Alongside and Behind the Community: TeAda’s Decolonial Ensemble Theater Practice

This interview with TeAda Productions highlights the nearly three-decade-old inter/multidisciplinary theater organization’s commitment to community-based theater work dedicated to telling stories of immigrants and refugees. Founded by Leilani Chan in 1996, with Ova Saopeng now as the Co-Artistic Director, TeAda has pivoted away from the traditional “theater season” that includes presenting and producing works to focus on creating original ensemble work. In this interview, Chan and Saopeng discuss their works (Refugee Nation, with Laotian American communities; Global Taxi Drivers, with immigrant and refugee workers from Somali, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Russian, Thai, Ecuadorian, and Mexican refugees, and immigrant workers in the global taxi industry; andMasters of the Currents, inspired by the stories of Micronesians living in Hawai’i today), their methods of creation, and the relationships they have built and continue to maintain with those they have worked with. Centering community perspectives as their primary source, TeAda employs talk-stories, story-telling workshops, and individual interviews to construct the narrative of their theater pieces

TeAda identifies as a “nomadic theater,” inspired by the communities whose stories and experiences of itinerancy, displacement, migration, and diaspora TeAda foregrounds in their performance work.2 In their discussion of the relationships they create and maintain through their ensemble work both in and beyond Los Angeles, we recognize an articulation of Rossi Braidotti’s “politically invested cartography of the present condition of mobility in a globalized world…stressing the fundamental power differential among categories of humans and nonhuman travelers and movers.”3 Although TeAda’s reference to “nomadism and displacement” may sound similar to how postmodern theory uses these concepts to describe the contemporary human condition, Chan, Saopeng, and TeAda’s work emphasizes the importance of recognizing the power dynamics that contribute to the experience of displacement and nomadism. Their works portray these conditions as not simply consequences of modern society but are shaped by particular forms of inequality and marginalization. “Nomadic” also describes TeAda’s process of traveling to various communities outside Los Angeles to create their ensemble work and how their process has connected otherwise disparate communities. With their current work, Masters of the Currents, the presumed mobility of people from the Federated States of Micronesia [FSM], Guam, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands [RMI] exposes the continuing imperialist occupation by the United States. The US geopolitical investments in the Western Pacific create mobility pathways for those states’ citizens. Yet this mobility is encased in precarity and indeterminate relations with the US government and society that positions them as unequal and subordinate.

For nearly three decades, I have had the honor and privilege of working with, witnessing, and learning from Leilani, Ova, and TeAda Productions’ work. I have benefitted from the space/home they have created for Asian American and the broader BIPOC, queer theater artists in Los Angeles and beyond.

Fig. 1. Refugee Nation (2010), Pangea World Theater, Minneapolis. Left to right: Leilani Chan, Ova Saopeng. Photo by Sean Smuda.

Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns (LMSPB):

TeAda Productions’ mission foregrounds performances that express the experiences of communities that have been displaced, exploited, and overlooked—more explicitly, those of immigrants and refugees. How did you arrive at this commitment? Why are you centering the experiences of immigrants and refugees?

Leilani Chan (LC):

TeAda grew out of the multiculturalism movement of the time, committed to providing opportunities for people of color to develop their work. TeAda has been technically a nonprofit for over twenty years. I started producing solo and ensemble works in the mid to late nineties. We were tiny, and I was quite young, with all those lovely ideals. We attracted a lot of folks, especially women of color and multidisciplinary artists and dancers who also wanted to do theater. At that time, I was incorporating hula into storytelling. We were already doing ensemble practice and supporting many solo works. We were also producing TeAdaWorks Festival, primarily featuring solo performances, women of color, and queer solo performers.4 Of course, Ova was the cisgender male exception. Over time, because Ova and I started collaborating on Refugee Nation, I wanted to identify TeAda with specific communities rather than just [being] generally multicultural. We were not just Asian Americans. In defining it, further, we realized that we were drawn to telling the stories of refugees and immigrants, even though we were also creating with indigenous groups and African and Latino folks. The common thread was refugees and immigrants.

