I find this Kyoung Update hard to write and something I’ve been delaying for a few months. Perhaps it’s difficult to write because I’ve been struggling to shift gears in my work, or perhaps it’s hard to write because it’s the first time I think something’s beginning to change. Here’s the story:
After the workshop of THE DIAMOND TRADE at La Mama last summer, I looked at my upcoming premieres of WALKABOUT YEOLHA at Columbia, disOriented with Theatre C, my UNESCO residency in India, a workshop of HEARTBREAK/ INDIA in the spring, and I knew that the 2011-2012 season would be a killer and that I’d need help to get through it.
My professors Chuck Mee and Kelly Stuart, and my classmates at Columbia were more than supportive; my family and friends were always there to listen; but I checked into therapy and an amazing counselor in school decided to meet with me on a regular basis after the shrink he referred me to asked me to stop treatment with him, and see a trauma specialist I couldn’t afford.
I tried not to go bananas, but I did. I easily lost my temper in classes, quitting smoking backfired and I got hooked on the patch, the gum, and cigarettes all at the same time, and I poorly mismanaged my relationship with my ex, which sadly went down the gutter while I was in India. It wasn’t so nice to be dumped for a second time in Delhi, and it makes me wonder what happens to me while traveling that basically makes relationship and work an either/or situation in which I can’t do both.
Anyway, I realized that I’d signed up for too much and that in therapy I had to deal with the amount of time I was putting into my writing. While working on my plays, I severely neglected (avoided) all the personal issues that bubbled up in my family since I came out of the closet and my overall “go-fuck-yourself” attitude was making me feel increasingly volatile and angry; though in my mind, I was simply trying to stick to a plan and do my best in the hell-hole I buried myself into.
My internship at Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, working side by side with its former producer Caleb, helped me stay centered in the ins and outs of the multiple projects and people working with me over the course of the year. My internship was a safe haven where my colored files and task lists could be dealt with, even though theater was progressively becoming a rote and mechanical activity. Luckily, being surrounded by such prolific company, I came to terms with how much energy it actually takes to make theater happen.
Meanwhile, my therapist insisted I cut down on my workload, but there was a part of me that wouldn’t allow me to let go of anything, even though deep down, my insecurities made me feel I was half-assing everything and the exhaustion made me eventually feel suicidal, which to my relief, I recognized as a symptom of the impossible plans I had set myself to achieve and nothing to be acted upon.
By mid-March, I thought I couldn’t write another play and I was worried that the MFA burnout would be absolute. I don’t want to blame the institution for my poor choices, though, and I thank Craig Lucas, who came to one of my classes and miraculously got me writing a new play, TALA, which will be my thesis play next year.
There is some reason to my madness and when things turned really bad, I assured my therapist that the year would be awful but necessary. Despite the fact I was going loopy, I kept focused on what all the work was about. For me, it wasn’t about making money, or even breaking away into some weird theatrical success, but it was about getting as many plays onstage, so I could do the work I needed to do and see what would be left for me to complete after I finish grad school.
This became necessary after a full consideration of the big picture. Reflecting on my experiences working with Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed in Brazil, my two year internship at Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company in New York, and my chance encounter with Lee Breuer while in residence in India—more about that later—I conclude that my “growing pains” were less about my writing and more about my desires to learn how to direct and, if necessary, self-produce my own work. I want my time at Columbia to assure me that no matter what happens, my plays will no longer end up stored in a computer file, some drawer in my desk, or completely abandoned–which is what happened to my work from 2005-2009.
My need to re-focus began when I started working with the Theater of the Oppressed’s grassroots, political, theater troupes in Brazil, who gathered to improvise plays and collaboratively create sets, costumes, music, songs, and dance. Boal believed that our bodies become mechanized in modernized, industrial societies and his last book, “The Aesthetics of the Oppressed,” is a treatise on how all creative outlets can be opened up to an ensemble. Working with these artists, I realized that my own specialized skills in playwriting were completely limiting when I was asked to perform, sing, dance, or work on the design and/or technical elements of a show.
A more comprehensive understanding of the theatrical process came about by observing my collaborators do the work that I could not do, while following Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company and their work. Then again, I believe Young Jean’s writing, directorial, and producorial skills enable her to be more of an auteur and getting to know her process more intimately, I definitely feel like she’s influenced the way I consider making my own plays in the future.
