Overcoming Expectation and Providing Support

by Cindy Im

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor?

Cindy: I actually knew I wanted to be an actor when I was nine years old. My school took us to see Les Miserables on Broadway, and I was immediately enthralled. I fell in love with how the actors were working together to create a world that made us feel and think about life in new ways. When I got home that night, I told my parents that I was going to become an actor. They told me that because I wasn’t white, it was impossible. I was crushed. Even through high school, they were not OK with me acting in school plays, and made it very clear to me that choosing that life would be a bitter disappointment to them. I believed them that becoming an actor wasn’t an option. This belief that my other-ness excluded me from the life I wanted to live (in no small way) contributed to years of learning how to claim my identity as one that is just as valuable as anyone else’s—regardless of my race or gender.

It wasn’t until college that I decided to fully commit to becoming a professional theatre actor. I was getting my degree in Sociology to placate my parent’s insistence that I groom myself to become an attorney. Though I found Sociology interesting, it didn’t stir my heart and mind the way that acting did. I knew that going into college, but my parents were so opposed to the idea, that I was too scared to tell them what I really wanted to do with my life. When I couldn’t keep it in any longer, I finally sat them down and told them. My mother burst into tears and ran out of the room. My father looked at me with anger and disappointment in his eyes and told me that I was selfish, irresponsible, and stupid.  To this day, my father still tells me that I’ve thrown my life away. Largely because of my career choice, my relationship with him is very strained—we talk on the phone every few months, and I see him maybe once every other year. My mother has since passed away, and my father has never, nor will ever, see me act.

I think it’s important as an Asian American to talk about this, because unfortunately, my story is not at all unique. I’ve spoken with a lot of Asian American theatre artists who have similar stories; even friends who’ve been on Broadway (often a mark of “success”) are estranged from their parents for their career choice. Though things are slowly changing, there was a long period where the only Asians portrayed in theatre, film, or television were martial artists, delivery men, nail salon workers or the like. Because of this dearth of representation in the media, Asian parents who disapproved of their children going into the field had a leg to stand on. They would dismiss their children by saying things like, “You’ll never make it” and, “There are no Asian actors- why would you pursue something with no possible avenue for success?”

I think there is a lost generation of Asian actors who, because of family discouragement and a lack of role models in the public eye, gave up before they even started. As someone who’s been through parental disapproval, I think it’s important for those who have experienced this to take on mentorship roles in order to demonstrate to the next generation that a career as an actor is possible. It’s definitely not easy, and it comes with a specific set of challenges, but it’s not nearly as difficult as it used to be. Through my Fox Fellowship and the support of my host theatre, TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, a cohort of Asian American theatre artists and I have gone to dozens of schools in the area to talk to students about what it’s like to have a career as a performing artist, and to address additional issues that arise for artists of color and for women who enter the field. It’s been an eye-opening experience- the issue of parental disapproval is still one that many Asian artists struggle with. If those of us who have been through this continue to share our experiences with younger generations, perhaps we can slowly move the dial on how many of us are giving up before we even start.

TCG: What is one challenge in the acting profession that you would like to change? How would you do so?

Cindy: I sincerely wish that color-conscious casting were more ubiquitous. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. It’s odd to me that we trust audiences enough to understand that a painted flat represents an apartment wall, or that a piece of blue fabric represents water, but we don’t trust them to understand that a person of color can play, say, Willie Loman or Miss Julie. We work in a medium of suspended reality. Why is this one thing so difficult for people to accept under the auspices of theatrical suspension?

The funny thing is, once someone of note says it’s OK to do, it quickly becomes OK as a general practice. New York theatre has real power in that once a show premieres there, the rest of the country uses that premiere as a template for their casting. For example, the Broadway cast of Spring Awakening (set in 1800′s Germany) was cast diversely, so theatres across the country often followed suit. That was a wonderful example of color-conscious casting at work. But on the contrary, I have yet to see a Chekhov production with a person of color in it. When Joe Papp started the Public in the 50′s, he did us a great service by making it OK to cast people of color in Shakespeare. Some parties met it with resistance, but now, many audiences don’t bat an eye when they see people of color in Shakespeare plays. If he hadn’t set that example for others to follow, who knows how difficult it would be for actors of color to be cast in Shakespeare today.

TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an actor?

You know, I’m not sure if I’ve had that decisive turn in my career. When I was younger, I used to think, “If I get to do X, then I’ll know I’ve made it.” But for me, the truth is that the longer I do this, the more nebulous my career trajectory becomes. How do I measure my impact or success, especially in a field as ephemeral as the theatre? My journey has been much less definitive than I had imagined it would be. I haven’t had a “big break” as much as I’ve had unexpected lily pads of experiences to land on, and the tides of those experiences have drifted me down streams that I wouldn’t have been able to predict. It’s terrifying at times. But it’s also exhilarating and full of wonderful discoveries.

Cindy Im is an actress who has appeared on the stages of Manhattan Theatre Club, American Conservatory Theater, Goodman Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, National Theatre of Paris, Theatre Dijon Bourgogne, REDCAT, Seattle Shakespeare, California Shakespeare Theater, San Jose Repertory Theatre and Crowded Fire Theater. Im is a TCG Fox Acting Fellow and holds an MFA in acting from CalArts.