Ova Saopeng (OS):

What TeAda is has always been a big brand and marketing challenge to explain to people. What is this TeAda Collective? The word TeAda, for us, comes from the Hawaiian pidgin [“teada” is the word for “theater” in Hawaiian pidgin] because we are culturally rooted in Hawai‘i.5 Yet when people see it, they don’t know what it is; so, of course, they ask the question, “Oh, am I pronouncing it right? Is it “ta da”, is it “ti-dada”? I think a big part of TeAda Productions, what it is as an arts organization, is openness. That’s a really big part of theater, right? To be open to all the possibilities and accepting of it all. We’re not defining it for anyone. This is how we define it in terms of the organization. But for folks who come, the ones who are attracted to TeAda feel very welcome. Artists such as Kristina Wong and D’Lo still praise their connection with TeAda.6 We are a theater of color. We’re very open to different artists, emerging and established. We focused on refugees and immigrants to give a platform for those communities to be nurtured and nourished.


While I know you create work in different places, can you speak to doing theater for, by, and with immigrant and refugee communities in Los Angeles?


The conversation is about place: theater and place. TeAda is based in Los Angeles. What is our responsibility or duty or relation with this place? We realized LA has a large refugee, immigrant, and asylum community. Yet, where are these stories in the theater field?


TeAda also identifies as a nomadic theater. How do you think about those two things together—as a nomadic theater particularly committed to highlighting refugee and immigrant community stories?


There was a period where we were dedicated to doing the traditional season and having four productions locally a year, in addition to having a production that tours. But after eleven years of TeAdaWorks, where we were helping ten artists a year develop their solo works, it wasn’t sustainable because their solo works were theirs—they were not TeAda’s to own. And so those artists could go on further, develop the work and tour, but the income wasn’t coming back to TeAda. And not just the income, but the creative energy was dissipating. Meanwhile, Ova and I were developing our theater methodology and wanted to return to ensemble practice. We realized that if we wanted to work on ensemble practice, we had to let the TeAdaWorks Festival series go.

And slowly but surely, we also let the season idea go because we realized that we wanted to develop ensemble practice work with communities that don’t necessarily have artists who want to be in theater. Many people we collect stories from have yet to be considered artists. We realized we needed to commit to a community for at least three years. As it turns out, it is a ten-year process with most of our projects. And we know these folks. The people we first met at the beginning of Refugee Nationare now our dear friends and family. They are married and have kids. We’ve gotten married, and we’ve had kids, and our kids know each other. It’s part of the idea of diaspora and how we have developed our work with a community that is in diaspora. As much as we are about places, we’re connected to many places. And that’s very reflective of the immigrant and refugee existence.


With refugee and migration experience, we’re all shifting and changing. How do you find home? What is home? Where is home? That’s the same question that TeAda always has.

Talking about nomads, it has been wonderful to work with the Pacific and Oceanic communities beyond Hawai’i–diasporic communities from the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Many are youth, elders, and women. I see it as TeAda always had an ohana—a family, an artistic family. One of the big things I like about our nomadic status is that when we work with communities, our methodology is that we are alongside and behind the community from the beginning to the end. How we enter a community we want to work with is as important as how we leave and continue that relationship. I feel this is powerful, and it makes TeAda stand out. The tour of Refugee Nation led to a connection with Laotian and Lao-American refugees, which has developed into long relationships with those communities in Anchorage, Alaska, Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, and other parts of Minnesota. You get this Venn diagram of ohana. Because of how we work, all these communities from different parts have beautiful connections and networks through us.


This is all very compelling to think about next to [W.E.B.] DuBois’s iconic definition of Black theater as by, for, about, and near Black people. As we know, this idea has been incredibly influential for artists who are committed to theater for social change and community-based theater. Obviously, Dr. DuBois developed this notion of Black theater amid specific historical and social conditions of the early twentieth century. Can you speak to the nuances of creating community-based theater in the early twenty-first century?


