The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to theatre, but it has also ushered in a wave of innovation.1 In its wake, performance-makers have reimagined the relationships between artists and communities and rethought the long histories of racialized violence many companies were formed to address. Organizations mobilized to devise reparative creative practices in the face of a post-millennial reinscription of yellow peril discourse, exemplified through neologisms such as "kung flu" and the preponderance of physical violence, particularly against community elders and those otherwise vulnerable or in precarious situations.
The particular impacts of the pandemic on ethnic theatres are still in the process of being assessed, although the national BIPOC BITOC Theatre Surveys have provided useful information.2 Our more focused study on theatre companies throughout California has revealed how these organizations have innovated with new media technologies, recalibrated relationships with audiences and artistic collaborators, reflected on the ontological nature of theatrical work, and expanded possibilities of performance practice. How does Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) theatre function to address precarity and loss even as it opens new vistas of experience in a changed world?
The following dialogue consists of excerpts from a research project that addresses AAPI theatre workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, conducted by Sean Metzger and Janine Sun Rogers in consultation with Snehal Desai of East West Players. Part of the project involved qualitative interviews conducted on Zoom from January through April 2022 with representatives of the following organizations in northern California: Bindlestiff Studio, Chikahan Company, Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra, Contemporary Asian Theatre Scene, EnActe Arts, Eth-Noh-Tec, Eugenie Chan Theater Projects, First Voice, Ferocious Lotus, Kearny Street Workshop, Naatak, and Theatre of Yugen. Southern Californian companies interviewed were the following: Artists at Play, Asian Story Theater, Cold Tofu, East West Players, FilAm ARTS, Grateful Crane Ensemble, and TeAda Productions. The interviews illustrated the vibrant activity of [End Page E-89] Asian American performance-makers in California as well as the wide range and depth of community engagement and service these organizations provide. The interviews also provided evidence to support three recommendations to the state legislature: first, to increase state funding opportunities for AAPI cultural workers, given the wide range of work that these people and organizations do, in order to meet shifting technological needs; second, to fund experts required to maximize the use of those technologies; and third, to offer major grants to fund archiving for these companies, which constitute the rich cultural heritage of AAPI communities in California.
The research was supported by UCLA's Asian American Studies Center, which received significant funding from the California Asian American & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus and individual donors to launch the AAPI Policy Initiative. The initiative addresses the impact and fallout of the pandemic on AAPI communities. Eighteen members of the faculty and their students across the UCLA campus conducted research and formulated recommendations, which will be presented to the caucus in the winter of 2023.
Given limitations of space, the dialogue that follows uses a selection of the participants' words to illustrate some of the adaptations that AAPI theatre groups made to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to mark several of their continuing concerns and desires. Featured are eight of the companies interviewed, with truncated versions of the prompts that were used to generate discussion.
JANINE AND SEAN (J&S):
How has COVID-19 and this historical moment impacted your organization?
We do six productions every year. And of course, they are all stage productions. We had finished our first production, Neil Simon's Rumors. It wrapped up on March 1st, 2020. By that time, people were talking about COVID, and we were wiping down the audience seats after every show. By March 17th, 2020, two weeks after our live show finished, the Bay Area went into lockdown, so we were forced to cancel the rest of our season.
We have a very large and loyal audience, and we didn't want to tell them to go home. So from April or May 2020, [until] maybe February 2021, we staged seventeen Zoom plays, one Zoom play every Saturday. You may remember in March, April of 2021, there was a general sense of optimism because nobody had heard of Delta. The vaccines were available in March, April, May 2021. So we launched a real season in which we said we will do stage plays, but they will be outdoors.
