Artist, Immigrant: Tran T Thuc Hanh

by Marcy Arlin

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,Global Citizenship

Post image for Artist, Immigrant: Tran T Thuc Hanh

(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)
I recently worked with Hanh in a reading about Vietnamese immigrants in the Czech Republic. She read in English, researched and recited Vietnamese poetry. She is a remarkable actor and human being. She is the perfect example of having your art and social responsibility work as one.

What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
I love that there is so much offered and it’s so diverse, in style and form, scope and scale, purpose and subject matters, perspectives and origins… and we don’t get only American theatre here, either.   The range helps to keep me open and to spark me.  In the US, artists come from all different backgrounds and audience members come from all different backgrounds. Our seemingly different stories intersect in surprising places and we can relate and connect in unexpected ways.  It’s always great to hear the feedback.

What do you miss about working in your homeland?
I was on TV in Vietnam only as a child in the 70s so those experiences were very different because TV and TV programming was very new to Vietnam then. The day our family got the first TV on the block, the whole neighborhood came over to watch.

I do miss working in Hong Kong and how much easier it was to create there, especially for developing artists.  Resources were easily found; everything was more affordable.  Although there was definitely an international scene, the arts community was small and collaborations were natural, so I was in on all parts of production.  I could just take a vision and run with it. To be fair though, this was the early 90’s, so it helped to have a good economy and that I was teaching at the HK Academy for the Performing Arts, which had great people and great facilities.

Something else that I noticed about HK was that artists had a better network of support for certain things outside of the theater, like childcare for their children for example. People don’t live so far from their family like many of us do here, the community is tighter, and domestic and general help is more affordable. So I think it’s easier to focus on making art.   

How have you combined, in your work, both countries’ theatre training and culture?
I didn’t train in Vietnam so I can’t speak to that, but certainly both countries’ cultures affect who I am and what I bring to my work.  In the US though, more often, the roles I play are Asian from Asia, and sometimes the play’s not set in America or even in the 20th Century.  So for those, I need to “turn off” my American reflexes.  To me it’s intriguing to find where specific aspects of a particular culture or a cultural identity affect a character and where the universal human experience and basic instincts drive and link her to everyone else.

How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
I don’t really identify myself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant.  I’m an artist who’s an immigrant, also a mother, a survivor of violence, a dreamer, a pragmatist.  Having said that however, I did start to choreograph because I felt that no one at the time was telling the Vietnam story that I wanted to tell.  It was also at the time when I’d become pretty assimilated in America and had begun to set out to learn more about the war.  I started pieces of movements and images in the US, but it was a year later when I went to the Vietnamese refugee camp in the Philippines that everything came together into a cohesive expression.  So I performed our story, my first work, for the first time, not for my originally targeted American audience who I thought might not know it but needed to hear, but for the Vietnamese refugees who did know it.  And as some of them told me afterwards, who wanted to be heard.  One person also told me it gave him hope that the young immigrants didn’t forget their roots.

Now I’m still thrilled to find works about or with Vietnamese people (that aren’t simply a demeaning stereotype). The preparation for each work to do with the war gets pretty intense and emotional.  No matter how much I knew and researched before, there is always more to discover, always something that shakes me anew.  And I feel privileged to be able perform it, as a way to honor the people that experienced it, to connect.

The immigrant experience is less intense for me but also gives me much to draw on and is equally meaningful to play.

How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
Because I don’t really have an accent, I think my getting work here has more to do with me being Asian in general rather than being an immigrant specifically, though being bilingual can be an asset.  While this has meant fewer opportunities, I appreciate the work I get because I do enjoy playing Vietnamese and Asian roles.

I also love acting in Vietnamese and in bilingual work.  Vietnamese is a fun expressive language.  It can be melodic and poetic, and it can be explosive and cutting.   What’s more, when a performer utters words in a language that the audience doesn’t understand, I think we get another level of communication that is beautiful.  The speaker must be more committed to his message and the receiver is more active.

On the flip side of that, I appreciate finding just the right word with all its nuances and connotations.  When I translate a poem, a song, or part of a script, I realize that there’re also a style, a historical and cultural context, a cadence and more, that I’d like for the audience not to miss out on.  I always learn from the challenge.

What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
I am open to doing anything but at the moment my creativity is only being exercised to figure out how to meet the needs of everyone in my family, and how to help my Pilates clients.  Recently though, I found my parents’ writings and documents and was reminded of their stories and a piece I started years ago about finding a place of refuge, physically and emotionally. I‘d like to work on weaving it some more soon.  In their memory.

Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
Not long after I started performing here, in 1984, I was going on my first European tour and needed to get visas.  I wasn’t a US citizen yet, but as a green card holder, I had a permit of re-entry which worked like a passport.  Germany was still divided then and when I went to the West German consulate, they refused to grant me a visa because my “country of claimed nationality” said  “Vietnam” (Communist).  When I explained that I came to the US as a refugee, they told me to change my document, get rid of “Vietnam” and claim to be “stateless”. At that moment, it hit me that I’d lost my Vietnam, that I really had no country, no ground beneath my feet.  The word “stateless” stuck with me for a long time and I remember thinking, through the feelings, “Here’s a theater piece.”

I feel like I should have a bookend recent story for you that shows how I now feel at home in both countries and not like an outsider among Americans or Vietnamese.  But I’m not so sure if that’s always the case.  And it’ll take many stories for the many possible answers to the question of where I belong now, almost 40 years later.

What is your residency/citizenship/visa status? How does it affect your life as an artist?
I am an American citizen now with a US passport.  I can travel to Vietnam.  And Germany.  Ironically, on that 1984 tour, while in West Berlin, I was able to go on an unplanned day trip into East Berlin on the other side of the Wall, using my “stateless” travel document.  I guess if we all were stateless, we would not be considered a threat, and no border would be necessary.

Tran T Thuc Hanh was born in Saigon, Vietnam and came to the US at age 11 in 1975 as a refugee. She started out as a dancer, performing and touring with modern companies including Martha Graham.  In Hong Kong where she lived for 6 years, Hanh taught dance at HK Academy for Performing Arts and choreographed dances and for multi-media work, Actors’ Family Cantonese musical, and arts festivals.  In NY, theater credits include: the King and I – Broadway, Paper Mill Playhouse,  Casa Manana, South Pacific National Tour, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre: The Joy Luck Club, Monster, Kwatz! The Tibetan Project, The Missing Woman, Empress of China, Teahouse of the August Moon.  TV:  Law and Order, As the World Turns.  Film: Someone to Watch Over Me, Heaven and Earth.  Voice work:  audiobook Going Home, Coming Home, Oakland Museum guide. A recipient of Mekong Project/ DTW/Rockefeller Foundation grants, Hanh traveled to Vietnam to conduct research and taught and performed there in 2003.  Outside of theater, Hanh worked in a camp in the Philippines for refugees from Southeast Asia, including Amerasian youths, and in Hong Kong Vietnamese refugee camps and detention centers at the height of an influx of asylum seekers and forced repatriation campaigns. Hanh also is an interpreter/translator, a certified Pilates instructor, a wife and mother to two beautiful children.

Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: 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 curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse, Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Teaches theatre at CUNY, community-based theatre at Yale, Immigrant Theatre at University of Chicago (her alma mater) and Prague Quadrennial, Brown, and NYU.