Arts and Culture

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?

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.

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Jesse Livingston
Contact: Jesse Livingston

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