A Conversation with Co-Founder of the National Asian American Theatre Company,
By Editors Joyce Chen & Brett Rawson
If art is the means by which many creative spirits escape the harshness of reality, then it is interesting to note that the theater still sits somewhere between created and existing worlds. For Mia Katigbak, one of the cofounders of the National Asian American Theatre Company, being an actor in today’s ever-expansive theater scene involves navigating old storylines in new ways, and pushing the boundaries of what viewers expect in a production in everything from casting decisions to plot twists.
In her latest play, House Rules, Mia plays Vera, a no-nonsense Filipina mother dealing with two grown daughters who are on wildly different trajectories in their personal and professional lives — physician Momo (Tiffany Villarin) and free-spirited Twee (Tina Chilip). As the play opens, their longtime family friend Ernie (Jojo Gonzalez) has just suffered a heart attack and now lies immobile in a hospital bed. His two adult sons, doctor Rod (James Yaegashi) and roaming artist JJ (Jeffrey Omura), now have to deal with the possibility of life without their curmudgeonly father. Toss in Rod’s moping ex, Henry (Conrad Schott), and the play is brimming with constantly shifting labels of what it means to be family, a “good” daughter, a “bad” person, or even just to play by the rules of the game.
In April, The Seventh Wave co-editors Joyce Chen and Brett Rawson had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Mia — over green beans and red wine — about the state of the theater industry and what it means to tell a universal story free of (or with) cultural markers. The award-winning actress (she is being honored as one of the recipient of this year’s 7th Annual Lilly Awards, and her play, Awake and Sing!, is up for a 2016 Drama League Award) graciously spent an evening post-performance to talk about the assumptions associated with being an Asian American actor, how she’s defied those stereotypes, and the power of imagination as an art form.
JOYCE CHEN: That was such a very powerful play. Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with House Rules.
MIA KATIGBAK: Ma-Yi, the theater company that produced it, and my company, the National Asian American Theatre Company, consider ourselves sister theater companies. We were founded around the same time in 1989 — something like six months apart — but we do very different things. So we’ve been colleagues for a long time now — I’ve known Ralph B. Peña, the director, for more than twenty years.
The playwright, A. Rey Pamatmat, started workshopping the play a couple of years ago and the story arose from an exercise — a writing exercise, actually. You know, there’s always this whole conundrum with the Asian American community: Do we cast an authentically Filipina actor, or should it just be an Asian American? For instance, neither James [Yaegashi] nor Jeffrey [Omura] are Filipino, and if you have a good ear, you can pick up the few Tagalog words that are in the script, but as [Pamatmat] started to workshop the play, he thought it might be a good idea to pitch it to me to see if it felt authentic.
So I’ve been involved with House Rules since that first workshop. And thankfully, in situations like that, there’s a lot that I can contribute. Small things like how in the Monopoly game scene, the boys originally didn’t acknowledge me when I entered the room, but I’m like, “My god, in a Filipino household, that’d be rude.” I told the playwright, “You don’t need to add anything, but it would be customary that the boys would automatically stand up and kiss [an elder], even if they hated them. It’s just a mannerism.” So it’s been a fun collaboration with the playwright, with the director, and of course, the actors, because again, the Asian American theatre community is relatively small, so I’ve worked with most of those people. Some of them have acted with NAATCO, as well.
JC: It felt like an organic fit. In terms of finding the right actors and actresses, did the playwright have people in mind already?
MK: In some cases, but I think they held auditions for the role of Henry — our only white person, our token white person — and I believe they also auditioned for J.J. because the person who was originally in the workshops couldn’t do it, but the others, Ralph knew them. When I audition plays, it’s usually because the director doesn’t know the actors in the community. The actors would find it a huge insult for somebody who knows your work.
BRETT RAWSON: How personal was the story for the playwright?
MK: Not at all, apparently. Because he has two sisters as well, we automatically thought, “Are your sisters are like that?” And I was like, “Is your mom like this?” He said no, not at all. The script really grew out of this writing exercise because Ray is adamant about writing for Asian Americans without having to culturally tag them. He doesn’t put any kind of cultural markers on them and he’s gotten a little bit of flack about that. And so he said, “These are people, and I’m writing about them in a particular circumstance that may have nothing to do [with their ethnicity]. Why do I have to say, oh they look this way because of this and this and that?” So apparently during this workshop he was taking, the person holding the workshop asked, “What would happen if you wrote for Filipinos? What would that be like if you purposefully wrote about a circumstance where the culture was a part of the story?”
And so he came up with these scenes — the siblings scene, the parent/offspring scenes — and realized that oh, there’s a story here in terms of parents who purposefully don’t hand down the cultural baggage because they want their children to be American, even in terms of not teaching them the language. And I know many families that are like this. And somewhere down the line, the child says, “Wait a minute, where do I come from? And where am I, really?” And if you’re seen by other people as the other, and you don’t feel like you’re one, it’ll mess you up.
JC: So it was originally written without any cultural markers, and then someone said, why don’t you try to write about a specific culture?
MK: Yes, with this particular play, someone said, “What would you do if you were to write for Filipinos specifically with the culture in mind?” Because his other work is not at all like this. He’s got another play called Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, and another one, After All the Terrible Things I Do, and both are making the rounds regionally. Because in Edith, there’s two Asian American characters and a white guy, but it’s about being young in the Midwest and bored to tears because Rey’s from the Midwest, so he’s drawing on his experiences, which has nothing to do with the kind of subject matter that people assume playwrights of colors have to talk about. So he says, “No I’m just writing about people.” He will insist, however, that when he identifies a character, even if they don’t need to be Asian Americans, he’ll say Asian American because it’s a political statement because he doesn’t feel like we get jobs. So even if the person is Midwestern, he’ll specify Asian American, which is an interesting thing.
JC: That’s a really big statement — to say that you can’t just cast somebody else in place of that character because there are certain characteristics that are specific to that culture. So when he was getting flack for not writing characters that are specifically Asian American, how did you react?
MK: I agreed with him. For instance, the question in After All the Terrible Things, it’s two-fold: it’s a woman who runs a bookstore in the Midwest and a man who comes in looking for a job. They could have been any ethnicity, but he made the woman a Filipina American, and so critics said “Why?” He said, “Why not? What’s the problem?” Well, if you’re going to make her Filipina we should learn something more about her being Filipina, they said. And he said, “No, she owns a bookstore, she had a son who committed suicide because he’s gay, and that’s what the play is about — the play is about bullying.” You know? What else do you need to know?
When we started my theatre company, we focused on Western and European classics done with an all-Asian American cast without Asianizing it. So we are Italian if it is Romeo and Juliet, or Othello, which we did, and we’re Russian when we do Chekhov, and American Jews when we do Odets. It’s just that’s the way the world looks like. So what’s the problem?
JC: It’s helping audiences to normalize storylines without thinking just because someone looks a certain way, that they have to tell their entire cultural heritage and story.
MK: And it works across the spectrum of color. You can’t make assumptions anymore about people because of the way they look. I mean, you could identify as Asian [points to Joyce]. I visited the Philippines a while back and I met this young woman — blonde, blue-eyed, and she spoke Tagalog fluently and identified as Filipina because she grew up there. It was odd and funny. I mean, I would hear her speak with a Tagalog accent, you know, which was so bizarre, because people who look like us would identify her as Scandinavian.
The world is just so fluid now, and I can’t understand how we can’t accept this in a place that is supposed to be built upon imagination. It’s not even so “out there.” If we can’t imagine that on stage, then we’re sunk.
BR: Part of what struck me so much about the play was the intensity of movement from scene to scene. Each one seemed to represent a separate emotion. And you could hear it in the audience, the sniffling switching instantly to laughter. I felt myself being constantly taken along by this emotional tide, partly because everything was so precise, from the sounds to the lights. Right when those lights changed, it was onto the next moment and mood. There was no real chance to exit ever.
