by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 27, 2012
08:07 AM
Box Office

Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang

 

Prolific Chinese American playwright and three-time Pulitzer prize nominee David Henry Hwang , 54, visits New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas June 28 with Chinese American novelist Ha Jin to participate in an Ideas forum on "The U.S.-China Literary Landscape," at 5:30 p.m. in the Yale Art Gallery. Best known for the plays M. Butterfly (a 1988 Tony winner for Best Play and 1989 Pulitzer nominee) and Chinglish (soon to be a major motion picture), Hwang hit the ground running in 1980 with his first play FOB, which moved from his Stanford University dorm to development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford's National Playwrights Conference to a run at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, eventually winning an Obie. In his 30-year career he's moved easily from drama to comedy to musicals to opera to work to movie screenplays, with much more to come.

What does the title of this Arts & Ideas forum mean to you?

Well, I think that there's a certain amount of fluidity between work that comes out of mainland China and work that comes out of so-called "greater" China—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore—and work that comes out of the Chinese diaspora. And I think it's interesting to compare all these, and talk about what these works have in common and what is very different about them.

And I'm appearing with Ha Jin, and he's a particularly good example because I'm an American, essentially. I was born in Los Angeles and I don't speak Chinese, but I'm very interested in Chinese issues. He's the opposite; he was born there and came here. So I will be very interested to find out—even though I've met him before—what we have in common.

You mention the fluidity of work coming from mainland China, "greater" China and the Chinese diaspora. Can you give us a taste of what you mean by that?

I think that there are certainly stylistic differences. Plays I've seen that are from the mainland come out of a different literary tradition. So if you compare them to Western plays, they might feel like European plays of the 1940s and '50s. Or, they come out of a much more root-culture Chinese tradition, with a lot of references to local issues and cultural phenomena that people who don't live there don't understand.

Can you talk about this in terms of the regional differences we might find in the U.S., or is it just so different . . .

I think the regional differences in the U.S. are a pretty good analogy, actually. Because there are also things that the works have in common—an understanding of the centrality of family in Chinese life, of obligation and the struggle between individualism and doing what's best for the group—which is not as strong a theme in Western literature these days.

What literary tradition, would you say, does Ha Jin represent?

That's an interesting question, because oviously he grew up there, and he came to the States with English as a second language. And yet, he writes in that second language like Nabakov did. Personally, I feel he's been able to take a John Cheever type of exactness and attention to detail and apply it to—well, a number of things—but particularly to stories about life in China. So it's this very interesting fusion of East and West.

Your appearance with him is scheduled in conjunction with a production of King Lear staged by the Contemporary Legends Theater. Have you seen that?

I have not, and I don't really know that theater, so I don't know that I can comment on that right now.

If you were to ally yourself with one of the literary traditions we were just talking about, what would that be?

I've always just thought of myself as basically being in the American tradition. There's a lot of immigrant literature, a lot of literature about self-invention and identity, which I feel my work is pretty consistent with. Lately, I've also begun to feel that maybe I have more in common with Chinese writers than I thought I did. It's interesting to me to have people who are Chinese nationals—when I've done works that were set in China—come up to me and say how accurate the work feels to them. Maybe there was stuff I absorbed through my parents that I didn't realize I'd absorbed? Anyway, I know a little more than I thought I knew.

Is there a particular work of yours that has reflected that continuation of tradition?

At the moment, because I just did Chinglish on Broadway—and it happens to be a bilingual play—that's the one. Right now, we've been dealing with the similarities of that plot and the current scandal involving Bo Xilai in China. Newsweek asked me to write a piece about it. It does make me feel like maybe I know some things. Those would be interesting to discuss in the session at Arts & Ideas.

Remind us about the Bo Xilai case.

He was a Communist party leader in the city of Chongqing. His wife, Gu Kailai, has been arrested and now confessed to murdering a British businessman. He's been stripped of his party standing, plus his kid, who's at Harvard, has been fighting to defend himself for leading too lavish a lifestyle. The story's been dominating the news from China for more than a month.

Everything that I read about you indicates that you are the pre-eminent Asian-American dramatist in the U.S. How much of a mind-blower is that?

There are times when the Asian American label has been really attractive to me, and times when I've run away from it. At this point I just know that everyone gets labeled to some extent. When you think of David Mamet, you think of a particular type of play. So I just think, "Hey, I'm obviously an Asian American playwright, and to say I'm pre-eminent just means I'm good." That's satisfying.

It would just be scary for me to think, "They consider me pre-eminent."

Yeah, but it only refers to a specific area. I'd rather that people just think I've been able to make a career of this.

 

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.

 

I just saw today that Chinglish has been optioned for the big screen.

Yeah, we're going to be developing it as a movie. We announced that yesterday and today, we announced the plays that will be performed as part of my upcoming season-in-residence at the Signature Theatre. We're going to be doing Golden Child, a play of mine from the late 1990s, and then The Dance and the Railroad, a really early play of mine written in 1981 while I was at Yale. This is the play that I mentioned was off- off- Broadway and then moved to the Public.