Now, to pursue this creative shift, my main challenge is how to translate my vision from playwriting to a more thorough consideration of how theater is made.
This departure from my typical way of working feels scary, risky; it feels like I’m starting from scratch, trying to figure out how not to be a playwright, while using everything in my toolbox to try something new. To that effect, I’ve also decided to slow down my own process and work on a smaller scale to focus my attention on just one project this season—TALA.
With TALA, I’m determined to write a play for specific actors and build an ensemble to develop the text with a comprehensive view of what the performances, set, sounds, and lighting can be. These considerations definitely make the process slower, time-consuming, and completely reliant on my imagination and the will of the people working with me, but I am writing TALA as a way to ultimately create a blank page for all my collaborators to work on.
After a reading of TALA at the Ma-Yi Summer LABFest in July, I traveled to Johnston, Vermont to work on the play with a grant from the Vermont Studio Center. At the VSC, I found the time to read and do the research I wanted to do on Chiloé (my play’s setting), the lives of poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral (Chile’s only Nobel Laureates), and the years of Allende leading to Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. After two weeks of research, and collecting, categorizing, and archiving my research on a blog, I began work on a second draft. Inspired by the creative process of visual artists and their trials and tribulations, I learned how to view my own writing as an object separate, yet based on my subjective experience.
During the summer, I also took part of Columbia’s Arts Collaboration Lab, an interdisciplinary program created in partnership with PS122. I assisted David Levine in the development and workshop of a new performance-seminar piece called ANGRY AT THE MOVIES, while collaborating with a theater director, visual artist, and video artist on a separate project—a band called THE CHANGING FRAMES.
In a month, and after several rounds of collaborative crises, we wrote our own lyrics, recorded our own song, and conceived and created a music video that we launched in a music video release party/performance. From this experience, I realized that I repeatedly include different cultural and political perspectives into my writing, and I’m wondering whether it’s possible for me to use this skill to include non-theater artists in the creation of interdisciplinary, hybrid forms of theater.
I am currently exploring this question further with TALA under the mentorship of Lee Breuer, who has signed up to advise me on the writing and future directing of my piece as my senior thesis at Columbia. With open arms, Lee has given me several opportunities to work with him and since late this spring, I’ve sat through tech rehearsals for PETER AND WENDY at the New Victory Theater; performed and assistant directed a workshop production of LA DIVINA CARICATURA at PS122; and staged managed a workshop production of GLASS GUIGNOL at the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival in Provincetown. Our collaboration will keep on going with another project slated for production in November/December at HERE, and I’ve continuously received his feedback as I organize a workshop of TALA, later this month, and a trip back home to Chile, where I’ll be traveling to Chiloé to do some research of the island.
Lee’s mentorship could not come at a better time. When I met Lee in India, I was awed by his articulation of modern performance and I see through his work how he’s found a way to integrate both motivational and formal acting techniques to develop his own aesthetic. Moreover, researching his earlier work (ANIMATIONS, GOSPEL AT COLONUS), his influences from Japanese Bunraku puppetry, cinematic/animated filmmaking techniques, and his astounding capacity to collaborate and direct incredibly gifted artists—both on and off stage—I feel privy to his secrets on how to create multiple points of entry for an audience to experience and think about a play.
Hoping to continue the pursuit of a new vision that asks for a new language, I’m launching Pacific Beat Collective Underground, a salon series to gather artists from different disciplines to continue exploring the practice of artists outside my field, and ultimately learn how to communicate, collaborate, and enrich my own work by understanding the work of others.
At the same time, the result of all this workaholic-hell is that I’ve created for myself a sabbatical year, where I’m fortunate enough to be a full-time artist working with Lee while developing my own show. This time has become a crucial time for me to deal with my own personal issues as well. I’m now in the hands of a great therapist who’s helping me deal with all the childhood trauma issues I couldn’t deal with last year.
I also joined the Steering Committee of GAPIMNY this summer to do some volunteer work in the city. GAPIMNY is a queer, Asian, advocacy organization founded in 1990 and it supports a growing community of Asian gays and lesbians in New York. The organization has become a really important part of my life since this summer and it’s been a helpful way for me to give back for all the support I’ve received this far. When in doubt, I guess it’s still best to give.