And it feels like SO MUCH has been happening for SO LONG that I am SHORT-CIRCUITING. I don’t know if I know how to do this anymore. But what has changed? Hasn’t the world always been in peril in some capacity? Or, maybe it’s more accurate to ask “Hasn’t mankind always been in peril in some capacity?” Why does this moment in time feel so hopelessly perilous?
The 2016 election hit me hard, but I rebounded with radical empathy! I was going to create opportunities for connection! I founded Protest Plays Project for playwrights writing for social change. At the same time, I began working with colleges to create opportunities for playwrights to draft plays rooted in their communities – we would then exchange the plays and read them on our myriad campuses. Radical empathy would save us!
It did not save us.
So I wrote an outlandish feminist sci-fi play that made me laugh even while I held my breath about absolutely everything else. We moved. I had a second child. I wrote postcards to voters. I experienced the Iowa caucuses. I held my breath. Maybe, if we could just get that gaudy, greedy, mistake out of the white house… I’d be able to breathe a little easier.
Then the pandemic.
The fucking pandemic.
I wrote more postcards. I started Plaguewrites, collaboratively writing “pandemic-proof” (aka, outdoor and long-distance) plays with other playwrights trying to DO SOMETHING. My instinct to keep fucking going, innovate, pivot! LEAN IN!, was in full force.
But now, everything from that time period is a swirly knotted mess. George Floyd, Jan 6th, Giuliani’s drip-drip-drippy dye job, online teaching, closed day care, zoom zoom zoooooooom and double-washing my tomatoes…
I turned a play into a short film with our students. I got diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I got my tits chopped off, did radiation, completely revised my syllabus for online teaching, then hybrid teaching, then once more for back-to-the-DON’T-YOU-DARE-SAY-“NORMAL”-classroom. All of my students fractured, thin… Myself fractured. Thin (Well, thin in spirit at least. In person, I become thick with emotional eating. Sucking what pleasure I can from every goddam donut, brownie, and buttery potato I can find…)
I wrote more postcards to even more voters.
I finished a too-long-in-the-crock-pot play that no one seems to be too excited about.
What year is it? What even is “time” anymore?
And now there’s another fucking election coming down the pike, with the same candidates as last time, and it’s like, do we really have to?
I’ve got a new play finished. I’m sending it out. I really love it. But… like…does it matter? Does any of this matter?
I don’t rebound so well anymore. I’m tired. I’m so, so, so, so, tired. And I’m just a middle-aged, de-breasted, middle-class, white lady with kids. How the fuck are YOU?
What are you writing about?
Is it helping you breathe?
Maybe that’s why I keep hitting these keys… writing is order. Scenes move forward. Characters in impossible situations make choices, which have consequences, and I can see it all safely.
And from a distance.
So. I’m working on some new stuff. Maybe it will help me deal with the unbearable weight of this impossible world.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to see the World Premiere of “This is Not a True Story” produced by Artists at Play in partnership with the Latino Theater Company. Playwright Preston Choi tackles the white man’s stereotypical representation of Asian women in three works: firstly, in the “canonical” (note quotations) opera Madama Butterfly and musical Miss Saigon, and in a more modern iteration of the Asian female, in the movie “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.” All three works portray the central protagonists as damsels in distress, ones who need saving, ones who cannot endure the tragedy that befalls them by the American lovers who jilt them, and instead, succumb to suicide.
The women–CioCio from Madama Butterfly, Kim from Miss Saigon, and Kumiko (or Takako, the real woman for whom the movie was based on)—are cursed to live out their lives and deaths over and over again in a liminal purgatory where their true voices contend with the stories that were written for them. The play opens with CioCio, played by Julia Cho, gutting herself with a dagger, once, twice, one-hundred, nine-thousand times and so on. Every time she kills herself, she is condemned to live again and experience the birth and loss of a child, the agony of heartbreak, and the pain of a self-inflicted death. Every time she attempts to challenge her given circumstance or to deviate from the way she has been written, a booming, God-like voice overhead reprimands her “THAT IS NOT YOUR LINE!” When Kim, who was a character adaptation of CioCio, played by Zandi DeJesus, lands herself in the same space, she is simultaneously defiant with and reliant on CioCio to cope with the miserable repetition of her own story’s tragedy.
