“My belief is that theatre is more than the entertaining value of the stories that we tell. It is a gathering place first and foremost.”
The Western Stage (TWS) Managing Artistic Director Melissa Chin-Parker is no stranger to how theatre can impact an individual and their community. Her entrypoint to the craft is a unique one.
A “late bloomer” starting in her 30s, TWS has brought her back to her artistic roots and love of being a part of a creative community.
She recalls taking ample art, dance and acting classes from childhood on, but never gave herself the permission to call herself an artist—she has since become the first woman and person of color to inhabit her leadership role.
for community building
Chin-Parker’s journey as a performance artist is at the center of TWS’ core values, providing theatrical opportunities to those who may not find it elsewhere. With inclusivity and diversity being foundational, productions are often brimming with a wide range of racial and ethnic representation and varying sexual orientations, gender identities, body sizes, ages and abilities.
With the intent of supporting a healthier Monterey County, TWS has recently taken on sustainability tactics inspired by Chin-Parker and budding set designers; recycling sets and costumes, and replacing paper programs with digitized ones are among these efforts.
Chin-Parker has used her story to encourage beginners to take a leap of faith. In an industry that can feel difficult to break into, TWS centers the combination of pairing novice performers with seasoned actors to create a unique skill-building experience. Providing not only an educational experience, but an emotional and spiritual one as well, helping many participants to find their voice. Intentionally long rehearsal schedules allow for more time to educate newcomers while cultivating the professional level standards they are renowned for. TWS is truly meant for those who “haven’t arrived yet,” those who still want to play, learn and explore.
“From first rehearsal to first performance, to watch that growth is hard to describe but it’s a visceral feeling that you can feel, see and hear. They mature along on their journey,” she notes.
Historically integrated with Hartnell College, TWS is the production side of the Theater & Cinema program provided by the school. Their residency at Hartnell has aided in their expansion over time, offering opportunities for all ages and levels of experience. Programs dedicated to youth, young adults
and seniors have bolstered the company’s offerings and opened the minds and hearts of Monterey County performers and audiences.
Cross-community representation and connection has always been an important part of the company, Chin-Parker’s predecessors had made significant strides in advancing the participation of the Latine productions and audiences as well, partnering with El Teatro Campesino of San Juan Bautista. In addition are the adaptations of new works embraced by audiences for nearly half a century.
Amongst these works are contemporary titles such as “How Black Mothers Say ‘I Love You,’' a tale centering Black women, their stories and motherhood, and “Head Over Heels,” a piece written for and performed by gender nonconforming (GNC) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) performance artists. These stories amplify these lived experiences while evoking their universality, inspiring acceptance and loving communal support.
Their core values were put to the test as the COVID-19 pandemic hit communities across the country. In March of 2021, TWS participated in “The Ghostlight Project'' initiated by theatre companies around the world. In response to the harmful rhetoric targeting marginalized groups that ravaged cities around the country, TWS used this opportunity to link arms in support of the vulnerable groups among us. Singing, dancing and spoken word doubled as calls to action were performed by artists around the globe.
This hit home for Chin-Parker, “It was an opportunity for us to gather as artists, to renew our commitment to being a safe space for people, to be a light and to band together so that we have that strength to say aloud, ‘not here, this is not us.’"
Reinforcing the need for untold stories to be heard, Chin-Parker expresses the difficulty of not seeing herself and other marginalized groups represented on stage, particularly immigrants. Not having the platform to tell the untold stories of varying identities and experiences showcases what perspectives are being prioritized. It is vital to honor these stories while uncovering the many sides of history told from those who have lived it. The company provides this platform for those living on the margins to safely tell these stories, nurturing deeper connections between performers and audiences of all backgrounds.
Chin-Parker recalls playing characters who were traditionally played by white performers, asking herself “why couldn’t they be Asian?”
She notes the change in the audience's perception of the character, often deepening the meaning behind the character’s storyline, “There’s just more to consider about the character because of their point of view and lived experiences.” Audiences have the opportunity to use their imagination to challenge their biases, to look deeper into the human experience of the character, and find commonalities as well as respected differences.
The magic of theatre is the perfect medium to challenge the status quo and reimagine previously told stories, “What’s lovely about theatre is that it’s enacted, it’s not removed. It’s there in a room, heartbeat to heartbeat with each other.”
TWS opens the gates to more perspectives, more partnerships with other theatre companies and more stories that enrich our human experience. The company upholds their promise of deepening and widening the theatre scene in Monterey County by maintaining a safe space for vulnerability and self-exploration.
Chin-Parker describes this as “[when] a penny drops, [there is] the epiphany.”