MK: Yeah, it was such a brilliant solution because we couldn’t do scene changes. It’s not a Broadway Theater, you don’t have the spinning things, none of the flying things — nothing, nothing, nothing. The set designer solution was to put everything there, and the lighting who did this magical stuff. I saw a clip at the end, right when I have a stroke — of course I don’t see the show because I’m in it — but I was like wow, that is what the lights do? Wow, I had no idea. I wish I could see the show.
JC: I felt my eyes water at multiple points, but that scene where you explode at your two daughters, I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t had some kind of experience where they’ve had that kind of visceral fight with their mom. It’s just a thing that happens as you’re growing up.
MK: The director said that it’s funny, all the performances he’s seen, every single person in the audience goes, “Oh yeah, mom’s yelling.” [laughs]
JC: I definitely felt that. It’s such a collision of different emotions. You can see each of the different characters’ points of view—why they would be how they are about things.
BR: And the contrasts were so sharp. There were certain things that stood out to me, like siblingship, because my brother and I grew up in different worlds. So I felt something similar there. But I also realized there were many things I never experienced or had access to observing the play. But with the contrasts so clearly etched between Rod and J.J., I was allowed entrance into part of the experience. It was all so palpable. I imagine for the playwright and all of you, these are the moments you are heightening.
MK: Rey’s a very good writer, so I think being able to sink your teeth into those kinds of contrasting elements of a character — I mean, it’s what actors love.
JC: Were there any particular experiences that you were pulling from?
MK: Not really. I mean, Ralph was funny, the director. The first time we did that scene, he said, is that how your mom gets angry? And I said no, my mom gets really quiet, which is just as bad. You know, the passive aggressive thing. You’re like, oh shit, what did I do? And I have a brother, and we were good friends, but for the first 18 years of our lives, he was just this other person who lived in my house, and then he went to college.
But that was Ralph’s question: Where do you get that from? But oh my god, I’m sure all of us have that. And I get to do it on stage. And that’s not me. You know, I’m sure everybody has a moment when they just want to be able to aggh, you know? They gave me permission.
JC: The beauty of the stage, right? So to turn the conversation a bit to how House Rules ties into our current issue, our second issue is all about labels, and it applies in five million different way to this play, starting from who was cast to the story itself. One really interesting thing we like to look at is the friction that arises when the labels that we put on others and the ones put on ourselves don’t match, and that happens a lot in this play. Could you speak to that a little bit?
MK: There are so many levels, as you say, just in terms of the play itself, and what it’s about: the labeling of what it’s like to be the model child. Momo, for instance, wanting her sister to be responsible and to stop mooching off their mother. I mean, you can see that as a sort of interpersonal friction, but you can also see the positive end of it, which is she just wants her sister to be a good daughter. So she’s putting a label on her sister of not being good daughter.
Vera, the mom, actually recognizes that photography is a job, which is actually kind of an interesting thing for a Filipino mom to recognize, you know? Usually, it’s like, be a doctor, please be a doctor. And then there’s Twee’s labeling of Momo as useless and ugly and can’t get a man, and all of that kind of stuff. The brothers do it to each other, also—Toto telling J.J. he is a useless piece of shit, echoing his father, although he doesn’t see himself necessarily as his father. Labels are all over the place.
And then what we just spoke about, in terms of what Rey wants to write about: the label of “playwright of color” means you should be writing this kind of play, but that doesn’t completely jive with what he wants to do as a playwright. But you know, I’m wondering, maybe it’s just a natural thing that human beings do. You kind of have to look at somebody and try to place them, you know, to a certain extent. And we theatre people say stop doing that, stop doing that because you never know. It’s such an old adage — judging the book by its cover blah blah — but it’s also a comfortable thing. If I can label you, then I know where you are in my universe.
JC: In terms of being an actor, then, is that something you kind of have to shed a little bit, in terms of labeling other characters?
MK: As an actor, I am constantly dealing with the labels people are putting on me, which is Asian American, older, and woman. Those are all labels and each one means different things to different people. Asian American — can you speak with an accent? Oh God. Are your plays in English? Oh God. It’s Shaw — Bernard Shaw, he wrote in English. So did Shakespeare. Chekhov I can understand the question, it’s not in Russian.
JC: Right, it’s like, how do I answer this kindly?
