Coalition of APA theater companies establish first national festival, conferences to foster, promote and showcase performance

By Erin May Ling Quill, Special Contributor


This past June, New York City hosted the first-ever National Asian American Theater Festival (NAATF). It followed in the footsteps of the “Next Big Bang: The First Asian American Theater Conference” in Los Angeles, spearheaded by East West Players, on June 18 – 20, 2006.

Six original theater companies who had attended another conference on theater companies of color — Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, East West Players, Ma-Yi Theater, the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), Second Generation, and Mu Performing Arts – came together and decided upon New York City as the launch site for this, our first Festival. As it was explained to me, the Festival will alternate with the Conference. Hence, in 2008, they will hold a conference in Minneapolis, to have seminars and discuss platforms to get ready for the next festival.

What does this mean to you, the general audience? Well, it means, in our own “careful and methodical” way, we are saying, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”…except…it’s not only for Gay Asian Americans. (And yes, Ma – there ARE Gay Asian Americans!) (And, yes Ma, a lot of them are in the festival).

The conference brought APA companies from all over the country to show off their best work – the stuff that sustained them in the cold, cruel world of theater. For the first time, audiences did not have to choose to see ‘that Asian play’; they enjoyed a plethora of choices (albeit only from June 11 – 24th, but it’s a start). I’ve been working as an actress in NY for a long time – I haven’t seen this many APA faces since standing at an open casting for Miss Saigon, back in the day.

Was all the work presented ‘ready’ to be seen for a jaded New York audience?

No.  There was shoddy work presented, definitely. There were one-man shows that were one man too many. There were comedy groups that struggled to find the funny. Often, it was embarrassing. And had you conned your non-APA friends into going with you, you had some ‘splaining to do. There was a lot of eye-rolling, not just among the audience, but among the staff, who’d seen – well, everything.

However, there were as many positive moments as there were negative. Perhaps you think I shouldn’t talk about the negative? Perhaps we should just blithely pat ourselves on the back and not worry about quality of performance, just the fact that there were Asian American faces up there?

We could do that. But it’s not enough. I interviewed Alec Mapa once, who said, and maintains, that we have to be better – because we have to overcome any objections to being hired in the first place. We have to be twice as good – and we still won’t win any awards, but there’ll be no apologies. Mapa knows what he is talking about – he just finished a new movie with Adam Sandler, a pilot for LOGO, and can be seen regularly on the TV shows Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives.

Why go to the Festival if it isn’t all good? Buck up, Asian America! This was only the first one.  We’re growing, we’ll get better – and we need to because New York City will bounce us out of there in protest if we don’t. Or, at least, we’ll lose all those white people.

Ok, I wasn’t crazy about everything.  But I have to acknowledge some standout performances from the cast of Falsettoland, presented in conjunction with the Festival, by NAATCO. I had seen the ‘original’ APA cast of Falsettoland ten years ago. I was blown away because this production was much stronger than the earlier. Was it talent level? Not really. It was because all of the new interpreters of the piece had extensive credits, which included many Broadway shows. Therefore they were inordinately stronger performers because they practiced their craft on a daily basis. This show had the same director as ten years ago, and even some of the same actors, but it was a completely new show. And it was breathtaking.

Keo Woolford, who has been touring his one-man show, I-Land, was a highlight of the Festival. The Romance of Magno Rubio was another stirring tribute to the talent that is available to represent “us”. There were many more promising performances by up-and-coming artists that were interesting and inspiring, if not entirely polished. The staff of the Festival was concerned about it being “archival” as well, and conducted taped interviews with artists on all sides of the issue – performers, artistic directors, activists, etc. There has never been anything like it – and that’s another reason this Festival is our next ‘Great Hope’ in the landscape of what it means to be identified as Asian American.

The general audience should continue to watch, and attend local Asian American theater, and make it a mandate to attend the Second National Asian American Theater Festival. Why? Because when you turn on a television, or go to buy tickets to a play, and you cannot “find yourself” in the work, there is something horribly wrong. It means that you, the general Asian American population, did not provide the audience, and our artists did not get the stage time to make themselves twice as good. If you think that this is a one-sided proposition, you are wrong.


Erin May Ling Quill is an actress, singer, director and producer of both stage and film productions. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon, she was member of the original Broadway cast of the 2004 TONY Award-winning musical, Avenue Q, and has also played Lady Thiang in The King & I opposite Debby Boone. Other credits include NYPD BluegirlsclubChina DollsGodspellAnything Goes, and numerous workshops. Former Vice Chair for the Screen Actors’ Guild Asian American Subcommittee and a member on its National EEOC, she consulted on the revision of the Asian Language Contract.  She is a member of East West Players and Lodestone Theater Ensemble.  In addition to her own sold-out shows They Shoot Asian Fosse Dancers, Don’t They? and When My Slanted Eyes are Smiling, I Can’t See a Damn Thing, Quill has produced Lodestone Theater Ensemble/FOX’s All American APA Comedy Jam and, most recently, the upcoming short filmPOLLEN, starring Alec Mapa. She recently shot a pilot the Bravo pilot, Dishin’.  Recent and upcoming projects include the pilot of Screening Party, based on the book by Dennis Hensley, and Associate Producer credit on the film, The Sensei, a new feature by D. Lee Inosanto. Learn more is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.