Article by Rick Shiomi

Rick Shiomi is one of those people who always just seemed to be there. I worked with him when I was first starting out, learning how to design lights for small one-acts and play readings at Mixed Blood and the Playwrights’ Center. Over the years, he was the common thread to many good friends and colleagues: he gave me work, introduced me to people, and pushed me to test my limits. I know he’s had a similar effect on many others in town, and his work has blazed trails for many people. But I didn’t know where it all began for him in this town. So I asked.

Rick Shiomi. Photo by Lia Chang

Rick Shiomi. Photo by Lia Chang

I first came to the Twin Cities for a visit in 1990 to talk about a touring production of my play Rosie’s Café.  I had written several plays by then, and had had some success with my first play Yellow Fever which had won awards in San Francisco, gotten rave reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker magazine, and been produced Off Broadway.

But my theater work and career had been developed in cities where there were significant Asian American populations and Asian American theater was starting to become established.

For this first trip to the Midwest, I gave a short talk at Mixed Blood Theatre for about four people, including the host Jack Reuler and I thought, “No wonder Philip left”.  That was my friend Philip Gotanda, a prominent Asian American playwright who had gotten a McKnight Playwriting Residency in the late 1980’s and had come to the Twin Cities for a workshop; only to leave after a few days, because there were no Asian American actors there to read his play.  I thought, “I’m glad I’m not stuck here.” Of course, I should have known that the theater gods were having a good time with me.

Then the fates played another game by having me attend the American Theater for Higher Education conference in Chicago where I spoke to some academics about my career as an Asian American playwright.  I didn’t want to do it but my friend and colleague Eric Hayashi twisted my arm by saying it was important for Asian American theater artists to get on the radar of these academics.  After I spoke, I met Martha Johnson and she invited me to speak at Augsburg College in Minneapolis where she taught in the theater department.   I took her up on her offer and eventually ended up visiting several times and directing Rosie’s Café at Augsburg with an all white cast.  I would never have done so in a professional production, but for the purposes of education I accepted the project.

While I was visiting the Twin Cities for this work, I was approached by Dong-il Lee, a graduate student in theater at the University of Minnesota. I had met him at the conference in Chicago as well and he asked me if I was interested in starting an Asian American theater company in Minnesota.  I wasn’t sure this was possible but being an optimist, I told him I’d help him as long as he could find someone to be the managing director, since I knew running a theater company took considerable organizational time and ability.  Dong-il found Diane Espaldon at the first Asian American Renaissance Conference in 1992 and she agreed to be our managing director. So Dong-il, Martha Johnson, Diane, Andrew Kim (a recent graduate of Carleton College) and I were the founding members of Theater Mu.

Dong-il became the artistic director, and we gathered students and recent graduates from the various universities and colleges, along with some members of the Asian American community, to do some initial workshops.  What we discovered early on was a group of Korean adoptees among our early workshop participants and their lives offered powerful new stories and perspectives on international adoption.  This material led to the first production of Mu called Mask Dance which I wrote and directed but also several other plays about this subject have been written over the past twenty years or so, including The Walleye Kid and Walleye Kid The Musical, Four Destinies by Katie Hae Leo, Middle Brother by Eric Sharp and How to Be A Korean Woman by Sun Mee Chomet.  (Dong-il left to teach at college on the east coast in 1993 and is presently back in Korea and I became the artistic director)

The first ten years of Theater Mu were spent laying the foundations for the company, finding and attracting the artists and supporters who would become the core members of the company.  Gradually, wonderful artists like Kurt Kwan, Sun Mee Chomet, Eric Sharp, Randy Reyes, Sara Ochs and Sherwin Resurreccion began to become regulars with the company performing in such memorable productions as our version of Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  Circle Around The Island by Marcus Quiniones, Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco, Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee, and Yellow Face by David Hwang.  

And in the past ten years we have had a tremendously successful  venture into musicals, starting with our collaboration with Park Square Theatre on Pacific Overtures in 2004 and our own original musical Walleye Kid, The Musical, through the classics like Flower Drum Song (David Hwang revision), Little Shop of Horrors, Into The Woods, A Little Night Music and of course our own re-imagining of The Mikado in collaboration with Skylark Opera. I’ll never forget how this all began in auditions for Pacific Overtures with me hoping that maybe four or five of the performers would be Asian American.  But they seemed to come out of the woodwork and by the end we cast the show with an all-Asian American cast.  Some of the new performers for us were Sara Ochs (currently in the Latte Da production of Sweeny Todd), Laurine Price (now living in LA) Sherwin Resurreccion (recently in Debutante’s Ball at the History Theatre) and Arnold Felizardo who raised the hair on the back of my neck when he sang Four Black Dragons in callbacks.  And when I asked Sara why she hadn’t auditioned for Mu before she said because we didn’t do musicals.  

Another significant development for Mu was the founding of Mu Daiko in 1997.  I had learned and performed taiko (Japanese style drumming) on the west coast in the 1980’s playing with such groups as Katari Taiko in Vancouver and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, under Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka.  By the 1990’s I had given up playing (or so I thought) but at the urging of some Mu actors, taught a taiko workshop. By 1997, it was hard enough developing the theater company so I thought it would be distracting to start a taiko group as well.  After some early performances, I thought that would be the end of it but Martha Johnson (by then my wife and a core artistic group member of Mu) told me there was gold in this taiko and so we continued the development of Mu Daiko.  Of course she was right and Mu Daiko grew like a snowball rolling downhill. In fact it grew so fast and large that we had to change our master brand name from Theater Mu to Mu Performing Arts with Theater Mu and Mu Daiko as sub-master names. And once again it was key artists like Iris Shiraishi and Jennifer Weir who made that growth in skill and numbers possible. They both took on leadership roles as featured players, composers and artistic directors for Mu Daiko.

So by 2013 Mu Performing Arts had become a relatively established Asian American performance company based in the Twin Cities, in this place where I once thought that would be impossible, not even imaginable, in 1990.  But the theater gods knew better than I did and I have been rewarded with awards as the Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision in 2007, the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 and the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2015.  

So in 2013 I left Mu in the hands of the next generation of Asian American artists led by the new artistic director, Randy Reyes, and have moved on to new adventures for myself. I am now the co-artistic director of a new company, Full Circle Theater Company, whose mission is focused on issues of diversity and social justice and our debut production will be Theater: A Sacred Passage performed at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul in November of this year.  Working with James Williams (JayyDubb), Lara Trujillo, Stephanie Lein Walseth, and of course, Martha Johnson, I feel blessed again to be working in this rich theater community that has changed so much in the past twenty years.