“The writer’s job is to be brave enough to be nostalgic.”
I heard those words from an English professor once. At the time, they resonated with me as someone who is often referred to as a nostalgic person—always bringing up a story of the past, over and over again. I come from a family & community that shares and retells all kinds of stories every time we see each other, whether they’re laugh-out-loud funny or overwhelmingly heart-wrenching. Storytelling has always been a way for me and my community to record our histories and form connections when it feels like there are only differences.
That’s probably why I became a theater artist & playwright.
That being said, I recently had the thought, “I’m getting so tired of writing and talking about the pandemic.”
I guess it’s difficult to feel nostalgic about terrifying moments in the past, especially if it feels like they’re still happening. The uncertainty, anxiety, and grief of the last three years is still so fresh that the retelling of it can feel not only exhaustingly overdone, but terrifying to grapple with. For so many of us, the pandemic exposed some of the most vulnerable, heart-breaking, unlikeable parts of ourselves. It separated us from our communities—which are often our lifelines—and forced us to deal with momentous social & political shifts while in physical solitude. Who wants to remember all of that?
But yet, the idea of “returning to normalcy” in this current moment of endemic is insulting to the millions of humans who are not the same people they were before 2020, and all of us who have lost friends & family & community members.
So where is the middle ground? Is there a middle ground? When & how do we as artists become brave enough to remember?
These questions and the words of that English professor were swimming in my head when I talked with Lisa Sanaye Dring about her new play, Hungry Ghost, directed by Jessica Hanna and premiering at Skylight Theatre Company for the final installment of their “Her Voice, Her Vision” 40th Anniversary Season. A play that centers the lives of a couple getting ready to start a family, a hauntingly humorous hermit, and a secluded house in the woods, Hungry Ghost invites audiences to meditate on ideas of true freedom, isolation from community, and the hilarity of tragedy.
So as weary as I am of the pandemic, after my meeting with Lisa & Jess, I was reminded of the importance & inherent absurdity of processing, looking back on, and learning lessons from resiliency & loss.
Carolina Pilar Xique: Lisa—What inspired you to write this piece and how has it grown since its inception?
Lisa Sanaye Dring: It’s very beautiful for me because I found out I got into the Humanitas Stage Raw Group led by Shem Bitterman and Steven Lee Morris in April, 2020. And we all know what was going on then. *laughs*
I was so heartened because at that moment I didn’t know if I was still going to make art, and it was a lifeline for me to be like, “Oh no, you will be writing in this time!”
But I didn’t know what I was going to write.
I was watching a video article in “The Atlantic,” a story about the North Pond Hermit, Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived in the forest for 27 years and survived by pilfering from vacation homes. He would come out in the summer and get little supplies, get oil, and then he’d hibernate in the winter and just camp out in his location. I was really moved by him because I was isolated from my community at that time, and I found it to be excruciating at moments. And he went to isolation and found solitude and freedom.
He did an interview with “GQ “and quoted Thomas Merton; he talked about how when one is without reflection, one can become truly free. I thought about that impulse—that one’s true self is only without one’s community. And I thought about how we as theatre people make meaning inside community. And then it sort of distilled into this play, which is about someone who is about to be in community in a huge way because of birth. She’s about to grow a family with a woman she loves and is facing her own feelings of isolation and alienation from community, and has to encounter those two poles—to be with people and to be alone. She’s forced into this decision via her pregnancy.
Carolina: Jessica—What has the rehearsal process been like and how have your thoughts about the play evolved since you had first read it?
Jessica Hanna: It’s been a super collaborative room. Lisa has been really participatory and open to the collaboration and the questions that come up for both myself and the actors. We’ve been really heavily working on this play for some months, but in June, we did a workshop and did some really hardcore work of talking about the play, Lisa writing new pages, and trying new things .
I would say that the idea of “theater being a great experiment” is really alive in this room. I keep talking to the cast that being in this place of, “I don’t know,” is a really fertile, exciting, creative space. And it’s also deeply uncomfortable and sometimes can cause anxiety. I feel very lucky because nobody in the room is dictating what anything has to be. So the richness of the possibility feels heightened in our room. And there’s also the reality of like, this is the baby’s first walk, right? So I hope there’s another evolution of this play that is learned from these moments.
Lisa: Shout out to Boston Court Playwrights Group—they have also workshopped the piece with me over the last year, in addition to the Humanist Stage Raw Group. In this time where it’s so hard to make a play and harder for producers to get stuff up, it’s been a huge boon to this piece to have so many amazing minds and hearts of the theater pay attention to it as it grows, including Jess’s, including Skylight.
Carolina: How has it been balancing the hilarity and the weight of these themes, in both the writing and the directing process?
Lisa: I just think things should be funny. I think all plays should be funny. And I think these actors are really sensational at giving us humor and joy. I was taught in theater school, “You can’t make them cry unless you make them laugh.” Straight drama is easier than laughter because you can’t really fake laughter. Like you can hear that difference of really making an audience crack up as opposed to the sort of chuckles that you hear that where they’re helping a comedy be pushed along. And there’s so much play in the room that creates a really beautiful space where people can unfurl with each other and genuinely be with each other. And I think all these layers of trust is also helped by [intimacy coordinator] Carly Bones. My job is just giving them enough material that they can play with to make it happen.
