It’s a wonderful life for Minnesota playwright, director, producer, theater artist, and musician Rick Shiomi, who was named the 2015 McKnight Distinguished Artist in recognition of artistic excellence spanning four decades. McKnight honored Shiomi in a private reception this week and celebrated the release of his commemorative book.
Now in its 18th year, the annual honor includes a $50,000 cash award and recognizes individual Minnesota artists who have made significant contributions to the quality of the state’s cultural life.
I am very proud to have contributed the overview essay and numerous photos to the book, and even more so to consider Shiomi a friend and colleague.
Other contributors who provided insight into different chapters of Shiomi’s life and career include Tony Award–winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who is also a screenwriter, opera librettist, and currently the director of Columbia University’s School of the Arts’ MFA program in playwriting; Jim Wong-Chu, a writer, editor, historian, and founder of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, Ricepaper magazine, Pender Guy Radio Program, Asia Canadian Performing Arts Resource (ACPAR), literASIAN: A Festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian Writing, and the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Festival; Martha Johnson, co-artistic director of Full Circle Theater Company and a co-founder of Theater Mu; Graydon Royce, theater critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Iris Shiraishi, former artistic director of Mu Daiko, and Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts.
It also features notes from actor and director Raul Aranas, playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, Tisa Chang, Artistic producing director of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Roger Tang, Managing producer, Pork Filled Players and editor, Asian American Theatre Revue, actor Sara Ochs, playwright Lauren Yee, Jennifer Weir, Artistic director of Mu Daiko, Josephine Lee, Professor of English and Asian American studies at University of Minnesota, Seth Rozin, Founder and producing artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company, Don Eitel, Former managing director of Mu Performing Arts, Richard Cook, Artistic director, Park Square Theatre, and Ranee Ramaswamy, Artistic director of Ragamala Dance.
“Given the breadth, scope, and importance of Rick Shiomi’s artistic legacy, there is no single yardstick by which to measure his impact,” said McKnight president Kate Wolford. “It is multifaceted, trailblazing, and extends well beyond his commitment to Asian American theater in the Twin Cities, and we at McKnight are honored to celebrate his accomplishments with this award.”
A seminal leader of the Asian American theater movement since the 1980s, Rick Shiomi has written, produced, or directed over 50 plays during his career. He is perhaps best known as co-founder of St. Twin Cities Theater Mu, dedicated to bringing Asian American voices to the stage.
Shiomi co-founded Theater Mu in 1992 and served as artistic director from 1993 through 2013. Under his leadership, Theater Mu became Mu Performing Arts and grew from a small start-up in an area where Asian American theater was almost nonexistent into a nationally recognized company. (The organization’s name comes from the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.) Shiomi is the recipient of an Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award (2012), a Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision (2007), and a Minnesota State Council for Asian Pacific Minnesotans Award for Leadership (2002). His plays have been included in the anthologies Asian American Plays for a New Generation (Temple University Press, 2011), which he co-edited, and Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing, edited by Rajini Srikanth and Esther Iwanaga (Rutgers University Press, 2001). He was profiled in the January 2009 issue of American Theatre Magazine, the premier publication spotlighting trends in American theater.
“I feel it’s a huge recognition of all the work I’ve done over the past forty years, from my work in the Asian Canadian cultural community in Vancouver in the 1970’s through my theater work in San Francisco and New York in the 1980’s followed by my work at Mu Performing Arts from 1992 through 2013 and even now my work in Philadelphia helping to develop and promote Asian American theater there,” said Shiomi. “And the award recognizes the importance of the cause itself of Asian American culture and community. It’s been a long and winding road full of tremendous experiences with fascinating folks, and I feel truly blessed to have been on that road and now being honored at this point with this award.”
As a playwright, Shiomi’s work includes the award-winning Yellow Fever, which has been produced off-Broadway, around North America and in Japan; was awarded the Bay Area Theater Circle Critics Award for best new play in 1982; and received rave reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker. Other notable plays include Play Ball, Rosie’s Cafe, Walleye Kid, Mask Dance and Journey of the Drum. As a director he has worked extensively with Mu Performing Arts, where his credits include Temple of Dreams by Marcus Quiniones, Song of the Pipa (which he also wrote), an Asian-inspired production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the David Hwang version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. His choice to direct plays from the American musical theater canon — including A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, and The King and I — provided rare and groundbreaking opportunities for Asian actors to perform in roles generally unavailable to them.
His work has been showcased locally at the Guthrie, Intermedia Arts, Mixed Blood, Ordway, Park Square, Stages, Southern, and SteppingStone theaters, among others; nationally at Asian American Theater Company (San Francisco), East West Players (Los Angeles), InterAct Theatre (Philadelphia), Pan Asian Repertory (New York), and Theatre Esprit Asia (Denver); and internationally at Firehall Theater in Vancouver and Haisho Theatre Company and Ryuzanji Theater Company, both in Tokyo.
Born and raised in Toronto, Shiomi’s perspective as a Japanese Canadian figures prominently in his art and life. His parents were among the many Canadians of Japanese descent forced into internment camps during World War II; their experiences in the camp are a strong theme in many of his works. Shiomi graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in history in 1970, received a teaching diploma from Simon Fraser University, and went on to travel the world, teaching in Japan and Hong Kong before returning to Canada, this time settling in Vancouver, British Columbia. In Vancouver, he helped organize the Powell Street Festival, edited a film designed to teach children about Japanese Canadian history, and became an active member of the Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association, where he helped edit Inalienable Rice: A Chinese & Japanese Canadian Anthology (Chinese Canadian Writers Workshop, 1973). It was during this time he met playwrights David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, both of whom were influential in his artistic development.
