Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you first became involved in the performing arts and what drew you to musical theater?
I got into performing arts when I was five or so. My mom was working during the summer full time, and it was the first summer that they needed care for me. she said, you can either go to a soccer practice or you can go to an arts camp. And I actually didn't care either way I sort of at random chose arts camp. I spent six weeks learning how to set design, create costumes and everything, and also perform. I did that for a couple years, and then I joined a regional theater called the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista, California. I grew up in San Diego. And then I did a couple shows per season every season until I was a junior in high school. When I was younger like probably 7 to 12 I did Disney commercials and was going to go that TV and film route, but decided that my dream school was Stanford and in order to get in, I would have to partially give up this new career to focus on academics.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to be the dance captain for Hamilton and what that process looked like for you?
I moved to New York City in July of 2014, and New York had kind of been calling me for auditions, or benefits or free projects or collaborations. I lived in LA prior to that and so I decided if New York calls one more time and it's for something paid I'm going to move. And I did. It was a regional gig but it was rehearsing in New York and I was like, “Okay I'm gonna move.” In April of 2015 I won the lottery on Easter morning to go see all of my friends in Hamilton at The Public. Afterwards the Associate Choreographer Stephanie Klemons (we did the In the Heights tour together) came up to me and said, “ We really need you in the show. We would love to have you.” And I was like (in my head), “Okay cool... well everyone says come audition, see you soon, hope to work with you” and then nothing comes of it. Two weeks later I got the audition and I had just spent two days visiting my brother for the birth of my fourth niece. I flew home and did that audition-it was actually more complicated than that. I was up for a couple contracts that summer and Andy Blankenbuehler called me (the choreographer) and said, “You can't go do those summer gigs.” And I was like, “Okay. What do you mean?” and he said, “What if we offer you this vacation swing position? Which means anytime someone gets injured for a long period of time or takes a vacation, you will come in and you'll be hired. So you'll be there with the rehearsal process for like three or four weeks and then we don't know when we can hire you again. It may be as late as January.” And I was like, “You know...okay...sure!” Except I didn’t really know if that's exactly what I wanted because the position isn’t on retainer and I wouldn't be making my Broadway debut as an original cast member.So, I go to this audition for the swing track. I aim to show them that they have to hire me for this, not for the semi-permanent job. I was lucky enough that they agreed. So I got the swing position instead of the vacation swing which means I was a permanent employee and I was part of the original cast.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your experience as being in the original cast as well as dance captain? What did a day look like for you? Or something that maybe an outsider from the process wouldn't necessarily know just looking at the show?
For those that don't know what a Dance Captain does, you're basically the choreographer when the choreographer is no longer there or has moved on to another project. In terms of Hamilton those are some big shoes to fill. Just because there's so much material. There's 50 songs. The dancers are all necessary actors in the show. So everything matters. I became the dance captain in February of 2016. Which I was not prepared for because we agreed I could take over after the Tonys (that Tony season). But the associate choreographer left. And so I kind of had to take the reins.
So I'll just give you an inside eye of what my first few weeks are, a little bit of fighting for what I’m worth in terms of compensation because now the associate choreographer has left. I don't know the show as well as she does but I'm supposed to replace all of these cast members as they're starting to leave or get injured or have vacations. And so Irehearse the new swings and new cast members. Sometimes watch the show and note it. Voltaire Wade Greene is my co-dance captain. We discuss compensation and what we were going to negotiate and how we can use our power if we have any. And then I studied all morning what I needed to teach. I studied the video, I studied little clips on my phone. I studied my notes, and then went to rehearsal from twelve to five and then either did the show at night, performed the show, because someone was out, or I would spend it in rehearsal while the show happened.They were really long days; 10 hour days, 6 days a week. And I was kind of discovering what my worth was. And my position in the infrastructure.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the performing arts can be a platform for social justice issues? Specifically The Eliza project?
I always had this idea, particularly in high school, that when I made it, I would be able to give back. I would either have the funding to give back, the time to give back, the team, whatever. Then I got to Hamilton and I was like, “You know, I'm the busiest I've ever been. This is the hardest job I've ever had. But if I don't find time now to give back to those that are not as fortunate as I am, then I'm not putting my money where my mouth is. It’s not a “when” it’s a “Just do it”, because there is no “when” there is no “arrival”.” If I'm not able to take some of the things that I believe in, outside of the performing arts, and incorporate it, I'm sort of a failure to myself. I guess I'm not really standing up for what I believe in.
