Theater professor exudes creative enthusiasm, embodies authenticity

In her 27 years of teaching at Geneseo, professor of theater Randy Kaplan has changed Geneseo’s landscape regarding performance and Asian-American studies.

Born in a small suburb of New York City, Kaplan’s interest in directing began at an early age when she led theater performances with children in her neighborhood. This is also when her interest in Asian culture began.

“I can remember being a little, little kid and always being a director,” Kaplan said.

She also credits her interest in Asian culture to her father, who would take her on trips to Chinatown and who held a personal interest in Chinese culture despite his official career as a microbiologist. Her third grade teacher also encouraged her and bought her the classic Chinese book The Legend of the White Snake, which she read repeatedly as an 8-year-old and for years afterward.

When she began her undergrad career at The Ohio State University, she explained that she was still torn between her interests in theater and Asian culture.

“I sought a way of making my two interests talk to each other, more or less,” she said. Kaplan added that a pivotal moment for her was seeing the Beijing Opera perform during her freshman year at OSU.

Kaplan recalled the intense emotion that overwhelmed her during the performance. “This is home. This is who I am,” she said. “I felt this instant rush of identification.”

After receiving a theater degree from OSU, Kaplan completed her master’s degree at SUNY Albany and received her doctorate from OSU. After completing her thesis on the work of Asian poet and playwright Tian Han, Kaplan began to look for work as a professor.

“I knew I wanted to be a professor,” Kaplan said. “I love directing students; I love working with students.”

She explained that she taught at other universities but chose to stay at Geneseo due to the excellent relationship she had with the designers she worked with on her various productions.

“I thought, ‘Why would you ever want to leave when you have great colleagues and designers?’” she said.

In addition to working as a professor, Kaplan founded Geneseo’s Asian-American performance ensemble GENseng 17 years ago as a way to combine her love of Asian studies with her passion for theater. It is the only Asian theater program in the entire SUNY system—64 campuses—connected with a department of a university.

“Geneseo GENseng is the only one that is embedded in our academic program … a club can go dormant but because GENseng is embedded in our academic program, students can get credit ... we are the only school that has that,” Kaplan said. “It’s something I’m really, really proud of.”

In addition to her contributions through GENseng and the Asian studies minor, Kaplan is also the faculty advisor for Shakti, Bhangra, Korean American Student Association, Students for Free Tibet and Liberty in North Korea.

Kaplan noted that she identifies herself as a “Jewbu,” or a person who is both Jewish and Buddhist.

“I am not by a long shot unique in that way,” Kaplan said. “Buddhism is very embracing of people who celebrate other faiths. There’s a lot about Buddhism that enhances Judaism and a lot about Judaism that enhances Buddhism.”

Kaplan also expressed her compassion for all beings of the Earth, inspired by both Buddhism and Judaism. She is a vegan of three years, the owner of five rescue pets and she tends plants in her husband’s greenhouse.

“In Buddhism, all beings who are sentient are to be respected,” Kaplan said. She also stands by a Jewish commandment to be kind to animals and believes that even Kosher meat invokes inhumane suffering to animals. 

“I think all of these things … the Buddhism and the vegan cooking and the saving animals and raising up plants—from all of that I try to be compassionate to my students,” Kaplan said.