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IT'S THE BITCH OF LIVING
By Erin Quill for US Asians

Interview with Pun Bandhu

One of the Producers of the new Broadway smash, SPRING AWAKENING.
The show has been nominated for 11 TONY Awards and
He is one of the only Asian American Broadway Producers.

 

DAIRY QUEEN'S COLOR-BLIND CASTING

What was interesting was at the first audition, I only saw Asian American actors. Then at the callback - all the other couples were Caucasian. Since I didn't see any other Asian American actors - I actually thought there had been a mistake and that I wasn't supposed to be there.

I was waiting for a while wondering if I should say something, then the casting assistant mentioned that she was just waiting for my partner to arrive. So I asked who I had been paired with and she said Ryun Yu. Wow, how perfect I know him!
Click
HERE to read more about Shireen Nomura Mui's experience of working on the Dairy Queen Commercial.

US ASIANS: It is great that Dairy Queen subscribe to "blind-casting." What factors led to you and Dairy Queen's firm beliefs in this type of casting that rarely exists within network television and occasionally within American commercials?

MICHAEL KELLER: Great question. It all comes down to the fact that we are just trying to find the best possible talent we can find/afford. We're really looking for the type of actors who are capable of bringing the type of comedy and sensibility that are in our spots to life. We could care less what they look like, we're just looking for actors that look like our customers and for people who can really act and do a great job.

We were just delighted with Ryan's (Yu) performance. He was just so incredibly funny during the casting session. . . When you see an actor doing an incredibly good job delivering the lines and the sensibility of the spot, you don't want to go with anyone else.

JONATHAN RODGERS: Simple, we hire the best talent.
Click HERE to read how Ryan Yu & Shireen Nomura Mui got cast in a Dairy Queen Commercial.

Bundhu is optimistic about the future of Asian Americans in Entertainment, both on Broadway and in Hollywood.
“I think it's a very exciting time to be in the industry. There are more Asians American actors, writers, filmmakers, and producers than ever before. Movies like "Harold and Kumar" have proven that our experiences are universal and can appeal to a wide audience. TV Channels like ImaginAsian and AZN, while still struggling to find an audience, are an important first step. Who knew that when BET started it would become the powerhouse it is now?

While the majority of our roles are still relegated to the background, what is heartening is that I see more and more casting directors and directors open to seeing a wide variety of people. (Click HERE to read Erin Quill's views on casting directors) Last year I played a lawyer on "Conviction" whose name was Italian. Clearly, it wasn't written for an Asian actor. I also played a lawyer in a George Clooney film called "Michael Clayton" which will be coming out next year where I was in the audition room with mostly Caucasian actors. That's certainly something I wasn't used to. (Click HERE to read Pun's credits)

I think there is more opportunity for color blind casting (Click HERE to read David Henry Hwang's views on "color-blind" casting) in the theatre than in the super naturalism of the film world, and I was psyched to see Telly Leung chosen as the first Asian to play Boq in "Wicked" (in the Chicago sit down production). There are also great Asian roles being written for the stage, and not all by Asian writers. My role in "The Bells" by Theresa Rebeck, where I played a typical Chinese immigrant in turn of the century Alaska, was actually one of the deepest and most satisfying complete arcs I have had the pleasure of creating in my career.

I am also heartened to see institutions like The Public Theatre making a commitment to Asian artists like Julia Cho and Diana Son. I think that their upcoming production of David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" will find a large cross over audience. (Click HERE to read about David Henry Hwang's views on "color-blind" casting and his production "Yellow Face.")

I think we are where African Americans were 25 years ago. I think it's important that Asian artists band together and support each other.

My experiences working with Asian Theatre Companies in NY--Pan Asian Rep, Ma-Yi, and NAATCO--were all very empowering. There is an urgency and mission to the work when you work with fellow Asians...if we don't produce the work that reflects our experience, who will? Real change won't happen until more of us get behind the other side of the table, and that is one of the reasons I decided to become a producer.

I think we have to be more proactive than everyone else about making sure that our art is seen, and part of that is about creating our own opportunities. The biggest realization for me coming out of school was that focusing on ‘just’ my acting was not going to be enough.

We collectively need to create as many opportunities as possible for our stories to be told. I was part of the Asian American Film Lab (previously the Asian American Filmmakers Workshop) the first year we created a "Shoot Out Competition" to encourage more Asians to get behind the camera. It has since become a successful nationwide competition which last year was sponsored by MTV.

