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Asian American theater conference widens its embrace

Besides core constituencies of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, the June event in L.A. will include emerging voices from other ethnic groups.

March 22, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Aparna Sindhoor, left, and Anil Natyaveda perform "Encounter."
Aparna Sindhoor, left, and Anil Natyaveda perform "Encounter." (Don Perrault )

When Los Angeles hosted the first Asian American national theater conference in 2006, there was much internal discussion about who exactly the term "Asian American" included.

That was then. In planning the third National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, which will be held in Los Angeles from June 16 to 26, organizers adopted a very different outlook. In addition to the historic core constituencies of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, the scores of conference participants will include emerging voices from America's Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Hmong and Pacific Islander populations. About 200 arts leaders, artists and academics are expected to attend.

"We tried not to say, 'You're Asian, you're not Asian' or 'You're only half-Asian.' If you self-identify as Asian, then we welcome you into our community," said Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players in Little Tokyo, which will host the event with TeAda Productions of Santa Monica.

Presented by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists, the conference will occur during a month already packed to the rafters with theatrical activity. Theatre Communications Group, the nation's premier theatrical research, advocacy and organizing entity, is hosting its national conference here June 16 to 18. The two conferences will overlap with the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the launch of the experimental and multidisciplinary Radar L.A. performance festival, and the Festival of New American Musicals.

Noting that TCG's conference has adopted a theme, "What if…?," that will put a lot of big questions "out there in the atmosphere," Dang said that the consortium wanted to "look at what concrete steps the Asian American theater community can actually take to move forward in the coming years."

To that end, the Asian American event will encompass panel discussions, workshops and performances, including a production of Caryl Churchill's play "A Number" by the National Asian American Theater Company of New York and "Ten Reasons Why I'd Be a Bad Porn Star," written and performed by the Minnesota artist May Lee-Yang.

The conference's theme, "New Directions," was precipitated by an August national online survey asking Asian American theater artists about the most vital issues they were facing. Among those they cited were spurring dialogue between older and younger theater professionals, fostering global exchanges with foreign artists, and supporting social justice projects and programming. Attendees also asked for practical advice on producing theater, which the conference intends to address with a programming component called "Nuts & Bolts."

Other offerings will range from a workshop in Japanese physical acting, focusing on the techniques of Noh, Kabuki, Suzuki and martial arts; a spoken-word and slam poetry workshop; and a discussion session on how cultural and gender expectations affect female Asian American comedians, with writer Maggie Lee, solo performer Kristina Wong and Helen Ota, artistic director of Cold Tofu, an L.A-based comedy improv and sketch group.

One recently added panel, "After the Earthquake, Tsunami and Near Nuclear Meltdown," a response to the ongoing crisis in Japan, will ask how artists can "help in the healing" of countries and communities ravaged by natural and man-made disasters.

Andrea Assaf, a Lebanese American writer, director, performer and cultural organizer, said that recent years have witnessed a surge in Asian American cultural expression across the United States, despite an economic downturn that has made funding and resources harder than ever to obtain, particularly for artists of color. Assaf said that global political shifts that began with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have led Arab American and other Asian American artists to develop new, more complex images of themselves to counter the simplistic ones that often dominate the mass media.

"I think it comes directly out of a need for self-representation," Assaf said. "It's coming out of 'Hey, wait a minute, this image that you're getting is not who we are.'"

Underlying the entire conference will be a consideration of how established entities like East West Players, founded in 1965, can pass on their accumulated institutional knowledge to up-and-coming colleagues. "Now there are at least two, maybe three generations of Asian Americans writers and directors and designers," Dang said, "and we're trying to say, 'OK now, how do we hand over the torch?'"

All plenary sessions and panels for the conference, being funded in part by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, will be held at East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater or the nearby Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. All performances will take place at the Inner-City Arts Rosenthal Theater or the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (Tateuchi Democracy Forum), across from the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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