From June to December 2021, our season was four plays: outdoor, outdoor, outdoor, indoor. Unfortunately, in the middle of that, Delta came about. We ended our season and then we planned a full seven-play season for 2022. The planning happened in October [and] November, when Delta was easing off and 70–80 percent of the people we knew were vaccinated. So we planned six staged [plays] and one Zoom play. Then came Omicron. So I rearranged our entire season and moved the stage plays out, and I brought in the Zoom plays. We have our season now beginning with the Zoom plays because nobody will come to our theatre, followed by two outdoor plays. That's how we are adjusting to COVID.
We started in the middle of the pandemic. It was just one of those moments where because we had all the time in the world, we were like, it's time to start this company; it's time for us to kind of get our act together. We got lucky in that we were able to get into a program called the Innovator Incubator with Playground. They're an SF company, but they also have an LA branch and New York branch. Things were kind of easier having them as our fiscal sponsor and doing these monthly meetings to help us get started as a brand-new company in the middle of the pandemic. But going into it, we were very prepared that everything might be online.
Many people I know have passed away during this time and not necessarily from COVID. A lot of people are retiring too. So part of [an upcoming piece] is going to honor these people who've passed. There's going to be [a kind of] prayer tree [to mark that] this will be the first time we can all come together and mourn our losses as a community because everyone is just so isolated. For Japanese Americans, we've been through so much. We've been relocated four times. And so COVID is no big deal. We'll get through this. We've done it before. So, you know, we've got to do it again. And now it's our turn, actually the next generation's turn, to really rise to the occasion and help everyone out.
As a theatre that does focus on refugees, immigrants, and social justice work, it was very important for us to sit back and reflect what's going on in the world to be very relevant and very present in the work that we do. There were conversations. One of our virtual events was actually pivoting to talk about the connection of the George Floyd murder and Black Lives with Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander theatre companies and leaders.
What challenges have you experienced with digital platforms and programming?
We settled on Zoom because we've become pretty good at Zoom. We know how to enforce a certain arrangement of windows. We can play games with Zoom, where someone gives me a cup of tea, and it seems he's handing it to me. There's a trick that people can kiss each other and all that stuff. It just so happens that we had a ticketing company, which was using Zoom as a platform. After exploring the streaming platform Stage 10, there was some talk of Google Meet, which is nowhere near Zoom. We never actually used anything but Zoom after discussing it all. It's not appropriate for plays, but perhaps it is the best available.
Vimeo is the only platform we've worked with so far because that's what our fiscal sponsor PlayGround works with, and that's what's been working for them so far. I think it's a pretty flexible program. It allows you to do a stream, play a video, and do a live talkback after pretty easily, or you can hook it up to the live Mevo cameras so that everything is together.
When the physical world around us shut down, a whole new digital world opened up to us, without borders! We took advantage of that global access to collaborate with artists and companies across geographies, nationally and internationally, using Zoom. We presented our first full-length Zoom play very early on—a two-actor epistolary play. What made it special was that one actor was in Mumbai and one in Austin, and the director was in London. Zoom was still evolving, and it took a lot of actor dexterity and clever editing to make the play visually sound. It was a huge success and we had audiences from across the globe. We subsequently did a total of fourteen Zoom plays and a whole COVID-themed New Play Festival in collaboration with theatre companies in LA, New York, Mumbai, and Houston, something we would not have been able to do in the real physical world. We became Zoom experts. One collaboration was done with the help of the platform Stellar, which gave us a grant to make a cineplay. We overran the budget hugely because someone got COVID on our filming team, and we had to scrap the whole shoot and start all over again. Stellar is a very robust platform. I reached out to a couple of other presenting platforms, but they take very sizable percentages off the box. We got ourselves a Zoom business account, and we were using the webinar function on the Zoom business account and the platform.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Eth-Noh-Tec's "Red Altar: Winds Too Strong." (Photo: Mark Shigenaga.)
