Great Again* Conversation between two distressed/ hopeful playwrights
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!
CHIORI MIYAGAWA: One thing I am grateful about is you and I are talking, even if most of what we talk about is terrible news. We started talking before the 2016 elections and we virtually held hands while we wrote our respective plays in a state of disbelief—your Test and my In the Line.
CRYSTAL SKILLMAN: At points it feels like fiction is all we have, with how harsh reality is right now. I really think through writing them, not only are we trying to get through this, but we’re so aware the plays are creating a space for our potential audience to go through it. But also, as playwrights working in tandem, your hand in mine was incredibly helpful.
CHIORI: I appreciate your friendship enormously. My faith in fiction fluctuates though. But right now, I feel mostly crazy getting yet another bad news - defunding the NEA. There hasn’t been enough funding of the arts for decades anyway, but declaring what we make completely worthless is a powerful message in this capitalist society. I don’t dare compare our situation to other countries in which writers are imprisoned, but I now think such a scenario is possible in the US. I am realizing acts and words that used to be considered unfathomable are mere possibilities today. I wasn’t planning to write a new play until Michole approached me, and I don’t think I could have written it without knowing that you were writing one simultaneously. I’m still a playwright because of you and Michole.
CRYSTAL: It’s amazing Project Y Theater matched us, and the terrible outcome of the elections brought us closer. While we are such different writers, we’ve always been doing political work. Though mine has been veiled a bit in genres of comics, film, punk rock, etc.
CHIORI: I’ve felt that who I am - an immigrant, woman, Asian - made what I write political.
CRYSTAL: But now, we’re coming at it in a whole new way, or that’s how I’m feeling. It’s not only art we’re proud of, but there is such energy in these plays and this project. We’re fueled for this, really fired up.
CHIORI: I admire your energy. I still wake up with some degree of dread every morning. It feels like I’m standing in line holding my breath for the first female president to come on stage only to find out the play doesn’t exist.
CRYSTAL: What I love about your piece, Chiori, is how you actually address our feelings about waiting in line, and our sense of loss and grief in such an energetic, funny, and theatrical way. I love the style of it.
CHIORI: I appreciate the unpredictable actions of the characters in your play. The initial event that propels the play conjures certain expectations in the audience. But the characters keep surprising us. It shows the complex nature of people in emotional crisis.
CRYSTAL: Test came to me in such a strange, interesting way. I knew Ada, a high school teacher, would be the center of the piece. She finds a swastika drawn into one of the student desks. She tutors two students separately, and they both think the other did it for different reasons. The discovery of who it is drives the play. I knew the play would be structured for Ada to address the audience as students, but also the scenes would never show the two students together. The structure and idea came fast. I then had the chance to explore the character of Ada when I was asked to write for Primary Stages’ Morning in America, which happened at the Cherry Lane in February.
CHIORI: That sounds very productive. It took me months to wade through rage and misery and walk toward making an effort for recovery. In the Line is a magical world, but the core of the narrative is about this journey. I remember standing in line to vote in the morning of November 8th and feeling confident. I then went to speak to the NYU students in Kristin Horton’s class about Antigone Project – a project by five female playwrights that I conceived as we were approaching Bush’s second-term election. That day, I was arrogant about the roles that women and people of color would play in the near future. In the same evening, everything I said to Kristin’s students was disproved.
CRYSTAL: Days after, swastikas appeared in a park right by me where I go every day. That we woke up and felt the hate people had been holding inside spilling out changed all of us, I think, forever. The first morning I was walking and two men screamed at me from a van, “Hillary lost bitch.” I teach college and as a guest artist at several high schools with Theater Development Fund. I see the school system every day as an outsider. I see how teachers have to navigate the system. What drives the play, beyond the huge stakes of a hate symbol appearing before children, is Ada’s devotion to fairness. She is thoughtful. I believe our culture demands quick judgments. We want to be right all the time. We want assurances. We want lies to be honest. We fall for quick fixes, and that’s on both sides of the political climate. We seek honesty, but are quick to blame before we step up. It’s a culture of constant criticism.
CHIORI: I probably agree with all that you said, but would go a step further. I got confirmations on two human tendencies: our memories lie to us and it’s easy for us to lie to ourselves. These two conditions create an untrustworthy society. This isn’t a new thought. But a safety mechanism that occasionally saved us got removed, resulting in increased incidents like what you experienced with men screaming at you. I’m mortified by eons of lies that make the world, so I jammed random verifiable facts in my play. I’m currently teaching a course titled “Writing Plays based on Facts and Data.” Some of the strange facts in the play were presented to me by my students.
