©Nicholas Keil

#PersonOfChange: An interview with Briana Sakamoto

Antonio Miniño
Aug 31, 2018 · 9 min read

A world without cis men could be just as fraught with hate and iniquity as this one. A play without cis men, however, serves an equalizing function in an industry that has previously underused people that aren’t cis men, particularly white cis men.

Born in San Francisco, CA and raised in Millwood, NY, Briana Sakamoto (they/them/their) new they wanted to be an actor from the age of four.

I told my parents I wanted to be famous — I don’t think I knew what an actor was. I saw people on TV, in musicals, and whatnot, and I knew that I was meant to do what they did. I was always dressing up as characters, even when I went out, acting out stories, making up songs, dancing. I first got onstage at 5, in a ballet, and I loooved it. Funnily, I don’t remember my dancing (which probably was minimal and adorably bad), but I remember that I thrilled at being onstage — I told my parents I would wink at them, which I couldn’t do, so I just looked out into the house and blinked repeatedly, vigorously, as I crossed the stage, and I was so proud. I did my first musicals and started serious actor training when I was 8. I think that was when I realized I could pursue a career in performing arts, and when I started to understand the discipline of being an actor specifically. There were some big ups and downs in clarity as I went along, but that was the start of it.

They’ve been seen Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, nationally, and onscreen, playing and singing roles ranging from Shakespearean witch and clown, to a Donizetti soubrette, the Marlboro Man, Tokyo Rose, a rapping katana-wielding psychic, a half-alien baker, Mercutio, to a modern-day Tiresias. They are a proud member of Actors Equity, SAG-AFTRA, Hamlet Isn’t Dead’s Resident Artist Company, and the Guided Imagery Opera. For this and many other reasons, Briana Sakamoto, is a #PersonOfChange.

When was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?

I mean, in a sense, from early on, because I related to almost anyone expressing themself through performance. As I started seeing more mixed ethnicity actors, and Asian actors, and queer actors, I realized how few there had been, and that I had felt invalidated by that — that I had had huge anxieties about being able to “make it” because I perceived that I wasn’t very marketable. Seeing Diana Oh in My Lingerie Play was pivotal for me — it blew my mind, because I didn’t even realize I was looking for myself in that “type” sense until I saw someone I had so much in common with as a queer Asian American, being themself onstage. I guess I still haven’t seen anyone that is a total match with my background and identities — but more and more, I see commonalities of that sort. It has had a profound impact on how I see myself. Every time I discover more representation out there, I have this strange feeling like a sadness is lifted that I didn’t even know was there. Just yesterday, I saw a commercial for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and I teared up with joy and surprise. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a half Asian girl with a white father starring in something and not playing an Asian trope! From the commercial it looks like she’s some kind of normal American kid!! Hallelujah

The filmCrazy Rich Asians’ is demonstrating once again that audiences are diverse and are hungry to see themselves on screen. Is theatre getting the same wake up call?

Absolutely. Henry VI at NAATCO, Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, Teenage Dick, Hamilton, Waitress, Fun Home, our Macbeth (of the Oppressed), Aladdin, My Lingerie Play, Ali Ewoldt in Phantom — on and on… As a result, I feel unprecedented encouragement about my own career prospects. And it’s not a “fad,” as I’ve sometimes heard it called. We are dismantling prejudices and limits that never made sense to begin with. This shift in the arts is simultaneously reflecting and catalyzing the growth of society at large. So, I think it’s going to stick and get better and better. It feels like a natural evolution, yet people have worked very hard to get to where we are, and that work continues.

How has your career changed since identifying as queer gender-nonconforming?

I am so much more comfortable. I’m not trying to deny or hide parts of myself anymore. I have more bandwidth to just do the actual work of being active, finding truth, satisfying myself artistically. I come into auditions and really know what I’m selling for the first time, and my package is making more sense to more people. I could go into a whole riff on what happened when I got this “queer hairstyle,” and the increase in auditions and callbacks, but that’d be a whole other interview.

What piece of advice can you share with an artist who started their career identifying as cisgender and are now realizing their true identity mid-career?

I only fairly recently did it myself, so, I mean — mostly, congratulations!! Invest in people and environments that support you and make you feel good about being truthful. Follow queer artists on social media. Block bigots. If you’re being oppressed, it’s natural to feel anxious, sad, angry… Prioritize self-care. Listen to your feelings. When you’re uncomfortable, try to figure out if it’s a personal growth opportunity, if you would simply be better served in another environment, or if it’s something in between. Keep digging for your truth, and share it proudly. The more I’ve been doing that, the more positive reinforcement I’m getting from the types of people I want to work with and build community with, and, of course, it’s just more personally fulfilling. Everyone has to find their own balance in terms of what they feel each gig is worth. You don’t owe anyone emotional labor, but you may feel that it’s worth it, on balance, depending on the situation. Find articles on gender theory to which you can refer people, so you don’t have to explain yourself all the time from square one.

