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

Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang


(page 5 of 5)

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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Box Office is your guide to entertainment across Connecticut, courtesy of senior editor Pat Grandjean. If it's a chat with an actor or actress, previewing a new play at a regional theater, the latest on a state celebrity's new movie, or recommendations for seeing and doing, let Box Office be one of your hubs.

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