More Than Just an Asian Theatre Company

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by NICHOLAS PILAPIL

“So they created a discriminatory ‘Asian American Only’ Group to fight lack of diversity in Hollywood and other plays???? How can people cry discrimination when they turn around and discriminate against others????”

This is what you get when you try to make change.

The above comment was posted in response to a Los Angeles Times article about the work done by Artists at Play. For the unacquainted, Artists at Play is Julia Cho, Stefanie Lau, Marie-Reine Velez, and me: Nicholas Pilapil. We are a collective of Asian American theatre professionals, and we produce plays written by Asian American writers. The company was founded in 2011, and from the start, our driving force has been to represent the underrepresented of Los Angeles’ local landscape, and to give LA audiences something they’ve never seen before. (You won’t see a play by a straight white man or a Miss Saigon revival from us.)

And that works for us. Very well, in fact. It’s been five years, and we’re still producing theatre, audiences keep coming back, we don’t hate each other, and we’re finally presenting our first world premiere play, The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up, by Carla Ching on August 18.

There’s a lot of talk about diversity nowadays — or the lack thereof — and a lot of it is just that. It’s talk. Artists at Play is proud to be one of the companies that tries to do something about it. Don’t get me wrong, we like to talk diversity too (follow us on Twitter; we have a lot to say), but we also like to get stuff done.

Unless you’re a regional theatre with donors to spare or Hamilton on Broadway, theatre isn’t a money-making venture. It’s rare to make a living as a theatre artist. And if you’re a theatre artist who happens to be a person of color, it’s even rarer to get the opportunity to try. That’s why Artists at Play is dedicated to creating opportunities for our communities — both the Asian American and LA theatre community. The work we do isn’t just for us, or just to entertain. We’re trying to work towards something outside of ourselves and add to the larger picture of diversity. This is a challenge in itself and some people don’t understand. Like the person who left that comment on the LA Times article.

Artists at Play producers Marie-Reine Velez, Stefanie Wong Lau, Nicholas Pilapil and Julia Cho.
Artists at Play producers Marie-Reine Velez, Stefanie Wong Lau, Nicholas Pilapil and Julia Cho.

To us, diversity just means more of everybody — more chances for all to be included, be seen, and be a part of the conversation. Yes, we’re Asian American and we do plays by Asian American writers. But we’re not only interested in our diversity, and our stories aren’t exclusive to us. Because being Asian American is still simply being American. The plays we present, at the core, are American stories. Our plays have dealt with coming of age, interracial dating, family, and love. You don’t have to be Asian to relate to that.

We’re interested in collaboration, building bridges, and being allies. Our actors, directors, and designers have always been a diverse group of artists. We actively seek to work with people of all races and genders. Our 2015 production of In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar is a testament to that. We had a play by a South Asian woman, directed by a Latina, featuring a cast whose backgrounds were Japanese, Indian, White, Filipino, Latin, Korean, and mixed race. It was so colorful it was practically a rainbow.

But for us, it also goes beyond diversity. It’s about inclusion and representation, too. We present stories where Asian Americans can see themselves onstage reflected and represented in truthful, authentic, contemporary ways. That’s why Carla Ching’s The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up is a perfect fit for us. It’s a play written by and featuring Asian Americans, but simply, it’s a play about falling in and out of love with your best friend. It features two complex characters who aren’t defined by their race or ethnicity, but rather their wants and needs, and the choices they make. We’re over the Miss Saigon and The King and I representation of Asians in theatre. We aren’t all victims and poor, we aren’t always barefoot and bowing.

We’re ready for more and are actively working towards bringing new perspectives to Los Angeles — and American — theatre. We love the art, the community, and the stories. They are what drive us and make it all worth it. (Because it’s definitely not for the money — or for the internet trolls.) Theatre is both our passion and our tool for advocacy, and we’re just four theatre geeks trying to do what we love and trying to make it mean something.


THE TWO KIDS THAT BLOW SHIT UP at Artists at Play, August 21–September 11.

two kids icon2As kids, Max and Diana meet on their parents’ date, then are kicked out of the house so their parents can get it on. They are forced to play together even though they aren’t really that fond of each other. Through over two decades of their parents’ tumultuous relationship of getting together, breaking up, getting married and then divorced, Max and Diana are perpetually forced together and become the most unlikely of friends.

Nicholas Pilapil

Nicholas Pilapil

Nicholas Pilapil produces theatre with Artists at Play and is a writer of plays and songs. nicholaspilapil.com @nicholaspilapil