Working In The Theatre: Playwrights

I’m Jose Rivera Playwright and screenwriter The Lark is a laboratory for development of new players by American playwrights. I’m gathering with wonderful young writers Chris Dominique Suzan and Ray we’re going to discuss our work and we’re going to give a really thoughtful look at what contemporary American playwriting looks like today. Help yourselves a great surprise. I worked all day on it. These are real strawberries, right? It’s tea. You want some?
>I’m okay. You love tea, though. [Laughter] So, I was just wondering you guys thinking about like the fact that all of us who you know have committed a good portion of our lives to being in the theater and Some people might say that the theater itself is a bit dysfunctional, and it’s not a great relationship for writers And so I was just wondering what it was that got all of you hooked on the theater, fell in love with the theater, decided that this is the place to put all my creative talent and all my abilities, because let’s face it, you know very talented group of writers and you could have done anything else, you could have made money. [Laughter] Write novels screenplays, and you still might of course, but there’s something about this particular art form that draws you and Calls you year after year and day after day so you know I’m curious how how that happened for each of you? I remember that I had to be like this leading girl and I was really awkward in sixth grade have really big glasses and just like everything and I remember there was this part in the play where he had to say something and call me like pretty like oh You’re the most beautiful such [a–such] in the world [or] you know and I remember going All of the [eighth-grade] girls are going to just dog me as soon as like he says that in front the school like this. It was terrifying you know plus. They all think he’s cute so they just gonna hate on me and so uh He gets to the part he goes you know you’re the most beautiful girl in the world and I’m like “Here it comes,” you know I have like braced myself, and I’m gonna keep going and It was silent. You know it was silent. it was silent with the eighth-grade girls my classmates were silent like everybody was silent because they were not because they thought I was the most beautiful girl but because they were so into the story by this point like it was such a good play that they were just so committed and I was like wow like You can really believe anything in this theater right now like it can really make the mean girls like not be mean like this is something This is doing something. I’m hooked. I’m safe here. I’m staying forever.>Huh, that’s great. Yeah Yeah, Rady have something like that?
>Um well, you know I was I was in grade school plays also, but the first time I really loved being in a play I was a freshman in High School it was ior in the House of [unintelligible] Community theater for like the kids like the kids for the kids shows and I don’t know what it was about that particular moment but it is really my first memory of being in theater and really loving it having a really great time. You know the rest of the cows were really fun, and I love Ior, actually in real life. [Laughter] But then and then I think as a writer um When I came, I went to NYU for Acting actually not for playwriting, but the first year. I saw Angels on Broadway And I was like. Oh, wow you can really do whatever you want. You know it’s just it’s one of those plays where like you can really write whatever you want. You can do whatever you want and make it work and that that was probably the most inspiring. Yeah for me. It wasn’t anything as lofty as Angels in America. It was rumpelstiltskin which I saw in sixth grade and I was one of those kids raised on a television set basically and I always found TV very lonely and Watching the play was like the first time I ever had a group experience with a bunch of people where we all laughed at the same time and quiet at the same time and listen at the same time and I thought this is this is amazing. You know this can be that way, you know it never experienced communication that way with a group of people that really hooked me. Everybody? So, I did some acting but I was never very good at it. I took this playwriting class at the Honolulu Theater for youth when I was 15, we had to write a play. And I think the idea of just telling a story like tweety bolt are just having a conversation But like everything changes and the simplicity of just like people in a room talking I guess it sounds very Jacobean. But like that idea of like just telling a story with people yeah once I found that. I just kept doing it. I wasn’t really social when I was a kid. I was sort of a nerd and I remember I did Romeo and Juliet my freshman year in high school and as most people know I don’t like Shakespeare but I didn’t know better back, then.
>Are you allowed to say you don’t like Shakespeare? I think I’ve just ruined my career. [Laughter] There it is you have to leave right now. And I got I got cast in Romeo and Juliet, and I was I was typecast, I was Paris. I just I just remember it was It was like the first time that people were forced to interact with me and you’re all sort of like it’s similar to that like because you’re in a room together creating something all this sort of like social boundaries sort of fell apart and you were just in a community. And in a way, it’s it’s been great because it’s the place that I It feels the most dangerous, but I also don’t feel scared.
So I love that sort of thrill of that. I think like growing up in Hawaii There’s an idea of like you know if you do something bad the Volcano goddess is gonna get you. If you bring pork over the highway like the you know things bad things are gonna happen there’s ghosts everywhere.>Pork over the highway?
