This was not easy for Kurt Kwan.
“I’m really nervous about this,” he said at the end of a long and friendly interview.
Kwan isn’t crazy about attention, about playing the promotional game, making himself a lightning rod. He prefers the theatrical trenches to the big lights of major stages.
Now appearing in Ten Thousand Things’ production of “The Changelings,” Kwan is a steady and consistent actor who has managed to stay below the radar on the small-theater scene for 16 years.
“I wear a lot of hats,” he says of his work as a program associate at Pillsbury House Theatre. “I prefer working in the community with artists — dancers, poets, musicians, puppeteers, actors.”
With his Pillsbury job filling his days, he manages to do about three shows a year — which satisfies the itch to perform. He is purposeful in his choices. The company and the project have to fit his personal aesthetic, which is why he likes Ten Thousand Things.
“I have deep affection for how Michelle [Hensley] has created her organization,” he said of the artistic director’s commitment to access and community engagement.
Playing beyond his years
Kwan grew up in Finlayson, Minn., the son of a schoolteacher and a guard at Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution. His adoptive parents came from the Danish wave of immigrants who planted rutabagas and beets in east-central Minnesota.
Young Kurt Mattsen, as he grew up, studied theater at St. Cloud State and later the University of Minnesota. Asked what he did after graduation, Kwan hems and haws in embarrassment before admitting that he never did finish his degree. He was working at the W.A. Frost restaurant in St. Paul when a colleague said, “I know this guy, Rick. I should introduce you.”
The way he told the story, Rick Shiomi, founder of Mu Performing Arts, was some kind of godfather sitting in a darkened room, waiting to entertain visitors.
“He was exactly like that!” Kwan said, laughing. “You go over and Rick is sitting behind this desk and he asks, ‘Do you have any experience?’ ” Kwan does a spot-on impression of Shiomi’s high, friendly voice and Canadian accent. “Then he asked if I wanted to audition.”
Kwan’s first rodeo with Mu was “Song of the Pipa,” a piece about virtuosic musical artist Gao Hong. Kwan’s stage command was evident instantly in a quietly strong performance. He had a look and style that conveyed authority, which explains why he was often picked to play way beyond his years — what he calls his “grandfather period” for Mu.
A review of “A Song for a Nisei Fisherman” in 2001 noted his success: “He’s quite young to portray an old man but with stooped shoulders, deliberate movement and a broad accent, [Kwan] reveals the world of an old fisherman in love with a calm pond.”
He has distinguished himself in David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face,” Shiomi’s “Yellow Fever” and “Little Shop of Horrors” for Mu and in “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Ten Thousand Things.
Invitations to audition at the Guthrie, though, have not excited him.
A question of identity
Kwan Tae-jung was 3 when he came to America to live with the Mattsen family. He still has a faded memory of himself toddling through the halls of a South Korean orphanage. In about 2004-05, Kurt Mattsen decided that it was important to reclaim his heritage.
“Being an Asian performer, your identity is very important, and I wanted young people I was working with to be able to identify,” he said.
Although Mu has produced several shows about Asian-American adoptees, Kwan said he has trouble watching them because his own experience is a little too close.
His current show, “The Changelings,” is about a child who returns to his hometown after a long absence. Kwan does not portray the lad but he appreciates the society created in the play.
“These are people who are grappling for the bottom rungs — hope, safety, purpose, two people fighting over one rug,” he said. “These are bottom-rung issues.”
Kwan is married to Eliza Rasheed, a schoolteacher from a theater tradition herself. They live in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, close to work for both. Kwan enjoys gardening, cooking and likes his motorcycle.
“It’s good training for acting: being present, applying technique.”
And it’s less nerve-racking than telling your story to a reporter.