TeAda Productions gives voice to Global Taxi Drivers

(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)

Every traveler has a story about that wild cab ride she’ll never forget, or the memorable taxi driver who was his first introduction to a new city. But it turns out, those taxi drivers may have the best stories of all.

That’s the idea behind Global Taxi Driver, a work-in-progress created by TeAda Productions’ Leilani Chan. Chan and the Global Taxi Driver ensemble will perform a staged reading of the piece on Saturday at Inner City Arts at 5 pm. The event will also include a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, associate professor of Asian American studies at UCLA,  featuring local scholars discussing the issues raised by the piece.

Chan says the inspiration for Global Taxi Driver came while she and her partner and collaborator Ova Saopeng were traveling over the last several years, collecting stories for their performance piece Refugee Nation. They noticed that taxi drivers, often the first people travelers meet in a new city, are often immigrants themselves. Chan and Saopeng became curious about the cabbies’ personal narratives.

One of the first taxi drivers they got to know was a Laotian man in Bangkok, Thailand. “We were wondering in Bangkok why the taxi drivers seemed to not know where they were going,” Chan recalls. “The taxi driver told us that he was a rice farmer from the Thai-Lao border and a lot of the rice farmers, between harvests, come into Bangkok and drive a taxi. So during the harvest season it was even harder to find a taxi because they all had to go back to the rice farms.”

Chan continued gathering taxi drivers’ stories and wanted to share their often-overlooked point of view in a theatrical work.  She points out that taxi driving is a common job for immigrants. Two members of her six-actor ensemble have grandfathers who were cab drivers. But it can be dangerous — in 2011, 31 US taxi drivers and chauffeurs were murdered.

Though it’s still in the early stages of development, Global Taxi Driver is taking shape as a work comprised of overlapping and interwoven narratives performed by the actors, taken from interviews they and Chan have conducted with taxi drivers. Ultimately, Chan hopes to include multimedia elements to the work in order to effectively portray the drivers’ stories.

So far, drivers have come from everywhere from Asia to Africa and have told of events including murder, robbery, and fleeing from civil unrest and religious persecution. Chan said the ensemble has worked alongside her to interview drivers, organize their words and figure out how to stage them.

For example, in the weekend before the workshop performance, each actor was assigned to go to certain hotels and even cab companies around Los Angeles, looking for taxi drivers willing to share their stories. Chan will adapt what the actors bring back and incorporate them into the production.

“They’re really gung-ho and jumping into it,” Chan says, noting that the process has been an entirely collaborative effort between her and the actors despite her title as writer/director.

Global Taxi Driver will also be a collaboration with the audience. At the workshop, audience members will have the opportunity to share their own taxi driver stories with the company, which may be included in the piece in the future. A website will also be launched to allow people to submit stories electronically.

After the workshop, Chan hopes to take Global Taxi Driver to at least two other cities in the US as well as an overseas locale, either Latin America or Europe, to continue interviewing drivers and developing the piece. She hopes to bring the completed work back to Los Angeles in 2014.

Chan says she hopes Global Taxi Driver raises awareness of the challenges taxi drivers face and helps people relate to them on a personal level. The workshop will also hopefully jump-start a conversation in which many locals can take part.

“I would love to have people who are connected to being taxi drivers, know a taxi driver or have a story they want to share come to the performance because I hope this will start even more dialogue,” Chan says. “This is just phase one of developing this work. We’re by no means done collecting stories; we’re just getting started.”

Global Taxi Driver, Inner City Arts, 720 Kohler St., Los Angeles 90012. January 26, 5 pm, followed by a panel discussion. Free. http://globaltaxidriver.com or http://teadagtd.eventbrite.com or teada.org. 310-998-8765.

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