Mia Katigbak Is a Pioneer in Asian American Theatre. At 69, She’s Finally Making Her Broadway Debut | Playbill

Special Features Mia Katigbak Is a Pioneer in Asian American Theatre. At 69, She’s Finally Making Her Broadway Debut

She’s starring in Uncle Vanya while readying a new show with her company NAATCO.

Mia Katigbak Marc J. Franklin

Mia Katigbak never thought she’d be on Broadway. That’s not false modesty. She was born in the Philippines and immigrated to America when she was 11. As a dramatic actor who began her career in the 1970s, Katigbak didn’t see a place for herself on the Great White Way. “I don't sing, I don't dance, and most of the Asian stuff on Broadway are musicals,” she says. Plus, she didn’t want to play a maid or a sex worker, which were the most common roles being offered to female Asian actors at the time.

Instead, Katigbak created her own opportunities. She co-founded a theatre company in 1991: the National Asian American Theatre Company. She’s become an acting mainstay in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theatre. She was busy. "I'm very happy being a downtown artist. I feel like downtown is really where the fun, crazy, challenging, revolutionary stuff is going on." 

So no one is more surprised than Katigbak to find herself now on Broadway, in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Lincoln Center Theater. She’s not letting it get to her head, though: “My tagline has been: My Broadway debut, you live long enough, shit happens,” she chuckles as she says this.

Katigbak is currently playing Marina in Uncle Vanya—in a new adaptation by playwright Heidi Schreck, placed in the modern day—where she shares a stage with a starry ensemble cast that's led by Steve Carell. At the same time, as co-founder and actor-manager of NAATCO, Katigbak is overseeing a world premiere play called Isabel by reid tang in their New York debut—it centers on three non-binary Asian Americans (June 14–July 6 Off-Broadway at Abrons Arts Center). And earlier this season, Katigbak starred in the new Annie Baker play Off-Broadway called Infinite Life, about women at a wellness retreat learning how to manage their physical pain. 

That is to say, Katigbak has made it her lifelong mission to expand the roles that Asian actors could play and the stories that Asian artists could tell. Which is why when Vanya director Lila Neugebauer called her about the production, it wasn’t an immediate yes for the experienced actor. Yes, Uncle Vanya would qualify her for health insurance for the entire year. And it would be a Broadway credit. 

But it was also the third time in two years that Katigbak was asked to play Marina, the housekeeper for a well-to-do family, in a production of Uncle Vanya. Ever astute, Katigbak had to wonder why. “Why are you offering the domestic to an Asian American?” she asked the creative team point blank. Playing the stereotypical servant role, someone who is just there to be a sounding board—that felt like a step backward values-wise for Katigbak.

After a meeting with Neugebauer and Schreck, Katigbak agreed to take the part but with some conditions. “She can't be a piece of furniture,” said Katigbak of Marina. The actor wanted to be “rigorous about making Marina a well-rounded but, more importantly, an atypical interpretation of the character. Because the work is about dismantling stereotypes.” In the current production, Marina is a constant presence, as the housekeeper who takes care of everyone and who knows their secrets. Even if she doesn’t speak, Katigbak is on the stage—her reactions to the dramatics of the family she’s caring for lets the audience know how they should feel. 

As Katigbak puts it: “Everybody's in upheaval. Everybody's unhappy. Everybody wants things to change. Marina is the advocate for things staying the same. ‘It's my house. You're all crazy. But I don't have a problem.’”

Mia Katigbak as Marina in Uncle Vanya Marc J Franklin

Katigbak was born in Manila. Growing up, she was surrounded by music—her mother was a concert pianist and a music teacher. Katigbak starred in her first play when she was five, though the thought of being an artist was placed on the back burner after the family moved to New York City. As an immigrant, Katigbak’s mother pushed her to pursue a more practical career. But Katigbak felt lost, going from major to major, not knowing what she wanted to do with her life (she even dabbled in majoring in religion). “I hit all of the departments, and then landed in theatre, because a friend of mine dragged me to an audition,” she recalls. Her path was then set.

“When my mom finally saw me perform in The Maids, she took me aside—I think there's a lot of fear, but love in her heart. She just said, ‘OK, you're good. You just have to understand that it's a hand-to-mouth existence.’”

The young Katigbak quickly understood what her mother meant. She wanted to act in classical pieces, except no casting director would let her work. “I’d go to these auditions, and I'd show up, and they would look at me like, ‘You're Asian. We're doing Molière. Why are you showing up here? We have no parts for you.’”

Katigbak sought out the burgeoning Asian American theatre scene in NYC, starring in shows at Pan-Asian Repertory Theater. Then in 1991, she formed NAATCO with fellow actor Richard Eng, to have a place for Asian actors to perform European and American classics. Even though she knew acting was a “hand-to-mouth existence,” even before their first production, Katigbak wanted NAATCO to be an official 501(c)(3) non-profit so they could raise money to pay artists. “I was working with companies that were just starting to get going, and they were all like, ‘We can't pay you now. But if the box office is good, we'll split it.’ And I don't want to do that to actors. So I insisted on being a 501(c)(3) before our first production so that we could ask for money.” Their first production were three one-acts by Chekhov (a fact that makes Katigbak smile as she realizes that she’s making her Broadway debut in a Chekhov play).

Mia Katigbak and Dorcas Leung in NAATCO's Romeo and Juliet Julieta Cervantes

Then, over time, NAATCO grew from classical repertory to commissioning new plays. It also gained national influence. Katigbak has acted in less than half of NAATCO’s 40-plus shows, because she is usually networking. She’s been able to create partnerships with major regional theatres, so those institutions could either commit to producing a new play by an Asian American playwright. Isabel is one of those plays and is a co-commission with Connecticut's Long Wharf. NAATCO has also partnered with theatres in Arkansas and Pennsylvania. In the meantime, Katigbak has formed relationships with theatre producers all around New York—NAATCO has partnered with the Public Theater and Soho Rep. Slowly, things have changed.

“They heard me say there were no opportunities for Asian Americans,” she recalls. “And those companies now have almost adopted this [mindset], 'Of course, we have to have Asian American representation in our work.'” Not to say it’s where Katigbak wants to be. She still encounters producers who have to be reminded that they can cast Asian American actors in classical plays—that those actors don’t need to be remarking on their ethnicity to be on stage. And in NYC, Asian actors are still underrepresented in theatre, even though there's no shortage of them.

“The more candidates there are, who look like us, the better it will be, because it's a much better representation of what the country looks like out in the streets,” she says. “And that has always bugged me, that we can't accept how the city looks like out there on stage, when we're supposed to be able to accept that there are fairies and knights and castles and moats.”

After Uncle Vanya wraps up June 16, Katigbak goes right into overseeing the first performances of Isabel. And she’ll also be celebrating her 70th birthday. When asked what she hopes for in this new decade, she doesn’t say more Broadway shows. Instead, she’s content just focusing on fostering new talent and learning some new lines.

“For me personally, if nothing happens from this [on Broadway], then that's too bad…but it's also OK,” she says, serene and unbothered. “Isabel is amazing, I just feel like people should know about reid tang. And these three actors that we have are amazing, all Asian Americans, nonbinary. It's fabulous! And then I get to do Cymbeline with NAATCO…So I feel personally satisfied.”

What about retirement? Katigbak brushes off that thought, answering immediately with, “I always say, I'm not going to retire, I'll keep doing this until I drop dead!”

Photos: Uncle Vanya at Lincoln Center Theater

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