Monday, February 01, 2010

[Arts] Teaching a love of Asian American theater?

We've often talked about building a love for traditional Lao dance, Asian American film and encouraging lifelong literacy and a love of reading in youth.

I particularly hope we see more Southeast Asians and Asian Americans developing a deep love of reading for leisure. Today, I'm thinking a lot about our project to bring Refugee Nation to the Twin Cities and that always gets me thinking about Asian American theater.

The live theater tradition is also an important part of our community and cultural growth and development, stretching back to the ancient roots in Asia to the present moment.

There's much to be said about live efforts to express something cultural and meaningful and to plunge deeper into life beyond artifice and digitized expression. All too often, the live performing arts are treated as the broccoli of the art scene. Everyone knows it's good for you, but only a few really relish it.

We need to teach a love of Asian American theater not just to children but to adults.

The best of the main suggestions people usually give for instilling a love of theater? Just go. See a play performed at the theater. Take a risk, and comment on what you saw, ask yourself what you liked, what you disliked. It's ok!

For mainstream theater, people often suggest reading a play out loud. This is much harder in the Asian American community, particularly the Lao American community because there really isn't a big market for contemporary Asian American playwrights scripts and so these are almost impossible to find. I think this seriously handicaps the spread of Asian American theater. You can walk into a bookstore and find Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet, no problem.

But finding a copy of a play by an Asian American playwright? Good luck. Of course, then the question is, how many people can even name an Asian American playwright today?

The same applies to listening to an audio recording of a play read aloud. I think it would be fascinating to see some of our playwrights revive the tradition and create something akin to the old radioplays of the early 20th century. This of course, leads to a lot of heated debate regarding copyright, access to technology, fears of piracy, fears of being sued or not making any money, etc. And I think that's a pity that we're so tied up with that that it's created a chilling effect on the growth and proliferation of Asian American theater.

To me, I think a well-done, compelling audioplay does provide a stronger incentive for audiences to 'try before you buy'.  Even just a few good MP3s of an act or two, anything, would surely be better than where we're currently standing.

People also recommend watching a pre-recorded performance on DVD or video, and I can appreciate this, but I wouldn't call it my absolute favorite approach because there's many parts of the experience, about being up close and live that can't be captured by video cameras.

But, if you're just starting to get interested in Asian American theater, an interesting place to start is with he National Asian American Theater Festival and following the work of companies such as:
Mu Performing Arts
Pangea World Theater
TeAda Productions
Pan Asian Repertory Company
Asian American Theater Company
National Asian American Theater Company
East West Players
Second Generation
KP Actors Gym
and Ma Yi Theater

There are many others that rise and fall in any given year, and I think it's an art form that can energize and excite audiences but we also need to continue to encourage a deep love and participation in the craft for it to realize its fullest potential. I don't think we're anywhere close to that yet.

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