©Michael Kushner Photography

#PersonOfChange: An interview with Shakina Nayfack and Mei Ann Teo

The multitalented star of Difficult People joins forces with a visionary interdisciplinary theatre maker to catapult Musical Theatre Factory to new levels of artistic excellence.

You might know her as Lola from Difficult People and from her trans activism, but in 2014 Artistic Director Shakina Nayfack (She/Her/Hers), launched Musical Theatre Factory and changed the way new musicals are developed in New York City. Throughout the years MTF has partnered with a number prestigious host organizations that include Joe’s Pub, The People’s Improv Theatre, and Playwrights Horizons. This season Nayfack welcomes to the team new Producing Artistic Director Mei Ann Teo (She/Her/Hers), who shares how at MTF:

“We get to gather and make work that seeks to dismantle oppressive ideologies, shift the culture towards collective liberation, and do it through powerful and joyful story in song.”

Nayfack is a 3rd generation American descendent of Russian and Hungarian Jewish Immigrants. Teo is an immigrant from Singapore, an Asian American, and grew up as a Seventh Day Adventist. We spoke with these two #PersonOfChange whose artivism and dedication is changing the landscape of musical theatre as we know it.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

SN: I was in my first play in 3rd grade, but I’ve been a storyteller as long as I can remember.

MT: There are three moments that come to mind. 
1) At 8, I got cast as Lucifer in a church play, and learned to empathize with the accursed. 
2) At 12, I saw Les Miserables and realized that revolution was necessary. 
3)At 22, I graduated college with a finance degree to be a good Chinese daughter, and then promptly interned at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and have not turned back since.

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

SN: I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was 10, and Dr. Frank-n-Furter was my first queer hero. Then Angel in Rent, and Hedwig of course. But I don’t think I really felt represented and affirmed as a radical trans woman until I saw myself as Lola in Difficult People.

MT: I remember thinking that I should see myself in Miss Saigon, and also Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal, but instead, I saw problematic and painful representations of Asian women as the whore and dragon lady. I think I see how I want to be represented in one of my favorite collaborators, Diana Oh. She’s a badass queer asian woman in charge- a global citizen, conscious of her community and working towards collective liberation.

What is the Musical Theatre Factory?

SN: Musical Theatre Factory is a non-profit artist service organization dedicated to helping early career musical theatre makers develop and present new work in a collaborative environment free from the pressures of critical or commercial success.

How does Musical Theatre Factory contribute to our current theatrical ecosystem?

MT: MTF is an oasis, offering the necessary nourishment, support, and community that is artist centered. By nurturing groundbreaking musical theatre makers, we play a unique and necessary role in the cultural infrastructure of our society. We get to gather and make work that seeks to dismantle oppressive ideologies, shift the culture towards collective liberation, and do it through powerful and joyful story in song.

©Michael Kushner Photography

Mei Ann, in your new role as Producing Artistic Director, what kind of changes can we expect at the Factory?

MT: We have been restructuring with a commitment to solidarity economy with the values of justice and sustainability. We are launching some really exciting initiatives that will gather folks to meet and make together, and celebrate those who met in our storied history #wemetatmtf. We are also launching a new cohort of MTF Makers, 6 teams of musical theatre makers who will receive 18 months developmental resources, including multiple residencies, Joe’s Pub concerts, and monthly gatherings. We hope these dedicated resources will support our artists towards more productions. We are building national ties to do this, and our first major collaboration is with Theatre MU in Minneapolis, one of the most nationally renowned Asian American theatres in the country, led by Artistic Director Randy Reyes. One of our Makers teams will be an MTF/MU MAKER who will receive 18 months of development with us and a confirmed production with Theatre MU. And then? Rolling World Premieres across the country! Also? MTF International!

Shakina, how does your transgender activism influence your work?

SN: My transgender activism is rooted in intersectional feminism. I understand my position as an able-bodied, middle class, white trans woman who was born a citizen of the U.S.A. and I use my art and activism to express the truth of my experience while working to uplift others who face greater systematic disadvantages because of their race, class, disability, immigration status, or any other form of oppression that I might not experience directly but can help to dismantle by virtue of my platform or privilege.

What’s next for the Factory and what other projects are you involved in?

SN: Now that Mei Ann is on the front lines as Producing Artistic Director I’ll be moving to the Board of Directors and helping to ensure that our founding mission, vision, and values are upheld and updated as necessary, as well as working with Mei Ann and the Board to develop a long-term strategic plan that will give us something to build toward. We are also starting to see shows developed at MTF have major New York and Regional productions, which is hopefully the beginning of a long-term trend. The majority of my focus, however, will be on my performance and writing work. I have a play I’ve been developing about the women I met in Thailand while recovering from gender confirmation, Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, that I hope to devote more time to, as well as my solo show Manifest Pussy and my acting and writing work for Television, which I can’t really talk about other than that it’s going to be pretty exciting when it all comes together!

MT: MTF has launched our fall activities, which include the monthly Representation Roundtables — POC and Women&Trans, Factory Salons, Open Share, and a host of phenomenal opportunities to gather. We are collaborating with Poetic Theatre Productions on Meet and Make: Songsmiths, an event that brings poets and composers together to create new work. We have an exciting speed date event for directors and creative teams. Our Joe’s Pub Series continues with Diana Oh and Matt Park on Nov 17 and Michael R Jackson on Jan 21, 2019.

As a director/dramaturg, I’m directing Jillian Walker’s Songs of Speculation at JACK in the first weekend of November. I serve as dramaturg to Nia Witherspoon’s Dark Girls Chronicles. I’ll also be at Sundance in December with Diana Oh, working on a new piece Clairvoyance that will be at ART’s OBERON space in April 2019.

©Michael Kushner Photography

Who should apply to be part of MTF MAKERS?

We are seeking innovative artists who will utilize MTF’s resources — and strong peer network — to cultivate artistically groundbreaking and socially inclusive work for the American canon that shifts the cultural needle. MTF MAKERS is an 18-month initiative that supports six teams of groundbreaking musical theater artists in the creation of new work. Through this inclusive community of artists, MAKERS gather together at regular meetings to share work and support each other through feedback, collaboration, and discourse. In addition to meetings, MAKERS will also have access to MTF’s assembly line suite of activities including studio time, the 4x15 series, developmental workshops, and opportunities to show work in front of an audience including MTF’s Joe’s Pub series. MAKERS receive helpful mentorship, education, and advocacy from the organization as well as dramaturgical support from the MTF artistic staff and Beehive Dramaturgy Studio. MAKERS will also be invited to take part and create MTF programming, including opportunities to host salons and teach workshops.

We are excited about MAKERS with projects that are in a variety of stages of development — from the kernel of an idea to a full script with demos ready for a workshop. You are also encouraged to apply if you have a production slated for the project, but need extra development support! You are welcome to apply with a secondary project you’d be interested in developing with MAKERS; this is optional. All MTF Makers meetings, workshops, residencies and performances take place in New York City. Applicants must be 18 years of age and have the right to work within the United States. To apply visit https://mtf.nyc/about/submissions

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