We’ve learned, even with Refugee Nation, that the community is never where the theatres are. The theatres are always in areas like a downtown arts district, where people who go to the theatre know how to navigate. When it comes to immigrants, refugees, and new arrivals, they’re usually wherever the jobs are or wherever the cultural or religious centers are. And so there’s like 300 Micronesian in Milan, Minnesota, because there were a lot of jobs at the Jennie-O Turkey Factory near by. It started with two brothers who came from Ramnum Island, Chuuk (Federated States of Micronesia) who then brought family members, who brought more relatives, and now they have a little enclave in Milan, Minnesota. So we knew we had to do the 3 hour drive form Minneapolis to Milan, MN.

We brought the whole cast with us to perform an excerpt and conduct a workshop. It was an incredible experience to be in the flatlands of Minnesota, and then suddenly, there’s this Chuukese community in Milan, affectionately called the Milanesians. Their community center was a gym and as they entered we saw that they were naturally dividing themselves by gender. So Ova took the men to one side of the gym, and I took the women to another side of the gym, and the cast divided the same way. We led these workshops with the men on one side, and women on the other forming two big circles. The women sat in chairs. The men stood. In the cavernous echo of the gym, it was like the workshops were almost battling with laughter and a cacophony sound. Then the cast came together and did an excerpt of the play. Our performance was appreciated by the community who sang a community song for us in Chuukese before we left the gym. The next weekend someone organized a bus to bring them into the city to see the actual show—a three-hour bus ride! They come into the theater. Automatically, because this is such a traditional community, the men sit in the back and the women in front. As soon as the show starts, all the men pull out their phones. And, you know, there is a no phone policy in conventional Western theatre. But as I am sitting there, I realize these folks are live-streaming this show internationally! They are putting it on Facebook Live, and we’re getting an international viewing of the play. Artistically, I think it’s much better in person. But then, I realized this is the highest compliment from this community; they want to share this with their family in Micronesia, in Guam—all over the world where this diaspora has spread.

We have to be nimble as this nomadic theater and put aside some of these theater [conventions] because then we’re not serving the community anymore if we take those phones out of their hands. How many things would we be dishonoring in their culture by doing that? It’s the constant learning and willingness to unlearn some of this theater hubris we are taught in school because that’s not serving the purpose of why we do theatre.


Could you speak more about developing your process and how your decades of work have added to your understanding of theater-making with refugees and immigrant communities?


The process, or the methodology, is about building trust. How do you build trust with the people you’re working with? You have to listen—deep listening. In creating Refugee NationGlobal Taxi Driver, and Masters of the Currents, we do oral stories and interviews. In those oral stories and interviews, we’re just listening. We’re asking questions, listening, and giving the participants and the people we’re interviewing an opportunity to speak their truth, to speak what comes, and then to inquire deeper into what this means. Being specific has helped. You validate people’s presence. It’s amazing how all the participants open up. And why do they open up? Because they’re not judged. They can be who they need to be.


With Refugee Nation, we were gung ho. We’re going to get the oral histories on video, and we’re going to talk to people. When we turned the video on, conversations with the elders were very serious and formal—just the facts. As soon as we turn the video off, the tears or the laughter start, and the real stories surface. The stories we could put on stage always came out when the camera was off. Sharing food and conversation was when we got the real stories.

We learned early on that we must create safety. Theater is such a scary word for many people because our communities have been so displaced from the theater world. They think [only] white people do theater. For Masters of the Currents, knowing what we had learned in the previous couple of decades, we held a storytelling workshop for the community. For the theater people, we held an audition. This way, we got people who are experienced in theater and community members into the same room. We needed to know from the theater makers and the actors if they were willing to unlearn some of what they’d been taught in theater departments. Are they willing to let go of that theater hubris and treat these community members as equals? That was harder than getting community members who are good at telling stories. We ended up casting community members in the professional production, and they’ve gone on to tour with us and get that professional experience. We were able to cast Micronesians in a play about Micronesians.


Fig. 2. Masters of the Currents (May 2019). Pangea World Theater Minneapolis. Clockwise from left: Jermine Kaipat, Innosenta Sound-Kikku, Emeralrose Hadik, Jayceleen Ifenuk, Ova Saopeng. Photo by Joan Osato.
Fig. 3. Masters of the Currents (May 2019). Pangea World Theater Minneapolis. Left to right: Ova Saopeng, Emeraldrose Hadik. Photo by Joan Osato.

