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APA Spotlight

Helen H. Ota, Artistic Director, Cold Tofu

Helen H. Ota is the Artistic Director of COLD TOFU, the nation’s premier Asian American comedy improvisation group. A member since 1993, she has performed in and produced numerous COLD TOFU improv and sketch shows.

She is also the co-founder of Yes, And…Productions which produced Songs for a New World at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Downtown Los Angeles. They are currently working on a new musical which will make its world premiere in 2012. Helen is also a performing member of the Grateful Crane Ensemble whose mission is to present educational and theatrical programs in appreciation for the unique hardships and inspiring contributions of Japanese Americans in our country’s history.

Some of her recent stage and film credits include Songs for a New World, The Betrayed, Nihonmachi: The Place To Be, Twelfth Night, The Golden Hour, Back in the Day, Manzanar: Story of an American Family, A Jive Bomber’s Christmas, Umamiya, Hands On, Carpool and BuddhaHeads.

In addition to her production and performance experience, Helen proudly supports the Japanese American community. She is a past president of the Nisei Week Foundation and Japanese Festival, and is currently the Vice President of Community Relations. She also serves on the Board of Directors and is Secretary of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. When she isn’t producing, performing or volunteering, Helen works in Development for Center Theatre Group, a nonprofit arts organization in Downtown Los Angeles.

COLD TOFU is the nation’s premier Asian American comedy improv and sketch group. It is dedicated to promoting diverse images of Asian Pacific Americans through comedy and to developing multi-ethnic talent through education and performance.

A nonprofit organization, COLD TOFU was founded in 1981 by Marilyn Tokuda, Denice Kumagai, Judy Momii and Irma Escamilla. At that time, the four founding members wanted to perform comedy encompassing a variety of universal themes that people from many communities could relate. They also wanted to provide an opportunity for Asian American actors to perform and explore comedy.

What is the mission statement of your life?

Grow stronger with each accomplishment, and even stronger with each setback. Live with an attitude of gratitude. Show compassion for others.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

When I was growing up, I loved performing. Although my parents didn’t completely discourage me from pursuing an acting career, they strongly encouraged me to find something where I could make a difference and give back. Needless to say, I gave up on acting; however, in 1989, I got involved with the Nisei Week Japanese Festival and became an active volunteer in the com munity. Eventually, I found my passion for performing again and joined COLD TOFU Improv in 1993. From there, everything fell into place.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

I’d love to have Tamlyn Tomita play the lead role.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

Go to for more information about the group, improv shows or to sign up for improv classes. I’d like to point out that COLD TOFU’s workshops are open to anyone who wants to learn improv. Many of our students have been non-performers who find that improv is a great tool for professional development.

(Writer’s note: They will have a performance on June 2, 2011 & 9 at 8 PM at the Japanese American National Museum. Click here for more details.)

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

Being the optimist that I am, I see all of the different APIA organizations/communities working together as one making our voices heard and making things happen for our community.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

Umeboshi (pickled sour plum). It’s not really a comfort food, but whenever I have it, it reminds me of my obaachan who lives in Hiroshima. She used to make her own umeboshiand send a jar of it to my family. It was the best. She’s in her late 90s now, but when she was in her 70s, she was a very active senior. She played the koto, performed minyo, took Japanese dance, and swam for exercise. Although my obaachan lives in Japan, it’s her enthusiasm for the arts and life that makes me feel connected to her.

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

I’m not sure this is considered a guilty pleasure, but I LOVE karaoke. I’m usually singing my heart out regularly in Little Tokyo.

* This article was originally published on on June 2, 2011.

© 2011 Koji Steven Sakai

actress Cold Tofu comedy community entertainment Grateful Crane Ensemble Helen Ota improv Nisei Week theatre

About this series

"APA Spotlight" is a regular interview series on by Koji Steven Sakai interviewing Asian American community leaders from around the country.
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