Posts Tagged ‘Asian Arts Initiative’

East Meets West, Old Meets New: The Dreamlike Beauty of Hua Hua Zhang’s Experimental Puppetry

Posted August 16th, 2017

Hua Hua Zhang with a puppet from White Nights

You enter a room and are surrounded by translucent white. There are strange, undulating formations, and a strange, ghostly light filters down from a hidden source. You feel as if you are on the surface of the moon. Welcome to White Nights, the newest production by Hua Hua Zhang of Visual Expressions. Hua Hua has been working in puppetry for more than thirty-five years, creating productions that are unique in their style and dazzling in their beauty. She aims to combine Eastern and Western art in her work, as well as old traditions with contemporary styles. Her work breaks the boundaries that have defined puppetry for generations, combining it with poetry, visual art, dance, theater, and music. White Nights is an experimental work, a series of dreamlike scenes that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways by the audience, all aiming for a path toward peace of mind. A half-an-hour preview of the show is being shown during the 2017 FringeArts Festival. The final show happens in November.

Images in White Nights make use of individual characters, some of them curious, others in love, others lonely. Produced in the large gallery space of the Asian Arts Initiative, the setting is a giant desert, based on the Chinese poem Night. The audience sits on the ground, around a small “pool of water,” surrounded by pods that serve as Chinese lanterns and shadowy silhouettes from Chinese ink paintings, as well as symbols of a moon and a sun. The puppeteers perform around the audience, who may interact with their movements. Musicians Bhob Rainy and Gamin Kang are also present, playing live music and interacting with the narratives. Four puppet performers, who have been trained in the style developed by Hua Hua, use the stylized movements of traditional Chinese performance, but use the puppets in an entirely different way, showing their entire bodies and moving with their objects. Interactions between the performers and the audience, and between the puppet performers and their puppets, cause constant questioning of their roles: the performer wonders, “Am I manipulating this puppet, or is the puppet manipulating me?” while the audience asks, “Am I watching the show, or am I a part of it?”

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Jumping Out Of Airplanes: Trey Lyford on theater, life, and upcoming Doll’s House

Posted July 14th, 2015

Photo shoot for A Doll’s House. Photo: Josh McIlvain.

“The movement was precise and beautiful,” Trey Lyford says as he recalls the first time he saw Jo Strømgren’s choreography. Lyford is an actor based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the co-artistic director of rainpan 43 performance group and has performed throughout Philadelphia and New York. This fall, Lyford takes a break from his typical role as a contemporary clown and returns to Fringe Festival in Jo Strømgren’s recreation of Henrik Ibsen’s famous play, A Doll’s House. I recently gave Lyford a ring and we talked about everything from Philadelphia’s theater scene to jumping out of airplanes.

Lyford’s history with Strømgren stretches back to 2005. It all began when Lyford saw Strømgren’s The Department and The Hospital in Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Struck by the playfulness and precision of the choreography, Lyford returned to the US with Strømgren’s ideas still in his head. After keeping in touch with the choreographer, Lyford and Strømgren formed a creative partnership. “We got stuck in a four hour traffic jam,” Lyford shares. Those four hours spent trapped in the car marked the beginning of their collaboration. Later on, Lyford was asked to be a part of Strømgren’s production of A Doll’s House.

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Trey’s photo of Jo and his set.

“It’s been a while since I’ve done something this classic,” Lyford says about his part in A Doll’s House. Lyford plays Krogstad, a worker at Torvald Helmer’s bank and the tortured villain of the play. While Strømgren preserves and respects the original play, he also hacks away at the script, eliminating pages of archaic language to reveal a show that is less about a windy narrative and more about a few prominent emotional threads. Beyond the script, Strømgren also tells the story of Krogstad from a different angle. Lyford shares his initial reaction to playing the role and says, “It’s fun to play a villain.” As rehearsals began, however, Lyford gained Stromgren’s more complex view of the villain. “He is the noble heart of the play,” Lyford explains. “Everyone keeps knocking him down.”

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Asaki Kuruma on Writing, Immigration, and the Racial Dynamics of Philadelphia Theater

Posted June 18th, 2014

“It’s really hard to do acting and make a living unless you’re really good—and a Caucasian man.”


“Uh, are you okay? You look like you’re giving birth,” Asaki Kuruma’s roommate asked while watching her write. Asaki, who has acted in Philadelphia for about ten years, premieres her first play, Bi(?!)lingual, as part of the SoLow Fest, June 26–28. Asaki developed the play with help from Simpatico Theatre Project’s SoLow Incubator, an artist residency program to develop shows for the SoLow Fest. Asaki describes the writing process as “fun . . . and torturous,” adding, “the idea is there, but it’s so fuzzy—I cannot put it into words.”

Months of writing and rewriting later—she refers to cutting beloved but unnecessary passages as “killing the babies”—Asaki finally feels confident in her script. Bi(?!)lingual is based upon her move from Japan to the United States ten years ago, and all the misunderstandings and laughter that accompany being bilingual in a foreign country. We sat down with Asaki to learn about her show, her life, and her view of theater in Philadelphia.

