Monday, July 15, 2013

"a cautionary tale" part II: Interview with Playwright Christopher Oscar Peña

"Research, when it comes to being a playwright, most importantly means living"
-Christopher Oscar Peña

What was the inspiration for a cautionary tail?

The play started as a commission for NYU Grad Acting.  The class I was working with had more Asian actors than ever in the history of the program, and Mark Wing-Davey really wanted them to have strong roles. So he gave me Amy Chua's book "Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom" and using that as a starting point, the creative team, the actors and I went into a week long workshop where we essentially did research and brought in life experiences that I then used to create the play. At the time, an actor and I were obsessed with Alexander McqQueen so we went on a field trip to his store, which influenced design choices for the tiger mom and the traveling salesman. We took Tai Chi as a group, which is a whole scene in the play.  We spent a lot of time in Columbus Park. All this, combined with the actors personal stories, and interviews of people we met, all became ingredients for this play. 

After that week, I went away for a month and came back with a draft of what you see now.  The workshop we ended up doing was for eight actors and it really worked.  But I always knew that as a young, not famous, playwright, getting a show of this size and scope done would be nearly impossible. The only place that could do it would be The Flea, so I thought of them and their wonderful ensemble as I wrote. And when Ben Kamine and I got together and gave it to them, we saw this amazing opportunity to open up the play further, to really create New York as we see it. So we asked for more actors, twenty of them, and they said yes. It´s an incredible and rare gift to be able to create a play that I think represents America, as far as I see it.

What was its development?

The play was originally developed through a week long "creation" workshop, modeled around the joint-stock methodology. After that I went away and wrote, and then we did a workshop production at NYU Grad Acting. After doing some rewrites on that, I brought it to The Flea, where we had another reading, did some more rewrites, and then committed to production. The Flea has really been behind this play, and they understand that it has certain needs. For instance, there are a few intricate movement/dance sequences. And the majority of the cast weren´t seasoned movers/dancers, so we asked for more time to workshop the play for the actors to get into their bodies, and for our magical Movement Director Laura Brandel to get to play with them. Instead of more workshop time, The Flea just expanded our rehearsal process to a full eight weeks. EIGHT WEEKS!! When will that ever happen to me again? 

So we got to play with the movement part of the time, the creation of this big magical world, and in the process I decided to rewrite the play, to clarify the action, and to make it as specific to the actor and the world we were creating in rehearsal as possible. The actors were invaluable, giving so much of their time and energy. And because the play is so big, not only in action and length, but also in the themes that we were trying to unpack, having the actors there was such a beautiful gift. For the first week we all talked about how the play resonated with each of us, what questions we had, what differences and commonalities our histories shared, and this continued to feed the life of the play. 

How did you and Benjamin work together? (in the rehearsal room, before, after etc)?

I am at the point now where I have worked with enough directors where you sort of immediately know if a match is good or not. Ben and I had an amazing connection immediately. He works similarly to me, which is to say that he never stops working, that he's always on and he devours everything. He reads everything. He meets everyone. So when we met, we instantly understood each other´s language. And not just the language of the play, but real life language. When we were casting, we saw over a hundred actors and we both went away and made our dream lists from the principals to the ensemble. We had the same twenty names. I think that says it all. 

Also, I think as a young director, or as young artist in general, people are constantly trying to show off, to show you that they´re good. Ben wasn´t interested in that. His goal has always been to get into my head and to tell my story. To make sure he was paying attention to every stage direction, that every visual or emotional moment came to life. He constantly asked me questions making sure he was going down the right path. It was incredible to be in a room and to feel trusted. And because Ben trusted me so completely, it made everyone else trust me as well. It´s incredibly important to have the ship´s captain say this is our destination, this is what the map that has been laid out for us is, and everyone in this room is going to make sure we all get there safely. There might be some bumps, but we're all in this together. And believe me, with a show of this scope, and a cast and creative team this large, there were definitely some bumps, but everyone took care of each other so it felt like a place where we could take risks and feel safe. 

What is your writing schedule like?

Some writers write every morning, or every day. I don´t tend to do that. I am of the Wendy Wasserstein mind. Going to the movies is research. Walking down Central Park and seeing cute boys in tank tops is research. Going to the Museum of Modern Art is research. Having dinner with my best friends is research. Because research, when it comes to being a playwright, most importantly means living. It means experiencing and engaging with the world. So I spend a lot of time doing just that, all the while collecting stories, moments, feelings, questions that slowly accumulate into a little mental journal. When enough time has passed, I will come up with an idea, and that idea continues to build. Then, when I´m ready to write, I write. And over the last year and a half, three of the plays I´ve written, I´ve written in four to six days. When the writing comes, it comes. And the writing process, for me, becomes about distilling the ideas I´ve built in my head. I usually have a slight blue print.  Maybe the first line of the play and the final image. When I sit down and write, I have the beginning and an end point, but how I get there, is always a surprise. But because I don´t write every day, when I do, it becomes urgent and comes pouring out of me. I´ve been really lucky to have places like The Lark Play Development Center, which really exist for the writer, and have different programs to cater to as many different writing styles as possible. 