While CioCio and Kim, characters in the most widely produced works with Asian female leads, clash over how to deal with the hellish nightmare of being trapped in the scripts in which they were written, Kumiko, played by Rosie Narasaki, enters the liminal space with a desire to seek the truth, to distinguish the movie character Kumiko from the real-life Takako, the former being portrayed as a naïve caricature who was purported to have been looking for money buried in the snow of Fargo based on the Coen brothers film by the same name. So the mythology of Takako goes, though in real life, she could not have been that stupid, and such a story was more likely to have come from the police officers who deemed it reasonable to call a Chinese restaurant to assist in translation with this young, Japanese woman traveling alone. It is the arrival of Kumiko/Takako that compels the three women to move beyond commiseration and to strategize an escape. But what does escape look like? And can they ever be truly free?
This play was delightful on so many levels. Firstly, I was in tears of laughter from beginning to near end. I say near end because in the final moments, the tears turned to sadness and a glimmer of hope. Having read this manuscript before watching the play, I was struck by how truly theatrical the piece was. The reading experience did not come even close to the audience experience, which included stylized Asian accents—we were instructed to laugh at them—and babies flying in on ziplines. The trio of actresses were superbly adept at the physical humor and at all the sharp turns in moods and voice. They were dynamic, compelling, and so fun to watch.
Despite my laughter, I found myself empathizing with their plight. As an Asian American writer, actress, and human, I have felt the projections of Asian female on my body through a white male gaze, a colonialist, imperialist gaze, a frat boy gaze, whatever—all the ways in which I did not get to choose how I was seen. I felt the import of the play, which I consider to be deeply feminist in its messaging, and this can only be credited to the playwright Preston Choi, who found a uniquely creative way to deconstruct a longstanding and oft discussed issue of stereotyping and objectifying the Asian female without hammering our heads with pedantry. I’ll just say it: someone is going to write their Ph.D. dissertation on this play someday.
I enjoyed the play so much, I reached out to Director Reena Dutt, who was first introduced to the work through an Artist at Play reading series. The play spoke to Dutt so viscerally that the seed of direction came to her in a dream (yes, the flying babies!) Dutt shares in the feminist reading of the play, saying that in terms of BIPOC representation, she is no longer interested in “gratuitous female pain” and instead seeks out art that celebrates “BIPOC female joy”. An actress herself, Dutt knows all too well the issues of representation for Asian women, but she is clear-eyed about the changing landscape over generations. She says, “Tragedy with BIPOC women is not entertainment anymore” and “at what point do we gain agency?”
The answer to this question is not only in the play, but in the power of collaboration and the process of production. Dutt is quick to credit Artist at Play, a female-powered AAPI theater of which Julia Cho is also a founding producing partner, for their willingness to support her vision and to respect all members of the team, from designers to performers. Dutt describes Artists at Play as “changing the culture of how we work in the theater.” It stands to reason that the best theater will be born out of a community of artists who feel heard and respected. As Dutt exclaims, “It takes a team to care about the story,” and in this case, the story delivered.
Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North Americais a widely-produced two-hander that checks in with a father and daughter pair named John and Caitlyn through the years when they go birding together. Centered around an activity that rewards patience, this play is quietly insightful and mirrorlike. I spoke with the playwright about it a couple days after a recent production opened at The Odyssey Theatre in West LA. Some snippets of our conversation follow.
Elana Luo: I wanted to start by asking you what inspired this play. Why did you decide to write it?
