Fresh from the Orcas Island Storyfest in July, Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo and Nancy Wang are soon headed to the Wing Luke Museum, to lead a storytelling camp for kids.
Kikuchi-Yngojo and Wang are the co-founders and co-artistic directors of Eth-Noh-Tec, an organization that has been presenting and teaching Asian American storytelling theater for decades. “Nancy was a modern dancer and I was a musician,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “We both loved theater and met at the Asian American Theater in San Francisco.”
It was there that the match was made. “Someone approached us looking for entertainment for the conference and asked ‘Can you tell stories?’” Kikuchi-Yngojo related. “To this we answered yes, then set about to create our first story which was titled ‘10,000 Treasure Cave,’ based on a Chinese folktale.”
Over the years, Eth-Noh-Tec’s stories have changed and broadened in content. “Though we started off with traditional pan-Asian mythology and folktales, over the years we begin developing contemporary, biographical, and historical Asian American stories, often drawing from our own family histories,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “In recent years, many of the new pieces we created, though still based in traditional Asian lore, were in fact allegories, social satire, and political commentary on the current state of affairs.”
Their repertoire contains several examples of this dual focus. “We might tell the folktale from Korea, ‘The Man Who Planted Onions,’ he said. “Ancient as it is, the story has a strong message about racism and bigotry.”
Other Eth-Noh-Tec stories focus on the wider world. “Another tale, from the Hmong Cambodian culture, ‘Trouble Talk,’ is a powerful cautionary tale about human beings’ impact on our biosphere,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “Even though our work is focused on Asian and Asian American stories, people of many races feel connected to the messages while being entertained by our performance delivery.”
Kikuchi-Yngojo reports that not every story is based on worldly events. “As we developed our repertoire, we found an affinity towards spiritual and enlightening wisdom stories,” he said.
But for Eth-Noh-Tec, stories are not just words. “We believe that all of us are ESL, English as a Second Language,” he said. “Our first is the kinesthetic and somatic language of the human body. Nancy’s background in dance and my background in martial arts and comedic movement have always been a source of inspiration.”
Kikuchi-Yngojo and Wang have long enjoyed sharing this inspiration with young people. “Both Nancy and I have taught performing arts and storytelling for all grade levels since the 1970s,” he said. “Some of the favorite things we like about teaching young people are their spontaneity, vitality, and unfettered creativity.”
Much of their youth camp experience has been in California, where they are based. “For many years, we taught at the Cazadero Family Arts Camp under the canopy of the giant redwood trees near Russian River, California,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “We’ve also made appearances at several of the Japanese American language and cultural camps throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Often these schools, such as Suzume No Gakko, Medaka No Gakko, and Nakayoshi, not only enjoy the physical theater aspects of our storytelling but certainly appreciate the Asian and Japanese cultural aspect to the work.”
Because of this, Eth-Noh-Tec seemed a natural fit for a storytelling camp here in the Northwest. “We’ve had a long-standing connection to the Wing Luke Museum,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “In the early days of the Asian American cultural movement, many of the cultural hubs and Asian communities got connected and networked with each other between Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The Wing Luke Museum has been a cultural institution since the early formation of this movement.”
Kikuchi-Yngojo reports that Eth-Noh-Tec has performed at the Wing Luke Museum numerous times. “Director Vivian Chan has known of our work for years, so when the calendar cycle hit summertime and the museum needed to program its resident artist for the summer camp, Eth-Noh-Tec was on the list,” he said.
The team has high expectations of the students who attend the storytelling camp. “Our goal for the youth that attend the summer camp is to explore various expressions of storytelling through body, voice, dramatic theater, and language,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “Through storytelling, especially ensemble storytelling, we hope that the young people will see and experience the power of creativity for a team-working experience.”
In addition to group work, each student will have the opportunity for personal practice. “Several will be choosing from traditional Asian folktales and myths, so they will also gain cultural information as well,” he said. “Finally, having young people being able to present themselves dramatically in public lays a strong foundation for personal expression, public speaking, and confidence building.”
None of these skills come automatically, and likewise, Eth-Noh-Tec reports that their careers as storytellers have not been without challenges. “Just as every story has a downward turn of events, so has our career, namely mostly the economic downturn and technological upturn in the past decade,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “Though the need for stories has not changed, the medium in the marketing of how to present this before a live audience has rapidly changed.”
Despite these challenges, the Eth-Noh-Tec team has been able to thrive and reach out beyond the west coast. “In the past four decades, as we have developed our careers and our nonprofit organization, we feel especially grateful to have carved out our life as professional storytellers,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said. “Through this work we have traveled all across the country, and met both wonderful people and the amazing projects people are doing in their own local communities. This career has also served as a bridge-builder between our lives as American artists and reaching our counterparts in other Asian countries, including China, Philippines, Singapore, India, Japan, and next Korea!”
At its core, Eth-Noh-Tec’s mission is to foster storytelling in all its facets. “Storytelling is at the heart of all our human cultures around the world,” Kikuchi-Yngolo said. “Storytelling is the way we ritualize, encapsulate, and affirm the human experience, our human condition.”
He argues that stories are important both to our past and our future. “Through the art of narrative, we not only pass on traditions, and learn morals and social constructs, but also guide ourselves through the emotional landscape vicariously through the reflection of the stories’ metaphors.”
This can become a personal as well as public or political practice. “We encourage relatives, friends, and family to share their stories,” he said. “Whether they be traditional folk tales and myths, whether they be life experiences and challenges such as those we face with learning a new language, immigrating to America, or bridging the gap between American-born and Asian-born generations, storytelling can be the fabric that pulls people together one story, one strand, at a time, as it weaves together our commonalities.”
Eth-Noh-Tec’s Storytelling Camp runs from August 14 to 19 at the Wing Luke Museum, 719 South King Street, Seattle. For more information, visit www.ethnohtec.org.