Kai An is an actress based in New Jersey. Thanks to extracurricular involvement encouraged by her mother, Chee found a passion for music at every school she attended. In middle and high school, she began picking up theatre – upon graduation, she toured with Miss Saigon as a Kim alternate and was most recently seen in Mr. Holland’s Opus at the Ogunquit Playhouse! As a performer, Chee finds it important to prioritize health above all else and to take comfort in knowing her concerns and perceived shortcomings are shared by fellow artists. Her advice to young artists? “There are no rules… be open to working on other things at the same time… and financial stability is nothing to laugh at.” Read on to learn more about Kai An Chee and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Kai An Chee (it's pronounced like the pepper)
Hometown: Penang, Malaysia
Current City: I live in New Jersey
Current project: About to start a reading of a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects: Mr. Holland’s Opus at the Ogunquit Playhouse this past summer.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
There are no rules. So often we worry about getting it “right” and playing by the rules that we give up our sense of agency. Cold email people, use props in your tapes, slate in a different language if they list that as a plus. All within reason of course, and don’t ignore any direct instruction, but I think there’s a lot of ways to be smart, proactive, and effective with how you work.
Also – be open to working on other things at the same time. I know the defenses immediately come up when you hear this, but I’m not suggesting you give up on your dreams. I work part-time in marketing at a tech start-up, and I really enjoy it. Working on something else is a great way to get some perspective and space from this difficult career. It can push and grow you in ways that translate to better artistry as well. And financial stability is nothing to laugh at. I want to be able to provide for my family one day. So be smart. Look for jobs that are flexible, remote, and allow you to develop skills you already have as an artist (we have been marketing ourselves since day one).
I used to think I had to choose one or the other, but I was thinking too small. I want to simultaneously grow my career in both industries. There are too many things I want to achieve to continue to put myself in a box.
How did you get your start?
My mom’s approach to extracurriculars was getting me exposed to everything – sports, dance, music - and then from there we chose what stuck. It was always music. I also moved around a lot as a kid because of my dad’s job. Whenever I joined a new school, choir was an easy thing to join in on. I knew from a very young age that music was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
My high school and middle school had a great fine arts program with a nurturing faculty, and that’s where I really got into musicals and stage performance. I will forever be grateful to them for giving me a very strong foundation, and to my parents for giving me every opportunity possible and supporting me every day.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
Making my Kim debut at the Kennedy Center while I was touring with Miss Saigon was definitely a highlight.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
I used to think that once you got your foot in the door with one big job that you would be set. And sure, maybe that’s true for some. But it certainly was (and is) not for me. I will be very honest when I share that I am not a person who works a lot. And I realize now that it’s not necessarily the first job you book but the next one and the one after that that makes a working actor.
I did Saigon right after I graduated and I think it gave me that fake sense of “now everything is going to be fine.” But then the pandemic happened and I’m still scraping my life together as we slowly return to normalcy. My calendar is not full. I didn’t get a single callback for a summer project until Opus happened. Dealing with all of the in-between time that threatens to make me doubt myself and lose hope has been a real challenge.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
My faith is the thing that keeps me afloat through every failure, mistake, and long period of waiting. I am a Christian, and I believe in God. I know that’s not a popular or trendy thing to be nowadays but I really don’t care because I know who God is to me.
My last performance of Saigon was definitely not my best moment. After being in the ensemble and understudying for a year, I was asked to be Kim Alternate for a couple months. It was a gift that I never thought I would get. During my last show I was feeling under the weather, but I didn’t call out because my music teacher from home had flown from Shanghai to the States to watch me play Kim. I made some dumb vocal decisions to push myself despite not being at 100%, and I paid for it right at the end of “I’d Give My Life for You.” My voice cracked like a whip, loud and clear and so shocking that I flinched.
I was so embarrassed that I went back to my dressing room and cried through intermission. I felt like I’d failed my teacher, who had come all this way only to watch such a lousy performance. My company, who I'd let down at such a pivotal and iconic moment in the show. And myself – I'd so deeply wanted to be "perfect" in my last show, but instead I'd made a dumb choice that led to a glaring mistake.
You may be thinking “it’s just one crack, it happens to the best of us, not a big deal,” and I totally get that. It’s true. But I was trying to reconcile that reality with the anxiety that I felt crashing over me, and as many of you may know it’s not always that easy. But I sucked it up and did act two, and while it was not my best performance at least it was clean. When I look back, this is the moment that I try to reframe as the most important one in the story. The one where I made the choice to get back up and keep going.
After that, I went back to New York to complete the worst string of auditions I’d ever had. I had a bunch of auditions for huge shows, Broadway roles and pre-Broadway tryouts, and I bombed each and every one of them. A week later I found out that I had bronchitis, but this story isn’t me trying to use sickness to justify my failures. Because it doesn't really matter – I made the choice to walk into those rooms, to put the pride of being a performer above prioritizing my health. After all of that happened, my confidence was shot and I felt myself wallowing at the bottom of a deep hole.
Shortly after that, the world closed down and I moved to my parents’ place. I felt like my career had been paused at its lowest point, and every time I mentally revisited the life I had left behind in New York all I could see was my string of mess-ups. But because I didn’t have the opportunity to redeem myself – not for two years, at least – those memories grew into something scary, something that fed me lots of lies about how I was a failure.
When I came back to the city after the pandemic, I felt like I was hanging off a precipice. That I had to get everything perfect this time around – to prove to myself, if anything, that I could still do it. But that’s no way to live a life, to live as an artist, to work hard and share and grow. Because no matter what, I mess up time and time again. And for my value to hang so precariously in the balance of perfection is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Ultimately this all comes back to God. Because it’s not really about my voice cracking on a single note or a bad audition. It’s about value, because isn’t that what necessitates rebounds and dictates failures? When something that we have put our value in cracks or fades or falls away, that’s when we feel worthless. And I learned, through that series of unfortunate events, that my value had been so deeply rooted in myself and my worth as a performer.
I’m not saying that I don’t struggle with this at all anymore. It is something I will work on for the rest of my life. But what a gift it is to know that, at the end of the day, my value and my worth is not determined by me. It is held safe and secure in God and his love for me. That is what picks me up when I fall. And damn do I fall. Flat on my face, day after day after day. But I rest in the assurance that I am not falling aimlessly, and I am not falling alone.
To find out more about Kai An Chee, please visit her at:
Instagram: @kaiancheeWebsite: www.Kaianchee.com
Comments will be approved before showing up.