>Yeah, it’s a thing But you know, but so the way that I was sort of raised and my reflection in the world It wasn’t exactly realistic there was something mythic about it, so I feel like for me like we in those plays I Love the language how muscular like the conversations were but there was something like not reflective And so I feel like the freedom to say like this is a prison you couldn’t have plays be experiential. That’s good. Yeah, I had a similar experience with as ray as an adult Watching I saw the closing night performance of Barry Child and in 1979 when none of you were born. [Laughter] Yeah, you know watching this play. I didn’t even know who Sam Sheppard was and I remember watching this in this whole thing an act two where like the characters were on stage shucking corn. You know they just had this corn there and Someone in act one had said the land had been you know barren and nothing had grown so all this going had grown like literally overnight. Now sitting in the audience going that is such a lie! Corn can’t do that, you know! What is this? This is nonsense! this is crazy! and then I thought about it for another point four seconds, and I go oh wait, this is a play about fertility and suddenly like this metaphoric power of theater, just hit me suddenly like oh that’s what it’s really about it’s not about the thing it’s about what the thing symbolizes or what [the] thing means on a whole other level and that that completely changed my point of view on writing and on theatre, that you know the the realistic plays that I grew up with are wonderful, but that’s not the entire answer to theater. Realism isn’t the entire answer and that Sam Shepard in his play and Tony in his play were showing us broader canvas and a more beautiful landscape in which to draw and I thought that was quite quite wonderful. Experience. I read Angels in America I had just read a lot of like Miller and O’Neal like all the stuff that everyone reads 87 times throughout High School and College, and I just didn’t like I mean now as an older I appreciate it but I just wasn’t interested in it felt very stale to me and then when I the first time I read Angels I was like there’s a million characters and Magic and you know and it was so epic and crazy, and it was the metaphor that sort of sucked me into into doing it. What is funny that you say that I do not read all those things in high school and in fact in college yes, but it just still didn’t speak to me and what I had discovered in high school was George Woolf. You know I have read The Colored Museum after I had read you know for colored girls who consider suicide, what I realized with George Woolf’s play which was really transformative for me as an actor as a playwright was that you can write these vignettes, you know or that you can with in Sasaki you could write Coria poem, I didn’t even know well how to write a linear play for a very long time And so I started engaging with other peers and seeing people you know tell a narrative tale that was different and I said oh Okay, I’m gonna try to write a straight play. You know a straight plan you know I don’t even know what that is. And it I ended up reading like a lot of August Wilson and Pearle Cleage and all these people that are considered you know classic writers from the canon that I’ve been exposed to but that in this greater theatre canon you know I know people that don’t know who Pearle Cleage is or who don’t know who the writers who I’ve grown up reading are and I realize that what becomes like the classic writer or those writers that we’re all supposed to know really does change depending on your you know cultural history and and what you’ve been exposed to right? I was riding the Subway and I saw a group of workers for MTA. It was a woman among like three men. They all had like a little bit of dirt on their faces in there and their hands and stuff and she did – she had Corn Rows, and she was older. She was the same age as my character. The way she was engaging was the man was so it was almost like they were all the same and I loved it. I loved their respect for her their community with each other and I was watching them listen to them have a conversation and it’s like wow this is exactly what I’m trying to write. Which is like this makeshift family of workers. I told em I was eavesdropping on them and they didn’t mind. I just engage them a conversation for a moment. I know people in the picking of dialogue sometimes as writers they listen to the people that ride the subway because they’ll give you that you know you’ll see somebody whose world you’re not normally a part of and you get to hear like some major things about their life sometimes on the subway I think that that’s where it begins, but for me it can’t end there. To capture a couple of sounds and things like that and maybe some inspiration but if I think I know a people, and I can write a people because I’ve overheard them on the subway I’m really naive about those people. I have to be able to engage with people and have a conversation with them and be able to go into their community before I feel like I can truly bring justice to them as a writer. This is kind of like when I’m getting me out of being stuck. I need color stimulation, you know and like things to just make my ideas pop for me. It’s a contact sport really, theater, it is definitely a social sport that requires other people to be in the room with you at some point. You know this is for communication with other people. Community, family, and love, justice and injustice, that’s where my work tends to focus. Music to me isn’t one of my main ways of getting involved in writing. Music really lands me in a time period or in a region. It helps me capture the dialect and the words that are popular the isms and the sayings and that’s part of my process is just getting myself sort of textured in the world that I’m writing about. And then the characters I walk around with them. You know in me for a while. I think what will they think about you know sometimes I have to write out What do they do when they’re drinking or what do they do when they’re sober and how do they operate? what’s their favorite song? I brainstorm a lot you know, I think of the issues that are related to the people that I’m creating. I don’t write a play about the issues, but issues always impact some people somewhere. So