Laughter and Practicality- Theater lessons with May Lee-Yang

COMPAS Literary and Theater artist, May Lee-Yang, highlights special moments from her 8-week theater series that takes participants through a journey of culture, heritage, self-reflection, and laughter.

I teach an 8-week series at COMPAS called “Playing Around With Theater.” Over eight weeks, we dabble in storytelling using statues and tableau, try out improv, play around with simple shadow puppets, and share stories about our lives. Though this is not necessarily a comedy class, we always laugh.

This past spring, I worked with Hmong senior citizens from the Park Elder Center in Minneapolis. Even though I am bilingual, it’s always a challenge for me to teach the things I know in English—in this case, theater—in the Hmong language and in a Hmong context.  After all, storytelling is part of Hmong culture; theater is not.              

People in my classes often tell me they have no talent, no stories to tell, nothing to contribute.

But when I ask questions, everyone has an opinion.

One day I asked the elders, “When you were still in Laos, what did you think about Americans and America?” This led to stories about myths about America. Lots of them involved American monsters eating Hmong people.

People talked about foods they ate when sustenance was scarce: “The American soldiers brought canned meat. It was pink, and we all thought it was made up of ground-up humans. I was sure I even saw a finger in there. But we were so hungry, we ate it. And it was delicious!”

I suspect they were talking about SPAM.   

Our classes were often short of men, so during our improv classes, there was a lot of gender-bending. It was interesting to see women’s interpretations of other genders. Even people who sat on the sidelines offered tips and offered alternative acting choices to the performers, showing they were natural directors. They just didn’t know it.

One day, a woman asked, "Can we use acting to help those of us who don't speak English to navigate hospitals?"

I knew that teaching people English was not necessarily the answer, so I emphasized that, even if we don't know words, we can use our bodies, voices, and facial expressions to convey messages like "I need to use the bathroom", "I hurt here", and so forth.    

Another woman said, “I know we’re not here just for fun. This [theater] is good for my body. It helps me to exercise and laugh, so I'm not so depressed."

I used to think of theater as a form of entertainment, but I’ve come to appreciate it as a medium for community-building, building confidence, building comradery, learning other people’s stories, and taking imagination leaps that would not happen in another environment.  And, yes, theater can be used as a practical tool for navigating everyday life.

~ By COMPAS Artist, May Lee-Yang

Check out other writing by May Lee-Yang...
Blog post: Youth, Art, & Change
Artist Spotlight: Multifaceted Writer