Then we'll be doing a new play inspired by the life of Bruce Lee, called Kung Fu.

That's a musical, right?

No, it's not—I've been working on a different Bruce Lee project that kind of fell apart. This is my own version of the story.

That leads to a question I was going to ask you later, Stephen Colbert style: Keye Luke—great Asian American actor or the greatest Asian American actor?

I would say great Asian American actor. He was amazing. But if I had to name the greatest, I would go with someone like Anna May Wong—people from a slightly earlier era. Or certainly Bruce Lee. There are a few and I hate to rank these people.

So, why is Bruce Lee in the pantheon?

I think because he redefined a paradigm. He really was able to take control of the medium and put out an image that didn't exist before. Before Lee, the popular images of Chinese people was that they were villains or menials—cooks, waiters, laundrymen. Or you had the Charlie Chan model, but he wasn't powerful. The idea of a Chinese hero in the West . . . Lee created an archetype, an image, that never existed before. I think that's really hard to do.

Does your play deal with other aspects of his life as well?

I'm sort of not talking about it too much right now, 'cause I'm still in the midst of finishing it. [laughs] It's essentially the story of this young man who comes from Hong Kong to the United States and decides he's going to become the world's biggest movie star, and how that happened.

What will be the challenges of turning Chinglish into a movie?

I sense it'll be a pretty smooth adaptation. The technical challenge of Chinglish onstage was to see if audiences could accept bilingualism and projected titles. We're used to seeing that in opera, and we're used to seeing it in the movies. So the idea that titles would function in the film is actually a much less complicated thing to try to get the audience to accept than it was in the theater. Of course, the story needs to be opened up for the screen and all that kind of stuff.

And the director is going to be Justin Lin, of the Fast & Furious movies. That's an interesting match!

Well, Justin came out of independent film, and about 10 years ago he made a film, more or less his breakthrough, called Better Luck Tomorrow. It was the first Asian American feature to become more than just an art film. Then he did the Fast & Furious movies. This is his chance to get back to his indie roots, and I've loved his work ever since Better Luck Tomorrow. We've been looking for something to do together, and this seems like the right project.

It seems with your recent work—like Chinglish and Yellow Face—you're moving in a more comedic direction.

I guess so. I feel like my work has always had a comedic aspect. I remember Joe Papp saying to me, "You'll survive in this business because you can write comedy." But I suppose comedy has come more to the forefront, and people have started to think of me as more of a comedic writer than they used to.

Does it come naturally to you?

I think it comes relatively naturally to me but also, as I get older and more experienced as a writer, it's a bigger challenge. There's that famous line: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." To be able to write something of substance that delves into an issue or explores a character deeply—technically, it feels like a bigger mountain to climb.

In a way, I imagine it's more satisfying, because it opens another realm of appreciation . . .

I think so. I think when audiences laugh, they become more open. And if you're trying to put out some new ideas or make people think about things, I actually think laughter is helpful.

 

Another superlative I've seen about you is that you're the most-produced living opera librettist.

Yes, which is sort of like being the best horse-shoer. It's frankly a 19th-century profession.

So what about that form attracts you? Because librettos are certainly a different kind of animal.

They are. Honestly, it's probably due to the fact that way back, 28 years ago or so—when I was working on M. Butterfly—I'd hear so much Puccini in rehearsal I really got to like it. I was raised as an instrumentalist, playing violin, but I didn't grow up with a lot of operatic music. So then I learned more about it, and Philip Glass asked me to do a couple of shows with him, and I suddenly became someone who had "experience" writing opera libretti, and I got further offers. So at this point, I have that kind of side line.

It's interesting to note that one of your librettos is for an opera version of David Cronenberg's The Fly.

[Composer] Howard Shore and I have known each other for a while. He's been screen composer for David's films for some time, including for the movie David made of M. Butterfly. He's probably best known for having scored The Lord of the Rings movies.

Anyway, he was looking to do an opera, so we got together and started kicking around ideas. He said, "I always wanted to do an opera based on The Fly." I thought that was a great idea, but it's a source nobody else uses—and no one expects operas to come from science fiction. At the same time, David's movie is so philosophical and Kafkaesque, and very much about operatic subjects: love and sex and death, essentially. So I thought it would be really fun to do as an opera.

Did it stay true to the spirit of the movie?

I thought it did; and then David directed the stage version, so . . .

There are a bunch of other pending projects you seem to be attached to, but I don't know where any of them stand. Is the movie White Frog coming out this year?

That's an indie movie I was an executive producer on. And I play a little part. It premiered at the San Francisco International Asian American film festival earlier this year. I think it'll get wider distribution, but it doesn't have it yet.

What about the musical Pretty Dead Girl?

That I'm still attached to, and we wrote a draft of it. We haven't been able to get anyone to really bite on it. We're still hoping it'll find a home.

Where or When?

That is, essentially, a dance show that's being put together by the choreographer Chris Frickatelli—he asked a dozen playwrights to write a 10-minute scenario for a dance. So, I've wrtten my contribution and they're trying to pull that together.

Daughter of Shanghai?