Asaki grew up in Yokohama, Japan, a hilly port city near Tokyo. She attended a middle and high school founded by American missionaries, which had a very good English program. “But it didn’t matter,” Asaki insists, “I was still terrible at it!” Asaki first experienced theater in this high school. A classmate wrote a play inspired by a tragedy from their school’s history—during World War II, an air raid destroyed the school and killed several students and teachers. Asaki’s classmate enlisted her as an actor, and Asaki immediately fell in love. She remembers knowing, from this one play, “I wanna do this as a career.” Though she quickly laughs and adds, “which is not really a career, unless you become really famous.”

After high school, Asaki attended Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) in Tokyo to study English. Her decision to attend TUJ, rather than an English language prep school, was directly influenced by 9/11. Following the attacks, Asaki remembers multiple rumors spreading rapidly. One theory was that the attacker was North Korean. If this turned out to be true, Asaki—who is ethnically Korean—was unsure how American attitudes towards Koreans would change. In case she could not move to the U.S., Asaki decided to go to TUJ, where she could earn a degree without transferring to another college.

But after a year, Asaki did transfer, moving to Temple’s Philadelphia campus at age twenty. At this point her English was, by her own estimate, “fairly fine.” Yet she quickly found that “speaking with native speakers is completely different.” Asaki laughs, exclaiming, “People in Philly speak so fast! East Coasters in general, but Philly especially has this weird accent.” Asaki describes being baffled by Philadelphians’ pronunciation of words like “water” and “now.” Even today, she sometimes struggles with the accent when she is very tired.

Asaki Kuruma in Polaroid Stories at Allens Lane Theater. Photo by Tracy Long.

Despite the linguistic confusion, Asaki loved Temple, where she majored in theater with an acting concentration. After graduating, she took up a smattering of odd jobs. Currently, Asaki supplements her acting by working as a house manager at a theater company in Philly, and by helping out at a friend’s cosplay company, which specializes in Game of Thrones costumes. Asaki laughs with slight embarrassed while describing sewing costumes, crafting jewelry, and modeling for photos, but admits that it is very fun.

With the support of these jobs, Asaki can afford to keep acting. “It’s really hard to do acting and make a living unless you’re really good—and a Caucasian man, and can do acting and singing,” Asaki remarks matter-of-factly. In response to whether being Asian affects her acting career, Asaki lets out a half-laugh, half-sigh: “A lot. . . . There’s a weird tension between races, especially in Philadelphia, which is really unfortunate because it’s such a diverse city.” But this diversity is segmented and stratified. Asaki maps out different neighborhoods on our coffee table—here is the Latino neighborhood, there is the Cambodian neighborhood, this is where the rich people live. These racial boundaries are reflected in Philadelphia theater, which Asaki describes as “very white, plus a little bit of black. No Asian or Latino, at least not as much as there should be.” So often, she has heard at casting calls, “Oh, she cannot be Asian, sorry.” Asaki mentions that many Asian-American actors become so frustrated with the dearth of roles in Philly that they move—usually to New York or California—or leave acting all together for backstage positions.

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Get Caught Up with “Pay Up”

Posted August 27th, 2013


Do you have your mind on your money and your money on your mind? Or perhaps money ain’t a thang? Regardless, visit Pig Iron’s handy tumblr on their 2013 FringeArts remount of Pay Up, where you can find discourse about dollars, a photo of Justin Bieber‘s monkey in quarantine, among other things.

Pig Iron’s Pay Up runs nearly every day September 4 through 22 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street, Chinatown. $25, times vary.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Orpheus and Eurydice, The Musical

Posted September 19th, 2012

Take one part musical theater, one part Greek myth, one run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, remount it for Philly, and you’ve got the 2012 Philly Fringe show Orpheus & Eurydice, opening tonight at Asian Arts Initiative.

“We were just talking about being excited to do a show for an American audience,” says Andrew Hanley, who, with Melissa Nally, are the Green Elephant Theatre behind the show. “With musical theater being such an American art form, there are basic assumptions that aren’t the same over there. People would talk to me afterwards, and would ask where I was during the show—everyone thought it was weird that we wanted the music to come from offstage.”

After the jump: one of Andrew’s songs, falling in love with Philly and musical theater, and the insanity of Edinburgh Fringe.

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Philly Fringe Vital Stats: Kelly Adorno

Posted August 10th, 2012

Philadelphia-based dance company Somatic Movers will present Counter Rotation at this year’s Philly Fringe. The term ‘somatic’ means “of the body,” and so, a somatic mover is one who takes movement direction from bones and skin, rather than books or . . . disembodied persons (a ghost, oh my!). One can only assume that Counter Rotation will revolve around (ha!) elbows, knees, hips–all ingredients for a geriatric nightmare! Luckily, Somatic Movers is young; the group is comprised of recent graduates from several Philly schools including Temple, Drexel, and DeSales. Artistic director and choreographer Kelly Adorno answered our questions, after the jump.

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