When Tsering Dorjee was first contacted by Daniel Swee, LCT’s casting director, this past May, about taking part in The Oldest Boy, Dorjee, who lives in San Francisco, had to think hard about his family situation. “My wife was about to give birth to our second daughter,” Dorjee told me the other day before a student matinee, “and I had to think about whether I could be away from home for four months.” The irony of the situation was not lost on him: “The play is about parents worrying about being separated from a young child.”
All the creative team of The Oldest Boy regularly profess gratitude to Dorjee for choosing to undergo the separation. His lifelong training in the creative arts of Tibet has proved invaluable to the success of the enterprise. “It’s true that this production needed someone who knew about Tibetan culture,” Dorjee said, “and I’m happy that I’ve been able to be that person.”
Born in Tibet, Dorjee grew up mostly in India. He spent 18 years as a student and teacher at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), in Dharamsala. “I was trained in dance, music, Tibetan opera, contemporary theater,” he said. “There is not much text available for the ancient art forms, so it is important to learn about them orally from older people.” Dorjee explained to me some of the regional differences in the song and dance of Tibet: “Sometimes, there are differences between people who live on opposite sides of the same river.”
In 1988, Dorjee was part of a European tour with TIPA artists. In 1991, with a group of 25 performers, he toured across America for six months. “We visited 37 states,” he explained, which, I responded, means he is much better traveled domestically than most New Yorkers.
In 1999, Dorjee was part of the cast of “Himalaya,” which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film. A decade later, he co-created the music for Women of Tibet: A Quiet Revolution, which won an Emmy in the special-feature category. For the latter project, Dorjee not only acted as a composer but also played the flute.
Dorjee has brought his multi-faceted talents to bear on The Oldest Boy. He sings, dances, acts. “I’ve been happy to be able to work in a variety of ways here, and share what I’ve learned.” In the play’s wedding scene, for example, Dorjee explained to the creative team the type of music that might be used. “A traditional Tibetan wedding uses a specific kind of song during the service,” he said. “Not contemporary love songs, but songs that ask for good fortune and a healthy future for the family.”
As for his own family, Dorjee, who these days has a website and who teaches traditional Tibetan music and dance to the Tibetan community in California, has been using a decidedly non-traditional method of communication. “Every morning, I Skype with my family in San Francisco,” he said. “My new daughter has such a beautiful, big smile. And she now recognizes my voice. These things have made the separation much more bearable.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.