Christine Toy Johnson is an actor, playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, and arts advocate. Among the honors she’s received is Actor’s Equity’s 2013 Rosetta LeNoire Award for “outstanding artistic contributions to the universality of the human experience in American theatre.” We spoke about her work with the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), and what theaters can do to reach out to potential Asian American audience members.
Photo by Bruce Johnson
DAN BACALZO: Do you feel that there is an untapped Asian American audience out there that theaters could court if they just tried a little harder?
CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON: I think so. I think they’re maybe looking in the wrong place. For example, when David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish was on Broadway I know I saw marketing going towards Chinatown, and I thought, “Why are you going to Chinatown?” That’s not really the demographic that’s going to be inclined to use any discretionary income on tickets. I think it goes to this misperception that that’s where you find Asian American people, in these communities that are Asian-specific. And I think people are not looking at numbers that we’ve seen in various articles that say Asian Americans are making more money on average than anyone else and have more discretionary income. They’re not targeting the people who would actually want to go to the theater, or looking in the right places. Does that make sense?
DB: It does. You’re talking about a more upwardly mobile Asian American demographic?
CTJ: Well, let’s face it. That’s who’s buying tickets anyway, right? Across ethnicity and racial lines. I’m just saying there is a misperception that in order to find the Asian American theatergoing audience, you go to ethnically specific communities. Whereas I think when you diversify your stage, you diversify your audience. And that’s going to a deeper, more philosophical viewpoint on this whole subject.
DB: Right, and that brings me to your work with AAPAC. Can you tell me a little about why AAPAC formed?
CTJ: AAPAC is the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, and we were really formed to expand the perception of Asian American performers in order to increase representation on New York City stages. We saw that there was an underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the New York theater scene and decided to explore that. What we came up with is that the perception of Asian Americans was really at the core of this. I think that the fundamental problem is that because we are so often looked at as the perpetual foreigner, we are not routinely thought of when people are looking to populate their American landscape in shows. This is at the root of it.
DB: AAPAC first came onto my radar when you released that report on ethnic representation on New York City stages. Can you talk a little about that?
CTJ: Our first report looked at the five-year period from the 2006/2007 season to the 2010/2011 season, and found that only 1.5% of all new Broadway roles went to Asian Americans. In the larger Off-Broadway theaters – we did stats for 16 of them – we did a little better; we got 3%. So, that shows us that there is this underrepresentation that is not proportionate to the number of Asian Americans in the tri-state area, and also the philosophy of the theater reflecting society as it is. Especially in New York City. Being able to have those numbers as data, and being able to say, look, this is what we found, was helpful when talking to various people in the industry, to find out what their perceptions are of the obstacles, where the pushback is, or where the perceptions need to be opened up. Bringing that conversation to the forefront has been very important in making change because it created an awareness that a lot of people didn’t have, that there was such an underrepresentation.
DB: Can you tell me a little more about the time frame of the organization’s founding?
CTJ: In the summer of 2011, there was a whole discussion on Facebook going on, where a very well-trained Asian American actor, ten years out of a very prestigious drama grad school program, commented that he had just been to an audition for one of the major Off-Broadway theaters for the first time ever since he had been out of school, and how interesting that was that it took that long for someone with an MFA at a really big school just to be seen. And then this started a whole discussion, with people saying, “No, I haven’t been seen either and I’ve been in the business 100 years,” and stuff. So, we started to think we should get offline and get into a room with each other and brainstorm about whether or not these feelings we had about whether we were being seen or weren’t being represented on stages was true.
DB: How did you propose to find that out?
CTJ: We came up with a plan to do three forums. One, just for Asian American actors to find what people had concerns about. Two, to include playwrights and directors and see what they were thinking and what kind of push back they might be getting, and their experiences in trying to cast Asian American actors. The third forum, which was held in February of 2012, included what we were calling major stakeholders in the industry. We invited artistic directors, directors, and casting directors, and had this amazing turnout of people, who had some great thoughts. And New York Theatre Workshop, who couldn’t send a representative, reached out to us, and we had a couple meetings with them to talk to members of their community. The goal became to keep having this dialogue, to see if we could open up minds and have some forward motion. People were really interested in seeing the data. It made them take notice, because you couldn’t really argue with the numbers. It really made people start thinking about the issue when they probably had not consciously thought about it before.
