(Photo of Pei Lee’s costume design by Stan Barouh. This salon is led by TCG’s Diversity & Inclusion Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton, and features interviews with and essays from theatre people working within the Asian American theatre movement. To participate in this or any other TCG Circle salon, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion Initiative blog salon–Asian American Theatre
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
PEI LEE: I work with costumes. I have a degree in Costume Design but as a freelance designer, nowadays, you are pretty much a one-person team. The idea of solely designing and having other people do all the work sounds so glamorous and unreal to me.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
PL: I was born in Taipei, Taiwan to parents who fled from China in the 1940s. I suppose officially I am a Taiwanese but since I’ve only lived there 6 years (discontinuously) I simply identify myself as Chinese. I spent my childhood in Spain and my teenage years in Chile and Brazil (each time returning to Taipei). I came to the USA as an undergraduate and have stayed here since. These are the facts that are easy to respond. The next part of the question will be difficult to put into words so excuse my inarticulate reply.
Because of my upbringing, I do not identify strongly with a single culture; instead I have great empathy to the ones I’ve experienced. Often, I find myself a walking contradiction – home is where my parents are (currently Taiwan) yet I feel most comfortable, or at home, in the USA. I am a Chinese amongst Westerners and a Westerner amongst Chinese. And ‘heritage’ is a word I am never sure how it is defined- through birthright or the length of time one spent in a specific culture? To me, these questions do not come with one-word answers. Sometimes I wish they do but most of the time I am grateful for the experiences (even the unpleasant ones – being a new kid in school over and over were never fun) because I truly believed that being exposed to differences all my life has allowed me to understand the characters in plays that I work on in an instinctual way.
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?
PL: I never correlated my opportunities with my identity. I’ve always thought that I got the job because they liked my work. Although having seen parts of the world growing up do give one a unique perspective but anyone can expose themselves to see more of the world, it does not have to do with the colour of the skin.
I have not yet encountered obstacles due to my race because I think designers are never seen by the audience which is why, unlike actors, our opportunities are not bound by our looks. Detailed research and the right sensibility are all we need. And that should go for the actors as well.
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?
PL: I stumbled into theatre when I was a junior in college. Until then, I was not exposed to this world. But I came to love it for its fierce display of creativity – the suspension of disbelief. The idea that anyone can be anything on that stage is still the most powerful and irreplaceable tool the theatre has over any other visual medium. I would like to see more racial, ethnic, and gender based theaters but not necessarily culturally specific. To me, a Chinese story told by Chinese artists is boring and tend to feel like a lecture. I much rather see Westerners tackle an Asian tale, respectfully, and vice-versa.
JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
PL: My ignorance on this subject either proves that I need to go out and see more theatre or that the current state of Asian American Theatre is so mild and small that I have been unaware. Not surprising at the latter since Asian cultures are academic-oriented and creative professions are not look upon favourably. But, lately, I have witness a change back in Taiwan – more and more people are consciously choosing to be professionally creative. So ask me again in five years.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
PL: I think most theaters are trying to do their best on this regard. I know they see the need to expand and diversify. But these are just ideas and talks until they have better financial support. Developing ideas without proper funding is a waste of energy.
Pei Lee started her professional career managing the costume shop at the Olney Theatre in Maryland. She later demoted herself in order to have more opportunities to design and to work with her hands by creating beautiful things (and because of the frustration at her inability to master the Excel). Currently she freelances in the MD/DC area (with frequent visits back to the Olney Theatre which she fondly thinks of as her home away from home) and splits her time between the USA and Taiwan.
She holds a BA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a MFA from University of Connecticut.
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