Philadelphia area.

Rick has been at the forefront of the Asian American scene beginning his life in Canada a child of Japanese Canadian parents who along with all Japanese Canadians were interned in camps during the second world war for a total of 8 years (4 years after WW2 had ended). His first play Yellow Fever was produced by the Asian American Theatre company (San Fransisco) and Tisa Chang’s company Pan Asian Repertory Theatre Company. He is a writer, director and Taiko drummer. It was useful and inspiring to speak to a veteran so to speak and he had many wise words.

Nelson Eusebio – . Met Nelson at a prearranged rather chi-chi restaurant , I arrive on time but it’s busy and they ask me to wait in the bar. When Nelson finally arrives (wiping sleep from his eyes – he’s in the middle of rehearsals) there’s a 30 min wait so we decide to go elsewhere and end up in dunkin donuts! All in the space of a block and a half, from the young smart and well heeled to the screaming baby in pram and worn out Mum.

Nelson is a freelance director http://www.nelsoneusebio.com/ looking to move away from Asian American circuit and ghettoization he feels it creates – although he acknowledges it has its positives and has given him many opportunities, indeed he helped set up Leviathan Lab and was there first AD. He’s now fed up with it and he wants everyone to integrate. Ambitious and clear where he’s heading, he amongst others have cited Chay Yew Singaporean writer and director (writer of the acclaimed Porcelain) now Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago http://victorygardens.org/. A great model of BAME leadership. Nelson himself has attended a leadership course specifically created for BAME leaders. He talked about how positive and useful it was but took a test when he arrived to be then told how he had scored for different aspects of leadership and personal attributes which sounded pretty brutal and a little American?! – I’d be surprised if there was a scoring system under a leadership programme such as Clore. But he spoke highly of the course and how it’s given him a chance to connect seriously with others – see his blog here

http://howlround.com/a-super-seven-a-few-leadership-lessons-from-superheroes-of-the-american-theatre

Day 10

Mia Yoo – AD of LaMaMa the iconic theatre company founded by Ellen Stewart in the 60’s and who embraced every artist and performer who didn’t fit into the mainstream. She was a visionary and acquired real estate early on that secured the future of the company and allowed artists valuable space and time to develop their experimental work. She also worked in Europe and was in tune with much of what was going on there as opposed to the work that was happening in the States at that time. Regarded very much as a pioneer throughout her life which ended in 2010 Mia Yoo– a Korean American actress who had been under Ellen’s wing during her long illness was passed the mantle to continue as AD once Ellen had passed.   For Mia LaMaMa is about the artists and making the work happen so she is very much focused on securing the continuation of the company and its heritage.

I was impressed with Mia – filling very very large shoes in an almost impossible way but she was clear about her mission and what she needed to do. Although the conversation was steered very much to what the company is now and how it continues into the future, I was surprised at the end to be offered a tour of the archive which they had assumed I had wanted to see. Suddenly I was thrust into a world of bizarre and fantastical props and costumes all beautifully displayed across the ground floor and I was shown a short film of Ellen’s life and work.   I understand acknowledging your past to build your future but I worried about the danger of dwelling on that past and not moving on. Perhaps the extra reverence and fast tour had been precipitated by the premature death of one of Ellen’s artists; the Japanese actor/scenographer Kikuo Saito http://artasiapacific.com/News/KikuoSaito19392016

They were all on their way out to the funeral that was taking place that afternoon and waiting on a eulogy from Robert Wilson which arrived just before I left.

Later that evening saw Familiar by Danai Gurira  at the Playwrights Horizon. Well written piece, very funny and moving featuring a middle class Zimbabwe family living in Minnesota  – acting very good, sharply drawn characters, very entertaining and accessible and so different to the phenomenal Eclipsed which I saw at the Gate last year but shows she’s very versatile and gifted writer. Second full on domesticAmerican sitcom set I’ve seen – sofas, the lot – this time a house (2 storeys) as opposed to next door’s apartment in Washer Dryer literally playing in the space next door.

Day 11

Staying in Brooklyn a stones throw away from Brooklyn Chinatown. Jeremy is being filmed for a kickstarter fund raiser so he’s interviewed and filmed ‘at work’ and wondering round the neighbourhood. We follow him like groupies as the 5 strong film crew make him look very important.

A sign had appeared last week that due to the inclement weather (see Day 5) Chinese New Year celebrations have been postponed for the week so we all set off in the hope that I will get to see something of worth after the previous sub zero disappointment. We were in luck there was a parade and there were the people –  this felt very close to what it must be like in a small town in Fujian. There were bangers, firecrackers, zillions of glitter and confetti , more than one lion and lots of families with excited children. Managed to get a table at a busy restaurant for Dim Sum so all was perfect. Had to leave sharpish to get up town to see A Foreign Body – a play in a hotel room.  16 of us in a Park Wyatt room 36 stories up. A younger woman confronts a now famous German filmmaker accusing him of raping her as a 14 year old. . 3 actors – one white middle aged man played by John Glover , 2 women playing the same character, one in her 30’s? and as a 14 year old played by Hettiene Park and Lani Fu. An uncomfortable Blackbird-esqe story with the central character a charismatic Roman Polanski film director. The setting was charged with just 9 of us as audience in room 3412 of the Parker Meridien. Sadly the curtains were drawn the whole time to make a characterless hotel room that could be anywhere in the world  (I was desperate to see the view over Central Park). Not sure the play went anywhere but was refreshing to see the casting of two Asian American women (1 role) with no reference to her race.