Those are the things we’ve learned along the way about how to make it more comfortable for community members to enter the room and how we decolonize the process so that they understand they’re experts as much as we are. We’re only experts in our craft, but we’re not experts in their stories. Their story is theirs; it belongs to them. And it’s a privilege for us to hear their story.


With Masters of the Currents, we began working with the idea of a cultural navigator or a community navigator—someone within the community or the culture that becomes an ally and an asset to us as artists. It goes back to building trust. Many ask us, “How do you guys do this? What is the process?” I’ve learned that you just listen and build the relationship. It’s not going to be a one-year turnaround. It sometimes takes two or three years. When we started working on Masters of the Currents with the Micronesian community, it became clear how ignorant we were. We thought we were going to do this play about Micronesians. But, when we listened, we realized that Micronesian and the word “micro” is actually a derogatory term from their perspective because of what’s happening in their communities.

Part of our methodology and process is bridging the relationship between an artist and the community. With our projects, we’re not simply handing a script to an actor, and then that’s all they focus on. You are asked to do the work. Building connections with a community or social justice organization is part of your research.


How do you collect these stories? You seem to employ different methods.


It combines one-on-one interviews and storytelling sessions in a workshop setting. We approach community leaders or historians because they already have a collection of stories. We can just talk to them individually or invite them to a workshop. The workshops bring together artists and community members.

When we work with a group of artists, we ask them to come in with stories. With Global Taxi Driver, we had a couple of artists who either were cab drivers at one time or had a friend or a parent who was a cab driver so they could tell those stories. Of course, we all have taken a cab ride some time, so we had various stories to tell. One of the reasons we thought about doing Global Taxi Driver was when we were in Thailand, Ova hit off a conversation with one of the cab drivers, and that’s where we learned that most of the cab drivers in Bangkok come from the Isan part of Thailand, which is a culturally Lao region. And so they could communicate with each other in Lao. There’s a story to tell; it’s a job many immigrants take when they come to the US. How do we talk about this community that isn’t necessarily divided by racial lines? Many people, primarily men and some women, choose this profession because it offers some level of independence.


The TeAda methodology and [the process for] developing a specific work has various stages. Usually, it begins with our idea; for example, I’m thinking about Refugee Nation. That idea started with me and Leilani exploring our ancestry. We both have Southeast Asian ancestry; Leilani’s lineage is from Malaysia, and my lineage is from Laos. We both ended up being artists here in Los Angeles and in America. What is that journey? In exploring that, we traveled to Asia and met her family and my family. We realized that the Lao refugee story hadn’t been told, at least within the field of theater. We then started to think about, okay, how do we develop this piece?

Fig. 4. Global Taxi Driver (2015), Los Angeles Premier at East West Players. Front: Elyse Dinh and Ova Saopeng. Background: Kenesha Hemmings, Shaan Dasani, Joshua R. Lamont, and Marcos Najera. Photo by Ed Krieger.
Fig. 5. Global Taxi Driver (2015), Los Angeles Premier at East West Players. Left to right: Kenesha Hemmings, Marcos Najera, Ova Saopeng, Joshua R. Lamont, Elyse Dinh, Shaan Dasani. Photo by Ed Krieger.

While performing in a play in Minnesota, I met all these Lao folks of my generation. I started asking them questions. That’s when we started collecting these personal interviews and stories. We tried looking for Southeast Asian, specifically Lao actors in Los Angeles—there are very few. We offered a workshop with those actors, prompting them with questions about ancestry. That’s where some of the characters in Refugee Nation came from. We then linked up with Channapa [Khamvongsa], who started Legacies of War.7 Working with Channapa through Legacies of War expanded our reach with other Lao Americans. The development of this piece took many years and had different stages because of funding, time, and opportunity. One of the great things about Refugee Nation was learning from my generation’s struggles with the older generation.

From our work with asylum seekers with the Program for Torture Victims8, we use our theatre method to build a community, not so much to make a final fully staged production.


Can you elaborate on your work with asylum seekers? What have you learned from working with asylees? And how has it nuanced your understanding of your theater work?