I think of what issues are important to me and then I decide who I need to tell the story of who that issue impacts. And I like people with the dirt under their nails, I call it. People that we’re not hearing from I think you know who are the people that we see every day [that] [have] a little darla’s on the [other] face because they’re doing that hard labor and we’re passing by them every day, and we don’t know their story. I want to know that story. My husband is a hip-hop artist when we danced together which we love to do it helps both of us just sort of defy time and space. Well sometimes when we’re dancing we’ll quote lines from like movies where people are dancing. I’m a writer of color. I’m a black woman playwright. I’m a part of a marginalized class and In theatre right now we are still working to make space for ourselves to be seen on stage and produced on stages and it means that I have to get in conversation with theatres often and Advocate for my work and advocate for a new audience so that the old guard that’s in theaters right now It’s not the only audience that has to exist. That theaters’ audiences can start becoming more diverse just like the writers who are writing for theater which I’m a part of you know so it’s about making space for everybody’s voice to be heard. I would love to see my work produced at regional theaters across the country and with audiences that are diverse and new, you know, that aren’t necessarily the traditional theater goers. Playwright of New York Fellowship allows me to live in an apartment this year without having to pay rent and supports us with the stipend so that I can afford to just be a full-time playwright without having to take on a day job. I’ve generated more work this year than I’ve ever generated in a year in writing. It’s interesting we were joking earlier about playwrights are an endangered species. And I think I don’t think playwriting itself is endangered, but I do think that maybe I’m being too pessimistic But yet, the kind of theater that we all like sitting around. This table is an endangered species in a way. I mean theater that based on language and metaphor and that takes you know reality and twists it into more poetic forms. Because the kinds of plays that we you know that we want to write and do write we Look around at the larger landscape, and we go those plays aren’t necessary produced. It seems like there was a lot of those writers doing that kind of work you know 15-20 years ago And now [it’s] like still you guys but our generation has sort of not been allowed to do quite as much of that it seems and it seems-
>Fight it! [Laughter] But and I there’s a lot of writers that I really love that are like sort of white writers Who are writing naturalism, but it seems like in the theater what’s being rewarded is like 90 minute plays with four actors in a living room and those guys are like writing for TV and having movie careers and like you know getting all these awards and those of us who are writing like you know bigger plays with more characters or Magic or language? It seems like those plays take five or six years to get produced and when they do there’s like one of us a year who gets that production, and it whipped So that’s but I you know you sort of try to figure out how to like both do the thing that you are and the thing that’s going to get you into the The Production.
>Do you think of that? I mean, do you think I need to write a play that this x Producer will produce or this theater will produce? I think I this is the the last year is the first year that I really actively have, I don’t think I did in the past, and I was really like it’ll happen eventually, and now I I think in a way I’m like if I write the five-person 90 minutes play in the living room am I selling out like who I am as an Artist? So what I’ve tried to do is say how can I write that play and be who I am? It’s been surprising for me this year that my first professionally produced play in New York is one that I didn’t think would ever happen. It’s this like 20 person play with like a black actor and like three Asian actors, and you know it’s really diverse and The Flea did it and it’s because they have this company that has this resident ensemble of actors. [and] so in a way it’s like that was surprising and every once in a while the theater will surprise you in a beautiful way. I have written for the What We Think Will Get Produced. I’m not in subject matter, but just in constraint. I look at them as creative constraints>I mean right now we’re living in a world of tremendous sort of technological explosion and crazy innovations and things and I just wonder what you feel like how does this ancient… you know, archaic form that is all about sitting around a fire telling stories how how does that fit in you know how does it fit in into the world of you know the phones and the Internet and things like that and –
>I think we’re in constant communication but it’s not as deep as it used to be so we need more of it in a way. I think going to the movies used to be really communal and now it’s It’s less so but I think theater will always be communal because it always has [to] be people in the room doing it together So I think that won’t change and so I don’t I think that we should engage the current forms of communication. I just think that we listen differently, we behave differently, so we should try to understand what that means and how that’s affecting people. and I think it’s very possible to theatricalize that. I always say you can’t expect people to come to you if you’re not willing to go to them. Not coming to your house for- a man will leave my house and come to your house for a meal and I don’t even know if you can cook, like you have to prove something to me.>Do you think the theaters doing that? Is the theater going out to people?>I don’t think they are, no. I think they sent out brochures and expect people to say respond. Or they you know that most they might get in for the you know bigger shows where they’re really trying to reach broader markets. They might get on the radio or they might you know get on television for commercials but that’s not that’s not going to the non-traditional theater audience you you have to go to them. ‘Cuz I don’t think that they’re gonna come on their own. You know it just isn’t- we don’t work like that. I wouldn’t.
