Asian Americans in Theatre - East and West Coast

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Tisa Chang

This East Wind article from 1982 includes interviews with Tisa Chang of Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre and Mako of East/West Players.

 "Asian American theater expresses the Asian American consciousness."


–Tisa Chang

Tisa Chang is the Artistic Director of the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre in New York City. She founded the company in 1972 after a decade of work as a singer, dancer and actress in several Broadway theatrical productions. She is married to Pilipino actor and playwright Ernest Ernestabuba.

The interview was conducted by Fred Houn, a musician, poet and writer for UNITY newspaper.


EAST WIND: What is your background and theatrical training?

Tisa Chang: I came here when I was six years old from China. I studied dance and piano when I was seven. I got my Equity card in 1962 and started working for the American mainstream ... I know how far an Asian American can go in that mainstream ... how limiting it can be. There are just not enough roles. The mainstream today is old fashioned, limited in their enlightenment and progress. It's extremely racist and sexist. I mean, they don't even think one iota more. It just takes a little to say, "Hey, stretch your imagination. Can't you see a Chinese or Japanese in such and such a role, maybe just as a smaller role." They don't think about that. I look at television and I see all men in all these traditional roles or they have very stereotyped images of the Asian man or woman and that can be harmful. Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre exists to combat and to dispel these stereotypes. I do not wish to ever be offered another role as a sneaky, beautiful Oriental femme fatale or bar girl. I mean I've had enough of those and I think I can play roles other than those.

I founded Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre in 1972. The founding concept of Pan-Asian Rep is to mainly showcase ... to search, nurture and showcase Asian American and Asian talent. People say there are no super Asian American stars. That's not true. I believe they have to be found; they have to be nurtured. There's a whole suppository of energies, creative energy and talent but if they don't have any place to utilize, manifest and implement that talent or energy, well then, of course nobody's going to have heard of them.



EAST WIND: What training does Pan-Asian Rep offer?

Tisa Chang: We have a workshop program. It's not that far-reaching at this point. Above all, the workshops are geared to the needs of my actors and productions. Firstly, I do not try to duplicate courses given in New York City. For instance, the Japanese movement class that we had taught by Cheryl Ito, that was absolutely, directly tied to the fact that we did a traditional Japanese play. Well in advance of that, we provided the class so that people could get a little understanding .... This is where you really get people working together consistently and having some Asian tutelage .... We're going to have a Shakespeare class with Nashiko Okama. A lot of people say, "Hey, Shakespeare and Asian actors, they don't really jive." They say we don't have the training. We try to provide an atmosphere where everything is possible. It's very relaxed. It's more like a workshop where we are collaborating rather than anyone teaching someone else.


EAST WIND: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into the professional theater?

Tisa Chang: I would definitely suggest that the professional should go and get all the training possible. If you want to write or if you want to act, go to the best places. It doesn't necessarily mean that that name school is going to ensure you of the talent to be a success, but it is good to get the fundamental discipline. Then, I would also suggest work, actual on-the-job, in-the-field work.

That's again where Pan-Asian Repertory comes in .... It's still very hard finding work all the time, year round work just to practice your craft. This is why people who work 9 to 5 come in to rehearse with us in the evening. They're very proud to take seven weeks out of their lives so to speak, because a true artist is a dedicated person who is not counting pennies and I am so much gratified by people like that because we are a collective working together. We are professionals.


EAST WIND: What's your definition of Asian American theater?

Tisa Chang: Well, Asian American theater is very different from theater companies that produce traditional Asian works. An Asian American theater has to do with works that express the Asian American consciousness. There's a very distinct difference between the Issei and the Sansei, the first and third generation Japanese Americans. There is a very distinct difference between the new Chinese immigrant and the Chinese American who has been here three, four, or five generations. There are all these differences ... and they form a different consciousness. I think Asian American theater should be responsive and should reflect all of these that I've mentioned, because these are all valid experiences.

