At the beginning of this year, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) had a leadership change atop its conservatory program. After 25 years overseeing the conservatory, Melissa Smith left the organization, with Peter J. Kuo ringing in the new year as the company’s new director of the conservatory. A coinciding move saw Danyon Davis become the director of the theatre’s MFA program.
Kuo, a director, producer, writer, and educator, takes over the position after working with ACT as associate conservatory director for two years. His work as an arts administrator spans the West Coast, with stops at South Coast Repertory, East West Players, and LA Stage Alliance, as well as New York City’s Soho Rep. As Kuo takes the helm in the midst of a pandemic and fervent push for theatres to address their history of racism, he brings with him a background in numerous equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, including working with Theatre Communications Group (Kuo was a member of TCG’s Rising Leaders of Color) and Intimacy Directors of Color.
I had the opportunity to speak with Kuo (he/him) last week, two days after the violent insurrection at our nation’s capitol, about his vision for the field and preparing future generations for the world into which they will be stepping.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: With Melissa leaving after 25 years, and you already being with the company for years yourself, how are you approaching this new opportunity? Is this a chance to maintain what has been built, or are you looking to take things in a new direction?
PETER KUO: I was very moved when she told me how much she was really excited and encouraging of me taking on this role. I think she felt that there was a lot of potential both for the organization and for me. There were moments where I was a little uncertain at first if this was the right fit. When I really thought about it, Melissa had invested so much time and energy into creating the program and creating the department into what it is. For me, it’s now about both maintaining some of the really good work that she did, and then also just bringing a new lens to the kind of ethos of the department to take it to a next direction.
I fully admire and respect the work she did, making the MFA program into a three-year degree, building the SFS (San Francisco Semester) program. It’s amazing to see the kind of structure she’s put into the department and the love and care she’s put into all of the programs. I want to maintain that love and care, while expanding it. To me, the biggest thing is about how we make the space more accessible and inclusive. That’s a really big goal I have in mind as I’m approaching the job. We are aware that the American theatre—across the board, the entire industry and field—has been favoring certain communities over others. I really want to break that apart, building on some of the work that ACT has already been doing.
Speaking of that work, can you talk more about the role educators play in diversifying the field, especially in light of everything that’s happened over the last year?
You know, it’s funny—you use the word “diversifying” the field, and I think it’s interesting how all these conversations include equity, diversity, and inclusion. To me, there are all these elements that are required to make that happen. It’s interesting, initially, that a lot of conversation was about diversity, diversity, diversity. But for me, the more central point of it is inclusion. You can diversify the space, you can get many different voices and perspectives and individuals from different demographics in, but if they don’t feel welcome in the space, they can never be fully themselves.
I witnessed this when I was in grad school and I’ve witnessed it a little bit at ACT, and I know it historically happens across the board, both at theatres and at training programs. These predominantly white spaces aren’t built to embrace different perspectives and cultures sometimes. So a lot of people, once they get there and realize their true self is not fully welcome, they retreat, and they either don’t fully get the training that they’re there for or they question their role in the industry. Educators aren’t fully aware of what it means to create an equitable and inclusive space, so people retreat from the industry and we lose that diversification.
As you look at these issues of inclusion, and the reality of many theatres not having inclusive spaces, how do you have those conversations with students who are interested in being part of this field? How do you talk to them about dealing with a field that’s struggling with these issues?
There’s two parts of it. There’s training people to develop the tools to change our society so it becomes what we want it to be—I grew up with much of that, and I know many people walk into the institution with that—and there needs to be a counterbalance of also learning the tools in order to survive the world as it exists as well. We have the citizen artistry component in the ACT MFA program, and I’ve started to try to bring some of that work to some of our other programs. I think it’s crucial to be able to understand the complications of the world, to understand the oppressions in the world and the way that we operate within oppression and privilege, and to understand how that’s wrong in many ways and that we want to correct that.
But I also think it’s important to train how power dynamics work in a space in which we may not actually have the ability—or really, the authority or influence—to affect that change, or to decipher, is this the right moment for that change? There are some people who walk in and say you have to fight for every single moment. I think if you do that, you’re going to exhaust yourself. You’re going to kill your spirit and your fire in a certain way, because there are many parts of this industry that aren’t ready or built for that, and I don’t want people to have to become martyrs.
We as an industry are so steeped in white supremacy. I like to say, “White supremacy is a virus and we’ve all been infected.” We’ve all touched our faces and our eyes with it. Some have the symptoms of it worse than others, but we’re all steeped in it. The idea that if you are not calling it out every single moment, you’re complicit? We’re always kind of all complicit because it’s happening all the time. For me, it’s, what risks are we able to continue to take? That’s part of what I want people to be able to assess as they’re moving forward through their career, the industry, and their training.
You’re also educating in the midst of a new emphasis on digital theatre, necessitated by the pandemic. How is that playing into how you see theatre education moving forward?
I’ve been slightly obsessed with digital performance and work. Actually, I created a YouTube channel like 10 years ago and was creating little sketch videos by myself, so I’ve been kind of ingrained and understood the power of this medium. I watch a lot of YouTube, I watch a lot of TikTok, and it’s interesting because I think there’s all this really fascinating creative raw talent. What we do in these kinds of MFA programs and in the theatre field is we develop and hone skills in the talent of creativity and the talent of performance and transformation. There’s this really interesting possibility of connecting those.
