BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Diana Huey
Today's subject Diana Huey is currently living her Theatre Life at Studio Theatre where she is giving a shattering (literally) performance as the always high energy nothing will stop me business woman Built Suttikul in White Pearl. The production runs through December 15th.
Locally you will remember Ms. Huey's powerhouse performance as Kim in Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre a few years back. Her performance won her a well deserved Helen Hayes Award.
You might also have seen her in the heat at Wolf Trap playing Ariel in a touring production of The Little Mermaid. On that show she made international headlines for facing racism over her casting as an Asian-American actor and her activism for diversity in the arts.
Some other of Ms. Huey's favorite performing credits include Sherrie in Rock of Ages at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Kira in Xanadu at Hangar Theatre, Kim in Miss Saigon at Flatrock Playhouse, and originating the role of Spider in Pasek and Paul's James And The Giant Peach at Seattle Children's Theatre.
You mght have also seen her on the small screen in TNT's Leverage and Netflix's It's Bruno!.
Besides her Helen Hayes Award for Miss Saigon Diana was also awarded a Gregory Award for her performance of Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
For something a bit more...ok a lot more intense this holiday season go get yourself some tickets to see Diana Huey and company in the biting and hysterical play known as White Peal. Ms. Huey's performance runs the gamut of emotions and may I just say that it is one of the best of the season so far.
From Vietnam to under the sea, to the corporate world, you have to ask yourself "Is there any kind of role Diana Huey isn't capable of playing?" I think you'll find the answer to be a resounding no! That's how you live your theatre life to the fullest.
At what age did you know you were going to choose performing as your life's work?
There is a famous story in the Huey household of a Christmas holiday we spent with family in North Carolina when I was about three years old. I received a pink feather boa... and I never took it off. I pranced and posed my way through the rest of Christmas living my absolute best three year old life. Everyone says that's when they knew for sure.
In all seriousness, my senior year of high school, I got to play Eponine in Les Misérables, and that was the moment I knew I had to have a career in the theater.
Where did you receive your theatrical training?
I was incredibly active in choir and drama all throughout grade school and high school, and then continued on to study theater at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where I received a BFA in Theater with an emphasis in the Performing Arts. It was a conservatory type program with a graduating class of less than 30 people.
What was your first professional performing job and what do you remember about your opening night in that particular show?
My first professional job was incredibly special to me. I was still a student at Cornish, where we weren't typically allowed to do work outside of school, but with the help of one of my teachers, I was allowed to audition. It was for a concert show written, conceived and narrated by the late Martin Charnin, called Rodgers And... which showcased the works of Richard Rodgers and his various writing partners, including Martin himself. That opening night was magical. I wore a dress that Martin had bought for me and I felt so alive and excited to get a taste of working with people of his and my castmates' caliber.
Can you please tell us almost everything we need to know about White Pearl including something about your character?
White Pearl is a dark corporate comedy that is unapologetically real and in-your-face. It's a rare gem and really special in that it features six Asian women, all from different countries of Asia, and one white male, who is not the focal point of their stories nor the hero, so it definitely passes the Bechdel test! The women work for Clearday, a highly successful Pan-Asian cosmetics firm in Singapore, when a very racist ad for their new product, White Pearl, somehow gets leaked on the internet and goes viral. What we do know is someone will certainly be getting fired for it as the women are thrown into chaotic damage control. The play not only speaks on corporate culture, but also the toxicity of the beauty industry as well as inner racism and prejudices amongst different Asian countries and cultures.
I play Built Suttikul, the Thai-American Development Manager. She is a bulldozer and blast to play. She is fearless, quick on her feet and will do whatever she needs to do to get her way.
After your first read of White Pearl what were your initial thoughts of the script?
When I first read the script, I went through a wide range of emotions from laughing out loud to having my jaw drop open in complete shock. It is hysterical and it is horrifying. It is honest and it is ugly. I really love this play and love the conversations that it has already started to spur amongst us and audiences. I think it is so important to have work out there that candidly can shine a light on the ugliest of truths the way White Pearl does.
