Maggie Lee (Dangerpants Photography, 2013)

Interviewing Maggie Lee: Theater and Asian America

Written by Linda Yan | July 9th, 2021

Maggie Lee is an award-winning Seattle playwright who creates diverse, imaginative new worlds on stage in genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and action-adventure, with plays produced in Seattle, New York, Seoul, Chicago, and San Francisco. She is currently the Resident Playwright at Macha Theatre Works, a board member of Rain City Projects (an organization supporting PNW playwrights), and a member of the Dramatists Guild. Her plays are available on New Play Exchange and published by Mneme Press. Next up in Fall 2021: THE SKY BELOW, a high-flying YA steampunk adventure at Youth Theatre Northwest.

Linda: How did you get introduced to the theater world?

Maggie: I was a theater kid from when I was in high school. When I went to high school, that was where my tribe was– where I found my “group.” Since that was my social circle and creative outlet, that was where I solidified my faith in theater… it’s a place where I could be safe and be with friends. It’s just a good feeling in life.

Linda: As a child, were there any Asian media icons that you looked up to?

Maggie: I remember the first time I really had an “Asian American experience” was when I went and saw Margaret Cho– this was when she was first starting out and doing stand ups at community colleges. 

So I bought a ticket to go see her first show, I think it was “All-American Girl,”and she talked about her sitcom experience and how terrible it was. But I remember going to it by myself and being completely blown away from it like “Yeah! I’m with you!” She had all those experiences being Korean American (I’m Korean American) and she was really funny but also truthful. So I think that was my first “Oh my gosh! This is a thing, we’re out there!”

Linda: Are there any productions or movies that you think do an especially good job in their portrayal of Asian American identity and experience?

Maggie: One show that was produced in Seattle specifically was Sex in Seattle, it was created by Kathy Hsieh’s group that has now mostly become SIS Productions. It’s a romantic comedy featuring Asian American women and it was a serial play that had like twenty episodes. It dealt with racism, but it was just people living their lives and calling each other up and being funny, having sadness, and I felt like that was a really great way of getting Asian Americans out there without being like “Hey, this is a lesson.” It’s more like “Hey, this is entertainment– it’s a life that we want to share with you.” 

I’m always really happy when there’s Asian Americans in like sci-fi and fantasy because it’s usually based on Norse and British mythology, so I’m really excited when it’s based in Asian American myths and history. Avatar: The Last Airbender is great.

Linda: What are some notable challenges you’ve faced in your career, and life, by being Asian American? How has the Bamboo Ceiling impacted you?

Maggie: I feel like I have my own things that I hold myself back on; I think I was raised with this feeling of if you’re gonna do something, you better be the best at it; you shouldn’t waste your time doing stuff if you’re not going to be number one. With theater that’s really hard because you have to start from the bottom and work your way up. I’ve always wondered, “Am I wasting my time? Am I going to be number one?” And it’s not about that, right? It’s about creating. So I feel like I’ve held myself back in that way. 

I also have some doubt in the opportunities I’m given as nowadays diversity is sort of being pushed– you gotta have diverse creatives. Sometimes I worry if I’m really making a good product or if I was given the opportunity because I’m Asian and I’m a woman. Did they need to check a box and they were like “Oh, she’s okay, let’s use her!” So it makes me wonder if I’m actually any good, and if I’m creating my best work, or if I’m just sneaking through the door because they needed to fill this quota. 

Linda: How do you think the stereotype of the “model minority” has impacted the casting of Asian American actors in theater and Hollywood? What do you think needs to be done to help erase the pervasive stereotypes in the portrayal of Asian Americans in popular media, such as submissive women, the model minority myth, un-masculine and sexless men, etc.?

Maggie: I honestly don’t quite know. I have friends who work in TV and they always show up in small parts where they’re like the doctor or the lawyer. I think it’s up to producers to really make that effort to cast outside the box. And I don’t think it’s a specifically Asian American thing; I think it’s really hard for people to think outside any stereotype when they’re casting especially. They’re like “Oh, this is the look, this is the person you think of when you have a taxi driver, or a sexy lady.” 

