Using puppets to break down barriers between people and languages

Arts / Article

Courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.

Mu Performing Arts has become a national leader in developing and supporting the work of Asian-American playwrights, actors and musicians. Mu has also become a hub of education, community outreach, and a strong voice advocating for social justice. As Mu gets ready to start work on its Knight Arts Challenge-winning project, “Speaking Out: Our Immigration Journey Through Puppetry, Artistic Director Randy Reyes took some time away from directing Mu’s production of “Twelfth Night” to share thoughts on making shows, representing a community and building partnerships.

Where are you with the project timeline for “Speaking Out: Our Immigration Journey Through Puppetry”?

Right now, we’re making contacts with community partners and working on finding matching funds. The funding will really determine how soon we can start the project. We hope that by the end of the summer we can start the first series of workshops from which the play will be made.

Are you always building on the projects that you’ve already done?

Building that relationship and that trust with these community organizations–we call them community partners–takes a long time to nurture if you really want to have a deep and sustained relationship. I don’t think we would have been able to do this five years ago. We didn’t have those kinds of relationships.

How does Mu approach working with its community partners?

For a lot of groups like CHAT or other Hmong groups or Karen groups, a lot of times larger theater or performing arts organizations have a tendency to connect with them when they’re doing Asian awareness week or they’re doing a play that has to do with that ethnic group. And then, after that play is over, they’re gone. These community groups become very weary of that kind of relationship.

We are an Asian-American organization, that’s a large umbrella. We’re trying to say that there are things that unite us all as Asian-Americans, especially in how we are perceived by the outside. A lot of times, other people can’t tell the difference between a Hmong and a Filipino and a Vietnamese and a Chinese. So, we have a shared experience in terms of how we are invisible in general. So, the idea of an emotional infrastructure is more important than any other kind of deep foundation for a relationship.

There are a lot of chances to find the negative in what divides us. I want to find a way to talk about it in a more positive way and try to celebrate what makes us different and celebrate the things that do unite us. To vocalize that, to say it out loud, I think is really important.

Is part of the work when creating relationships with community partners about letting them ask themselves questions?

I think a very great and important part of what I’ve learned in doing this community work is to listen more. We need to make sure there’s a space for us to listen. I think a lot of organizations come in with their agenda or what they want to do for the group or the community partner, and I’m learning to listen more. We have to not assume what they need, but actually hear about what they need and who they are and what they’re excited about and what their challenges are, before assuming that this partnership is good for them.

I don’t want to tell you why you should love theater. I want you to tell me why you should love theater. Part of getting someone to understand why theater might matter to them is to have them do it themselves. I think that’s what the workshops are about.

Are you intentionally making connections between other organizations in the hopes that they can continue in partnerships even when you’re not involved?

That’s the idea. Right now, a place where they can all come together is at out shows. A part of our program has always been subsidized tickets for these community groups. For “Twelfth Night,” we’re doing a project where there are five community partners that are creating an original video piece based on the themes of “Twelfth Night” and how it relates to them. And then we’re going to have a screening of the video where all the five organizations are invited to come and view what they created together.

The Mu Links program is not only trying to link these organizations to theater, but we’re trying to link them to each other.

Why is Mu using puppetry for this project?

One of the exciting parts of working with puppets is that we get to work with Masa Kawahara. I love his work. But also, because language can be a barrier, puppetry helps take away that barrier. It’s an experiment for me, too. I get to find out what kinds of stories we’ll be able to tell or share because we’re using a puppet. I’m hoping that will open us up to another whole group of stories and emotions where maybe spoken language is limiting us at this point.

Are there times when you get fatigued with having to always do work that goes beyond just making a show?

In the past month, I think I’ve been on Minnesota Public Radio at least three times. Each of those times, I’ve been talking about social justice work, community building, audience building and sometimes I just wish I could be asked about my art and my process. This is all part of being in a theater of color and running a theater of color–you can’t separate the art and social justice. Simply being a person of color and creating art is a form of social justice, but sometimes you wish you had the privilege of just doing art.

Before I worked with Mu, I blindly went through the world just doing plays. This kind of work really helped me develop myself as a complete artist and person. I’ve realized not only the fact that because we’re a theater of color, the art that we do is always going to be connected to social justice, but I also feel like as a person of color, everything I do has that implication as well. Whether I want it to or not, it does, if I’m doing it here in the United States.

For more information about Mu’s programs, visit