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ConFest, and What I Saw

It’s been two weeks since the sixth annual Asian-American Theater Festival (ConFest), hosted by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), took place right here in Chicago, and I am only finding the words right now. This conference was from August 13-18, 2018 in partnership with Victory Gardens Theater and the Theater School at DePaul University.

Let me just say: it was…incredible. Asian-American theatremakers from all over the country (including Hawaii) came to our wonderful city to celebrate our stories onstage, and help empower each other to continue moving the bar forward for Asian-American artists.

In the words of CAATA president and Theater Mu artistic director Randy Reyes: “As a collective of Asian American theatre leaders and artists, we bring together local and regional leaders to work nationally toward our shared values of social justice, artistic diversity, cultural equity, and inclusion…This year’s conference, Revolutionary Acts, continues to build momentum, is inclusionary in nature, and hopes to disrupt systemic and structural oppression, and create a new vision built by, about, and for us in this room.” Check out Randy’s full article in American Theatre.

This is an attempt to cover six days of a conference as well as my personal experiences. Obviously, I won’t be able to address everything, but I’ll try to give you a taste of how special this week was for me.

I was excited just to be performing in the August 13 opening night celebrations. I was an actor in the Our Perspectives staged reading series, featuring three short plays written, directed and acted by Chicago artists. The plays were 2 MINUTES, by David Rhee; BATTLEGROUND, by Tanuja Jagernauth; and LUCY AND CHARLIE’S HONEYMOON, by Matthew C. Yee.

BATTLEGROUND by Tanuja Jagernauth, featuring Marissa Lichwick, Priya Mohanty, Vahishta Vafadari and me. Photo by Jonald Jude Reyes.

Thanks to CAATA, I also had a ten-minute slot in the Hot Asian Everything: Revolt opening night cabaret, along with Chicago’s Rasaka Theater, Definition Theater Company, and Stir Friday Night (these people are hilarious, I want to be their fraaand.) The gracious and charismatic company of Honolulu Theatre for Youth, led by Moses Goods, opened and closed the cabaret with selections of their world premiere KINOLAU, about the Hawaiian gods appearing in the earthly realm.

For my slot, I performed ten minutes of Hollow/Wave, my autobiographical one-woman show which had its first production at Silk Road Rising this past May. How can I describe to you the feeling of performing a show about being South Asian in America to an audience full of Asian-Americans? It was electric: the room vibrated with positive energy, the laughter was uproarious, and everyone got my jokes about microaggressions! (Think “where are you really from” and that silence when the substitute looks at the roster and sees your name. Yeah.)

I felt right at home.

The cast of Hot Asian Everything: Revolt. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis Photography.

Throughout the rest of the week, there was a wealth of panel discussions, breakout sessions, workshops, play readings and performances. I expected to only be able to attend a few things a day; instead, I rode a wave of adrenaline and sleep deprivation, and practically lived at the Fullerton Red Line stop.

I attended as many workshops as I could. In one, devised theatre maker and actor Anu Yadav (and yes, my new name twin) hosted “Listening as a Revolutionary Act”, exercising our ability to provide space for others to be vulnerable, and to provide community and support through listening and energy rather than reaction.

(Personally, I found this surprisingly difficult. I had to remind myself not to nod so much when someone else was talking.) In another, spoken word artist and actor Ken Yoshikawa and Chisao Hata of Dance Exchange, both out of Portland, Oregon, hosted an incredible “move-back”, a space to explore a movement-based response to a piece. (Think “talkback”, but with your bodies.) Ken shared his profound poetry and we, the participants, explored our physical responses to it. The result was a release of many emotions, a more grounded connection between our words and our bodies, and the creation of a safe communal space to be vulnerable with material that was specific to the Asian-American experience. In a third workshop, storyteller and longtime sociology professor Ada Cheng took us through her journey to owning her identity and power, and encouraged participants to work through fear and anxiety to connect to their personal stories. Finally, improviser and Stir Friday Night founder Avery Lee taught us ensemble-building improv exercises through an excellently structured workshop that helped us release our inhibitions and leave behind our fear of “failure” and “perfection”, resulting in a clear, structured guide to creating sketch comedy onstage.

Left to right: moderator Laura Penn, May Adrales, Chay Yew, Tim Dang, Mei Ann Teo, and Jess McLeod. Photo by Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists.

One of my favorite panel discussions was sponsored by the Society of Directors and Choreographers (SDC) and featured five amazing directors. We had Milwaukee Rep’s Associate Artistic Director May Adrales (and latest recipient of TCG’s Alan Schneider Director Award), Chay Yew of Victory Gardens, East West Players’ Artistic Director Emeritus Tim Dang, Musical Theatre Factory’s new Producing Artistic Director Mei Ann Teo and Chicago’s own resident director of Hamilton Jess McLeod. This powerhouse panel talked about their generational experiences as directors of colors working in theaters across the country. My main takeaway from their discussion was the growth from tokenizing directors of color to humanizing them. For example, May cited that she, as an Asian-American director, has experienced being approached to direct all plays of color, regardless of content. That’s tokenization: not every white director wants to work on every white play, do they? As Asian-Americans get behind the table more frequently and producers look past race, we can be humanized so that we can direct what we want and what resonates with us, regardless of whether it is a “play of color” or not. “We can’t access every play of color just because we are POC,” said Mei Ann Teo, “…what I do know is we need room to have multiple opinions. We need room to fail [like white projects].”

Stay tuned for part 2 of Anu Bhatt's coverage of ConFest!

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