MK: Yeah, and sometimes it gets hard to be kind. So on the technical level, in terms of just casting, you get typecasting, which is just labeling. But in terms of character analysis, that’s really on the actor to do the very hard work so it’s not a label. The fact that you guys are saying you can see the contrasts between the characters, that’s a very good thing for actors because it means we’ve done our job: number one, you can see the distinctions between them, but also number two, that you [Brett] can identify with it in terms of sibling interactions, because — that’s a great thing — had you just labeled it as a Filipino play that had nothing to do with you, you wouldn’t have been able to get the kind of experience you did sitting through the play.
BR: That is interesting — that the way that you perceive it will affect the way you experience it. If you see it as a Filipino play, it could have no bearing upon you, versus the experience of it, at certain points, it will hit you differently.
JC: And I feel like part of it is, if, after having seen the play, somebody asked me what the play was about, I would say that it’s a play about family. That feels like the truest, broadest statement. One thing I found personally affecting was the intergenerational play, and how that was handled with a lot of nuance and not just stereotypical first generation and second generation tropes, but what it means to be a second generation American being told to assimilate, versus being a second generation Asian American and being told to be proud of your heritage. I’m curious if that’s also something you can speak to as well, in terms of that idea of being an Asian American playwright and creative, and what it means to present that kind of complex story.
MK: It’s satisfying to be able to work on a play like this that addresses that because I think that’s something that’s quintessentially American, because everybody is an immigrant here. So the gift that Ray has given us is that he’s able to write this play.
That’s why I like the fact that we all do our own things, because a lot of the times, people have the preconception that being “Asian” is just one thing, that it is kind of a monolithic thing, and it’s not. It’s many, many different cultures. I was born and grew up in the Philippines, and the education system there is in English. So people’s assumption when I came here, as a sixth grader, was that we were not as well-educated, so I was automatically put back a grade.
And I was like, you know, I was educated by Belgian nuns and it was a Catholic school, so it was tougher. The educational standards were very, very different. So that is something I think that at first unconsciously, and then consciously, informed almost everything that I’ve done in theater, which is to contest and to challenge that misconception right off the bat, which is based on looking at me without my ever having opened my mouth.
That was the impetus to at first do just American classics as they were written, but then we [NAATCO] also do adaptations of the classics by Asian American playwrights, and then we also do plays written by non-Asians — I just make a deal with the playwrights that it’s going to be an all Asian American cast, and that’s immensely gratifying to me. They always say it would be so great if you let me do that, and then you get some other company do it with an all white cast, because then we’re immediately saying this is great. This is what the country should be aspiring to. Again, it’s what the country looks like now, you know, so just get with it.
The show I did before this, I was playing one of the alter egos of a 16-year-old white girl. I got offered to do I Remember Mama. I don’t know if you guys remember an old old film with Irene Dunn, it’s with a Norwegian immigrant family, and the concept is pretty cool: it’s ten women all over the age of 50 doing 25 roles except for the “I” in Mama, and I am playing the I in the I Remember Mama, so I am playing the Norwegian American teenager this time.
The smaller theatres are sort of getting on the bandwagon for this. There’s been a lot of noise lately about the continuing racism in entertainment — you know, yellow face on stage and that kind of stuff, so it’s pretty terrific when somebody says, hey, do you want to play a Norwegian? OK!
BR: I think that does something for imagination. To see something that doesn’t match up to the label. A sort of convergence of whatever your stereotype or misconception is with what’s happening — and they unite, that takes you somewhere.
MK: We’re all over 50, so they’re playing with age as well. My mom is probably almost the same age as the woman playing my mom, which is almost the same age as me.
JC: That’s gotta be really fun to rehearse.
BR: Right, and getting to really refine, or redefine, those cultural markers. And to see it en masse, you’re not going to be able to avoid it — or, you can try, but it will get difficult at a certain point because it is staying right in front of you.
