Let Your Voice Be Heard
By Michelle Liu Coughlin
When Dev first reached about my interest in writing an article for the Live & In Color blog, my first instinct was to decline the offer. I immediately got butterflies in my stomach and that voice in my head started spouting out all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it. Who do you think you are? You’re not a writer! Who’s going to care about your experiences anyway? Since listening to Shonda Rhimes’ audiobook, Year of Yes, in January of this year, I have been pushing myself to step out of my comfort zone. If I could overcome my fear, my story might positively impact another person’s life. I took a deep breath and replied, “Yes, I’d love to write something!”
Now the question became, what am I going to write? I began brainstorming for several days and came up with a bunch of ideas, but I needed to narrow them down. Whenever I have these moments in my life I call my sister. We put our heads together and what follows are a few thoughts I wanted to share.
As a child, I was very athletic and I played every competitive team sport available at my school. Basketball was my favorite. I dreamed of one day playing as a guard for the UConn Huskies. I learned very quickly what it took to be a starter on a winning team. Every day after school our coaches would put us through hours of offensive and defensive maneuvers, ball handling exercises and shooting drills. I was a pretty good ball handler and aided in many assists for the team, but I was not starting five material. I was short and scrappy and most of the other girls towered over me. I had a hard time getting the ball past them to score.
I knew I needed to make a change. I devised a strategy to work on my perimeter shooting. Maybe I couldn’t penetrate the defense to get inside the paint to score, but if I improved my outside jump shot, there was no way they could prevent me from making baskets. It took vision, a reassessment of my game, and a lot of hours in the gym to bring that plan to fruition; and that is exactly what transpired. I have never felt comfortable being handed anything unless I knew I earned it through my blood, sweat, and tears.
Fast forward to my first few years in New York. I was thrilled to be in the ensemble of several shows, but I was often the only Asian in the cast. On a number of occasions I overheard other cast members insinuating that I had only been hired to ‘add a splash of color to the show’ and that I was the ‘token Asian’. That really hurt! Being handed a job in order to fill a quota was so against my principles. I knew deep down that I was there because I had put in the work, but I couldn’t help wondering if they were right: Did my talent and ability really get me these jobs?
To complicate matters even further I also experienced a good deal of discrimination from my fellow Asian performers. My mother is Taiwanese and my father is Irish American. I originally heard the term “Hapa” at one of my first auditions in New York. As I was awaiting my turn, I saw a group of Asian girls whispering and shushing each other as they stared at me from across the room. One of the girls came over to me and said “You’re hapa, aren’t you?” I looked at her perplexed because I had never heard that term. And, by the look on her face and her snide delivery, I was pretty sure she wasn’t giving me a compliment. Hapa is a Hawaiian pidgin word that means “half,” “part,” or “mixed.” But the term came to refer primarily to mixed race people of Asian and Caucasian descent.
Throughout my career, I have struggled with the challenges associated with being mixed race. I have never been made to feel like I belong to either culture. At times it has been disheartening, painful, and lonely. I have actually walked into auditions anxiously wondering, “Am I going to be Asian enough today?” And although I am half Irish American, in my youth, I was subjected to an immense amount of teasing, taunting, and name calling for being Asian. As a professional actor, I have perceived discrimination by both the artistic teams and colleagues alike. I used to take this kind of critique very personally, which only re-enforced my feelings of ineptness of being Asian. Now, I understand that it is more of a societal issue; one that still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusion.
When I am cast in a role, my job as an actor is to portray that character fully and honestly, to tell the story and support the director’s vision. The fact that I am a mixed Asian actor does not make me less than. I am Asian. I am an actor. I am capable of portraying Asian characters and telling their stories completely.
The 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report stated that due to the increase in audience diversity, the demand for diverse characters and meaningful stories has also increased. In recent years, we have begun to see a visible shift in terms of diversity and inclusion in theatre, television, and film. But there is still so much more to be done.
In order to continue the momentum, we must take it upon ourselves and contribute to the cause. We need to be more courageous in celebrating our differences and sharing our stories. Several years ago, I asked myself what I could do to contribute in a positive way. I was unable to find a place where I felt understood and supported, so I created my own community. The group has evolved into a multi-cultural, diverse body of artists that come together to support and celebrate each other’s artistic endeavors. It is a safe place where we can discuss the challenges we face as artists of color; but our primary focus is on the work and on continually elevating and improving our craft.
In the early years of our collective, our format was a class setting in which we worked on audition materials and scene study. But in recent years, we have become more of a collaborative group that produces readings, short films and theatrical projects. It is empowering to create and work on your own projects in the presence of like-minded and supportive artists. I encourage others to do the same. Create your own tribe, use your voices and tell your stories. Seize the opportunity to let your voice be heard! I jumped off the cliff, and it can be daunting at times… but, I hope you will join me!
Michelle is an actress, singer and producer currently living in New York City, where she has performed in theatrical productions at City Center, Playwrights Horizons, The York Theatre Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre. She toured with Lincoln Center’s National Company of The King and I, directed by Bartlett Sher, and has appeared at many other regional theatres including Arena Stage, The Kennedy Center, Kansas City Starlight, Fox Theatre, Pantages Theatre, Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, and North Shore Music Theatre.
Michelle’s television credits include FBI, New Amsterdam, Instinct, The OA, Limitless, Allegiance, and Hostages. Her film credits are It’s Complicated, the Indie thriller Seeds, L’Odge D’Oor, and the Independent short film, I Look at You All. She has also appeared in commercials for Kia Motors, Bank of America, Verizon, Volkswagon and Baby’s R Us.
To empower others to achieve their goals, Michelle created a series of acting sessions: On Camera, Scene Study, Audition Technique, and Dance for Actors. The participants are diverse and supportive artists dedicated to improving their craft and creating their own opportunities. Michelle produced the group’s short film entitled 2B which won a Top 40 Best of the Fest Award in the 2015 Asian American Film Lab 72 Hour Shootout.
In addition to her artistic pursuits, Michelle has worked for Estee Lauder Companies, one of the top beauty conglomerates in the world. She has a true passion for makeup and skincare. She enjoys sharing her insights on the importance of sunscreen and having a good daily skincare regimen. With her many years working in the marketing department for leading cosmetic brands, Michelle understands the business of the biz.
Michelle takes pride in her charity efforts for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. She has organized several benefit concerts and fundraising events in their honor.
She is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA.