(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
TCG Blog Salon: USITT Gateway Program
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist, practitioner, or administrator.
Ruth Anne Watkins: I recently started work as a Production Stage Manager at the Shanghai Disney Resort. Prior to moving to China, I freelanced as a stage manager on the east coast. I was also a founding company member of a DC-based puppet-spectacle company, Pointless Theatre; puppets have a special place in my heart.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
RAW: I identify as a biracial/bicultural American. I was fortunate to grow up in Hong Kong and America. In China, I was always identified as a foreigner, “American” (typically code for “white”); but the moment I came back to America, I was “Asian.” Even as a 7 year old, I hated only being allowed to check one box under “Ethnicity” on immigration forms. It always felt like I was being asked to pick which side of my family I loved more. When my family lived in Hong Kong, it was still a British colony, so we celebrated British and Chinese holidays. I loved getting off school to celebrate the Buddha’s and the Queen’s birthdays! I identify more as American than Chinese, probably because as a kid Americans didn’t call me “lao wai 老外” or “guai lou 鬼老” (meaning “foreigner” or “old devil”). Even now in China, when locals hear me speak, they’re more inclined to believe that I’m from northern China rather than American.
I got into theatre as a performer, and fell into stage management in college. And while I love all things stage management (I mean, who doesn’t love a Staples run??), there was a part of me that was relieved that my chosen career path didn’t depend on the story my face told. I get asked a lot “What are you? You look so exotic.” In terms of work that speaks to me artistically, I’m generally a fan of movement heavy shows, especially if there’s an element or the fantastical, or magical realism. I love work that doesn’t rely on just language to tell its story. I guess that’s why puppetry and mask work appeal to me. There’s a freedom in the performance—actors can be anything from humans to birds to dragons to moving scenery. When you see a puppet onstage, you marvel at the skill of the puppeteers, but also the craftsmanship of the puppet. To me, puppets bring collaboration behind the stage to a whole new level, and that to me is striking and beautiful. As a stage manager, I love getting to be right in the middle of all of that.
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?
RAW: In my personal experience a stage manager, my identity has really only worked to my advantage. My current job being a prime example—I was referred to Disney because I am a stage manager who can speak both English and Chinese. Speaking more broadly, I have a feeling the perception of Asians as a “model minority” has also worked to my advantage. In school, a lot of classmates who would tell me “Oh, you do well in school because you’re Asian,” or “You’re Asian, so you must study really hard and be really smart.” Yes, I did well in school, and I did study hard. But the things that made me a good student are personality traits that serve me well as a stage manager—attention to detail, a firm belief that forewarned is forearmed, and a desire to do things right (preferably on the first time).
Whenever I’ve been passed over for a job, it’s usually due to either scheduling conflicts or a lack of experience/specific skill (eg: I can’t read music well, so an opera isn’t going to hire me). I’ve never really felt that I couldn’t do or accomplish anything because of who I was. But I also realize I am privileged: I grew up overseas, I failed a lot early in life, I have a name that doesn’t make people question my English ability, I have well-educated parents who encouraged me to be an active learner, I attended an all-girls school where I was reminded every day that women have a place in the world, I had a great teacher and mentor, Cary Gillett, who helped me grow as a stage manager and a person. I’ve been very lucky thus far.
JL: Next, tell me about your experience in the USITT’s Gateway Program. What are your greatest takeaways from your time with your mentor/mentee and your cohort?
RAW: I was a Mentor with the 2015 Gateway Program. I was paired with the lovely, Sarah Haber, an aspiring stage manager (and she’s good, so hire her, folks!). We hit it off and it was great to just have a buddy to go through the conference with. I know I was supposed to be the Mentor, but I learned so much from Sarah and I cannot wait to watch her future success.
My biggest takeaway was that I didn’t feel alone; it was incredibly inspiring and comforting. Sarah is, to date, the only other biracial (Asian/Caucasian) stage manager that I’ve met. The more we found out about each other, it was almost eerie how similar our upbringings were. Gateway inspired me to be more vocal about being an ally to groups that I am not necessarily a part of, and armed me with a stronger network of diverse artists who also want to help change the face of American Theatre—both onstage and off.
JL: Almost a year later, what are you doing in your career? What still resonates from the Gateway experience?
RAW: The biggest thing since Gateway 2015 is that I moved to Shanghai to be a part of the Shanghai Disney Resort as we gear up to open the first Disney Park in mainland China. My team has people from Hong Kong, America, Taiwan, Malaysia and mainland China. It’s a similar response that I had to Gateway—a diversity of opinions, lived experiences and backgrounds only makes for a more interesting and productive team. We’re more likely to bring different ideas to the table and think outside the box. I love it. My biggest regret is that I won’t be able to attend the USITT conference this coming year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for 2017!
Ruth Anne Watkins 吴如嫣is a Production Stage Manager at Shanghai Disney Resort and was a mentor with USITT’s Gateway Program in 2015. She worked previously as a freelance stage manager, primarily in Washington, DC. She has worked at the Kennedy Center, The Library of Congress, Theater J, Olney Theatre, Studio Theatre, the University of Maryland, College Park, the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing, and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. She stage managed Robin Frohardt’s “The Pigeoning” at the HERE Arts Center in New York and toured with the company to Greece and Turkey for two international puppetry festivals. She is a proud founding company member of Pointless Theatre, a puppet-spectacle company in DC where she performed, stage managed and designed puppets. She holds a BA in Theatre, and a BS in Marketing from the University of Maryland, College Park.
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