I got to Hamilton and about a year in or six months in Phillipa Soo was meeting with Grand Windham which is the orphanage that Eliza Hamilton started. She said to me, “You know there's a program in here. There's something to be done here.” and I said, “You know, I'd love to be in that meeting.” And so we started to develop the Eliza Project together, to kind of highlight Eliza Hamilton's legacy and what she was able to do in terms of her philanthropy. We developed these arts workshops between Hamilton cast members and the students at Grand Windham. We successfully did four projects and one of them was an eco workshop, learning about how to build a fire and survive in the woods and treat our environment better. One of them was a baking class. One of them was to develop a song that we released. I think the kids saw a lot of change in themselves; they learned a lot.
We also just recently did a series of three fundraisers called Ham for Change, with the original cast to combat systemic racism. We gave to nine organizations that are maybe smaller or not as prominent in the headlines. We wanted to bring light to the work that they do. So we, as a cast, chose those nine organizations and organized ourselves with a streaming platform. We all feel it is really important that as viewers look to Hamilton for guidance and leadership in social justice, we step up to that plate and do something.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your co-creation and direction of the Sharing Our Stories Documentary, and as well as how you use your knowledge of dance and applied that to direction and film?
I am fortunate enough to work with Andy Blankenbuehler a lot and Tommy Kail and they really see theater performing arts, films even, in kind of a different way. They believe that though there is a place for them individually, they kind of all relate. Andy is always talking about how his choreography is illuminating-for the audience-what they would see in a film. In his mind he wants to go around the corner with a camera or he wants to zoom in or whatever. And he's doing that now with lighting, with movements with formation. I've always loved film, I've always said I want to be the female Steven Spielberg and those are some also very big shoes to fill. But in watching Andy, I’mable to reignite my passion for film. I think, and again like putting the money where your mouth is, I'm always like, “Oh I love to direct I love to direct.”
When I got to Bandstand, which was another Broadway show that I was lucky enough to do, the Smithsonian called Hamilton and said, “ We'd like to do an exhibit on philanthropy and the arts and we'd like to include Hamilton and the Eliza project was lucky enough to be included in that. So they asked for an item from the Eliza Project. And I was like, “What do you want for a museum?” And then I kind of talked with some friends and family and they suggested, “Why don't you do a film?” and I was like, “I can't do that! How would I? I don't even know how to do that!” And Graham Wyndham said, “We believe in you, we will help you fund it. Do it.” And then all of a sudden I had a deadline! And I was also using my skills as a dance captain to organize people to create Dropboxes and links and get the right producers on and the right editors and create a team of people that could produce something that I envisioned. So I was using that skill and then I was also using my skill as a storyteller, as an actor, as someone who connects to emotion in a Broadway show or in a movie theater. I knew that the story of my doc couldn't be about how we created Dropbox links for the Eliza project right? It had to be about the reconnection of a student with their parents or the students, you know, finding their passion for a new art form and maybe changing their course, their path. So we were able to do that. I mean I have so much footage I think that I could do a feature. But getting it down to 10 minutes was the new skill I learned because that was the real challenge.
Q: What have been some challenges in either your pre-professional or professional artistic career?
I've been fortunate enough to have so many successes. So many moments of like, “Wow, that paid off!” But I think they don't come without the struggles. I think one is understanding the power of the actor. I think we're really taught desperation. When we're in school, when we're trained, even by some of our agents or reps, we're lucky if we get an audition. And though I think that you have to come from a place of gratitude always and humility,I think that you are only successful when you come into your own and you know your worth, what you're bringing into the room. And that's a real challenge as a female, as a female of color, working with people of color it's difficult, because it's just not taught. Coming to understand that, is really a challenge. The work-life balance for me is always a challenge. I think that's probably pretty common. Because we're taught that you always have to be ready, it feels like you can never let your guard down. Even when you're on a vacation.
Especially in this pandemic time you come to realize how much you miss, right? If you're with your family or your friends now, you can celebrate the birthdays you missed, you miss even just the Sunday morning time. People are growing older or growing sick or growing up, and you feel like you missed that. So I think that work-life balance is really a challenge. Letting go, fear of failure, has really been a roadblock for me. I said I wanted to go to Stanford. I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to do all these things. And though I left school because I wanted to be an artist and I didn't feel fulfilled,here was always a part of me saying, “I have to live up to what I dropped out of, have accolades and something to show for it.” But that is too much pressure.