Shiomi has helmed a variety of national projects, panels, conferences and festivals, including cofounding the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), the national service organization for the Asian American theater community, where he served on the board from 2006 through 2014. Another major field of artistic work for Shiomi is Mu Daiko, a taiko group within Mu Performing Arts, which he established in 1997. He was the leader of Mu Daiko through 2010, training drummers, composing taiko music and directing annual performances at multiple venues in Minnesota. He has served on many Minnesota State Arts Board, Theater Communications Group and NEA panels.
In 2014, Shiomi was awarded a Doris Duke grant for Building Demand for the Arts program to work with InterAct Theatre and Asian Arts Initiative to develop Asian American theater and audiences in Philadelphia. The coalition of Philadelphia theaters participating in the Philadelphia Asian Theater Project (PATP) include Azuka Theatre, EgoPo Classic Theater, InterAct Theatre Company, Kaleid Theatre, Lantern Theater Company, People’s Light, Plays and Players, and The Wilma Theater. In addition to The Asian Arts Initiative, PAPA (Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists) is a PATP supporter.
The first productions supported by PATP in the 2014/15 season were Caught by Christopher Chen produced by InterAct Theatre Company, Hold These Truths by Jeannie Sakata produced by Plays and Players, and Take/Sacrifice by Kaleid Theatre at Mz. Fest hosted by Plays and Players.
Shiomi is thriving in his freelance life after his tenure with Mu, with two projects in Philadelphia, one with InterAct Theatre continuing the work from the Doris Duke grant for Building Demand for the Arts; and one with the Lantern Theater Company to write and direct a new play for them, based upon the book, The Ronin, by William Jennings. He also directed the Park Square Theatre’s production of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive featuring Kurt Kwan, Sarah Ochs, Emily A. Grodzik, Robert Gardner, Melanie Wehrmacher, Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens.
InterAct Theatre Company’s world premiere of Christopher Chen’s CAUGHT garnered multiple Barrymore Award nominations including Outstanding Direction of a Play for Shiomi, Outstanding Overall Production of a Play, Outstanding Scenic Design (Melpomene Katakalos), the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist for actress Bi Jean Ngo, and won for the Independence Foundation Award for Outstanding New Play.
This year Shiomi started a new theater company called Full Circle Theater Company, with a focus on diversity. The company presented Theater: A Sacred Passage, an original performance piece devised by the five core artists of Full Circle from their personal journeys into theater. The artists/playwrights included Shiomi, James Williams, Martha Johnson, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth. Their stories embody the challenges and transformational experiences they have had in becoming theater artists and how their lives and work reflect the huge changes in our theater community over the past two decades. Theater: A Sacred Passage, helmed by Shiomi and featuring dramaturgy by Martha Johnson, incorporates acting, storytelling, choreography and music.
ABOUT THE MCKNIGHT DISTINGUISHED ARTIST AWARD
The McKnight Distinguished Artist Award recognizes individuals who help lay the foundation for Minnesota’s rich cultural life. Despite opportunities to work elsewhere, they chose to stay — and by staying, they have made a difference. Previous recipients are composer Dominick Argento (1998), ceramic artist Warren MacKenzie (1999), writer Robert Bly (2000), choral conductor Dale Warland (2001), publisher Emilie Buchwald (2002), painter Mike Lynch (2003), orchestra conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (2004), sculptor Judy Onofrio (2005), theater artist Lou Bellamy (2006), sculptor Kinji Akagawa (2007), writer Bill Holm (2008), theater artist Bain Boehlke (2009), sculptor Siah Armajani (2010), dance artist Ranee Ramaswamy (2011), poet John Caddy (2012), theater artist Wendy Lehr (2013), and theater artist Sandy Spieler (2014).
ABOUT THE MCKNIGHT FOUNDATION
The McKnight Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations through grantmaking, collaboration, and encouragement of strategic policy reform. Founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, the Minnesota-based Foundation had assets of approximately $2 billion and granted about $86 million in 2014. Of the total, over $9 million went to support working artists to create and contribute to vibrant communities, because Minnesota thrives when its artists thrive. More at mcknight.org, on Facebook and Twitter.
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
Randy Reyes Leads Cast of Mu Performing Arts’ Production of A Little Night Music, Helmed by Rick Shiomi at Park Square Theatre
Kurt Kwan, Sara Ochs, Eric Sharp and More Set for Mu Performing Arts production of R.A. Shiomi’s Yellow Fever in Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, March 8-24, 2013
Photos: Yellow Fever Playwright Rick Shiomi Explores New Territory with An All-Female Cast
Mu’s landmark 21st Season features a brand new Taiko Concert, Lauren Yee’s The Tiger Among Us, and Rick Shiomi’s Award-Winning comedy Yellow Fever
Rick Shiomi helms Mu Performing Arts’ Asian American Cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, July 17-August 5, 2012
Mu Performing Arts’ Little Shop of Horrors on 2 ‘Best of’ Lists; Women in Arts Panel on 1/29, in Conjunction with Mu Daiko’s 15th Anniversary Concert and Tour
Mu Daiko 15th Anniversary Concert and Minnesota Tour, February 9-19, 2012
Photos: Opening Night of Mu Performing Arts’ Katie Hae Leo’s Four Destinies
Photos: Backstage at Mu Performing Arts’ Four Destinies by Katie Hae Leo
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
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
“Asian American Plays for a New Generation”, A New Anthology of Asian American Plays Is Subject of Book Talk
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