It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.
With a cast that is almost entirely made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.
LAFPI: First, let us say that we’re thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles!
Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?
Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play! I was primarily a performer at the time. There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.
Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers. She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into. Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.
LAFPI: What kind of research did you do when writing Hannah, Jiehae?
Jiehae: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play, but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.
LAFPI: A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
Jiehae: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.
LAFPI: Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah?
Jennifer: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is almost entirely Korean and Korean American. There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable. It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea. I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration. I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience.
LAFPI: Where does this piece fit in this new age of Asian/Asian American storytelling? How is it different?
Jiehae: I think it’s an exciting time for bold, uniquely Asian American storytelling that takes up its own space, written for audiences that include—though not exclusively—Asian Americans. Hannah is a play about the in-between-ness of a certain kind of Korean American immigrant identity, where the “homeland” can seem just as foreign as America. It’s written deliberately for a mixed audience—of Korean speakers and of non-Korean speakers—of all ethnicities. A lot of the work I’m excited about lately takes the old binaries and exposes them for what they always were—convenient fictions, with the far richer textures lying in between.
Jennifer: I think the new age is a function of capitalism producers and production companies are recognizing that an underserved market exists and that if production companies and theaters want to keep making as much money as they have been while building and creating new audiences, the Asian and Asian American audience will have to feel represented in the storytelling.
LAFPI: Is there anything you’d like to share about the casting process?
Jennifer: Only to say that I was looking for actors who could really capture the essence of ‘Han’—which is defined as a certain melancholy that is specific to Korean culture and people. I don’t mean to say that people of other cultures can’t possess Han. A western analogy would be the sadness and longing found in Chekhov’s plays. At its core, the play is about a family and reflecting on what this family’s particular family story is and how inextricably linked it is to the culture upon whose bedrock the family’s roots lay. Everybody comes from some place and has a family story.
LAFPI: We’re looking forward to seeing both sides of the coin of this dynamic show: the funny and the tragic. Jennifer, how does this show find that balance and how do you design that into the show?
Jennifer: It’s really about honoring the text and mining the emotional wells that exist because of the circumstances that the characters find themselves in. And hopefully the audience can recognize those moments and respond. Laughter and tears are universal and unconscious and bubble up because of a recognition. The company of actors and I are working on the text with an eye and ear on the specificity of the rhythm of the play and essentially choreographing to the music of that language.
LAFPI: East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?
Jiehae: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago… In the time since, I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was. And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee [who is in the production’s cast] that Howard Ho (Hannah‘s Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.
Jennifer: I think it’s really smart theatre-making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color. A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.
LAFPI: And what do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
Jennifer: Garlic in their pockets.
“Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” opens August 17 at The Fountain Theatre, produced in association with East West Players. Visit www.FountainTheatre.com for reservations and more information.