By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
Michelle Liu Coughlin and Vishal Vaidya have different paths in theater but both have led to them to a national touring production of Barrio Grrrl! that is currently running through March 27th at Children’s Theatre Company.
Liu portrays “The Amazing Voice”, the invisible friend of nine-year-old Ana Ortiz (Desirée Rodriguez), who deals with her reality in an urban Philadelphia neighborhood living with her grandfather while her mother is off fighting as a soldier in the Middle East.
As her alter-ego, Barrio Grrrl, Ana becomes the neighborhood superhero in a world she creates with the help of her real and her invisible friends. Liu said her character helps Ana in bringing her ideas into action.
“Ana is the kind of child who really wants to help out and be there for her friends,” said Liu. “Since the first grade she realized that her driving force is to find ways to help people. She is a catalyst to propel her neighborhood friends to do good.”
At one point the Amazing Voice confides that she is assigned as a replacement imaginary friend. It is to help make up for what is missing in her life – her mother.
“I don’t become the mother but in essence I am filling a place that is missing,” said Liu. “I give her the confidence to reach within herself to help other people and friends come up with great ideas, like, ‘what are we going to do today?’”
Vaidya portrays Sandeep, who is one of Ana’s four ‘real life’ friends.
“Sandeep is probably next in line in terms of leadership, but he is also kind of the bad kid with a lot of unchanneled energy,” said Vaidya. “Anna helps him channel that into something useful.”
Sandeep is sort of “all over the place and a little off the wall – and Anna reels him in,” he added.
The four kids present distinct personality traits and kids can identify with one or more of them at any point in the show. The kids cooperate and become constructive together with the help of the invisible friends to teach fundamental life choices in a fun and meaningful way.
The remaining cast includes Christina Aranda as Mom, Diego Prieto as Abuelo, Deonna Bouye as Odette, and Chris Wilson as Oscar.
Working in a CTC production requires interaction and mentoring of youth cast and the audience. Vaidya has almost exclusively worked with children’s theater, while it is a first time for Liu.
“This has been amazing process for me because this is my first children’s theater experience,” Liu said. “I really wanted to do it because I have a niece and nephews.”
She said the experience shows her kids bring amazing imagination into our lives teaching the importance of honesty and believing in what you do. She enjoys the energizing excitement that the kids exhibit s a cardboard box becomes a spaceship to visit Ana’s mother.
“I think the kids can tell right away if you’re not honest in telling a story,” she said. “There is joy in telling this story with such imagination, liveliness and honesty.”
Vaidya said that children’s productions have stylistic differences but as theater tend to have a universal storytelling appeal for all ages. Kids and adults can both get it on completely different levels.
“I think children in a way are more honest and they let you know exactly how they feel about everything in the show,” he said. “That benefits me as an actor and I think it is nice.
Vaidya said his character is not necessarily South Asian other than his name. It could be anybody but he succeeded in influencing the name change to Sandeep when he raised the relevance during rehearsals for the original Kennedy Center production in 2009.
“The name was different and we changed the name and that was great for me,” said Vaidya. “It did not change the character but it was nice to play the character. For the first time ever I played a South Asian character – granted he is 9 years old.”
Vaidya, actor and singer, said this is his first performance in the Twin Cities, and noting the 17 city tour is his first chance to perform outside the Washington, D.C. area. “I am very excited as I hear great things about CTC and Minneapolis in general.”
Vaidya’s father came to the U.S. form India in 1970. He was born and raised in Maryland and studied musical theater and international relations at American University.
He enjoyed his travel study experiences including an entire junior year at American University in Cairo, Egypt in 2008. He said the recent riots that toppled the Egyptian government did come as a surprise. There were riots in 2008 but it was over the food price hikes but said this was commonplace all around the world and didn’t view it as leading to anything bigger.
“I was surprised and at the same time I felt ready for it,” he added. “I talked to a friend on Facebook and said that next time I would be coming back to a better Cairo.”
This is Vaidya’s first tour, but he has been part of several productions at Adventure Children’s Theater, Ford’s Theater and Toby’s Dinner Theater in Washington, D.C.
Liu was raised in suburban Connecticut and as the only person of color in her school she said Barrio Grrrl! speaks to her as a multicultural production.
“I would have loved to have seen this show when I was growing up,” she added. “I would have identified with someone of color.”
Liu went on to study theater at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. She currently resides in New York and last performed in St. Paul a few years ago with the national tour of The King and I at the Ordway, along with Susan Kikuchi, the daughter of Yuriko Kikuchi, who played the role of Eliza in the original 1950s Broadway production and in the Yul Brynner film that followed.
Since moving to the Big Apple, Liu has performed many mainstream roles but said she also enjoys Asian theater collaborative and original works. It has helped her to get recognition and she also enjoyed working on Asian specific stories and characters that tell the stories and bring a voice for the community.
Liu organizes classes and events for her fellow actors to refine their skills. Once class might focus on musical theater while another might work on acting for the camera or working on audition material.
She has worked with APA theater pioneers such as Baayork Lee, the original Connie in Chorus Line, who now runs her own theater company.
“I feel like the state of the theater today is getting better and better as time goes on,” she said. “I see how open people are now to supporting nontraditional casting and in writing in non-traditional roles.
Liu said the movement in theater is taking off in part to film and television where things are taking off as far as ensemble shows with multicultural casting. In her experience, she said the cast is mostly about who the director is and about.
“There are still hurdles but it is getting better,” she said.
Liu is also looking at the film and television industry where she said the door for nontraditional casting is wide open and is helping push theater in the same direction.
“That has definitely peeked my interest in wanting to explore more opportunities,” she said. “I love theater deep down and that is where my heart lies. There is nothing like performing in front of a live audience and hearing people respond. But it’s really interesting to see what other doors have to offer.”
Liu said it seems that right now it’s a good time to be a South Asian actor with so much happening in film and television.
“There is a lot of theater happening for South Asian actors as well,” she added. With the television show, “Outsourced” on NBC, and the Bollywood musicals that are becoming popular in the west, such as Bombay Dreams and there is talk about bringing the hit films Kite Runner and Monsoon Wedding to the stage.
Vaidya said it has been a good time for plays and roles created and written specifically about Indians. However, he said the challenges are that it’s difficult to know if the audition is as a South Asian American or if it’s “blind” casting.
He will just say that it has been a good experience playing a couple of roles in big theater productions in the Washington area, and said this increasing open mindedness tells him that it’s a good time to be an ethnic actor.
When he is not acting he enjoys writing new works for the Capitol Fringe Festival. He also writes song lyrics including for an adaptation on the musical La Strada.
“I am a singer and partial song writer and would like to be one eventually,” he added.
Children’s Theatre Company is located at 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55404. For ticket information call 612/874-0400 or online at www.childrenstheatre.org.