Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Up Close and Personal with Rick Shiomi, Award-winning Playwright & Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts

Rick Shiomi at a book party in New York for Asian American Plays for a New Generation on July 29, 2011. Photo by Lia Chang

Rick Shiomi at a book party in New York for Asian American Plays for a New Generation on July 29, 2011. Photo by Lia Chang


For nearly 30 years, groundbreaking Asian-North American playwright Rick Shiomi has worked as a successful theater and taiko artist, a theater director, and a composer. The Toronto native is the author of more than twenty plays, including my favorite, the award-winning Yellow Fever, which garnered Shiomi a 1982 Bay Area Theater Circle Critics Award, a 1982 “Bernie” for new play from the San Francisco Chronicle , and a 1984 Ontario Multicultural Theater Award.
Mask Dance, written and directed by Shiomi.  Photo credit: Charissa Uemura Photography

Mask Dance, written and directed by Shiomi. Photo credit: Charissa Uemura Photography


Shiomi resides in Minneapolis, MN, where he has served as the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, a pan-Asian performing arts organization he helped to co-found, for 19 years.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo credit: Charissa Uemura Photography

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo credit: Charissa Uemura Photography


Lauded as a visionary force who has paved the way and provided opportunities for a generation of Asian American theater artists in the Midwest,Shiomi has been recognized with a 1990 Ruby Schaar Yoshino Playwriting Award for Uncle Tadao, a 2000 Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Collaborations Award with Cha Yang and SteppingStone Theatre for Tiger Tales: Hmong Folktales, 2002 Asian-Pacific Leadership Award for Excellence & Innovation in the Arts from the State of Minnesota Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans , a 2006 Award from the Powell Street Festival on the 30th anniversary of the Festival, and a 2007 Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision.

As the founder and artistic director of Mu Daiko, Mu Performing Arts’ taiko division, Shiomi was honored with a 1998 MN State Arts Board Cultural Collaborations Award for taiko drumming, a collaboration with Ragamala Music and Dance Theater, a 2002 Paddle and Drum Composition Award for Chrysanthemum Dawn and a 2004 Paddle and Drum Composition Award for Kiyomizu Cascade. He recently retired as the taiko leader with Iris Shiraishi taking over the leadership of Mu Daiko.

Rogers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, with a new book by David Henry Hwang, directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo by Michal Daniel

Rogers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, with a new book by David Henry Hwang, directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo by Michal Daniel


This summer, Shiomi was on a week long book tour for Mu Performing Arts in Philadelphia, in Washington D.C. at the Library of Congress, and in New York, promoting “Asian American Plays for a New Generation” (Temple University Press, June 2011), which he co-edited with Josephine Lee and Don Eitel. Click here to read more about “Asian American Plays for a New Generation”, available online at Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/Asian-American-Plays-New-Generation/dp/1439905169
Mu Performing Arts kicks off their 20th Anniversary with Four Destinies.  Photo by Stephen Geffre

Mu Performing Arts kicks off their 20th Anniversary with Four Destinies. Photo by Stephen Geffre

He is in pre-production as Mu Performing Arts’ kicks off their new season with the world premiere of Katie Hae Leo’s satirical exploration of adoption Four Destinies, directed by Suzy Messerole, on October 15 at Mixed Blood Theatre.
Playwrights David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda and Rick Shiomi in San Francisco in 1988. A version of this photo appeared in a feature article in the Feb.- Mar. 1989 edition of Mother Jones.  Photo by Cynthia Wallace

Playwrights David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda and Rick Shiomi in San Francisco in 1988. A version of this photo appeared in a feature article in the Feb.- Mar. 1989 edition of Mother Jones. Photo by Cynthia Wallace


Shiomi is clad in a striped black shirt and black slacks when he slides into the banquette at Cinema Brasserie for our lunch during his short visit to New York. While noshing on fried calamari and a roasted turkey club, he reminisced about the good old days with fellow pioneering theater artists Philip Kan Gotanda, Marc Hayashi, David Henry Hwang and Lane Nishikawa, how he became a playwright, his path to success, the genesis of Mu Performing Arts, the Library of Congress, projects in the works and what’s in store as the company celebrates its 20th anniversary.