>I agree with that and to piggyback, but I think it’s not only just how you access people it’s just the stories themselves that are being told. I mean, that’s why I didn’t think theatre was interesting when I was a kid. I mean like when you’re like 14 and like a gay latino in California reading A Long Day’s Journey. You’re like. I don’t understand. These like old white people like in a drunk house and like connecticut like that is not [Laughter]. [Overlaping]. Actually I have a question for you if you guys don’t mind, um you have so you had your show this season both at The Public, and uptown in Harlem, right? Can you sort of talk about what that experience was in terms of the audiences and I mean what was that like moving it? Yeah, that’s a good question. That’s what I’ma say that’s a good question because that’s everybody’s curiosity I think and I say this it was definitely two different experiences and they were both amazing and I say the the audience’s that we had downtown were you know they were sometimes that you had like a young diverse audience mixed in but always mixed in with like the elder older you know white audience members that are in like their 60-70s. You know that kind of thing and so it was always interesting to watch those audiences interact because when there was a predominantly you know black audience or POC even and in younger and if they would like laugh and free up then it was almost teaching the elder audience how to watch the play. As opposed to when they were in the majority of the audience it was quiet. You know most of the time and but they were but they were engaged in a way that and they were more it felt like they actually more heartbroken at the end of the play. When we took it uptown I mean, they’re like It was like church, you know. There was so much call and response and like literally like falling out the seat kind of laughing going on I mean just behavior was at its height you know. They wanted it there and they they were so open to it. I don’t think I even really knew this until recently, the things I write are very… different. The world view is the worldview of a kid who grew up in the midwest. Isolated from most popular narratives, and so I think my narratives they tend to go places that are that surprised people sometimes. Until you put it in front of an audience. I didn’t realize how my work is strange. Just by nature of how I grew up. When I was a kid we moved from the suburbs of Detroit to farm outside of port Huron in Michigan, and then we raised chickens for ourselves. It was very strange at first because it was so much more isolated but I started writing a lot than to entertain myself because there was just nothing to do. A lot of times the thing in one of my plays that’s actually from my real life is the thing that everyone believes is far-fetched or that can’t possibly have happened. The truthful thing was the thing that was alien to everyone. I have two plays that are very early in their process. One that is a bit of a political play except that there are all these magic spells in it so it’s really it’s an inquiry into what power is and I’ve noticed that as the American Public feels more and more powerless in the face of say their government or corporate power or any any number of things that make the average citizen feel powerless suddenly a lot of the narratives that we’re into in books and movies are about normal people acquiring super power and being suddenly able to change theirs and other people’s fate and so that play started because I just wondered what that anxiety was where people actually felt so much that they [couldn’t] affect the immediate world around them so they immersed themselves in fantasies of people changing the world around them. I’m kind of a media Junkie. I’m a little bit of an information Junkie as well. I will come across an article or a play or a situation or class syllabus or something and I start to see similarities between that and something completely different? And then as there’s two things become more and more connected in my brain and or more confused That’s usually when I start [writing] something like you know it makes me ask us a question or whatever and then I and then I just write really intuitively. I don’t really worry about how terrible things are when it’s first written. I am a terrible eavesdropper. I would be having dinner with people and hear like the terrifying conversation at the next table and I’ll start making faces, and I think I’d be like “Are you listening to this?” I do observe those things. I don’t write them down. They do come back all by [themselves] Because people are crazy. Before my residency at the Lark I knew that I would never be able to make a living writing plays and so I had a 9-5 job. Even though I never stopped writing and then I got the PoNY fellowship. The amount of support that PoNY gives you and the amount of artistic support that the Lark gives you it made me shift my identity and realize that just because I can’t make my whole living writing plays doesn’t mean that Playwriting and being a writer isn’t the center of my life and suddenly it was just a complete shift in priorities and something even the things that you end up doing for income are all they’re all to To give you the time or the space or the energy or the stability so that I could be a writer. So suddenly instead of writing just being this thing that I do because it feeds my soul it’s the thing that I love or however you want to say it, suddenly it is the center and everything else is sort of feeds the writing. People will compliment me and say oh that play is not just a gay play, or that plays not just an Asian play and then on the other side people will say oh the play is not gay enough or the play is not Asian enough. Both of those arguments come not from what I’m writing but from their very limited idea of what a gay or Asian-American Play can be. I think all of my plays are gay and Asian America and I want them to be whether people think they are asian enough, or not or gay enough or not. Most portrayals of Asian or Asian American people on American Stages involve people that have emigrated or living in urban environment. The plays that I write are very American, you know, like, that’s you know a lot of the things that I write could only happen here because of the strange many