As reported here last month, Elizabeth Liang spent the month of May performing, at a venue in Los Angeles, a one-woman show about being a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. As some readers may recall, Liang is a self-described Guatemalan-American business brat of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent. She was brought up by peripatetic parents in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East, and Connecticut. Many of us were curious about not only how she could pack all of that personal history into a solo stage performance, but also how the (mostly American) audiences would respond. Today is the day we get to find out. Take it away, Elizabeth!
I had no idea what to expect from audiences when I opened my solo show, Alien Citizen, in Hollywood, California, on May 3rd (it closed June 1st).
Since the show is about my upbringing as a dual citizen of mixed heritage in six countries, I assumed it would appeal mainly to Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) and people of mixed heritage—the people I wrote it for, since we rarely see our stories portrayed on stage or screen.
I wanted the show to be funny, but wasn’t sure if the humor would translate.
And I wanted people to be moved by the story.
Some pleasant surprises
As it turned out:
1) I was happily surprised by the composition of the audience. People of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages came to see my performance. Some were Americans who had never left their home state until college, others had moved domestically countless times as kids. By the same token, I was pleased that the audience did include ATCKs, global nomads, people of mixed heritage, expats, and immigrants.
2) Many of the houses were full. I had tentatively hoped the story would resonate with enough people to fill the house because the play is about identity, which everyone grapples with. That said, I didn’t expect everyone to empathize with my lifelong experience as an outsider of some kind and even feared that this experience would alienate some audience members… The full houses suggested that the show was actually resonating with most people. For this I must give credit to my director, Sofie Calderon, because she guided me to a brave and inclusive performance. I also take pride in the script, which I worked on for two years.
3) The audience laughed in the right places, mostly. I was astounded at the number of laughs I got in my preview performance. It was wonderful. This continued once the play got under way, although I did have a few quiet nights, when the audience was listening intently and smiling rather than laughing. (Then there was the night when a man in the front row fell asleep. This thickened my skin…after I considered quitting!)
4) The audiences were moved—not only at the end of the play where it was intended, but throughout the performance. People told me that they oscillated between tears and laughter for a large part of the performance—the highest praise I could have hoped for.
Nights to remember
The performance that stands out most for me was the first time my parents, brother, and aunt came to watch me. They had all traveled internationally or cross-country to see it.
My parents and brother are characters in the show, so I was unsure of how they might react. That night got some of the biggest laughs, and my family told me afterward that while they certainly laughed, they also wept throughout the performance because I was telling their story, too. The show brought back experiences they hadn’t thought of in years.
Opening and closing nights were wildly different and weirdly similar. I performed in abject terror on opening weekend, and while I kept it hidden from the audience, it was difficult to enjoy myself on stage. Through the run, I gained heaps of confidence, and was able to relax and “play” more.
However, the final show was reminiscent of opening night in that it wasn’t my best. An actor’s performance is like a speeding train with no seats—ideally, the actor makes a flying leap to catch it, hangs onto the rails, and rides it without falling. Sometimes, though, the actor has to sprint for some time to catch the train, using every skill s/he has—and then keeps slipping from the handrails and grabbing them again, never able to “coast” and enjoy the ride.
I was sorry that my closing night wasn’t a great ride for me, but the good thing about performing for different groups of people each night is that the audience has no idea of what to expect, yet the story remains the same. So closing night still managed to get a standing ovation, as had other nights.
Lessons learned from “coming out” on stage
Performing Alien Citizen was a “coming out” for me. Although I told the story as entertainingly as possible, the play explores the darker aspects of having a peripatetic childhood, being a child of color and mixed heritage in the socially segregated USA of my youth, and being a girl blooming into womanhood on the hostile sidewalks of North Africa and the cold campus of a women’s college in the States.
I had never told these stories publicly (and rarely in private) because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all of the wondrous experiences I’d had as a TCK (including life in North Africa and at college), but also because I’m accustomed to listeners failing to understand my point. Hearing negative stories, people tend to conclude that a peripatetic childhood is terrible, or that the country in question is not worth visiting. But that isn’t what I’m trying to say.
Alien Citizen was my attempt to pronounce that:
- Being a nomad, a kid of mixed heritage, and a girl can be hard.
- This doesn’t nullify the glorious experiences to be had from having any or all of these selves.
- The accompanying stories—positive and negative—have a right to be told. They are rarely told, they validate many people’s experiences, and they make a good yarn.
The overwhelmingly positive response of my audiences, night after night, taught me that my story is relatable and interesting, and that it’s a testament to my own strength as a human being, something I hadn’t known would be the case.
Doing the show also confirmed my belief that if a story is told with humor, people will listen to the darker side of it, and empathize.
I’ve been approached by universities in and out of state, as well as venues in Central America, to perform the show and teach workshops on how to create a solo show.
I hope to take the show all over the world.
I’m profoundly grateful that the world premiere of Alien Citizen has led to so many opportunities. I will also teach workshops in Los Angeles starting this fall.
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Readers, I feel moved by this report even though I didn’t get to witness Elizabeth Liang’s deeply moving performance. (Elizabeth, please bring the show to New York so that I can see it!) How about you—any further questions for this brave and bold artist?
STAY TUNED for next week’s posts, featuring yet more international creatives as well as the latest episode in our fictional expat series, Libby’s Life.
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img: Elizabeth Liang performing Alien Citizen in LA.