DB: I know AAPAC also participated in a July 2012 panel discussion at La Jolla Playhouse after there was a controversy with its casting of The Nightingale, set in China but with only two Asian Americans in a 12-member cast.
CTJ: When that came up, people started coming to us. And let me say this, we’re about ten or so working actors that are just connected by a Google group. We email each other a lot, we get together when we can, but we’re definitely a group of working actors. There’s no hierarchy; we all take responsibility for different press interviews, and write statements together and pass them along in our Google group. So, anyway, when The Nightingale happened, people started writing to us, “What are you going to say about this?” “Are you going to say anything?” “What the heck?!? Bobby Steggert’s playing the emperor of China?” And so, we were like, “Uh, we probably need to say something, even though our mission is about New York City theater, and this is not New York City theater, but we should probably say something.” So we prepped a statement, and fast forward to La Jolla inviting us to participate in this panel. The two people that were available were myself and Cindy Cheung, and so that’s how that happened. I’ve been doing advocacy for many, many years for inclusion in the arts through Equity, and various other affiliations. And it’s really great to have this large community. Because I have been in a room, where it was just a black and white conversation. People were going, “Uh, what are you talking about?” Saying, “Oh, Audra McDonald was in Carousel,” and I’m going, “What year was that?” It’s like, “Oh, Margaret Cho is in that show,” and thinking that’s enough.
DB: I watched the online video of the La Jolla discussion of The Nightingale, and thought you and Cindy came off really well. In fact, I also assigned it to my students to watch – I teach an Asian American Theater class at NYU.
CTJ: Oh, you do?
DB: Yeah, and so I had my students watch it, which led to an interesting discussion.
CTJ: What’s the makeup of your class?
DB: Well, it changes from year to year, but I’ve found that even when it’s not mostly Asian, I still have a more diverse class than other NYU theater studies courses. And one of the things that we’ve discussed is why people don’t really think about Asian American representation on stage. And a popular concept – I don’t know if that’s the right word – that I keep hearing bandied about is that we are now in a “post-racial” age…
DB: Which I’ve seen defined as meaning that discussions around race and racism are no longer relevant to current social dynamics. How do you respond to such claims?
CTJ: I think it would be fantastic if that were true, but it’s just not. It’s just not! I think that in a way, race is an even bigger issue than it was before President Obama took office, because some people have looked at the fact that we could have the first African American president as a sign that we are beyond race, and just by looking at the kinds of – I won’t even get into the politics and everything – but I don’t believe that we are. I look around, and I see the discrimination and prejudice still going on in all areas, all walks of life. And in the arts, it seems more subtle. In the arts, it’s not as much as other people who are experiencing hate crimes and that kind of thing. Why I say it’s more subtle is that it’s exclusion. To me, exclusion is a passive aggressive form of discrimination.
DB: Are there any other recommendations that AAPAC would like to make in terms of increasing the number of Asian American audience members?
CTJ: One of the things we’ve talked about was reaching potential audience members at a younger age – bringing the arts into schools, which is a strategy in cultivating any theatergoing audience. But for me, it goes back to if you diversify your programming and casting, you’ll diversify your audience. It seems like a simple thing. At the forum we had, Doug Aibel from the Vineyard Theatre was there, and he even said that audiences became more diverse when there was more diversity on stage. And so I feel that cannot be said enough, as the number one recommendation. We believe that you can cultivate the audience. People want to see themselves up there. If they don’t feel like they’re included or invited, then it seems like a very exclusive club.
DB: Is there anything else you’d like to comment upon?
CTJ: I just want to reiterate that the point I keep making about diversifying what’s on stage also has to do with programming. David Henry Hwang is a hero of mine. I hold him in such high esteem. However, he’s not the only Asian American playwright out there. And he’ll be the first one to say that, too. And not that it only has to be Asian American playwrights; they just happen to usually tell our stories in a way that are more true to the Asian American experience, from my perspective. And it goes both ways. One, I’m saying that if you get more Asian Americans on stage, you get more Asian Americans in the audience. And on the flip side of that, you can’t assume that audiences only want to see themselves. For example, I am really interested in plays about all kinds of people from all different cultures, because I want to see a worldview. And I think we need to give audiences the benefit of the doubt, to acknowledge that they are interested in seeing a worldview that is much wider than what they often get on Broadway.
For more about Christine Toy Johnson, visit www.christinetoyjohnson.com
For more information about AAPAC, visit www.aapacnyc.org