MK: And I think if you’re open to it, you discover things about 16-year-olds that you might not have expected to discover because there were four of us who were playing the 16-year-old. It was me, an African American, a man, and a middle aged white actor, so four different takes on a 16-year-old white girl, and what we bring to that kind of a profile is a very interesting mix of references, and it was a huge success. It was totally sold out, the Times came out on opening night and gave it a huge review. But almost all of the critics said there was a well of, “Oh my god, oh God yes, I remember that from my being 16 years old, but I never thought that that was there.”
And same thing — with I Remember Mama — it is a remount: they did it here in New York before, but just the fact that there was a mature woman playing men, children, that it took away the schmaltziness of it, you know — which made you listen to the play in a different way. Have you guys seen Hamilton?
BR: Not yet.
JC: Not yet.
MK: That is a genius example of something like that — the actors are playing these historical figures, so when you have the general saying, “I’m an immigrant,” and Hamilton himself says that, and the two actors playing those roles — one is Latino and Caribbean African — all of a sudden, you think about the historical figures in a very, very different way, and actually, it fortifies the notion of “American.” There are so many things that are American Other — so you feel when you see something like this that is so positive and reinforcing of the good stuff that defined America, and it’s brought to you by a cast of African and Latino Americans, it’s mind-boggling how that happens. Culture will save the world.
JC: Spinning expectations on their heads — new entrance points and new perspective points on a similar kind of story.
MK: And it’s so hard to do—there’s so much resistance to it.
BR: Where does that resistance come from? The people buying the scripts, or…?
MK: Producers, I think.
BR: Is it because of an uneasiness about change?
MK: Maybe a disbelief, or they don’t think it’s going to be commercial. Everything is a bottom line, you know. Hamilton was a huge success with the public, but we were at the Public Theatre with Awake and Sing, and they were saying they couldn’t sell those tickets for Hamilton the first couple of weeks, and then, I don’t know which review came out, but people got very curious, and even at the Public, you had to do a lottery to get tickets. They’re like sold out until next year. The tickets are like $1,800 for God’s sakes. That’s criminal.
But you know, it’s one of these things where, OK, these people who produced it, it’s a money-maker, we’ll do it. But otherwise producers are — and it’s Rey’s story that I’m thinking about — but New York producers won’t do his plays because they feel like we won’t buy that in New York. But I’m thinking, they’re buying it in Kansas, you know?
JC: That’s the annoying thing about how a work can be marketed — it’s always a bottom line, but are producers and people in the industry pretty frank about that? Do they sugarcoat it, or do they say, frankly, we don’t think we can sell this?
MK: They’ll say that, but I don’t think you can get them to say it’s because either you’re not Asian enough, or it’s because you’re Asian — they won’t say that.
JC: OK, so at least they’re still one step away from being blatantly racist.
BR: Is the producing industry run by predominantly white people?
MK: Uh huh.
BR: Something we see echoing all over.
JC: I know, consistently through every single side conversation.
BR: It’s interesting in terms of narratives — how rigidly we hold onto our narratives. Someone might be resistant to change because, no no no, this is how I’ve seen this thing. When you see Hamilton, it might be hard to hold onto that narrative. Labels are strong, but they also break loudly.
JC: We recently did a side conversation with Sumun Pendakur, who was the Director of Asian Pacific American Student Services back when I was in undergrad, but now she’s spearheading the Department of Institutional Diversity over at Harvey Mudd College, and one thing she had said, which kind of speaks to what Brett said, is that it’s human nature to be afraid of change. Or the idea that oh, what I had as a foundation of thought or history is going to be shaken, and how is that going to affect the way I see the world, or what position I stand in the world? So I think that plays Hamilton or House Rules are kind of jarring in a great way for audiences who aren’t used to seeing that kind of narrative.
MK: I think it’s necessary. I think we need to always be challenged. Because how can you not change? Stasis, you know, that’s death.
BR: We’re seeing it now, though — a movement to go back to something. Effectively, to unchange. “Great” is the adjective being used, but “Great” means to revert back to a time when there was less change, which has to be the saddest reality couched inside the word — the unwillingness to be open to difference, or something that we don’t yet know. That we can’t be open to something and let it affect us and change the way we see the world. I came to this play and can say I am affected in x, y, and z ways that I didn’t predict, and it will change how I see things going forth.
