Comparing career paths of artists rarely paints the same road map twice. But something successful artists often have in common is making tough choices to pursue their art and creating opportunities the untrained eye might perceive as “luck.”
Peter J. Kuo, a founding member of Artists at Play, has been blazing a trail this year by making theater directing his priority, instead of a sideline. He directs AaP’s latest production, the Los Angeles premiere of Michael Golamco’s Cowboy Versus Samurai, opening this weekend.
AaP’s founders — Julie Cho, Stefanie Wong Lau, Marie-Reine Velez and Kuo — created AaP to produce plays telling stories of “underrepresented communities” in Los Angeles, particularly Asian American stories. AaP officially began with its 2011 production of Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee. The company had intended to present Cowboy last year but instead mounted Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat. The Edith ensemble was recently nominated for an Ovation Award. Cowboy marks the company’s third full-length production.
“We’re just surprised no one has done [Cowboy] yet in Los Angeles,” says Kuo. “So we’re happy to do the Los Angeles premiere.” As a company founded by producers, AaP has a special litmus test when selecting plays.
“All of us in Artists at Play have mixed priorities in all our lives — day jobs, families, other projects,” says Kuo. “So when we choose a project [to produce], we certainly make sure it’s important to each of us. We’ve also all had our involvement in the Asian-American theater community here, so having something to call our own is also important.”
During his undergrad training at UC Irvine, Kuo took it upon himself to create directing opportunities when it wasn’t part of the regular curriculum. He applied for in-school grants to produce his own shows that he could also direct. He produced more than a half-dozen shows before he graduated, directing four of them.
“Being somewhat a self-taught director, I learned a lot of the technical things,” says Kuo, “but how a rehearsal room functions — I had to teach that to myself. Knowing how to really fulfill the vision and help people work together is something I’ve definitely learned.”
After completing his degree, Kuo spent several years working full-time as an arts administrator — primarily at South Coast Rep — while directing theater projects on the side. But finally in March of this year he took a leap of faith.
“I left [SCR] and decided to shift things to where my art is now my real work, and this administrative thing is my part-time work,” says Kuo. The gamble has paid off with several opportunities for Kuo including assistant director positions at the Geffen for Jonathan Lynn and at South Coast Rep with Pam MacKinnon. He’s already pursuing more directing opportunities after completing work on Cowboy.
He describes the assistant directing experiences as game-changers for his new career path.
“I became aware of how to address different topics with actors and designers,” says Kuo. “I used to have more structure in the rehearsal room, and I’ve learned to loosen that structure…. As a result of watching other directors, I learned how to help the artists find the results for themselves.”
Kuo was especially grateful to have his own directing project on the heels of such positive learning experiences, taking the hands-on lessons immediately into the Cowboy rehearsal process.
“I feel like sometimes it’s a misconception — the job of a director,” says Kuo. “They are the overseer of everything, but it’s also having all these departments trust that you have a cohesive vision and the ability to execute it.”
Kuo, who also directed Chinaman, says all of AaP’s founders have grown since their first effort. Kuo believes they’ve improved as a company with each production, reading series and fundraising endeavor. And while producing full-length plays can challenge any company, Kuo also says he and his AaP partners know their limitations and schedule accordingly.
“We’re doing one production a year, and that’s about right for us now,” says Kuo. “We would rather put on one fantastic show than more shows that don’t meet our artistic standards.”
So far, AaP has also produced in a variety of locations — from West Hollywood to Burbank to Pasadena for its reading series earlier this year. Cowboy will be performed at Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, a cultural space known for extensive arts programming in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
“We’re not quite sure we want to call one place home,” says Kuo. “Right now [moving around] is out of necessity, but it’s also nice to interact with new neighborhoods. I think eventually it would be nice to find a space to start to call home. But we haven’t found quite the right niche yet.”
One lesson the AaP team has learned from producing at multiple locations is what Kuo describes as the difference between simply renting a performance space and creating a partnership with a venue. The latter is Kuo’s preferred scenario, but it’s not always easy to find.
Playwright Golamco has enjoyed a streak of productions in Los Angeles the last few years. The West Coast premiere of his Year Zero was at the Colony Theatre in 2011. And Build had its world premiere last year at Geffen Playhouse. Cowboy, which premiered in 2005 at the National Asian American Theatre Company (NYC), is published by Samuel French and has played around North America and Hong Kong. He has written an episode of NBC’s Grimm, scheduled to be broadcast in November.
LA-based Golamco took his inspiration for Cowboy from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac — in which mistaken identity and a comedy of errors eventually reveals the heart’s true desire. However, in Golamco’s re-telling, an Asian-American woman refuses to date Asian men but then mistakenly falls in love with one. And it all takes place in small-town, rural Wyoming.
“There’s this beautiful blend of humor and heart,” says Kuo. “And it’s relatable because it has so much to do with insecurities. It really examines that and asks why do [insecurities] hinder your relationships with other people?”
With directing now his primary focus, Kuo traveled to Wyoming the week before rehearsals to briefly experience the small-town landscape of a burg similar to the play’s fictional Breakneck. He felt it was important to not only understand the location as a physical space but also talk to locals and understand the lifestyle of a community so far removed from Los Angeles.
He chose Pine Bluffs — on the Wyoming/Nebraska border. It’s east of Cheyenne — which he also visited, as there are references to it in the play. Pine Bluffs had a population of 1147 in a 2012 estimate, not far from Breakneck’s 1,000. In the 2010 census, the population of Pine Bluffs was 0.4% Asian-American.
Kuo had called the city hall to set up a tour but had been told simply to drop in when he arrived. “Everyone in town was super-friendly. A little apprehensive at first, but when I told them why I was there, they were more than willing to talk. I met people whose families had lived there for more than five generations, and others who had moved recently from larger cities and just enjoyed it and stayed. It was a very eye-opening experience.”
Kuo recognizes his assertiveness in making life changes to focus on directing. But he also believes small theater companies like Artists at Play are part of the success in that equation — creating professional opportunities for other artists, as well as for members of the company, that otherwise might not exist.
Making a professional leap into theater might feel daunting in Los Angeles. But if his experiences of the past year have taught him anything, it’s that finances are rarely the driving force when it comes to theater, no matter how much money is being made.
“I talk to so many ranges of people who do theater for a living,” says Kuo. “And it’s always a passion first. There are also those opportunities where people can get paid more, but I think people do it because they have passion. And I’m not surprised because I have such a huge passion for it.”
Cowboy Versus Samurai, Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler Street, LA 90021. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through Oct. 20. Tickets: $15-35. ArtistsatPlayLA.blogspot.com.
**All Cowboy Versus Samurai production photos by M. Palma Photography.