SARA GUSHUE was not planning to pursue theatre, at least not until she began working backstage. “I was convinced that I did not want to get into theatre because I did not like acting or being onstage in front of people. I didn’t realize backstage was just as important,” she said. After realizing her specific skill set could be useful behind the scenes, Gushue joined the St. Joseph’s Catholic School theatre program in Greenville, South Carolina. While working on St. Joseph’s production of Failure: A Love Story, her own love affair with theatre ensued. Since her freshman year, this member of Thespian Troupe 6388 has worked as a stage manager.

Outside of theatre, Gushue volunteers at her local zoo teaching children’s camps about animals. The zoo is where she befriended several students from different economic and racial backgrounds, which led to an understanding that her small school community was an unrealistic representation of the larger world. This became important to Gushue, a Chinese American who sees little representation of other students like herself, especially in leadership positions.

Sara Gushue participating in the knot-tying challenge during the 2019 South Carolina Theatre Association Tech Olympics. Photo courtesy of Sara Gushue.

According to the Harvard Business Review, Asian women comprise only 3.1% of executive roles at big firms such as Google, Intel, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard. Even fewer Asian women are represented in theatre. Gushue notes that two prominent Asian actresses ― stage performer Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon and Les Misérables) and film and television star Brenda Song (Scandal and The Social Network) ― are exceptions, not the rule.

Still, the rising senior sees theatre as an essential platform that gives students a more authentic representation of the world. She says, “My experiences helped me realize and understand why theatre is such a universal and uniting experience. No matter what background or experience a person has, everyone can understand the magic and thrill of watching or being part of a live performance.”

In June, Gushue attended the 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival and the student leadership workshop, Through the Leadership Lens, where she discovered her leadership style, developed skills as a collaborative team member, and learned best practices for maximizing arts advocacy in schools. After attending the workshop, Gushue wants to set an example for future generations of female Asian leaders trying to impact the world on and offstage.

Sara Gushue (left) as stage crew for the annual Jubilate Knight of the Arts.
Sara Gushue (left) as stage crew for the annual Jubilate Knight of the Arts. Photo courtesy of Sara Gushue.

What experience made you aware you were a leader?
I have always shown an interest in taking charge of projects and overseeing things. Because overseeing something does not necessarily mean you are a leader, I never really thought of myself as one until recently. The summer before my junior year, when I and my fellow volunteers from the local zoo went to explore on our own at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, a volunteer said, “Let’s just follow Sara. She seems like she knows what she’s doing, and she has a leader vibe.” A month later, a freshman told me I had “motherly” vibes, and while that might not seem like a compliment, I took it as one. It made me realize the freshman saw me as someone who cared for them and that they could approach. Those two experiences made me realize I was a leader because other people saw me as one.

Why did you want to participate in the International Thespian Society leadership program?
I wanted to participate in the leadership program because I wanted to improve and develop my skills as a leader. Even though I might have had [those] qualities, I was not sure how to use those skills. Attending the leadership workshop helped me hone my skills and inspired me with innovative ideas to bring back to my troupe, my chapter, and my STO board.

What were your three favorite experiences at the virtual student leadership program?
It’s hard to choose just three moments! I really liked Sarah Singer-Nourie’s talk on leadership. She was very friendly and encouraging and, as she said, she gave us the “keys to leadership.” Her talk was full of useful tips on being a leader that I can share with everyone from my troupe and chapter. In [International Thespian Officer] Keith [Peacock] and Maura [Toole]’s workshop “Focus,” we discovered our style of leadership. I thought that was interesting because I got a tie between being a delegative leader and a participative leader. As I thought about it, it made sense because I realized that, depending on the situation, I can either take charge of a project or I can take more of a backseat approach and work with my peers on the project. Lastly, I enjoyed Alton Fitzgerald White’s speech. He gave his life story about his journey to Broadway, but he equated each poster from each Broadway show he was in with a life lesson such as humility, integrity, and forgiveness. I thought that was a unique analogy, but I also realized I could do the same thing with the shows I have done. All three of these moments made me examine and understand myself better.

Sara Gushue (bottom left) with cast and crew of Wait Wait ... at the South Carolina Thespian Festival.
Sara Gushue (bottom left) with cast and crew of Wait Wait ... I Can Explain at the South Carolina Thespian Festival. Photo courtesy of Sara Gushue.

How will you apply what you learned in the training to your troupe?
We learned a lot about how to recognize and develop your style of leadership, as well as tips for advocacy and how to use your leadership to advocate for things. But something that struck me was Sarah Singer-Nourie’s talk about beginning to advocate. She gave a three-step plan for advocacy, and the first step, “Enter their world,” stood out to me. Whether it is explaining why schools should keep their theatre programs or simply inviting a freshman to [join] crew, we as leaders and advocates should not just demand that they enter our world; we should enter theirs. Of course, the rest of the steps were just as important, but I think that “entering their world” is a diving board for advocacy. The lessons I learned can be applied immediately on both a local and state level. I will apply what I learned to my troupe by being more aware of how I ask people to support our theatre department, how my troupe can have an impact on our local community, and more.

Speaking of “entering their world,” what advice would you give other Asian Thespians interested in pursuing theatre roles not originally written for Asian performers?
I say keep pursuing those roles. Be authentic and be yourself. Do not give in to the pressure to be less than yourself in hopes of getting a part that is not traditionally played by an Asian actor or actress. Just because a role was not necessarily made for an Asian actor or actress does not mean an Asian would not suit the role. Each person playing a role brings their unique interpretation to the character, and an Asian in a certain role is equally capable of doing the same thing. Additionally, an Asian actor or actress in a traditionally white role would show that the character’s personality is not dependent on the actor’s race but rather what character choices the actor makes. I say keep pursuing those roles and pushing boundaries because theatre is an inclusive environment.

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