Maria Cheng on Theater Esprit Asia, Colorado's first Asian-American theater company

Theater Esprit Asia, a new company founded by playwright, actor and choreographer Maria Cheng and stage, film and television veteran Tria Xiong, will start its inaugural season on May 30 at Aurora's Vintage Theater; the lineup will feature plays by Cheng, Rick Foster and Julia Cho.

In advance of the season's start, Cheng sat down with us over a cup of tea to explain the origins of the company, its creative ambitions and social mission, and the need for boundary-pushing work to create a vibrant theater community.

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Westword: Can you start by talking a little bit about the name "Theater Esprit Asia"?

Maria Cheng: We're a pan-Asian theater company, so we knew that the name could not be biased towards any one specific Asian culture. I came from a company in Minneapolis which is one of the foremost Asian-American companies in the United States. You know, you ask anybody in the field, "Name the five top Asian-American theater companies," and Theater Mu would be on everyone's list. So Tria, my business partner, and I knew we didn't want a Korean word or a Chinese word or a Japanese word, and not even something as universal as "chi," the universal energy. So we were just knocking around, and we thought, "Well, everybody in Asia, plus the rest of the world, drinks tea." Then we thought, "What could TEA stand for?"

We knocked around "Theater Ensemble Asia," but we thought "ensemble" was too pedantic. We started looking for "e" words. So that's how the name came about. The logo is actually designed by a Caucasian -- my ex, who is Caucasian but a wonderful calligrapher. That took about three months. Poor Bill had to go through like six renditions, and he must've designed forty TEAs.

How did the idea for the troupe came about?

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My co-founder and I met for the first time twelve months ago, in April. We didn't know each other. We were totally new to the Denver/Boulder metro area in terms of theater. She's been here three years. I've lived up in the mountains since 1999. I retired in '99 up to Summit Country. So we met at The Joy Luck Club put on by the Vintage Theatre; it's based on a novel by Amy Tan that came out about twenty years ago, I think. We were both cast in the show, and that's how we met. To my knowledge, it was the biggest production of Asian-American actors ever put on in Colorado. The cast called for 21 people, of which only two could be Caucasian.

Craig Bond, the director -- and he's also the artistic director and founder of the Vintage Theatre -- he actually found nineteen Asian-American actors, some of whom had never been onstage in their lives. Tria and I were cast very late. We met each other and just really hit it off, and wound up sitting next to each other in the dressing room. I think we had the advantage, being outsiders to the community; it was the first theater production for both of us in Denver. We started hearing from people who had been around much longer and had been in a few productions that there just weren't roles for Asian-Americans. We heard from these people that in Denver's sixty-plus years of professional theater history, there have been four productions of Asian-American plays, and they all occurred within the last four years. And by "Asian-American" we don't mean Miss Saigon, which is written by two French guys, we don't mean Flower Drum Song or The King and I, which are written by two American Jewish guys, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

We mean contemporary works that address issues of contemporary society written by, acted by, directed by Asian-centric theater artists. That's what we mean by "Asian-American theater." Because of the dearth of productions, we got really gifted actors. They were telling us that there are just no parts. You could have a walk-on part as a waiter, the judge, the cop, whatever. So we heard this frustration, we saw the wealth of talent, and one night over probably one or two too many glasses of wine, Tria and I just said, "Why don't we start an Asian-American theater company?" Because of my background in Minneapolis, and nationally having worked with a number of really fine Asian-American theater artists, we said, "Okay, let's go for it!" Then, when we told everybody, people just started going crazy.

When I started calling my friends nationally -- two of whom are the movers and shakers of the Asian-American theater world in the United States -- they said, "God, we've been wanting a presence in the Rocky Mountain region for years." So that's how it started. Within the first three weeks, we put out an e-mail blast to our closest friends and family, and we raised almost our entire production budget for the first year. We had such good luck raising money, but then our budget kept growing! [Laughs] Of course, that's non-stop with a nonprofit institution. The fundraising keeps going.

Continue reading for more from Maria Cheng.

Just out of curiosity, would you say that there's a strong community of Asian-American actors in Denver already, or is that something you're working to build?

Both. There are some phenomenal actors here. I would say that of all the research that Tria and I did, there's only one actor who's not in our first season right now. We really wanted her to be in it, but because she's so gifted, she works all the time, so she had other commitments. It was a conflict thing, but we definitely have plans to include her in our second season. And Sheila Traister is one of the best acting coaches by anybody's judgment, not just our opinion. She's also a phenomenal actor. You know, one category that we haven't discovered...we're missing a middle-aged male Asian actor. We've got the female at all levels covered. Another fabulous actor...Michelle Hurtubise: She got her MFA in acting from U of Hawaii at Manoa. We really have all generations covered, and then some. We can pick. It's not just one person in each category. We even have a twelve-year-old in one of our shows this year. But we're missing a middle-aged Asian man.

Will you describe the objective or the mission of the theater company in your own words?

I'll give you the blurb, and then I'll talk more in my own words. Our mission statement number one is to give work to Asian-American theater artists. Number two is to tell powerful, comedic, cathartic, wonderful stories that are written by, acted by, directed by Asian theater artists -- told from the inside out. Our third mission is to induce social change in a systemic way. I mean, we're not project-oriented. There are other social service organizations that do that better than us, like make sure teenage Southeast Asian Hmong girls have access to and know about birth control, and things like that. We may do a play that has that as a story, but.... Of course, how can you be a theater of color and not be attuned to immigration issues in this country?

