Karin Kawamoto is a user experience designer, researcher and strategist based in New York. She has directed some of the most complex and iconic design projects in finance and has made a successful career of developing tech-focused methodologies for companies seeking to incorporate best practices and solutions. In 2020, she oversaw the development of applications that are now used as the premier production finance and management systems in the entertainment industry. Prior to her impressive career in technology, Karin graduated from the University of California, Irvine and pursued a life in the performing arts. Her first role was as a dancer in “Bugs Bunny Goes Hollywood” at a theme park in Santa Clara, CA followed by involvement in a variety of other productions including a performance with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and multi-year tours with A Chorus Line. Her current passion is working with Friends of National Asian Artists Cabaret and National Asian Artist Project, two forums that showcase the work of Asian-American theatre artists through performance, outreach and educational programming. From hosting conversations on Clubhouse to performing in virtual cabarets, Karin continues to be an inspiring role model who regularly impacts her community in a positive way. Read on to learn more about Karin and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Karin Kawamoto
Heritage: Japanese American (4th generation on both sides)
Hometown: Technically, born on an Airforce base in Fairfield, CA, but really San Jose, CA
Current City: New York
So hard to say...probably "Friends of NAAP Cabaret," and anything related to National Asian Artists Project.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects?:
My career consisted mostly of many tours of playing "Connie Wong" in A Chorus Line, with a smattering of playing satirical Asian stereotypes in business theater (a Bond girl for The Groundlings and stuff like that), so I guess we have to go with "Connie Wong," for lack of much else to talk about.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Do the work before you jump. Study first. Don't think you can stand on your talent, however extraordinary. If you happen to have extraordinary talent, great. But that won't preclude you from having to know how to work hard someone else's way, so study your craft, whatever that is, and learn self-discipline. I think that when people start to doubt themselves, the easiest thing to do is to fall back on doubting their talent, but if you keep working on your craft, and focus on craft and the quality of your craft, rather than fame, money, or things like that as a success metric, you will survive longer, both emotionally and in your actual artistic pursuits.
Also, be willing to revisit your view of who you are as an artist from time-to-time. I think artistic integrity matters a lot, and one should have it and stick to it, but evaluate which hills you are "willing to die" on. And get feedback on how the world sees you vs. how you see yourself, to make sure that there is some intersection. You can be what you want to be, but I do see lots of people fail because of a misalignment.
This pertains particularly to minorities. So many of us could be playing parts that are not written for us, if we believed it and showed a casting director. It is time to get pushy about it. Show up and make them see you as a leading lady, or an ingenue. But also, if you are 5'1", and want to be a Cagelle in La Cage Aux Folles, I think that is unrealistic. Side note: that was my last community theater audition, and I tumbled in heels for it, and was annoyed that they did not find a place for me! The nerve!
How did you get your start?
I got my start dancing in a theme park in Santa Clara that used to be owned by Marriott's. It's where many got their start in the Bay Area. I was in a show called "Bugs Bunny Goes Hollywood." I often did at least five shows per day in which I started out as a showgirl, changed into a female bunny costume (Bugs’ girlfriend), ran around the audience as a Keystone Cop, and danced as Porky Pig. I was also one of the only people in the "shows" department who fit into the Marlene Dietrich costume, so the woman in charge used to love to put me in a platinum wig and have me moonlight and wave in a sequin halter top on top of a tiny car.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
After my primary career, a friend I met in the one semester I went to performing arts school, asked me to perform in one of the biggest annual benefits, put on by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, called "The Easter Bonnet." I had done one before, but this one was particularly meaningful because half the cast were vets and the other half were young people, and we got the quilt that used to hang in the old Equity lounge to integrate into the piece. We celebrated those lost and I reconnected with two people who studied at the same Santa Clara County dance studio that trained me. It was an emotional and magical moment, and since I quit the business before I managed to get on Broadway, dancing on a Broadway stage was the next best thing.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Well, I basically left because of racism. I got lucky and had started doing somewhat prestigious touring companies, so my point of reference was really out of whack. Most of my friends had several Broadway shows under their belts. So, I thought I was failing, even though I was getting callbacks to more than half of the things for which I auditioned. I turned down a fifth tour of A Chorus Line because I thought it meant I was stuck, and after hearing, at really big callbacks, "we really like you/think you are really talented, but we are not hiring your type" dozens of times, I just thought I was a failure. There were usually a bunch of tall blondes or big black women in that final callback room. One of those times, a famous director came around the table to shake only my hand when I was the only person let go in a full room. It broke me. And yet, as I say this, I think that the problem was also a total lack of perspective. But really racism. Asians still comprise <8% of casting.
Do you have any mentors?
Baayork Lee, Diane Laurenson, and Marie Stinnett have all had great impacts on my life at various times and gently pushed me along at times when I needed encouragement.
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
Since I haven't always been in the arts, I can't really answer that question, but I will say that I have a vivid memory of being on stage at the age of four, dancing. I remember the feeling, and it was a combination of "joy" and "home."
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
Not really, but once my post-career job intersected with my theatrical career. A guy I'd worked with in A Chorus Line was cater-waitering at a fancy investor's meeting I was working at (I was a stock analyst at the time). I was so happy to see him, I hugged him. I think I got him in trouble...
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Be kinder to yourself, and don't listen to the bullies. Their opinions don't matter. In particular, the opinions of racist bullies do not matter.
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
Where did you study at?
U.C. Irvine - I went at a time when anyone could do shows, even if you weren’t a member of the dept. I am not sure if you still can. So, I took ballet, and did shows, and minored in classical voice. But, I had also danced since I was three, and taken private voice lessons for about five years before that.
As a storyteller, how do you pick the stories you want to work on and what goes into putting a story together, whether on stage, page, or film?
I must be able to find something that is both personally resonant and layered in order to want to tell it, no matter what it is. I mean, I can "shine the shit" when needed, but if I pick something, I want to have something to latch on to. Then, I find the arc and the through lines - do whatever analysis is necessary. Textbook.
I sometimes get accused of imposing themes on things, like cabarets, where people think they are unnecessary. But, the brain wants to make order out of things. So, why not give people some guideposts? Anything can have a story arc if you want it to, so I think it is way more satisfying, even if it is subconscious, for an audience to be given one. I take the songs in the cabarets I have been producing and try to organize them to create a bit of a narrative. Sometimes people notice, and sometimes they don't. But it amuses me to do this. To have the songs talk to one another. It doesn't matter that much to me if everyone understands what I am doing. I think most will have a subconscious understanding of how what they just heard is tied to what they are hearing.
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Megan Hart Belk
May 28, 2021
Loved this! Cool interview, friends!