CRYSTAL: I love that! So, something we haven’t chatted about is that these two plays were written in like…two months!
CHIORI: But in reality, we’ve thought about nothing else for a long time.
CRYSTAL: And they are so rich and exciting. Chiori, your play In the Line has a visceral, poetic quality that is mesmerizing. Looking for an unidentifiable item we lost in line is exactly how we’re all feeling. We have all lost something precious and are now looking for how to go on from here.
CHIORI: The image of a woman standing in line was all I had for a long time. In your play, Test, the crisis is immediate and feels very authentic. I like the reveal that comes, which is completely unexpected. It makes me ask: “who is really the enemy?” Caridad posed a question to us about how progressive cultural change could be made through art in these increasingly volatile times around the world. What are your thoughts?
CRYSTAL: I think we’re creating stories that make people talk, think, and I hope act. In Test, Ada seeks a place for these students to grow, and feel safe, but these things are at odds with her temperance. But it is her temperance that makes her such a good teacher. She teaches not for herself, but for them. But in her self-sacrificing we see how she is selfish in her private life - she has trouble with those who are “weak.” We witness her tracking her mother’s progress in a home. Ada is us, with the best intentions, succeeding and failing at the same time. I think this is what activism is. There is no universal win. It is steady work. It is plowing a path.
CHIORI: Our plays are very different, but both create a shocking circumstance at the beginning, yet neither play resolves it neatly at the end. We are facing an era of people creating fake answers to serious problems. My way of addressing this scary notion is not to have all the answers in my play. To be honest, I’m sick of people who have bullshit answers.
CRYSTAL: Right on. What makes the shared bill work so well is how our humor has played into exploring the darkness of these works. I mean these plays are funny!
CHIORI: In part. And in part heartbreaking. I find your play has a more poignant ending, while my play ends with an unidentified hope. But in life, I think you’re the optimistic writer and I’m the more cynical one.
CRYSTAL: All this from two writers who grew up in a horrible, complicated, visually beautiful place called Upstate…I still can’t believe we came from the same town, but only just met!
CHIORI: I know! I was doing what’s called “home stay” during my high school years with families in houses surrounded by huge manicured lawns. IBM was still based in Upstate.
CRYSTAL: A defining part of my life there was around age twelve. I refused to ride the bus. I was being made fun of, so I considered it a moving prison. I told my mom I wasn’t going to school anymore because I was never getting on the bus again.
CHIORI: I can see school bus as a moving prison. For me, nothing hurt more than riding those yellow buses. I was the only Asian student in a class of six hundred. No one talked to me. No one ever sat next to me. The severe loneliness of being a complete outsider I experienced then probably later made me a playwright. This will sound like a non-sequitur, but - comics?
CHIORI: When I was a child in Japan, my singular inspiration was graphic novels for girls and women. They were epic, historical, and beautifully drawn. My favorite character was a transgender captain of the French Loyal Guard at the time of revolution. They join the common people in the end and betray Marie Antoinette!
CRYSTAL: I’ve been in the comic book culture for some time with my hubby writing comics, and many of my plays, Geek and King Kirby with Fred, explore that world. The TV show we have now focuses on comic book creators through the decades, following a fictional family rise in that industry. This year I finally wrote my first comic! For me, the beats in plays and comics work very similarly. The theatricality of what keeps you in your seat, and turns the page, are the same. I love writing for both.
CHIORI: We are so different, but made of similar parts. DNA-wise, we are nearly identical. It’s helpful for me to remember this in divisive times.
CRYSTAL: It’s been really cool to get to know each other through this project.
CHIORI: You help me keep writing while the government tries to kill intelligent thoughts, kill dignity, kill the environment, kill the refugees, kill poor people, seniors, immigrants, women, and kill the culture.
CRYSTAL: That’s why our plays focus on how we can live. That’s important. Today, I’m celebrating. It’s my birthday.
CHIORI: What!? April 2nd is your birthday?
CHIORI: It’s MY birthday, too!
*Great Again, an evening of theater in two parts - Test by Crystal Skillman and In the Line by Chiori Miyagawa - will perform at the new ART/N.Y. Theater in June 2017, directed by Jessi D. Hill and Kristin Horton. Both one-act plays are commissioned by Project Y Theater (Co-Artistic Directors: Michole Biancosino & Andrew Smith) and developed at The Lark.