We've made lots of errors, and the first time we started doing our monthly streaming, it was crazy. We did not do well at all. There would be glitches and, you know, things would just go nuts. And finally, we just decided to use Zoom. You know that when something's online in a production, you can't be as lax. I mean, on stage, you know, everyone makes mistakes, but the audience loves you for making mistakes, for storytelling, because then you play with the mistake. They laugh. They are so glad you're human and, you know, making mistakes. But online people are used to seeing television shows and movies, and those are so highly executed that, you know, we felt we needed to really up the ante.
Where did funding come from?
Some of our grants allowed us to convert some of that money to general operating. If you have a space, it doesn't matter if you're not having shows, you still have to pay the bills, right? So that was very welcome, that shift in that funding.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
FilAm ARTS's staging of the play adaptation of Journey for Justice for a Larry Itliong Day celebration in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles. (Photo: Courtesy of FilAm ARTS.)
We had zero funding going into this. But we were lucky to get into the incubator program so that we had a fiscal sponsor, so we didn't have to use one of our bank accounts and deal with all the paperwork surrounding that. That was the bonus of [having a fiscal sponsor] as a company [that was just starting out]. But the other difficult thing was because we were so brand new, we didn't qualify for any grants. A lot of the grants, at least that we were aware of in the Bay Area, required three performances or three projects that had already been done, or we had to be at least five years old. The lack of funding for companies to get started was kind of sad and unfortunate to see.
We are a professional theatre company with a sizable paid staff. Talent incubation is part of our mission and that includes developing arts-administration talent. The two years of PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans helped us a lot, as did the grants from private foundations. But as the pandemic progressed, we hit a period of extreme uncertainty. We were producing very good quality and very innovative digital content, and this allowed us to retain most of our audience, but the revenues coming in were very small. I had to progressively lay off staff members until we became a skeleton team. We were congratulating ourselves for having reinvented ourselves and having stayed robust and served over 200 artists and of course, our audiences through the pandemic, but I didn't think the pandemic would come back with force again in 2022. We had to postpone the opening of The Jungle Book: Rudyard Revised from February to October [to] January, which meant that all the actors and creatives had to be paid almost twice. Our saving grace has been the revenues from online theatre programs for children that run through the EnActe School of Drama.
We applied for several recovery grants that did focus on the pivoting of our programming. I think there were some recovery grants, all governmental, and then I think some corporate. We didn't get a national grant, but we did get state and city recovery funding to help with digital programming.
How does shifting to a digital platform link to your mission and season? How did the pandemic shift your priorities, if it did?
Our mission is to showcase narratives from the Philippine diaspora. We crept out of our mission just to respond to our community's needs, so some of that was not arts related. One of the things we did was we became involved in food distribution for the elderly. We have a youth and senior program. During the pandemic, we were very concerned because a lot of our youth and seniors come from very challenged, vulnerable backgrounds. And we were very concerned about their well-being, particularly with the seniors. They were even afraid to leave their apartments. And a lot of them live in SROs [Single Room Occupancies] in the Tenderloin or congregate living settings, senior living facilities. We got very involved in help for the elderly and this food distribution program. When API violence became more prominent in the news [March 2021], particularly targeting seniors, we then created a safety escort program, so we transport our seniors from their homes to community events, community events near our space and the summit area, and then we transport them back. So that's been very challenging. We're doing a lot of things that aren't art related, but still we felt like we had to respond just to help out the community.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
The Chikahan Company's rehearsal photo from The Act of Care by Lauren Andrei Garcia and Conrad A. Panganiban. Featuring Rae Yuen as Calag, Lynie Abadilla as Batibat, and Louel Señores as Kapre. Directed by Alan S. Quismorio, movement direction by Brian Batugo, costume design by Mia Jue, and mask design by champoy. (Photo: Krystle Piamonte.)
