Good afternoon, YouthMundees!
At YouthMundus, we aim to not only be a platform for music, film and global change, but for the artists and global changemakers who create them. Our Artist Spotlight series aims to create a space for discovery of new, budding global talent, while simultaneously offering you an exclusive glimpse into their creative process. In this week’s edition, we’re extremely ecstatic to feature Neo Cihi, a trans artist, voice actor, and activist.
Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and an American father, Neo Cihi cites their birthplace as the genesis for their perception of the world: “I am very happy that I grew up in Japan, I couldn’t imagine what an American-raised Neo would be like… The values of social grace, harmony with the environment, and the sense of responsibility to my community are all principles that influence how I move through the world.” However, Neo credits their “American-half” for “equipping them with the ‘bold individualism’ that is necessary to be a creative in context with society.”
The first school Neo attended, the Tokyo International School, was built on very “new and progressive approaches to learning and core values.” The school promoted an environment that fostered self-reflection and empathy, causing Neo to focus on their “global responsibility” from a young age.
“My passion for the arts has been present since I was a child. Drawing was where my creative spark began, so much so that I was pretty sure I was going to become an animator in the future. However I gave up on my dream, to pursue my otherdream of becoming an actor.”
Neo then attended the American School in Japan, a high school that, Neo cheekily exclaimed had “a football team and a prom! Very American!” However, Neo much preferred the theatre department, which is what truly cultivated their love for acting.
What is the connection between your art and social justice?
“As a Non-Binary person, navigating the workplace (in all contexts, acting or otherwise) is always a challenge. There are great victories, beautiful friendships, inspiring projects... however it also is plenty of annoyances, disappointments, and sometimes even danger or pain.”
“Being Transgender/Non-Binary and Half Japanese—better known on casting calls as PoC—puts me one niche further into the other. Its tokenized, specialized, its a hot ticket! In a creative sense it can feel both invigorating and limiting... Though I feel as if many actors can feel boxed in this way — Limited by what others can perceive you as. It’s certainly not unique.”
“Frankly, I’ve felt far more stifled in school and by peer projects compared to the professional world at times! It’s really just about where the language, etiquette, structure, and the ideas have been re-examined and changed for the better. It can be an easy and liberating process.”
“If I can explain gender and change the hearts and minds of folks who never met a non-binary person let alone a transgender person in a single evening over hot pot (true story) then people sending out casting calls, writers creating scripts, and directors ‘playing with gender’ can spend some time looking up basic introductory Trans/Queer etiquette and literature. Or better yet, hire a trans person as a consultant!”
“However, I have been very thankful and very lucky as most of my encounters have been very supportive. From Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Operating Systems, which was written by trans playwright Corinna Schulenberg who chose me to play their first Non-Binary role Dani, to working with the Trans Lab for the reading of Mr.Transman, and my big commercial break for Pantene’s #BeautifuLGBTQ campaign simply being my wonderful self.”
“But the role I am most proud of is my work on something out of my childhood dream. I am the voice actor for Pokemon: Sun and Moon’s character Trainer Hau! Fulfilling both my childhood loves for acting and animation. Nothing is as sincerely special and wonderful as getting to be a part of something that was very influential to your childhood - and have people all over the world reach out to you, to say, thank you. I received so many messages from young trans/queer kids and adults alike saying how much they wanted to congratulate and thank me for being who I was and being Hau. It is, so unfathomably special. I am grateful for this opportunity at every moment in its journey.”
What inspires your creative process?
“Deadlines. Ha, Just kidding... Mostly. I often find the most creatively energizing and inspiring element to art and particularly my art making is collaboration. Nothing makes me more excited to work, or helps coax my ideas out of an anxiety shell, than another trusted artist who wants to make work with me. There is a new level of excellence that is achieved when people come together to collaborate. Collaborative rooms just light up and buzz with creative energy, even if its just between me and one other person in a larger ensemble. The energy is like nothing else.”
“I am very much a fan of ensemble work and devised theatre, all of my favorite projects have come from these types of artistic environments. Two heads are better than one and more than two heads make a Hydra which is pretty badass artistically speaking.”
What inspired you to pursue voice work and acting? What were the challenges you overcame in this?
“Though I’ve always loved cartoons and animation, it never really occurred to me that voicing them was even a real possibility. In my time at Stonestreet Studios I met a series of extremely influential teachers who were deeply involved in the VO world. They gave the best acting advice I had ever received in all 4 years of acting school - the most poignant being: ‘Read whats on the page and stop getting in your own head... You’re doing a good job already so relax’. Wow. Really revolutionary coming from an acting school.”
“Voice acting felt natural, felt exciting, I was just a voice - I had no physical mismatching to worry about. I never for a second wondered what an Asian kid was doing playing Checkov. Never had be be bogged in all the annoying busywork of performing any kind of gender. I was free to be. Suddenly all of the traits which had been criticized in my other acting classes were now suddenly my biggest assets. I could over-act, I could be big, loud, and weird! I could roll my terrible eyes and gnash my terrible teeth and it sounded the better for it. I found an avenue. While the booth felt claustrophobic for others, it just felt like a home for me.”