Asian American theater must above all promote a certain kind of thinking and attitude. It must reflect truthfully whether in a pretty light or not, some of these experiences, whether they are struggles or joys.

We do four productions a year, usually tied to a theme. For instance, one year we do new playwrights. Another year will be classics. One year we'll concentrate on the Japanese American ethos.


EAST WIND: Has Asian American theater utilized traditional Chinese and Japanese techniques?

Tisa Chang: I would say so, yes. I think that there's no way that you can divorce and cut yourself off of certain ties. I have found references in our plays to Kabuki or Noh. There will be references to certain foods or tastes, words, or phrases in that certain language. Asian American theater must draw upon the techniques of our roots and of our heritage when it is appropriate. In "And The Soul Shall Dance" by Wakako Yamaguichi, she wrote a play about immigrant Japanese farmers struggling in the '30s. This lssei couple who came abroad certainly had points of reference with the language, music, songs and dances of their old Japan. So much so that the young wife at the very end of the play in order to symbolize her insanity, her total breaking down and her inability to cope with the pressures of this new land, at the end of the scene, she puts on her old kimono and does a traditional dance.

I have used a story from Peking Opera; I've used certain traditional rhythm and certain aspects of the movements, but I inserted the folk songs that people of my generation would know .... Now a Chinese American who is born here may not have the advantage of growing up with certain songs and melodies as I had, and I think that is a very big loss. I'm pleased to see that in the almost ten years since I've been directing Pan-Asian Rep, there is now a swing to recognizing one's roots and not being ashamed about it. I think there was a real danger for a while. I was the class of '63 so that will give you some time reference. Some Asian Americans who were born here tried very hard to totally deny what their names and faces say they are. They don't want to acknowledge that their parents don't speak English very well. They wanted totally to be so American, to be absorbed and assimilated into the melting pot. You can change your name, but you can't change your face very much short of surgery. I don't think anybody is that desperate to do that. What I'm getting from young people, and when I say young meaning 32 and under, is a sense of real pride in who they are. They understand what it means to be 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation Chinese in America and they go with that. They accept (it). They dare to be different .... We have common experiences and sentiments and that's very helpful so we can band together.


EAST WIND: What kind of links exist among Asian American theaters?

Tisa Chang: I wish there were a better working relationship and immediacy among the companies, but there are three to four in the country. There should be a network to share information.

Asians in the performing arts don't have clout in Washington, D.C. We don't sit on panels at NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). More of us who are experts in our field in the performing arts should start getting into positions of some clout. I wish I would be invited to sit on more panels. Therefore, I would have a direct effect on the emphasis of funding We need more clout and we have to band together to get that.

I feel very positive and optimistic about the collective and creative energies. This is very different from my period ... where some people were a little diffident and sitting back. I'd really like to impress upon young people who have aspirations, don't shirk the work because bullshit doesn't get you anywhere. Do the work! I don't mind working longer or harder. The nice thing is that we ought to do what we do.



"The industry treats the actor's ability as the last item. We want to reverse that at East West Players."

– Mako

Mako's accomplishments as an actor and director-have brought him international praise. Nominated for an Academy Award for his work in The Sand Pebbles, Mako has appeared in 20 films. In 1979, he won acclaim as The Reciter in Pacific Overtures. He recently starred as Oda in Visual Communications' feature film, Hito Hata - Raise the Banner.

One of the founding members of the East/West Players, Mako continues his involvement today as the company's Artistic Director.

The interview was conducted in February 1982 by Alan Kondo, a member of Visual Communications.


EAST WIND: I think a lot of people know about your current work, but they don't know aboutyour history and how you got started in this business.


Mako: Well, I came to this country when I was fifteen ... My parents had come to this country before the war, so I came to join them after the war. Both of my parents are painters, and my father in particular was heading a young artists' movement. They were very involved in the artists' movement to prevent Japanese people from going into war, into Manchuria. Consequently, they were arrested many times. After I was conceived, my mother was jailed, and she spent the next nine months in jail. They had to let her go because I was due. Since I was raised in that kind of environment, both of my parents were totally supportive of anything I chose to do as a profession in the creative line.

