From New York to LA: A Cross Coastal Conversation
Ever wondered if you're writing in the right place? Los Angeles based Carla Ching and New York based Rehana Lew Mirza discuss how their respective cities have influenced their lives and careers.
REHANA LEW MIRZA: I remember you saying you were going to move and it was right after the production of The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness at Ma-Yi. Did you have a specific plan or idea for going from West Village to West Coast?
CARLA CHING: Well, the guy I was seeing at the time moved out for pilot season and decided to stay. We were just getting started so it was upsetting to have something die before it even began. So I started to think about the move. I also did some initial meetings on the TV front through my manager Henry and saw that people were excited to meet and read you -- again, it felt very different than theater. In theater, I sat on a literary manager’s pile for years at a time. And getting someone to meet with me? Forget about it. So I thought, “Oh. A place where people want to meet and work with you. How novel.”
My plan was terrible. I put my stuff in storage. (And oh, god, thank you Rehana for helping me move out of my shack.) I moved out with literally $800 in the bank. And a tiny bit of money on the way for an EST/Sloan commission. I had to get a job immediately. I secretaried for a year as I tried to take other meetings when I could, on “sick days.” Got my first job, which was scary but great because I had to learn everything from scratch. My generous fellow-writers taught me everything, about boarding story, pitching, writing a script. And I had no one to ask at the time how to be in a room, what the culture was, how to act, so I had to learn on the fly.
RLM: How do you feel like your work has shifted or grown with the move?
CC: I think the move has been helpful because I have simply had to write a lot more. TV or playwriting, writing is writing, right? And there’s that whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing. Whether you believe in it or not, I’ve accrued thousands and thousands more hours in writing time since that move. And it’s been nice to feel some muscles growing. I think TV has helped me understand narrative and arc much better. And has given me more of a visual story sense -- something I’m still working on. So when I say, rewrote The Kids That Blow Shit Up or Nomad Motel, the first which I started before being here, and the second which I started shortly after getting here, I think I can see where the hours put in have helped me see things I couldn’t see before. Solve problems I couldn’t solve before. Or maybe it’s just getting older.
Are you contemplating a move at all?
RLM: I'm willing to go anywhere that will allow me to write, while also helping me to feed my child... But in terms of actually moving, that's a harder question. Mike was speaking with a successful playwright, in an effort to imagine our lives as one, and that playwright said he spent maybe five days at home in New York in the course of a year. The rest was spent hopping from theater to theater regionally. As is, we spent 20 some odd weeks last year towing the baby around to various theater opportunities (workshops, residencies, readings, productions), so the idea of just carving out 20 weeks of time in LA to be in a writers room doesn't feel impossible, rather than moving and spending 365 days there. Basically we are a circus vagabond family with roots in New York (my family) and California (Mike's family). And it's probably going to stay that way... Especially with the HBO program which has the group meeting in LA and my mentor in NYC. It's perfect for me!
CC: Are you excited to spend some time here with HBO?
RLM: I'm excited but nervous too because I literally know nothing. Any tips? You kind of saved my ass before the final interview where I was supposed to pitch three ideas. I literally thought a pitch was one sentence, “Here’s my great idea!” When you called me and said there’s a pitch document and it’s literally 20 minutes of memorized material where if possible you do it one breath so they don’t derail you with interruptions, I was like, ohhhh shiiiit.
CC: Can you talk a little bit about the HBO program and the show you’re going to develop when you’re here? And who’s your mentor?
RLM: So I just finished up a week of master classes slash boot camp in LA with HBO, and it was really exciting to be there and working on our ideas. We had a ton of great folks come in and talk about their career paths and writing and it was just a whole other way of looking at storytelling. So much of play analysis/dramaturgy is about how do these characters change? And within a TV series, it's like, how do these characters not change? Plus you add pitching to the mix... which is this whole other art form - one that I personally find excruciating (hence my SOS to you!) It's just incredibly awkward to talk about myself and my work. So the HBO week, for me at least, became about relentlessly beating that out. We also talked about characters and allowing them to generate stories endlessly - and that part felt comfortable to me. But ooooh that pitching. We worked on pitching ideas to each other - whether it be about ourselves, our lives, story beats, or series ideas - and poked at the parts that felt weak. Definitely a huge learning experience. Now we go off and figure out what we're gonna write about under the guidance of a mentor. Mine is Aaron Spina who is in NY, since I'm in NY too. He's amazing and his philosophy is to guide, but not to get too up in there. (My words not his.)
It seems like you’re finding a great balance between theater-making and TV writing and theater advocacy through the Kilroys. How are you doing all that?
CC: I’m trying. It was tricky at first because my early TV writing was making my plays bad and my playwriting was making my TV writing bad. I’ve figured out a way to split my brain now a bit more, so that I can get in the rhythms of each world a bit more a bit faster. The Kilroys I do because I have to because this theater world is still so screwed up and is so slow to change. Each of the 13 of us is actually stupid busy, so we take turns on different actions. Whoever is around and can sort of afford the time jumps in.
I also find that doing both TV and playwriting has helped me to be healthier about each. Not all my eggs are in one basket. If one thing is slow, I can focus on the other. And there are things about each that are both wonderful and frustrating. For instance, on TV, I’m still in service of my showrunner’s vision. With a play, I’m given more liberty because it’s my vision. But then, the years it takes to get a play made frustrates me. And the pay. And both of those things are different in TV. I think I’ve learned even better collaboration through being in a writer’s room as well, and how to communicate my ideas or storytell verbally, which is helpful as a playwright.
You’re a playwright and you’re moving into TV and you’re in residence at Ma-Yi and to top it all off, you have a family too. How are you spinning all the plates?
