Actor Spotlight: Yuri Tajiri
This month, actor Yuri Tajiri will join SOSS to read an excerpt from Vanessa Hua’s new novel Forbidden City. Our casting director Jessica Laskey talked to Tajiri about her favorite acting gigs, finding yourself after college and why 9-to-5 jobs aren’t all bad.
Jessica: Yuri, I know you’ve been on a bit of a break from acting lately to build your business, but how did you first get bitten by the acting bug?
Yuri: My first inkling that I wanted to do theater was when the Phantom of the Opera movie came out way back in 2003 or 2004. I was in junior high at the time and I was so blown away by it. Coincidentally, my mom volunteered to emergency cover for a doctor in England for six weeks about a month after I saw the movie and she took me with her. I got to see Phantom at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. After the hundreds of shows I’ve seen, it’s still one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Jessica: And that made you want to do musicals?
Yuri: I had never considered it before, but after that, I thought, how do I get into musical theater and sing and be on stage? I actually started as an orchestra kid—I play violin, because I’m Asian—but my mom did some finagling with the school counselor and got me some sort of deal where I could take choir and orchestra, even though the classes were at the same time. So, three days a week I went to orchestra and two days a week I did choir.
My high school (in Vacaville) was not a performing arts high school officially, but in retrospect it really could have been. We had so many different programs. We put on a musical every year but also a play every fall, we had regular choir as well as an audition choir and an outside-of-school choir you also had to audition for, which was sometimes a show choir, concert choir or madrigal choir. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had a really unique and blessed high school experience that most people don’t normally have access to.
Jessica: Then you went on to study theater at Sacramento State, right?
Yuri: I actually entered as a music major for voice. But once I was there, I came to realize that the music department didn’t really talk to the theater department—it was very siloed. You could either be current on what was happening in the music building or try to get involved in theater all the way on the other side of campus. There was so much you’d miss out on, so I ended up switching to a theater major.
Jessica: What did you do after college?
Yuri: After college, I had more time to do community theater, but I also worked in coffee, retail—any job I could do that also let me do theater. I had a post-college crisis. I don’t think we’re very well set up for college, but that’s another conversation. Being Asian, there were always school expectations. I had been in school my whole life, then I got out and thought I’d know what to do but I didn’t, so I got very depressed. I figured I probably couldn’t stay in Sacramento, so it was New York or LA. I thought, do I really want to move and do this for real? I had a moment of truth: I thought, absolutely not. Okay, now what do I do? I had been doing theater for years and years, I’d majored in it, and now I had no idea what I was doing. I flailed around for a few years.
Jessica: Did you end up staying with acting?
Yuri: Yes! I ended up getting a W-2 acting job in San Francisco called the San Francisco Dungeon—no, it’s not a sex thing. It’s closed now, but it was one of those tourist-trappy places on the wharf. It started in London—I actually went to it when I lived there with my mom—and this was their first U.S. location. It’s an interactive tour through a city’s dark and scary past. It was super high-budget with lots of props, effects, jump-scares, strobe lights. Visitors would walk through and in each room there would be an actor who did a five-minute monologue that was semi-historical, funny and scary. Our tour started with the Gold Rush and ended at Alcatraz. The job itself was super cool and super fun, but the management was the worst thing in the world. But it was very dreamy to get a 9-to-5 acting job … even though I had to commute to San Francisco from Sacramento, pay for my own parking and essentially only broke even. It was worth it to get out of my house, and I met a lot of great people. I also appreciated how unique an acting experience it was—how many other theatrical experiences do you get like that? It allowed me to grow a lot of really interesting theater muscles I wouldn’t have had a chance to otherwise.
Jessica: You’ve certainly played some interesting characters. What have been some of your favorites?
Yuri: I loved playing the Narrator in Green Valley Theatre Company’s version of The Rocky Horror Show. It was a phenomenal show and Green Valley became my home company for a long time. They do Rocky Horror with a different theme every year—they don’t just copy the movie; it’s more fun to make it your own. The year I did it, they did Rocky Horror: Freak Show with a twisted circus theme. I co-narrated with Andy Nguyen and we played Siamese twins because we’re both Asian—we split up the lines and had a lot of gags with us tied together. I also loved playing Linda in Evil Dead the Musical at Sutter Street Theatre. I’m always here for B-movie, schlocky, silly horror nonsense. I got to get drenched in blood and did the show with lots of Green Valley people and lots of lovely people I went to Sac State with—it was a really phenomenal cast. Then I got to play Grumio in Taming of the Shrew set in a trailer park with TAAC (now called Errant Phoenix Productions). They gave me creative control of my character and costuming, so I had this trashy bleach-blonde wig with dark roots and a bunch of delightfully tacky outfits, which I love wearing anyway. They even built half of a trailer onstage surrounded by Astroturf.
Jessica: I know you’ve stepped away from theater a bit to focus on your day job. How has that been for you?
Yuri: I’ve felt this way since I was little: I don’t want to have a career, I just want to solve money. You need money to do your life, but this whole wage-based income thing is not my vibe … I never got a 9-to-5 job because I was paranoid I’d wake up 50 years later and still be there. Now I do admin work for worker’s comp, which is pretty dry, but it’s exactly what I want: it doesn’t suck my emotional/mental energy and it’s not particularly customer-facing. But I also have a business that my husband and I are growing. Through meeting people in San Francisco, I got connected to a business incubator and started my own business. It’s nice being with people who want to do the same thing you want to do. It’s been a good reset.
