The McKnight Foundation has named Minnesota playwright, director, producer, theater artist, and musician Rick Shiomi as the 2015 McKnight Distinguished Artist, in recognition of artistic excellence spanning four decades. Now in its 18th year, the annual honor includes a $50,000 cash award and recognizes individual Minnesota artists who have made significant contributions to the quality of the state’s cultural life. McKnight will honor Shiomi at a private reception later this year.
“Given the breadth, scope, and importance of Rick Shiomi’s artistic legacy, there is no single yardstick by which to measure his impact,” said McKnight president Kate Wolford. “It is multifaceted, trailblazing, and extends well beyond his commitment to Asian American theater in the Twin Cities, and we at McKnight are honored to celebrate his accomplishments with this award.”
A seminal leader of the Asian American theater movement since the 1980s, Rick Shiomi has written, produced, or directed over 50 plays during his career. He is perhaps best known as co-founder of St. Paul’s Theater Mu, dedicated to bringing Asian American voices to the stage.
Shiomi founded Theater Mu in 1992 and served as artistic director from 1993 through 2013. Under his leadership, Theater Mu became Mu Performing Arts and grew from a small start-up in an area where Asian American theater was almost nonexistent into a nationally recognized company. (The organization’s name comes from the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character for the shaman/artist/warrior who connects the heavens and the earth through the tree of life.) Shiomi is the recipient of an Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award (2012), a Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision (2007), and a Minnesota State Council for Asian Pacific Minnesotans Award for Leadership (2002). His plays have been included in the anthologies Asian American Plays for a New Generation (Temple University Press, 2011), which he co-edited, and Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing, edited by Rajini Srikanth and Esther Iwanaga (Rutgers University Press, 2001). He was profiled in the January 2009 issue of American Theatre Magazine, the premier publication spotlighting trends in American theater.
“I feel it’s a huge recognition of all the work I’ve done over the past forty years, from my work in the Asian Canadian cultural community in Vancouver in the 1970’s through my theater work in San Francisco and New York in the 1980’s followed by my work at Mu Performing Arts from 1992 through 2013 and even now my work in Philadelphia helping to develop and promote Asian American theater there,” said Shiomi. “And the award recognizes the importance of the cause itself of Asian American culture and community. It’s been a long and winding road full of tremendous experiences with fascinating folks, and I feel truly blessed to have been on that road and now being honored at this point with this award.”
As a playwright, Shiomi’s work includes the award-winning Yellow Fever, which has been produced off-Broadway, around North America and in Japan; was awarded the Bay Area Theater Circle Critics Award for best new play in 1982; and received rave reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker. Other notable plays include Play Ball, Rosie’s Cafe, Walleye Kid, Mask Dance and Journey of the Drum. As a director he has worked extensively with Mu Performing Arts, where his credits include Temple of Dreams by Marcus Quiniones, Song of the Pipa (which he also wrote), an Asian-inspired production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the David Hwang version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. His choice to direct plays from the American musical theater canon — including A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, and The King and I — provided rare and groundbreaking opportunities for Asian actors to perform in roles generally unavailable to them.
His work has been showcased locally at the Guthrie, Intermedia Arts, Mixed Blood, Ordway, Park Square, Stages, Southern, and SteppingStone theaters, among others; nationally at Asian American Theater Company (San Francisco), East West Players (Los Angeles), InterAct Theatre (Philadelphia), Pan Asian Repertory (New York), and Theatre Esprit Asia (Denver); and internationally at Firehall Theater in Vancouver and Haisho Theatre Company and Ryuzanji Theater Company, both in Tokyo.
Born and raised in Toronto, Shiomi’s perspective as a Japanese Canadian figures prominently in his art and life. His parents were among the many Canadians of Japanese descent forced into internment camps during World War II; their experiences in the camp are a strong theme in many of his works. Shiomi graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in history in 1970, received a teaching diploma from Simon Fraser University, and went on to travel the world, teaching in Japan and Hong Kong before returning to Canada, this time settling in Vancouver, British Columbia. In Vancouver, he helped organize the Powell Street Festival, edited a film designed to teach children about Japanese Canadian history, and became an active member of the Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association, where he helped edit Inalienable Rice: A Chinese & Japanese Canadian Anthology (Chinese Canadian Writers Workshop, 1973). It was during this time he met playwrights David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, both of whom were influential in his artistic development.
Shiomi has helmed a variety of national projects, panels, conferences and festivals, including cofounding the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), the national service organization for the Asian American theater community, where he served on the board from 2006 through 2014. Another major field of artistic work for Shiomi is Mu Daiko, a taiko group within Mu Performing Arts, which he established in 1997. He was the leader of Mu Daiko through 2010, training drummers, composing taiko music and directing annual performances at multiple venues in Minnesota. He has served on many Minnesota State Arts Board, Theater Communications Group and NEA panels.
In 2014, Shiomi was awarded a Doris Duke grant for Building Demand for the Arts program to work with InterAct Theatre and Asian Arts Initiative to develop Asian American theater and audiences in Philadelphia. The coalition of Philadelphia theaters participating in the Philadelphia Asian Theater Project (PATP) include Azuka Theatre, EgoPo Classic Theater, InterAct Theatre Company, Kaleid Theatre, Lantern Theater Company, People’s Light, Plays and Players, and The Wilma Theater. In addition to The Asian Arts Initiative, PAPA (Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists) is a PATP supporter.
The first productions supported by PATP in the 2014/15 season were Caught by Christopher Chen produced by InterAct Theatre Company, Hold These Truths by Jeannie Sakata produced by Plays and Players, and Take/Sacrifice by Kaleid Theatre at Mz. Fest hosted by Plays and Players. PATP is currently supporting the production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company of ‘brownsville song (b-side for Tray)’ by Kimber Lee, which has performances through May 31st.
Shiomi is thriving in his freelance life after his tenure with Mu, with two projects in Philadelphia, one with InterAct Theatre continuing the work from the Doris Duke grant for Building Demand for the Arts; and one with the Lantern Theater Company to write and direct a new play for them, based upon the book, The Ronin, by William Jennings.
Shiomi’s latest directing gig, the Park Square Theatre’s production of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive featuring Kurt Kwan, Sarah Ochs, Emily A. Grodzik, Robert Gardner, Melanie Wehrmacher, Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens, is currently in previews in Saint Paul’s historic Hamm Building, 20 W. Seventh Place, and will open on Friday, May 15, 2015.
“It’s just a beautiful and fun play that audiences are loving in previews, so it’s exciting,” said Shiomi. Performances will continue through May 31, 2015. Click here for more information and here for tickets.
“And I am, believe it or not, starting a new company with several others, called Full Circle Theater Company, with the focus on diversity,” shared Shiomi. “Our first project will be Sacred Passage which will be created by the five core artistic members (myself, Martha Johnson, James Williams, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth), dramaturged and directed by Martha and produced at Dreamland Arts this coming November. Sacred Passage will be about our lives becoming theater artists from a wide range of backgrounds, looking at the obstacles and challenges we faced (like issues of race and gender) and how we’ve dealt with and overcome them.”
Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon and Taxman. She has guest starred on “One Life to Live,” “As the World Turns,” and “New York Undercover.” Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington and Roscoe Orman. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.