“The first challenges are still challenges I deal with today - Listening to myself. My voice. The very thing which is my asset is still a difficulty. It's ironic! There are days where I am elated, I love my performance, I love my voice. There are days where I feel tortured, out of control, lost between gendered roles. The demands of VO are different physically from other types of acting as well, I’ve had to make up for a lot of lost time as singing was something I avoided out of dysphoria.In times like these, I remember the advice given to me: ‘You’re doing a good job already so relax,” and press onward. And I am able to, so ardently, truly because of the love and support I receive as a voice actor. Other people seem to believe in me, so I suppose I should believe in myself too. And I do.”
What’s been the most rewarding part of being an artist for you? Do you have any advice for future artists?
“An acting teacher I once had remarked on the idea that ‘Artists fall into two categories: Those who feel too little, and those who feel too much’ I found that sentiment to be very resonant. I am a person who feels all too much. I’m the heart-on-the-sleeve type, ever since I was a kid. Having an outlet where this type of sensitivity and empathy, is welcomed, is a necessary refuge in this world for sensitive folk. It is the gasp of air one makes breaching out from under the ice of the world.”
“However, the true gem of this practice, this expression through art... is sometimes when the channel burns bright and hot, when you have become so vulnerable and open to the moment - The lightning strikes! You become possessed by something bigger than you, the magic courses through your veins, between you and a partner, you and a page, you and a paintbrush, whatever the medium…”
“The most rewarding part of being an artist: is the magic that is made, the spark of empathy that burns so bright, the gem left gleaming in the sand once the dust and lightning has settled. That is the true reward. Beauty, birthed from thin air, alive. Because you made it happen.”
“But, and this is especially pertinent to future artists: Not all art will be like this. This is the myth we tell people. This is the lie that crushed me when I could hardly fart out a page for class. It is the most rewarding part, because it is so rare. Don’t get down on yourself for not being able to poop diamonds.”
“Let things come to you organically, but make the effort to make space for them. Get up and get out there. Find a friend, it’s far less lonely that way. Don’t make yourself a suffering artist. Be polite. Answer emails. Send your Thank-You's. Know your industry. Know your limits. Know when to get yourself off of the floor. Love yourself. Think about yourself, your place in society, yourself in context, do you like it there? If not, change it. Go to therapy.”
Do you have advice on how we can support trans artists and actors like yourself?
UPLIFT TRANS/NON-BINARY ARTISTS. HIRE TRANS/NON-BINARY ARTISTS. WHEN IN DOUBT, RESEARCH. IF FURTHER IN DOUBT, ASK. IF FURTHER FURTHER IN DOUBT, HIRE TRANS/NON-BINARY ARTISTS.
“Pronouns, its ok to ask! Usually most trans actors will have them listed. Use them. They are not “preferred pronouns” they are “pronouns” there is no preference, it is a requirement.”
“Don’t ask about any information about someone’s gender identity that isn’t listed to the public, don’t pretend to be ‘curious’ or ‘naive’ or ‘just trying to understand’. You’re just trying to clock, knock it off.
Transphobia is easy to sniff out. Thankfully the worst possible thing for you, is that someone will be mad at you. That's it. Consider what our “worst” looks like. Have you read the news?”
“Stand up for Trans people. Correct when people misgender them, defend them, create unisex bathroom spaces, offer your support and allyship. Vote consciously for people who support LGBTQ policy, stand with them legislatively, put your money towards pro-LGBTQ businesses, or better yet, queer businesses and artists!”
“Most importantly, be kind, be smart, be willing to listen. We all know everyone has a curious mind and an open heart somewhere, find yours. Make a friend, share something beautiful. There’s a whole world to experience!”
Do you have any other upcoming performances or VO gigs?
"Yes! I recently was able to stretch my VO chops again and was able to perform one of my dream roles: Peter Pan!"
"My dear friend Dani Martineck (another fabulous non-binary actor whom I did a short film with) wrote a feminist fairytale re-imagining the classic tale, for the Girl Tales podcast. A podcast for children, which provide feminist and queer reimagining of fairy tales. Catch me in the episode Pan the Pirate!"
"I just participated in being a reader, for an incredible new musical in production: Interstate! With Kit Yan (who I had worked earlier on Mr. Transman) and Melissa Li writing the Book and Music. Though my involvement was brief, my heart is so excited for this musical about young, trans, asian artists, going through life, isolation, gender dysphoria and euphoria, and finding each other, finding community. Check them out at @interstatemusical on instagram!"
"Much more involved however, I’d like to announce that I have been cast in an exciting new play, Will Detlefsen’s THE STRAIGHTS! The first reading for this modern, down to earth, road trip dark comedy adventure will be taking place at Access Theater’s 4FlightsUpFest on the 28th at 8pm."
Click HERE to learn more!
Thank you for your continuous support and kindness.
Lots of love, #Team IVA
Interview by Tessa M. Dobrow