You played Ariel in a tour of The Little Mermaid that played Wolf Trap a few summers ago. Wolf Trap is an outdoor theatre and that particular summer was really toasty. How does one stay focused performing in temps getting close to 90 degrees or better?
Our week at Wolf Trap was one of the most challenging experiences of my life! It was so incredibly hot and humid that I literally blacked out on stage multiple times in every single show-bless the magic of muscle memory for keeping me going! In Mermaid, I had to sing, dance and fly across the stage and never left the deck as Ariel is in just about every scene. Our crew was amazing and had ice buckets in the wings that we would dip our arms into, as well as cold compression packs that they put underneath my costumes to try to keep me cool. It was challenging, but also kind of a fun one! When you're doing the same show 300 times, a new challenge keeps you focused and on your toes!
Many of us remember your performance as Kim in Signature Theatre's production of Miss Saigon. Can you please talk about the experience of putting that production together?
Playing Kim at Signature Theatre was a huge pinnacle moment of my life. Without it, I probably would never moved to New York and I have no idea what I'd be doing now. It had been my dream role, but directors often want to hire someone with experience playing Kim because of how demanding the role is. Luckily for me, Eric Schaeffer wanted someone fresh and new, and a mutual friend had me submit a video via YouTube singing "I'd Give My Life For You" from back home in Seattle. I never in a million years thought I'd book it, but a few days later, I got a call personally from Eric offering me the role! I was so sure they'd change their mind that I didn't tell anyone about it till I started rehearsals.
One of the main things I took away from that show was a newfound trust in myself. I went from being the insecure girl who was so sure she'd get dropped from the show, to doing every performance of our almost two-month run and then having the honor of receiving a Helen Hayes Award for it. For the first time ever, I had gone to a new city not knowing a single person and learned how to stand on my own two feet and believe in myself. Shortly after that experience, I finished a show in Seattle that I was slated to do, and then moved to New York with two suitcases with a month's notice. The old me would have never done that. I am so grateful for the growth I had from that show.
You are a huge advocate for diversity in the arts. As far as we've come with such things as non-traditional casting etc, what do you think is still the biggest issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to arts diversity?
I am indeed a proud advocate for diversity in the arts. One of the best parts of getting to play Ariel for a year was going to cities across the country and meeting families of color or getting messages from people around the world, who told me how they finally felt represented and seen. In Tennessee, I had a Caucasian mother who came up to me at the stage door with tears in her eyes saying how important it was to her that her adopted Asian daughter saw someone who looked like her play Ariel, especially in a community of very few Asians. I had people message me constantly via social media saying that they were about to quit being an actor because they felt they'd never work as a person of color, until they saw a person of color playing the typically white leading role in a national tour. I'm just one person and I felt such an impact from the countless messages I received from people saying that I helped them regain hope. Can you imagine the impact if that one person of color turned into two or three or more?
I think that while, yes, casting is slowly changing and diversity is slowly opening up, there is still so much work to do. There are still productions of shows and operas being done where there is no correct representation of the culture-currently the Knoxville Opera is doing Madame Butterfly with a non-Asian cast in yellow face. We need representation not just onstage, but also behind the scenes from the writers, directors, choreographers, casting, development, all of it. Rachel Chavkin put it so eloquently in her Tony's speech for Hadestown:"There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment, too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be."
After White Pearl closes, what is next for you?
It's been really incredible to have gotten to now play so many characters that have typically been played by Caucasian women in the past few years. After White Pearl, I am super excited to head back to my home state and play Julia in Alan Paul's production of The Wedding Singer at the Village Theatre in Seattle this spring!
Special thanks to Studio Theatre's Associate Director of Marketing and Communications Mike Fila for his assistance in coordinating this interview.
Theatre life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.