This interview was originally published in the December 15, 2017 issue of The Slant. Want Asian American news, media and culture delivered to your inbox every Friday morning? Subscribe today!
In 6 Questions, we get to know awesome Asian Americans and have them ask another question. We caught up with actress and singer Brooke Ishibashi over the phone. Her latest projects include the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory, and the TV pilot The Sisters Ishibashi with her sisters Brittany and Brianna.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
1. What did your parents want you to be?
Brooke Ishibashi: My parents are both artists, so I came from a creative family where we were all encouraged to do whatever we wanted. My mom and dad met in the 70’s, when mom auditioned to be the female singer for Dad’s soul/R&B band.
My dad, Gerald Ishibashi, always worked in music, promoting concerts and events, working with Rock & Roll Hall of Famers. So growing up we’d be backstage with artists like Ray Charles, Michael McDonald, No Doubt. Which was so much fun. That was normal everyday fare for us.
Mom, Lisa Nomura Ishibashi, is a fabulous singer — her mother, Mary Kageyama Nomura, who’s 92 and still performing, was known as the Songbird of Manzanar in the internment camps during WWII. That’s how she met my grandpa, Shiro Nomura — she was the songstress who would perform at the camp dances. And on my paternal side, my grandfather’s sister was also a trained singer.
The Slant: So it was kind of always in the blood.
BI: I think so. My parents just wanted us to follow our dreams. My older sister Brittany, who stars in Marvel’s The Runaways on Hulu, kind of paved the way for me and Brianna, who’s a writer and actress. We all grew up doing kid’s theatre, then Brittany became involved in the drama programs in middle and high school, and Brianna and I followed in her footsteps. We all majored in theatre for undergrad, and all of us are in the arts now.
2. What gets you excited to create your work?
BI: Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to help people. And I’ve noticed I’m largely inspired to do work that has a larger sociopolitical message or can impact different groups of people. So I tend to gravitate toward work that can make a dent, that can help people, inform people, educate.
The relevance of [Cambodian Rock Band] is huge, and so I gravitated toward it like a magnet. The story partially takes place during the Cambodian genocide in the 70’s and it feels like a very important story to tell now, in 2017, so we never repeat the egregious mistakes of the past.
I think I’m also excited by work that’s different, that’s stimulating and challenging, work that cuts deep into the belly fat. I never wanted to be in Miss Saigon, although I applaud that show for employing so many POC over the years. But that just wasn’t my route. I look for work that’s out of the box, and I’ve done a lot of experimental theatre in New York. I spent 11 years in New York doing Off-Broadway stuff that paid me shit, but was helping me discover myself as an artist.
Speaking of theater salaries, I’ve been working with Fair Wage Onstage, a grassroots movement of Actors’ Equity members who are working alongside the Union to fight for higher wages and stronger contracts. FWoS has made huge strides for Equity members. So follow them on social media!
TS: What’s one of your favorite things you’ve done?
BI: I mean, [Cambodian Rock Band] has got to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s so challenging on so many levels: I’m the lead singer in the band in the show, singing all of the music in Khmer (pronounced “kmai”).
It’s a very unique language and a very unique type of music. Think psychedelic surf rock bubblegum pop. So it’s been incredibly challenging to learn the music by ear. Luckily, one of our cast members, Joe Ngo, is Cambodian and his mother will make little recordings for me to learn the Khmer phonetically.
And on top of the music, the play itself is incredibly funny and heart-wrenching, definitely an emotional rollercoaster for the actors and the audience.
It’s work that actors hope for, because you get to really test your mettle and use every trick in your bag. You even learn some you didn’t know you had.
It’s pretty fucking awesome.
3. What do you do when you hit a creative block?
BI: You know, it’s — it’s a very challenging thing for artists because it happens constantly. Have you heard of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic?
TS: I haven’t.
BI: It’s incredible. It’s about pushing through your creative roadblocks and how your roadblocks stem from fears and vulnerabilities. And how to find the courage to live a creative life.
But I think a large part of the work is just continuing to show up. I remember reading a quote from Broadway legend Chita Rivera years ago when someone was asking her what advice she had for young performers. She more or less said, “Just get out of bed and show up.”
The artists who treat their careers like they’re the CEO of their own company and create office hours for themselves, who treat their creative work as a job job — they’re the ones who grow the most and become the most successful in my opinion. Because it’s a lifelong commitment.
Sometimes I have to remind myself to just keep showing up and try to be gentle with myself because I’m very impatient. I tend to push my way through the roadblocks, but it’s important to remember that sometimes, just showing up is enough. I have to remember to meditate, get a massage, and you know…treat yo self!
TS: I’m a big proponent of self-care, so I do like treat yo self.
BI: Treat yo self! And beyond that, I need to constantly find things to be inspired by — there are so many Asian American artists and I’ve found so much joy in supporting their work. I love filmmakers like Justin Chon, and his film Gook, and there are a lot of people like Justin who are doing such inspiring things. I love seeing one of our own breaking barriers, creating and challenging the norms, and creating a new norm. Which I think is incredibly important, especially for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who are kind of the last group to have a movement of our own.
TS: Who’s your dream collaborator?
BI: Depends on which medium. Because if it’s music versus musical theatre versus straight theatre versus TV versus film, I think it’s someone different in every medium. I gotta think about that one.