Live theatre has inherently been very elitist and classist in many ways. So this digital platform breaks some of those barriers down. It also builds some other ones up. Something that has been a problem in a lot of spaces is [audience] inclusion. You have people who feel entitled to a certain response from the audience, and when they watch a show with a new audience who respond differently, there’s a policing of that. They’re not welcoming us in that space. But in a digital house, that’s not so much the case. Everyone’s somewhat experiencing it on their own. It’s really interesting to me that it kind of neutralizes that part of it, the house experience. I also just love the idea that there’s less limitation geographically. People from all over the place, whether you have a regional theatre near you or not, can start to access some of this work.
Now, the thing that is more problematic is that we start getting into tech, tech literacy, and broadband access limitations. Who has access and who doesn’t? Of course younger generations have a lot of this tech and internet access in their hands—younger generations that maybe haven’t normally been excited or welcome to the theatre, and younger generations from specifically the global majority background. While there’s some limitation for some people from the global majority having access to the tech and the internet, the amount of people who have that access who have not been attending theatre regularly—there’s a large gap. So there’s an opportunity to bring some of that, while also acknowledging we’re going to get to a point where there’s still an access issue. So there’s the idea of providing people, when they purchase a ticket, some way to access the content, either through a DVD or some way to download the file rather than having to watch it live, which takes a different kind of bandwidth.
As you look at the generation currently going through the educational system, the next generation to join the field, what are you most excited about?
When I was in grad school, there were these moves to create all this EDI work and these initiatives, and I was very much involved in a lot of them. I could see when people cared and see when people didn’t, and see when people were kind of faking it. So there’s this interesting parsing out of when someone performs allyship and does it in a very conscious way. There’s a lot of performing that we also do that is unconscious, which I think is less harmful. But when someone’s like, “Oh, I’m going to prove to you that I get these issues,” versus actually understanding the depth of self-analysis that needs to be occurring—there’s part of me that wants to help this generation who truly are in it to be able to parse those out, to be able to understand, “Oh, that’s someone who doesn’t fully understand,” and yet have the compassion and the patience to possibly work with them to take that next step.
I honestly started to call this out at some point a few years ago. I started calling it theatre liberalism, the kind of, “Oh, well, I can’t possibly be racist or oppressive because I’m in the theatre.” Casting calls have been oppressive for a long, long time, and yet, we’ve allowed for it. We’ve allowed misogyny, we’ve allowed toxic work environments for such a long time. So the ability to really train this next generation, to be able to get them to that point of actually thinking complexly and building critical thinking to understand how one actually, truly helps those who are oppressed—to stand with them, stand in support of them, stand in solidarity versus just being the savior or the hero and causing more problems.
That’s such a great point. It feels like a lot of times it’s so easy for people to post that tweet, post that picture on Instagram to say, “We’re standing with you.” But it’s completely different to actually learn to have empathy and understand what people are going through.
With the domestic terrorism that happened at the Capitol, I wrote on Facebook, I was like, “Look, this is not a those people issue.” They are the extreme version of that—the highest concentration of what white supremacy looks like. But we all have bits of this instilled in us. It’s too easy to distance ourselves and say, “They are the crazy ones.” How do we participate in white supremacist culture every single day? And how are we working on undoing that? Because we can’t just stomp out the cockroaches and ignore the flies.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the theatre field moving forward, considering where we are right now? What do you hope the theatre field is able to do in the coming months and years?
It’s so funny, I think I have ideal overall visions that I’ve never really thought I might actually have an influence on. My hope is not so much for the field, it’s for all the people in the field. The hope is truly getting to a point of understanding the need for self-awareness and self-criticism, and being really open to understanding, when you’re being criticized, take that feedback. I try and tell my students this all the time: The best thing you can do is learn how to take feedback and be able to parse out what’s helpful for you and what’s not. I feel like, if all the people in the field did that, they would realize what this field needs to become a more just and equitable space.
I think it’s too easy sometimes when certain people just step down. I think it’s great sometimes when that happens, and people will make room for others. But I also really have to call out that there are so many people from marginalized and oppressed communities who also participate in these problems. Don’t take advantage of or abuse what’s going on right now in this kind of sea change. We all have to work on ourselves. If you get into a position of power and authority and perpetuate the cycle, that’s not helpful.
Is there anything we’ve missed or anything else you’d like the readers to know?
I feel like when you were asking me about the digital stuff, I ran down a tangent, but there’s a part of me that also just wants to say, there’s something really exciting about digital content that is theatre-based. I want our art form, and I want our industry and the people in our industry, to be less scared of it and be excited about the potential. There’s so much power of theatre magic in there that doesn’t live in film and television the way we know it. I think there’s a lot of pooh-poohing of video content. To me, there is something about when it’s live that’s important. It’s why people like watching sporting events and going to live concerts. There’s something in those moments that’s very exciting, even if we’re consuming them through a screen. That’s something that we as an industry can embrace more.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor at American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!