waves of immigration and the obsession in America with identity politics and identity. People have a very limited idea of what America or an American is and it’s bleeding into their artistic ideas, it’s crippling their artistic ideas. I had the thing happen in a talkback where someone will be like why is this character Filipino? You know and I actually did say once to someone I was like well, why are you white and And the first ones just totally flabbergasted and I was like They’re filipino because I’m filipino and you know and that’s you know there’s there’s no reason I am of this ethnicity I was just born this ethnicity and so it’s the same with those characters. You know I don’t feel like there has to be a dramaturgical justification for someone’s race. There is no dramaturgical justification for my race or ethicity, it’s merely a fact. You know all of us are, you know, struggling in an art form that that has its limitations in terms of finances, shall we say, and I’m just curious if what you guys do not so much like what your day jobs are but if if film is appealing, or do you guys write screenplays or television something that that you think about? I love film and TV like I I consume it in at an uncomfortable amount and um but at the same time like there’s something about it that like I’ve thought about moving into it or you know doing it for money or something And I just whenever I whenever I sit down, and I’m like okay. I’m gonna Go to LA and have meetings or I’m going I’m gonna finally going to write a spec where I’m going to like do a screenplay like I end up getting a theatre thing and then and even if the theatre thing is like small, I’m just like okay. You know and like I just go I’m just like I’m gonna do the theater thing like you know and I you know so it’s it’s not that I It’s not that I have no love for those other media or that I’m even you know trying actively not to but I do know that I love theater more I don’t know why and then you know now is like as I have been able to just write theater for the past few years, there’s just- you know just watching the way my plays have been changing and you know it’s There’s some there’s a whole part of that like I [don’t] want to be taken away from it even like nobody ever produces a play again. It’s just like I don’t know you know now that I have all this time to really write whatever I want and not have to think about getting produced or you know that I only have enough time in a day to write one idea ike they just you know my plays are surprising me again. You know and so it’s I would find it really hard. I think right now to move away from that. This year I wrote and we shot two short films just to like Feel what it’s like because like I said it was so abstract I was like I don’t know and I I wrote a scene in a hallway we had to film it in a hallway a real hallway and doors were closed and there was light and it was a million degrees, and then I wrote a scene at a boat? We had to shoot it in the ocean and there was like 20 knot winds that were like pushing us back as we were fiming and there are things that we could only do once because then you-
>Have yiy never heard of living rooms? [Laughter] Interior, living room, day. Yeah, I think I learned that like film is like everything is tech and then the acting happens like almost by chance in between I think like theater is my is my love but it was really fun to find like the joy in filmmaking because for me it was like there were screenplays, and then there was trying to sell screenplays there was no as of yet like moviemaking. Yeah, I mean, I started writing Sweet Plays in 1992. Think you guys were born and I had my first film actually made in 2004 so there’s a 12-Year Gap where I thought screenwriting was about writing things no one will ever make. I actually love theater, but I actually think it’s almost less makeable than than film because with theater like if you self produce hopefully people come you spend a lot of money and you know who knows and I think a couple years ago Jeffrey Scott who was at New York Theater Workshop and is now Victory Gardens said to me Are you a playwright or are you a writer? And he’s like if you’re a writer you can do more than write plays and I really took that to heart and so I decided that I would do these things that I wouldn’t normally do and so a friend of mine asked to write a web series and I would never have done that I thought it was such a weird idea and not only did we end up writing it I ended up starring in it along him, and it actually got viewed by so many people it just got passed around and the thing about that is that because of the DIY movement like we made this now people have seen it and I’ve gotten stuff out of it in a way that theater has not been as as accessible for me. The truth is like there’s so much good TV happening now. I used to like TV. Now, I love it. And I sort of feel like why am I like working so hard to be part of this- I mean like I love the theater community, but in terms of the productions that are happening I don’t really love what’s being produced, it takes too long, It lasts one day, I get paid $800 Whereas I [Laughter] [Overlapping] Who is your agent? [Laughter] But you know it is and then like with movies. It’s like you can see it and they last forever and people came in so this last year I really actively decided that I was gonna pursue TV and film with all I had and so my agents were like you know there’s a lot of playwrights that I love who like have had one hit play [and] then disappear to TV forever And I didn’t want that to happen. So they were like if you can really focus on writing three to five plays that are like ready Then you can go do that because we can still send your stuff out. That’ll allow me to actually do theater for a lot longer. I feel like a lot of people don’t want to sit for three hours in a theater and where the set doesn’t change because that’s just not how they view stuff anymore like I think people’s Brains have shifted you know you’re watching TV. You’re watching movies It’s different and a lot of the theater still wants to stay the same as opposed to just letting the storytelling shift. I like can’t go to the opera because I sit there for 30 minutes And I’m like this this girl has been singing the same three lines Yeah, like my mind just can’t sit still.
