Yun Theatre is a Seattle theatre company focusing on the intersection of Chinese and American identities and pursuing social justice for marginalized communities. This month, this company of artists will be present In Between: A Collection of Short Plays. The work highlights the importance of connection in the face of a multiplicity of cultures and experiences.
The concept for this new show arose from the personal experiences of Yun Theatre’s Artistic Director Christie Zhao, who felt stuck in between different cultural identities and language systems. “As a Chinese immigrant living in the US, I often found myself not fully belonging to either the Chinese or American communities,” she said. “I often found myself mixing it up and losing the words no matter who I am speaking to.”
The artists with Yun Theatre hope that the show will help audience members find connections in relation to the complexities and realities of migration. “I started to retrace my own history of migration, how I decided to leave the country, the language, the people that I was familiar with when I was 16, how I had hopes and dreams of America, how the perfect American dream crumbled once I started to open my eyes to the reality, what my migration has done to my family and so on,” Zhao said. “As I reflected on my own migration journey, I became deeply interested in exploring the complexities and realities of migration and how it shapes our lives and relationships.”
In Between follows on the heels of a prior project called Monologues of n Women, devised by Zhao, before she helped create Yun Theatre and became its Artistic Director. “In early 2022, the news of the chained woman in China sparked a feminist awakening within me,” Zhao recounted. “The show was successfully staged last September, with nearly all sold-out performances. To receive funding for the project, we needed a non-profit status, which prompted the founding of Yun Theatre.”
Monologues of n Women had reflected the daily lives of women. “The play served as an act of speaking out, defying fears of censorship and authoritarianism, and reclaiming our language and voice in a powerful way,” Zhao explained. “Though many of us may not have originally come from this land, the reality is that we are building our lives here now, and we have a burning desire to present and be represented, to find our language and to challenge the system of oppression.”
As a director, Zhao is interested in feminist theater, Bertolt Brecht and epic theater, devised theater, documentary theater, and ensemble work. “We formed an ensemble of six devisers who met regularly to delve into various topics within Chinese feminism,” she elaborated. “We explored themes such as media representations of women, the impact of societal gender norms on our upbringing, and the trauma surrounding body image and agency.”
Yun artists also interviewed Chinese women worldwide about their experiences. “We captured the authentic voices and experiences of our devisers and interviewers, using direct verbatim from their words to shape the scripts,” Zhao said. “The play is composed of interconnected smaller stories, creating a non-linear narrative that allows us to express the multitude of ideas and experiences we want to share.”
The team used poems and abstract movements as bridges between the stories. “Our ensemble actors sometimes embodied different personalities and ideologies and sometimes it’s fascinating to witness at different points how all seven actors portray the same person,” Zhao said. “We are reminding the audience constantly that we are in a theatre and this is a play.”
For In Between, the process has been just as intensive, after Yun Theatre posted a call for ten-minute scripts online, inviting playwrights to share their perspectives on migration and the theme of In Between. “The response was overwhelming, with an astounding 170 submissions,” Zhao said. “A dedicated curatorial committee of five people, including myself, spent countless hours reading and discussing the scripts.”
Ultimately, they chose seven scripts for production, as well as six more scripts for a staged reading. “It was interesting to dramaturg six short plays gathering the themes of immigration, multiple identities, being othered and being subject to systemic violence, like what is known as crimmigration in the case of Cambodian deportation in Saudade, and to think of less urgent topics like roots and legacy through the relationship of Peter with his Grandmother in Baby Bird Flies,” said Mona Merhi, Yun Theatre’s Dramaturg, Writer, Researcher, and Cultural Manager. “My role as a dramaturg can be best described as providing the proper dramaturgical contexts where what is implied from the direct texts is an invitation for new layers of meanings and interpretations and where each text echoes other elements of other plays through one whole.”
As a director-dramaturg duo, Merhi and Zhao work closely on the staging. “We never stop asking questions: How does this choice serve the main topics we are focusing on which is the status of liminality and being othered?” Merhi said. “All this is informed by my positionality as a non-American citizen who at some point will go through similar processes of many characters of the plays.”
