Interview with Eugenie Chan

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Eugenie Chan is an award-winning playwright based in San Francisco.  She is a resident playwright at New Dramatists and playwright emerita at the Cutting Ball Theater. Her work has been produced locally and regionally at theaters such as: Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Ma-Yi, Centenary Stage, Pan Asian Rep, Perishable Theatre, Cutting Ball Theater, East West Players, Asian American Theatre Company, San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the Houston Grand Opera.  She has received commissions from HGOco, the Magic/Sloan Science Initiative, Cutting Ball, and the San Francisco Foundation.  She teaches at Playwrights Foundation and University of San Francisco. 

WWSF: What is the path that brought you to working in theater?

Eugenie Chan: I will attribute it to a couple of things. One, there’s some kind of hidden love in my family for the theater. I learned recently that my great grandmother, who was a brothel madam, was a big patron and possibly a share-holder of a Chinatown opera house in the 1920’s. Her youngest son, my great uncle, was a clarinetist in Vaudeville. His daughter-in-law, my great aunt, was the first Asian-American agent in Hollywood, and also the first Asian to represent Asian-American actors in Hollywood.

My parents also had a hidden connection to theater.  When I was born in the early 1960’s, they left San Francisco and bought their first house in the suburbs becauase they wanted the American Dream. They both grew up in Chinatown; but they bought their first house in San Mateo, at a time when basically everyone there was white – maybe there was one African-American family, but I don’t think there were any Chinese families there yet. I think when they bought their house the Civil Rights Act hadn’t yet been passed. So homes and developments in the Sunset and other parts of San Francisco were not sold to Chinese, and the San Mateo development was the first that would sell to Chinese, so that’s were they bought. One of the first things they did when they moved to San Mateo – my father is an accountant, an economical kind of guy – was invest in a local community theater. They had season tickets to this theater, which I didn’t know until recently.

WWSF: So theater’s in your blood.

EC: Exactly. It’s the hidden love. I was in middle and high school around the time when California was ranked number 1 in the nation for public schools, which meant we had a lot of enrichment programs. One of them was that we could go to the theater. So we went to ACT and some other theaters – we could go see a play for a dollar so we went for the whole season. As an eleven-year-old, I saw Bill Ball’s version of The Taming of the Shrew, which made me fall in love with theater. We also saw The House of Bernarda Alba with Joy Carlin playing the youngest daughter. You know the last scene, where the youngest daughter dies by hanging? We were in the sixth grade, and that shocked the hell out of us, even though we were prepared with the study guide.  So we got to see a lot of plays, which was great.

WWSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you?

EC: Maria Irene Fornes.  I love her writing. I love Mud and Fefu and her Friends. She was my first play-writing teacher. She is an amazing organic teacher, who is all about growth versus getting things right.  She’s all about visualization, and she would lead us on exercises, quite like Yoga exercises, to help us learn our lines. She was great, as an artist and a teacher.

I was in college, I think, when David Henry Hwang.  wrote FOB. That was seminal for me, because I saw that that you could be Chinese-American or Asian-American and have a voice on the stage. He’s a brilliant craftsman, such a great comedian and comic writer.

I also love the work of Ariane Mnouchkine of Le Théâtre du Soleil, and I was fortunate enough to do an internship with her. I got to witness a theater visionary, someone who actually does things that the rest of us don’t, which is directing by putting together improv prompts for an ensemble. That was an amazing experience. She is very demanding, not an easy person to study with, because for her theater is about 120% devotion, beyond commitment. So if there’s a bit of wavering, she can sense that. But I think her work is really influential. She rigorously explores a piece, a play or an idea in a serious, disciplined way. There is no laziness involved. The devotion in her work has to do with the mixing of the pigments for your makeup and putting on layers and layers of costume to get the heaviness that will influence the way you walk. It’s the way you play with a stage curtain to create an entrance for a horseman, “you must honor and create a space for the horseman, it’s not just a curtain, you fool!” It also has to do with the ethos of their company. They make the meal for themselves and their audience members. They serve you as you serve them.

WWSF: Describe your process as a playwright.

EC: I think it comes from two main sources, in terms of setting pen to page or setting up something for an improv. The first is, if I have a strong visual image of something, an image that comes from not necessarily writing or doodling, but really lying down and closing my eyes, and trying to be quiet and not do things. After I’ve finally calmed down and listened to myself, I get lost in my mind’s eye.  Once I have this visual, then I can write it down.