That I don't want to talk about right now, because we're in the middle of some contractual things and I don't know how it's going to turn out.

I did an interview with Aimee Mann recently, and she told me you're collaborating on The Forgotten Arm.

That we've been a little bit public about, so we can talk about that. Yes, we've had a few meetings and I've done a few rounds of a treatment, and we're close to the first draft stage now.

She had said she wanted to write more songs in the classic musical theater tradition.

Aimee such a great craftsman, so diligent and hard-working. She really wants to create a lot of new material, and write for the musical theater, as opposed to pop stars who just take their songs and turn them into a jukebox musical. So far, it's a really satisfying collaboration.

 

You're also a resident artist at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

That's a longer term situation, and I've been interested in creating a play about the American Colonial period in the Philippines. That's a piece I'll end up working on with Arena Stage and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

What's your take on the state of theater today?

Let's start by talking about what's healthy. Broadway is healthier than it's ever been in my lifetime. I remember that in the 1970s and '80s, theaters were empty, and you couldn't find four musicals to nominate for best Tony. And now, Broadway is hot. That's good, and by the way, I think that's fueled largely by the digital age. The Internet has been very good for live theater, because that's the one medium you can't pirate—you have to see it live.

The bad part of this is it seems Broadway pulls the cart of American theater now in a way it has not since the birth of the not-for-profit movement in the 1960s and '70s. Regional theaters, which were really founded as an alternative to Broadway, have increasingly become feeders for Broadway. Their success ends up being measured by how many shows they can move to Broadway, or whether they win the Tony for Best Regional Theater. That, to me, throws the balance of commercialism vs. art out of whack.

Because the regional theaters don't take the risks they would otherwise take?

Yeah. I think the regional theaters think much more like Broadway producers than they were meant to when these theaters were formed.

Are there up-and-coming Asian American playwrights you're excited about?

There are fantastic young playwrights out there; I can name a dozen off the top of my head.

Let's discuss a few.

Okay. Let's start with Young Jean Lee. I think one of the things that's extraordinary about her is that she has managed her branding—when I say we all get labeled—not as an Asian American artist, but as an avant-garde artist. And she's done work in which Asian-Americanness is the subject matter, but she's also done stuff about being African-American. I'm always fascinated with and admire what she does.

Lloyd Suh, a Korean American playwright, I think is really great. What's interesting about him and others of his generation is when they do write Korean American characters, it's not necessarily the case that these characters do anything explicitly Asian—they just happen to be Asian. I think its the next iteration of how you deal with this ethnicity in art.

Of course, there's Rajiv Joseph, who had a play on Broadway last season, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams. He continues to be very prolific and is a great voice. Julia Cho is fantastic; I've actually mentored her. She's another playwright who's done some works with Asian American characters and some without. Her work is always eloquent and finely observed, with an emotionalism that creeps up on you.

Her play The Language Archive, developed at the O'Neill, won a prize . . .

The Blackburn Prize. One of the interesting things about The Language Archive is that there were a bunch of us—maybe six to 10 Asian American writers—who were asked to write an evening of 10-minute plays for a theater group out here, and Julia's contribution turned out to be the opening monologue of the longer play she went on to write.

How do you approach being a mentor?

I think it's useful to take your students out to lunch. And there are practical questions people have when they've never been produced: You don't what's OK to ask for; you don't know best practices. If they want advice on a script, I'll talk to them about it. I find that talking about a script is a little like doing psychoanalysis. It has to do with trying to understand what the writer wants to achieve, instead of trying to rewrite the play according to your own vision. You want to help the writer better achieve what he or she set out to do.

You've said you'd like to do more TV writing.

What I usually say is it's the thing I haven't done; I haven't written for a series. I've written just about every other kind of script, so that's why it appeals, because I haven't done it. I don't know that i really want to work on staff for a TV show, but I can see possibly creating one.

What kind of show would you like to create?

At the moment I'm really interested in U.S.-China relations. So I might want to do something internationalist. But other than that I'm not really sure, and if I had an idea I'd probably have to not tell you.

That's an interesting area, because China is still kind of shadowy to most of us.

I think it's fair to say that the Chinese understand the West better than the West understands China, simply because the West hasn't had to understand anybody for the last 200 years. Since that power balance is now shifting, it's really kind of incumbent upon us to try to learn more. I think that's what I was trying to say in Chinglish.

So, you could expand those themes . . .Well, television has become very creative.

I feel that the quality of TV writing is better than it's ever been in my life. And I never would have guessed the day would come when I'd feel guilty about not watching enough TV. There's all this good stuff out there that I just don't have time to watch.

What has theater given you?

For one thing, as a writer it's wonderful to be able to have control. I feel like in the different media I work in, somebody is the primary supervisor, then the other artists support that. In movies, it's the director; in a play, it's me. So to work in a medium that allows you to hold on to the integrity of your vision is great.

I also think I love theater because of its metaphorical aspects—there's something inherently unreal about it. Even in a naturalistic play, that thing that looks like a kitchen sink isn't, really. I like the fact that metaphor is built into theater. I play with that distinction between the real and metaphorical a lot in my work.

Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang

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