Posts filed under Representation

A magical moment of empathy: Inside Out & Back Again

Krystle Piamonte, who plays lead character Hà in the current production of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, recently shared this story on social media, and it was so sweet I just had to include it in my blog:

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"Today after our first matinee performance, I received the most precious note/gift from one of our littlest audience members. A mom and daughter duo came to see INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and handed this to me after the show. The mom said her daughter felt bad that I was having a rough day (I cry about 3x in this play) and that she wanted to write me a note to make me feel better. She also included this cute lollipop. I’m overwhelmed by this little girl’s empathy and kindness. It’s these kinds of interactions that remind me why theatre is a powerful way to connect to our humanity. Thank you, little girl. You made my heart so full today."

The Nightingale Returns

This past weekend, The Song of the Nightingale opened once more in the Bay Area, this time at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. This is the first time I've had a second local production of a show, and a newly revised one at that. I approached this production as an experiment: if The Song of the Nightingale had a new theatre company producing it with a new creative team and a (mostly) new cast, what would I discover about the show? I'm excited to say that I learned that the story of the show still shines through. The design elements, direction, and actor choices may be new, but the characters remain trackable, even more so with the new revisions.

I also learned that this show is a very meaningful experience for the cast members. There are very few musicals that feature Asian-American actors, and those that do are problematic for a variety of reasons. I received feedback from actors in Nightingale that they were very proud to be a part of this show. Several of them felt that for the first time, they could be themselves onstage and backstage. That they weren't putting on a white character or a white perspective of what it means to be Asian. It has been a goal of mine to create more roles for Asian-Americans in musical theatre, and I'm so honored to hear the effect it's having on my friends and colleagues.

Finally, I discovered that I love this show. It holds a very special place in my heart as my very first passion project for musical theatre. The script and score are certainly written by a younger me, and it was an interesting challenging revising the material in a way that stayed true to that younger style of writing. At times, I did wonder if those watching it would sense this "younger me" and consider it an amateur attempt at writing. But while watching it on opening night, I felt confident that I love the show for what it is. The Song of the Nightingale will always be the project that started it all.

 Folks from both the Altarena and the Town Hall Theatre productions of  The Song of the Nightingale  pose together on opening night!

Folks from both the Altarena and the Town Hall Theatre productions of The Song of the Nightingale pose together on opening night!

The Four Immigrants: Four Mind-Blowing Moments (A Post-Show Reflection)

When The Four Immigrants opened and folks asked me how I was feeling, my response was something like "Great, but also overwhelming. I think I'm going to be processing this incredible ride for months to come." Now that the show is closed, I am confronted with just how mind-blowing this whole experience has been. Those who know me know how much I love lists, because they help me organize my thoughts. So, in no particular order, here is a list of four mind-blowing moments from the TheatreWorks rehearsals and run of The Four Immigrants.

 Auditioning the show at Pearl Studios, NYC

Auditioning the show at Pearl Studios, NYC

Bi-Coastal Auditions
Early in the year, TheatreWorks flew me out to New York and Los Angeles for auditions. This was the first time I have ever been flown to other locations to search for actors. In New York, we were auditioning at Pearl Studios. Several other productions were holding their own auditions in other rooms, including Disney's Frozen (both the Broadway and the California Adventure calls). It was thrilling to consider how many Broadway writers, directors and performers had been in and out of this building!

Overwhelming support from friends old and new
I am floored by how many people came to see the show, particularly those whom I have not seen in such a long time! Folks from every "era" of my life — friends from high school, college, my childhood church, my old corporate job; family members; and colleagues from theatre — surprised me with a text or e-mail saying they were coming to or were at the show. My heart is filled with warmth and gratitude at the outpouring of love and support for the project.

 Me, Actor James Seol, and Akiko Kiyama posing with a photo of Henry Kiyama and his parrot

Me, Actor James Seol, and Akiko Kiyama posing with a photo of Henry Kiyama and his parrot

A Visit from the Kiyamas
Akiko Kiyama, the granddaughter of Henry Kiyama (author of the original comic book), flew to California from Japan with her husband Ken'ichi just to see our production of The Four Immigrants. Both were very moved by the performance. Afterwards, when Akiko saw actor James Seol (who plays Henry in the musical), she called him ojiisan - "grandfather." Everyone in the room could sense how special this moment was. There were smiles and tears all around - and lots of photos taken.

