For four nights in a row last week, Roble Theater was sold out for “Ching Chong Chinaman,” a production put on by Stanford’s Asian American Theater Project (AATP).
Although this is only their first show of the 2014-2015 school year, AATP’s Board of Directors has seen a sizable increase in members already. Tthey received more applications for freshman internship positions this year than ever before.
However, AATP didn’t always have such a large presence on campus. The group was founded in 1978 by David Hwang ’79, now a Tony Award-winning playwright, and has since gone through periods of fluctuating activity.
Mirae Lee ’17, AATP’s executive producer for the 2014-2015 school year, says that part of the reason AATP may be currently growing in popularity on campus could be increasing interest in Asian American issues throughout American culture.
“Society is getting more open to the idea of needing to be more diverse in media representation,” Lee said. She added that the introduction of two new sitcoms, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Selfie,” that star Asian-American actors is another indication of this phenomenon.
“AATP didn’t grow more because of those shows,” clarified Saya Jenks ’16, AATP’s current artistic director. “Those shows came about when AATP happened to be at one of its higher peaks, but I think people are just becoming more aware of the issues surrounding representations of Asians in the media, and I’m hoping that AATP is bringing awareness of that to Stanford students and the Stanford community.”
Both Jenks and Lee believe that performance, particularly theater, is a unique experience and method of sharing messages.
“You get 50 to 1,000 people to agree to come into this darkened room…turn off all of their devices, and just listen to a story for that extended amount of time,” Jenks said. “[They] sit next to a stranger…and just really open themselves emotionally to this story they’re being told, and…really engage with it.”
Jenks added that theater as a venue has advantages not shared by other forms of the performing arts.
“If you’re just watching a movie on Netflix on your computer, you’re just sort of an open book and you can just react to the screen however you want,” Jenks said. “But then when you have this collective experience of going to a play, then you’re sort of forced to be in dialogue with the person next you.”
Lee agreed, adding that theater is a uniquely effective platform for AATP’s messages about the Asian American experience.
“[Theater] immerses you in the story of another person…who normally would be completely ‘other’ from you, and lets you be there in their shoes for however long the play lasts,” Lee said. “[It] opens up this whole new worldview that you would not necessarily have approached otherwise.”
AATP puts on three or four productions every year. Some of its Board Members are also involved with other theater organizations, but they say that AATP provides a unique experience they can’t get from other performance groups.
Jenks said that AATP has an activist mission in addition to its production-oriented goals.
This weekend, the organization is taking part in the Splash educational studies program, holding two workshops for high school students in the area. They also participate in conferences and other events outside of Stanford’s campus where they can discuss Asian American issues and activism.
On stage as well, AATP’s performances carry activist messages, an added dimension that carries its own challenges. Although she has found a strong and supportive community in the group, Jenks says that before joining AATP she worried that either she wouldn’t be “Asian enough” or that she would fit in too much and wouldn’t be able to leave.
“I also was worried about whether joining AATP would define me as an Asian/Asian-American theater artist and…whether I would be able to escape that,” Jenks said. “Now I think it’s more important to just embrace it.”
AATP was pleased that its message has been able to reach broad audiences through theater.
“We were worried about just attracting people who already talk about Asian-American issues and who live, breathe and think the kind of things that we [AATP] talk about,” Lee said. “It’s nice to see people who come to see shows like “Ching Chong Chinaman,” who go into it knowing nothing about Asian-American issues, and coming out realizing that there was this whole world of ideas[…]or experiences that they had never encountered before.”
Contact Sarah Wishingrad at swishing ‘at’ stanford.edu.