Anna Ouyang Moench: For a long time, I had been interested in writing about climate change. And I wasn’t quite sure how to do that in a way that felt right for the theater, or at least the kind of theater that I make. I think that I did not want it to feel like an issue play or an educational play. I wanted it to be rooted in emotional honesty and about human experience. There is such an emotional component to the experience of climate change on a human level, and I wanted to write a play that spoke to that.
Elana: What made you write about the relationship between a father and daughter in particular?
Anna: I think the way that the father-daughter relationship unfurls in the play is a parallel to the experience of climate change, because ultimately, the emotional experience of climate change is rather cerebral. There are emotions in it that can translate to human relationships like grief or anger or nostalgia or love. There are so many things that we feel about the world that we inhabit. At least on stage, I don’t really know how to write those feelings in terms of a scene between an environment and a person, but I do know how to write those emotions into a scene between two people.
Elana: Sometimes it feels like climate change is a generational issue, with the younger generation being more concerned than the older. So that was something really interesting to me—was it always John, the father, who was the character concerned with climate change?
Anna: Yes. There are certainly aspects of John’s character that are inspired by my own father, or both my parents. There was a time when my parents were—and honestly still are—like, ‘Hey, you really need to get an electric car,’ and I’m in an expensive city, I’m trying to just save enough money for my kids to go to college and have the chance at retirement someday. I would love it if I could get solar panels and an electric car, but I just can’t do that right now. I still have to contend with the reality here.
So I think that’s sort of where the generational divide in the play emerged from, when you’re just starting out and trying to figure out a way to support yourself and have a life you enjoy. You don’t get to make those choices from an idealistic place all the time. And John is somebody who was always motivated by those ideals. But not everyone is that, and I have a great deal of empathy for both of the characters in the play. I think that a big part of playwriting is being able to kind of have that multifaceted view of an issue and see where different people are coming from.
Elana: What were you trying to show through the longitudinal way the play is structured? We see these two characters through a lot of time, with each scene being a different year. Was that related to the theme of climate change?
Anna: I was trying to show the specific moments that these two people are alone together; I feel like, in families, there are actually very few of those moments, especially once you have moved out of your parents’ house. And so we are getting to see those times where, once every season, John and Caitlyn go out and do some birding. Then the goal is that you’re seeing their relationship evolving over the course of ten years. And birding is an activity where you spend quite a lot of time waiting. So you get to talking, you know, and I think that these are the times where they actually have the space and time to talk.
Elana: We really get to see their different perspectives.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, I see these characters as actually being very similar. And I’ve noticed this many times in the world. Often people have the most conflict with the parent that they’re more like, or a child that they’re more like. I think that you sometimes have higher standards for the child that reminds you of yourself or you’re less forgiving of them because you hold them to the same standard you hold yourself, which is often not very forgiving. I also think that’s true sometimes with people who are really opinionated or strong willed or kind of spiky, if their kid is also spiky like that. Or if they’re both really sensitive. Often those things go hand in hand.
Elana: As a director, I tend to look for action for the eye to be on when I direct. Was there a certain way you imagined John and Caitlyn’s conversations playing out, or was it just the two of them talking on the stage?
Anna: This is the type of play that is about the very small actions. I think that when there is a lot of in-and-out-of-doors or people running all over the place, that’s just a different type of play. I actually see this play as having a good deal of action. It’s just you have to zoom way in to see it. Small things become large when there’s not large things, right? And so I think this is a play that goes down to, when do they lift up the binoculars to shield themselves from the other person seeing what they’re feeling? When do they look out at the birds, but it’s really not about the birds? It’s about this relationship and its micro textures. The action is moments of looking for connection or disconnection, of hiding or attacking.
Elana: What made you write this story for live theater? I know you also write for other formats. Was there anything about this story that felt particularly theatrical?
Anna: At its core, the theater is about watching a conversation dialogue between characters and watching how these characters change and how these relationships change. So, to me, this always has felt like a play. Especially when there’s not, ‘and then this crazy thing happens to upset the whole world,’ you really have to root it in honesty. You have to know these characters, understand the relationship, and teach the audience who they are in an elegant way.
