Rick Shiomi was so determined to create an Asian-American theater company in the Twin Cities that he cold-called in person at restaurants, churches — wherever he could find a gathering of people with Asian blood — to ask if anyone wanted to do some acting.

Nearly 25 years later, his dream long since realized, the playwright and co-founder of Mu Performing Arts has won the McKnight Foundation's prestigious Distinguished Artist Award for 2015.

Shiomi helped build Mu into one of the nation's largest and most esteemed Asian-American ensembles. This fall, two years after leaving Mu, he plans to launch a new company, Full Circle, with four partners from diverse backgrounds.

McKnight's lifetime achievement honor has gone to the likes of poet Robert Bly, Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy, and Milkweed Editions publisher Emilie Buchwald. The award, which comes with a $50,000 purse, this time underscores the work of a theater pioneer who has been instrumental in giving voice to Asian-American artists as an institution builder, a director and a playwright. His many plays include "Yellow Fever," a detective mystery with a dashing Asian-American lead character at its center.

"Rick is a pioneer-type guiding light in Asian-American theater," said Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who has known Shiomi for decades. "In addition to being a wonderful writer, he founded a company that is among the handful of leading Asian-American theaters in the nation. And he did this in the most unlikely of places, through his ability to inspire others."

Shiomi was born in 1947 in Toronto, to Japanese­-Canadian parents who had been part of the 20,000-plus Canadians rounded up, mostly along the Pacific Coast, and interned during World War II. Their wealth and property were seized. They were released after the war, with some moving to Japan and others scattering across the country.

That experience, which was little talked about in his family, created a mother lode of inspiration for Shiomi, who dreamed of becoming a fiction writer even as he played mandolin in a band.

Then, while performing in San Francisco in the early 1980s, he met two young playwrights who would become lifelong friends and giants in the field — Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda. Later, while hosting the pair when they performed in Vancouver, Shiomi showed Gotanda a 100-page detective story he had written.

"I remember telling him, 'I don't think anything in this works except this one little area,' and that was a bit of dialogue," said Gotanda. "That was it. And I didn't think anything else about that until he rewrote the whole thing as a play."

That play was "Yellow Fever," narrated by smooth private eye Sam Shikaze as he solves mysteries in Japantown, Vancouver. It was produced in 1982 in San Francisco, and later New York, to rave reviews.

"Philip gave me good advice," Shiomi said. "He saw my potential much more clearly than I did," The experience was also instructive, as Shiomi himself would go on to recognize other people's early artistic potential in a similar way. Mu has been a nurturing artistic home for artists such as actor/director Randy Reyes, who now leads the company, actor and playwright Sun Mee Chomet, and performers Sherwin Resurreccion, Sara Ochs and Kurt Kwan.

A move for love

Shiomi moved to the Twin Cities in the early 1990s, for love. His wife, Martha Johnson, recently retired from Augsburg College, where she taught theater for a quarter-century. Asian-American faces were scarce onstage then, he recalls. He had heard that Randall Duk Kim had played Hamlet at the Guthrie back in the late 1970s, but that was a distant memory.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation, right?" he said. "You go to theaters and ask them why they don't cast Asian-American actors, and they say, 'Show me one!' "

So Shiomi set out to take away that rationale. He met Dong-Il Lee, a University of Minnesota graduate student from Korea who wanted to form a theater company.

"After he got his degree, he left, and left me with Mu," said Shiomi, who set about building the company by recruiting theater artists far and wide.

"I admire Rick for his commitment and vision," said novelist David Mura. "Here's a guy who would go to Asian restaurants and ask people if they acted or wrote or had any interest in theater. That is what you have to do to build a community from the ground up, and he did it."

Shiomi, who speaks in understatements, simply said that he "tried to encourage people to not quit their day jobs, but to try to find out about the talents they may have. My job was simply to give them opportunities to explore."

Shiomi ran Mu until 2013, when he turned the reins over to Reyes. Mu is one of two companies that he created. The other, Mu Daiko, is the taiko drumming arm of Mu Performing Arts.

Widening scope

Hwang said that with Mu, Shiomi broke the mold of Asian-American theaters. "On the coasts, they are dominated by Chinese- and Japanese-Americans," he said. "But he's telling stories about Korean adoptees, Filipino farm workers. He does musicals and Shakespearean dramas. He has a broad, expansive view of the world, and one that we should all note."

It is that achievement that is being celebrated by the ­McKnight.

"Given the breadth, scope and importance of Rick Shiomi's artistic legacy, there is no single yardstick by which to measure his impact," McKnight president Kate Wolford said in a statement. "It is multifaceted, trailblazing, and extends well beyond his commitment to Asian-American theater in the Twin Cities."

Shiomi said that while the surprise of the award has worn off, his appreciation for it has not.

"To have this recognition for your body of work over the last 40 years is really gratifying," he said. "When you're starting out, even if you have that long horizon, you don't know if it's going to happen. And now Mu is in a very good place. And this puts me in a very good place as I pick and choose projects in my so-called retirement."

Yes, about that retirement. Shiomi has teamed with his wife, Johnson, and theater artists James A. Williams, Stephanie Lein Walseth and Lara Trujillo to form the multicultural Full Circle Theater Company.

"This is a more diverse group and I want to infuse it with my energy and see how that mixes with everyone else's in this next phase of my life," he said.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390


Read about Shiomi's latest production in Variety.