Other work starts from a question, a really strong question. The play that you and I worked on together many years ago, Kitchen Table, that came from wanting to know what it is like to be the number 1, most beloved, most precious son in a Chinese family. I have a sister and a brother myself, and a slew of cousins – and basically I saw in my family that the boys were always privileged over the girls. There was a lot of envy, jealousy, and animosity about that. So I flipped it, and asked what is it like to be that privileged person? That’s where that play came from.

My latest play, Madame Ho, came from wanting to know what it was like to be my great grandmother, who was a single mom and raised he kids while being a brothel madam. In my family, this was a source of shame for so many years.  We were told to never, ever talk or ask our grandparents anything about it. I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for her. It was a shameful, bad, immoral, illegal business, but the flip side of it was, she was a person who raised a family, who had concerns about being a mother, being a wife, and wanting to survive and make sure her children had a good life.

And the very latest play, called 56 Wentworth Alley, Chinatown, which is a real place in Chinatown, asks what was it like to grow up as this woman’s son? It’s the story of my grandfather, who went to Stanford on the earnings of his mother’s prostitution business.

WWSF: It sounds like your family history is very influential.

EC: Yes, because my family history is, in a way, a microcosm of the history of California. We’ve been here ever since the Gold Rush, and so many people have taken on different roles, the illicit to the professional.  They’ve wandered: some of them have migrated to Arizona, some of them to Texas, some came here and then went back to China. What’s interesting is how my family still bears the marks of that history. I’m curious about how that plays out.

WWSF: Are there other themes that pop up in your writing?

EC: A lot of it has to do with sexuality, with power, with people working very hard not to be victimized by circumstance or history. A lot of it has to do with dealing with oppression, how to thrive in the midst of that. Many of the characters in my plays cannot totally overthrow oppression, but they try to do their best to live as they want. My plays also deal with gender, class and ethnicity; many of my plays have protagonists who are women or Chinese. In some, they’re a mix of Asians and Latinos. And these themes are often all intertwined.

WWSF: Describe a moment from your artistic life or career that you’re particularly proud of, a touchstone moment for you.

EC: I’ve been so lucky that there have been many. I love a good rehearsal room. I’ve loved working with Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers in rehearsals at Cutting Ball Theater, because in rehearsal there was no hierarchy. Everyone had a say, from designers to production assistants – it was a great, open give-and-take. I really enjoyed that.

I’ve liked my recent work because I’ve been able to work outside of my box. One of my first experiences doing this was Tontlawald, which was a devised piece at Cutting Ball. That was great because I went through a couple of different drafts of the text used for that piece, and it never came out looking like a script. This play didn’t really have a script.  What was presented onstage came after a lot of trial and error.  Talking to Paige and Rob, I realized that I wanted to come up with something more flexible than a script, a text that could be used by the performers, so that the characters could pick and choose what they wanted to say, but we would all still know what we were working with.

For the current project I’m working on, 56 Wentworth, I’m creating the script using documents from my grandfather’s time in med school. The documents are serving as dialogue, and we’re mixing improv moments with different moments from the text. We’re working with things like organic chemistry exams but used in a totally different context. For example, a three-year-old child might say lines taken from the chemistry exams during the scene of a family picnic. But when he speaks the words to his father, his father is transported to another moment in his life.

WWSF: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?

EC: Number one is getting productions. Statistically, there is much evidence that women playwrights are getting short shrift in terms of productions. Two, I think there are huge challenge for women theater artists with children. I don’t experience this particular problem because I don’t have children, but I think it’s a huge challenge for other women artists because there are questions of childcare and economics. To be a theater artist, you have to have at least two jobs. You not only need a job to survive and so that your family can thrive, but you also have to figure out how to sustain yourself as an artist, financially as well as emotionally and artistically.

I’m not saying that male theater artists don’t encounter this also, but looking at history, looking at the world as it is, caring for children really seems to be the domain of the mom. This is not only the case with heterosexual couples, but also with any parent who assumes the role of the mother. It’s so huge.

WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?

EC: That there are so many women in American theater and that they’re amazing and their work is great! The women artists I know give me incredible hope and inspiration. They are makers of beautiful theater, great parents, people and teachers. They give me hope.

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