>So hate Shakespeare hate opera Blame it on my youth. I just don’t know better. I really really like loud places, actually. The library has always been a scary place for me. It’s too quiet, it feels dead, and my head just all the noise gets sort of really loud in my head and when I go to loud places, it makes the noise in my head have to go quiet. The things that I’m most interested in my writing have to do with identity I’m curious about how race and class have changed. How… gender and sexuality is evolving and so the characters that I write about are people who find themselves as Contradictions of what people think they are or should be. They’re people who really haven’t found their identity and they’re constantly searching for it, trying to figure out what to keep and what to discard and the way that people [will] view them? I fon’t do a lot of note-taking. I actually Spend a lot of time doing other [things] besides writing. Going to the movies, hanging out with friends, just doing stuff every day is very very inspiring and it just fills my head up with with information and at some point when I Finally sit down to write all the really important stuff is what is stuck in my head and that that’s what gets out. I find that other art really sort of opens up my mind and makes me think about my own work in a different way. I also like to play music a lot. Sometimes I’ll listen to the same record or artists over and over and over for as long as I’m working on a [specific] play to let that mood or ambience affect the work. Everybody hears the world in a very specific unique way, so when a writer sits down It’s still filtered through the way that they hear things. Every play that I write, every scene, I don’t always know where I’m going and for me. It’s really important to sort of just let the characters speak, which I used to hear people say that I thought it was a mystical weird thing but really when I sit [down] and write I’ll write down a line and then the other character will have some response that I didn’t know was going to happen. So for me a lot of that is just about letting the words appear as I need them. For me writing is sort of like a bucket of water in my head it has to fill itself up with information and data and ideas and questions and at some point when it’s full it’ll all spill over and that’s when I sort of find the need to write the play because I have all this that needs to get out. You know and other writers write every single day. I can’t do that, I can’t really sit and write until I have something that needs to get out, And every time I write a new play, it feels like the first time I’ve ever in a play before and when it’s over you know I’m watching a play of mine right now in production and every time that I see it it feels like somebody else wrote it. When I first started in the theater I was an actor and I really loved it then I think I got really uncomfortable being on stage. I felt really exposed, I also don’t think that I was the best actor, honestly. But a teacher of mine said you’re a storyteller and so I started writing and then I never stopped. I really loved it because it was a way to expose and question all the things that I have trouble with and wonder about and still be really honest open but without having to be actually in front of people. I wrote two plays in the last couple years. The play that is being done at the Flea right now A Cautionary Tale and another play of mine The one that’s going to be turned into a movie Which is called i wonder if it’s possible to have a love affair that lasts forever or things i found on craigslist. It’s a really long title. They’re both plays about similar things [at] different times so craigslist is about people who are my age 26 to 32. We were the time that was both before and after the internet, the cusp, and then I think of a cautionary tale which is about kids in high school now and how they would never known a time where they haven’t had cell phones or the internet. I think there was something really inherently political about storytelling because you’re sharing a point of view or a question and for me. I didn’t realize just how much of that I was doing until there recently. I’m a latino playwright, and I write a lot of plays with a lot of Asian characters and that’s put something that people talk about a lot. You know. Why is latino kid writing these stories Why isn’t he writing plays about being latino? Why isn’t he writing stories about being gay? Other people who interpret my work want something and I don’t always know what that is. I think people have been evolving and identity is so fluid now and you know there’s a lot of mix children, and I just feel like people aren’t caught up to the reality that everything is in black or white, and I think we talk about that but then when you see people’s work there’s expectations about what the work should look like and I don’t believe in that and I can’t actually write the things that people think I should write because it feels disingenuous and like a lie, and I don’t know those stories. In a way, you are the character in the world of the internet and you present yourself And you make choices there is a story that is being told you can go back and look at People’s Instagrams and Twitter’s and you can trace a story, it’s sort of the mythology of who you are as a person. There’s something that’s both exciting the way that we can record a life and also terrifying in the way that realizing ten years later, you’ve left a whole history that you now have to reconcile with. My parents, and I are very very close, but I don’t know a lot about their pasts. They’re lovely but they’re very private and I think they retain a lot of information and I think that’s gonna be different for us. I think our information is all there and so how will our kids read the narrative of who we were? I try really hard to think about like theatricality and like the magic of theatre making and like shadows and just I don’t know where things are happening like actually, I mean the joy of vaudeville or just different forms that are very much theatrical. I think that I’m afraid of when a play feels like a sitcom and it happens. It happens a lot. I do think there’s one bad habit that a lot of playwrights