By: Nia Soulette
Professor Michi Barall is a visiting assistant professor of Theatre and Performance. During this 2021 fall semester, Barall is teaching Theatre Histories II, a new course that she proposed on Asian American Theatre and Performance, and is also a senior project advisor.
This is Barall’s second year here at Purchase, and last year with everything being on Zoom due to the pandemic, it was quite new to her because she was teaching 80 students on the platform.
“This fall it feels a little less new in the sense that we’ve been on Zoom all year, but still feels like a pedagogical challenge trying to figure out how to use the medium and also deliver the content and help people make connections with each other," Barall said. "Though in a way it was lucky because teaching theatre history means I got to know 80 students off the bat, so it allowed me to know many students quickly. I do have to say being back on campus and being in person I feel so excited to be in the classroom with my students, and they are extremely thrilled to be in the classroom.”
This past spring Barall taught two courses: American Theatre in Our Time and Theatre in Asia. Discussing the latter, she stated, “Most of my students aren't Asian American, but I think we all feel connected to the material. We do historical framing in the first third of the course, look at plays by contemporary playwrights in the second, and in the last third the students take over [and] do presentations on Asian American music, sports figures, food, social media, television and film, and YouTube performances.”
When asked what she adores most about acting, Barall responded, “I've always loved just being in the room with people. Every rehearsal is a time of discovery and encounter and I love that part of it.”
Barall started as an undergrad at Stanford University, which she loves, and credits her experience at the college with discovering her passion for theatre.
“Broadway playwright David Henry Wong founded the Asian American Theatre Project there and I saw auditions for a play by Jeannie Barroga called “Walls,” which is a story of Maya lin," she said. "I thought of possibly getting cast in this play, so I auditioned, and that is where I started acting.”
While reflecting on her Stanford days, Barall recalled how exciting of a time it was to be at the school; she notes that quite like today, there was a lot of focus on curriculum change and diversifying the curriculum. The year before she arrived at the school, sit-ins had already begun taking place at the president's office to pay close attention to beginning to foreground the stories of people of color and women.
After her time at Stanford, Barall went to NYU for grad acting, followed by 10 years of being a regional theatre actor and some off-Broadway work. A transitioning period came, and she decided to go back to school to get her Ph.D. at Columbia, earning it in 2020.
“I have to say in my heart I still think of myself as an actor," Barall said. "I love being with actors, which is the wonderful thing about being at Purchase because there are so many actors in the department, and getting to mentor actors in their senior project is amazing; I’d say three of my mentees are actors.”
When asked what she adores most about acting, Barall responded, “I would say being with people. I just love being in rehearsal with other people and finding the shape of something.”
For Barall the heart of being an actor always had to do with the theatre itself, which she believes to be a really wonderful thing about teaching. She says, “any investigation into any aspect of the theatre is just a query into what it is and what your relationship to it might be, especially in this time when so much theatre is shut down it's just like a way of expanding into the form over time. I had a teacher when I was at NYU who said, ‘you have to think of yourself not just as a member of this class, but you have to think of yourself as part of this tradition of 2,500 years of people solving problems in the theatre.’”
The scholar, actor, and playwright enjoys reading memoirs and working on creative projects in her personal time. The current Zoom play recording that she is acting in came about through a conference she attended as a scholar on Asian American performance. Barall is also working on two installments of a short film for a family in quarantine with Jack Tamburri, who runs the department on campus.
“We wrote something reflective of what was actually a home-school project for them,” said Barall. “I also wrote a piece I have been meaning to write for three years. It’s a play for a young audience that centers on a young Asian American girl in Minneapolis in 1996/1997 who is selectively mute but a lot of her investment is in drawing. It is a play exploring live drawing on stage and what you can do with live drawing. Since a comic book artist mentors her, it is a little bit of history of comic art from the late 90s on the development from the strip into the web scene.”
Professor Barall started writing plays as a practice of adaptation, which led to her first two big plays being adaptations.
“In each play, my interest has always been in interdisciplinary work, so the first one was a dance theatre piece, the second one was a music theatre piece, and this one is drawing, so it's more of a visual and theater," she said. "Every time I go into something it's slightly with an attempt to work across disciplines; I feel like that's one of the real strengths of theater and this department. Theater is kind of like everything; it is visual art, it’s dance, it’s acting, it’s objects and performance, it’s media now too, it's kind of like the big bucket.”
Before coming to Purchase Barall taught freshman writing at Columbia, introduction to theatre at NYU, and taught online at MIT, expressing her deep admiration and love for Purchase students.
“I just feel like they're genuinely grounded and ambitious in a non-competitive way, really great with each other and supportive of each other, and very much they have a lot of agency in building their own projects and community," Barall said. "They have such a commitment to learning the material and responsibility to their future, and this future space feels really full of possibility and challenge.”
From her courses, Barall hopes her students take away a sense of heritage or ownership.
“Specifically, because I teach theatre history, I think I want everyone to feel like history is theirs,” she said. “Especially people who might have felt excluded in some way, both because history has been told in a particular way and also because often people don't feel as connected as they could or as they should.”
“I came to school with the slight sense of lack, I was the first person in my family to go to college, both my parents were immigrants, I really felt like I hadn't come equipped with what everyone else had. I felt a deficit and questioned my abilities, so for me, what I really want students to know is that the people who write history are simply people just like them, and that what we need most is everyone's voice, it is what we all need to move forward.”
Barall went on to voice, “Information is still so precious even though there's an abundance. Being able to analyse the information we get /break it down, figure out how it's been coded, figure out what you want to do with it, and where you can enter the conversation and change the terms of the conversation, I think that's really kind of what I hope for”.
Barall offered a final piece of advice to those wishing to pursue an acting or theatre performance career.
“Stay open to the journey because you really don’t know where it is going to take you. There is a lot out of your control, but you will be on the right path if you can take care of your heart and keep your heart open. Showing up authentically is the whole game of being the artist; being available to other people but also trusting in your own presence and your ability to be present.”