“The more representative a piece of art
can be of its community,
the more powerful it will be."

The collaborations I have fostered that are working towards creating more opportunities to see Asian American work have inspired me a great deal. For a while I was a host of PBS Asian America, where I had the opportunity to bring these artists to the foreground. I have always acted with the belief that a rising tide will raise all boats.”

In terms of the Broadway scene and Asian Americans making more of an impact,
Bandhu says: “It’s an exciting time to be involved on the Broadway scene. I think the APA voice is getting more interest, however the APA experience is lacking representation in regards to storytelling. They still see us as ‘the other.’ I think it’s great that there are people who are not APA who create stories where Asian Actors can work, but there is still an ‘other’ness about it. However writers are out there, and they are rising.

In Korea, Japan, China, not to mention here in New York at NYU’s musical theater composition division, the BMI Workshop, you are finding composers writing from their own experience and that changes things. You’ll see a ton of tourists that come to the theater from other Asian countries, but there needs to be a change. We need more Asian Americans to come out and support theater, but we also need theater that talks to Asian Americans.

 
BLIND-CASTING IN
TODAY'S HYPHENATED SOCIETY
 
US ASIANS: What will it take for the general public and Hollywood to accept "blind-casting" choices such as Jonathan Pryce playing an Asian character, James Earl Jones can playing Italian characters and B. D. Wong can playing a Jewish character?  

DAVID HENRY HWANG: In general, I feel this is starting to happen in the theatre. Denzel Washington can play Julius Caesar, James Earl Jones can star in "On Golden Pond," Brian Stokes Mitchell can star in "Taming of the Shrew" & "Man of La Mancha," and Jose Llana can play a character named "Chip Tolentino." We are still miles away from this happening in the movies, however, where verisimilitude is taken much more literally.
Click HERE for more information on David Henry Hwang's viewpoints on "color-blind" casting

I support APA theater companies because they have embraced that there is a need for Asian Americans to both train, and to see their stories. They are working on a grassroots level, and they need more people to be aware of it. In New York you have Pan Asian, Ma-Yi, NAATCO… on the West Coast there is East West Players and Lodestone Theatre Esemble, it’s out there, people just have to find it. (Click HERE to review a list of other theaters and resources.)

Admittedly, it’s a tricky business because you need to have universal appeal, for example Miss Saigon is a love story, it is universal as well as successful. I think it was Spike Lee who said that ‘The more specific you get the more universal it becomes’. I believe that, and I’m continuing to look for those projects, that’s the dream.”

Diversity is always an issue, and Bandhu is interested in having more of it in the Arts: “The more representative a piece of art can be of its community, the more powerful it will be. Whether you're talking about one particular show or an entire industry, diversity can only increase your audience base. Much of the growth and economic health of Broadway in the past few years can be attributed to the diversification of its offerings. The Color Purple brought in, at first, primarily African American crowds. Spamalot brought in straight males. These are groups that don't traditionally go to see Broadway theatre. The musical I am producing now, Spring Awakening, is bringing in not just the core theatre lovers, but also a younger crowd who previously found musicals "unhip". My point is that the more diverse something is, the wider an audience base one can find for the work.”

Lest we forget that ever important question for Artists, what inspires you, he answers: “Well, certainly my parents. Even after winning a TONY, I think they would like nothing more than to hear that I've chosen to go into a more stable industry. Still, they always taught me that anything is possible and I'm thankful for that. Growing up overseas shaped me greatly.

I was shocked when I first came to Junior High in Queens and saw all the Asians at one table, all the African Americans at another...going to an International School in Jakarta where everyone came from somewhere else and let me see what could be possible in the world, where being different was a good thing and your race didn't enter into the equation. And I guess I've never stopped trying to recreate that ever since.”

With all the excitement that is building over SPRING AWAKENING, what is next for this dynamic and ambitious Broadway producer?
He’s been doing some acting, and will appear opposite George Clooney in Michael Clayton, a movie set to release sometime next year. “I do have a few nice scenes, yes, one opposite George Clooney, I hope I don’t wind up on the cutting room floor.” he grins, “Hey, it happens – that’s show business.”

"where being different was a good thing and
your race didn't enter into the equation.
And I guess I've never stopped trying to recreate that ever since.”

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