(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/Latino American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
DAN PRUKSARNUKUL: I am the Artistic Associate & Casting Director of Arena Stage in Washington D.C. I am responsible for overseeing the casting process for all of Arena’s mainstage shows along with all of our new play activities. I scout locally and nationally, and also serve as a member of Arena’s Artistic Team which is responsible for season planning and the artistic strategy of the organization.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
DP: I am a first generation Thai-Peruvian. I am a confirmed Roman Catholic and a former Buddhist Monk. I am an American from Montclair, New Jersey: exit 148 off the Garden State Parkway.
I grew up in a Latino household, and spent most of my summers either in Peru or Thailand as a kid. I primarily identify with being Thai because I look more Asian then I do Latino (and why I identify as a Thai-Peruvian, and not a Peruvian-Thai). I’ve struggled with my identity for a long time- particularly because there’s this assumption that your “own” people inherently accept you- but that’s not been my experience. The time I spent with my family abroad, from since I was a young child, has taught me that I’m an outsider. I don’t look traditionally Peruvian, so my family would call me “Chino”, or Chinese. I don’t speak Thai, and am automatically pegged as an American when in Thailand, and am referred to as a “Farang”- a foreigner. I think I was 10 when I started to primarily identify as an “American” more than anything else.
This has influenced my work in several ways- specifically in how I feel race can/should be portrayed on stage. I am constantly having to see the world through different perspectives/lenses when I watch theater, whether its Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or August Wilson, and find it remarkable when I hear of producers/Artistic Directors who talk about the fear of alienating their audiences (which primarily means white) when they produce shows by/about people of color. My entire experience of theater has forced me to see the world through different eyes (racial, gender, sexual, etc), so I don’t understand this notion that people should/will only see theater that is telling their story, about their people. I don’t have a “people”, and yet still believe in the transformative power of storytelling- primarily because I feel that I have learned so much about the world (and other people) by going to the theater. I also find it frustrating that the terms “diversity” and “people of color” are often just code for talking about African Americans. I identify as a colored person, and feel that I am an embodiment of true American diversity, but remain acutely aware of what those terms mean in our business, and how people are using them.
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?
DP: I came into theater like most people do- I was an actor in my high school musicals and found my way back into the theater in College, and trained as an actor. I went to a private liberal arts school in Vermont, and did not have a very successful acting career. I attribute a lot of this to the fact that I was not a very good actor, and because I didn’t seem to take it as seriously as the rest of my class. It was a tradition of the department to make sure that if you were a Theater major, that you would have at least one opportunity to do a mainstage production for credit- whether you were an actor, designer, or stage manager, you would typically be brought on to do a show for one of the faculty directors, and it would be considered a class. I never got to do a show for credit, and was cast in only one mainstage show. It was Vaclav Havel’s “The Memorandum” and I played George, the Staff Watcher. George has about 16 lines in the play, all of them spoken off stage- here is the lead up to my first line:
GROSS: You mean you don’t mind leaving me here alone? With all this classified material?
HELENA: You won’t be alone. There’s a chink in the wall, sweetie. You’re being watched by our Staff Watcher.
GROSS: Good gracious! A chink?
This goes on for a bit, and then my first line comes-
GEORGE: Don’t bother. The chink is well disguised.
The chink here is referring to the peep hole that George watched out of. I remember during our first read-thru when people started to look ahead and realized that was my first line. There was this wave of folks just putting down their scripts and sheepishly looking at me, waiting to see my response. It was a complete oversight- in no way was this intentional- but it happened, and I think that was the moment I realized I should look into something outside of acting if I wanted to continue in theater. It was also the first moment where I realized that race (my race and other peoples races) were always going to be a factor when producing a play: the American racial lens is ever present, whether we like to admit it or not, so it’s important to look in to the context of putting actors of colors in roles even when you have the best intentions.
I came into Arena through the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship program- at the time it was one of the only minority based arts administration theater fellowship programs in the country. When I graduated from college most of my friends were leaving for NY to be actors or going elsewhere to start their own theater companies. I decided that I wanted to try to make a living in theater, and began looking into internships/fellowships. I knew that landing a paid internship/fellowship would be difficult, so I was really attracted to the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship: it felt like it was targeted for people like me, and it gave me hope to know that there was an opportunity out there like this in the American theater (it also happened to be one of the best paid fellowships in the country). The Fellowship was designed to address the lack of diversity in the American theater- particularly in the administrations of theaters. It set out to cultivate the next generation of Artistic Leaders of Color by providing them training at one of the biggest producing nonprofits in the country, and access to its world class artists & administrators. If it hadn’t been for the program, there is no way I would be where I am today.
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?
DP: Sure- I love the clarity of programming with culturally specific theaters. It’s sad that there aren’t more established/LORT-sized culturally specific theaters- and what really makes it sad is that it lends credence to the thought that minorities (racial, ethnic, gender) don’t come to/support the theater, so why should the mainstream theater make it for us. I think there’s a level of ownership and authenticity that is gained when artists of a specific community tell their own stories.
JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre?
DP: I think the community is getting angrier and more vocal. I attended the first AAPAC (Asian American Performing Arts Coalition) Town Hall in New York City last year, and the turnout was pretty amazing: the panel was moderated by David Henry Hwang, and some of the most influential producers & casting directors in New York City were present. The AAPAC brought to light the staggering low hiring statistics for Asian actors on New York City stages (both on Broadway, and also the major NYC nonprofits), and were also the folks who shed a light on the yellow face casting of The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse. It’s great to see the Asian American theater community getting together again and forming a unified voice that can express the frustrations over yellowface casting, and the invisibility of Asians in theater- this has been an issue that the community has been trying to address for decades, and it’s great to see a resurgence in the effort. Yellowface casting is a very important conversation to have, and through the work that AAPAC has been doing, it’s been shocking to see where the conversation is actually at- when I’ve listened to these discussions, or read blogs about it recently, I’m sad and frustrated to see that a lot of people don’t see an issue with it. It blows my mind that anyone would have to explain why yellowface/brownface casting is offensive- and the most frustrating part is that the argument happens within the Asian community as well. No one would ever produce a show in blackface (unless it was very intentional), so why is there still a double standard, and people feel free to throw on bronzer and paint on slanted eyes when they do The King & I or Miss Saigon?
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
DP: Make sure you’re building a staff, board, and donors that are truly diverse. Make sure you are programming shows that include stories from different people/cultures/ideologies. Make sure you’re hiring actors of different backgrounds constantly (and not just to play their race/culture!!!). Do those things if having a truly diverse theater is important to you. If it’s not, and I feel like everyone has the right to say/believe that it’s not, then be up front about it. I do believe in culturally specific theaters- and I do believe that means you can/should have a culturally specific white theater. When you look around the country, and see how some established theaters are programmed/staffed, they look and feel like culturally specific white theaters- that’s fine, so long as you don’t claim to have diversity as a core value, and you’re not going after funding that is supposed to go towards diversifying the theater, and so long as you’re not complaining about finding that “new audience.” Honesty & transparency go a long way.
Daniel Pruksarnukul, Artistic Associate & Casting Director is entering his ninth season with Arena Stage and is a graduate of Arena’s Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship program, where he was awarded the Thomas C. Fichandler Award for Theater Management Excellence. His work on Arena’s productions of every tongue confess and Ruined have been nominated for the Casting Society of America’s Artios Awards. He has helped launch world premieres by playwrights such as Daniel Beaty, Marcus Gardley, and Karen Zacarías. Other regional casting credits include projects for CenterStage, Seattle Rep, Seattle Children’s Theater, and True Colors Theater Company.
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