Day 12

Trip to Philadelphia

First stop meeting with Seth Rozin from Interact Theatre and Tom Reing from Inis Nua.  Seth took me to The Drake. Not a pub but an exciting new arts hub development in the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. He and his company Interact have been leading on this project http://www.interacttheatre.org/drake-campaign/ I met him on the day that he was finally moving office so time was precious. The 2 new theatre spaces built in what was once the ballroom of a large art deco hotel and new home to 5 theatre companies! It’s a very exciting development and one that springs from the growing confidence of the theatre scene in Philly. New York prices have meant artists are now seeking alternative places to live and work and Philly is still affordable and close enough to NYC. Interact is very much part of the Philadelphia Asian Project (see Day 9) and one of their recent productions was Caught by Christopher Chen directed by Rick Shiomi, seen in the UK as part of the Volta Festival at the Arcola last autumn and premiering in NYC at Playco later this year.

I was introduced to Tom who runs a small theatre company that presents solely UK plays. Of Irish background Tom put on plays from Ireland and before he knew it he had built up a strong audience base. He’s part of the PAP project so who knows he might be able to put on a BEA play at some point and will push some his way.

Seth founded his company in 1988 and he’s totally committed to new writing and diversity within the commissioning and casting process. He has energy and vision and I wish him well with The Drake. Hope to see one of our plays on there one day, who knows (he is trying to get one of Finn Kennedy’s plays on as I write).

I also hope he can sort out the sound proofing with the venue and the residents upstairs….

Seth then dropped me at the Asian Arts Initiative where I met with Gayle Isa a very inspiring community arts leader empowering local communities through art “we support local art and artists as a means of interpreting, sharing, and shaping contemporary cultural identity” http://asianartsinitiative.org/

Came alway with a long list of contacts and people to link in with and discovered the AAPIP  http://aapip.org/, a website dedicated to research and issues surrounding philanthropic giving amongst Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Here in the UK we have barely come to grips with fundraising on the scale that is now required let alone from the British Chinese and East Asian community.

Caught the bus back with 30 minutes spare to get up to the Lincoln Centre to catch Ping Chong’s Beyond Sacred. So pleased I made it despite the nail biting Lincoln Tunnel rush hour tailbacks. 5 young Muslim Americans told their stories of coming of age at the time of 9/11 Their lives before and their lives after. Honest, Brutal at times cringe making, sad and hopeful an amazing group of young people telling their stories. Ping Chong has been making this kind of verbatim theatre since the mid eighties, it’s incredibly powerful. I have begun to hatch plans that he comes and works with us here in the UK and we interview East Asians and their experiences of growing up here.

Final Day

The Lark – playwrights theatre – purely devoted to developing new writing http://www.larktheatre.org/ Not aware of such an organization in the UK.

Sat in on rehearsals with the famous Taiwanese writer and director Stan Lai. Made a big name for himself in Asia with his plays that he writes and directs (Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land).

He’s now over with one of his own plays that he is adapting to an American setting. Jeremy  is brought in to help with the translation and he works with director Mei Ann Teo who is putting the piece on its feet with a mixed cast – all of whom are brilliant. There are some issues with non-idiomatic English, phraseology ( Stan grew up in the States until the age of 12) also references and parables don’t transfer from the Mandarin but everyone works together carefully and respectfully to come to decisions.

Saw American Equity in action with very strict breaks at timed intervals of 10 mins dictating the rhythm of the day. Actors are used to it but how conducive to creativity is it? It’s important there are breaks but does it have to be so rigid? To me it felt a bit like ad breaks – too many too often but there was an undeniable focus and concentration when the break had finished.

A note on rehearsed readings. There are many here – all scripts seem to have endless development and multiple readings by different theatres with different directors but far fewer productions of their scripts. This is partly to do with raising the funds to produce a full production. With so little state and government support and an over reliance on private giving and donors this is perhaps not surprising but it’s also worrying. Is this the future for the UK? There is also much more emphasis on new writing with every many theatre having some kind of writers development programme and some theatres like the Lark wholly devoted to new writing. There seemed to be a greater number of writers too due to the large amount of undergrad and MA playwriting courses offered at colleges and Universities with better writing as a result? but productions more conservative ? Maybe. The rehearsed reading itself tends to be a seated affair with actors reading from scripts on music stands but it was good to see Mei Ann moving the 13 actors in Stan Lai’s piece so fluidly during the rehearsals but I believe she is one of only a few directors who is doing this.

Now it was time to leave the rehearsal space and go from The Lark to Newark Airport and catch my flight back to the UK – my head and mind buzzing. It has been an amazing time meeting new and inspiring people with rich potential for future developments and exchanges. So many similarities and concerns that we share with our Asian American counterparts – our onward struggle to bring our stories and creatives centre stage, we can but support and encourage each other to keep moving forward, accepting that for each of us there will be a different path to that place but as a collective we can work side by side to reach the ultimate goal of an industry and society when we no longer need to exist as separate BCEA/BAME led theatre companies but instead work as equals in the industry.