top of page
  • carolanntan

Opportunity cost

I performed this piece at Lifeline Theatre’s Fillet of Solo 2016.

The visa that allows me to legally work in the United States will expire in August.

I’ve got a few options. First, and most obviously, I could go back to Singapore. But, though Singapore prides itself on its—I quote—“burgeoning arts scene”, Singapore is also a really small and kind of bureaucratic city-state, which can limit the opportunities available to theater artists like myself.

Or I could get green card married. That isn’t strictly legal, so if you’d like to hear more about that, come find me afterwards.

Or I could go to grad school.

It is ridiculously hard to get your application for a student visa rejected. You’re basically throwing money at the school and at the government—who’s gonna say no to that?

Besides, if I got a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting, I’d get another three years to do what I like in a highly sheltered environment where nothing I do has any lasting consequences.

Great. I’ve got a plan. Now to call my bank and check my account balance.

My mom was not excited about the idea. But all she said was, “Just don’t go to grad school for the wrong reasons.”

What does that mean?

Okay, so I’d really only be applying because I want to legally stay on in this country. Still, I wouldn’t consider it if I didn’t think it would contribute to my artistic career somehow.

But, because it is possible but not likely that I’ll get a scholarship, I would also be asking my parents to sponsor a degree they never accounted for financially. In that case, I have to ask myself: how desperate am I, really, to stay here?

Another question I keep asking myself lately is about the accessibility of theatre opportunities.

Consider this: assuming I don’t have access to the connections that can get me free tickets, it will cost me about $80 to see 3 live shows here in Chicago. And that’s already taking into account student discounts that I probably shouldn’t actually be using anymore.

By contrast, for just $8 a month, I could be watching unlimited amounts of Netflix without even having to leave my home.

Don’t get me wrong. I would be the last person to argue that theatre has become irrelevant. But, because technology has modified the storytelling industry today, we should ask: to whom does the theatre stay relevant? To whom does the power of theatrical immediacy remain accessible?

Is it accessible to diverse demographics? Oh, that’s a big question in mainstream entertainment today, isn’t it? But, though it’s a necessary first step, what if increasing diversity in the theatre is not as straightforward as simply increasing the number of acting roles available to diverse individuals?

In my third year of college, I wrote an original play about a student from Singapore whose family had to scrimp and save every cent just to send him to an American school. But when I finally staged the play, there was not a single Singaporean working on or watching the play whose family background truly matched that of my fictional protagonist.

I had also written the play in order to prove that stories told using this accent might actually be worth hearing—but there were very few people in the audience who weren’t international Asian students. By contrast, the audiences watching the plays staged by the main theatrical group on campus were overwhelmingly white.

So, what if our theatrical stories about diversity are not really reaching people who either reflect that diversity, or who might learn something from seeing that degree of representation depicted onstage?

Theater communities are notorious for becoming highly insular. But because of that insularity, the diversity theater communities seek often ends up alarmingly narrow in practice. Besides, even the term diversity is itself fraught.

Because diversity is relative. Diversity means that my identity, my work, and my successes will only be measured according to the standards of the existing status quo—according to whether or not white Americans will allow me to play in their spaces.

Diversity is how my well-meaning peers and colleagues can ask me if I think it is an advantage to be an Asian woman in theater today, because that’s what theaters want nowadays, right? As though my achievements are irrevocably pegged to factors unrelated to my talent. As though success is a privilege—a privilege that they feel entitled to have, even though what they really want is only the outcome, but without experiencing the prejudice, the self-hatred, and the failures that accompany my identity.

Experiences like how my friend once said, without thinking, that a person I hadn’t offered a role in one of my plays was better off in the end, because that person ended up landing a role in a show staged by the main theatrical group on campus instead. Granted, he immediately apologized, saying that he had no idea why he’d said something like that at all. But I knew why: because we have internalized the belief that our greatest successes are the ones validated by white America.

So, in response to the paradox of diversity, maybe my answer doesn’t lie in asking for acceptance. Maybe the best I can do is to continue creating spaces where I can unapologetically exist, with or without outside affirmation, because—although you are always welcome to listen—I didn’t write my stories for you.

As I was saying, I’ve got a few options. I could dip into my parents’ savings in the name of art and pursue my MFA in playwriting. Never mind that my earning power will likely never match the cost of my education. What’s a hundred thousand dollars if it will teach me how to change the world through story, right? What’s the measure of my privilege if it enables me to become better at doing the things I believe in?

The value of art should never be commodified, or reduced into any sum of money. But the paradox is simply that art costs money, both to make and to experience—and good art costs more money.

If I had a hundred thousand dollars to invest in my career, maybe I don’t want to spend it hiding inside an ivory tower constructed on the legacies of dead white men. Maybe there are more immediate and urgent questions worth tackling now, in a world where not everyone has the luxury of using art to illuminate their own struggles; where some people have to prioritize their lives over our fictions; and where it can be exceedingly difficult to find not only a platform, but also an audience, for the stories that could change a life.

If not going to grad school means I don’t get my visa, and I have to go back to Singapore at some point—well, I’ll have less opportunities, but I think we can all agree that that kind of hardship is basically relative. What I’ll experience is just a constraint and not an ending. So let’s just say that either way, I still have options.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page