For the emerging writers out there - what advice can you give about balancing the artistic and business sides of being a playwright?

I think most people think that being an artist is enough. That just being a good actor or a good playwright will make a career happen. I think it´s an incredibly idealistic and naive way to work. The fact is, the country is filled with talented artists. I DO believe it´s important to do your work, and to make sure your work is good, but there is so much more than that. And that´s the business of playwriting. I think you have to know every single thing that´s out there. Go see every play The Rattlestick is doing. Go see who are the writers working on #serials at The Flea. Go to drinks with people after and meet your generations up and coming actors and directors. A lot of people say they can´t afford to go see a show at Lincoln Center and one at second stage every night. Fine, than go see readings. Most of those are free and if you develop a network of artists, whose work you believe in, you´ll start being invited to these things. 

That´s the other part of the puzzle. Artists whose work you believe in. Many people think networking is a dirty word, and there is a sleazy feeling to it. I think that´s true. And I think most people can see through that. So don´t spend your time with people to get to a goal which is a job or an opportunity. 

Your goal, if you really want to be in this business, should be to build a community and a tribe that you believe in. Then it becomes about building a community, which is the most important thing. Also, nothing irritates me more than people who say they love theater and want to do it, and then you ask them have you read this playwright, or know this actors work, or did you see this director´s piece at The Ontological, and they have no ideas what you´re talking about. That makes me feel like they´re narcissistic, not interested in other peoples work, or lazy. It also makes me feel like they´re being insincere. If you do love this, if you do believe in this, than shouldn't you KNOW what this is? You should be like a sponge. Absorb everything. Take ten minutes out of your day to see what Berkeley Rep is producing this season. Who are the artists that The Goodman is commissioning this season. Know who works where and what they are interested in. It´ll better help you navigate the world, and figure out where YOU fit in.

How did you come to the theater and being a playwright?

When I was in high school, like everyone, I wanted to be an actor. I was cast my freshman year in a Japan set Romeo and Juliet. For those who don't know, I really don´t like Shakespeare. I was cast as Paris. I think I was typecast. Back then I thought I was amazing and the actors playing Romeo and Juliet were gods. It was high school. I´m sure it was terrible and unwatchable, but we'll never know. Thank god YouTube and Facebook didn´t exist back then.

I went to college at UC Santa Barbara and thought I would be an actor. But then I realized I was pretty terrible. I got insecure on stage and wasn´t really interested in the training. So I was going to leave the theater and be a sociologist (which I think is part of story telling actually) or a lawyer. Thankfully, Naomi Iizuka, the person I think of as my artistic mother, pulled me aside and said you´re a playwright. You´re a storyteller. I enrolled in her class that quarter and the rest is history. I've never looked back. If we're lucky, there are magical people that pop up in our lives and believe in us, or nudge us in the right direction. Naomi was that person for me. But also, hilariously, my father recently told me, that when I was a child, the first thing I ever told him I wanted to be was a writer. I don´t remember that, but I'm going to make it  a part of my origin story.

Salty or sweet?

Salty. I mean I´ll take some sweet (momofuku milk bar is my everything) but I´d much rather have a salty or savory treat in my life. As I say this, I realize that I´ve just discovered the metaphor to my messed up dating life. 

What's next?

I am currently playwright in residence at The Goodman Theater through a wonderful program called The Playwrights Unit, curated by the unbelievably generous and intelligent Tanya Palmer. Alongside Ike Holter, Alice Austen, and Greg Allen, we've been working on new plays that the theater commissioned. The play I´m working on for them, Awe/Struck will be read on July 21st, under the direction of Henry Godinez. It´s been an incredible experience.  The Goodman has been so supportive of us, and the Chicago community has been incredible to get to know. There are a lot of wonderful artists working there and I think it´s a really great place to be a young artist. Other than that, I´m going to start focusing on my tv career. Working on a few pilots. And a play of mine is being optioned into a movie.... more details TBA in the fall. Stay tuned!

Anything you'd like to add?

Geoffrey Jackson Scott, who was the literary associate for many years at New York Theatre Workshop, and is now the director of new play development at Victory Gardens in Chicago, once asked me if I was a playwright, or a writer. This opened my mind up to a whole new way of thinking. I decided I was a writer and have pursued many other endeavors I hadn't planned on. These opportunities lead to more opportunities, and it´s been a lot of those jobs, which I never planned on saying yes to, that have gone to be the most successful, and have actually brought more attention to my playwriting.

Also, I want to give a huge shout out to some places that have been really supportive of me. As an artist, all you want is for someone to give you an artistic home, a place that gives you space to work, and to create, and that says we believe in you. For this and more, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to The Lark Play Development Center and The Goodman. And especially to Jim Simpson, Carol Ostrow, Beth Dembrow and the rest of the staff of The Flea, for being the first theater to say yes, and to give me my first production. 

The world premiere of "a cautionary tale" is playing at The Flea, extended to July 23rd. Click here to buy tickets.

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