LC: How did you get into playwriting?
RS: For as long as I can remember, perhaps even into childhood, I felt this urge to write stories. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to firstly find something of my own to say and secondly, the medium of writing to express it. For example, I dreamed of writing the valedictorian speech for my high school graduation, but when I sat down to write nothing came out. So I put that dream away.

Rick Shiomi  Photo by Lia Chang

Rick Shiomi Photo by Lia Chang


During my university days I thought of writing but felt too inadequate to study English so I studied history and then political science. I graduated and left Toronto and moved to Vancouver, where I got my teaching diploma in 1972 and promptly left to travel the world. That trip around the world took two years but even then, when I tried to write some short stories in Hong Kong, nothing came out.

I returned to Vancouver in 1974 and gradually became involved in an Asian Canadian activist group that included a lot of artists, including many poets. I knew early on that I was a poor poet, and struggled mightily with my prose writing. I did get one story published in Time Capsule, a New York magazine but the primary discovery for me was that of Japanese Canadian history and the internment camps. I felt I had found my own motherlode of artistic treasure and now only needed to find the way to express it. The first incarnation was a Woody Allenesque short story detective comedy, with the main character inspired by a Nisei man who reminded me of the tv detective, Columbo. I wrote a hundred pages almost overnight.

Philip Kan Gotanda, Rick Shiomi and David Henry Hwang photos by Lia Chang

Philip Kan Gotanda, Rick Shiomi and David Henry Hwang photos by Lia Chang


I had had the good fortune to get to know Philip Gotanda through his music but I knew he was also an emerging playwright at the time. And I asked him to read my detective comedy. After a few days, I asked Philip what he thought of my story and he pulled out one page and said he liked that one. He said he liked the dialogue, because it was tight and seemed to flow easily. He asked me if I had ever thought of turning it into a play and I said I hadn’t because there was no such thing as Asian Canadian theater at the time (circa 1979). So he suggested I submit the story to the Asian American Workshop in San Francisco, the company he had worked with on his plays. And that started me on a two year journey to adapt the short story into a play.
R.A. Shiomi's award-winning play Yellow Fever.  Photo by John To

R.A. Shiomi's award-winning play Yellow Fever. Photo by John To


LC: What was the process of writing your first play like?
RS: I had to learn about playwriting from the ground up, with many laughable moments along the way. When the company asked me to submit an outline for the play, I put together an eight act, fifty scene outline. They eventually asked me to write a first draft of a the first act and I did so. On the basis of that, they took on my project with Marc Hayashi as my dramaturg. Marc worked with me for about a year, in which he guided me to my own writing, even to the extent of telling me to concentrate on the conflicts I had created in the first act. When I did, the lighbulb in my head began to turn on.

As fate would have it, Marc was cast in a show in New York and Lane Nishikawa was assigned to be my director for the actual production. As we worked through rehearsal and I rewrote virtually every scene, I felt like this was a time of grace for me because playwriting could not be this easy. I was right (fortunately and unfortunately) and as the play came together, I discovered my own particular style. The play, Yellow Fever, was produced in March 1982 and was a big hit for the company. It won both the Bay Area Theater Circle Critics Award and a “Bernie” for new play.

LC: What happened with you and Yellow Fever after that initial production?
RS: I sent it to Pan Asian Repertory Theater in New York and they produced it in December of that same year and it received rave reviews by Mel Gussow in the New York Times and Edith Oliver in the New Yorker Magazine. And suddenly I was a playwright, as if overnight, but in fact after fifteen years of searching for my own story and voice.

Tisa Chang, Artistic Producing Director of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Carla Ching, Artistic Director of Second Generation, Rick Shiomi, Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, Jorge Ortoll, Executive Director of Ma-Yi Theater  Photo by Lia Chang

Tisa Chang, Artistic Producing Director of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Carla Ching, Artistic Director of Second Generation, Rick Shiomi, Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, Jorge Ortoll, Executive Director of Ma-Yi Theater Photo by Lia Chang


