Michael Yichao. Courtesy photo

For the third year running, As If Theatre Company is presenting its annual Kenmore Quickies, and this year the focus is on art. For three days in August, eight playwrights, eight directors, and thirteen actors will present short plays inspired by a piece of local artwork randomly assigned to each playwright.  

One of this year’s Quickies playwrights is Michael Yichao, who was introduced to the festival in 2022, when a theater maker friend, Mark Velednitsky, directed one of the plays in it. “I got to see and enjoyed the production and festival,” Yichao said. “When As If Theatre opened submissions for playwrights this year, Mark put it on my radar, and I was excited to apply, and thrilled to be invited to participate.” 

As If Theatre assigned Yichao a painting titled “Oni” by Sebastian Vivas. “I always enjoy festivals like this, because they embrace the truism ‘limitations breed creativity,’” Yichao said. “For this play, I started by letting the painting percolate in my imagination.” 

At the same time, Yichao met his cast and director and received the list of the props available for the show. “With all of these fixed ingredients, writing the play becomes almost an Iron Chef-like exercise of how to use all the disparate parts to create a cohesive and delicious play,” he said. “The ideas, themes, moods, and emotions that well up then get filtered through my cast as I begin to imagine stories and characters they could embody, flavored by those initial impressions and inspirations.”  

To start, Yichao jotted down just a few phrases. The most promising became completed scenes. “Along the way, there’s always inevitably discoveries or changes from the original idea, inspired or influenced by a stray thought, or seeing the piece in a new light.” 

The director of Yichao’s piece is Yvonne Williams. Yichao met her on the day the two were assigned a cast. They talked with the actors about their strengths and interests. “In general, I like to be fairly hands-off and give lots of space for the director and actors to play and explore,” Yichao said.  

Yichao likes to be surprised during the actual performance of the play. “In full-length play development processes, I like to sit in on the first read through and attend the first rehearsal, then attend the last one or two before opening,” he explained, “but for a festival, I try to stay out of the way as much as possible.” 

Outside the festival, Yichao is involved in a variety of creative endeavors, from acting and comedy, to playwriting and screenwriting, to game development and teaching. “I’ve been very fortunate through school and into my career to have had the opportunity to tell stories in a variety of creative mediums,” he recalled. “I’ve written scripts for live shows at Disneyland Shanghai, created characters that have been played by millions of players in games like League of Legends, designed cards for one of my favorite childhood games in Magic: The Gathering, and have taught and performed theater and comedy all over the world.” 

All of this creative exploration began at a young age. “In 4th grade, a girl in my class announced she was auditioning for a play and asked if anyone wanted to go with her,” Yichao remembered. “I was the shyest little kid, but I raised my hand to go. Oh, the power of a crush!”  

He was talented enough to be cast as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. “The experience was so fun and deeply formative,” he said. “It helped me make new friends and break out of my shell, and get a taste of the magic of telling a story in collaboration with so many other people.”  

Remaining flexible and open to opportunities, Yichao says, has allowed him to grow into new areas. “Each new medium and form deeply informs my work in others,” he elaborated. “I’m a better actor because of the plays I write, and I’m a better game designer because of the screenplays I create.” 

But it’s not always easy to balance creative pursuits with a day job. “My work in video games is my primary income, but I try to carve out time to participate in things like the Kenmore Quickies to satisfy my theater heart,” he said. “I’ve found interweaving creative work in different mediums can help me recharge and rediscover inspiration for the other things I do.” 

Yichao is grateful to now have a reliable income. “For a long time, I worked as a freelance artist with theater and teaching work being the bulk of my income, and while it often was incredibly personally rewarding, the constant stress of living gig to gig took its toll and also limited the kinds of work I could take on, or the kinds of plays I would write,” he said. “Finding my way to a creative job in an adjacent industry helped me to achieve greater stability, which enabled me to pursue the creative projects I was passionate about, rather than the ones I thought would be a commercial success.” 

And he’s not slowing down anytime soon. “I’m very excited to play the Cat in the Hat in Kitsap Forest Theater’s production of Seussical!” he said. “The show is part of their centennial season, and runs July 29 to August 20.” 

That’s not all. “I am also participating in 14/48 as a playwright!” Yichao said. “Seven playwrights write a brand new 10-minute play overnight, then cast and crew put the plays up in a fully produced show the next day, and then everyone does it all again. The end result is 14 plays written, cast, directed, rehearsed, scored, designed, and premiered in 48 hours.” 

For now, with his piece in The Kenmore Quickies, Yichao’s greatest goal for this project is that his team and the audience enjoy themselves. “I love that theater is a collaborative art form and that anything I write is deeply enhanced by all the folks that touch and shape the final experience,” he said. “I hope too that the audience is invited on the emotional journey, find moments where they see themselves, and discover others that invite them into foreign and new territory.”

The 2023 Kenmore Quickies – A Play on Art runs from August 11 to 13 at the Kenmore Community Club, 7304 Northeast 175th Street, Kenmore. 

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