Our workshop process begins with what we call the Aloha circle, where we ask participants to introduce themselves, share something about themselves, and share what and who [as ancestors] they may be bringing into the room. We learned the Aloha Circle format from Kōkua Kalihi Valley, one of our partner service organizations in Hawai‘i that serves Native Hawaiian and local Asia American and Pacific Islanders.

It is now standard practice to do introductions with PGP [preferred gender pronouns]. Because of our work with asylum seekers, we learned quickly that the concept of PGP or even to be out is so different in their countries. Some African nations don’t use gender-specific pronouns. The Native Hawaiian language does not use pronouns. That whole exercise did not serve the same purpose anymore. People laugh because they misgendered themselves. We slowly backed away from PGPs because of the communities we’re working with [with] the asylum seekers. Many of them are English language learners and were persecuted in their countries because they were gay. We had to learn early on, especially from the therapists that work with them, [that] these are folks who are not ready to come out and say in a public way, “I’m queer” or “I’m gay.” The space we create for them has to be one where they can be comfortable being who they are, not necessarily about declaring gender. We do not want to force a practice that is not authentic to who they are. These are people who literally just arrived that week, and then they’re in the workshop with us. They’re not ready for that. We focus on offering a space for them to be who they are and hear the story they can share.


You create theater based on storytelling and collective creation. It can be very demanding, even for people already trained to emote and perform. What is it like, and what does it mean, to create a theater piece that requires the participants to share something about themselves overtly? What does this process ask of them physically, emotionally, and personally? Are there other moments where you’ve had to shift the way you work with a collective, considering the collective and personal traumas of the communities you work with?


When we were working on Refugee Nation, one of the challenges was that we didn’t want to trigger anyone who had PTSD, especially the elders and veterans of the war. We are not therapists. We inquired with a Lao American therapist who works with PTSD and trauma victims. We learned that the process we developed paralleled the therapist’s methods with those who have PTSD—in particular, asking them about their dreams. In the mental health field, asking them about their dreams and sharing is a way of healing.

We elaborate on this by drawing from their senses. Rather than simply asking what you remember, we ask, “What do you smell? When you were living back there, what smells surrounded you?


Yeah. What was the season? Who was with you? Instead of just telling me the facts, what else was going on? Because we can’t create a character simply based on facts, we want to know more about the environment, where you were, and what shifted. We always focus on transition: what shifted in the world at that moment and tell us about why.


Categories such as refugees, asylees, immigrants, and citizens are defined by different, competing, and collaborating forces like states, nations, international organizations, and NGOs. We rely on these categories when writing grants to fund our projects. How do these categories break down when you’re deep into the storytelling process?


Yes, all the words the grant people know—Micronesia, PTSD, war, refugee, immigrant. In the first workshop we conducted with Micronesian high school kids, it dawned on us that none wanted to admit they were Micronesian. It took the entire workshop for them to feel safe to identify as Micronesian. As artists, we must be ready to let go of the expectations we bring to the room, to be ready to throw them away and let whatever story comes to us.

Working with the Micronesian community, we’re using the words refugee and immigrant so that people understand what kind of community we’re working with. But in reality, they’re not necessarily either. Micronesians are not considered immigrants, and they’re not considered refugees. The term keeps shifting to non-immigrant or non-migrant because of the US militarism and occupation of the region. The COFA [Compact of Free Association between the US, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau] gives Micronesians freedom to go back and forth. It also creates a whole mumbo jumbo of the laws and services that Micronesians are supposed to get when they come to the US. They’re supposed to be able to travel back and forth freely, which is very different from immigrant status or migrant status. It’s very confusing.9 

At the same time, they are an indigenous community under threat of extinction. Entire cultures and languages are threatened because they have to leave their island homes due to climate change, militarism, and economic health reasons. The US and other occupiers, in part, cause this ongoing exodus. The truth of the matter is they’re not necessarily immigrants. They’re another category altogether. These are things that we work with in the creative process.


