How would the story in a play or musical be affected if it were an Asian instead of a white person playing a role?
This question has informed most of Ken Savage’s work. For Ken, an actor, director, and the driving force behind the Asian American Theater Project, race has always been a part of theater.
“The default for American theater is white. Some people try to deny that, but that is what it is,” he says. “Sometimes it’s discouraging for someone like me or my younger brother or sister who, when we go to the theater and we think ‘I could totally do that.’”
Coming from a background grounded in the arts, Ken participated in theater throughout elementary, middle and high school, and left for Stanford with the dream of becoming a professional actor — a profession that doesn’t top the list of lucrative after-college job descriptions.
Like many of us, Savage came to Stanford under the belief that his place there might have been a mistake. Driven by a passion for the theater arts, he struggled to find a place as an actor in a community where the arts were not fostered as well as they could have been.
“I found it quite lonely at Stanford because I didn’t know very many people like me who were interested in musical theater,” he says. “I almost stopped doing theater sophomore year completely. I was so discouraged after my freshman year. Many times throughout my undergrad I felt maybe I’d made the wrong decision to come to Stanford.”
Ken felt his artistic voice was not being fully explored or pushed during his freshman and sophomore years, but soon discovered a group at Stanford that would dramatically (pun intended) change the course of his Stanford career, the Asian American Theater Project (AATP).
“Asian American Theater Project was essentially this group of misfits who were looking for ways to perform and looking for ways to produce theater together.” he says. “It’s through that group that I tried directing for the first time.”
He found the group by accident. “I knew about the group coming into Stanford before freshman year but I had also heard that it was a dying organization,” he says. “I stumbled upon it at the end of my sophomore year when I randomly auditioned for a play called ‘The Secret to Raising Successful Children’.”
It was during this production that Ken met and quickly befriended Asia Chiao, a fellow board member and co-creative director of the AATP, and the head designer for their 2014 production of My Fair Lady, which debuted in the winter of Ken’s senior year.
“I am a firm believer that whenever you put a body of color onstage next to a white body on stage there is immediately an inherent power imbalance. And I think its important for us as audience members to recognize that – that theater and stereotypes and racism comes from historical relations of power that have transcended time and space. Though some people might think we live in a post-racial society, especially in American theater that’s definitely not the case.”
While Ken is quick to add that there are exceptions to this rule, it still doesn’t excuse the lack of racial diversity in modern American theater, an issue that Ken is determined to face. With My Fair Lady for example, Savage was able to adapt a play written for most likely a white cast, and re-envision it as a beautiful piece of art with a strong Asian American cast.
Savage believes it is incredibly important to not only encourage the arts within the Asian American community, but also to demystify the belief that people of color are not as good or talented as those groups who are more commonly seen in larger Broadway productions. But where does one draw the line? If a role calls for an Asian American actor, but when casting the stronger actor happened to be white, what is your duty as a director in that position?
“As a director I’m attracted to good texts, and whatever that means – if it’s race specific or not race specific – if the text is good and if the characters are exciting to me and if the narrative is exciting to me, then I definitely would want to work with it. I wouldn’t say that I’m a director who prefers race-specific theater. I think that at the end of the day, whatever you decide to do with a play you have to go back to the text and see ‘what does the text support? And what does the text call for?’”
Race inevitably affects theater. When a person of color is thrown into typically Caucasian role, a different narrative is presented and the audience inevitably approaches the play with a racial lens. It’s difficult, Ken realizes, to separate race from actors, and actors from their racial identity. What’s really important, however, is a group of artists who feel like they can grow in whatever community they so choose to participate in.
“I wish that there were more artists of color who publicly displayed their work or who publicly performed or who felt that sense of ownership over their art wherein they could be vulnerable and present it to people and let it be criticized and let people take it in,” Ken says. “I think that’s a really scary thing to ask a lot of people to do, especially groups of people who are not typically represented on American stages.”
How appropriate then, that in the spring Ken will take on Hairspray, a show directly linked to issues of race. “That’s a musical where I would not cast Motormouth Maybelle, for example, with a white actress… that’s not what I’m interested in and that’s not what the text calls for. I think a problem that director’s encounter when they are casting shows or working on shows that happen to have roles that are race specific is there’s just a scarcity of talent. At Stanford we experience that too.”
As an Asian American theater director, Ken is a rare entity. For those who, like Ken at the beginning of his freshman year, are ready to give up, don’t let what may look like a lack of opportunity stop you.
“There are people here who care about you succeeding,” he says. “I have a social responsibility to other artists like me to give them opportunities that I did not have, or would not normally have. And that is the biggest takeaway from my Stanford undergrad experience. If there is any advice I would give any person at Stanford trying to pursue art, it is to keep going and to keep fighting, and that the more you fail the more you will succeed.”