Rick Shiomi Carving a Space: A Playwright-Turned-Artistic Director Fosters Asian-American Theatre in the Heart of the Prairie

Article excerpt

AT FIRST GLANCE, THE MINNEAPOLIS OF THE early 1990s didn't seem like an ideal place for an Asian-American theatre artist. No one was more convinced of that than Toronto-native-of-Japanese-ancestry Rick Shiomi, who'd arrived in what he termed a hinterland of ice and snow--a distinctly non-Asian place--to jam with several taiko drummers. When he was approached about starting an Asian-American theatre there, he recalls his immediate thought was, "This is probably not going to work."

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But Asian-American theatre was surging across the country, with David Henry Hwang leading a drumbeat on Broadway, and East West Players mounting an Asian-flaired Six Characters in Search of an Author in Los Angeles. Shiomi combed the cold streets of Minneapolis searching for Asian theatre colleagues. As other Asian-American companies struggled to gather audiences, Shiomi's fledgling Mu Performing Arts struggled just to get a quorum of actors to put on stage.

Today, at 15 years of age, Mu Performing Arts is the third largest Asian-American theatre company in the U.S., with an all-star advisory board that includes playwrights Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, and was the co-host of the second Asian American Theatre Conference, held this past June. Mu's offices and rehearsal space are nestled into a sprawling industrial complex in a building originally built to shelter horses belonging to the Minneapolis fire department. Sitting in the rehearsal room--next to a battered piano and taiko drums stacked to the ceiling--61-year-old Shiomi jokes about his theatre's growing fame: "Rather than 'theatre who?' we're becoming 'Theatre Mu.'" Mu is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman-artist-warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life. And if in the early days the soft-spoken Shiomi wasn't accustomed to the role of shaman-artist-warrior, he would soon learn how to play it.

Many of Mu's early actors were students at the nearby University of Minnesota, some of them Korean adoptees (Minnesota has one of the highest densities of Korean adoptees in the U.S.). Shiomi began to cobble together a cadre of actors with very different stories of Asian-American identity. "I could feel there was talent, but it was going to take time and experience," he recalls thinking as Mu began to take shape.

Shiomi himself brought plenty of experience to the table. He began his theatre career hanging around the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, learning to be a playwright. In the mid-'80s he wrote Yellow Fever, and rode its success to New York, where he lived and wrote for several more years. That decade-and-a-half in the theatre world gave him enough credibility to attract some local attention--but, more important, it gave him a sense of where he needed to go and what Mu needed to be. It was important to Shiomi that Mu not just be a place where Asian-American actors, writers and musicians could tell their stories; he wanted a place where their stories were told well. While Shiomi describes the stagecraft as sorely lacking in the beginning, over the next decade he worked intensely with all the would-be actors who walked through his door to develop an ensemble that has grown up together on his stage. "We predominantly train through production," he explains, "and that's not necessarily the best way to do it. It's very public. People learn on the fly."

Mu toyed with a number of approaches to Asian-American theatre in such projects as Romeo and Fuliet, Shiomi's own Yellow Fever and a new-works festival for Asian-American writers--but as the theatre grew, Shiomi's focus became sharper. He says he's always wanted to create theatre that could "transmit the heart of the Asian-American experience." He eventually decided that Mu's path to achieving this would be by focusing on work by Asian-American writers.

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"I think there are still great, classic plays to come out of the Asian-American experience," he says, "but they will be part of a larger American canon that's going to be much more mixed. …