Asian American theater, audience development, Carlos Celdran, Chairs and a Long Table, Filipino, group sales, Han Ong, Imelda Marcos, Jorge Ortoll, Livin' La Vida Imelda, Ma-Yi Theater, Nightingale, Off-Broadway, Ralph Peña
Jorge Ortoll is the executive director of Ma-Yi Theater, a New York City-based Asian American theater company. We spoke about changes in the company’s mission, audience development, the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and what’s coming up for the company, which recently completed its 25th anniversary season.
DAN BACALZO: How would you describe Ma-Yi’s core audience?
JORGE ORTOLL: It’s very varied. We started out as a Filipino American theater company in 1989, and later became an Asian American theater company in 1999. We are now entering our 26th season. Some people have been with us from the very beginning, and their tastes have changed.
I think that while we’re known as an Asian American theater company, our work doesn’t have to do any more with, say, immigration and prejudice issues. Our playwrights are way beyond that. We’re doing plays by young Asian American playwrights, so the audiences they attract are younger. In fact, the core is 18-30 years old. Our surveys show that about 21% of our audiences are in that age range. The rest are from 30 to 70. And that’s a good thing. We want to increase that base, simply because down the line they’ll be our donors, our continued audience, and our mouthpiece. The core audience is still Asian American, but as they bring in non-Asian friends, partners and professional colleagues, we are moving towards a different audience mix.
DB: Can you talk about how the change in the company’s mission from Filipino to more broadly Asian American came about?
JO: Little by little, we just started to get out of the Filipino American venue and go pan-Asian. We did Mother Courage and Her Children in 1999 transplanted to a Filipino setting so that was still Filipino. But The Square, which we did in 2001, had nothing Filipino about it. We made a major decision then, to move from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway. With 12 actors of all ethnicities at The Public, that brought in a lot of new people, and we tried to keep them. And we’ve grown from that. When we started the Ma-Yi Writers Lab in 2004, that’s when we seriously started doing work that was not Filipino American.
DB: Tell me about the start of the Lab.
JO: Sung Rno was our playwright in residence at that point in time, courtesy of TCG, and he was the one who founded the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Around 2009 and 2010, we decided we were going to do work only that came from the Lab. We’ve been pretty true to that mission, for the most part.
DB: Have you seen any kind of significant change in your audience demographic, resulting from the change in your company’s mission?
JO: Yes. Over time. It was not dramatic, but it certainly did change. When we did Alice Tuan’s Last of the Suns, which is Chinese American, we looked into every Chinese American association in the tri-state area and tried to get them in – not very successfully. It was a very hard nut to crack. The same thing with Sung Rno and Korean Americans, although we were more successful in getting Korean American associations to come in. But each piece is about different issues. Sung’s wAve was a retelling of the Medea story, like Michi Barall’s Rescue Me was a retelling of the Iphigenia in Aulis story. So, with Rescue Me, we went out to all the Classics departments of the universities in the tri-state area, the Greek community, the Onassis Foundation, we tried whatever we could. Sometimes it’s futile, but it’s my job to just put the word out there.
DB: Can you talk about the process of getting groups to come see your shows?
JO: I reach out always by phone, and then by letter with an information kit I send to people who bring in groups. For example, the Asia Society has a young professionals group. Sometimes they bring in 15 or 20 and they want a talkback session with the playwright and the artist, so we arrange that. The University of the Philippines’s medical association always supports us. They buy a full house. Usually APICHA buys a half house or a full house. There are some alumni associations from the Philippines that buy a block of 20-50. We also ask our board members to bring in their networking social groups. We have lawyers who we’ll ask to bring associates from within their firm or outside of it. So, it’s catch as catch can, I have to tell you. There’s no systematic way of doing it other than reaching out specifically to maybe a core group of 10-12 associations who usually will buy a full house or part of a house for our show.
DB: What’s the timing for making these arrangements?
JO: We always try to get them to come in the previews, so they have time to do the word of mouth. A number of walk-ins are people who buy tickets because they have heard about our show from the people who have come in early. The trick is to always try to get the groups in before the press prints their positive reviews halfway thru the run. Fortunately, we tend to have very good houses for individual sales at full price towards the second half of the run. We always encourage the groups at a big discount, early on. And then there are the students. That’s really important. We reach out to Columbia and Hunter and Sarah Lawrence, and to NYU. The A/P/A Institute of NYU – they’ve come in numerous times. I think you are affiliated with them?
DB: Yeah, I teach at both NYU and at Hunter and have brought groups to several Ma-Yi shows and moderated talkbacks with the artists afterwards.
