A Conversation with Leah Nanako Winkler
Written by Corey Ruzicano
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
June 8, 2016
Meeting Leah Nanako Winkler in a coffee shop is something everyone should do. Her imaginative character and insurgent passion for art, story, and equity leave her listeners not only more informed but somehow more hopeful for change. Whether it’s at Pret A Manger or in the studio of EST, Leah’s work and words light up the room.
Corey Ruzicano: I loved hearing you talk about the idea of “home,” those you’re born into and those you create. I would love to hear more about your search for home and how the shaping of your identity has played into that.
Leah Nanako Winkler: I moved from Japan when I was a child. There, I was known as “the white girl,” as in I look pretty white, especially to a really homogenous race. There weren’t that many HAPAs. I was actually a child model.
CR: Oh wow, what did you model?
LNW: I modeled for this clothing magazine called Samantha and it was really fun. Then, when we moved to Kentucky that life was taken away from me, and I had an identity crisis. I went from being viewed as an American in Japan to being viewed as a Japanese person in America, even though I didn’t know the language. I think it made me internalize a lot of feelings, and I grew changed from being a very outgoing child to a very shy and reserved child. I didn’t really have any creative or emotional outlet to express these feelings, until I found theater. I had a an exceptional drama teacher. Theater really kept me out of trouble. It let me go to college.
CR: Yeah, one good teacher really can change everything.
LNW: She helped me find a home in the theater. Hiro [from Kentucky] is actually kind of a bizarro world version of me. I don’t imagine her as a theater kid at all-but I did try to transport the passion I have for the arts into her passion for her amazing job in marketing and making a life for herself in New York City.
CR: Of course, and that idea to belong, too, can be anything. I do think theater has some special powers, but I think when you decide to devote yourself to a place, that can matter just as much. I really enjoyed that about the play, the passion that some characters had for Kentucky, as well as this desire to leave and get out. I think that’s so human and so relatable, and I have such a different background but I think those feelings are every bit as relatable. Having a vehicle, especially something like art or storytelling that includes this constant search for identity and re-examination of the self, allows you to move through the world in a way that brings home with you.
LNW: I define “home” as anywhere that you can be free to really express yourself. I wanted to stay away from expressing the stereotypes because a lot of people are really happy in Kentucky. All my friends who stayed aren’t jealous of me or wishing that they’d gotten out. It’s “oh, you have a play? Cool, I have a baby.”
CR: Absolutely. And I think it’s really important because there are two, probably more, stereotypes of the South. Often it’s either the romantic, small town, everybody knows you or it’s this backwater white supremacist Hicksville everyone is trying to get out of. And I thought your play did a really good job of trying to straddle such a complex thing. In a show with so many perspectives, and different characters from different places, how have you struck that balance of developing and listening to each character and their voice?
LNW: I think theater makes you a really empathetic person.
CR: I hope.
LNW: Exactly, I hope. As a writer it’s been really important that I participated in various aspects of theater growing up because it teaches you to listen to people, be inquisitive and not judge. In my work, I like presenting various perspectives, sometimes through stereotypes and then breaking it to help dismantle preconceived notions that both I and the audience may have had. This was especially true with Kentucky.
CR: It’s almost more building a muscle than trying to balance an equation. How have audiences reacted to such different perspectives or if you see alignments start to form?
LNW: Everyone has a different opinion about my writing, and it’s been like that since I’ve been active here, which is actually about nine years.
LNW: Thank you! But this is my first produced play. I’ve been a self-producing playwright for years. I’ve always known that my writing is not for everyone.
CR: Nothing can be.
LNW: Commercial theater people think my writing is experimental. Experimental theater people think it’s commercial. Some critics say I write cartoons or too long monologues. But the people that get it, love it. I just try to be as honest as possible.
CR: And the truth is weird.
LNW: One night they love it and the next night someone walks out.
CR: Wow, well I certainly know which camp I’m in. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it means to be an artist in the United States. What is the American Theater to you, and how has that affected your writing process as you’ve grown up?
