There’s little doubt of playwright and director Rick Shiomi’s contributions to Minnesota’s cultural life, with 20 years of experience as Mu Performing Arts’ Artistic Director under his belt. He’s already won the 2007 Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision and The 2012 Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement, among his many honors. Now he’s being honored once again by the McKnight Foundation, which has awarded Shiomi with the Distinguished Artist Award, which comes with $50,000 in cash.
Shiomi’s career began long before coming to Minnesota. Born shortly after his parents were forced to live in internment camps during World War II, Shiomi grew up in Toronto, where he earned his degree in history from the University of Toronto in 1970. Early in his career, Shiomi met Bay Area playwright David Henry Hwang, through several other friends and artists. “He’s actually a fabulous violinist,” Shiomi recalls. “He’s a guy with a lot of talent. He was in a band we brought up to Vancouver, and afterwards I learned he was a playwright.” Mu has gone on to direct Hwang’s work, including “Yellow Face” and a revisal of “Flower Drum Song” by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Eventually, Shiomi found himself in the San Francisco area himself, where his first play, “Yellow Fever”, was produced in 1982 by the Asian American Theater Company, winning him the 1982 Bay Area Theater Circle Critics Award and a “Bernie” for new play by the San Francisco Chronicle. From there, he moved to New York City, getting his works produced off-Broadway.
It was when Shiomi came to Minnesota that he became one of the founders of Theatre Mu, which became Mu Performing Arts in later years. Shiomi doesn’t take credit for the company’s beginnings, though. “The irony of course is that it wasn’t my idea,” Shiomi says. A graduate student at the University of Minnesota named Dong-il Lee was the one who approached Shiomi, while he was a guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota, along with several others about starting an Asian American theater company.
At Mu, Shiomi has both written and directed plays over the course of his career, in addition to being an award-winning Taiko artist. Over the last five to 10 years, he’s been more heavily involved in developing Asian artists in the community. “I feel like over the last 10 years, there’s been a whole wave of success,” he says, which attributes to a combination of developing talent within the community as well as drawing new people to join the company.
Richard Cook, the Artistic Director of Park Square Theater, says Shiomi has delivered a “huge service” to the Twin Cities community in his commitment to developing Asian talent here. “He’s such a great listener and supporter,” Cook says. “It’s one of his special gifts.
More than 20 years ago, Cook reached out to Shiomi about an Asian-inspired production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “to help us be sensitive to the work we wanted to do,” Cook says. Cook has tracked Shiomi’s career over the years, and then Mu used Park Square’s theater for a series of musicals they produced, at one point co-producing the work “Pacific Overtures” by Stephen Sondheim.
In Chicago, Cook had seen a production of the musical that incorporated elements of Japanese theater using a multicultural cast. However, for their joint production, they found they didn’t need a multicultural cast, “because there is so much Asian American musical talent in the Twin Cities,” Cook says. That production became a catalyst to a number of joint musical productions between the two companies.
It was two years ago that Rick Shiomi decided to step aside from his role as Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts because he wanted to stretch his own wings as an individual artist. Confident that the company would be in the capable hands of current Artistic Director Randy Reyes, Shiomi has gone on to work nationally in such places as Denver and Philadelphia. This weekend, the play he has directed, “The Language Archive,” opens at Park Square.