Midori Francis captivated the audience with her keynote at Her Conference 2023 on June 24 and ensured every person in attendance knew how loved and appreciated they were. Her authenticity, passion, and kindness radiated throughout the Atrium Brooklyn, and she shared so many nuggets of wisdom that I know I won’t be able to let go of.
Francis grew up in Rumson, New Jersey with aunts who introduced her to the world of musical theater. Although she wanted to be a cheerleader, she ended up on stage and gave life to an ever-growing career that continues to break walls and influences fans all over the world. When asked about her childhood by moderator Alice Chen, Francis explained how she led a very imaginative youth where she spent much of her time entangled in imaginary escapism. She mentioned that when acting in school productions as a kid, she would audition for bigger roles but was always cast as “the tree” or “Who Number 4” in Seussical The Musical, for example.
It’s no surprise that creative industries can be brutal, but they can also be beautiful. Francis compared the industry to a seesaw: The lows can be very low, but the highs can be incredibly high. When you’re working as an actor, artist, or creative, she said, “it can often feel like when you’re being rejected, it’s not just being rejected for a skillset, it’s like you’re being rejected as a human being.” She reminded the audience, however, that rejection is not the end of the world and does not define who we are. “I’m doing this to be an artist, share something with an audience, and also, I want to be happy.”
As a child, our imagination can feel so real that when it’s exposed as untrue, it can feel as though our world comes crumbling down. Francis encouraged the audience to find things and places to ground themselves and do things they love that other people aren’t in control of to build a sense of resiliency. Alongside that, she teaches us that it is very possible to turn our imagination into a reality, which is exactly what she did as a young adult. “When I found out there was a career that basically was [playing pretend] on its best days … I was singularly focused and said ‘alright, I’m going to do this,'” she explained.
After graduating from high school, she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from the Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers University and continued her education by studying abroad in London, training with Tim Carroll, and performing at Shakespeare Globe. She began her career landing stage roles in productions such as Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Wolves, and Peter and the Starcatcher. She went on to win Best Actress at the 2016 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, ensemble awards at the Obie and Drama Desk Awards, a nomination for Best Ensemble in the off-Broadway play Connected, and a nomination for Outstanding Actress in Play for her role in Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls.
Audiences now also have the pleasure of watching the Daytime Emmy-nominated actress embrace the power of imagination on-screen in a variety of roles such as Lily in the Netflix series Dash and Lily, Dr. Mika Yasuda in ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and Alicia in Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. Francis said 50% of her day-to-day still feels like playing pretend as she did in her childhood — a pretty good ratio, if you ask me.
Francis has played a variety of diverse roles throughout her career and each of them gives us unique insight into her journey as a queer, bi-racial, Japanese-American woman in the modern world. Chen asked about the pressure Francis feels as a woman of color and an actor representing a community of people in an industry where the representation of what she identifies with was few and far between when growing up. Francis explained that “as a society that heavily consumes media we are influenced by the one prototype of human beings that we see on-screen, and the people that don’t look like that or identify with that version of a person start to feel like they’re not the main character of their own lives.” She further revealed that at the beginning of her career, other actors and agents encouraged her to change her legal last name, Iwama, out of worry that others might see it and assume she doesn’t speak English.
Her desire to make it had her altering herself in a way that would put her at an advantage, but she learned that once you are let in the room, the pressure sets in. When she realized that other cast members may wonder if she was there for reasons other than her talent alone, she told herself, “I better be so good, that no one doubts that.” And she has done exactly that.
One major point that Francis made during her keynote was about embracing yourself for who you are. “All of those things that once made me weak, I feel stronger,” she said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”