As artistic director of her Five Elements Theater Company, ACT graduate Shiyu “Skylar” Li aims to “create cultural understanding”
By Erasmo Guerra
Shiyu “Skylar” Li, the Academy of Art University School of Acting (ACT) alumna (M.F.A. ’17) works at Theater for the New City in Manhattan’s East Village, where she’s an assistant acting teacher in an arts-in-education program for kids between 8 to 12 years old. “I love working with kids,” she said in a recent phone interview from New York, where she lives in Brooklyn. “They’re very natural,” she said about her young students, which she said reminded her of some very important lessons. “They’re never thinking about what they’re doing. They just do,” she said. “Acting is action. We always overthink everything, I think.”
When we spoke in mid-February, it was the one-year anniversary of Li’s cross-country move from the West Coast, recounting the month-long road trip she took to get to New York City from San Francisco soon after graduating from the Academy. Vivid memories of her own time as an Academy student included the astonishment she felt in a Shakespeare class with instructor Bruce Williams. It was the first time she witnessed students, including a fellow classmate from Taiwan, call an instructor by their first name. Li explained: “In China, you call the instructor ‘Teacher,’ and if you call a teacher by their name, there is punishment.”
A native of Zhejiang Province, Li grew up in Beijing. There, in 2012, she received her undergraduate degree in opera and voice from the China Conservatory of Music. When she moved to the U.S. to further her education, she attended English language school in Houston, Texas, and enrolled at the Academy in 2015.
Li said that in the Chinese dictionary her name Shiyu has two meanings: “shi” means to give and “yu” means feather. She said those two words have become her motto in that she “gives to someone who needs love, help, a smile” and that she “moves through life with a light touch and hope.” She chose her American name “Skylar” after the character Skylar played by Minnie Driver in the movie “Good Will Hunting.” “Why not, I love that story,” she explained.
She admitted that one of the biggest lessons she learned while a student at the Academy was patience. “Take your time,” she said. “Be patient with yourself. There’s no rush.” And yet at one point last year when she was taking stock about why she felt so depleted and tired, she said she realized it was because she was only working day jobs and not creating any art. She remembered thinking, “There’s no reason why you can’t create your own projects,” she said. “Create something.” And so she launched Five Elements Theater Company, which references the natural elements of air, wood, metal, fire, and water.
As artistic director, she produced two shows in the first year, including “The Ballad of Mulan,” a kid’s musical with a traditional Chinese story, for which she wrote the script and composed the music. Influenced by her own native Chinese culture, she sees her theater company as a way to reach out to the younger generation of American-born Chinese as a way of bridging the cultural divide. “It builds good relationships,” she said. “You know each other a little better and create cultural understanding.”
It’s the same piece of advice she’d offer to Academy students in general and international students, more specifically. “When you don’t know someone, you build a wall, to protect yourself. That’s normal. You’re afraid,” she said, recalling her own feelings of isolation and doubt when she first arrived. “But just try to be a little friendlier to the people around you.”