by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 27, 2012
08:07 AMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang
(page 2 of 5)
How did you get started as a writer?
When I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, I saw some plays and decided, "I can do that." So I started wriing plays in my spare time. And I fund a professor who was willing to take a look at them—he told me they were really bad, which they were. I had the desire to write plays but didn't actually know anything about theater. But then this same professor kind of designed an independent study for me to see and read as many plays as I could, and learn more about the theater. My senior year, I wrote a play that was performed at my dorm. A year later, due to a variety of fortuitous circumstances, the same play was done off-Broadway at the Public Theater in its Joe Papp days. That was how my career began.
And at some point after that, you entered the Yale School of Drama?
I did. My first play was produced in New York City, and then I entered Yale. It offered a perfectly good program, but by that time I was already doing a lot of work in the city. I had one play produced off-off-Broadway that then moved to off-Broadway. Then I had another play ready to open off-Broadway . . . I just was never at school. So, I dropped out.
Ahh, I see. Because the impression that's given in several places is that you have a Yale degree.
Yeah, I know. They tend to suggest that [laughs].
At one point, you collaborated with Sam Shepard.
I did! It was while I was still an undergraduate, the summer between my junior and senior year in college. I signed up for the Padua Hills Playwrights' Workshop in California, where Sam was a teacher along with Maria Irene Fornés. Only two of us applied to be students, so we both got in. I think that was a huge break for me, and it spurred me on to write that first play, FOB, that got staged at my dorm and then at the Public.
What was the most important thing you learned from Shepard?
I learned to write more from my subconscious. Before that, I thought that the way you write a play is that you basically structure a bunch of scenes and then you execute them. So that made for plays that had some structure, but I didn't know how to bring the characters to life. I think that's what the exercises and techniques that Sam and Irene and others brought that summer taught us. They kind of helped me find my own voice.
You also brought FOB to the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, didn't you?
Yes. Basically what happened was, I wrote the play, I submitted it to the O'Neill, and while I was waiting to hear back, I staged it in my dorm. Very soon after, the play was accepted by the O'Neill for the following summer, after my senior year.
Wow. That was some snappy development.
Yeah, it doesn't usually happen that quickly. It's hard for me to imagine that even happening now, because even not-for-profit theater is so much more professionalized, and people don't fly by the seat of their pants like they used to.
Anything stand out for you about the O'Neill experience?
Well, it was my first professional theater experience, and my entrée into this world I wanted to be a part of. And in many ways, while Joe Papp deciding to do my play was a huge break, getting into the O'Neill was an even more unlikely event. I think that year they got 1300 submissions and chose 12 plays to work on. No matter how good you think your play is, those are tough odds. How many kids who are still seniors in college get their plays selected and get to go to the O'Neill right after graduation? I mean, that was amazing.
And at the time, the O'Neill was one of the very few developmental playwrights workshops. Now, there are many more . . .
Right, there are many more institutions now that do it. But there are still only a handful of institutions that will read unsolicited manuscripts. And that's an important distinction because when I was a college student, I didn't have an agent. The idea that I could send my play someplace, cold, and they would seriously consider it—it's still hard to find programs like that. The O'Neill continues to read unsolicited manuscripts, so does the Lark Play Development Center in Manhattan, but that's about it.
How would you say your work has evolved in terms of style and thematic preoccupations? In your earlier work, there was a concern with the intercultural adjustment of your characters.
I feel like I started out thinking of myself as very much an Asian-American playwright, and expecting that that was going to be my subject matter. To a large extent, that's still true, but I've ended up doing a lot of other things, including musicals and operas. Also, I've managed to approach this core interest of mine in a lot of different forms. So, I would say that if you try to distill a core theme between my East-West work and other projects, it's probably this notion of the fludity of identity—how it changes and transforms in different circumstances. How you think you're one person, but you get placed in another environment and you turn into someone you don't recognize. That thread seems consistent throughout my work.
In terms of style, one of the things I love to do is try out different forms. M. Butterfly was kind of modeled after a Peter Schaffer play, like Equus or Amadeus. Flower Drum Song was obviously modeled after the original. Yellow Face was kind of a riff on a Moises Kaufman or Anna Devere Smith-style stage documentary, and in Chinglish I experiment with bilingualism and stage titles.