Something extraordinary is happening in the Philadelphia theatre community. For the first time in American theatre history, a coalition of theatre companies has been formed to promote the development of Asian American theatre in its community. Just three years ago, there was a minimal presence of Asian American theatre artists in Philadelphia and today, there are a wide array of productions featuring Asian American artists in a variety of capacities.

This coalition of theatres is the Philadelphia Asian Theater Project (PATP) and it is changing the face of theatre in the city. In simple terms, this project has been integral to the doubling of participating Asian American theatre artists in the local theatre community this season compared to years prior to 2014.

It could happen in any American city with a significant Asian American population, it simply takes the initiative and will to “normalize” what is on stage with the reality of our urban populations.

PATP is now made up of twelve companies: Azuka Theatre, EgoPo Classic Theater, InterAct Theatre Company, Inis Nua Theatre, Kaleid Theatre, Lantern Theater Company, People’s Light, Power Street Theatre Company, Quintessence Theatre Group, Theatre Horizon, Theatre Exile, and The Wilma Theater.

group of people smiling
A few PATP members (L-R): Rick Shiomi; Walter Bilderback of The Wilma Theater; Deborah Block of Theatre Exile; and Cat Ramirez and Seth Rozin of InterAct Theatre Company. Photo by Jason Linder.

So, how did this happen? There were several factors. First, I received a grant in the Building Demand for the Arts program (Explorations round) of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through an application with InterAct Theatre Company. The purpose was to develop Asian American theatre and audiences in Philadelphia. I believe we received the grant because of InterAct’s reputation in the Philadelphia community, my twenty years of work developing Mu Performing Arts in Minnesota, and the support of Asian Arts Initiative. I also began my grant work in February 2014.

Then, on my very first trip to Philadelphia, I landed in the middle of a major controversy over a production of Julius Caesar at the Lantern Theater. In using a Japanese aesthetic, and not casting any Asian American actors, the company generated a huge response from the Asian American arts and activist community. This response brought together many Asian American artists with an interest in theatre, among them a number of aspiring and emerging actors.

Through my meetings and discussions with Artistic Directors Seth Rozin (InterAct Theatre) and Charles McMahon (Lantern Theater), we came up with the idea of creating a coalition of companies to promote the development of Asian American theatre artists and audiences. We then approached artistic directors of several other companies in the community, including The Wilma Theater, People’s Light, and Azuka Theatre. With the Julius Caesar controversy in the air, these artistic leaders were open to an initiative to remedy the situation.

A fourth factor was the success of InterAct’s production of Caught by Christopher Chen in fall 2014. It received rave reviews and four Barrymore Award nominations, winning one for Outstanding New Play. Suddenly, an Asian American play featuring Asian American performers was tremendously successful in the community, setting an example of the potential implications and successes of Asian American theatre in Philadelphia.

group of actors posing for a picture
Some members of PAPA (Left to right): Sarah Mitteldorf, Cat Ramirez, Lucas Nguyen, Twoey Thruong, Richard Chan, Rob Buscher, Bi Jean Ngo, Justin Jain, Rick Shiomi, Pamela Yau, Gayle Isa, Stephanie N. Walters, Asaki Kuruma, and Pratima Agrawal. Photo by Matt Nelson.

The fifth major factor was the emergence of the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists (PAPA). This group of emerging artists, led by Bi Ngo, a mid-career performer, has been key in giving more training and performing opportunities for individual members, providing them with a new sense of purpose and place in the Philadelphia theatre community. Clearly, the term “strength in numbers” holds true in theatre as well as sports and politics.

I believe the key operational element for PATP quickly having such an impact is that it put Asian American theatre artists on the radar of artistic directors, the primary artistic decision makers. Suddenly the reality of a different group of artists and audiences became an attractive possibility in their minds, allowing the framework of “diversity” and “inclusion” to be expanded beyond black and white issues. The idea of including Asian American theatre artists in their companies’ work became a proactive decision, coming from the desire to “normalize” our stages so that they reflect our communities.

actors performing a staged reading
Left to right: Kimie Muroya, Twoey Truong, Richard Chen, Jeff Wu, and Stephanie Walters in a PAPA reading of King of the Yees by Lauren Yee. Photo by Stephanie Price Images.

These first few years of PATP are to initiate the development of Asian American theatre and artists in Philadelphia. Yet, an equally important long-term goal of the project is to develop Asian American audiences for theatre, and for the acceptance of Asian American theatre artists by the existing theatregoing audiences. One of the important factors in attracting Asian American audiences is for them to see their own stories and artists on stage, and ultimately realize how important it is for them to participate in their local theatre community. In this realm, PATP has been involved in developing a resource of contacts in the various Asian American communities to get the word out and encourage them to attend the theatre.

With a second grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (Implementation round), I will continue to work with PATP, PAPA, and other groups on this project through June 2018. My original proposal was to see if the model of development created at Mu Performing Arts could be transferable to another city in a more accelerated process. Many of the factors have been part of creating similar results, but the Philadelphia project has already proven different with the creation of PATP, which could be a key factor in spreading Asian American theatre to more communities across the country.