Plays are a place where we go to listen to the musicality of the dialogue, the rhythms, the ways that people use tactics in conversation. That’s something I go to theater for.
“Birds of North America “runs through November 19th at The Odyssey Theatre on Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and select weekdays. For tickets and information, visit odysseytheatre.com
One of my childhood dreams was to be an astronaut. I believe children look up in wonder at the night skies, fascinated by the heavenly stars. I particularly liked staring at the Moon, and seeking shapes in the the shadows and lights of its face.
Kids are so impressionable. One of the things I now know is the drawback of growing up in a superstitious culture. An adult told the 6 year-old me that if I stared at the Moon I would go mad. I believed it, so I stopped staring at the Moon. But I had stolen moments of gazing at the Moon. I continue to be spellbound by its face, though I’ve outgrown the silly superstition.
Tonight, the Moon is at its Waning Gibbous state. It is shrinking from Full to Half Moon.
If you’re an early riser and it wasn’t overcast in your neighborhood, you may have seen the Full Harvest Moon at 5:58 am this morning, . I was still tucked between the covers with Molly, my elderly cocker spaniel, spoon shaped at my feet. I was up and about by 6:10 getting my chickens out of the coop. It was overcast this morning, and the Moon was clouded over.
After a full long day at my desk, I got into the van with Goliath, my shepherd-rottweiler mix dog. We walked in the twilight at Edward Vincent Park and the Moon followed us. It was calming and soothing with the canopy of pine and deciduous trees overhead, while we walked on the carpet of grass. The stress of the day just melted away.
I sang Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” on the short drive home. This Moon theme hung over me. I remembered that it’s about this time of the year when mooncakes are available, and it is THE ONLY time of the year that they can be found. Naturally, I searched “Mooncakes Los Angeles” and a list of Asian bakeries popped up. Only one was open till 9 pm. I called “Wonder Bakery” on Broadway in Chinatown. The sweet young man on the phone confirmed that they are open till 9 and there are mooncakes to be bought. I had less than an hour to drive from South LA to Chinatown.
In a short period of time I found out tonight, Friday, September 29th is the Mid-Autumn festival of 2023. It is also known as the Moon Festival, a celebration of the Full Harvest Moon, symbolic of a time of completeness and abundance.
I am going to this, because it is symbolic of me stepping into the awakening to my resilient self. I honor and give gratitude to the abundance of the friendships that gathered around me during periods of facing challenges, changes and complexities (the 3 C’s). I harvest the ripeness and crystallization of beginnings and endings.
The practice of Grati-osity is a hybrid word that combines gratitude and generosity. Expressing gratitude, typically some time after The Three C’s have occurred, means seeing the good in the experience, even if you would not have chosen the circumstance.
Generously sharing your resilience stories means that rather than giving advice or telling others what to do, you offer them in the spirit of mentoring, coaching, and advising others. Your stories of perseverance also encourages other to heal and grow.
The 5 Practices of Highly Resilient People” by Dr. Taryn Marie Stejskal
I will also add that I need resilience to make my innermost dreams come true, because dreams give me hope.
Ils ont besoin de pouvoir rêver de décrocher la lune.
I ate a mooncake and sipped tea as I typed this blog. Molly nudged me for some bites of the cake. Laden with the sweet red-bean paste and its salted duck yolk center, it’s time for some sweet Full Moon dreams.
Words get in the way sometimes, and other times there aren’t enough. Linguistics is a fundamental aspect of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Machine learning requires words. What makes me wonder is how can we teach machines to learn to communicate when basic communication between two people can sometimes be problematic.
YouTube has volumes of videos (TedTalks, for example) on brain studies. This one is from Nature. It describes the map of the brain that respond to specific words.
