Photo by Kinectiv
Manna Nichols-Wong is an actress based in NYC. She fell into the industry thanks to (positive) peer pressure from friends to overcome her shyness. After shifting from biology/premed major to music education, she’s gone on to perform in the Lincoln Center’s First National Tour of The King & I (Tuptim), Arena Stage’s My Fair Lady (Eliza Doolittle), as a vocalist for Disney’s live action Beauty & the Beast, and is currently working in City Center Encores’ Dear World (Ens. and Nina u/s)! As a multiracial artist, Nichols-Wong continues to challenge the way the industry perceives performers like her and contributes to change with her onstage presence. Her advice to young artists? “Get as much experience as you can, anywhere that you can… do whatever makes you happy – even if it doesn’t seem popular.” Read on to learn more about Manna Nichols-Wong and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Manna Nichols-Wong
Heritage: I'm mixed: Asian, Native American, and Caucasian
Hometown: Oklahoma City, OK
Current City: NYC
Current project: City Center Encores Dear World (Ens and Nina u/s)
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
Tuptim on the Lincoln Center First National Tour of The King & I, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at Arena Stage, and singing vocals on the Disney live action film, Beauty & the Beast.
Photo by Richard Anderson
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?:
Get as much experience as you can, anywhere that you can – be the lead in your school play, then go and be in the ensemble of the community chorus and learn from people more experience than you, read aloud to little kids, practice public speaking in your classroom or community, sing a new voice part in your church choir, take any kind of dance you can, learn to play some basic piano, play a sport, do whatever makes you happy – even if it doesn't seem popular. Become as well rounded as you possibly can.
How did you get your start?:
My schoolmates used positive peer pressure to get me to audition for the school play with them (after years of auditioning and being rejected because I was so shy). They helped me pick out a song, helped me rehearse it at a sleepover, and cheered for me before and after my audition- turns out, it made all of the difference!
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?:
I think my shared family experiences are absolutely my favorite career memories. It's always a great moment for me when I get to perform for my parents in front of a full house and share what I really LOVE to do. My entire life, they would hear me sing around the house, in my bedroom, in the shower, car, etc., and for them to see this incredibly shy kid have the courage to stand up in front of crowds and open her mouth – I always love seeing their reactions. My entire family also all flew out to watch my Broadway debut, solely because they knew how much it meant to me. I'll never forget how they showed up for me. Also, performing my first role for my now husband – I walked out on stage, sat down to sing my first number, and he and my BIL happened to be sitting RIGHT THERE in front of me! How fun to transform into a ball gown, fly in a pumpkin carriage, and then hug your fiancé afterwards and be like, "yeah, so this is what I do for work!"
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?:
One of the biggest challenges for me is trying to silence the negative comments I will hear about being multiracial, not being "enough" of this or that, or being "too" something else. Our industry and world still have a ways to go in terms of how we view and profile people of color. The change we're seeing is very promising though, and I hope it continues to evolve!
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
No matter how many times I have stepped on stage in a new or old role, I always get a little bit nervous before I go on. Part of me will always be that shy, quiet little kid from my childhood, and I think that's okay – it hasn't stopped me so far!
Who do you admire?
My Grandma is the one who got me into piano lessons when I was little and helped foster and feed my musical interests. She'd get me videos of old R&H shows, find easy versions of piano solos I could play for fun, take me to various high school and community shows and concerts, and let me explore the various pianos and organs at her church. She spent her career as a public school choir teacher and counselor, earning Master's degrees back when most women in her generation didn't even aspire to attend college for a Bachelor’s. When my parents didn't want me to go into this career field, Grandma stood by and encouraged me, supported me, prayed for me, and lifted me up when I was down. None of this could have happened without her. She's my guardian angel.
Do you have any mentors?
My late college professor was another person who really encouraged me to branch out, study, and make a career out of what I truly loved, rather than what everyone in my family and at my school expected me to do. I have always loved teaching, and continue to teach privately, but he knew that I had aspirations to perform professionally. He was the one who finally convinced my parents to back off a bit and let me make my own path and recover from my own mistakes. He knew I needed that extra boost of confidence and support from someone outside of my family. Praise to the teachers and mentors who know how to encourage from afar and respectfully interject when needed.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?:
I initially was accepted to college as a biology/premed major. When I told my parents I really wanted to switch tracks to music, they guided me towards music education so that I could "pay my bills." Haha!
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?:
I went to visit a friend down at Disney and went to an open call on a whim because I was curious about how professional auditions worked. I kept getting called back in throughout the day and Disney ended up offering me a job to play Mulan! I ended up having to turn it down b/c my college professors thought it was "irresponsible" of me to take a semester off to "play." It ate me up inside to think how well I had done on a whim with no training, and made me wonder if my dreams of performing on a larger scale could actually come true if I got professional training, ignored all of the practical academic advice, took a leap of faith and followed my heart. I secretly applied to musical theater school, finished my education degree early, and went for it! Sometimes you just gotta gamble on YOURSELF! I'm so happy that I did!
