The International Examiner continues to recognize the outstanding achievements of Asian Pacific American leaders through the Community Voice Awards.
This year, Kathy Hsieh will be honored with the Arts award for being a leader for her work in increasing City funding for under-represented communities, creating visibility and opportunities for Asian American artists, as well as educating and empowering emerging artists. She also propelled the conversation forward in the dialogue following the controversy of last summer’s Seattle production of The Mikado.
The International Examiner caught up with Hsieh to talk about how she got her start in the arts and what inspired her to use the arts as a way to put a spotlight on the social justice issues she advocates for.
International Examiner: Can you talk a little about yourself and what you’ve been up to?
Kathy Hsieh: Artistically, I work with a company called SIS Productions, which I helped found 15 years ago. We are a production company that is run by Asian American women to use theatre to highlight and create opportunities for Asian Pacific Islanders in general, and to give more opportunities to them, and it’s particularly through the lens of women.
My day job is working for the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. … A large part of the work I’m doing is really trying to help arts and cultural organizations really look at their own institutionalized racism and how we can all work together as a community to address racial inequity, using the arts as a way to create that visibility. Over the course of a number of years, it felt like it was slow moving sometimes and I had a plan to do more racial equity training for arts organizations and artists. … Social media has elevated all the different racial inequities around the country from Eric Garner to Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter, to our own “Mikado” incident that happened here in Seattle. All of that social media visibility all of a sudden put a national spotlight on the reality that racial inequity and racism still exist. We are not a post-racial society. That actually help build the momentum that [we] have been trying to put into place.
The one other thing I do that I’m really, passionate about is that every few years at the University of Washington, I’m invited in as an adjunct professor to teach a class called Asian American Theatre. … A lot of the plays really reflect the reality of the Asian American experience in our country. And also, as Asian American artists, we want to be able to tell stories that don’t have anything to do with race. We want to be able to be artists and express ourselves and be able to write steam punk plays or murder mysteries or romantic comedies and so I also focus on a lot of new work. … They kind of give students a vibrant range of how diverse Asian Americans are and how there’s so many stories.
IE: What got you interested in the arts? Did you always start off in the arts with the idea that you wanted to work with these issues that you are now talking about?
Hsieh: What really introduced me to theatre was my ninth grade honors language arts teacher. He was also the drama teacher and he made everyone in the class audition for the school play. … What I love about theatre is that you work really hard with a team of people and then when you show it to people, the audience becomes part of the larger picture. … When I was about to graduate, I had a different drama teacher by then, and I told her I’m thinking about actually studying acting. She told me the reality is, as a woman of color, my chance of making it as an actor was probably going to be very, very hard. She recommended that if I loved theatre enough, I should just consider going into teaching and teach theatre instead. So I remember that I was kind of crushed by that.
I realized that what I’m more passionate about is, I wanted to create visibility for Asian Americans because we didn’t have visibility in film, television, anything. … I mean, 2015, we’re only now having a television show that has Asian Americans as the main characters and the producers are not white and the writers are not white. … I thought about if I really wanted to make a difference it would be better for me to stay in Seattle, work through this theatre community and try to build a community of other people of color and Asian Americans to help me lift the visibility of Asian Americans at least here, locally.
I’ve heard so many horror stories of Asian American artists who would go down to Los Angeles and they would go into auditions. Usually, when there’s a film or television show, they’re only really looking for one Asian American for these very stereotypical roles and there’s only one. Whenever you go to an audition, there’s dozens and dozens of Asian Americans and they’re all competing for that one role. So what happens—and this is how structural racism works—Asian American actors start looking at each other as competition. So there’s no solidarity.
What I decided to do was start an actors group through the Northwest Asian American Theatre. My philosophy is that if we all help each other be the best actor we can, then Seattle theaters will see there is a strong Asian American acting community and think, “Maybe we should start doing more shows where we can actually use these great actors.” Whenever there was an audition in town, even if it was only one part in that play, we would all meet and rehearse our auditions together, help each other, and give each other feedback. … Whoever got the part, we would celebrate that they got the part. Then I would try to get everyone to see the show so that we could all show the theatre company that they made the right choice in casting an Asian American, and look, there’s all these Asian Americans who are going to see them in that show.
IE: Having someone tell you it might not be possible to reach your dreams because of your race or culture must be really crushing. How were you able to stay strong?
Hsieh: I was very fortunate in high school. [My drama teacher] cast me as the lead in a lot of plays. They were all non-Asian specific roles. I thought of all the people that would be supportive of my choice, it would be her. To hear her say that was the reality, I know she meant it in a way because she didn’t want me to go out into the real world and realize how hard it was. She meant it as a protective way. My mom went into something she didn’t want to and was never happy in her career. My dad, who in his life at a certain point decided to follow his passion—he was not only incredibly successful—he was also very happy. By just seeing their life by example was something that led me to, “I have to follow what I believe I should do with my life, which is theatre, and acting and the arts.” I decided I’m not going to major in drama. But I kept taking drama classes. The funny thing that happened with me … I kind of ironically ended up not choosing to do it as a career choice, but I fell into it anyway where I was able to make a living doing it.
IE: What advice would you give to other young people, especially women of color, whether or not they’re pursuing the arts?
Hsieh: You really have to know yourself and know why you’re going into this. … I carved my own path and it was about being really clear about what I wanted. … It’s knowing the “why”—not just the end product. The other thing I believe so much in is building relationships. No matter what career endeavor you’re in, no one can do anything by themselves. I also think it’s about being grateful for every opportunity you’re given. If you focus on the positive things and if you focus on being grateful in every experience you’re given in life, I really think that energy comes back ten fold. The other thing is if opportunities don’t come your way, create your own.
Each week the International Examiner will catch up with the 2015 Community Voice awardees leading up to the awards dinner and fundraiser on Thursday, May 21, 2015.