Our mission statement is one line: to do good plays, well, good as we can, and to show them to a large number of people. We are all techies. I have a software company; we all work at companies like Apple and Google and the usual Bay Area companies. I would say nine out of ten members are techies, and I would say at least eight out of ten audience members are also techies. So we do this for fun. We don't pay ourselves. It is difficult, in my opinion, to do good plays on Zoom. And it is also difficult to show them to many people because people got sick of Zoom. We were in Microsoft Teams or Zoom work meetings. Now you're going to a play in the same format. I want to go somewhere and watch it. So we struggled. But I don't think our mission statement changed, and to the best of our ability, given the pandemic's constraints, we sort of managed.
Our mission is broad. It's to advance the diverse arts and culture of the Filipino people in America. And so there was no stipulation in terms of digital programming, but our board did come together to amend the bylaws even for voting. We had to amend the bylaws to make sure that we recorded the fact that we are doing digital programming and that they are voting digitally, because there was just no chance for us to risk gathering.
Could you describe the future you see in shifting to the digital?
A lot of what happens in theatre doesn't translate well, for so many reasons, to the screen. The way we've structured it is, we're going to do a three-week run, but the first two weeks are the live portion, and then the last week is actually just filming it without the audience, which allows us to get good sound, get good camera angles. But with that in mind, we're realizing that we're essentially doing two shows. It's almost like two different mediums and you have to approach it as such.
Right now, we're truly focused on just new works and promoting the local playwrights that we have in the Bay Area. As we grow, I would love to adapt content for the digital age. I think right now our focus is just being able to provide our stories in the simplest way possible.
We want to continue doing digital programming. It's the future and there's a broader reach.
As this new era has brought in the technology, we're not so excited about returning to the old way of only doing shows onstage. You know, only going on tour, jumping an airplane, renting a hotel, car rental, dealing with that. We've been there, done that for forty years and this new opportunity means, wow, we could push the button and we have an audience in New Zealand or Germany.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
First Voice performers. (Photo courtesy of First Voice.)
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Facade of Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco. (Photo: Courtesy of Bindlestiff Studio.)
On that note, could you discuss the affordances of digital programming?
Well, certainly like who we've been able to work with and who we've been able to engage. Unfortunately, in San Francisco, a lot of our artists have been displaced, and a lot of them have moved to other areas of the country. But during the pandemic, we've been able to reconnect with some of those artists and essentially have satellite groups in different cities. We've been able to do things with artists in LA, in Seattle, and even in the Philippines. We had workshops where the facilitators actually were in the Philippines. Participants were saying they would not have even signed up prepandemic for this workshop, were it not for the fact that it's available online, and it's easier for them to access. I mean, we're located in downtown San Francisco, so it's difficult for people to come to us for workshops.
EnActe is built on a collaboration model; a lot of work is co-produced. Cross-border virtual collaborations have suddenly become possible and desirable—we have now done them with LA, New York, Mumbai, and London-based theatre companies. Our content is universally appealing, so having a global audience is wonderful. We have had folks log in from Dubai, New Zealand, Singapore. That's precious. I definitely want to hold on to that. We have adapted various South Asian storytelling formats to digital that we will be exploring aggressively. And perhaps most exciting of all is the creation of a new cineplay genre that in my head is theatre shot as film. We have had some success with that. But our full-length productions will be in a physical space, I think.
I see no real advantage.
Well, you don't have to get out of your jammies.
You are limited by this frame. Technology-wise, I think there are advantages, but you also have to learn and experiment with them to be able to then use them in a way that would be most beneficial for the experimentation and the process.
In this new theatre ecosystem, what specific technologies would artists and/or theatre like to be trained in? What kinds of equipment or other needs would grant funding need to support?
We do need money for technical needs. But what we need more of is money for the technicians themselves. You do need good mics, but after that, what do you do with all this content, right? Audio and visual, editing it down? That's where we're struggling to find money to pay people, quite frankly. The costs of labor, I think, are the bigger costs as opposed to finding money to record this stuff.
I think in terms of training, we have to invest in our youth to be able to teach them how to document and tell our narratives. I think the work has to start from as soon as they're able to pick up a phone, as well as training seniors how to use digital technology. A lot of our seniors do not even have the understanding of how Facebook works, right? So I think training the youth, training our seniors to be able to just consume and document narratives is important.