So, on a very broad systemic level, that's our third mission statement: to create social change by creating better understanding between the Asian sectors and the -- right now -- still majority white culture (but that's gonna change pretty soon!). Also, amongst the Asian cultures, a lot of us don't know about each others' histories, and don't know about the specifics of each others' experience in the West -- in the United States...But I want to go back to the second one: In terms of telling Asian-Western stories from the inside out, unlike August Wilson...he was the preeminent black playwright of the United States, and he was known for saying that he believed only blacks could write truthfully about the black experience. I don't disagree with him about black culture, because I frankly don't know enough; but TEA's take is that you don't have to be Asian to write truthfully about Asian-Western culture.

What we say is that our theater wants to promote and nurture and give voice and give work to "Asian-centric" artists. An example -- and this really dates me -- but there's a very, very famous American writer who grew up in China of missionary parents: Pearl Buck. Her The Good Earth won the Nobel Prize, and, oh my god, the Chinese love her. You read that book, and she identifies herself as a little Caucasian girl, but her two main protagonists are peasant Chinese. If you didn't know Pearl Buck, you'd swear this novel was written by a Chinese person. So that's an example of someone who's Asian-centric. There aren't many Caucasians who are Asian-centric. [Laughs.] but there are some. We're presenting one such person's play in our first season.

Continue reading for more from Maria Cheng.

Can you tell me about that play?

It's Dust Storm. His name is Rick Foster. He's a California playwright. He's pure Caucasian, but, oh my god, Rick has been devoted to bringing to fruition and to the forefront the minority artist -- being Californian, definitely the Hispanic voice, the Asian voice, as well as the black voice. He's written a number of plays. More importantly, he founded an arts-producing nonprofit called Duende. They're an agent as well as a producing entity for works -- theater and music -- produced by minorities. [Dust Storm] is about the Japanese internment experience. He mixes fiction and reality. The whole play is told through the eyes of a rebellious, fictitious Japanese-American teenager who interacts with a famous, real-life Japanese visual artist named Chiura Obata.

At the time of this play, when Roosevelt issued his edict after Pearl Harbor, Chiura could've escaped internment, because Roosevelt's edict only applied to all the Japanese-Americans up and down the West Coast, not anybody inland or the Midwest or the East Coast. So Chiura sent all his children to St. Louis, where they still are...but he and his wife chose to remain knowing they would be interned, and indeed they were. They were interned in Topaz, Utah, which is out in the middle of nowhere. It's godforsaken flat land -- therefore, the name of two of his beautiful watercolors called Dust Storm. As soon as he and his wife settled into the final camp, they immediately started an art school. By the time he was interned, Chiura was a world-famous visual artist. He had his works hung in major museums all across the world.

But there were some in the camp who felt that he was a collaborator with the U.S. government, which he wasn't, and they tried to kill him. They failed. He managed to recover at the prison hospital. So Rick has taken this real-life incident, and you see it through the eyes of this fictional rebellious Japanese kid. It's a beautiful story. It's a redemptive story. We've got three actors playing it. Zachary Drake is the original actor that Rick cast and directed, and we're bringing him out as a guest artist on opening weekend. We also have Dale Li and Peter Trinh. We didn't intend to cast two of them, but at the auditions, they were both so fabulous. One of the premises of our theater is to give work to fine theater artists of Asian-American heritage, so we double-cast. (We really don't count Zachary, because he's a guest artist, and he's just coming in for the opening weekend.)

Will you talk a bit about the first season?

As a first-year company, our criteria for our selection of repertoire had to be small plays, in terms of number of cast and production, because we wanna have more than one year. [Laughs.] So we knew that we had to pick plays that were, production-wise, low-cost -- fewer actors and no sets. We really went for "The play is the thing." All of these three works that we're doing, they're all proven works. We have an open-mike series that we're doing. We've just had our first of five this year, because we want to nurture original work and writing voices here. But for our first season, in terms of professional production, we went with plays that are cutting-edge plays, but that have been produced, and that have gotten fabulous reviews.

Assuming the first season is a great success, and you are able to do a second year, what would be your biggest ambition -- or what would you most like to add to the company? You've heard of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point? I mean, we would love to be a tipping point for Asian-American audience support for theater. Now, music, symphony -- oh my god, that's huge, right? You look at any symphony orchestra, and at least one-third of the string section is Asian! So we would love to be the catalyst for a tipping point where the Colorado Asian-American community in the metro area has now become a theater community. Number two: We would love to be a theater known for producing new works, a lot of like what Buntport does. We want to break boundaries in terms of puppetry work and other multi-disciplinary approaches. Our second play that I haven't talked about, Spirit & Sworded Treks, is not so much a play; it's a standup act in ten snapshots. The thing about multi-disciplinary work is that it's very complicated, and usually if it's original work, you're talking about collaborations, which means the creative process. It's not like taking Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and just putting it on.

When you're creating something -- especially if you're dealing with original music, text, acting, movement -- it's very labor-intensive, therefore cost-intensive. And right now, what we're paying our actors is right up there with established theater companies. Let me just say there aren't too many companies that pay more than we do. And it's still not a living wage! [Laughs.] But we hope by the third year that we'll be up there with equity scale. That's our ambition.

Theater Esprit Asia's initial season opens with Spirit & Sworded Treks, directed by Maria Cheng and Tria Xiong, playing in repertory withDust Storm, directed by Paragon Theatre founder Warren Sherrill, from May 30 through June 23. Season tickets are on sale for the three-play series at $48, $43 for students and seniors 60+. Single tickets are $15-17 in advance and $20 at the door. For more information, call 303-856-7830 or visit www.theatre-esprit-asia.org.

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