(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Asian American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
DEB SIVIGNY: I have spent most of the past decade working as a designer and educator in the Washington DC area. I have also designed scenery, props, puppets, body parts and other strange things for Rorschach Theatre where I’ve been a company member since 2006. I am currently the Resident Faculty Artist for the Theatre and Performance Studies program at Georgetown University.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
DS: This is a very complicated question for me. I am adopted—Korean born, New England raised by a Taiwanese immigrant mother and a 2nd generation French Canadian father. I find myself needing to look up the definitions of ethnicity, culture and heritage to separate the definitions therein and find that the lines are very blurred to me. To confuse matters further, I married Rorschach artistic director, Randy Baker, who is Singapore born, Ex-pat raised and technically more culturally Asian than I am. He has taught me much about what it means to be culturally Asian through our travels in Asia. Although my upbringing wasn’t devoid of Chinese culture, my mother insisted that I would be a good American girl, which meant speaking only English and fully assimilating into American culture. It was only through curiosity and research that I began to know about cultures beyond my reach.
In terms of influencing the work that I do, my “Asian fusion” life has allowed me to be somewhat of a chameleon. As a designer, my look matters less than the work that I bring to the table. One thing that has been interesting though, is that I think people assume that I am more inherently Asian and that I know about “things Asian” because I look the part. I’m just Asian enough. Truth is, most of what I know about Asian cultures is from researching shows I’ve been hired for. Like any subject I have little knowledge in, I delve into books, photographs, artifacts, the food and the community to get a better sense of the world I’m creating for. I suppose over the years, I have developed a better sense of what it means to be Asian from the outside versus the inside.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
DS: Lately, I have been hired more frequently for projects with Asian themes. I believe that it may partially be a result of theatres’ desire to “cast” more appropriate designers for their productions. It has been strange at times to be overlooked for certain projects that I might be “cast well,” but I acknowledge that the choices theatres make are often complex, political and schedule oriented and not solely based on racial sensitivity. I would have a very different career if this were the only criterion for which I was hired. So while I truly appreciate the opportunities given to me in the name of diversity, I am more thankful for the faith that theaters have in me to bring my artistry to the stage.
Recently, I worked on a production of Anime Momotaro at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD with local actors and a directing team from Honolulu Theatre for Youth. It was set in Japan, with a multi-ethnic cast (although most were Asian or minority in some way.) Many of us realized upon first rehearsal that we had never been in a room where people of Asian descent were the majority. I had become part of a group with a physical identity. I was no longer an “other” trying to represent my entire race to the majority. Though after a few days of being on an Asia-high, sharing stories of demanding mothers with heavy accents and being made to eat unusual cuts of animal parts, we just got to know each other as people. Ultimately, while it was thrilling for me to have a group with a similar cultural background, the ultimate thrill was in making art with them.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
DS: I have literally reversed my answers three times in the effort to maintain that yes, this is a very important thing in communities where a specific group has something to share that can’t be told in another way. For example, in Washington, I am an admirer of the work that Theater J makes, using the themes of religion, identity and culture as a starting point for how their writers engage with other cultures, religions and ideas. However, I believe strongly that theatres also need to increase their worldview with the work that they engage and not marginalize themselves into a place where they only do one type of theatre or employ one demographic.
JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
DS: I am hopeful that theatres are taking another look at the Asian Americans working on and around their stages. I am seeing more Asians in roles that don’t specifically require Asians, which is refreshing. Diversity and gender parity in theatre are coming to the forefront of many discussions now and people are clamoring for change. While I think we have a long time before the true idea of a post-racial or post-gender world manifests, I hope that we begin removing the tags of “Asian-American play” or “women’s play.” These modifiers come with baggage. There’s an expectation of what the play will be like before we even step in the room.
With the recent controversies surrounding casting, I find myself torn—I have worked on many plays that used multi-ethnic casting that were quite successful despite their setting in one specific country. For me, the setting isn’t always the be-all-end-all for how a play should be cast. Do we only cast a bunch of Russians in a Chekhov because their names are Russian in the script? I actually feel stranger watching a Filipino play Chinese or vice-versa because those ethnicities are not interchangeable in my mind, but I know it happens all the time. Iranians play Indian, Filipino play Latino…is it right? No, but what choice do some theatres have? When the casting pool for a certain race is tiny, what does a company do when it can’t afford to reach out to other cities, union actors, etc? The East Coast and the West Coast likely have very different answers to this question, as would New York and D.C. and Chicago as our demographics are different. What do theatres in Idaho or Vermont do? Do they avoid the subject entirely?
One reviewer of Anime Momotaro mentioned her qualms about the production: that she would have felt more comfortable with the linguistic choices made (Japanese accents for a few characters and some Japanese code switching in the dialogue) if there had been an all-Asian cast. I got angry. Not in defense of the casting, but rather at her expectation of what the show would “look” like–she expected a cast of stereotypes. She went on to praise me for my “cultural accuracy”–I based my designs on a combination of anime, old Harajuku fashion and plush dolls. Culturally accurate to gothic lolita maybe but really, what is the expectation that people have? How Asian looking do you have to be to convince people you’re Asian enough?
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
DS: 1. Look at the community you serve. Look at the community you want to serve. Acknowledge the part of the community you currently don’t reach, if there is one.
2. Figure out if it’s in your mission to reach out. If it’s not, question how your mission might do so.
3. If you can’t make it happen at your theatre, host other groups that can make it happen or team up with groups that can help you. Strength in numbers.
Debra Kim Sivigny has been working in DC Theatre for over a decade as a costume and scenic designer. Most recent credits include scenic design for Trojan Barbie at Georgetown University where she is a Faculty Artist in Residence, costume designs for Ice Wolf and Anime Momotaro at Imagination Stage, The Hampton Years at Theater J and scenic design for 2013 The Source Festival. She has also worked at the Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences, Woolly Mammoth, Studio Theatre 2ndStage, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Academy for Classical Acting, Washington Shakespeare Company, Theater Alliance, and Rorschach Theatre where she is a company member. She has an MFA in costume design from the University of Maryland and a BA from Middlebury College.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com