have right now that we get from TV whereas like we get in the scene and then the information bomb drops and then the scene ends because the television needs to go to commercial or it needs to sustain a really simple story for 4 acts over an hour And so like I do sometimes go to plays where I’m like “No, that’s actually where your play starts.” Where you just ended that scene is where the drama actually begins like right after that information bomb or stuff where it’s like you know it’s really theatrical stuff like people are about to have sex and then the scene ends and it’s like no in theatre you can show people having sex and it makes people really uncomfortable, and it’s very it’s very exciting. [Laughter] Like that’s theater! But we get used to TV, or it’s like okay, sex, done. Next. You know and so it’s I think that there are some bad habits that we get. Susan, you had this wonderful play last year that- your Clubbed Thumb show What’s it alled? Yeah, and there’s like it’s actually really theatrical with the form but I remember that moment where those two characters around the train like it was like my brain was like warped and like Twilight Zone, and it was like for me it was like a real moment of awe because like something had exploded and in a way that I think like that wouldn’t have worked on the film. Because either we see too much of it or and that’s what the movie does all the time or there’s not enough of It and you did this thing where like suddenly the room had like shifted for me. And I remember just being like so surprised by it and and feeling like yeah, this can this cannot work anywhere else you know. Yeah, it was like there’s you actually it was probably the best theatrical metaphor to get an American audience to culturally understand Japanese people. I mean I don’t know but that makes sense [but] that’s how I afterwards I felt like because you know you meet Japanese people You’re like what you know what I think so passive-aggressive? Like what you’re like. Why is it? Just the way that they conduct their culture? I don’t understand and there was just something about that scene was like whoa. I understand. [Laughter] More than you want to. [Laughter] When I was a little kid, I traveled around Asia with my mother and I got lost in a market. It was really smokey there are stalls and pigs heads and all kinds of things. All of a sudden this very tall man I’d never seen before my life grabs me by the arm lifts me up, and he sort of like shakes me and he says You know what happens to little girls who run away from their mothers their hands and their feets are cut off and their eyes are gouged out and they’re sent off to Malaysia, and they never come home again. It was really terrifying I think for many years I thought I was going to happen to me and so I think a lot of my plays focus on kind of like a nameless dread or something a little bit scarier or visceral in the way that I think I felt in that moment. I’m really interested in theater, the immediate connection with the audience of that we are sharing the same air. If the theater is hot the actors and the audience are hot or cold or there’s there something about that connection that I feel like sometimes, we can forget and the idea that there’s something visceral on and even a little bit scary, or dangerous there’s real live people in front of you. I don’t want theater to feel like film or TV. I want it to really embrace the medium it is that the challenges of it and the immediacy of it. I draw a lot [from] Mythology and old folk stories and ghost stories, especially Pacific Rim Asian ghost stories like Japanese ghost stories, I draw from art images I’ve been an artist assistant on and off for about Ten years when I write I start off in a very visual place. I make masks as well. This is a cast of my head so all the masks kind of fit my face the best and then I build on top of it with the clay and Then I just do paper mache or This is this is buckram. This is that this is a hat making material, so it um you can cover the eyes and you can you can see through it. It’s a little bit scary. I like using my hands I like tactile so for me looking at art or making art or helping out a friend by making mass or props for a show or sewing a quilt is a really good distraction, and it helps me think differently. It breaks up the time from just typing and reading and writing I tend to do a lot of research for my plays and most of it doesn’t go in but I just kind of surround myself with it. I spend months just reading everything obsessively about the subject and looking at images. I’ll put up images I’ll have if somebody has a really exciting quote that I feel is relevant, or I’ll make a timeline I’ll do a lot of work on the front end and then I put it all away and I don’t look at it unless I really have to. I just don’t want to be afraid of what I’m really getting at. I think that the human conflict and the characters are more important, but you don’t we don’t want to be wrong, but you don’t let the informationfront-load the story. I want to tell if all I wanted to do is tell somebody information then I shouldn’t be writing the play. I should be writing something else. I like being a playwright. We’re other kinds of writing with being a novelist because you get to see how your words affect people So I’m very shy. I’m not naturally very funny. But I could tell a joke and some very clever actors could go onstage and [perform] that joke and I could make 200 people laugh, and there’s something very satisfying about being able to do that. New York is becoming my home. I’m from Hawaii. My home is very important to me. I do feel very far away I do miss home a lot even though I love the city and the energy of it. I think it’s kind of overwhelming for me. So I try to find certain things that remind me of where I’m from. I’ve noticed that displacement is a big theme of sort of what is home or places that should be familiar being strange? I’m very interested in the difficulty people have with communicating. I have several plays where it’s a series of either phone calls that don’t go through or even kind of epistolary letters that don’t come through. Production is always greater than a single vision that I have that I really love collaborating