The Laotian American Theater Moonshot

In early October, the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists held their annual conference in Portland, Oregon. We had several of our Laotian American playwrights, actors, and actresses present there, including the acclaimed TeAda Productions, whose brought us such works as Refugee Nation; Lao As A Second Language; and Global Taxi Driver. We’ve definitely seen amazing progress in the first forty years of Lao American cultural development.

For example, we saw the recent success of writer Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay’s Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals that broke significant ground in creating an original Lao American work and advancing Speculative Theater in Minnesota. With frequent collaborator May Lee-Yang she’s put on the hilarious and touching Hmong-Lao Friendship Play/Lao-Hmong Friendship Play. They recently received a prestigious Arts Challenge Grant from the Knight Foundation for their work.

In 2013, nearly a dozen emerging Lao playwrights were trained in San Diego including Pim Siripanyo, Viliya Ketavong, Carol Manisouk, Kinnalone Bee Savatdy, Khamp “Nong” Thongrivone, Phatthason Manisouk, Bee Salima, Sunny Chantharathip and Bandith Xaysana. Their short plays were subsequently presented at the acclaimed Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. We can easily look at the work of Fresno’s Kp Phagnasay as another great example of Lao in theater and acting.

We know that Laotian Americans can find success in the theater arts, even as there’s a legitimate call for more of us to create work and present it. It’s still a relatively small pool of Lao engaged in live performance arts. But it can grow.

As we prepare to join Kinnaly Troupe and the Pom Foundation in May, 2017 for the National Lao American Writers Summit in Seattle, we should ask "What’s our moonshot, our “impossible dream” for Lao performing arts?" 

Along with the other Lao traditional arts troupes like the Royal Lao Classical Dancers and Iowa Lao Natasinh Dance, among many others, these are the groups who could easily position themselves at the forefront of a Lao arts renaissance.

The question for me has often been: “How might we make this cost-effective and interesting to mount different Lao performing arts productions in the United States, and what might be the community's larger development advantage if they were able to successfully popularize it?”

One aspect of this is naturally to increase the number of Lao theater productions in a year. Not just trotting a play out during New Year or a some special holiday, but creating an active culture where we can gather regularly and anticipate new and surprising stories each season we go. We might look at the examples other performing arts companies like Pangea World Theater, Ananya Dance Theatre, Mu Performing Arts and others have set. But that’s one aspect.

What intrigues me, however, is a much more ambitious proposition. The creation of a fixed space that goes well beyond even Broadway as a an “apex space” where we know a Lao American production has made it. The question may also well be vital to our community in diaspora as a way of saying: “We are no longer running or migrating, or struggling merely to survive. We are committing to setting down renewed roots here in THIS place, and we shall grow ever outward from here.”

As an example, consider the stage set up for the opera “Ein Maskenball” depicting Death Reading from the Book of Life. What performances might we as Lao Americans write in the years ahead to warrant such an ambitious stage and setting? And where would we erect such a stage one day?

There are several epic spaces for theater productions such as Bayreuth, which presents one, and only one, play every year: Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung cycle. While there are certainly other special events and dinners that might be held there, the Ring of the Nibelung is the big, epic masterwork. There are already many Lao stories that have as epic a scope as the Ring of the Nibelung, and there is certainly space for us to add more in our cultural repertoire.

In California, we have the outdoor theater of the Ramona Bowl, which is also committed to just one play, Ramona, even as it is used for other functions such as school graduations and community galas during the rest of the year. The play makes use of an entire mountainside, buildings made in the traditional Spanish fashion, and tells a romantic tale that productions have lately also used to present the talents and arts of Native American and Latin American performers of all ages.

Yes, it takes decades to build something like this, perhaps even a century. But if we are to create a legacy of cultural expression for the next generation of Lao Americans, I think it may be well worth the effort to start having this conversation. To ask ourselves, what are some of the magnificent stories we might tell that cannot be done “pop-up style” and require us to have an amazing and inclusive space wherein we might tell our tale?

To achieve this our community must put aside issues of what hasn’t worked in the past, or nagging pessimism, and instead approach the possibilities with a grand optimism. As I’ve said at the Lao American Writers Summit and other occasions time and time again, we must value our stories, and we must dare to write and to create to the very limits of our imagination.

Will we have made progress as a community if one of our cities might be home to something that can rival the elephant and other giant puppets now found at the shipyard of Nantes? It’s not the only measure, certainly, but it would speak to our ability to collaborate, to build, and to find a space where we could at last be Lao as Lao are meant to be.

Bryan Thao Worra