JC: To flip the concept on its head a little bit, has there ever been an instance that has kind of shaken or changed the way you see anything, whether it’s within the acting world or within what you’re doing for the Asian American community?
MK: I’m really shocked that we’re in Obama’s second term and people are still talking “post-racial,” which I think is silly. And then there were all of these instances of yellow face. That kind of floored me. I thought, we’re in the 21st century and people are still doing yellow face? Really?
There was a play in La Jolla that was called The Nightingale, where it was 10 characters based on a Chinese story set in China and there were no Asian Americans, and we thought, huh? What happened? Then, almost at the heels of that was a kind of casting debacle in Philadelphia where they did Julius Ceasar but re-set it in Japan, and all white people playing Japanese people. And all the cultural references were wrong — people kept saying Chinese sword not Japanese sword, and, um, Japanese people don’t wear those hats — but it was like the old fashion, 18th century, orientalism, where you just had the markers of the particular culture that had nothing to do with authenticity. That that was happening two years ago, I got so depressed. I was just like, what do we do?
BR: What do we do? Or, how did you bounce back from that moment?
MK: Well, here’s an example. I’m finding I’m a total idiot when it comes to transgender issues. So I’m asking the playwright [of an upcoming play featuring a transgender character], please educate me. I don’t even know how to put out a casting call. What do I look for? Trans, non-conforming, gender, I don’t know how to say it. But that’s a great education. I’ve been asked, “Is this pre or post surgery?” and I don’t think that’s the issue, if I’m reading the play correctly. It’s more about what if someone is in some place in between, and that’s exactly what the playwright said — from a female to a male without surgery because the anatomy should not be the marker of gender.
So I thought, huh, interesting, so my anatomy shouldn’t be the marker of who I am, culturally. You know about the Asians who do the eye surgery to look white. It’s fascinating, but again, I’m going to do it with an all-Asian cast, because they’re topical issues that don’t relegate us to the usual. “You can only do this kind of theatre, because that’s the only thing you could be possibly be adept at doing, or entitled to,” you know? It pissed me off.
JC: I love that it’s challenging the way people think. Being Filipino American is one part of your identify, but it is not every part of your identity. And speaking to that, one thing I was thinking about as you were talking is hey, if we don’t know something we don’t know something, but we learn. That’s the whole point of things and it’s one thing I’m learning from these side convos — how do you create that space of “I’m not really sure,” or “I don’t know how to address this”? So I’m curious, for House Rules, what kind of reactions, receptions, or questions have you gotten about the play, storyline, or otherwise?
MK: Well, the reactions are mostly positive, I would say, in terms of “I can’t believe that’s similar,” or “but that’s my family” or “you guys have the same kind of issues?” Yeah, we do. The one thing I do appreciate is there are some unsavory characters in the play. And so for me it’s like, oh, thank you, we are not the model minority. I remember once asking Edward Albee to do one of his shows, and my argument was you have a bunch of neurotics in this play, and I am determined to show that Asian Americans are not always nice people. That we can be as fucked up as the next.
JC: That is certainly not relegated to labels.
BR: One thing related to this issue we see others talking about is that we don’t mind a certain label until somebody tries to take it from you. Then it becomes important to maintain. I wasn’t going to outright say it, but now that you want to take it away from me, now it’s the only one I want to hold onto. It becomes an important marker for me. To say this is going to be an all Asian American cast — to use certain labels at some points in times — can become a liberating and powerful statement.
MK: There was a huge controversy because they were holding auditions for replacements for Hamilton, and the actors union put out this thing about only people of color can audition, and huge hee-haw, you can’t do that, it’s discriminatory, and after everybody kind of back-pedaled, my two daughters were like, what do you think about this? And I’m like, hell they should have said this, people of color, haven’t they seen the show? It’s all people of color. Why would you not say that? And a couple of people also have said there doesn’t seem to be a huge outcry when it says “white actors needed.”
But actually, I remember for the longest time whenever I would put out casting calls, Actors’ Equity, or Backstage, where you would post all your calls, would say, you can’t say only Asian American actor. And I said why not? And they said, you have to say the characters are of Asian descent? And I was like, but they’re not, its Chekhov.