Is where you are now where you thought you’d be?:
I'm not sure where I thought I would be (probably very young housewife in the midwest, white picket fence, 3-4 kids...) but I've always tried to keep my mind open to adventures and fantastic opportunities! I'm so glad I took a chance on myself and ignored all of the naysayers. I am just so thankful for the life I have today and the people I have met along the way. I'll be able to sincerely tell my students and kids someday to "go for your dreams" because I actually did it myself!
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?:
Woof. I once served meals and cleaned nursing home rooms and bathrooms for part of a summer so that I could have my nights and weekends free to perform. It was the nastiest, dirtiest, most exhausting job of my life and was great motivation to stay in school and apply myself so I didn't have to do that job ever again! (It was also a sad glimpse into the way our country prioritizes senior care...) I considered it a GREAT character study for when I eventually played Cinderella on three other occasions! Haha!
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?:
What an awesome question! I think they passed down a drive to my siblings and I to never give up, take responsibility for our actions, and always try our best. I have never seen them put less than their best forward at work or in their relationships with family, even at times when it wasn't always easy or convenient. My parents always try to maintain their poise and grace when handling challenging situations, and I think that has helped all of us kids succeed in the face of struggles. They also have always been very frank about learning to manage our finances, separating needs from wants, and living within our means, which has helped me in our feast or famine industry on multiple occasions!
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?:
It's okay to be a late bloomer and grow at your own pace. Don't listen to people who try to get you to fit into the mold of what they think your life should be. Listen to Grandma: "You only get to go around this life once, you'd better do everything that makes YOU happy!"
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?:
Take a breath, listen, be kind, and don't be afraid to walk away from projects or people that keep you from being at your best. Learn some basic piano. And learn to manage your finances – hehe!
What is your greatest accomplishment?:
Not sure if I'd call it an accomplishment, or just something that I greatly treasure: My relationships with family and friends.
What do you love most about what you do?:
The fact that I used to just sing for myself in the car/bathtub/bedroom, and now people pay me to perform! My Daddy always told me, "If you find something you love to do, you'll never work a day in your life!" He was so right! I also love how music and art are medicine for the soul- it really has the power to transform your mind, body, spirit, and emotions. I love the restorative properties of art in my life and just how it has the power to uplift others and cause them to think deeper.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?:
Take your time to grieve injuries or mistakes, learn from them, forgive your body, and get back to work one step/day/week/month/year at a time.
How do you deal with performance anxiety?:
I pray in private. :)
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane? What was your self care routine before the pandemic and how has that (as well as your views of self care) changed throughout the pandemic?:
Haha, my self-care often times just turns into "survival triage," but let's see... I think becoming okay with saying no or putting things off when I just can't juggle anymore in a given week has become my new way to advocate for myself. I'm trying to be better without overextending, but it's hard! I also just love playing board games with my husband – it sounds so nerdy, but it's so low-key, fun, and relaxing.
How do you prepare for a role you consider difficult personally, whether it hits too close to home or goes greatly against your personal beliefs?:
For projects that make me feel uncomfortable in any way, I usually just say no from the start. I'm a believer that if you commit to a project, you should see it through, so I try to do my research, ask questions, and have those discussions before ever becoming involved. Just because the project isn't for me doesn't mean that someone else won't be perfect for it – pass and let someone else who's really excited about it have an opportunity!
How do you think your creative process has changed over time?:
I think a part of me will always be meticulous and detail-oriented, but a lot of my performing has freed up with experience – not stressing the small stuff and really just letting go and forgetting about controlling everything when you're rehearsing or performing.
Since so many of us spent a lot of time isolated during the pandemic, how has that experience specifically changed your creative or preparation process or your outlook on life?:
I've always been pretty introverted, so it didn't really change my creative process that much. I think the pandemic just gave me another layer of gratitude for what we do and a joy to perform each time the right opportunities have found me again post pandemic.
What inspires you?:
I'm inspired by passionate people – I love listening to anyone tell me about something they truly love and are excited about, whether in the arts, a physics project they are currently researching (true story!), the best coffee machines they have discovered on the market (also a true story!), or an exciting vacation they have just gone on. I just love a great story told with heart and passion!
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?:
I'm not much without the community of family, mentors, teachers, students, and of course friends who have supported me through my good, bad, and ugly days. My story or successes are just as much theirs because of their investment in me.
To find out more on Manna Nichols-Wong, please visit her at:
Photo by Matthew Murphy
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