At the time, my ambition was to become an architect. So, I enrolled in the school of architecture at the Pratt Institute. I got involved with a couple of friends who were building an off-Broadway stage set, and they asked me to help them. That's how I got involved in theater. Since I knew nothing about theater, I wanted to learn something about acting, something about directing.


EAST WIND: Between then and now, what were some of the major decisions you had to make for yourself that brought you to where you are now?

Mako: Number one, I learned to understand that an actor has a right too. In other words, the choice is his or hers. If the role is demeaning to you or your people, or people in general, the actor has a right to reject. Many times an actor is so eager to work, upon reading a script in which the role that he is to play is demeaning, you justify it to yourself by saying, I think I can rectify the situation." But if it's written in that vein, even though you may try it, it's difficult to change it.

For me it came by way of bitter experience, by having done one of those roles. It's like it goes on record . . . stays on record and somebody will identify you with that role.


EAST WIND: How are Asians treated in Hollywood when you go see the casting director?

Mako: Basically, it boils down to you being a piece of meat. I mean that they're always looking for a type - a physical aspect. If anything, the last criteria is talent or experience.

There's a strange double standard that exists when it comes to an ethnic role. They become so sensitive toward ethnic origin. For instance, if the role is for a Malayasian, they want to find a Malayasian actor. But when it comes to the leading character, they go from the Iist of stars the networks will accept - 102 or 103 names. If you're on that list, origin doesn't matter.

But when it comes to us (Asians), they become overly sensitive. That kind of double standard just doesn't make sense. When they made Roots, they didn't use any African actors. They used Black actors from this country. But when it comes to Shogun or Marco Polo ... In Shogun there was only one (Asian American), Emiko Taka, who functioned as interpreter for Mifune. The Toho people wanted to push their people into an international market, and Asian Americans were left in the back seat although NBC was co-producing. In Marco Polo, it was different. Bulah Quoh, Jimmy Hong, Soon Tek Oh worked in it. But I wasn't Chinese. It's kind of strange, the kind of shit that's going on. We're constantly shoved into the corner, the secondary position. Ultimately where we want to go is to be recognized as actors in any production. The industry treats the actor's ability as the last item on the agenda. What we want to do is reverse that order at least at East West Players.


EAST WIND: What brought about East West Players, and what difficulties did you have?

Mako: The environment in which we were functioning wasn't satisfactory to many of us, Asian American actors, at that time, and we wanted to do something about it. Do productions of our choice; hire a director of our choice who had our point of view. People who started East West Players were Beulah Quoh, James Hong, Pat Lee, June Kim, Yet Lock and myself. Shortly after, Soon Tek Oh joined us, and Alberto Issac. They're working in the industry but not so much working directly with East West. For example, Soon Tek has come back many times to do productions, but he is trying to create a Korean American theater company. It's needed.

At that time, there was funding available, but we didn't want strings attached, so we didn't apply for funding for a long time. Finally, the Ford Foundation gave a two-year grant to develop actors and materials from our own community. That's when we decided to have a national playwriting contest, and two of the applicants were Momoko Iko with "Gold Watch" and Frank Chin with "Chickencoop Chinaman." Through that playwriting contest, we came in contact with those two gifted writers.


EAST WIND: How would you characterize where the Asian American theater movement is at now, in relation to the development you've seen in the past?

Mako: I can only speak in behalf of East West Players. I think we're at a very good place, meaning that people who joined our company ten years ago are beginning to make a livelihood as actors. Therefore, they can afford to work with us. Bob Ito in "Quincy" is one example. When he first came here from Canada with his family, he couldn't even pay membership dues. Realizing his situation, we said, "Maybe you can teach movement" because he was a dancer. He's still on our roster as an active member. One of the reasons East West Players succeeded to the point it is now is that everyone who could afford $10 a month, paid that $10 a month. Our company is a membership-supported company, although we've gotten numerous grants to balance our budget. Hundreds of people have paid $10 a month in the past. Our community support has grown tremendously.