RLM: Well I guess the trick is to get lots and lots of plates so when you break a few you still have something to eat with?
I got the jokes!
I guess I'm just trying to figure out how to live. And part of that is having a family to love and care for, and part of that is putting out stories that matter to me and can counteract some of the stereotypes and negativity out there in the world. And if I can merge the two while being able to be financially stable... Well. That's the balancing act, I suppose. [Mike, my fellow playwright husband and co-resident of Ma-Yi, have been talking a lot about how to combine family and artistic endeavors and how to combat sexism when it comes to that... As well as looking how to support one another to do what makes each person feel like their best self.] I'm looking more and more at playwrights who can seamlessly move back and forth between TV and theater as you mentioned, which seems to be a lot of really awesome folks lately. You mentioned compartmentalizing your brain and I think I have to do that as well, and also with my time.
Do you have any hard-won nuggets of advice of how to turn that switch? Or the #1 thing a playwright should keep in mind when writing a pilot? #1 habit you do when going back to plays after writing in a TV room?
CC: First, for the #1 thing playwrights should keep in mind for writing a pilot: they want to hear your voice. More than anything. That's what I've been told. A show runner once told me that he wants strong voices, because he knows if you can achieve voice, you'll be able to write towards the voice of their show. So, more than anything -- you be you. Also, it may be important to know that my plays have gotten me jobs. So, you can use those sometimes.
Then, for TV to Playwriting switch, I think just to stay in the voice/world of that thing. You even have to switch in TV. I went from working on a quirky half hour about female desire to an hour-long show about a mission to Mars. Literally had to switch brain, and switch voices. I like to think each play requires its own voice too. The rhythms of each make themselves apparent differently in each form, right?
Also, thinking of it visually helps. I think more of what I hear in plays, but I have to think more of what I see in a television script. And I’m still trying to improve that skill. It’s hard when you’re used to existing in one space on a stage, to consider what happens to the viewer if I’m close on a face, and then smashcut to that face in flashback 10 years earlier. Or what can a shot of a cicada landing on water do? Coming back to theater, I have to remind myself to use all the incredible theatrical tools at my disposal. What kinds of sleights of hand. Why do people have to be in the room to see it?
You’ve worked on musicals, plays and now are moving into TV. How do you find them different? What do you find enjoyable and challenging about each?
RLM: I guess I’m just a workaholic! I want to do it all! With musicals, it’s so wonderful to have some of the emotional heavy lifting be done by songs. But it’s also the sword that cuts the other way too - no one feels the dialogue because song does it much better. So with musicals, it’s been interesting to try and be sparing with words in a way that also builds into that emotional climax. Whereas with plays, at least with mine, I can be as wordy as I wanna be and the build is a long lob as opposed to every single scene. TV I’m just figuring out, so I don’t know yet what that’s going to mean in terms of adjusting my style.
So I know you as the most badass playwright there is and as someone who is involved in all the major Asian American performance groups in NYC – from Peeling to 2G to Ma-Yi. What kind of community are you finding out in LA?
CC: By the way, I feel like a journeyman more than anything else. Like, just happy to still be here and working at the craft. I think being a playwright these days is a lot about surviving and having the courage not to leave. And one of the things that makes that easier is having a community -- and yeah, the Asian American community in NY is strong.
I’m still figuring out and getting to know the AA theatrical community in LA. A bunch of NY theatrical folk have come this way. I’ve gotten to work with the wonderful Artists at Play who produced Two Kids and they were incredible. They produce fearlessly and fiercely on a small budget and I’m so in awe of them. I’m excited that Snehal is up to new things at East West. I’m still getting to know the actors and directors around this place. I will say that I miss what felt like a very close vibe in NY, where we all helped each other, rooted for each other. Actors would tell each other about auditions, writers would share opportunities. There was a sense that one of us winning was all of us winning. I miss that vibe. I get that with the handful of folks I’ve gotten to work with. But it feels a little harder to get plugged in here to me.
On the TV side, I’ve read the stuff about Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, and that great Steven Yeun interview in LA Magazine. We are due for a sea change, and I think it’s coming. But in terms of how many AA tv writers I know personally? Not a lot because generally they’re not gonna hire more than one of us at a time and put them in a room. Mike Golamco, Jon Kern, Qui Nguyen and Susan Stanton are the only folks I know here who are/were in rooms. And Qui’s moved to film. I guess I need to do some outreach and make more friends.
You’ve also been the artistic director of Desipina, a playwright, and you were co-director of the Ma-Yi Lab. So you’ve seen it all and you’ve seen the changes in the AA theatrical community. Is it still thriving out there? What are the feelings of folks, and the challenges as more and more folks go back and forth between media? Are you excited about the new crop of theater artists coming up? Have you seen any gaps or shifts in the upcoming “classes?” (Sorry, that’s like 4 questions.)
RLM: I like to think that the AA artist community is still thriving. I think the difficult part is that I'm getting older and my needs are changing and it's harder to be that on the ground DIY rabble rouser that I used to be, so I feel like I'm not meeting as many twenty something actors as I used to - tho I'm still writing a lot about them. I also want to be able to pay it forward the same way folks who came before me have, but I don't feel in a position of power either. So I'm in this awkward in between phase. Is that what you asked? Maybe not. The writers who are just joining the Lab now, maybe it's my imagination, but it feels like they are savvy to the issues in a way that I was dense to. And they're tackling it in their work in such gorgeous delicate ways, where I feel like I used a shovel. I've noticed more and more applicants to the Ma-Yi Lab with a much higher quality of work. Like when I applied, I think I used a crappy one-act play! I would have rejected me. So AA art is definitely thriving, even if opportunities are not expanding in the same ratio.