Amazing Asians in the Arts: Marina Kondo
Name: Marina Kondo
Heritage: First Generation Japanese-American
Hometown: Novi, Michigan
Current City: Based in New York City
Current project: The First National Tour of Disney’s “Frozen” the Musical (Queen Iduna/ Ensemble, Understudy Anna)
What are some of your favorite credits/projects and do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
I got very lucky getting my Equity card the summer after my Sophomore year of college. I was invited to join the cast of The Muny’s production of “Beauty & The Beast” when someone left the cast last minute. It was my lucky chance.
Since then, every summer during my college years I spent a month in St. Louis meeting the most incredible professionals who just absolutely love what they do. I learned how to be professional there, and how much can be accomplished in such a short time when artists at the top of their game come together. Little did I know that these were the same performers I would keep running into throughout my career. This industry is just so small.
After college, I decided to move to New York City in September when I was offered “MWE" in the new Off-Broadway show called “KPOP” replacing Ashley Park.
Before this the last time I played a leading role was Kim in "Miss Saigon” at Interlochen Arts Academy in High School. I knew I had to rise to the occasion in every single way, it was my first time being a replacement. At the time, KPOP was only able to afford having me for one week of rehearsal, which was technically 5 days total. Monday was a day off, day one I learned the music and Korean, I had a day for choreography, two days of scene work, and the fifth day was my put-in. On the sixth day I made my debut. Before we started, I decided to be completely off-book, which included teaching myself all the music in Korean. To help myself learn, I connected with a friend's friend who was a former KPOP artist in Korea. I met her in a K-town bar, and I voice memo’d our whole conversation so that I could perfect it at home.
I knew that was a MUST in my process. All my life I strived to know what it means to be Japanese, and it has been important to me to be able to represent my culture in the most truthful way. Which is why I wanted to do the best that I could for this show, giving Korean culture just as much respect and even more stake and seriousness that I would for my own.
My next project was another last minute replacement track for the First National Tour of “Lincoln Center’s The King & I”. I was cast in the Ensemble, Understudy Tuptim & Lady Thiang. A first in understudying. My experience in the “King & I” was probably one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. This was a real family that I was able to connect with as an adult. I had never experienced theatre with a company of all Asian-Americans, and for the first time ever I felt as though I didn’t have to explain myself. It was so freeing. I was completely accepted, and didn’t ever feel the slightest ping of otherness. I had so many incredible conversations with so many diverse Asians who fall into a vast spectrum of what it means for them to be ‘Asian’. It was fascinating to hear of their stories and journeys.
I realized that some of the people who paved the way for the Asian community were in this very company, as leads, as dance captains, as ensemble members… they were the very people I looked up to as a child. I feel stronger and empowered because of my 9 months in the company. It has helped me realize the weight and power of what it means to be an Asian American in my heart.
Since then, I did a few more Off-Broadway shows which were all unique. My favorite was “Road Show” (Encores! New York City Center, Ensemble) we worked with both theatre legends Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman first hand. It was a precious moment to share with an iconic theatre and the men who created the piece. During this time I also made my National TV debut in HBO’s “Succession”.
So far, the “Frozen” National Tour has been the best project yet. It’s my first time being in an original cast. It seems as though all of the art experiences of my life prepared me to be in this special company. Recently, I made my Anna debut, making me the first Asian-American to play this role on Frozen Broadway Productions. It was an absolute honor, and I feel that at last I am being seen me for me.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
Both my mother and father were born and raised in Japan and came to America through my father's job. I was born in Maastricht, The Netherlands.
I moved a lot in my life, and couldn’t always make friends because of it. Theatre and music always brought me closer to people and saved me in many ways.
I grew up with music in my life. My mother received her PHD in Early Childhood Music Education, specializing on the differences in Eastern and Western styles of music education.
And my father is obsessed with Jazz music and plays jazz piano
The first show I did was in a community theatre in Michigan called the Bloomfield Players and I played Fluffy in the “Ugly Duckling” musical, HONK.
Since then, I haven’t stopped. It's where I feel most at home!
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Do it because you love it, more than anything in the world.
This work is not easy. To be honest, I spend more time mending my heart and trying to make this hectic mess of an industry a sane one for me, than I do performing.
This is all I can do and the only thing I see myself doing, it’s the one thing in my life that makes me feel like I have a soul. I have to do it.
For my POC friends out there, because I know we need that extra love:
Never let someone’s lack of imagination dictate your self-worth, your power, or your dreams.
I promise, believing is worth it. Who you are is enough.
And what you identify with is incredibly unique.
Claim it. Love it. Use it. Show it- Loudly!
I urge you to learn and dive deeper into your own culture. You’ll be amazed at how empowering it is to know where you come from.
Do you have any non profits you work with that you’d like to highlight?
Growing up in Michigan and having a connected music education mother, we both heard of this non-profit organization called Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit (https://mosaicdetroit.org)
In Middle school I joined their Main Stage Program and was singing my heart out three times a week with 50 equally talented and passionate students who love the arts.
Every rehearsal we were asked to leave all of our problems at the door, and for just a few hours we had together, concentrate on each other and the art we were creating that day.
As Detroit was going through an economic crisis at the time, this program was some students' life line, and you can feel it. It was that serious to every single person who showed up. And it was always a safe place to let yourself go and completely give into music.
Throughout the year we memorized over 100 songs, anything from beautiful chorale music, to musical theatre pieces, to soulful church anthems.
50 of us rocking on these bleachers, using and sharing our joys, tears, anger, and passion to create the loudest of vibrations. We leaned on each other.
I had the most fun in concerts, because our programs would always be a mystery and we didn’t know what song we were singing next until the music director would announce it to the audience first. And without sheet music, we would all be completely in sync as one. Our mentors and program leaders were nothing but the best. And I learned how powerful music can be. I highly recommend checking this program out to anyone in the area, as it is easily one of the top resources out there for young artists.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
I'm going to be incredibly honest, I would say the biggest challenge for me, especially in the beginning, was how easily I was comparing myself to others and the uncertainty of what’s ahead. All I wanted to do was compare who got what at what point and try to make sense of why or how, or make up dumb excuses about why they got what they got. I found myself blaming my ethnicity a lot. At the end of the day theater is very subjective, it is a money driven old-fashioned industry. It’s impossible to make sense of. As liberal as it all seems, what we do is all derived from a very dated way of life, and change is actually slow. I can’t tell you how uncomfortably aware I was of being “asian” in every single room I walked into. I always thought to myself, is that all I am? Am I doing it to myself? Is this something I have built over time? Or is it just the nature of the society I was born into? I am still in this undecided head space about it today. Even after all that’s happened in my career and what I would consider small ‘victories’, I know it's just the beginning. For the most part our schools and education programs are run by people who don’t know what it mean to be “us”, but that’s not anyone's fault. There's simply still a lot of uncharted territory.
In my heart, I know past, present, and future, I have a lot to deal with... heal with. It will forever be an ongoing fire that burns inside.
Although I don’t have a solution, I'm looking to have more and more conversations about it.
I want to know how to talk about it intelligently. I want to have the vocabulary to describe how I feel, and what it means to be these identities in this country and especially this industry.
But the beauty is, we get to use this large platform to show it in forms of music and dance and speech. We get to show our hearts in the purest ways.
I'm excited to see what new generations of self-aware hybrid-identifying artists bring to the table, and when we work together, what will grow out of it.
Where did you study at?
- Interlochen Arts Academy (High School) 2010-2013, Theatre Major
-University of Michigan, BFA Musical Theatre, Class of 2017