In this new theatre ecosystem, very often actors need to be their own tech! So actors need to learn about sound, lights, and blocking in a digital world. We would like to create programs at the EnActe School of Drama for that. Filming technology, video editing, and sound editing have become de rigueur for actors, even if it's just for an audition reel. EnActe is now offering a greenscreen space for actors to record auditions, and a screening area to watch cineplays produced during the pandemic. It would be great to get a grant for all the equipment needed to support the actors and the cineplay producers. Also, for digital work, you require a lot more marketing push. So I would really like to hire a salesperson who is just dedicated to doing the research on how to sell and whom to sell, at what price to sell, and then actually just go out and sell.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Gandhi (Natraj Kumar) and Madeleine Slade (Laura Burkhill) in Gandhi, 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Naatak.)
If we could wave the magic funding wand, it would be a chunk of money that could be divvied up in communities to have a consultant, so the artists don't have to learn new stuff already trying to be artists. It would be great to have some collective way of funding a person to go into artists' spaces and do it, or work from online.
There is also a cost in signing up for that higher level of Zoom where you can have larger amounts of storage. We've filled up two external hard drives just off them, the meetings and workshops alone. I don't know if we would necessarily have saved everything were it not for this being kind of a historic global pandemic. We're thinking at some point this stuff might be interesting to a historian, to see how a pandemic plays out on Zoom. And so we've just decided to keep everything, essentially. Who knows what value it might have down the road when we look back [on] this era.
This excerpted dialogue demonstrates that in the face of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, AAPI theatre in California continues to display vitality and rigor. These organizations facilitate community building, mutual aid, and artistic innovation in times of precarity, reflecting and enacting rich traditions of performance in diasporic communities. This study thus contributes coverage to under-researched AAPI cultural institutions and posits significant implications in the realm of theatre and performance studies.
Companies featured in this study readily extended their work to include special programming that centers timely service-oriented initiatives rather than theatrical productions, such as holding space for grief practices, facilitating discourse regarding systemic inequality and injustice, and providing material resources and security for vulnerable elders and children. For some companies, this work was emphasized over play production. This shift implies that service is ontologically intertwined with the projects of AAPI theatres, suggesting that the works of these institutions could be fruitful realms of study not only for theatre scholars, but performance studies scholars interested in questions of offstage representation as well: acts performed outside of theatrical productions were shown to be a priority and pillar of theatre institutions.
This study furthermore works to fill a lacuna in theatre and performance scholarship through highlighting the works of underrepresented AAPI cultural institutions. The vast archive of institutions considered in this project shows that AAPI institutions bring significant contributions to the world of performance—both through the sheer number of active organizations available for interview as well as their prolificacy. Despite the overwhelming setbacks brought about by COVID-19, these institutions continued to mount new productions, retain sizable audiences, adopt and experiment with new technologies, and nimbly devise new methods for continuing to produce projects that serve their neighbors and audiences. This project's coverage of such institutions sheds light upon a significant and rich performance community that merits attention and study.
The fluidity with which these organizations adapt to changing conditions surrounding their labor as cultural producers provides significant data to be considered by scholars. The works of these companies, and their words in this conversation, reveal the continuous negotiations regarding the integration of digital technologies in performance—a matter that merits ongoing discussion and observation as performance, pathologies, technologies, and communities continue to evolve.
Originally opened in San Francisco in 1989, Bindlestiff Studio became the only permanent, community-based performing arts venue in the nation dedicated to showcasing emerging Filipino American and Filipino artists. Bindlestiff provides the often underserved Filipino American community access to diverse
offerings in theatrical productions, music and film festivals, workshops in directing, production, acting, stand-up comedy, and writing, as well as a children and youth theatre program. See bindlestiffstudio.org.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, The Chikahan Company focuses on the exploration of Filipino history, politics, psychology, and diaspora through the craft of theatre and the performing arts. Reclaiming and revealing the multifaceted experiences of the Filipino community is a fundamental vision of The Chikahan Company in order to amplify the complex and dynamic narratives that have long been pushed to the margins, and to actively challenge the stereotypes about our kababayan (people), our kuwento (story), and our kasaysayan (history). See chikahancompany.com.
