UCSD Grad Student and Up-And-Coming Playwright Lauren Yee Talks About Her Delightfully Strange Works As Two of Her Plays Hit San Diego This April
By Donnie Matsuda
Lauren Yee seems to elude reality in every facet of her young but prolific life as a playwright.
First, her fanciful imagination naturally concocts quirky characters that are not grounded in reality – a talking wall, a traveling hat, for instance – and manages to mine both the humor and heart in the most unexpected of situations. Second, this fresh-faced twenty-something (who is in her third and final year of UCSD’s MFA playwriting program) defies her youthful looks by having produced a plethora of critically acclaimed plays, all of which speak to the fierce talent and unique gift for narrative-based writing that lies beneath her unpretentious exterior. And third, this talented playwright has achieved so many accolades in her young career, it is almost unreal. Among the many honors that have been bestowed on Yee: a Dramatists Guild fellowship, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, a finalist for the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, the Heideman Award, the Jerome Fellowship, the PEN USA Literary Award for Drama, the PONY Fellowship, the Wasserstein Prize, and writing fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Byrdcliffe Artist Colony, the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the El Gouna Writers’ Residency, and the Mills Cultural Center.
Yee’s first full-length play, Ching Chong Chinaman was a finalist for the 2008 Princess Grace Award and the winner of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s 2010 Paula Vogel Award and Kumu Kahua Theatre’s 2007 Pacific Rim Prize. Named one of the top 10 plays of the year by both the East Bay Express and City Pages, Ching Chong Chinaman has been produced on stages all across America, including Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, Minneapolis’ Mu Performing Arts, and New York’s International Fringe Festival.
Since writing this seminal masterwork, Yee has churned out nearly a dozen new plays (both short and full-length) and is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. Her latest full-length play, A Man, his Wife, and his Hat was developed at PlayPenn and UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival in 2011 and is returning to San Diego for a full-fledged, professional staging at Moxie Theatre this April. At the same time, her thesis project Hookman (described as “an existential slasher comedy”) is set to premiere as part of UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival in 2012.
Amid the craziness of writing new plays, mentoring productions of her current plays, and preparing for her MFA graduation this June, Yee took time to answer some questions about her aspirations as a playwright, her educational journey, and her penchant for making the unfunny funny.
DONNIE: Tell me about your childhood…where did you grow up? And what fueled your interest in playwriting?
LAUREN: I was someone who always wanted to be a writer. It was not until high school that I stumbled into playwriting. I love dialogue. I love how language hits the ear. And I think it was this love of hearing words out loud that pushed me into theater in particular.
I grew up in San Francisco and while my parents weren't artists, they've been always very practically supportive of what I do. They were the ones building sets, putting up posters, and ferrying things back and forth for my shows. I owe them a lot.
DONNIE: What did you study while at Yale University?
LAUREN: I was an English and Theater Studies double major! The Theater Studies ended up being much more helpful than the English, surprisingly.
DONNIE: What made you decide to come to UCSD for your MFA?
LAUREN: UCSD's MFA playwriting program is easily one of the best in the nation. Visiting UCSD as a prospective convinced me that this was the only program I really wanted to go go. Naomi Iizuka is now in her fifth year as chair of the program, and she's someone who's really helped to push my writing in new directions and of course correct me when my writing goes off the rails. And I love my colleagues here. The Baldwin Festival is also a huge asset for the playwriting department and the school in general. You get the chance to see your work, attend rehearsals, and form really close relationships with the artistic teams. That doesn't always happen in the real world.
DONNIE: Out of all your plays (both short and full-length), which are you most proud of and why?
LAUREN: I would say I'm pretty darned proud of A MAN, HIS WIFE, AND HIS HAT. It's a sneaky play that is (hopefully) both funny and heartbreaking. Also, I think that it allows for unmitigated theatricality and explores some really emotionally resonant metaphors. Also, it was amazingly fun to write and hear the characters' voices.
My first full-length play CHING CHONG CHINAMAN has been my most successful play. I wrote it at a time when I didn't realize how hard playwriting is, and it's really interesting to see how my writing has changed since then.
[More about “Ching Chong Chinaman”: The ultra-assimilated Wong family is as Chinese-American as apple pie: teenager Upton dreams of World of Warcraft superstardom; his sister Desi dreams of early admission to Princeton. Unfortunately, Upton’s chores and homework get in the way of his 24/7 videogaming, and Desi’s math grades don’t fit the Asian-American stereotype. Then Upton comes up with a novel solution for both problems: he acquires a Chinese indentured servant, who harbors an American dream of his own.]
DONNIE: How did you come up with the concept for “A Man, his Wife, and his Hat”?
LAUREN: I wrote the play in Egypt, almost two years ago. I was there at a writers retreat on the Red Sea, staying at a German golf resort as part of the residency. I was surrounded by foreign accents, and the TV in my room only received two English language channels: CNN and the History Channel. I also had always thought that the title of Oliver Sacks's book THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT would make a great jumping off point for a play. And it did.
[More about “A Man, his Wife, and his Hat”: Hetchman loves his hat. Oh, and his wife, too. But when both go missing, the retired hatmaker vows to stop at nothing to find them, if he can ever muster the strength to leave the comforts of his armchair. But the arrival of a talking wall and a hungry golem threatens to derail his endeavor. A klezmer-inspired love triangle between a man, his wife, and his hat.]
DONNIE: What excites you most about this San Diego staging of “A Man, his Wife, and his Hat”?
LAUREN: This play does a little bit of the impossible. People float. Creatures climb out of pits. Walls shake and move. What will be fun for me with this production is seeing older actors in the main roles. In my UCSD workshop of the show, we used MFA actors, who--while extremely talented--were not exactly old.
Photos of "A Man, his Wife, and his Hat" from Moxie Theatre's 2012 production. Photos by Daren Scott.
DONNIE: Your work has been described as “delightfully strange” and “a little absurd.” How would you describe your own body of work?
LAUREN: I think my interest lies in expanding what theater can be. I'm drawn to different slants on a certain topic. I also think that all my plays contain some desire to make the seemingly serious and unfunny funny.
DONNIE: What upcoming projects/readings are you most excited about?
LAUREN: Definitely excited about Moxie's upcoming production. But I'm also thrilled to have two workshop productions of my new play HOOKMAN running or soon to open--one at Company One in Boston and one at UCSD.
[More about “Hookman”: Freshman year at college is hard when your roommate is weird, you’re feeling homesick, and a hook-handed serial killer is slashing girls’ throats. But if Lexi can discover what really happened to her high school best friend on that car ride to the movies, everything will be okay. In this existential slasher comedy, Lexi and her friends learn what it means to grow up – and it’s not pretty.]
A Man, his Wife, and his Hat opens tonight, April 7 at 8pm at Moxie Theatre located at 6663 El Cajon Blvd, Ste. N in San Diego. The play runs through April 29. Tickets are $25-27 with discounts available for seniors, students, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 858-598-7620 or visit www.moxietheatre.com.
Hookman opens April 19 at 8pm at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre in the UCSD Theatre District/La Jolla Playhouse. It is part of UCSD’s 2012 Baldwin New Plays Festival (and Lauren’s MFA thesis!) and will run through April 28. Tickets are $20 with discounts available for UCSD students/alumni/affiliates. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 858-534-4574 or visit http://theatre.ucsd.edu/season/Baldwin/index.html.
And to learn more about fascinating playwright Lauren Yee, visit her website at: http://laurenyee.com/