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A. Rey Pamatmat talks HOUSE RULES with Samuel D. Hunter

Playwrights’ Corner
Playwrights A. Rey Pamatmat & Samuel D. Hunter

“The first time I met A. Rey Pamatmat was nine summers ago at the O'Neill Center where Rey was workshopping his sweeping, mysterious, and utterly engrossing play THUNDER ABOVE, DEEPS BELOW. What struck me about the play was something that I still find in his writing to this day — his ability to tell stories that are at once huge, theatrical, and poetic, while still being firmly and inexorably rooted in character and relationships. THUNDER… was a play about three homeless friends struggling for enough cash to make it to San Francisco before a harsh Chicago winter hits. But within this very specific, earth-bound story, the play reached for poetic and structural heights that elevated the whole experience to something almost religious, church-like. For me this is the hallmark of his work — the poetry and mystery that surrounds our everyday lives.” – Samuel D. Hunter, Playwright

Samuel D. Hunter

I read that [HOUSE RULES] is sort of a re-boot of a play that you wrote a while back and totally reworked. I'm so interested by these types of stories — forgotten plays that have a second life. Did you start fresh from page one, or did it just feel like a massive rewrite? What was the process like for you?

A. Rey Pamatmat

I started HOUSE RULES when I finished AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO in The Lark's Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop Program, and we still had 4 or 5 sessions to go! I just started imagining scenes with actors I liked playing different games. They were writing exercises so I wouldn't show up empty-handed and embarrass myself in front of Arthur [Kopit]. Eventually, though, themes emerged about who the characters were supposed to be or expected to be versus who they actually were.

I collected the scenes as a play, heard it aloud, and I hated it. Absolutely hated it. The first draft didn't have the parents in it. The games stopped the action instead of supporting it. Most importantly, the gravity of parental mortality — the thing that was meant to motivate these individual crises — had no weight. I stuck it in a drawer and tried to forget it ever happened.

Two years later, I read it, forgave myself for writing bad pages, and started fresh. I thought I would rewrite everything, but about 1/3 to 1/2 of the original draft made it back into the play in the end. So I went in with the intention of starting over entirely, but it ended up being a massive rewrite. I think life experience and distance made it much easier to write the second time around, and I'm glad I went back to it.

Playwright A. Rey Pamatmat & Director Eric Ting
Playwright A. Rey Pamatmat & Director Eric Ting

Samuel D. Hunter

It's almost hard to picture the play without the parents they feel so central. The games also feel very central, structurally — what was that initial impulse to write scenes in which these characters were playing different games?

A. Rey Pamatmat

I know! Leaving the parents out the first time around was a grave oversight.

PJ Paparelli asked me to write a short play for The American Theatre Company's 2012 10x10 Festival organized around the theme of Cultural Identity. Typically in my plays (even when the characters’ ethnicities are essential elements) I write about ethnicity by rebelling against writing about ethnicity — mostly because the American theatre tends to fetishize race and ethnicity rather than actually discuss related issues from an insider's point of view. It's always shocking to me that many arts reporters and critics will reveal their racial biases by unashamedly asking why my characters are Filipino-American or worse by criticizing them because I don't put enough of "their culture on display," reinforcing ideas that people of color on American stages need to be dramaturgically justified. And when they discuss my work using cultural signifiers from other Asian cultures (e.g. non-Filipino ones because, you know, ALL LOOK SAME)... don't get me started.

Anyway, I took up PJ's challenge so I could try writing about ethnicity in a way that didn't package it for non-Filipinos but also didn't exclude them. My sisters and I like to play games. When the holidays come around, rounds of Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, war, rummy, sungka (a Filipino game similar to mancala), or pekwa (a Filipino card game similar to sevens, but we start with the six) are inevitably played. So I matched a round of one of those games (sungka) with a game that a lot of bi-cultural, bi-racial, or immigrant Americans play: who's more Filipino/black/Irish/Puerto Rican/etc. than whom? The ideas for the rest of the scenes came similarly — an abandoned man playing solitaire, a person whose life is out of control fixating on the structure of Sudoku, a cut scene where Scrabble moves spelled out inexpressible subtext.

HOUSE RULES Studio Retreat Cast at Lark
HOUSE RULES Cast in Rehearsal

Samuel D. Hunter

A lot of times when I'm asked about my goals for a workshop before the workshop has begun, I always stumble because often I don't even know what my goals are until I'm in the room, hearing the play and getting feedback. Though I know every writer is different. Do you have specific goals for this workshop? In general, how do you use the workshop process to push a script forward?

A. Rey Pamatmat

Because the games came from an intellectual place, I asked Eric if one of our goals for the Studio Retreat could be actually playing them within the scenes. I don't really know what the play is going to be like without watching actors try to negotiate a Monopoly game’s setup and multiple family disagreements at the same time. I also want to be sure that everyone’s actions and stories are distinct, since we're dealing with so many characters.

Usually, though, it's like you said: I won't always have clear goals. I'll know something isn’t working, and I use the rehearsals and the actors to figure out what it is. Then I fix it in the room or after the workshop is over. This time, luckily, I’m using a lot of actors I’ve collaborated with before, who I trust and who trust me, so it doesn’t feel too scary. And, of course, that's one of the best things about The Lark: even though there are presentations at the end, it isn't about the presentation. It's about working on the play. With snacks. And a sungka board.