What is language? It is a tool for communicating as one definition. When I studied computer science I had to learn programming languages, including machine language. Programming languages look like written English, and is a “higher” form (not better, just human looking) of language. It’s “higher”, because it sits further away from the native machine language which is made up of a series of 1s and 0s (ones and zeroes). Yes, like the background of blinking 1s and 0s in the rolling credits of “The Matrix”.
Imagine a virtual meeting. The participants are from different time zones, cultural backgrounds and speak varying native tongues. We speak English in the meeting and our purpose is to talk about a project. Twenty minutes into the meeting, the business leader messages me. “I can’t do this.” I know what the person is saying. As we listen to the presenter talk about the status and plans, we’re both trying hard to listen to what’s being said. But it’s really awful, because the sentences taste like sawdust. It’s completely dry and without meaning to us. What needs to be said is not being said.
He’s hiding behind words. It is like being taken for a ride and you want to get off now. I feel sad for him, but he hasn’t been listening and watching for clues and signals. It started weeks ago. The meeting prior to this one, the business leader was practically shouting (not literally, but he communicated clearly without raising his voice) what he needed to hear and see. The project is delayed. Everyone sees the days, hours and minutes marching closer to a deadline, and the budget dwindling down.
That’s one example, and something I’ve seen and experienced at other times before. I’ve been in a similar situation when I couldn’t reach the other person. In hindsight, I now recognize my mistake. I was stubborn. I could, at the time, only see the situation through my lenses. I wonder now why was I being so obstinate. It was immaturity on my part to butt heads with someone equally stubborn as me. It would’ve been better to compromise and acknowledge our differing views and methods of solving a problem. The game was a draw, a stalemate. We reset the board and started over. My head hurt harder, but I think I built resilience in the process and I am better for it.
Life is a kind of game. We play with each other and if we can play well together, we can have fun and create something profound. But if we can’t play together then we either disengage and go separate ways and find another playmate. The playmate we seek is someone who can speak our language with or without words – one who just gets you (or doesn’t). They can even try to “get you”, but sometimes our personal prejudices also block communication. Our “unconscious” behaviors block us from receiving the signals from the other person. Is it a signal that I don’t have my voicemail set up? Only that I have a preferred method of communicating – in person conversation or if it can wait then email or text me. This is a technology choice. There are so many options, and I choose not to use one of them. What I really mean by “unconscious” behavior of blocking could be a level of open mindedness to listen to another point of view. There’s listening and there’s being in agreement to what you hear. How much of what is heard resonates in you? How deeply does it jive with your vibe? How open is your heart?
Why do I want to communicate? What’s my purpose to share?
I searched for the 80/20 Rule in communication and found this one from a sales perspective.
The most important principle of active listening is to concentrate all your attention and energy on the task of listening to and understanding what is being said to you. The 80/20 rule of active listening says that in any sales conversation the sales rep should spend 80% of the time listening and only 20% of the time talking. In the vast majority of cases, the customer doesn’t want to know what you think, he wants to tell you what he thinks, how he feels and what he needs.
In a business environment, I communicate to sell an idea, to get a “buy in”, so both parties can agree to move forward or change as needed, but stay in partnership.
I’m daunted in my creative writing project to tell a story in play form. Mostly it’s the dialogue that stumps me. How can I make the dialogue authentic and interesting? Plain, simple and honest communication is truthful. Maybe it’s hard to get to the truth, because of the filters we have that shades the truth from shining through. The filters of protection and guise that cast the shadows and lights – the tragedies and comedies of being human. When I write, I watch for what it is I’m running away from (like, Oooo that one hurts, not ready to touch that one yet).
Can a machine touch someone’s heart? Maybe, one day. Sadly, sometimes, I wonder if talking with a machine is all that a person has to keep them from being lonely.
It sounded so idylic: ten days on Nantucket, and then two and a half weeks in Maine. All that time devoted to one thing: revision.
I’m working on my first adult novel, a mystery set in Theodore Roosevelt’s White House. The first draft is too long – 368 pages and still lacking a last scene. It’s a mess.