I would never have the same level of success again, having written over twenty plays over the past thirty years, but I am still a playwright and feel blessed for having that. My writing career of course never went as smoothly as that first play. I wrote such plays as Rosie’s Café, Uncle Tadao and Play Ball in the latter 1980’s into the 1990’s but though they got a number of productions, I never had the same success. Of course, Yellow Fever itself went on to be produced across the country over the next several years and cyclically gets revival productions as part of the classic canon of Asian American theater. By the early 1990’s I felt that I had somehow written the plays I had wanted to.
The Magic Bus to Asian Folktales by R.A. Shiomi, Cha Yang and Jaz Canlas. Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts

The Magic Bus to Asian Folktales by R.A. Shiomi, Cha Yang and Jaz Canlas. Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts


LC: What was the genesis of Mu Performing Arts?
RS: It began with Dong-il Lee, a U of M graduate student asking me to help him start an Asian American company in 1992. We involved theater professor Martha Johnson of Augsburg College, Diane Espaldon as the managing director and young artist Andrew Kim. Dong-il was the initial artistic director but left Minnesota after the first year and I took over. It took at least ten years to develop the core of our company but we are now riding a wave of talented young (under forty year olds) theater artists.
Walleye Kid: The Musical! by R.A. Shiomi and Sundraya Kase; Music by Kurt Miyashiro.  Photo by John Autey

Walleye Kid: The Musical! by R.A. Shiomi and Sundraya Kase; Music by Kurt Miyashiro. Photo by John Autey


LC: What makes Mu Performing Arts unique?
RS: Mu has been in the forefront of not only developing new plays like Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee, Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco and Asiamnesia by Sun Mee Chomet, but also combining traditional Asian art forms with contemporary Asian American stories, as in Walleye Kid, The Musical, and Filipino Hearts.
Filipino Hearts by R. A. Shiomi and Allen Malicsi, Music and Lyrics by Kurt Miyashiro.  Photo courtesy of MU Performing Arts

Filipino Hearts by R. A. Shiomi and Allen Malicsi, Music and Lyrics by Kurt Miyashiro. Photo courtesy of MU Performing Arts


LC: The Library of Congress just celebrated the launch of “Asian American Plays for A New Generation,” an anthology co-edited by you, Josephine Lee and Don Eitel, of a number of plays that were developed at Mu. In addition, LOC just created a collection in your name in the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection, and will also be a repository for the archives of Mu Performing Arts. What does this mean to you?
RS: It means a tremendous step forward for our company. The anthology by Temple University Press gives a national recognition to our work this past ten years and ensures our company will be studied by the next generation of students at the university level. And a hundred years from now Mu Performing Arts may not exist, but our place in Asian American theater history will be secure in the Library of Congress.
Rick Shiomi in the Asian Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. on July 27, 2011. Photo by Lia Chang

Rick Shiomi in the Asian Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. on July 27, 2011. Photo by Lia Chang


LC: Do you have any writing projects in the works?
RS: I am in the process of talking to several prose writers about possible adaptations of their work for the stage, plus I have a few musical theater projects in the works. And as I myself am in the process of submitting my own personal files to the Library of Congress, I have come across several plays that have sparked my interest again.

LC: Is there a common theme in your plays?
RS: I am an Asian American playwright without doubt and so that’s my territory, but over the years I have become aware of how increasingly complex that territory is, and how much more fun and sophisticated we can all be as artists and activists.

LC: Where do you see yourself in three years?
RS: In three years I will be retired from Mu Performing Arts, leaving it with a bright future, I hope. I will, of course, continue as a consulting artist to Mu, but there are so many new and exciting ideas and talented Asian American artists that I feel free to take up any challenge or project and go with it.

LC: What inspires you?
RS: Talented people and challenging situations/issues. When I encounter someone with talent I am excited to work with them and give them whatever support I can. When I encounter difficult situations, like the issue of Korean adoption and the Hmong immigration, I want to bring more attention to it through our art.

LC: What are you most passionate about?
RS: I am most passionate about the next generation of Asian American theater artists and how they will find their place in the world, not just the American, theater landscape.

Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods, reimagined and directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo by Stephen Geffre

Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods, reimagined and directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo by Stephen Geffre


LC: What’s on tap for the 2011-2012 Mu Performing Arts season, as the company celebrates its 20th year?
RS: We have new plays dealing with adoption (Four Destinies) and LGBTQI issues (Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them) and an Asian American re-imagining of the classic musical Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim, which I will direct. We are always looking forward and yet respecting and interpreting the past. Click here to read more about Mu Performing Arts 2011-2012 20th Anniversary Season.
Mu Performing Arts Website

Other Articles by Lia Chang
Mu Performing Arts 2011-2012 20th Anniversary Season: Four Destinies, Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, Into the Woods, & Mu Daiko 15th Anniversary Concert
Photos: On the town with Rick Shiomi, Co-Editor of “Asian American Plays for a New Generation”, in D.C. & NY
Temple Press: Rick Shiomi recounts his tour for “Asian American Plays for a New Generation”
Mu Blog: Rick Shiomi’s Book Tour Logbook
knightarts.org: Reading on the road inside the book tour
Extended through 8/23- “In Rehearsal” Lia Chang Theater Portfolio at Library of Congress Featuring Robert Lee and Leon Ko’s Heading East Starring BD Wong, Thom Sesma as Scar in The Lion King Las Vegas
Broadwayworld.com Photo Flash: Library of Congress’ IN REHEARSAL Exhibit
Lia Chang Theater Portfolio at Library of Congress Features Photos of Thom Sesma’s Makeup Transformation as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King Las Vegas, Robert Lee and Leon Ko’s Heading East Starring BD Wong, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, and Samrat Chakrabarti and Sanjiv Jhaveri’s Bakwas Bumbug! on View Through August 2
Photos: Rick Shiomi Checks out Performing Arts Playwrights Series in the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection of Library of Congress; Attends “Asian American Plays for a New Generation” Book Signing in NY on 7/29 “Asian American Plays for a New Generation”, A New Anthology of Asian American Plays Is Subject of Book Talk
broadwayworld.com: Chinglish in Rehearsal
asiancemagazine.com: New Anthology of Asian American Plays Book Talk
Portraits of New York Chinatown After 9/11 Featured in “Post 9/11”: Commemorative Display at Library of Congress Asian Reading Room, 8/30-9/15
Photos: Christine Toy Johnson, Angela Lin, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Jake Manabat, David Shih in Jen Silverman’s Crane Story at The Cherry Lane
Goodman Theatre World Premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Broadway Bound “Chinglish” Scores 5 Jeff Award Nods
H I R O S H I M A in Benefit Concert for Japan on 9/21 at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in NY
Tony Award Winner Lea Salonga Leads Stellar Cast in First All-Filipino Concert for Philippine Development Foundation, “PhilDev Celebrates Broadway: Suites by Sondheim” at Alice Tully Hall on 11/7
OCA Awards Gala Photos: David Henry Hwang, Tamlyn Tomita, BD Wong, Dr. Bobby Fong & Tammy Duckworth
Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.


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Lia Chang Photo by Brianne Michelle Photography

Lia Chang Photo by Brianne Michelle Photography

Lia Chang is an actor, performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multimedia journalist.

As a photographer and videographer, Lia collaborates with artists, organizations and companies in establishing their documentary photo archive and social media presence. She has been documenting her colleagues and contemporaries in the arts, fashion and journalism since making her stage debut as Liat in the National Tour of South Pacific, with Robert Goulet and Barbara Eden. Lia currently plays Nurse Lia on “One Life to Live”. She has appeared in Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and “New York Undercover”.

Selections of Lia’s archive of Asian Pacific Americans in the arts, fashion, journalism, politics and space are now in the newly created LIA CHANG THEATER PORTFOLIO in the ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN PERFORMING ARTS COLLECTION housed in the Library of Congress Asian Division’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection.

Lia’s portraits and performance photos have appeared in Vanity Fair, Gourmet, German Elle, Women’s Wear Daily, The Paris Review, TV Guide, Daily Variety, Interior Design, American Theatre, Broadwayworld.com, Life & Style, OUT, New York Magazine, InStyle, Timeout.com, Villagevoice.com, Playbill.com, Theatermania.com, thelmagazine.com, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post. A former syndicated arts and entertainment columnist for KYODO News, Lia is the New York Bureau Chief for AsianConnections.com. She writes about culture, style and Asian American issues for a variety of publications and this Backstage Pass with Lia Chang blog.

All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2011 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at liachangpr@gmail.com.

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