Mu Performing Arts looks forward
Receiving the Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award was a tremendous personal honor and wonderful recognition of the success and impact of Mu Performing Arts. As one of the co-founders in 1992, I have had the opportunity to be a part of this twenty year journey that grew from a handful of artists with a dream to a full fledged professional equity company with an amazing pool of theater artists, from actors and directors through playwrights and designers. The first ten years were spent digging trenches; finding and developing the talent, laying the organizational foundations and creating a significant presence in the Minnesota theater community. We were fortunate to receive some early foundation funding as part of the growing interest in diversity in Minnesota, but we had to prove ourselves through our work to gain that ongoing support and recognition.
Some early work like Mask Dance and The Walleye Kid came as the first wave of Korean adoptee experiences were presented on stage. Some work, like Song of the Pipa and River of Dreams reflected the recent Asian immigrant experiences, melding traditional Asian performance forms like the Chinese pipa and Cambodian dance with western drama. And we produced a few Asian American classics, like Paper Angels by Genny Lim and Sound of a Voice by David Hwang. But two major shifts happened in the late 1990s, taking us into our second decade: we began to focus more on plays about contemporary Asian American life, and we started producing musicals. That shift, combined with the growth of our talent pool, truly catapulted Mu to the level we have reached these past five years, a period which Graydon Royce of the Star Tribune said we may one day look back upon as the “golden era” of Mu. Actually I hope it’s just the beginning of a new and enduring reality, but only time will tell.
The shift to developing new contemporary plays like Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco and Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee, which have been produced around the country, reflected our national reach. But locally, through our Mu/Jerome New Performance Program we have helped to develop a whole new wave of playwrights like Sun Mee Chomet with her play Asiamnesia, Katie Ka Vang with WTF and Katie Leo with Four Destinies. And with funding from the Multi Arts Program Fund we developed and produced the world premiere of The Tiger Among Us by Lauren Yee. So Mu has had some extraordinary success with discovering and developing new playwrights both locally and nationally.
The shift to musicals came from a purely intuitive interest in what might be possible for us in this area. We had used some music in various productions but nothing to qualify as a musical. I felt there was some kind of potential worth exploring and agreed to collaborate with Park Square Theatre on a 2004 production of Pacific Overtures by Sondheim. At the time I was thinking of having a diverse cast because I didn’t think we’d have enough Asian American performers to fully fill out the ensemble. But to my surprise, the Asian American musical theater performers came out of the woodwork and we had a full Asian American cast. When I asked some of them why they had not auditioned for Mu before, they said we hadn’t done any musicals! From that point I realized Mu had a whole new artistic territory to develop.
We developed and produced a couple of new musicals ourselves, Walleye Kid The Musical by myself, Sundraya Kase and Kurt Miyashiro (composer/lyricist) and Filipino Hearts by myself, Allen Malicsi and Kurt Miyashiro. But it has been our more recent productions of Flower Drum Song (David Hwang version), Little Shop of Horrors and Into The Woods that really showcased our musical theater talent.
As I look back upon the two decades of work, I can see my own development as a director. So much of what I learned about directing came through my work assisting Professor Martha Johnson (my wife) in her productions at Augsburg College. I feel like I gained my understanding of western classics through that work and melded that with my own personal theater vision and my framework of the Asian American experience. My work at Mu on Flower Dum Song, Yellow Face, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Into The Woods truly allowed me to develop and express my own artistic vision.
But one of the most important aspects of the “impact” of Mu has been the development of the talent pool. To have such wonderful music theater artists as Sara Ochs, Randy Reyes, Katie Bradley, Sheena Janson, Eric Sharp and many more and actors like Sun Mee Chomet, Kurt Kwan, Saikong Yang, Maxwell Thao and others have given our productions the high quality professionalism that has made our mark in the community. And developing directors like Randy Reyes and Jennifer Weir has been key in fulfilling Mu’s overall artistic vision. Finally, this pool of artists is still relatively young and growing into their own prime.
That’s why I brought up all the Mu people on stage while accepting the Ivey Award, because it is really a recognition of their artistic talent and work. I am fortunate and honored to have taken part in this phenomenal development, and believe that it is, in fact, still in the early stages of a truly significant impact on the Minnesota theater community.
And as Randy Reyes takes over as Artistic Director this summer, I feel both pride in how far we have come together and excited about how far we can go under a new era of leadership.