Over the last 30 years, The National Asian American Theatre Company has established itself as a leading Off-Broadway theatre of classics, new plays, and adaptations—all featuring Asian American casts. But artistic producing director Mia Katigbak, who co-founded NAATCO with Richard Eng in 1990, says she started the organization “kicking and screaming.” After struggling to book jobs in the classic repertory work they’d been trained to perform, Katigbak and Eng took matters into their own hands. Producing had never been her goal, but inevitably became her path. A forward-thinker to the core, Katigbak is a pioneer of Asian American representation in theatre.
After over a decade of successfully producing European and American classics, and securing a summer slate at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre (then on 26th Street), Katigbak began to ask: “What next?” Wanting to remain in conversation with her original mission, she expanded NAATCO’s programming to include adaptations of the classical canon. The first adaptation, in 2005, was a re-imaging of Cyrano titled Cowboy vs. Samurai by Michael Golamco, a budding playwright who would later go on to co-write the Netflix hit, Always Be My Maybe.
Supporting early-career writers has since been embedded into NAATCO’s DNA. In 2007, the company presented Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’ blind mouth singing, a production which marked the launch of NAATCO’s third programming mission: to premiere new plays written by non-Asian Americans (and not specifically for or about Asian Americans), but still featuring entirely Asian American casts. Other productions under this objective include the New York premieres of MJ Kaufman’s Sagittarius Ponderosa and Jordan Harrison’s Futura.
Alongside her championing of writers, new and established, Katigbak’s spirit of activism propels NAATCO's evolution. While producing the company’s first-ever production, a trio of Chekhov one-acts at the Henry Street Settlement in 1990, Katigbak was busy curating the Asian American community’s protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce (in yellow face) in the Broadway-bound Miss Saigon. In 2003, NAATCO produced Archibald Macleish’s Air Raid, a radio play about the perils of fascism in protest against the U.S. war in Iraq. “I don’t consider myself an actively political person, but there have been times where I react because of anger,” says Katigbak. “There have been responses to what’s happening in the zeitgeist. It’s always there, even if not consciously so.”
Katigbak’s career has been a balance between her initial ambition (acting) and this new passion (producing). She has continued to act, both in NAATCO shows and other productions. Currently, she can be seen in the world premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Headlands (through March 22). A contemporary noir set in San Francisco, the play follows amateur sleuth and true crime aficionado Henry as he sets out to solve his biggest mystery yet. “I loved it,” says Katigbak, of first reading The Headlands. “The fact that it’s an Asian American family is incidental, not critical. It doesn’t revolve around the Asian American-ness; although we see George as a Chinese immigrant, the story really is about a kid who’s trying to solve his father’s murder.”
Katigbak plays Pat and older Leena, Henry’s mother, whose own memories of the events only seem to add to the labyrinth of secrets and deceptions. (NAATCO is also represented in the design of The Headlands; its stunning film projections, by Ruey Horng Sun, are integrated into a scenic design by NAATCO alum Kimie Nishikawa.)
Looking ahead, Katigbak is sowing the seeds for what she hopes will be impactful, long-lasting relationships with theatres around the country as part of her newest initiative: NAATCO's National Partnership Project. Part of that will include a commitment to form-pushing work. “As much as I want to work for Asian American representation, I also want to contribute to the form of theatre itself,” she says. “To innovate it, or challenge it. I want to be a good citizen.”