A Q&A with alumnus and co-founder GENseng Carl Marcelo ’01.
GENseng, Geneseo’s Asian American Performance Ensemble, is celebrating 20 years of enriching the lives of hundreds of alumni and current students.
It’s the only company of its kind in the 64-campus SUNY system. GENseng’s primary mission is to provide theatre training and performance opportunities — acting, directing and technical support — for Asian American students, but it is open to all students interested in educating themselves and the Geneseo community about Asian American and Asian cultures.
The experience allows them to express themselves through the words of Asian American and Asian playwrights on a wide variety of meaningful themes such as cultural struggles, generational conflict and family history. Department of Theatre and Dance faculty members instruct the students, who receive academic credit for their efforts.
“GENseng has meant everything to me,” said founder and artistic director Randy Barbara Kaplan, professor of theatre, who oversees the organization and directs most of the productions. “Our strength lies in empowering our Asian American students through theatre. GENseng students come from many different majors, and the experience has served to support them in whatever career path they choose. It’s very much in line with Geneseo’s mission.”
The group emerged when Kaplan became associated with San Francisco’s Asian American Theatre Company. She met the company’s artistic director, Lane Nishikawa, who brought to Geneseo “I’m on a Mission from Buddha,” his solo show, in 1991, filling 800 seats when the College had very few Asian American students.
Those experiences energized Kaplan and inspired her to search for students with an interest in starting a student Asian American theatre company. Carl Marcelo ’01, a Filipino American, embraced the idea and originated the GENseng name.
“I was involved with multicultural clubs on campus, but the concept of starting a company that provided such visibility was so new and fresh,” said Marcelo.
The company’s first production in 1999 was Filipino playwright Ralph Peña’s “Flipzoids,” the story of three Filipino immigrants trying to fit into American culture. The work resonated with Marcelo. The company has since put on 44 productions and has performed at area colleges and other venues.
Kaplan has stayed in touch with Nishikawa; he returned to campus in 2009 to deliver the GREAT Day keynote address, the focus of which alternates between the arts/humanities and the physical sciences. Nishikawa shared his observations on his career in theatre and film and why the creation of original work is crucial to the continued health of the arts.
Kaplan says GENseng is her most significant academic accomplishment.
“I have taught, published and served as president of the Association for Asian Performance, but in my heart it all pales beside GENseng,” she said. “I wanted to do something for Asian American students to provide a place where they could speak in public the words that Asian American playwrights had written for them. It’s very gratifying to hear GENseng alumni tell me how the experience positively influenced their professional and personal lives.”
Kaplan remains close to many GENsengers, including Marcelo and Chinese American Jacalyn Lee ’02, who joined Marcelo in forming the organization. Marcelo works for DSW, Inc., as an assortment planner for children’s footwear. Lee has had a successful writing and public relations career.
Marcelo said GENseng exposed him to multiple cultures, which gave him confidence to actively promote diversity in the workplace. He said when asked to share a unique fact during group “ice-breaking” sessions, he is always proud to say that he helped start SUNY’s only Asian American performance ensemble. His role in helping to launch GENseng keeps him keenly interested in the company’s endeavors and in Asian American theatre.
Q. What has it meant to you to see GENseng reach its 20-year milestone?
A. I imagine GENseng contributors are as proud as I am that the company has continued to thrive. It is remarkable how the program has evolved from being a series of play readings with no props, to full-blown on-stage productions.
Q. When you first discussed GENseng with Randy, what convinced you that it had potential to be successful?
A. I saw a lot of potential since there was little on campus that focused on diversity and the arts. I saw it as an opportunity to expose Geneseo to the beauty of various Asian American cultures.
Q. What are your fondest memories of being involved with GENseng?
A. My first meeting with Randy would be one. We realized that we had a lot more in common outside of Geneseo and theatre. She asked me about Filipino culture while planning “Flipzoids.” I wasn’t expecting the sell-out crowds for the production. When GENseng’s production sold out again in spring, I knew something special had been created. I also have fond memories of rehearsals and getting to know some really great people.
Q. In what ways did your GENseng involvement help enrich your life?
A. GENseng gave me the opportunity to explore history that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. It opened the door for me to better understand and appreciate my Filipino heritage and other Asian cultures.
Q. How do you see Asian American theatre evolving in the future?
A. Asian American theatre is starting to make some waves and hopefully will continue to grow and evolve. I think that programs like GENseng across the country and even across the world have a positive impact for the future.