LNW: I made my first play in New York at the Brick Theater where I did all the scene changes myself and there were like six people in the audience because nobody knew who I was. But I still had a blast because it’s a great place- and there is a compulsive part of who I am that needs to do theater. I think theater artists in the United States need this compulsion to keep going because trying to carve out a career in this industry can often be challenging. That being said- it’s a really exciting time to be in American Theater right now. There are a lot of conversations being had about diversity and inclusion and it’s finally, finally acceptable to talk about race and class. I remember even five years ago getting crucified for talking about those issues under the guise of a science fiction parody called, “ Flying Snakes in 3D!!!” [Co-written with Teddy Nicholas] People got so upset about that show! They were like, “How dare you say that people in the theater are independently wealthy. How dare you say everyone is white.”
CR: Wow. How dare you, Leah?
LNW: I know, it sounds so crazy now, but it wasn’t that long ago. This journalist, who shall remain unnamed, wrote a long, long tirade on facebook saying [essentially] “Why don’t we stop blaming the white man for our problems, you should just work harder.” And I got really mad because they didn’t even come see the show! Then it kind of became this whole big thing, and I got invited to give a manifesto about race and class at the Prelude Festival and ever since some people have assumed I’m an extremely angry person. But I’m not. I just grew up with stories that weren’t predominantly white. So, I kind of went through a culture shock when I started trying to make work here–
CR: Here, that we think of as the cultural hub of American Theater–
LNW: Yes! I didn’t really start thinking about the lack of diversity in theater in a serious way until I started doing theater here, and my way of processing it was writing about it. It was so shocking to me at the time.
CR: I wonder if, after these couple of years of really having to assess what the state of this place is, you have any action steps for yourself and your work moving forward?
LNW: Lately I’ve learned that audiences respond better to my work when I write actively and authentically. I’m less interested in making a play with criticism being the baseline and more willing to tell the stories that are often under-represented in a funny, engaging way.
CR: Definitely. Do you have any advice to the younger playwrights coming up, both to those who have those diverse perspectives and to those that don’t? How do you tell stories responsibly in this world we live in right now?
LNW: It’s a learning process, right? I have a hard time writing outside of my identity.
CR: But you did it in this piece…
LNW: Well actually, on the page many characters in Kentucky can be played by any race. So maybe the answer is not to write for specific races because then they become beholden to that, their sole characteristic becomes about that. I don’t go around saying, hi, I’m half-Asian, let’s talk about it. White people definitely don’t say, hi, I’m white. Who am I to give advice because we’re all still trying to figure it out, but I think thinking outside the box when it comes to casting is key. I fundamentally believe that the everyman can be any race, the romantic lead can be any race. Same goes for the hero. I think it’s important to visually reflect the world we live in and while also checking my own biases. You grow up with these notions that the blonde, white girl is the “every girl.” And I’m not sick of seeing that, I love Reese Witherspoon movies, but I think that if you trust your audience, it doesn’t make that big of a difference if you put Sandra Oh in that role. People will come.
CR: Absolutely. We’ve been talking about the whitewashedout hashtag that was trending for a while, and when it was really popular Sarah Kuhn, who’s a HAPA writer, tweeted: “whitewashedout meant it took years for me to realize writing an Asian protag was possible, I cast myself as the sidekick in my own story.” And I wonder what, if any, resonance that statement has for you?
LNW: That’s actually the first time I’ve heard that statement. I had to take a break from the online activism world when a blog I wrote went semi-viral, and I got a lot of hate mail for it; and any time I tweet about anything Asian-related, those trolls come back. I love the whitewashedout movement, I just decided to take a step back and work on my play, but then I got complaints from people on twitter saying, why aren’t you a part of the whitewashedout movement?
CR: You really can’t win.
