Artist, Immigrant: Chiori Miyagawa

by Marcy Arlin

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,Global Citizenship,Interviews

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The United States is a multicultural nation, and nowhere is that truer than in the arts. However, the full range of the diverse cultures working in the arts often occurs out of the spotlight. As Artistic Director of Immigrants’ Theatre Project I have worked with immigrant theatre artists from over ninety nations, including the Native American nations, and people who are part of the African Diaspora. These artists have navigated – whether for decades or only a few months – not only making a living in our society but the sometimes byzantine combination of talent and connections that is “making it” in the theatre. In this blog series I want to celebrate their work, focusing on those artists who, while known to those who work in ethnic, multicultural theatre, may remain hidden from the mainstream audience. I am curious about how they feel about being bicultural, speaking lines in a second (or third) language, finding work, and what their unique perspective can offer American theatre. -Marcy Arlin 

Chiori Miyagawa and I first met at the Women’s Project eons ago when I was in their Director’s Forum and she was in the Playwrights’ group. She spoke of working and writing as an Asian woman, of finding the right director for her work. Over the years I’ve seen readings of her work, a production and most recently as a co-member of the League of Professional Theatre Women International Committee. Whatever milieu. Chiori’s voice is her own, unique and original and deeply moving.

1. What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?

I came to the U.S. when I had just turned sixteen from a small town in Nagano, Japan. There was no theater there when I was growing up. So “theater in the U.S.” is basically the same thing to me as “theater”. My international theater experience is not extensive. What I love about theater is that in NYC, on any given day, hundreds of theatrical events are going on. When I’m watching a show in a tiny theater in an unremarkable building three flights up stairs, it’s inspiring to think that so many other shows like it are going on simultaneously. Even with miniscule government funding (a fact I don’t love), theater artists can’t be stopped. They will put up shows no matter what the obstacles are. I love that.

2. What do you miss about working in your homeland?

I have never done theater in my homeland, if you mean homeland as being the country where I was born. Once when I visited with some theater artists in Japan, the gender hierarchy I witnessed made me nuts. My guess is I wouldn’t have coped with that very well if I’d practiced theater there. In my chosen homeland, I’ve been fortunate to be able to keep doing theater for many years.

3. How have your combined in your work both countries’ theatre training and culture? 

I’ve had no significant theater training outside the U.S., but I did study a little Noh Theater when I was invited to Japan as a U.S. playwright by Theater Nohgaku. Erik Ehn was part of the invited group, and he has written many plays using the Noh play structure since the trip. I suppose I had cultural baggage about doing the same—tradition is something Japanese people value in general, and I didn’t feel capable of using a form that carries such a deep tradition. It took me years to think about where I could go with what I learned and love about Noh Theater. Only recently, I wrote This Lingering Life, which does not follow the structure of Noh, but is a free adaptation of the stories, updated and moved across the ocean.

There must have been some unconscious influence of my native culture on my work even before I learned about Noh Theater as an adult. Many of my plays have spirits, both living and from the dead, and they inhabit my theatrical world as a norm, not as a deviation from it. Somewhere deep in my psyche may live bits and pieces of ghost stories from the Edo era or maybe the influence is from my childhood manga and anime, which were magical.

4. How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?

It has mattered in different ways at different times of my life. At the beginning, it was very important for me to be American. Because of this commitment to be one thing, my Japanese language deteriorated over the years. Those were strange years—my attitude allowed me to join the mainstream theater, but I was also in a process of losing something, too. Only recently, I came to understand that I don’t have a particular culture or identity that wholly describes who I am. I’m a hybrid of acquired American beliefs and imagined Japanese sentiments. I now try to think of it as an asset rather than a liability as a theater artist and a human being.