Merhi’s work as a dramaturg also includes building bridges between the artists and the audience. “I always look for ways to prepare the audience members creatively and engage them before they step into the performance space in a fashion that we don’t limit ourselves to the traditional lobby display and the program,” she said. “How can we offer other non-conventional tools to connect subjects to the topics addressed in a more intrinsic, engaging, and perhaps provoking way?”
Yun Theatre’s main avenue to make these connections is its actors, and actor Abigail Tsai is looking forward to performing in Itch as the farmer, Buddha Hall as a part of the ensemble, and Afterlife as MeiMei. “I really enjoy playing MeiMei because I am also going through something similar in my personal life,” Tsai shared. “The story has so many different layers and touches on so many different topics including grief, acceptance, letting go, our origin, and what home means to us.”
Tsai was inspired to perform with Yun Theatre after participating in Monologues of n Women. “The production really made me realize how many people have so many shared experiences, “how we can bond through those experiences, how powerful we can be when we decided to come together and voice ourselves, and how willing people are to come out and be a part of it,” Tsai said.
Actor Zoe Ding also had a meaningful experience in Monologues of n Women, and is excited to perform in four of the seven plays in In Between. “The most interesting thing about this production is definitely that we are doing more languages than just Mandarin,” Ding said. “This show will have English, Mandarin, some Spanish and also a little bit Cantonese. I love the opportunity to be able to learn and explore acting in different languages than Mandarin.”
Of her four roles, especially iconic is Ding’s role of the Mule in Itch, in which she plays a character in between horse and donkey. “He tries so hard to find his identity to prove he can be a horse or a donkey,” Ding said. “But he doesn’t know how to define himself when no more horses or donkeys exist. He is the perfect symbol of the show’s topic, in between.”
Like the other artists, In Between’s set designer Xun Wang also worked on Monologues of n Women, and he also designed Yun Theatre’s logo. “I am eager to contribute my creativity and expertise to create an impactful and visually captivating stage,” Wang said. “As a minority group, we believe that theater serves as a powerful platform to amplify our voices and share meaningful stories.”
Accompanying Wang’s set design, to highlight the work of the actors onstage, will be the work of Yun Theatre’s composer Yuelan Lin. “I will be leading a live band to accompany each play within the festival, with a combination of original compositions, improvisations and songs, and curated music covers rearranged to fit the style of each show,” Lin said. “It has been hard work, but I am looking forward to seeing it all come together.”
Lin had likewise worked with Zhao and the other artists before Yun Theatre was formed. “The success of Monologues of n Women was the first time I fully realized the impact of our work,” Lin reported. “It was the first time I had seen a Seattle theatre filled with so many Asian people, especially Mandarin speakers.”
Building this new theatre company has been very satisfying. “It’s been amazing to see the growth of our community over the past year,” Lin said. “As a second-generation Chinese-American immigrant, it’s been a very insightful experience to create with those of the same generation but different backgrounds.”
With the entire company rehearsing with excitement for In Between, Zhao reports that Yun Theatre’s biggest challenge has nonetheless been to build an audience community, especially among Chinese immigrants in Seattle. “Many of them are not accustomed to attending theatre and might not see it as a space for public discourse or representation of their experiences,” she said. “To address this, we’ve worked on developing people’s interest in theatre and making it more accessible and relatable.”
To do that, the artists have organized play reading events, introductory theatre workshops, and a monthly newsletter to expose people to different theatrical experiences in the city. “Our productions are contemporary and often multilingual, with past shows primarily in Mandarin, supplemented with live English subtitles, which is new to our existing Seattle theatre audience,” Zhao said. “One of our challenges at Yun Theatre is to break the hegemony of English-language theatre as we’re working to elevate and amplify the voices of multilingual and multicultural communities.”
In Between: A Collection of Short Plays runs August 17 to 27 at Seattle Center Theatre, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle.