How Mu Performing Arts’ New Performance Program generated Asian American Plays for a New Generation

In this blog entry, Rick Shiomi, co-editor of Asian American Plays for a New Generation describes the New Performance Program and the process of selecting plays as being like a Survivor competition.

Two plays tied together in this anthology are Asiamnesia by Sun Mee Chomet and Sia(b) by May Lee Yang. They were both part of the first round of Mu’s Jerome New Performance Program. This program is designed to bring in artists who are not primarily playwrights to write and create new works for theater. It was designed with the Survivor television series in mind. That is, we started with seven artists (performance artists, poets, spoken word artists, etc.) and provided them with an initial commissioning fee and the support of dramaturges, directors and actors.

After several months, Mu held a reading of the seven pieces, either in full or excerpts, and then selected four to continue on to the next stage in the process. After another set of readings, one piece was selected to receive a main stage production. That piece in the first round was Q & A by Juliana Pegues and was produced in June 2008. However, two of the other pieces, Asiamnesia and Sia(b), both still interested us and we later produced them as a pair of one act plays in the fall of 2008 under the title Under The Porcelain Mask: Asian American Women Speak Out.

Each play took its own unpredictable artistic journey to get to that production. In the case of Asiamnesia, it started as a group writing project proposed by Sun Mee Chomet. She wanted her project to give voice to a number of Asian American women on the subject of their own lives, dealing with stereotypes and other forms of challenges and identity angst. In both of the readings in the process, our feedback to Sun Mee was that the results of the group writing process were too uneven and not as effective as imagined. We were in fact going to drop the play from the process when Randy Reyes, who was serving as the director/dramaturg, pleaded that there was something worth pursing in the piece.

We agreed, with the promise that Sun Mee would take on the writing as a solo playwright rather than continue the group writing process. In the summer of 2008, Sun Mee took on the whole project herself and the result was Asiamnesia. It did include one existing poem by Katie Hae Leo, but that was the only segment by an outside writer. The production was directed by Randy Reyes, and it was recognized in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s 2008 Year End Review by Rohan Preston as the best new script.

With Sia(b), we thought May Lee was a long shot in terms of the survivor system. She was the least experienced of the participants, but through her work with Robert Karimi as her director/dramaturg, she was able to generate her play with the Hmong American perspective which has been generally underrepresented in Asian American theater. We saw this piece as a groundbreaking work leading a new wave of Hmong American plays. Mu recently produced WTF by Katie Ka Vang as part of our second round of the Jerome program which took a very different, edgier tone about the Hmong American experience. So in both of these cases, the results were quite unexpected and gratifying. Mu’s Jerome New Performance Program has been one of the keys to our development and production of new work.

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