JC: Has there been a biggest change in terms of the industry between when you guys first started NAATCO and Ma-Yi?
MK: Well, it’s funny. You can say finally, people are more affirmative about wanting to diversify. I see it now for every time I’m called for a TV show. The casting breakdowns will say, so-and-so character, any ethnicity. But of course, now my argument with my agent is, why are you sending me for those? Why aren’t you sending me for the person who is the judge? It doesn’t say any ethnicity, just judge. Why don’t I go for that one?
For me, it’s still a no brainer. We see it in life. I have a game now that I play with myself on the train. I’m like, OK, what’s the percentage of people of color on this train? And then, the next game is, how many are Asian? And of course, depending on where you are in the city, it changes. I live in Harlem, so, you know.
BR: Have you seen any changes in terms of audience?
MK: That’s an interesting question. For instance, I was doing Good Person of Szechwan, Taylor Mac was playing Shen Tei, the lead character. That was a predominantly white audience. It was set to music, rock and roll band on stage. Taylor Mac is an amazing performer, so the demographic was Public subscribers, who tend to be older, white, affluent. Awake and Sing, but that’s because we’ve been cultivating that audience — about 40-50% Asian American. But when I see other shows, I saw Fun Home, predominantly white; Hamilton, predominantly people of color; so depending on the play, basically, but you know what? It would be so terrific if the audience in Hamilton is your normal audience to anything, but it’s a matter of economics. Again, who can afford the tickets? I can’t.
[server pours more wine]
BR: Naïve question, but what is the lifespan of a play after it’s run its course? For example, the story of the narrative? Obviously, you carry it with you, as the actor, but this play itself, for example, what’s the future after the physical experience ends?
MK: That’s kind of the challenge of live theatre. Tonight, we were just analyzing it, and one of the actors tonight said, “Oh god, they’re so much fun, the audience” — and we’re like, “Oh god, you know, what an art form.”
Since it’s live, it’s ephemeral, and what happens tomorrow will be completely different. And so I was saying, well, they’re having fun, but I can’t help but think we’re doing something wrong when they’re not having fun. And the actor said, No, I can attest that I didn’t do anything and they started laughing. I just picked up the notepad and everybody started laughing. And that set the tone. So we always used to say the “magic” of live theatre. If you’re there, you experience it and you come away with something that maybe simmers for a while or stays with you, and it’s terrific. The next day you do the exact same thing — or you think you are — and the audience is like, we don’t buy it. In those cases, I always say, why do we do this again?
JC: Those nights are obviously not Tuesday night theater audiences. No humor whatsoever. [all laugh] That’s so awesome. The magic of live theatre — you never really know how or who you’ll hit in a great way.
BR: Live anything — shows, plays — you can’t replicate that. I mean, we try our hardest — 3-D movies. We’re always trying to increase technology to make it feel like it’s a lived experience.
MK: Yes, because basically, I always feel that the audience is part of what we’re doing. I had a mentor who said most of the times people compare what happens between actors on stage to ping- pong — how you hit the ball to each other — and this mentor of mine said it’s actually handball, because the audience is the wall, so you hit the ball to the audience, and depending on how they —
[server pours more wine]
— so it depends on how the audience hits it back. You’re relying so much on that.
BR: There’s also an emotional investment. Just last night, I saw my brother for the first time in a month. We had this great catch-up. So for me, close by, there’s this immediate connection with my sibling and now I’m watching the messiness of human nature on stage, so there is this element of surprise, or a proximity to something I’ve experienced, that is unexpectedly impacting and impacted by the play. I don’t think the same would ring true if I saw a replication of it — I don’t think it would hit as hard, or I might not be as connected. I don’t know, maybe that’s not true.
MK: No, I think that’s true.
JC: I think that’s true — I mean, timely things — I feel like it’s also actor-to-actor, actor-to-audience, and audience-to-audience. I know I’m already affected by this, but just hearing all these people sniffling, it’s like, OK, that struck a monumentally important chord. What’s the process of getting out of character for you as an actor after being so emotionally invested?
