Cultivating a love of Lao American performing arts

At the Sahtu Press offices, we often discuss building a love for many arts including our traditional Lao dance and Asian American film. We also believe strongly in encouraging a lifelong love of reading in youth. An appreciation of diverse arts is so critical towards creating a meaningful culture shift as well as success at a personal and community level, wherever you are.

Recently, we've had time to reflect on bringing Refugee Nation to the Twin Cities in 2010, and what has been happening in Asian American theater.

The live theater tradition is as vital a part of our community's cultural growth as any of the other arts. Our traditions stretch back to ancient Asia to the present. Lao have long had an appreciation for live efforts to express our cultural meaningfully.  It is important to plunge deeper into life beyond artifice and digitized distractions. Sadly, across many cultures, live performing arts are treated as the broccoli of the art scene. People knows it's good for them, but only a few crave it voraciously in their lives. This goes for both children and adults.

The best of the main suggestions people usually give for instilling a love of theater? Just go. See a play performed at the theater. Take a risk, and comment on what you saw, ask yourself what you liked, what you disliked. It's ok!

For mainstream theater, people often suggest reading a play out loud. This is much harder in the Asian American community, particularly the Lao American community because there really isn't a big market for contemporary Asian American playwrights scripts and so these are almost impossible to find.

This seriously handicaps the spread of Asian American theater. You can walk into a bookstore and find Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet, no problem. But finding a copy of a play by an Asian American playwright? Good luck. Of course, then the question is, how many people can even name an Asian American playwright today?

The same applies to listening to an audio recording of a play read aloud. We think it would be fascinating to see some of our playwrights revive the tradition and create something akin to the old radioplays of the early 20th century. This of course, leads to a lot of heated debate regarding copyright, access to technology, fears of piracy, fears of being sued or not making any money, etc. And we think that's a pity that our community can get so tied up with that that it's created a chilling effect on the growth and proliferation of Asian American theater.

A well-done, compelling audioplay does provide a stronger incentive for audiences to 'try before you buy'.  Even just a few good MP3s of an act or two, anything, would surely be better than where we're currently standing.

People also recommend watching a pre-recorded performance on DVD or video, and we can appreciate this, but we wouldn't call it our absolute favorite approach because there's many parts of the experience, about being up close and live that can't be captured by video cameras.

But, if you're just starting to get interested in Asian American theater, an interesting place to start is with the National Asian American Theater Festival and following the work of companies such as:

Mu Performing Arts
Pangea World Theater
TeAda Productions
Pan Asian Repertory Company
Asian American Theater Company
National Asian American Theater Company
East West Players
Second Generation
KP Actors Gym
and Ma Yi Theater

There are many others to watch, but that's an excellent point to start with. We think it's an art form that can energize and excite audiences but we also need to continue to encourage a deep love and participation in the craft for it to realize its fullest potential. There is so much yet that can be done.

Sahtu Press