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(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.

KIMIYE CORWIN:  I am an actor, AEA member, living in Brooklyn, NY.  I got my BFA in Dance at Juilliard and my MFA in Acting at Brown/Trinity.  I have been mostly working at regional theaters outside of NYC. I have performed in small venues in NYC, and have done some television and film work here. I am also a steering committee member of AAPAC, trying to stay on top of issues that come up for Asian American performing artists and artists of color.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

KC: I prefer to identify myself as an actor of Caucasian and Asian descent, or a half Japanese woman who grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut and Texas. I relate to being an American more than I relate to being and Asian American.  (My Texan dialect is better than my Asian dialects!) The roles I like to play, and most of the roles I tend to play are not specific to being Asian, such as Shakespearean characters.  But to answer your question as to how the industry and some other artists identify me, I believe that I am primarily identified as an Asian American actor, and sometimes “ethnically ambiguous” because I am half white.  This identity gets me seen for roles that are either specifically Asian, or for roles that are labeled as “any ethnicity”.

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?

KC: I believe this identity has been to my advantage when theaters are specifically looking for an actor who is either Asian or ethnic.  With any specific typecasting, the competition gets narrowed down.  But I also think it has been a disadvantage because few theaters, especially in New York City, do not make enough effort to cast non traditionally for roles that don’t have to be necessarily white.  If it is not specified in the breakdowns as “any ethnicity” then most likely I will not be seen, even if that character suits me extraordinarily well as far as my skills and qualities go.  For example, I might be very well suited for Laura in Glass Menagerie, or Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest as far as my essence and understanding of those characters go, but theaters won’t risk casting anyone who is non-white because it wouldn’t represent that time period and location accurately. Even in some contemporary plays that take place in the present day in the Midwest or some where else in America where it’s not unlikely a person like me would have grown up, I am not likely to be considered.  If the show is not being consciously and purposefully cast multiculturally, then it is unlikely that I will get seen for it because it would seem too risky or confusing for the creative team, I suppose, to have one Asian American in the cast if everyone else is white.

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?

KC:  I, personally, am not so interested in racially, culturally, or gender specific theaters.  I would be no more interested in an all Asian repertory theater telling only Asian stories or using only Asian writers than an all Irish repertory theater, telling only Irish stories or using only Irish writers. It’s not that I don’t think they have value.  I would not want to be pigeonholed as an actor that does only plays with Asian characters.  I am an actor who has a range of skills that go beyond my skin color or ethnic looks.  For instance, I have a strong physical background and could play a fantastic Harpo Marx! I am very much interested in working on good plays by writers of many different backgrounds, playing characters in classical and contemporary plays, and working with many different talented directors and actors.

JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offenses and/or great accomplishments.)

KC: The state of Asian American theater groups in New York City seems to me to be static.  I am noticing these theater groups‘ habits of working with the same Asian American artists repeatedly, which makes it look like there are only a limited number of Asian American actors in NYC, when there are actually more.  These ethnic specific companies, naturally, have a smaller community of supporters and audience members, which indicates to me that there is not much of a universal appeal to audiences to see only Asian stories with only Asian actors or using only Asian playwrights. But I think these companies can provide a “home base” for some Asian American artists – they can get the support to develop their craft as an actor, writer, or director.

In regards to mainstream Asian American productions like Golden Child, Chinglish, M Butterfly, Nightingale, Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song…I find most of the time that many of the Asian characters in these productions are portrayed stereotypically.  The fact that there is only one Asian American playwright whose plays are being produced at mainstream venues is also an issue.  There needs to be a movement to foster and support Asian American playwrights.  However, the recent production of Here Lies Love at The Public, is an exception (as well as an exceptional show).  I think it’s a wonderful example of what an all race specific production could be.  The characters are all Filipino, and it was cast with the majority of the performers being Filipino. But no one put on a dialect or took on any mannerisms that stereotyped that ethnicity.  They just told the story of Imelda Marcos’ life so well using their own voices, talents, and hearts.  The writing, eclectic music (by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim), directing (Alex Timbers) and choreography (Annie-B Parsons) contributed so well to the story telling.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

KC:  Mainstream theaters do not have to do more Asian plays to appeal to Asian American audiences or to become more inclusive.  I think they have to have a diverse body of work and start pro actively, with much much more effort, casting non traditionally.  I realize it is a lot to ask, but right now, no major theater in NYC is doing it.  They need to stop caving in to their fears of what it’s going to look like, stop assuming how the audience is going to react (especially with a more culturally diverse population that is growing every year), and start making ground breaking decisions which will, over time, seem less “controversial” or “risky” or “confusing”.  I truly believe that if theater companies just put more diversity (as opposed to an all white, or all Asian cast) out there on their stages (be pioneers, if you will), and if their shows are cast well, directed smartly, and acted compellingly and believably, the audiences with accept and embrace it. They have to at least allow more opportunities for artists of color to audition for plays that might habitually be cast all white.

We performers take risks every day by choosing to be in this profession.  We take risks in our auditions, rehearsals, and performances.  It is time that theater companies and the people running them also take REAL risks when it comes to casting.

Kimiye Corwin was born in Stamford, CT and never stayed put for too long while growing up. She’s lived in the Philippines, Houston, TX, Dallas, TX, New Hampshire, San Francisco, Providence, RI, New York City…Now she happily resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, Jesse Liebman.

She began performing at age three, dancing in her living room. In high school she got very serious about ballet and then headed to NYC to major in Dance at the Juilliard School. Her first professional work was dancing with the Jose Limon Dance Company, touring nationally and internationally to venues such as the Kennedy Center in D.C. and dance festivals in Italy and Poland. After five years of touring, performing, and teaching dance, Kimiye decided to dedicate herself to studying acting (“jumping out of the pan and into the fire”, as her mother would say). She started taking classes in NYC and then did a nine-month conservatory at the Actors Center, studying with Jed Diamond as her main acting teacher. It was a life-changing nine months for Kimiye!

But nine months was not enough. She decided to get her MFA in Acting at Brown/Trinity in Providence, RI where she immersed herself in the craft of acting and directing. She experienced the joy of collaboration working and creating theatrical magic with her fellow classmates, new playwrights, and guest directors. After graduating, Kimiye headed back to NYC to see how she could put all her skills together (and is still continuing to do do).

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.