I think we’re on the right track of Asian Americans, making art for other Asian Americans, using Asian American talent and also making it in a way that’s accessible to everyone so that they’re like “Oh, that’s not just an Asian American movie, that’s a movie for everybody but with Asian Americans in it.” I think once they see it they’d be open to more things but until they see it and it’s soaked into the fabric of our society we just have to keep hammering away at it.

Linda: Most well-known plays, musicals, and operas that feature characters of Asian descent/ background are quite racially insensitive and problematic, such The King and I, Mme Butterfly, and Miss Saigon. How do you think that we should go about producing these shows, if at all?

Maggie: As a playwright who writes plays now, I think we should just do new stuff. I mean, do you really need to see that again? You already saw it. I feel like that about Shakespeare too. I saw it, most of us have seen it, do we really have to do it again? But there is a resistance in the audience. I think when they try to program seasons for the audience they want to have things that are recognizable, so they keep on doing these whole chestnuts over and over again. I honestly feel like you don’t need to do The Mikado again and if you’re so desperate to see it, there are recordings.

The Mikado, featuring Anthony Warlow and Adele Johnston (L), produced by the Sydney Opera House (NBC News 2015)

I’m all for making room for new shows, so I’m all for not doing those shows again and leaving them behind. I think people put a lot of effort into “Oh, we’re doing Miss Saigon, but we’re going to change some things so it’s not as offensive” but with all that work you could be giving space for other new voices to have new stories rather than being like “Oh, we have to fix this old thing so it’s not as gross.” I believe that if theaters, movies, and general media could be braver about putting efforts behind new stories that would be the best scenario.

Linda: When there are Asian American characters within plays and productions, the actors are often encouraged to sort of  play into the Asian stereotype, whether it be by feigning an accent, having way too much obsession with stereotypical Asian food, or acting submissive, instead of simply being characters that happen to also be of Asian descent. How do you think we should approach this issue without completely whitewashing characters?

Maggie: It’s interesting because when you write casting descriptions as a playwright you’re very encouraged to be like “Any gender” or “Any race” for any character but then I’m always like “Is that serving anybody?” Shouldn’t the character be specific? But then is it narrow-minded to think that a character can only be one thing? I don’t know, this is a weird line that I’m still figuring out. For example, if your character is a woman, can you be like “this is a female character” or do you need to be like “Oh no it’s a female character, but like gender non-specific” because you want to be open, but you also want to make sure that the character is what you envision. 

This is why I like to write fantasy and sci-fi because I get to sidestep this a little, and everybody can be anybody. But if the playwright creates a blank character, and the director imposes stereotypes, is it the playwright’s responsibility to be more specific, or is it the director’s responsibility to just not do that? So, I don’t know what the answer to that is, and it’s something I still struggle with.

Linda: The presence of Asians in the media tends to disproportionately feature East Asians. What impacts does this practice have, and what conversations need to be had to fix this? What stories do you think are being left out?

Maggie: I think we need more diversity in the backend. We need to have more directors, we need to have more producers that are not East Asian, but from the whole region, making work for their own stories and the actors who want to be represented. I feel like with the rise of Netflix and streaming that people are getting a little more exposure to different media outside of US media. Like, K-dramas are really popular on Netflix right now. So I just think that having that variety for people will hopefully change how much people are represented because now you can see shows that are made in the countries of origin, versus in the past you had to wait for Hollywood to make an Asian American specific show.

 I feel like when you say you’re going to have Asian American stories people are like “Okay, I’m ready for tears, I’m ready for suffering.” I’m really excited about having stories that are creative, that are imaginative, and that are fun, and can teach you something but not in a way that you’re expecting something, and I think that’s a really strong way to reach people. Rather than having to take notes and such, let’s all go on an adventure together. I think that this is one of the strongest ways that you can reach out to people.