This year has been full of chaos with running a tiny publishing company, producing a pair of podcasts, and then five family members developed health issues. It’s been difficult to concentrate.
But I had those two trips to look forward to, away from the many fires that demand immediate attention, and I would use them to whip my novel into shape.
I was afraid to look at the pages. I’d written the first draft a year ago. What if it was awful? What if I couldn’t figure out how to fix it? Should I just burn the darned thing and eat lobster and enjoy myself?
After talking myself off the ledge, I remembered how I edit. And that’s what I’ll share with you.
PRINT IT OUT
A play or novel looks completely different in other formats.
I write on my laptop, but edit on paper. (I know, I know. I’ve sacrificed trees for this book. All the more reason to make the editing count.)
You see things differently when a book is on the screen vs on a piece of paper. It’s tactile. There is something satisfying about crossing out duplicate words with a red pen or watching a stack of pages dwindle as you read and reread and edit. (The only downside: my carryon bag was particularly heavy since I insisted on dragging my printed copy with me on the plane.)
READ THE DAMN THING
I write in short spurts. A scene here, a chapter there. I don’t make a habit of going back over my work again and again and again.
But editing begins with looking at the project as a whole. Does it make sense? What’s missing? Are there duplicate scenes?
I don’t immediately fix these problems, just note them in a separate notebook. I just keep reading.
WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
I knew that underneath the mystery, the book is really about a daughter’s lifelong effort to get her father’s attention and approval. Upon re-reading my manuscript, I was satisfied with the emotional underpinnings of the story. What I was lacking was a plot that made sense.
I started making lists, outlining the various murder plots, the actual clues and the red herrings. I followed main characters through the story – their locations, their motivations. I found holes and noted them in my notebook. More things to fix.
FIX THE BIG STUFF FIRST…OR NOT
After looking at plot holes, I had a good idea of what needed fixing and decided to tackle that first. Rereading the entire work made it clear what was important and what was not. I eagerly picked up my red pen and got to work.
But there were other problems that had no immediate solution. I needed to sleep on it or take a long walk or a swim, distract myself long enough for my brain to figure out a solution.
In the meantime, I tackled the small stuff I’d listed in my notebook. How many children DID Mrs. Caldwell have? Was it eight or nine? What was the name of the bank owned by Mr. Johnston? What was the rank of that police officer? It was just as satisfying fixing little things as it was solving big problems. And fixing the small stuff gave me courage to attack the big stuff.
KILL YOUR FAVORITES
Writers are always telling us to be brutal in editing, to not be afraid to kill our darlings. I’m not that brave. I marked up my paper copy. But when I have reliable internet and make those changes in the master script on my laptop, I will save all those edited scenes in my Leftover file. I’m braver about making changes if I know that I can always go back and put that scene back in the main manuscript. Or use it in another book.
I’m a member of THREE writing groups. I also regularly swap drafts with yet another set of writers. It’s invaluable to have another set of eyes on our work. There are just some things we are blind to, things we skip over. They tell us when they don’t understand a plot point or the physical action in an action scene or the motivations of a character. They tell us when things are dragging, when a line is funny, whether the ending is satisfying.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
At some point, we have to admit to ourselves that our work will never be perfect. We have to share it with the world and take the consequences. What’s the worst that can happen? An agent will reject us. Or three. Or a hundred. We decide to self-publish and get a one star review on Amazon. (At least someone took the time to read the darned book!) None of our siblings will buy the book and never ask about it at Thanksgiving. (Good. They’ll never know we named the villain after them.)
Be brave. Write your cover letter and your synopsis. Polish them. And send out your baby into the world. It’s time.
Kitty’s many plays have been produced around the world. Two are available in print. These days, she writes The Fina Mendoza Mysteries series of books and podcast for kids.
