Kathy and David Hsieh want you to know that, in contrast to what many Seattle theater people believe, they are not married; they’re siblings. But you can’t blame anyone for being confused. The two have such markedly different personalities, it’s hard to believe they’re related by blood.
David, the artistic director of the Repertory Actors Theatre (or ReAct) is a quiet and calm presence who weighs each word carefully before he speaks. Kathy, the artistic director of SIS productions (best known for its ongoing Sex in Seattle serial), is sunny and outgoing and continually flashes a wide smile.
Neither Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) has any idea where the artist gene came from, except maybe a maternal great-aunt whose career in the Chinese Opera was cut short by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. “All of our aunts and uncles and cousins are doctors or physicists or scientists or engineers,” says Kathy. “Our parents never took us to see theater.” Today, both siblings have art-friendly day jobs (Kathy with the city’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, David with Elliott Bay Book Co.) and run their own fringe companies in the evenings.
Both are happy to be busier than ever. ReAct just recently closed the Seattle premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s dark comedy Wonder of the World to strong notices. And The Exonerated—Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s docudrama about inmates freed by DNA evidence—is running through this weekend. Also this weekend, Kathy will appear in Book-It’s new production of Snow Falling on Cedars, and next month she starts the 15th installment of Sex, which she says may be the longest-running episodic theater show in the country.
Kathy and David both got their start with the now-defunct Northwest Asian American Theater in the ’80s and ’90s, when “multiculturalism” was the hottest item on the national theater buffet. But while “multiculturalism” is no longer the buzzword it once was, to the Hsiehs it’s still a relevant cause.
True, there’s generally more diversity on Seattle’s mainstages than there used to be. Yet, Kathy argues, the productions “look diverse on the surface, but still feel very monochromatic underneath. The theater may have cast a diversity of actors—which I do truly applaud—but rather than allowing each actor to infuse their roles and relationships onstage with the specificity of unique cultures, the productions tend to be whitewashed and general.”
And it’s not just an issue in theater, of course: “It’s 2007, and there still isn’t a regular television show that highlights what contemporary life is like for Asian Americans,” she observes.
Explaining her evolution into playwriting, Kathy says, “Growing up, I never saw faces like mine onstage. So I decided to become an actor. But I soon discovered that actors of color can only be given roles if directors and producers are willing to hire them, so I moved into theater administration and producing in order to create those opportunities. Then, as a producer, I realized that it’s the lack of quality scripts that are relevant to diverse communities that prevents a broader spectrum of people from attending theater and embarking on artistic careers.” Her recent play, B4, has garnered some national interest and won her a slot as one of 50 “writers to watch” in a recent cover story of The Dramatist magazine published by the Dramatists Guild.
Neither of the Hsiehs feels at home with all aspects of multiculturalism, particularly the idea that they should be involved exclusively in art about the Asian-American experience. Kathy says B4 is “more about America and less about issues specific to Asian Americans.” Both brother and sister, born and raised in the U.S., have a strong calling to the mainstream. ReAct tends to feature one play a year about Asian-American themes, and many of its seasons have included such conventional fare as A Chorus Line and Into the Woods. Sex in Seattle is, of course, unapologetically inspired by Sex and the City, and mimics its TV counterpart by focusing on racy stories of four single women and their adventures in dating. Neither sibling seems drawn to experimental theater or the sort of nonlinear storytelling that’s the traditional focus of more critically celebrated fringe groups.
David says ReAct’s objective is “to do mainstream work infused with what I call color-sighted casting,” giving actors of color a shot at roles they’re not traditionally considered for. It’s not just for the sake of affirmative action, he says, but to shed new light on established works or reinforce important themes. David points to his decision to cast an Asian-American actress as Cinderella, while the father, stepmother, and stepsisters were white, isolating her racially as well as morally.
Sex in Seattle, of course, is about the eternal permutations of the mating game, but “for once, Asian Americans are the leads and not the sidekicks or supporting players,” Kathy says. This allows for some uncensored dialogue with their own community. In one of the most popular episodes, the parents of one character present a list as to which races she can, and cannot, marry. “[The audience] loved it because many of them had heard or knew their parents felt the same way,” says Kathy, “but had never seen it depicted.”