Jessica: Yeah. You have to have the light to have the shadow, right? For talking about grief, sometimes the best thing to do is to talk about the ridiculousness of life or to have that present in order to actually really feel those things. I think we’ve got a nice balance going. I find it [the play] funny. These three players, they’re all hilarious in their own, very distinct ways. And to give them space to find their funny or to be their funny selves makes them more human. Even the fantastical, possibly mystical character still has got to be based in some kind of reality for us to understand him and to bond with him.
Lisa: I find that laughter, humor, and play are paradigm-shifting and paradigm-breaking. So I’m hoping there is also a deep cognitive experience that happens with the humor. I’m hoping that this play celebrates the wisdom of this. We were talking with one of our actors about how this one character is light because they’ve had to be—they’ve had to cultivate a levity because the world is just so bizarre for them. And I think that there’s a deep beauty in the resilience of humor.
Jessica: I just want to also say that Lisa is very funny, straight up. *laughs* But also, there’s something really gorgeous about Lisa’s work. There are times as an audience member where your breath is taken away by the beauty that’s being brought to life through words, and then all of a sudden it’ll be, like, some left turn. You can’t help but laugh out loud. It knocks you out because the broken expectations are so exciting. That kind of duality is one of the really exciting things about Lisa’s writing.
Carolina: Why this play today, right now?
Lisa: I mean, I just got to play my first lead in [director/playwright] Jen Chang’s play this year, and I’ve been acting for a while. And so to be an Asian American actor who’s been a character actor their whole life and to create a big role for Jenny Soo is an honor, because Jenny Soo’s such a tremendous performer.
But I think it’s tricky because I don’t really write from that place of, “What does the world need?” I try to metabolize the world in a sincere way, and then write what’s in my heart and then be mindful of it along the way. And thankfully, I don’t have to make the decision whether to produce it or not, or have to be a critic, you know what I mean? The world will tell me if the world needs it, if that makes sense. I think as an artist, one just needs to be really deep in themselves and to try to be honest and as alive as possible, and then make what’s in their heart responding to their moment right now.
Jessica: I think the play also speaks to this place of grief and that processing that we are all in. I talk about theater as being the art form where we can work on, or build the worlds we want to live in, or try things out, or see examples of what we want to push back against in terms of the world around us. And I think watching characters make hard choices that are right for themselves, seeing an Asian American woman make those choices for herself and question and be a human is really important right now. It always is. But I mean, in particular, I think it is now.
Hopefully we continue having more awareness and revelations as a society, but also white people—myself included—are paying attention in a different way. This idea of the Hungry Ghost, which is a cultural phenomenon in many cultures… this idea of something that comes from grief not being taken care of, or not being cared for, and that it comes back at you, or that it haunts you—at least that’s why I’m interpreting it—I think that’s very appropriate for right now. Because the question of, “Are we going to take care of ourselves and our grief in this period of change after massive, massive upheaval and death?” I think is a big question. Are we going to fertilize the ground with our knowledge, or are we going to just try to go on and not deal with what’s been happening around us? That’s a question I think about when working on this play.
Carolina: What has the process been like working with Skylight for their “Her Vision, Her Voice” theme for the 40th anniversary?
Lisa: It’s really great. I really loved working with Skylight. I mean, this is of course playwright-centric, but their notes have been really good. They’ve helped the piece grow, and I felt like they understood what the piece was and gave me a lot of space to figure it out. But I really resonate with a simpatico of artistic vision, in terms of what the possibility of the piece is and where we all think it’s going. I felt like they—Tyree [Marshall] and Gary [Grossman] and Armando [Huipe] and everybody there right now—intuited and grokked what the piece could be when they read it almost a year ago. I’ve been really grateful for that.
And then it also felt, artistically, like an appropriate birth in terms of like trusting the vision. Jess came in with a workshop model that I’d never done before that was really beautiful. Because Jess is the director, she had a vision for this, and I feel like that started us off on a really good fit of trust and respect. And I also wanna say Jess is a really seasoned producer herself, so I think she makes producer’s lives easy. *laughs*
Jess, what do you think?
Jessica: Uh, I don’t know. You’re gonna have to ask Gary about that later this week. *laughs*
But I wanna just echo what Lisa’s saying in terms of the support. There’s been a lot of striving to make dreams come true as much as possible, which has been really kind of extraordinary. They’ve been really, really great about trying to figure things out and give us as much as they can. I love the fact that they’re doing this season, that we’re part of this season. It’s really exciting that they will have brought three new plays to life in a year. And the fact that they’re all plays by women is the extra cherries on top. So yeah, I hope people are inspired by it and see it as something to that they could also do. I hope it’s something that catches on.
The final installment in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the World Premiere of “Hungry Ghost” by Lisa Sanaye Dring, directed by Jessica Hanna, runs at Skylight Theatre from August 26th to October 1st, 2023, with previews on August 19, 20, & 25. For tickets and information, visit https://skylighttheatre.org/event/hungry-ghost/.