by Robin Byrd
“Trying to teach my hands to do what I hear in my head” John Hartford, fiddler
Every year I try to work on a new play or writing project and part of that entails finding different ways to tell the story. I have all these stories in my head that I want to tell and at times I feel like John Hartford, that I must teach myself a new way into the story before I can get what’s in my head out. The last few years, I have noticed that even when I hear “first words,” I must still wait until the structure is revealed to me as well. At other times, I must prevent myself from overriding what seems to be outside the realm of textbook playwriting – more theatrical than normal for me.
David Henry Hwang states in his author’s note in M. BUTTERFLY, “Before I can begin writing, I must ‘break the back of the story,’ and find some angle which compels me to set pen to paper.’
Compelling angles are very important to giving a story a fair chance to have a life on stage.
Each play is different. Each time we write, we must find a way to get words on the page worthy of living out loud on the stage – always new, always the same but different, always the best journey to take to “The End.” And then, we start all over again trying to get more stories out of our heads…
Playwright David Henry Hwang had a few more things to say about the craft of writing when he dropped by a revival of his play “Yellow Face” in Washington DC this weekend.
He says it’s his practice to write the first act as a comedy, which allows the audience to more fully embrace the more difficult, serious topics of act two. Ah, the old “give the kid dessert first” technique I used to employ as a babysitter.
He also poked fun at one of his own less-than-successful plays, even presenting a snippet on stage that could make your teeth hurt. Would I be brave enough to publicly expose my own writing foibles night after night? When I write a lousy play, I want it to disappear.
And for a play that debates race appropriate casting, the play itself demands the director and producer make hard decisions about which actors of which races are appropriate for playing the characters in “Yellow Face.” Can a non-Asian play the mother of Henry Hwang? What does it say to the audience if he’s not? The multi-cultural casting was fun, but it was even more fun to hear the producer Ari Roth and David Henry Hwang talk about the hard choices. It was a debate the audience also joined in on. What a wonderful idea to find a way for the audience to see the political questions of a play at work in front of them, forcing them to ponder the same questions!
Tomorrow, I fly to Denver for the Colorado New Play Summit. Stay tuned for updates from the Mile High City on a new Matthew Lopez play and more!
by Kitty Felde
Theatre J here in Washington DC just revived the 2007 comedy “Yellow Face” and I was lucky enough to hear David Henry Hwang talk about his writing process. Hwang is about to open a big off-Broadway show – “Kung Fu.”
As you know, Hwang makes himself a character in “Yellow Face” – a technique he says was inspired in part by all the times he’s been asked to play himself in small, indie films. Why not try it in a play?
I can’t quite imagine writing Kitty Felde as a character, but it’s something to chew on.
He says he knew two things when he sat down to write the play: he wanted to start it with the controversy that enveloped the Broadway opening of “Miss Saigon” where Cameron Mackintosh cast Jonathan Pryce as the Asian Engineer. Hwang was outspoken on the issue and became embroiled in the debate over colorblind casting. He also knew he wanted to end with a “New York Times” article suggesting his banker father had broken the law. How those two events were connected, he wasn’t sure when he sat down to write the play.
Whether he successfully connected the dots is for you to decide, but what a terrific way to attack a play!
He also knew that the emotional spine in the middle of the comedy and political commentary was his relationship with his father. The humanity shone in those scenes.
Again, a good lesson to learn: what’s the emotional spine in our plays?
An evening of theatre and a playwriting class for one ticket! Quite a deal!