Linda: What impacts do you think the portrayal of Asian Americans in popular media have had on society as a whole?

Maggie: I think that the more you get out there, the more you de-mystify the otherness. I think that the more you see people represented in the media the less you’re like “Oh! It’s that weird person who I can’t relate to.” But you can relate to them because you’re like “Oh, I’m watching this show, and I see this person, and I see their story that is like my story, or at least I see their viewpoint.”

Linda: There’s a frequent assumption that Asians aren’t necessarily creative or artsy. Instead, they’re stoic computer scientists and engineers. However, this has been commonly disproved in many other art fields, including fashion by Vera Wang or in visual arts by Yayoi Kusama. Why do you think that Asians are so much less visible in the performing arts?

Maggie: Honestly for me, and for people I know, it’s because they’re also fighting their family expectations a little bit, and their own expectations of themselves. Like all my cousins are like doctors and lawyers, and they own houses, and they’re doing great, and I’m like the weird aunt. 

I feel like that’s something we don’t talk about enough; the hurdles for creatives to get into theater since it’s always like “You’re doing theater? What is that? Do you make any money? You do a show and it’s gone? Why do you do that?” But it’s because of that feeling that you get. I think that that is a big hurdle many creatives need to get over. I’m hoping that with your generation of Asian Americans that your parents are a bit more open-minded about this and see that stories are valuable.

Linda: I think that popular media can often be considered as a projection of the current state of the public. In the context of this period of mass reckoning, what do you think the current general perception of Asian America is and how is it changing?

Maggie: I’m feeling like it’s skewing towards younger and cooler. Because before it was like “Oh you guys are all nerds” and now it’s like “Oh you’re a chef!” or “You’ve got a food truck!” or “You’re making music!” I think there’s a bit more dimension to Asian America now than there was at my age. With the internet, people can also easily reach out and show off what they’re doing, which really increases visibility. 

Linda: While diversity in both Hollywood and Broadway is increasing, this trend isn’t nearly as prominent for positions of power such as directors, screenwriters, etc. What needs to be done to break this cycle?

Sheathed, Written by Maggie Lee (NWTheatre 2019)

Maggie: Becoming an Asian American director is really hard. In fact, being an Asian American actor is already hard. I feel like the only way to do this is from the bottom up– to train people and to mentor people. I think that whatever can be done to start that cycle would be the most helpful, but to do that you’re gonna need mentors, so I think that the elders have a responsibility to do that.

Linda: What happens when young people see people who look like them in these positions of leadership? How can things change when leadership composition is changed?

Maggie: Once leadership changes, you can actually start to make some really solid, fundamental changes. And I think really everything starts from the top. In organizations especially: who’s running the ship, and how are you going to move forward in your journey as a theater company? 

People have been struggling with this lately, especially with artistic directors, like “Oh, they’re all White men, we’re going to get people in there that aren’t White men.” And then they hire a person of color, who has never done it before, but then you’re not doing them a service as you’re setting them up to fail in this situation, which is why I really feel like starting from the bottom and working your way up– it’s definitely not sexy– is a far better solution than suddenly placing persons of color into positions of power. So I really think that it’s the long game versus the short game in trying to fix this issue.

Linda: What does the future of theater, specifically Asian-American theater, look like for you?

Maggie: I’m interested to hear the voices of playwrights who are younger and who might not be telling the same stories that we’ve already heard about Asian America. I’m interested in hearing what the people who were born in this country, whose parents were also born in this country, have to say. It’s not like “Oh, I had to struggle with language, I had to struggle with culture” because you’re in the culture, you’re born into it. 

I would love to see a point where an Asian American playwright doesn’t have to be like “This is my Asian American story.” I want there to be a point where they can just write about whatever they want without anyone questioning stuff like “How is this your culture?” Let them write what they want to write, let them tell the stories within them. They’re free to explore the whole world, let them share their stories. I would love to get to that point, but that’s definitely going to be pretty far off in the future.

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