I’ve been in this cycle lately where I compare myself to other people, which inevitably sends me into a depression, which then shoots me into a “not to worry, I’ll just work even harder!” and then into a depression again. I have the straight-A-student mindset (curse) where I need to know where I stand in the “class.” I organize my dreams like a to-do list in my planner, as if once I achieve them I will graduate into something else, or win at this writing thing or win life in general.
I know intellectually that every writing career looks different, and that we aren’t in competition, but emotionally I get fixated on moments where I fell short or was not ready for an opportunity or didn’t follow up and be loud about what I wanted or just plain failed. And then that failure and self-loathing become my entire personality for a bit. (Sorry to all my friends.) And those fixations make me blind to anything I actually have accomplished or to the potential of the current moment.
As a way to try to break this cycle and to put moments of my life in a little perspective, I’ve started a spreadsheet called “My Life’s Work.”
On one tab I am listing all my short fiction, any awards or publications each story has received, word count, and year (sometimes a guess-imate) when it was written. I’m also including any stories I still have a full draft of that I shelved permanently, maybe never submitted for publication at all, that will never see the light of day again. They live on in the spreadsheet as a lovely grey row – because writing those failed stories were part of my education. Many of them I wrote as a baby writer, often with little to no real mentorship or community, and so my own words were teaching me what I knew. There are 44 stories so far on the list.
On another tab I’m listing all the full-length plays I’ve written, which are easier to track in their lumbering size. Outside of productions, awards, readings, etc, I try to list where I wrote it and what year. There are two grey-ed out plays on this list – one that was terrible and could never work (I took one of the characters from that and put him in another play), and the other I’m turning into a novella. So nothing is wasted, but I can see how those failed plays taught me some hard lessons. I’ve color-coded the others too – ones I think are actually solid, ones I wrote with Rogue Artists Ensemble (my home theatre company), ones that are “eh,” and ones I think are still in their development “has potential” phase. At this moment I’ve written 18 full length plays. Maybe greying out only two of them is being overly generous, lol.
Other tabs are starting to collect short plays (which are, for me, harder to trace and harder to remember), screen and audio and mixed media stuff, and directing.
I think I was drawn to doing this because I stopped journaling years ago. I need a way to reflect and process how I’ve spent my creative life. The narrative in my head can easily twist into “I just threw away the last three years – I did nothing!” but when I look at the spreadsheet I can actually see what I was actively working on, what led to a triumph the following year, or what ended in failure but what led to something better. Being able to step back and actually look at a map like this, to try to see the bigger picture and shape of my energy, has already helped calm me down and give myself some GRACE.
There is a danger, of course, of something like this just reinforcing the habit of straight-A-student syndrome, of racking up the numbers and comparing them to other people’s life work that I can’t and never will see the depth of. But I intend and will work to keep it as a tool for Grace, a tool to understand how I traveled to this moment, so I can best prepare and celebrate the work ahead.
I understand that this is very career and creative project-focused (but this IS a blog about writing after all), and does not (yet) include other life things, like the goings-on of family and friends and travel and day jobs and hobbies. And to best think through those things, I’ll probably need to start journaling again.
Your “life’s work” is never just your actual work, of course. But I’ve started here because, like any little drama kid, I’ve marked phases of my life in whatever-play-I-was-working-on-at-the-time. This is how life makes sense to me because it’s how I’ve demarcated and oriented myself in time since I was 14.
Your “work” is not all there is of you, but I think for a writer or creator it is a part of you; you can trace your growth and sadness and curiosities as you trace the stories you were working on at any given moment. Even without writing a memoir, I’ve written a memoir.
This exercise might not be helpful for everyone. But I can guarantee, if you’re feeling like you haven’t done enough, haven’t accomplished enough, that you are lightyears behind everyone else, you are probably ignoring huge chapters of your story. Maybe you need to take a step back and give yourself some grace.
Here’s to a life’s work that is never done until it is, well, done.