LNW: But taking in that statement now- I can relate. Growing up, white girls told me I could only play Pocahontas when we’re playing Disney princesses and -this is specifically for mixed races; I can only speak about being biracial, but I didn’t have a vocabulary to identify myself until I was twenty-one. Because I was white in Japan, and Japanese in America, it was like: you’re not white enough. I think it’s another reason I feel so at home in New York, because I really feel like I was able to find my identity here. I remember there was this exhibition at NYU with the APA Institute called Part Asian, One 100% HAPA by Kip Fullbeck. It was just a room filled with photographs of the faces of mixed race people. Until then I didn’t know about the artist, I didn’t know about any community, I thought we were just supposed to choose one side. All my life people have asked, “Do you feel more Japanese or do you feel more American?” It wasn’t until I saw that exhibition I was able to say, “I’m both and that’s OK.” I still think that there isn’t a lot of art out there that speaks to the mixed race- and maybe that’s because we’re still talking through the definition of diversity as one race against the other. In order to have the hapa conversation we need to be able to have the Asian conversation first. And people still don’t know what Asian American performers can actually do. For example- people still tell me Asians can’t sing.
CR: They do?
LNW: Yeah! But when we were casting an Asian American triple threat for Kentucky, we saw so many girls who were AMAZING. It really blew my mind when we had these open calls because I have my own list of nearly 200 Asian American performers and we saw girl after girl that I’d never heard of. When casting Asian roles I often have to come up with my own list because many theaters claim to not know many.
CR: Two hundred sounds like a lot, but it’s actually a tiny little fraction.
LNW: And there still aren’t that many roles that are specifically Asian American and a lot of my Asian American actor friends go in for the same roles even though they’re totally different types. It’s like getting Susan Sarandon and Emma Stone because they both have red hair to go in for the same part. The only type that these girls are , is Asian, whereas the white girls are broken down in so many more specific ways. Asian is still seen as a full characteristic. So what I’ve been trying to do is, not writing specifically for any race, and just casting outside of the traditional box. For example, I just wrote a two person play about sex that doesn’t have race as a central theme- but the casting criteria is that the actors be different ethnicities from each other. I’m less interested in blantantly commenting right now and more interested in showing.
CR: Yes, absolutely, and I’m excited about the way you talk about building vocabulary around these things.
LNW: It’s hard!
CR: It’s really hard, and it’s so easy to use language as a scapegoat – not having the language to have the uncomfortable conversation, when the conversation will always be uncomfortable. But, I do really believe in the power of language, and I think giving people literacy around these things is actually at the heart of this movement.
LNW: Yeah, I get the feeling that this movement isn’t about confrontation. It’s less about saying, “Fuck you.” I’ve learned the hard way that people shut down pretty quickly.
CR: You can only digest so much shame.
LNW: There’s a lot of fragility among white people. I think with theater culture, because a lot of people grew up a certain way, and it’s so free and it’s so fun that I think if you’re a trust fund person, of course you’re going to get defensive. That was a learning curve for me. I was misunderstood when I wasn’t careful of that fragility, I realized I have to be an adult. To be effective, there’s a way to do it. Shonda Rhimes is really great at it.
CR: Yes, that’s a great example. Do you have a question that you’re grappling with right now? And how are you using art to help you ask that question?
LNW: I have no idea what is going to happen. I quit my job to do this play. I could afford to self produce because I had a really good job and then when the show started, I quit and in order to be able to pay rent I moved upstate. So I’ve been couch-surfing and I’m just at the point where I’m wondering: how am I going to live? What’s the best way to sustain myself as an artist? My whole life is a big question mark right now.
CR: Totally. But I’m so, so glad to hear you say the theater world is so fun.
LNW: Oh my god, yeah.
CR: I don’t know if people say that, that often.
LNW: I love it. I wish I could do this all the time. It’s a gift to have a production. I literally had the time of my life. The fact that they put sixteen diverse actors on stage to tell a story that deals with some big questions – that means things are changing. And we had fun.
CR: We had fun, too.
Leah Nanako Winkler is from Kamakura, Japan and Lexington, Kentucky. Her other plays incluse Death for Sydney Black (terraNova Collective), Double Suicide At Ueno Park!!! (EST Marathon), and more. She was a winner of the 2015 Samuel French OOB Festical, 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Nominee, member of Youngblood, and the Dorothy Stelsin New American Writers Group at Primary Stages. Pending MFA at Brooklyn College. Learn more at www.leahwinkler.org.