After receiving tenure as a college professor of sociology, Ada felt restless. Taking an improv class was the catalyst to her reinvention as a performing artist, storyteller, and show producer.
Tell us a little about your background.
I am from Taiwan originally. My parents were born and got married in Southern Taiwan and moved to the capital city of Taipei after my mother gave birth to my older brother in 1961. I was born in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, in 1964. I grew up in Taipei until the age of 27 when I left the island in 1991.
I got my BA in Spanish Literature and Language from Fu-Jen University in 1986. I worked as an editor, a translator, a freelance writer, and an English teacher for children and youth for five years before I came to the United States in 1991 to pursue advanced education. I received my Master’s degree in International Studies from the University of Oregon in 1994 and then went on to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. After receiving my doctoral degree in 2001, I moved to Chicago to start a teaching position as an assistant professor in sociology at DePaul University. I received tenure in 2006 and stayed on teaching until June 2016.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I remember feeling very lost and unsure about my next step, and even thinking about making a change, the minute I got tenured. Of course, quitting then would have been outrageous; you don’t spend years pursuing a doctoral degree and getting tenured, and then give that all up. I had succeeded in getting tenured, but not necessarily in becoming what I wanted to become: an activist scholar. I was getting bored with publishing for the sake of publishing. Climbing the academic ladder was starting to feel meaningless to me. I experienced a loss of identity for many years after tenure. I just didn’t have vocabulary to articulate what I was experiencing.
I ended up pursuing a social work degree at DePaul after receiving tenure. I told people that I wanted to do social work on the side in addition to teaching sociology full-time at the university. Looking back I see I was already trying to find a way out. I just didn’t know how I could do that without quitting my job; it took me ten years of struggle to figure it out.
Here was my “aha” moment: One night in August 2015, I was looking at YouTube standup comedy clips, trying to find some that would work for my fall classes. When I taught at the university, I used to use standup comedy to highlight the issues I wanted to explore. We can’t deny that some stand-up comedians are doing brilliant and poignant critiques of social issues. I used to utilize their observations as a way to provoke class discussions. The next morning, I woke up and thought to myself: I would do better as a stand-up comedian. I immediately went online to Second City and signed up for an improv class. Before that, I hardly ever watched Saturday Night Live. Comedy wasn’t my genre.
I fell in love with improv immediately. Once I fell in love with performance, then I realized that teaching was no longer the thing that drove my passion. I loved my students, but I was no longer in love with teaching. I was burned out, and it wouldn’t be fair to students for me to stay.
That’s how I got involved with theater and performance. I started with improv, then I found storytelling. And the rest was history. I finally left academia in 2016.
What is your next act?
I am a storyteller, a performing artist, and storytelling show producer. I tell personal stories to illustrate social conditions that shape our collective and individual experiences. For example, one of the stories I told in 2016 was about my citizenship ceremony. While that particular story was about my attending the ceremony and receiving citizenship, I explored various issues relevant to all immigrants, such as the meanings of home(land), the institutionalization of the alien status, the assumed criminality of immigrants, and the futility of blending in through achieving the American dream. In the story, I talked about how vulnerable I felt when I turned in my green card, the only documentation to prove my “documented” status; I laid out the list of questions on the citizenship application interrogating immigrants’ assumed criminality. Therefore, as much this is my personal story, it also has universal appeal to all who have gone through this process.
For the most part, I don’t see what I am doing differently from what I was doing when I was teaching at the university. I am still teaching, educating, doing analysis, and conveying messages, except to different kinds of audience and using different mediums.
Still, there are differences. In academia, you speak in a particular language, an elitist and privileged language not necessarily accessible to all and often alienated to oneself. Creativity and ingenuity are not encouraged; rather, you will be penalized for them. In the art world, at least you are expected to create and to be creative, using language and mediums accessible to a broader audience. I love the freedom of experimenting, creating, and crossing artistic and intellectual boundaries.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was hard and it wasn’t hard. What finally convinced me to leave was the realization that my heart just wasn’t in academia anymore—and I knew it wouldn’t be fair to my students for me to stay. Once I realized that, the decision wasn’t hard.
What was hard was knowing I would be giving up interacting with students, whom I truly loved, a profession I had spent decades training for, a respectable position, prestige, status, a relatively comfortable lifestyle, a stable salary and benefits. I had spent decades working for these things. Keep in mind that these things weren’t easy to obtain to begin with. I am saying that from my personal experiences as a woman of color and as an immigrant scholar working in academia in the United States. I was and still am very proud of my accomplishments even if they no longer made me happy.
I finally had to ask myself: Can I do this for another 15 years until I retire at the age of 65? The answer was no. I would be dead before I died. As if I wasn’t dying already. I also asked myself: Am I going to be OK if I have to wash dishes and wait tables? The answer was yes, I would be much happier. At the end of my stay at the university, I was extremely unhappy. Nothing was worth it when I was that unhappy; the toxicity, be it from my own unhappiness or from the environment, was affecting me and the people around me negatively. So I simply made the decision one night and sent an email to the Dean and my colleagues, without discussing this with anyone. I didn’t know where I was heading, but anywhere would be better than the bitter hole I was in. I was so miserable that I didn’t even take it when my Dean offered me the option to take a leave for a year without completely giving up my tenure position. I simply had to walk away.
How supportive were your family and friends?