I don’t think I would be any other kind of writer. Whenever I work with a great director, they’ll have just a simple statement, and it’ll make me see the entire play different or make you realize the reason why I thought I was writing the play wasn’t you know why set out that they’ll change everything. I was the inaugural Van Leer Fellow. So I was in the lark all the time for over a year with the fellowship and it continues. It’s a very safe space for me, and I know a lot of people developed work and they don’t produce and I like that because there isn’t that expectation of trying to Impress them it’s really just “What do you need and and how can we help you get you know your play to where it needs to be? I don’t know if I would be in New York in some ways if it wasn’t for the Lark. Because there’s so much and it’s so saturated I think it’s hard to feel like the work, the art, it matters. It’s like when you do a play It’s like how to get someone to see it whereas you [know] in Hawaii If you’re doing a show, maybe there’s three shows in town everyone will go to see them. Sometimes setbacks are good. I think sometimes when you have too much money or [people] trust you too much. It’s actually bad. There’s something important about being afraid to fail. Being afraid that it won’t come out right. I think that when everyone tells you you’re great, and you’ve been great for a long time maybe you’re not fueled in the same way of I have to tell this story or I have to get it out there, or I’ll never work again. So ray I was curious that that beautiful play you brought in last year at the Lark Workshop about the bookstore. Was that observed or was that lived? I actually I work a bookstore was my college job the thing that started that play was reading all of this stuff about bullying and you know and things like that and then meeting all of these younger gay people who are nothing like me who… because coming out of the closet is easier now which I know probably not a good thing to say because there are a lot of people struggling but because it is easier now, you don’t go through this entire like soul-searching reevaluating of your entire life and all of your politics and your ideas of gender before you can be like okay? I’m gay I’m comfortable with it. And so I’ve started meeting all of these young gay men who come out and they’re so misogynist or homophobic and they don’t even know and you know are like they’re so politically… You know they hate transgendered people… you know just things that like shocked me where I’m like either those people made your life possible, can you, just take a moment? Or the or they’re like anti sex in weird ways or prudish about sex, so you know that stuff is all from observation.
>Do you feel a particular responsibility to discuss gender and sexuality in your work or you think that’s just so much a part of you, you can’t help it. Yeah, it just always yeah.
>You don’t think, I’ve got I’ve got something I need to say in terms of this that might help other people? I think about it in terms of just diversifying the landscape that way.>Do you guys generally feel a political responsibility in terms of your art or do you feel I just I just want to be an artist that makes art that I love for the love of it? I never begin with the message. They feel like I don’t want to tell somebody how to feel sort of. It just feels, I’m very opposed to like didactic theater. I think when when a message is that easy to give I think the message is probably not that complicated and therefore It’s not really worth sitting through for me. But what I do think is that I’m constantly confused about things that I don’t understand or don’t know how to feel about and so I think that I try to write plays that make characters sort of face those questions. And so at the very least to get to end a play in a place where there is one or two questions for an audience to have to sort of reevaluate for themselves. I don’t think I’m, again, I don’t feel like I have the answer to a lot of things I certainly don’t want to give a wrong answer to anybody. Yikes.>Your kids are gonna have a great time.
>I got nothing. All I got is questions. And then there’s the idea of responsibility is a heavy one for me because I do feel similarly you know that I want to create roles for people I’m also an actress of color so I do know what we’re up against and but I don’t think you know oh, I got to make this play have a black woman at the helm you know my stories are naturally gonna have that because that’s what I know the best, so I’m gonna- my characters there’s always gonna be one somewhere. You know I can’t hide from the black woman. She’s in my reflections You can’t resist. But I also just I want to tell the stories of like the things that I’ve experienced or seen or witnessed I want to you know bring my family and my aunt’s and the people that I have seen in my life. I want to put them on stage because they’re hilarious and someone should laugh with them at them with me You know um and that’s you know that’s what I know to do, but the I think the politics always affect the people so if you say you know, you’re a political writer, I’m like I don’t really I’m not pushing a political agenda, but politics always impact the people so if you’re writing about the people something’s gonna they’re gonna be in some condition and that has something to do with a Greater Scheme of things that you know I don’t have the answers to. So you guys have- well you had to go on I was thinking of acting in your own work you you went on in Massacre.>Right for a couple of performances How was that?
>So I went on for an actor who had left the show to do a film, and yeah I mean, it was like the most terrifying experience because I had like I had to literally fall onstage. I had to get slapped I had to put a guy in a meat hook, all this stuff.
>Had you ever done that before your own work?>Never. I think if I memorize an actor went off on Lines in front of me, I would freak out onstage.>I couldn’t possibly be fully. I’ve never done it. I couldn’t you mean it.>You in two places at once yeah, well Thank you guys for hanging out and eating and talking and um hope you like the strawberries.


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