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BWW Interview: Michelle Aguillon, Quentin Nguyen-duy, Sarah Shin on ZOOM THEATRE by Asian American Theatre Artists Of Boston

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BWW Interview: Michelle Aguillon, Quentin Nguyen-duy, Sarah Shin on ZOOM THEATRE by Asian American Theatre Artists Of Boston

"Growing up in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, I thought there were no Asian people in theatre except Lea Salonga," explains Sarah Shin, an actor and director who co-founded the Asian American Theatre Artists of Boston with Michael A Rosegrant in order to connect Asian American, Pacific Islander American, and kānaka māoli theatre artists within Boston's theatre scene. "Then my senior year of high school I discovered David Henry Hwang." But it wasn't until Shin relocated to Boston to study for her undergraduate degree that she saw Korean characters like herself on stage. Company One's production of Jiehae Park's peerless gave Shin a lot to respond to, with its macabre riff on Macbeth about twin sisters who stop at nothing to get into their dream college. Shin makes it very clear: AATAB is not a theatre company. They were originally founded in 2018 as a social collective, connected by a Facebook group. In response to Boston's need to embrace local Asian American artists, she explains she would rather see established organizations do the work to welcome and elevate members of the community than see an individual company formed.

"We reached out to artists we knew, and those we had admired on stage but never met- except for briefly chatting after a show. We wanted to make a space for the growing family of Asian American theatre artists in Boston. To be able to connect students and professionals and give young people leaders to look up to."

The group has since been involved with local theaters in a model similar to the Front Porch Arts Collective. For instance, their services were enlisted to help reach out to actors for Company One's production of Vietgone by Qui Nguyen and they coordinated college nights for Sara Porkalob's Dragon Cycle at The American Repertory Theatre.

In this frenzied moment of digital theatre, AATAB has stepped up to offer a summer-long series of virtual readings (I had the pleasure of reviewing Women Behind the Curtain by Michael Lin) incorporating work by many of their members. Shin explains that, for her, this is a great opportunity to organize something that helps people feel connected as a community while also giving her a chance to work with playwrights whose work she has always admired.

Actor and playwright Quentin Nguyen-duy grew up seeing a similar lack of his cultural identity on stage, reflecting that the closest he got to playing an Asian character growing up was that his boarding school presented a yellow-face version of The King and I a year before he enrolled. "In most plays, Asian characters are servants or mystical or like some kid in Apocalypse Now with an AK-47." He recalls that while enrolled at Boston University, "there were productions with mostly Asian casts, but they were never shows about normal people. Just mystical warriors or something."

The first presentation in AATAB's virtual series was a reworking of Nguyen-duy's play Amputees directed by Shin. The two collaborated on the production as a live performance while at Boston University and remounted it on Zoom. Amputees explores a working class, midwestern, Vietnamese-American family as one son writes an award-winning essay about his father's experiences in the Vietnam War. "I've been informed it's a dark comedy," smirks Nguyen-duy. Although he did not invite his own family to watch the Zoom production, he hopes audiences feel invited to explore how the past can haunt each individual family member differently. "There's a level of ease where we don't have to explain as much to each other," reasons Shin, on working with an entirely Asian-American cast. "I think many of us are used to being the only Asian actor in the room, or even POC in the room, which in my experience, has caused few moments where when I speak about how I connect to a scene or character is met with confusion, or an 'oh that's interesting...' and to me that's like a missed opportunity from deepening the experience of the process and the production. Or it can just feel embarrassing or shameful to put myself out there and not feel understood and seen in what we often try to make a 'safe space' or a 'brave space'. So, one cool thing about being in Asian/ Asian American spaces is that to me, it is easier to talk about how problematic or strange we thought our cultures were or the struggle to be between multiple cultures, since we didn't have to work to justify ourselves, or act as experts or representatives of our cultures or race as we do in majority non-Asian spaces. Because we understand each other in that way we know how to work with that complexity of identity and experience, and can be productive about how that can deepen the story we're trying to tell, rather something to be ashamed of and not address. Not to say there is one universal experience - we are still learning from each other but we know how to see all of each other; not just our race, or 'everything but race' because they 'don't see color.' That's a true brave space to me."

Michelle Aguillon, who directed Women Behind the Curtain and appeared in Waiting for Kim Lee in AATAB's virtual series, describes Amputees as "a beautifully moving, live organism." On her involvement with AATAB's work, she laughs, "I hardly say 'no' to anything. I was excited to direct Women Behind the Curtain because it was originally a radio play and I was inspired by David Mamet's The Water Engine which used a foley artist on stage, making it an integral part of its production. I was interested in utilizing a foley artist for Zoom, which we did, and it also became an integral character in the piece." She assesses that there has been a draw toward obvious, easy work on the Zoom format, siting rumors of productions of Love Letters which could easily transition from stage to gallery mode. "We need to get creative with this format because, right now, we just have to embrace this reality. I've sat through Zoom comedies and dramas- I'm more interested in something that teeters more toward comedy. If I'm gonna see something that I've seen on stage before (like Love Letters) I don't just want to sit and see people reading." Aguillon confesses that, for her, Women Behind the Curtain with its spy narrative and sequences of violence, served as a "test to see if we can be entertaining on this platform. I love the challenge of a Zoom drama, but we really need to get creative in this format."

"I respect anyone who can sit through a full Zoom play. I think they are valuable people, but it's not me," echoes Nguyen-duy. "Zoom can be very trying. People are good sports to sit through some of this stuff."

AATAB is certainly racing up and down the gamut of Zoom offerings, from 10 minute comedies, to Russian spy adventures, and full length dramas, to series of monologues. It will be interesting to see which ones are able to stretch the Zoom platform to the level of entertainment we seek. Artists slated to be working on virtual pieces this summer include Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, Mallika Chandaria, Emily Kuroda, Sam Hamashima, and Nicholas Polonio. As Shin continues programming AATAB's summer, Aguillon has her hand in many pots with the Asian American Playwrights' Collective as well as Hovey Players in Waltham. Nguyen-duy has set a personal goal to finish and present his proverbial "white people play" before he turns 23 and is busily at work on a piece about Mary Shelley.

Check out more about AATAB's work here.

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From This Author Andrew Child