It's not just Asian-American theater, it's good theater

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The Walleye Kid
The Asian-American theater company Theater Mu is staging its production of The Walleye Kid at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. It's the latest production that is garnering the company more high-profile attention.
Image Courtesy of Mu Performing Arts

When Rick Shiomi first created Theater Mu in 1992, he wasn't looking just to get people in the audience. He needed people on stage, talented performers.

There were so few Asian American actors in town that he was forced to recruit novices and train them himself. He also needed material. There are very few plays out there that deal specifically with the Asian-American experience. He dreamed of someday having a professional team of actors that performed high quality productions.

Rick Shiomi
When Rick Shiomi first created Theater Mu in 1992, he had to find asian-americans interested in acting and train them, and work with writers to create plays his company could perform.
Image courtesy of Mu Performing Arts

"After 15 years we're really starting to reach that level, in terms of being able to perform at the Guthrie, and doing well there," says Shiomi. "I think it's really exciting for us because as an artistic director you really want to get into the kinds of venues that really reflect a certain level of work. And I just feel like our company is starting to gain a certain level of recognition both locally and nationally."

Theater Mu performed "Circle Around the Island" at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio in Minneapolis last March. It's musical "The Walleye Kid" opens tomorrow night at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. It's the story of a Korean adoptee with Minnesota parents figuring out where she really belongs.

Issues of identity
Like many adoptees, Annie must figure out who she really is. Is she Korean? Or Minnesotan? The Walleye Kid tells the story of her journey to figure out where she really belongs.
Image Courtesy of Mu Performing Arts

Rick Shiomi co-wrote "The Walleye Kid." He says getting to stage the musical at the Ordway Center validates the productions quality.

But he's quick to point out that the Ordway is also getting something out of the deal. Large institutions like the Ordway and the Guthrie are looking to appear more diverse, both in terms of their performers and their productions.

Shiomi says he's seeing an increase in collaborations between major houses and smaller performance groups, and he thinks it's healthy for the community.

James Rocco, vice-president of programming at the Ordway, says it just makes sense.

"Mu Performing Arts is going to bring people through the door," says Rocco. "We want people to come to the Ordway Center and what Rick does is fantastic and is going to bring new audiences to Ordway Center. It's going to bring new audiences to Rick, so this is a win win situation."

Theater Mu's audience has always been predominantly white. But audiences that have sought out its performances have generally had a particular interest in Asian-American culture.

Sara Ochs
Actress Sara Ochs says Theater Mu's productions speak to more than just Asian-Americans, and it's wonderful to see it finally reaching a broader audience.
Image Courtesy of Mu Performing Arts

Sara Ochs is an actor with the company who plays a Shaman in the Walleye Kid. As a Korean adoptee with parents of Norwegian and German ancestry, she can relate to the show's main character, young Annie. Ochs says Annie's journey is a metaphor for all adoptees and the journey they must take to reconcile the two different aspects of their identity.

She says it's nice not to be just preaching to the choir anymore, but sharing an important story with a broader audience.

"There's such a big audience for this show," says Ochs. "There are over 10,000 adoptees in Minnesota alone. That's Korean adoptees only. That doesn't include all the other children. And I think that it doesn't matter if you're adopted or not because anyone can relate to it . Because it's about your identity, everybody has identity issues. You always feel at some point like you don't fit, and that's what this show is about."

Theater Mu Artistic Director Rick Shiomi agrees. He says his theater company is still working to share stories of the Asian-American experience with its audiences, but hopes to also draw in audiences just because its great theater.

"We're getting to a place where we're talking about 'Asian-American theater for everyone.' It's kind of like trying to turn the niche inside out. I think the niche was in many ways created internally almost to validate ourselves. So I think there's a kind of shift happening that's really interesting.

Shiomi may just now be enjoying his theater company's new found recognition on major Twin Cities stages, but he says he already looks forward to a day when Theater Mu will perform on its own stage, in its own theater home.