Asian American Theater Project taps into the need to prove oneself

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Toyon Lounge speaks to the universal experience of competition but also the Asian American overachiever complex. Performances are on Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 1.

In spring 2012, Ken Savage and Asia Chiao decided to reboot the Asian American Theater Project (AATP) by scheduling a full academic year of productions for 2012-13, something that hasn’t been done in years, starting with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in fall quarter. Following Spelling Bee is Trying to Find Chinatown in the winter and Death of a Salesman in the spring, but Savage and Chiao’s plans don’t stop there. They will be in London next summer researching the musical My Fair Lady for the 2013-14 year. Chiao, who is producing Spelling Bee, is also a costume designer and is looking forward to the challenge of recreating Eliza and Henry’s Edwardian London. Savage will be directing the musical as part of his senior project.

“When the AATP Board proposed The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for our fall show, we discussed how the themes not only resonated with the Asian/Asian American community on campus but also with the Stanford community as a whole,” said Savage. “This is my first time directing a musical and it’s so refreshing being on the directing side. I absolutely love it and definitely plan to continue!”

Chiao shares her surprise at how smoothly the production has been. “When Ken and I first began discussing the possibility of producing a musical for AATP this fall, we were both excited and incredibly nervous. But since then, the show has really taken off, and the experience of working with so many talented actors, designers and technicians has been unbelievably rewarding. The entire process was also smoother than I had initially imagined it would be, which is a wonderful surprise, as it really testifies to the dedication of all the people involved.”

AATP describes its current production of Spelling Bee as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about six spellers determined to win the bee to prove their worth. They face puberty, demanding families and their own overachiever complexes. Each speller comes to compete but leaves the bee with lessons more valuable than winning. The musical is filled with strange characters, heartfelt stories, strained relationships and hilarious music.

In the beginning

AATP was founded in 1978 by David Henry Hwang, ’79, the preeminent Asian American playwright of our day, and recently deceased Nancy Takahashi Hatamiya, ’81, a government relations expert and advisor to President Clinton. AATP’s mission has evolved to:

  • Increase representation of Asians/Asian Americans in theater arts
  • Address stereotypes, misrepresentations and nuanced portrayals of Asian/Asian American cultures through the performing arts
  • Cultivate the interests and talents of Asian/Asian American artists and allow them to explore acting, directing, producing, stage management, technical theater and writing in a safe and open community
  • Celebrate the works of Asian/Asian American playwrights
  • Explore other theater works through an Asian/Asian American lens

Lest you think the AATP agenda too heavy for levity, check out the bios of the board members. These students are accomplished and funny.

AATP states on its website: “We welcome all artists—regardless of race, culture, skill-level and previous theatrical experience—to join us in our artistic explorations of identity.” The invitation couldn’t be more inclusive and they mean what they say. In the current production of Spelling Bee, the more than 20 participants include theater veterans, novices, Asians, Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans.  Spelling Bee director and board member Savage says it’s the best cast and crew he’s ever worked with.

“Both the preview and opening performances of Spelling Bee went really well! I absolutely love this musical and think that it is so fitting at Stanford. It will make you laugh and is the ultimate study break!” said Savage.

Opening night was November 29 in Toyon Lounge, with additional performances on November 30 and December 1. Buy tickets here for $5.