Co-located in the Silicon Valley and Houston, EnActe Arts is a talent incubator and a platform for engaging diverse populations in conversations on social issues to create greater awareness and tolerance from a South Asian perspective. EnActe's programs and productions are rooted in developing talent and creating opportunities for actors, playwrights, and creative and technical production staff at any skill level and of all ages and ethnicities. See enacte.org.
Eth-Noh-Tec, with performers Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, have created a unique style of storytelling movement theatre that has performed to over a million audience members over the past forty years in festivals, theatres, schools, and libraries across the United States and abroad. With such notable performances as the presidential inaugural celebrations of Clinton and Obama, the prestigious National Storytelling Festival, Smithsonian Discovery Theater, Wolftrap VA, and international storytelling projects, events, and festivals in Austria, Germany, Bermuda, Korea, China, Philippines, Singapore, India, and Japan, Eth-Noh-Tec has delighted audiences as it bridges East and West, young and old, ancient traditions and modern messages. See thnohtec.org.
FilAm ARTS exists as resource for Filipino American artists and culture bearers outside the Philippines to cultivate a community that is rooted in its collective history and actively striving to represent, celebrate, and express Filipino culture and the unique Filipino American identity. FilAm ARTS is committed to serving as cultural consultant to other organizations actively looking to promote Filipino representation within the global community. See filamartsla.org.
First Voice's mission is to create and present the stories and music of people living between worlds. The only artist-driven organization dedicated to the multiracial experience (Plural Plus–Chicago Art Institute), one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States, First Voice has produced, presented, toured, published, and recorded original work worldwide that incorporates Nohgaku (Japanese theatre) and Gagaku (Japanese classical music) with American art forms like jazz and performance art. Since 1976, founders Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu are internationally recognized pioneers in culturally specific new genre performance. Their oeuvre includes works for orchestra, theatre, storytelling, jazz ensemble, chamber music, large-scale traditional dance pageantry, contemporary dance drama, monodramas, performance with film, and interactive performance with art installation. In 2023, First Voice will premiere The Soul of San Francisco—a Hewlett 50 Playwright Commission about Brenda's family's 126-year history in San Francisco, the birthplace of Asia America. See firstvoice.org.
Started in 1995 by students at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford, Naatak is one of the largest and most prominent Indian theatre companies in the country. After twenty-seven years onstage, Naatak recently completed its hundredth production, a musical based on the Indian epic Ramayan. See naatak.org.
TeAda Productions is a nomadic theatre of color rooted in the stories of immigrants, refugees, and people of color. Its artistic process starts and ends with conscious listening, community building, and creative courage. TeAda offers community-based workshops and tours, innovative performances, locally and nationally, in traditional and nontraditional venues. See teada.org.
1. Several Theatre Journal authors have explicitly tracked these developments as they have manifested within various contexts. See Fintan Walsh, "Grief Machines: Transhumanist Theatre, Digital Performance, Pandemic Time," 73, no. 3 (2021): 391–407; Dani Snyder-Young, "We're All in This Together: Digital Performance and Socially Distanced Spectatorship," 74, no. 1 (2022): 1–15; Edyta Lorek-Jezinska, Marek Jezinski, and Piotr Domeraki, "On the Benefits of Plague: Polish Fringe Theatre in 2020," 74, no. 2 (2022): 207–25; and Georgina Guy, "Theatre as Installation in the Syndemic Architectures of Rimini Protokoll and Battersea Arts Centre," 74, no. 3 (2022): 277–301.