By SABRINA SQUIRES
UW News Lab
Khanh Doan, an American actress who was born in Vietnam and escaped with her parents when she was a year old, believes her upbringing influenced her current work ethic.
“I grew up poor in an immigrant family, we had to work hard,” Doan said in an interview. “It was never explicitly mandated, but you just knew you had to work hard because your parents are working really hard to survive.”
In just a few days, Doan, 37, will perform in a starring role on Seattle’s ACT Theatre stage. ACT will present the world premiere of “Ramayana.” Promised to be full of romance, action and suspense, co-director Kurt Beattie says, “This may be one of the most ambitious shows ACT has ever staged.”
This heroic tale tells the story of Rama, a young prince on a journey to rescue his beautiful wife, Sita, who is played by Doan. This Southeast Asian legend will debut on Friday, Oct. 12.
Cast member Ray Tagavilla spoke warmly of working with Doan. “Kindness and talent don’t always go together, but she’s an exception,” Tagavilla said.
A Vietnamese Immigrant
After leaving Vietnam, Doan’s family moved to a suburb of Paris for a few years, then settled in San Diego, where she grew up.
Her stage debut in fifth grade, as Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was when she realized acting was for her.
Laughing, she said it was odd that she was cast in that role, since he is the male fairy king. But Doan believes that is when she got the acting bug.
“I was pretty shy,” she said. “I guess I felt like I could be anybody when I was on stage. It was a good outlet for me.”
Doan’s father also used to sing and lead a church choir in Vietnam, so she thought there could be an arts influence there.
Although Khanh enjoyed the theater, her parents didn’t approve.
“They didn’t think it was practical and they were worried it would take away from my grades,” the actress stated. “But I still got straight A’s, so they had no excuse.”
Believing in the importance of education, Doan moved to the Bay Area and studied sociology at Stanford University, not thinking she would pursue a career in theater.
After graduating from Stanford, Doan worked a few office jobs. After doing marketing communications for different technology companies, she soon realized she preferred acting.
“I really missed it, so I auditioned and started doing theater on the side,” she noted. “Then, at some point I decided to move out of the Bay Area, so I moved to Seattle in 2003 and decided to just go ahead and follow my passion.”
Tired of meeting the same kind of “tech heavy” people, Khanh was ready for a change. She had visited Seattle a couple of times and was drawn to the nature and beauty of it all.
“I didn’t know how long I would last,” she added. “I moved in September and it was miserable for the first six months or so, but I made it through and after that I fell in love.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Seattle that her parents saw her in a production.
“They didn’t see a lot of shows I was in growing up, any really,” Khanh said. “Their English wasn’t that great, so I didn’t push them to. When I moved here I got a lead at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, I played Sleeping Beauty and I thought it was show that they could easily understand and relate to.”
She was 28 years old at the time.
“I think they were pretty wowed by it,” Doan added.
Doan had never heard of the play before. A couple of years ago, Beattie, the artistic director at the ACT, brought together different artists, actors, writers and designers and wanted to do this project.
After reading it, she had no idea how it was going to be done. She said it could take days to really tell the story.
The writer of the play, Yussef El Guindi, amazed Doan.
“He really is a treasure for Seattle,” she stated.
El Guindi is a winner of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, for “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.”
Doan also believed in co-directors, Beattie and Sheila Daniels.
“I trusted with all that great talent and vision, we would bring to life a really good performance,” Doan said on what pushed her to do the play.
“It’s a three-act play, which is not commonly done,” she stated. “So it’s very ambitious. But it’s going to be gorgeous because it really does take from the East.”
She continued: “At the heart of it is a very human drama with emotions, family, love and doing the right thing, and making difficult choices. I think it will look very otherworldly, with the colors and the beauty.
“It’s something you wouldn’t normally see on the stage here in the United States,” she insisted, “but I think everyone will identify with the story itself.”
Rehearsing six days a week, 12 hours a day, Doan enjoys yoga during her spare time.
“I get lifted, I have to fall from a balcony, and it’s a lot of work,” she said. “I’m physically quite sore.”
Doan said yoga gives her the headspace and positive energy needed for the day.
“Once you are in a show, you have no life,” she added.
Although she is busy, she said she adores the actors she has been cast with.
“The cast is wonderful and they are all great actors who work all the time around town,” she said. “Everyone gets along. It’s a really good professional group of people, plus it’s fun.”
Khanh’s co-workers think just as highly of her.
Tagavilla, who plays Bharata, one of the brothers of Rama, stated: “Khanh is a fantastic physical actor. Her muscle memory is ridiculous, she make it look easy.”
Tagavilla also added that she is always on time and is focused.
“There is a passion she brings to rehearsal and to the stage that is undeniable,” Tagavilla said. “Trust is the most important thing to me in theater, and you feel an immediate kinship with her; nothing is faked, it’s who she is.”
Being a woman of color in an industry that is still mostly dominated by Caucasian men, Khanh has high hopes for the future.
“There is always a lot more talent than there is work, especially for women in theater,” Khanh said.
She also added that it is even more difficult for women of color, because still today, most playwrights are white men.
“I wish there were more plays where they could be casted blindly,” she added. “A lot of times, if there is something for Asians, African Americans or Latinas, it’s about their culture opposed to just about people.”
Doan said Seattle is beginning to get more people of color writing about life today.
Khanh is happy where she currently stands. She would like to do more film, though.
“Longer long term, I love theater but again, it’s a hard life,” she said.
She wants to keep doing something that is meaningful.
“I think what we do is good and important and it helps people think, but there are other things that you can do that are very tangibly beneficial to people,” Doan noted.
The actress has thought about doing something for a non-profit, or staying within the arts. Regardless, she said she doesn’t have any concrete plans at the moment.
She said the job market isn’t the same as it was during her grandparents’ or parents’ generations. It’s okay to have five careers in your lifetime now, she said.
Staying optimistic about her future she added, “You just take the plunge, you go for it and see what happens.”
For more information on “Ramayana” and ticket prices please visit: The Act Theatre