MK: Some are harder than others. In this play, I die in scene seven, so I’ve been hanging out in my dressing room. I also have a routine, which is every first preview, what I’ve done is bought a bottle of Bourbon and Scotch for the whole cast, and so I told everyone I’m dead, I’m having my shot of bourbon, the only thing I have to do is curtain call, ok? I think I can manage that. So by the time curtain call happened, I’m like blah.
But it informs you about people, the kind of situations you might find yourselves in. You have to be so compassionate. You can never, ever approach a character, no matter how awful they are, you always have to approach them in terms of their values. They don’t think they’re bad, so what is it that makes them do the things they do? That’s my strategy. I don’t think everybody necessarily goes that way, but I have to know the positive things about my character, too.
JC: Right, knowing where the human core is.
MK: It’s like what my manager said: You gotta know when your character is funny, whether they think they’re funny, or whether they don’t know that they’re funny. It’s that same kind of distinction — am I purposefully being bad?
JC: It might be a silly question, but I always like asking: what’s your driving force? Or, what keeps you really interested in theater? Is it finding all these human characters?
MK: Well, I’ve always been interested in theater since I was 5 or 6. So I think in the beginning it was just this kind of odd need to perform somehow. My mother was a concert pianist, so we were always surrounded by musicians and dancers.
But now, I think the driving force is, I guess it’s really kind of a mission, to get away from misperception, misconception. And it’s not specifically just Asian American. The older I get, it’s discovering how that world view is too prevalent, but that’s too general, so I keep bringing it back to my experiences as an artist especially because I feel like my interpretation of life and people is salient, is a contribution to where we are.
I’ve never considered myself really political, but I think if you make a choice one way or another, artistically or otherwise, then you are inherently political, but the more I see how incongruent my own experience as a person and an artist is to how other people keep telling me it should be, then the more it fuels my choices in terms of what to present next, and my response also to those kind of issues is very much informed by—it’s character, you know?
What I do as an actor that I find the most challenging and satisfying is character interpretation. It demands a lot of paying attention. So if I pay this much attention to try to figure out who somebody is, then I think I’m OK to ask that everybody else pay that much attention to figure out who I might be. So I think if we kind of an exercise that reciprocal effort, it might lead to world peace! [laughs]
Mia Katigbak is the Artistic Producing Director and co-founder of NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Co). She is the recipient of the Obie Award for her portrayal of Bessie in NAATCO’s 2013 production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!; the 2012-13 Lucille Lortel and the 2008 Lee Reynolds Awards (League of Professional Theatre Women); Actors Equity’s Rosetta LeNoire Award, in recognition of her “artistic contribution to the universality of the human experience in the American theater”; New Dramatists’ Charles Bowden Actor Award; Distinguished Award for Artistic Excellence from Ma-Yi Theater. She is a founding director of CAATA (Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists) and served as the president of its board from 2011-15. She was one of the organizers of the 1st and 2nd National Asian American Theater Festivals in 2007 and 2009 in New York City. She is on the advisory boards of Ma-Yi Theatre and Fulcrum Theater.
She has acted in NYC with the Bushwick Starr (Clare Barron’s I’ll Never Love Again); Women’s Project (Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl); Soho Rep (Washeteria); New York Theatre Workshop (Scenes from a Marriage); the Foundry (Good Person of Szechwan, also at the Public) and with New Georges, The Civilians, Clubbed Thumb, Ma-Yi, Target Margin, Intar, Pan Asian Rep, New Federal Theater, and NAATCO; regionally at Berkeley Repertory Theater (CA), Swine Palace (LA), and the Guthrie (MN); and internationally, in Manila, Philippines and Abu Dhabi, UAE. She has served in panels for the theatre programs of the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the Nancy Quinn Fund for Emerging Theaters and the Fund for Small Theaters (both administered by ART/NY), and the Asian American Arts Alliance. She has been a guest speaker for forums sponsored by the New York Times, the Humana Festival, and Theater Communications Group.
She holds a BA from Barnard College and an MA from Columbia University.