4. How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)

My ethnicity and representation in the field is a larger issue I can’t possibly attempt to address here, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. I do speak with an accent, but haven’t noticed that it matters too much in the non-profit theater community. Sometimes people ask me to be part of some translation project even though I’ve never translated anything. But that rarely happens. Overall, I find theater people to be very cool—they just let me be Chiori. Once I step out of theater, like into academia for example, I am still told and asked many outrageous things, such as, “You are the voice of your people.” Or, “Do you get published in English?”

5. What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?

I have two collections of plays out this year. Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays from Seagull Books and America Dreaming and Other Plays from NoPassport Press. Please do get one or both! They are in English! The Seagull book will be available also in the UK and India.

I’m working as a dramaturg on Godfrey Simmons and Brandt Adams’ play, Dispatches from (A)mended America. It’s based on interviews they conducted in the South immediately after the election of President Obama. The play pushes the envelope on the discussion of race, not in an in-your-face way, but in an I’m-feeling-this way. There will be a workshop presentation at United Palace, directed by Ron Russell, produced by Epic Theatre Ensemble, March 8-10.

I’m one of the playwrights of DREAM Act Union (a group of seven women artists, sort of like seven samurai, but not). We are presenting our collectively written play, Dream Acts, at HERE, March 23-25. The project’s purpose is to raise awareness of the DREAM Act bill, which intends to give legal pathway to undocumented youth—who entered the country before they were sixteen to be with their parents—if they go to college or serve in the military for two years. The bill failed to pass during the lame duck session of the last Congress, but it has been re-introduced. Our aim is to raise awareness of the challenges that these youth face daily and the facts of the bill through a theatrical event among our peers—theater makers and audiences. I have never been undocumented as an immigrant, but I remember what it feels to be sixteen and not belong. Please come see it. It’s also in English! Collectively written by Mia Chung, Jessica Litwak, Chiori Miyagawa, Saviana Stanescu, and Andrea Thome, directed by Kristin Horton, with consulting dramaturgy by Suzy Fay.

6. Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?

When I first came to the U.S., my host family took me to a Broadway show, which was The King and I. I didn’t understand any of it. I don’t know if the family chose the show because they wanted to see it or because they thought I’d feel at home seeing an “Asian” setting. I wasn’t all that impressed. The first Broadway show that blew my mind was Dreamgirls. It’s possible that I’ve had ethnic confusion.

8. What is your residency/citizenship/visa status? How does it affect your life as an artist?

I am a U.S. citizen. I have gone through the process from having a student visa to a green card to becoming a citizen over many years. By the time I became a theater artist, I was a permanent resident, and when Clinton became president, I let go of my Japanese citizenship and became naturalized. I was the literary manager of Arena Stage then—I remember deciding to become a citizen on that election night.

Chiori Miyagawa is a NYC-based resident playwright of New Dramatists. Her plays have been produced off-Broadway, at renowned performance houses in NYC, and regionally. She is a recipient of many fellowships and grants including a McKnight Playwriting Fellowship, a Rockefeller MAP Grant (twice), a New York Foundation for the Arts Playwriting Fellowship, a Rockefeller Bellagio Residency Fellowship, a TCG Extended Collaboration Grant, and a Radcliffe Advanced Studies Fellowship at Harvard University. Two collections of her plays have been published recently: Thousand Years Waiting and Other Plays by Seagull Books and America Dreaming and Other Plays by NoPassport Press. She is the head of the undergraduate playwriting program at Bard College under the theater department chair, JoAnne Akalaitis, and a member of PEN American Center and The Dramatist’s Guild.

Marcy Arlin is a freelance director and Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. A member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She recently directed The Farnsworth Invention for Oddfellows Playhouse in Connecticut. Current projects are the readings series Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New; and East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, a binational, trilingual (Vietnamese, Czech, English) theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese, in collaboration with Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, VA, and Divadlo Feste, in Brno, Czech Republic. Directing venues include: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, Vineyard, Oddfellows, Artheatre/Koln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania/Cluf. Created Journey Theatre, working with survivors of war and torture. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Lecturer in theatre at CUNY; taught workshops on community-based theatre at Yale, University of Chicago, Brown, and NYU.