Hearing from Asian Americans and Immigrants
While I've been blown away by the positive response from audiences, the reactions from other Asians/Asian Americans have been particularly poignant: how the show made one man feel "proud" to be Asian, how it helped a wife (Asian, but not native to the States) understand more of what her Asian-American husband might have experienced growing up, how a Japanese American felt that the show honored the history of her family and heritage. I've also heard from folks who aren't Asian, but identify as immigrants or are closely connected to their immigrant lineage, saying the show conveys emotions and sentiments they identify with deeply. I'm honored to have created a vehicle for people to process or experience catharsis of some kind — and hopefully keep them entertained along the way.

Thank you to everyone who came to see the show, or who supported it from afar! And of course thank you to the entire cast, crew, creative team, and TheatreWorks for the unforgettable ride this was!

Another Quick Update on Four Immigrants

 L-R: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan), and Fred (Sean Fenton). Photo Credit:  Kevin Berne

L-R: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan), and Fred (Sean Fenton). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Week 2 of rehearsals started off with a rough run-through of the show on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the cast, Leslie (director) and I went on a walking tour of Japantown, San Jose, which brought us all a bit closer to the history behind Henry Kiyama's comic story. Publicity photos have been released (as you can see above)! And as of yesterday, the entire show has been blocked! Now, it's time to review, tighten, and clean up what the actors have already learned, as well as make necessary changes to the script and score along the way. We have our work cut out for us, but everyone in the rehearsal room is a delight to work with! There's a real spirit of collaboration that is exactly what a new musical needs.

Thoughts on Diversity in Broadway Musical Storytelling

Travelers on diverted planes in the wake of 9/11 find themselves in and around the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

In an attempt to fit in, a high schooler tells a lie that gets completely out of control.

A zoom lens is taken to a section of Tolstoy's War and Peace as we follow the romantic story of two outsiders who find each other.

A weatherman is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

These are very roughly (very, very roughly, since I haven't seen any of them!) the plots of the four Best Musical Tony 2017 nominees, which are also the four nominated for Best Original Score and Best Book: Come From AwayDear Evan HansenNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; and Groundhog Day. I love how different these stories are from each other. It's evidence that musical theatre as an art form has really branched out beyond any particular template of storytelling. And it has been like this for a few years now. Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Grey Gardens, Fun Home, Hamilton, Waitress - the subject matter of contemporary musicals is so varied from show to show — even on Broadway, which can often be seen as a purely commercial venture with great potential to fall victim to cookie-cutter producing. This trend is heartening to me, because it shows that commercialism need not win over storytelling. Or even, that good and diverse storytelling can lead to commercial success on Broadway. Something that doesn't seem to ring true for Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet, amidst this diversity of stories is something worth noting: All of the musical theatre writing teams (and even the directors) of the four musicals listed above are white. Of course, I acknowledge that "white" is a largely diverse group in and of itself. The writers come from different countries, and undoubtedly bring different perspectives to musical theatre. But if you look over the Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lyrics Tony nominees over the past twenty years, you'll see that writing acclaimed musical theatre is a very white thing to do (and more often than not, white male). Writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stew are the exceptions, not the norm. And as an Asian American, it's not particularly encouraging that the few times that Asian Americans are heavily featured during the Tony Awards ceremony is due to revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and, this year, Miss Saigon - all stories written by white men. (For the record, I view those shows as simultaneously beneficial for Asian American actors in the industry AND problematic for the perception of Asian Americans in musical theatre as a whole.)

I don't write this to place blame. Or to inflict guilt. The point is observation. All but two of the actors and actresses nominated for performances in a musical this year are white. Who gets to write the stories affects who is represented on the Broadway stage. Who gets to write the stories influences the kinds of stories that get told. I don't necessarily have any magical solutions to this problem, other than to buckle down and write, compose, get better at my craft, learn from other musicals, collaborate with amazing people, and keep advocating for diversity in storytellers as much as diversity in storytelling. Maybe I'll make it to Broadway, maybe I won't. But I hope that no matter where my work gets performed, I'm tilting that dial of representation to better reflect the actual diversity in the US.