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Alumni Spotlight: Esther Chae

Esther Chae

“U-M was my first love and first grad school experience,” Esther says when sharing her journey from an undergraduate student in Seoul, Korea to the vastly different world she found in the Midwest. She describes, “I consider myself a quasi-overseas citizen. I was U.S. born but raised in Korea, where I was educated during my formative years. I wanted to study theater and acting and was offered a scholarship at the Theatre department at Michigan.

“My two years at U-M were very much a different phase of my life - new surroundings, new experiences. It was at U-M that I really learned the rigor of academia, but the most important experience was meeting my lifetime mentor Oyamo Gordon, now retired Professor in Playwriting. That was a very pivotal encounter in my career and life, really, because being able to work with Oyamo made me who I am now.”

Esther has been back to Ann Arbor since graduating when she came to receive the 2010 Emerging Artist Award from the Theater department at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. She performed her one person play, So the Arrow Flies, a political thriller about an alleged North Korean spy and the FBI agent who interrogates her. She says it was an excitingly eclectic audience, including students from Theatre, Asian American Studies, Political Science, Women’s Studies, and the Ann Arbor community at large.

The play has received rave reviews as she’s performed it internationally and around the country, often focusing her audience on university campuses. The solo performance play explores complex political and social issues including America's national security apparatus, global identity and gender roles through modern heroines. It was just published as a book in English and Korean by No Passport Press, and after the book gets off the ground she will pursue a film version.

Esther’s career is full of stepping stones, and she took her first step at U-M. She says, “I started as an academic not necessarily wanting to stay in academia, but happy that I have been able to incorporate it with my Hollywood acting career.” She hopes to get her book into more high school and university settings as a learning and teaching opportunity.

After U-M, Esther received her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama. She then served as a visiting artist at Harvard’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue before moving to New York City to begin her career as a stage actress. A group of young filmmakers suggested she go to Los Angeles, but she hadn’t thought much about it at the time because she was theater trained, but says, “I became realistic with the challenges I was encountering with the very Western European-centric New York City stage scene. As an Asian American female actor, I wasn’t going to get the same great opportunities as many others and thought I’d check out LA to see if it was a viable option.”

She flew to Los Angeles on the morning of September 11, 2001. Floored by that fateful day, she didn’t return back to New York.

“I tried to establish myself in LA, unfamiliar with the film industry and not knowing a lot of people. I kept plugging away, working, doing TV shows and commercials, but keeping ties to New York,” she continues. When her mother got severely ill, Esther was her primary caretaker. During this high stress time, she explored ideas and emotions relating to that experience and the September 11 tragedy and created the fourth character in So the Arrow Flies as a dedication to her Mom.

Esther says she has two tracks and they don’t overlap too much. “I’m a Hollywood actress - that’s my day job. Then there’s my entrepreneurial-generative track through my 3 Hearts Productions company under which I produce my own projects and take on teaching and speaking engagements.” Esther’s television and film credits include NCIS, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, The West Wing, 24, The Shield and numerous TV commercials.

She’s happy to share her alumni story with Rackham students and alumni. She says, “U-M is ahead of the curve having entrepreneurial programs where students can make their own work. The University supports their creative ideas making it possible for them to come out into the world with their own ideas and something tangible later. That can make all the difference.”

Alumni Advice

One of the most valued opportunities I had was all the assistance programs available. I took advantage of the Sweetland Writing Institute, getting all the writing help I needed, and I encourage students to take advantage of programs and initiatives available for grad students. Lot of other schools don’t offer that much.

Find your champions and mentors and don’t be afraid to have a rigorous dialogue with them. Students from Asia, due to the more reverent culture, don’t feel as comfortable being very proactive in searching for mentors. Don’t wait to develop those relationships, be proactive and prepared for cultural adjustments.

Stay very macro and look at the big picture, look not only at your specialty but look at what more you can take advantage of at the U-M.

Get out and get involved. Know that what you want to learn and want to do might be bigger than what you’re studying.