Finally, I think most would agree that, collectively, performers’ (not just queer or minority) standards of being treated respectfully are getting much higher, and that is helping the industry grow. Speak up about your boundaries, and say no when you need to. And stand up for your community, because your community has your back, and we all rise together.

Oops, those were several pieces of advice, and not all particularly genderqueer specific, but there it is, haha.

You are playing Juliet in a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. What can you tell us about the play?

It’s so exciting!!! On a personal note: Juliet is a role I was interested in for a very long time, but I thought I would have to “pass” as very “femme and innocent” to ever get cast as her. In retrospect, this was an anxiety that had to do with me not understanding myself, and paying more attention to certain mainstream productions (no disrespect, brilliant productions, just not with Juliets that I could aspire to emulate) than to my personal relationship with the text. I struggled with her monologues for years. About six months ago, I basically gave up on her. Then I got called back for a few roles in R+J, including Juliet, which was the last role I thought I’d get. But I decided to give it my best shot, let go of those anxieties, and trust that I could play the text truthfully from my point of view. I figured it would suit the production or not, and I wanted to prioritize satisfying myself. And I came in, and Molly Houlahan, the director, gave me some ideas about her interpretation of Juliet, and I was like, “that’s EXACTLY how I feel!!!” From then through our current rehearsals, it’s been an amazing, validating experience, and Molly has pushed me to go deeper, more active, more open… My cast mates are very inspiring. I feel like everyone’s interpretations are revelatory in one way or another. The production examines how the text might resonate in the context of an imagined militant extension of some current social movements. We’re aging Romeo and Juliet up, and tweaking some other details around the production concept. There is some creative license in the cuts, as is often the case with classics. But the changes are in details that we feel don’t tamper with the core of the play — it’s just a very deep, respectful exploration of the text as though it were a new work. From what I have seen so far, it seems like the visual and sonic elements smartly flesh out that vision of a hypothetical (hopefully not real!) near future, and are going to be very evocative, beautiful, and hauntingly dystopian. Oh, and we’re queering it!

Is the play trying to say a world without cisgender men is a good thing?

No. And I don’t speak for the creative team, but here’s what I understand and how I’d describe it: The production imagines a country where cis men and those AMAB have been exterminated. And it does so in order to take a critical eye to the perils of situations where originally well-conceived ideologies are misinterpreted and taken over by extremists.

You can still oppress people in a world without cis men. You can echo patriarchy and all its ills without cis men. The production seeks to help us examine our current social movements and ask ourselves what our endgame is, and how we can do better to progress thoughtfully, carefully, and inclusively.

It looks with particular caution at trans exclusionary radical feminism. It champions intersectional feminism — which promotes, for one thing, seeing people for who they are, not roles that they are expected to play, which is at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. That’s the core of the text, and that’s the core of our production. And an important distinction: A world without cis men could be just as fraught with hate and iniquity as this one. A play without cis men, however, serves an equalizing function in an industry that has previously underused people that aren’t cis men, particularly white cis men.

You are trained in the Feldenkrais Method. What can you tell us about it?

I have sooo much to say about Feldenkrais. Long story short, it is an extraordinary method of somatic self-learning. Moshe Feldenkrais created it — he was a world renowned scientist, martial artist and combat specialist — he applied his background to long studies in human development and other disciplines to create this very refined, efficient, technique for self-improvement. It’s completely non invasive. It’s like running an optimization program on your neuromotor system, through puzzles you solve with your body. Perhaps that sounds odd, but it’s extremely straightforward when you actually do it. It’s gentle, and mentally challenging because you have to slow down and concentrate on subtle differences in sensation. The more you learn to feel yourself, and feel differences in yourself and between your action patterns, the easier it becomes to carry out your intentions smoothly, without extraneous effort. It is used for recovering from injuries, finding greater efficiency in daily physical functions, refining skills like dance, relieving anxiety… And if you want to use it this way, it can help you face yourself emotionally like nothing else. For me, it did all of this. It was the tool that unlocked my comfort in my body, with myself, allowed me to integrate my vocal technique, and made sense of all my prior actor training. When I try to explain it succinctly, I feel like it always sounds too good to be true — so, I feel like people should just do their own research and try it out — but, basically, it’s just logical that if you function more easily, if you know yourself more, you get better at everything.

You can learn more about Briana Sakamoto by visiting their website and following them on instagram. If you happen to be in New York between September 27th and October 14th, 2018 don’t miss them in ‘R+J’ at the Access Theater (380 Broadway, NY , NY 10013). To learn more visit www.hypokritnyc.org/rj/


If you enjoyed this interview and the #PersonOfChange series don’t forget to hit the 👏 button (you can 👏 up to 50 times per article). Also feel free to follow me on twitter, instagram, and facebook.


Antonio Miniño

Written by

Dominican theatre maker in NYC. Writer of the #PersonOfChange Series, showcasing persons of color and/or persons who identify as non-binary.

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