JO: There you go.
DB: What do you think is the most important factor to consider when plans are made to try to grow an audience base beyond the one you already have?
JO: First of all people have to like the work we do. But how to keep them, and how to make them instrumental in getting more new audiences, and their friends, the ripple effect? Social media has a lot to do with that. We use it to announce discounts and all sorts of things that get people in. But I think the most important factor is to keep prices low. We do not raise prices, because if we want to get the demographic of the young audiences – students or young graduates or even young professionals – we want to keep the prices low. We advertise $35 or $40 for the top price and we give discounts with codes, just like with Broadway. A $120 ticket will cost you $50 today on almost any show on Broadway. So, everybody is doing that. Our box office earned income suffers because we’re seeing an average of $20, or $23 a ticket rather than $35 or $40. We have to program our budget accordingly.
DB: What’s coming up for Ma-Yi this season?
JO: We are for the first time doing three mainstage shows, as opposed to two. The first two will be done in repertory, starting October 28 and running until November 23. And then in the spring, we’ll be doing a work from the Lab.
DB: Tell me about the fall shows.
JO: We have a one-man piece by Carlos Celdran called Livin’ La Vida Imelda. I saw it a year or two ago in the Philippines and said this has to come to New York. Carlos is a performance artist, but he also conducts tours around Manila, including of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Imelda Marcos was so instrumental in the creation of the Cultural Center. Carlos’s tour spoke a lot about Imelda, so when he created this piece, he just embroidered it with her life story – as a child, as a young beauty queen, as a senator’s wife, and President’s wife. Ralph Peña [Ma-Yi’s artistic director] will be directing it and acting as dramaturg, as we know that this has to translate to an American audience. He and Carlos are already Skyping each other, communicating about changes in the script.
DB: What about the second piece?
JO: That one is by Han Ong. We’ve done two plays of his in the past, Middle Finger and Watcher. He hasn’t written a play for a long time. He was into writing novels and then into teaching playwriting. He came back with this piece, Chairs and a Long Table, which was inspired by the Nightingale debacle at La Jolla Playhouse. It’s set in real time and has two actors prepping themselves, along with a lawyer and two other people, on what stance to take, and what to say in a panel discussion at the theatre.
DB: I know it was Christine Toy Johnson [interviewed earlier on this blog] and Cindy Cheung who participated in the La Jolla panel. Is it based on their experiences?
JO: I don’t know if Han actually interviewed Cindy and Christine but it’s a very smart show, and the characters are very different from them. But it’s clearly based on what happened with The Nightingale.
DB: In general, how would you describe the kind of work that Ma-Yi is now producing?
JO: It’s getting clearer and clearer that just because the playwright is of Asian origin, the play that he or she writes doesn’t have to be about an Asian issue. Microcrisis by Michael Lew – that was about the financial crisis and microfinance. Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness by Carla Ching was about orphans. Two of the characters happen to be Asian, but it wasn’t because they were Asian that these things happened to them. In Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, the characters are Jewish and South Asian. Then we have Agent G by Vietnamese American Qui Nguyen and you know how he’s a force of nature, he’s just something else. Here we had very good audiences of all colors of the rainbow and all ages, and they all loved it.
DB: I totally get what you’re saying, and it’s something I’ve talked about a lot in my Asian American Theater class. But do you feel that Ma-Yi is still serving an Asian American community through its work? Obviously, you’re committed to these playwrights who are of Asian heritage, and the representation you put on stage – every show I’ve ever seen you guys do, you have at least two or more Asian American actors on stage.
DB: So, even though the subject matter is not “Asian,” there’s still something that you guys are doing that has an Asian American feel to it, for lack of a better phrase.
JO: Yeah. I think that’s correct. And what we’d like to see happen is that our ratio for what we do onstage could be duplicated on the bigger stages like the Roundabout or the Manhattan Theatre Club or MCC or Berkeley Rep. If you see two out of six actors are Asian on our stages, what we want is that that ratio, or something approximating it, can be seen on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in regional theaters everywhere. We still identify as an Asian American theater company, and I think we always will because our job is to elevate the national awareness of the excellence of Asian American theater artists, be they actors, or playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, or designers. Now in a lineup of four designers, we may have two who are Asian and two who are not Asian. But we always have to have an Asian component in our design team, and the playwright of course. Our director can be of any ethnicity, and as for our actors it depends really on the director. We cannot impose. We cannot say you MUST have an Asian, but they get it. We always do.
For more information on Ma-Yi Theater, click here.