Once, we worked with people who came from Bhutan but were from Nepal. They had been living in refugee camps in Nepal, some of them for over twenty years. They can’t become citizens in Bhutan. Some of them were born in a refugee camp. They don’t have a nation. So how do you identify? Are you Nepalese, or are you Bhutanese? Are you a refugee because you were born in a refugee camp? So that sense of identity is fascinating.


What you’re sharing here exposes the limitations of liberal US “multiculti” [multicultural] BIPOC identity categories regarding the subjects produced by US territorial occupation. It sounds like you’re creating a space [that is] freeing and shattering these categories that nation-states create to manage their borders.

How has theater been impactful for these communities? And how has working with these communities been impactful for you?


I am glad to identify as a refugee artist. That’s something I’d like to claim because it inspires that community to say there is power in being a refugee and recognize resilience in that. There’s potential and opportunity. What’s been impactful for me is how I’ve been able to give back to my communities. I’m so fortunate to be able to go back to Hawai‘i and work with T-Shirt Theatre.10 And to have become like an OG [original gangsta]/elder within the Lao community. It’s been very transformative to be empowered by theater and empower others through theater.


I keep returning to being someone of mixed heritage and coming from Hawai‘i. I’m always basing our TeAda methodology on that ability to be in different communities. That’s something I have developed and has its roots in growing up in Hawai‘i as a mixed-race person who can blend with the Filipinos or Hawaiians or other ethnicities. I’ve always been treated like one of them, one of the group. But I always know that I’m not really of those groups. I lean heavily on this experience because it has given me the skill to work with different communities. This American idea of identity is, “Oh, you work with only your own people.” As a mixed-race person, I’m always working with my own people, and I’m never working with my own people. And that has been my secret superpower, I feel.



1. TeAda Productions actively incorporates theatrical practices that originate in many regions of the world especially Asian and Native Hawaiian performance where character, poetry, dance, and music are not separated from each other but interwoven. Therefore they choose to use “theater” because the “re” version of the word favors a British origin.

2. For references on other deployments of “nomadic theater,” see Lisbeth Groot Nibbelink, Nomadic Theatre: Mobilizing Theory and Practice on the European Stage (New York: Methuen Drama, 2020). This collection notes “theatre’s response to life in the 21st century, which is increasingly marked by the mobility of people, information, technologies and services.” (4).

3. Rossi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 3.

4. TeAdaWorks New Performance Festival was an annual festival of works from bold and revolutionary community-based artists. It ran from 2002–2014.

5. Chan acknowledges that linguists assert “Hawaiian creole” over pidgin but notes that “our generation would say ‘pidgin’.”

6. D’Lo is a queer & trans Tamil-Sri Lankan-American actor/writer/comic and cultural worker. ( Kristina Wong is a performance artist, comedian, actor and writer ( Both artists have been affiliated with various TeAda Productions’ programs.

7. Legacies of War is an educational and advocacy organization working to address the impact of the American Secret War and the conflict in Southeast Asia, including removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO). It raises awareness about the history of the Secret War bombing of Laos, provide space for healing the wounds of war, and create greater hope for a future of peace. Channapha Khamvongsa founded Legacies of War in 2004 and served as its executive director.

8. Program for Torture Victims works with survivors of human rights and abuse, aiming to “restore the health and human dignity of survivors of human rights abuse, providing critical assistance to more than 400 refugees annually” (see

9. Chan and Saopeng are describing the long indeterminate, shifting, and complex status of people from Micronesia and Marshall Islands. US imperial occupation through the military industrial complex maintains the shifting categories of the people of Micronesia and Marshall Islands in relation to the US. The relative mobility for people from the RMI and FSM to go the U.S. is due to the Republic’s and the Federation’s “special relations with the US.” People from RMI and FSM apply for admission to the United States as nonimmigrants without visas, but they application is still subjected to an approval. For reference on the complex status of citizenship and categories of different Micronesian islands, refer to or

10. T-Shirt Theatre is a community of practice where young people [high school and middle school students] come together around the practice of dramatic arts. Participants make a commitment to themselves and other company members to engage because they find value in learning, practicing the art, and in the culture of the community. Over the course of being a part of the community, participants experience an arc of development that results in their becoming contributing adult citizens.