4. What’s something you’ve been really into lately?
BI: I’ve been really into Halo Top ice cream lately, because it’s the best treat ever, and every carton is around 300 calories total, so I don’t feel guilty. I was on the hunt for the pumpkin pie flavor for months. All my friends would text me leads on where they saw it and it became this game until I finally found it.
TS: I read a tweet that said, “Halo Top is the best space toothpaste ever.”
TS: Is that pretty accurate?
BI: It depends on which flavor you get. Birthday cake, red velvet and cookie dough are my favorites, but I also really like pumpkin pie and the mochi green tea is incredible. You gotta try it.
TS: Yeah, but they say you can eat the whole pint, but then you just keep buying more.
BI: That’s how they get you. They trap you.
TS: I think we need to get Halo Top to sponsor this segment now.
5. When did you first feel successful?
BI: I was always that super high-achieving young person, always the student class president. And it was something that mattered to me because I wanted to do — here’s the thing. It never felt like a self-serving thing — in my mind, the higher point of visibility I had, the more people I could reach and the louder my voice could get. I think that was my main motivation behind over-achieving when I was young. I thought I could serve a greater good.
I guess I felt successful when I started getting accolades in school, because getting a reward feels like a level of achievement. That’s what I thought it meant to be successful, because I was getting commended for my work, or for being an advocate for other students.
TS: That’s so interesting, because usually the people who run for student council do it because it’s going to make them the cool people. But your goals were actually altruistic.
BI: Yeah I don’t know if I did much — how much can you really accomplish when you’re in student office, because you don’t have a lot of power. (laughs)
TS: You feel like you do.
BI: Yeah. I’m realizing now that it actually started me down the path where I knew I wanted to be a performer. To backtrack, when I was a kid and was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said, “A tap-dancing doctor!” Because I knew I wanted to help people and I also wanted to entertain them. I just didn’t figure out how I could do that in tandem until I was older.
So now I can work in a profession where I have some degree of visibility, and perhaps I can use that platform to be a kind of voice and have some kind of positive impact on the community at large.
But I think that’s kind of where it came from and I think that’s where I get my success mentality.
6. If you were a dog, which breed would you be?
BI: Can I change it to cat?
TS: Alright, yeah!
BI: If I could be a cat — the thing is, I don’t know cat breeds, so I don’t know. I’ll just describe it. I wanna be a fluffy, kinda chubby house cat, who sits around the house, plays, eats and cuddles.
TS: That reminds me of that Ali Wong bit where she says, “I don’t wanna lean in, I wanna lie down.”
BI: I wanna lie down! I love Ali Wong.
7. Bonus question from artist and streamer Mimi from Mimiatures: what do you want for Christmas, and are you on the nice list or the naughty list?
BI: I would love a complete overhaul of our administration. That’s my number one wish, if we’re getting political. My number two is a new boyfriend. That’d be great. My number three is a home for all the displaced animals from these fires in LA! All the shelters are full. The East and West Valley shelters are full, so my social media feed is flooded with the urgent need for foster or forever homes, because they don’t have any room for incoming animals. I want them to have homes!
And I’m definitely on the nice list karmically, like in terms of being a good person I think? But in other ways, maybe I’m on the naughty list. This might be TMI. I don’t know if you want to publish this. But I broke up with my boyfriend last year, and I’ve been on so many dating apps and I’ve never had so much fun dating. I was a late bloomer.
TS: What’s on your Tinder profile?
BI: Oh, I don’t have Tinder. I tried it, but I didn’t really like it. I’m on Hinge, which is kind of like social media, but as a dating app. I tried Bumble, but it’s just so saturated and it’s a lot of freaking work.
TS: Anything we should plug?
BI: So my sisters and I have been working on our own show called The Sisters Ishibashi, and we shot a trailer last year. We worked with The Brothers Riedell, who directed it and played the husbands, and we’ve been working on pitching that for the last year or so. So I would say my sisters are my dream collaborators. They’re my best friends in the world, and we wanted to tell the story of our super tight-knit Japanese showbiz family. My dad thinks he’s the Asian Tom Jones. We’re an endearingly wacky, co-dependent family unit.
TS: I completely forgot we were going to come back to that. Thanks for answering that question.
BI: I’m bringing it back full circle!
TS: What’s a question you want to ask our next guest, not knowing who it’ll be?
BI: You can ask the Dalai Lama one question only. What is it?
Brooke Ishibashi is an actor and singer who has originated and developed roles in new works by Maltby & Shire, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Qui Nguyen, BD Wong, Lloyd Suh, Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Kimber Lee, Kate Benson, Sam Chanse, Jon Kern & Boo Killebrew under the direction of Evan Cabnet, Thomas Kail, May Adrales, Lear deBessonet, Lee Sunday Evans, Baayork Lee & Daniel Fish. She is writing a musical solo show inspired by the life & music of Pat Suzuki. Her sketch character “AKIKO!” has been featured on American Idol and in NYC comedy clubs. Brooke holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
She is currently developing a pilot presentation for The Sisters Ishibashi with her sisters Brittany and Brianna, and will be starring in Lauren Yee’s new play, Cambodian Rock Band, at South Coast Repertory March 4–25. She lives in Los Angeles with her adopted cat Kika. Find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.