This current season, we have dedicated the whole season to the camp experience. It's something I wanted to do for a long time, but the materials were written by non-Japanese Americans, and usually had a very exotic theme imposed upon the real issue that affected us. So we didn't do those materials. We just didn't feel was right.

One season is really not enough talk about what happened, so we hope to continue to pursue this subject matter. But material has to be written for us to work with. We can't improvise out of thin air.

A number of people were very concerned that the concentration can experience would create a downer of a season. But I said, well, maybe so, but it's something we must do at this point. And it so happened that the whole issue of redress and the hearings happened this year. It wasn't by design, but it coincided.


EAST WIND: The federal cutback: art and culture funding seem to be affecting minority culture the most. How have they affected East West Players?

Mako: So far, not much. We've heard statements from people like Charleton Heston that "minority arts should belong in the Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare." I think what he said is purely a reflection of the President's opinion, and I think it will affect us next year. But we have be preparing ourselves for that sort cutback. In order for us to survive, we cannot rely solely on funding. We have to develop means to survive, a business that can bring revenue to our company. And we can't keep our theater dark. We have to have more productions, whether it's a theatrical production of a music culture or whatever. We have to have people coming into our theater. Small theater companies like ours, every little bit counts. By keeping our doors open, it means more work for us. Like the Issei philosophy, unless you work, you can't bring a dollar home.


EAST WIND: In terms of artistic direction, what's the next step for Asian American theater?

Mako: East West Players must make a transcontinental tour to the East coast, mainly to New York to gain national recognition. In some ways, we're more known outside of Los Angeles. New York is where the bigger corporate headquarters are, so that becomes a must for us if we are to survive.

The main positive thing is that more people are writing. And more Asian American writers are writing for theater. Which is great for us, because without them, we cannot survive.


EAST WIND: What sort of advice would you have for someone just starting out, and interested in Asian American theater?

Mako: Well, actors' work is very tedious. It requires dedication and commitment. Unfortunately, the art of acting is not as scientific as say, studying to become a doctor, but in essence it's just as tedious.

It's not glamorous at all. Starting this summer, we're going through intensive summer training workshops as opposed to weekly sessions. This intensive workshop will keep students busy for six days a week, ten hours or more, for five weeks. That's how long it takes to mount a production. They'll be working on a real production as well as going to classes, rehersal, voice production, movement, what have you. We're talking about 300 hours of work, but that's part of what we go through as actors.


EAST WIND: What did you think about your participation in HITO HATA?

Mako: Being able to participate in the project has been a very positive experience. Although in looking back, there was a problem with the project in terms of collective writing. But knowing that, I enjoyed working with it. I was able to use a lot of composites I had drawn for myself in terms of Issei, drawing from my own personal history. When I first came here, I worked in Harlem, in Chinatown, in various kitchens in New York City. At that time, there were still a lot of lssei working as cooks, dishwashers, pantrymen, what have you. I came into contact with so many of them. I was glad to be able to build a positive composite of Issei, an accumulation of imagery that I collected. Also, the sound from those people - the Japanese they spoke was very provincial, archaic and they Americanized. It was a unique language. In that sense, through HITO HATA, l was able to document a small portion of the sound I have come to love. We all felt good about taking a part in that project. What has been rewarding is people's response during those premieres around the country that Visual Communications has been holding. When I was in Washington, D.C., there was a lady from Kagoshima who was 84. She came up to me and said in Kagoshima dialect, "What province are you from?" Somehow she believed I was from Kagoshima. I spent some time there when I was two or three, but I don't remember anything from those days. People coming up and saying those things is the highest form of reward that an actor can ever get.