Jessica: What is your business?
Yuri: We sell nutrition products, beauty, skincare and home care. I like to give concierge service to people. These are all things we need—everyday stuff—but I want to cultivate personal relationships. It’s like having a personal assistant. You tell me what you’re looking for and I make recommendations and curate it all to take it off your brain. I really enjoy being able to tailor things for people, whether it’s everyday shopping, a gift or a nutrition plan.
Jessica: Back to acting: how are you feeling as you prepare to read Vanessa Hua’s excerpt?
Yuri: Reading something like this, it’s interesting to have the benefit of historical hindsight. I identify with the feeling of being a child and being told, “Things used to be bad before you were born, but now they’re going to be better and it’s going to be exciting."
It’s so melancholy—there’s so much hope, even though it’s a vague hope, that things will be different, but that gets dashed. It’s a very human-condition, a very relatable thing. Especially as children, we’ve all been there, we have no power or control—one, because you’re a child, and two (in the book), because you’re not in the party. You’re just a villager with no power.
Actor Spotlight: Trina Ritter
This month, actor Trina Ritter will also join SOSS to read an excerpt from Anara Guard’s new novel Like a Complete Unknown. Our casting director Jessica Laskey talked to Ritter about her love of attention, “hosting” and embodying a character.
Jessica: Trina, I’m so glad you’re returning to the stage for this event! Have you always loved performing?
Trina: Well, I’m a Leo rising, so I crave attention. But technically, I really liked performing when I was younger—any opportunity to get in front of people. I went to middle school and high school at Natomas Charter, the performing arts school. I latched onto theater and it stuck with me from there.
Jessica: Why do you love it so much?
Trina: I enjoy making people laugh, so that motivates me, but I also like the aspect of getting to put yourself in a situation that most likely you’ll never encounter in your real life. I’m never going to be a lady of the manor in Shakespeare’s time, but for a while I can pretend to be. I like that aspect of it.
Jessica: You’ve done quite a bit of performing with the nonprofit singing group Samantics. How did you get involved with them?
Trina: I met my now-husband Ryan at Sacramento State and he was taking vocal lessons from the founder of Samantics, Sam Schieber. Once Ryan and I had been together for a while and I’d been vetted—and wasn’t going to embarrass him—he took me to meet Sam. Sam always finds something really interesting about a person, something in them he wants to tap into. Once you’ve committed, you’re done for life.
Jessica: So obviously you and Sam got along well. What projects have you done with him and Samantics?
Trina: I did smaller cabarets as well as a cabaret of my own, Tea with Trina. It started off as part of a one-week cabaret series Samantics puts on every year. It started as a very generic idea: I would play myself, essentially, hosting a public cable access show where I want to put on a fine evening of art and music but all of my guests slowly ruin it for me. We then started to reuse the format and do different themes depending on what the rest of the group could do. If we had a lot of people who could do celebrity impressions, we did Celebri-tea with Trina. We also did Christmas Tea with Trina. It gave all of us a lot of room to play around with things that maybe wouldn’t fit elsewhere. I joke that now it should be called Finali-tea with Trina.
Jessica: Because you’ve been away from theater for too long! What have you been up to?
Trina: I work for CalPERS, the state’s pension system, as the career services and outreach coordinator. I go to career fairs and help people internally get feedback to help them get promoted. I really enjoy helping guide people on what they could be doing better.
Jessica: What have been some of your favorite roles?
Trina: I’ve not often been in a lead role, but I enjoy playing smaller characters who get to do something interesting and not have a huge commitment. In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Sac State—which is when I started dating my husband—I had this amazing, tall beehive wig. I like to be able to have fun but not carry the weight of the whole show. I also enjoy doing Shakespeare—it’s a challenge for me but it’s something I enjoy doing. Playing Olivia in Twelfth Night was one of my favorite opportunities. I also got to play Sharon Tate’s character in a staged reading of Valley of the Dolls with Samantics. That would probably be one of my personal favorites—she’s pretty iconic in that movie.
Jessica: Knowing that you’re quite different from the character Katya in Anara Guard’s book, how do you prepare to embody a new person?
Trina: I really like to look at the actual text that’s given to me. I like taking a look at how the author describes the situation as well as the actual lines the character speaks. That helps me understand what the author is trying to say and how the character is understanding the world around her. Katya is very young, very naïve and fairly overwhelmed, whereas the author writing it has a lot more wisdom and understanding. It’s a fun opportunity to get to speak to both sides of that.
Don't miss the Friday, June 24, performances by Yuri and Trina of excerpts from FORBIDDEN CITY and LIKE A COMPLETE UNKNOWN. Tickets available via Eventbrite and at the door.
In addition to being a professional actor and casting director for Stories on Stage Sacramento, Jessica Laskey is also a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Comstock’s, Sacramento and Sactown Magazines, as well as in The Sacramento Bee, Inside Sacramento and OUT North Texas.
More information at jessicalaskey.com