I didn’t discuss my decision with anyone except the partner I was with at the time. His advice was to put up with it, which I could no longer do. I didn’t tell my family for a year; I didn’t dare to. I left my home to make a life for myself. Being a professor was an honor; quitting that reputable job to become a performing artist would be difficult to justify. I couldn’t get myself to tell them. When I finally did, however, it turned out to be fine. My brother seemed to understand. He said he just wanted me to be happy.
Some of my friends and colleagues were concerned while other applauded my decision. What I realized was that I wasn’t the only one thinking about leaving academia or pursuing something completely new in life. Actually doing it, however, was a different thing.
Deep down, I don’t think it is natural for human beings to do one thing, and only one thing, for their whole life. We have this set idea that we pursue this one career and stay with it for the rest of our lives. That no longer makes sense to me. For me at this point, performance art may not be the only act I will pursue in the future; I might have another next act. I just don’t know anymore. And that’s not a bad feeling at all. Not at all.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
It has been a wonderful journey. This is not necessarily the most difficult thing I have ever done, so I am weathering through challenges as I go. Sure, I might experience “isms” of various forms (racism, sexism, ageism, prejudice, etc.) but they just don’t faze me anymore for some reason. Don’t forget, I already fought those battles in academia. Right now I simply bite my tongue to overcome whatever I have to so I persevere with grit.
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I am tougher than I know. I can handle standing alone if necessary. I appreciate rejections and turn them into motivations, lessons, and opportunities. I know how to turn off negative voices inside and outside.
Know this. Doing art at this age, I have more assets than a lot of younger artists. What might seem to be disadvantages are assets in my eyes: I am wiser, thicker-skinned, more experienced, and more thoughtful. I don’t put up with nonsense anymore. I speak my mind when necessary. Most importantly, I don’t spend time in self-doubt and feeling insecure. I have a solid sense of myself. I don’t get swayed easily by applause or the lack of it. I don’t seek validation and approval. I don’t take things personally. I just do what I need to do and want to do. Failure isn’t an issue as long as I learn the lesson. Right now, I feel this synergy in my life where different aspects of my life are aligned with one another perfectly. It has taken me decades to get to this place.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Trust your assets, meaning your wisdom, your experiences, your insights, and your brilliance. Youth may not be in our hands, but wisdom, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and experiences are tremendous assets. Use rejections wisely and strategically. Rejections are roads uncharged and opportunities uncreated. They are the best motivations to push your forward. Appreciate them.
Don’t wait for invitations. Create your own space and opportunities. Don’t take things personally. Don’t measure yourself against others; you might be on different journeys. Move beyond the comparative paradigm. Growth should be the key; winning isn’t everything. Don’t waste time on trying to prove yourself because that mindset will confine your vision.
Just do it. Practical experiences will teach you how to avoid mistakes or repeat them until you learn. Take a chance in yourself. Own your mistakes and move on. Don’t pursue perfection because that’s an illusion. Strive for brilliance and don’t settle for mediocrity.
Surround yourself with people who support and inspire you. You will encounter people, sometimes people close to you, who are threatened by your progress and will project their own insecurities. That means you might need to let them go. And that’s OK to do. You will also encounter people who are inspired by you and will inspire you. Keep that energy around you because you will need it. Know how to take advice, suggestions, and criticism, but turn off unnecessary noises that distract and disrupt your visions.
What advice and resources do you have for those interested in pursuing performance art?
Take classes to learn the craft. Learn from different people.
Work on your craft. Craft has to come first.
At some point, you need to stop taking classes and start hitting the open mics or get on shows to perform. Do as much as possible. You will get better.
Perform at different venues, for different audience members, small and big, so you test your art.
Take your art out of the city to places you have never been.
Cross-train. Learn from different genres.
Don’t get bogged down by the critics if they do review you. Don’t get discouraged if they are bad; don’t get too happy if they are great. Know the worth of your art so your view of yourself is not determined by how others see you.
Diversify and expand.
Create your own space if there is no space.
Don’t wait for people to invite you to shows; actively promote yourself and send your materials to others. Be more active and aggressive.
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Turn your weaknesses into strengths.
As far as resources go, I have taken classes, improv and storytelling, from Annoyance Theatre, IO Theater, Second City, and Chicago Dramatists. My own training is very incomplete. I learned by doing it.
Margaret Cho is my all-time favorite. Now I would also recommend people also watch Hannah Gadsby’s most recent special Nanette. It is by no means perfect, but her special on Netflix gives you a sense of why storytelling, as opposed to comedy, has become the main vehicle for me to deliver my messages.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I am going to learn how to write plays and nonacademic books. In fact, I am right now in the inaugural Jackalope Playwrights Lab and learning the craft of playwriting. It has been great learning something new and learning how to tell stories differently. It’s humbling as a matter of fact.
I am also working on my third solo show, writing a book, and editing a book. In addition, I have also been thinking about joining the peace corps, teaching English abroad, and traveling around the world. Really, the possibilities are endless. I might jump off the cliff again soon.
Connect with Ada Cheng
Facebook personal page
Facebook performance page
YouTube: Renegade Ada Cheng
Breaking Rules, Broken Hearts: Loving across Borders (2018)
Not Quite: Asian American by Law, Asian Woman by Desire (2017)
Storytelling Show Productions:
Am I Man Enough?: A Storytelling/Podcasting Show (every two or three months)
Talk Stories: An Asian American/Asian Diaspora Storytelling Show, with Archy Jamjun (quarterly)
Pour One Out: A Monthly Storytelling Series, with Andrew Rios (monthly)
Standing Up: From Renegade Professor to Middle-Aged Comic, by Difference Press (2016)
Collegial Indecency: Sexual Assault in the Ivory Tower (2017)