A year ago, I went home, I had Laryngitis and was unable to love on everyone… Laryngitis, that’s what the doctors called it – I have been having throat spasms since my time in the Army. A few days before my flight out, my throat closed – no air. The pushing sound of me trying to force my throat open – something I learned from a Marine who blew air into my windpipe to open it the first time my throat closed. He saved my life. I was in AIT (Advanced Individual Training) for my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and all of a sudden, the water I was swallowing expelled out of my throat like a fountain as I gasped for air.
Doctors never believe me. They won’t even check me if I get to emergency after it stops. Even those doctors this last time in the emergency room didn’t believe me as they watched me gasp for air. They told me to “calm down”. Then slowly hooked me up to monitor the air, laughed among themselves (probably calling me a hypochondriac in code) until the machine called foul and the people from the front desk came back to see who was sounding like they couldn’t breathe. The look between them – the doctors – “Oh, she really isn’t getting air…”
“No, I am not getting air, that’s why I came to emergency to pay the $200 dollar plus fee – to be seen.”
I left with a bag of medication but nothing to help with the spasms should they turn up again. They called it Laryngitis but knew there was something else going on.
I don’t know why I am thinking about this. Maybe, because it’s the feeling I get when every avenue I try to get my work out there seems to expel my efforts like the water I was drinking that first time. The constant reconciling is enough to bust the four back wheels on a semi-truck. All the ideas, all the words…
And yet I continue… Here’s to continuing, out of breath and all, until…
The wolves who came to breakfast devoured the meat with the life at once, leaving scant scraps for the omega. There is a hierarchy among wolves, there is also a great sense of community.
“I have never been contained except I made the prison.” – Mari Evans
“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/.
I appreciate how each woman owned their stories, because it’s not easy to experience a transgression, process and synthesize into an art form. The women describe their unique circumstances of places, names and situations that reveal a loss of innocence – violating their personal physical space – the vagina; breaking trusts in their relationships and understanding of the world; and weaving those pain points towards growth and renewal.
As each story unfolds, the heroine breaks out of the cocoon of blame and shame towards an emerging butterfly with fluttering wings of release like breathing out a breath that’s been held too long. One wonders, how we survive devastating and creepy actions towards the yoni, which is not just an anatomical part, the “birthing canal”. The yoni is sacred. In Sanskrit, it is the “abode”, “source”, “womb” or “vagina”; symbolic of the goddess Shakti, the consort or Shiva.
The woman's body
is the first world to the newborn.
The child's projections of anima
will be of her from then on.
- from the "A Joseph Campbell Companion", selected & edited by Diane K. Osbon
Together, the Shakti and Shiva are both the male and female aspect of God. Shiva, the tranquil, inactive state, while Shakti is the dynamic aspect of God. – Swami Shraddhandanda.
Destiny is “simply the fulfillment of the potentialities of the energies in your own system” – Joseph Campbell. When a man (or anybody) either through ignorance or hatred violates the yoni, the transgression is not only against the other, but to themselves also, because it’s the killing of the potential that is innate in their own being.
When a woman realizes that the power is within her, then the man emerges as an individual, rather than just being an example of what she thinks she needs. On the male side, when a man looks at a woman and sees only somebody to go to bed with, he is seeing her in relation to a fulfillment of some need of his own and not as a woman at all. It’s like looking at cows and thinking only of roast beef.
Joseph Campbell from “A Joseph Campbell Companion” Reflections on the Art of Living, selected and edited by Diane K. Osbon
These are the musings I had while watching the story telling of the women bravely owning their stories and laying it out like Tarot cards to be read, interpreted and manifested. I particularly enjoyed the choreography on the stage and each actor wearing a bright hue of the rainbow: blue, green, yellow and red.
“This Mudra is used to worship Devi Durga. It has many benefits. The Yoni Mudra helps in quieting the mind of the practitioner. Practicing this helps the nervous system to be calmed and stabilized, allowing you to redirect your attention inward.”