Q: When you were in Hamilton did you think about your family’s immigration story? How did being a person of color in this show that was so groundbreaking feel or manifest for you?
I'm half Japanese and half Caucasian. My dad is full Japanese and my mom is Caucasian. It's actually kind of interesting because my grandparents on my Japanese side, all of my great aunts and uncles, both my grandparents, were interned during World War II. Their citizenship was taken away, their rights were taken away. They weren't allowed to vote while they were in camp. They have the outlook that it was for their safety. And it's so interesting because, as someone that is sort of progressive and likes to be an activist and really fight for the things that are right, it's really hard for me to hear that. But I also understand where it comes from. That sits deep inside me. I carry that with me everywhere. Just as a respect for what they went through and to carry on their legacy, to never forget it and really take advantage of the freedoms that I have.
There was a show called Allegiance, which I could not get an audition for because I didn't look “Asian enough.” Which I totally understand because they were trying to represent. However, it's actually my story, like it's literally my family's story. So to not get to represent that in the form of storytelling that I love, felt like a disservice to the art or felt unfair to me. So then, later, to be retelling our American history through the eyes of people of color, as a woman of color. It almost felt satisfying in a way. it's subliminal. The audience members who come to see Hamilton, sometimes don't realize that they are watching immigrants, people of color, people whose grandparents rights were taken away, retell American history. That's why it's so brilliant because it's a story that's familiar to them, they're excited about it, it's their ancestors they think, but we're putting in this foundation ensuring this is everyone's story, and everyone has to be included in that. So I think it felt prideful and satisfying, and important.
Q: Can you just talk broadly how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected you as a performing artist as a director as an activist?
It’s affected me differently as an artist and as an activist. All equally, but differently. I think personally, it has highlighted some of the inefficiencies in my personality and the way that I conduct myself. I've really been working on a meditation practice and a practice of letting go. I was working before the pandemic started, on letting go of my ego, Eckhart Tolle, Hugh Prather.. Then everything stopped and social media functioned as a constant reminder of what you’re missing and how others are using the time. It’s a recipe for comparison and judgement. I had to actively practice letting go of expectation.
Obviously financially it has taken away a lot of things for me. I’m ok, but we’re obviously not working. it's interesting, a lot of people ask “How are you using this time to further your art?” And I'm like, you know, I'm using this time as a person. I would love to just be a person and not be expected to be an artist, though they're intertwined. With the second pandemic of the Black Lives Matter movement, I feel that maybe I have to use my administrative skills to do something, faster and better than I can as an artist. I don't know that going back to dancing on Broadway is going to satisfy what the world is requiring of me right now.
Q: What advice do you have for the class of 2020 and pre-professional performing artists that are moving into this industry that is at a halt? How can we be artists and entrepreneurs?
Reflect on the strengths that will take you through many industries. . There are skills that you will have, particularly coming out of college, that I did not have. You have a portfolio, you have a songbook, you have, you know, your dancing footage, you have material that you can release into the world. So you're ready on that front. The question in this time is: have you done work on yourself? I can imagine college graduation feels like being shot out of a cannon, like they are ready to release you into the world. I also feel like after spending years in the same program, who are you? Regardless of the dancer, the actor, the double major in so and so and so and so,who are you and what do you do when no one's telling you?
You are given the gift of time. So when you move to New York, you hopefully won't feel like you’re abandoning your family and friends, because you’ve spent ample, quality, time with them. . You're going to really know yourselves. I think that that's how to use this time. I would just say really get to know yourself and use the time to know who you are without the title of artist. Sometimes that’s what the industry buys into. They’re investing in your “work” of course, but mostly, they will invest if they like YOU.
Q: What would you like to see change and shift in the industry in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion?
There's so many different things that need to be answered. I'm starting to see some of the shifts, but I would really love to see the infrastructure of the performing arts change.he people who have the stories should be the ones telling them, producing them, marketing them. I hope that everyone is using this time to learn about themselves and their own biases for when we do return. What I really hope is that everyone knows we can't return to the same. That is my ultimate fear. I'm doing everything in my power to not make it that way. We can't just go back to kicking our faces and singing for a (mostly) elderly wealthy white population and expect that it's going to change. We have to investigate who the art is for, we have to change the make-up of our creative teams and just be more aware. I would like to see “boxes” go away in terms of, “Okay now we have two people on the creative team that are women, and two people who are BIPOC,” but it’s going to take a lot of incremental, consistent work.