Storytelling: A Study in Child's Play
Last month, Ma Yi Theater Company and Children’s Theatre Company presented THE WONG KIDS IN THE SECRET OF THE SPACE CHUPACABRA GO!, written by The Lark’s own Director of Artistic Programs, Lloyd Suh. The production took place at Arts Emerson, which just so happens to be the Alma Mater of Lloyd’s current mentee, Artistic Programs Apprentice Corey Ruzicano, a mentor herself to the students at Success Academy and 52nd Street Project . This thread of connections led the pair to sit down and discuss what role children’s theater plays in the current theatrical field, and what there is to be learned no matter how old we get.
CR: Had you ever written a play for young audiences before?
LS: A few short plays, never a full-length. I knew there might be a learning curve, so I started brainstorming with Peter Brosius from Children’s Theater Company and Ralph Pena from Ma-Yi about, okay what are we gonna do? There was an anime-inspired thing, a fish out of water, something a little more directly biographical about my own particular adolescence, of like feeling like kind of an odd-duck in sort a normal pond--
CR: Whatever normal is
LS: Right, and things related to science fiction and superheroes, and then I thought: I’m just gonna do all of it, I’m just gonna put it all together in one thing. And so I tried to incorporate multiple aesthetics and a variety of different points of reference.
CR: And it also makes sense for a play that’s written for a certain age group. I do think there’s become an idea that theater for kids means you have to follow this very specific formula. My kids, they learn a structure, but so much of it--the last show we did there was a play called Peanut Butter and Phones and it was exactly what it sounded like. Peanut Butter goes to the store to buy a phone that doesn’t want to go home with him. And I’m laughing, but it was this totally engaging narrative.
LS: Yeah. In terms of structure, I tend to start out with something way more complicated than it needs to be. So the process of rewriting is about stripping away towards that very simple, core thing. That definitely happened with this one, and it was a long process. I went through a lot, a lot, a lot of drafts.
CR: More than usual?
LS: I guess it depends on what you call a draft because sometimes you say it’s a new draft but it’s not that different. But for this play, from draft to draft, they varied pretty wildly. I think part of that is a symptom of me feeling that the exercise was one of imagination, of dreaming up this giant world and so a lot of that is just an experimentation of just how crazy can I get?
CR: So, what’s the story? Tell me what the play is about.
LS: The simplest way to describe it is it’s a story of two Asian American kids who discover that they have superpowers. And they’re not very good superpowers but ultimately those particular superpowers are the ones that are necessary to save the universe from a disgusting, horrible space monster called the Space Chupacabra.
CR: Sounds great.
LS: But the other piece of it is, it’s a story of siblings.
CR: And you had a sibling growing up?
LS: Yeah, an older brother. And a big thrust of that narrative is two young superheroes finding a way to work together and find their own way to unite.
CR: I think siblings are so formative and so interesting. Everyone has a specific sibling relationship but I definitely have a specific sibling relationship. It’s that question of normal, that nothing is normal. There’s no normal, but I always felt like I didn’t have a normal sibling relationship, like I almost grew up in a different house than my sibling. I spent so much time out of the house. Not that my house and my family wasn’t lovely, because they are, but as soon as it became apparent that my brother had some specials needs and my needs were different or that I didn’t have needs in the same way, I just stayed at school or took class after class, so I was just never home. It just caused us to grow up so separately. So part of what I’m really interested in for kids is that question of how do you identify yourself on your own as well as in relationship to others.
LS: Any play, in a certain way, is about how people relate to the world, and in particular when you’re very young, everything is about that. It’s about who am I? How does the world relate to me, how do I relate to the world, when you’re still forming those questions, and so all of that is part of the mix. And what kind of agency to you have in that?
CR: Yeah, who makes the rules and do you get to make any of them? How often can you break them? I think I was really obsessed with rules as a kid. I didn’t have a lot of rules, so I think I gave myself a lot of rules.
LS: Can you track the impulse to do the kind of work you do with young artists?
CR: I’ve been working with kids as long as I can remember, which doesn’t mean I feel like I know what I’m doing, but I also feel like I’m an exponentially better and more willing and happier actor in these kids shows than I was in acting school or trying to act for adults. I’d totally rather play the monkey that gets battled and executed if a kid wrote it than if someone made me do it as an exercise in acting class. I would have been so turned inside out with fear about making a fool of myself in front of my peers but I’m so much more willing to look like an idiot if it’s to show the kids that I care. I might be the only person to ever say this but I loved my high school. And I don’t know anyone who loved high school so if I could come up with a way to give that experience back to someone else...It was so useful to me, having the arts as this form of literacy to talk about things as a young person was so, so useful. And, so, when I was sitting irreverently in college, questioning if theater had a function and if it mattered, what helped me so much was getting to work with Polly Carl, who really uses theater in a way that matters. Working with ArtsEmerson and HowlRound and here [The Lark] and the 52nd Street Project, it feels like theater has this real, true practical application that didn’t feel like making pretty things in a box that nobody got to see. And I also can’t help but think of the things I saw as a kid that really did change my life.
LS: Yeah, what were those?
CR: I think all the time about when my dad took me to ACT to see Tom Stoppard’s Rock n’ Roll when I was twelve. So I was too young to really know what the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution meant in any kind of real context but I was excited about the music and the language and the way the characters talked to each other, and I remember one of the characters saying something like: people will always disagree about what the truth is. And I remember totally reeling at that, because up to that point I’d always thought that there was this hard, external, universal truth that existed on its own and was what it was, and people could obscure it or misinterpret it or lose sight of it but that it existed just the same and it was people that were not getting it right, and seeing that play totally changed my life and the way I understood the world. And even though I didn’t really get it, so much of that play is about how they relate to each other in a world that’s falling apart, and how there are things like music that have these huge vocabularies and huge power to change things and to color the way we look back on a thing or a time. And I think that’s what I like about kids stories because there’s space for these big feelings and for you to fill them in for yourself within this simple and specific narrative that lets you get out of your own way and enter the world without having to know everything about it.
LS: I’m so curious about that impulse. What is it about being a jar of peanut butter that goes shopping for a phone that allows for that freedom and playfulness? One thing I’ve been learning from my own kids is how critical the process of play is. It’s the most effective mechanism for learning. And so what is my impulse toward wanting to write for young audiences? What part of that is tied to my own sense of learning about the world, about parenting, about my own childhood? Are there things I’m still trying to reconcile about that?
CR: I think about that too, it’s like anything, you always learn more when you’re stirring the soup yourself. And I think about the power of story too, because it feels like everything comes back to that, the political system and the election coming up feels like so much of it comes back to the way the candidates or people around the candidates have told us a story about who they are. We’re all acting out stories as kids, trying things on.
LS: You’re at a point in your life where there’s a lot of pressure from the outside world to define yourself and what you’re going to do now that you’re out of school.
CR: The other day I was talking to a few of my eleven-year-olds, and I should say first that another element of my relationship with these kids is I am often the only white person in the room. And I try to be really conscious of what narrative that’s giving them because it’s really complicated and it also really wants to not be complicated. It really wants to just be that I want to be here in this room with you and that’s all that matters but of course it’s not all that matters because nothing exists without context. So that’s...hard. But anyway, one of my kids comes in and he says: I hate going to school with all white kids. And so I said, something like, yeah it’s really hard to spend most of your time in a place without anyone else who looks the way you look or identifies the way you identify and not have a choice about who you get to spend time with. But he’s eleven so I wasn’t going say let’s unpack that and here’s some jargon to help you define what you’re feeling. But we were with another one of his friends and he said, well there are some black kids at your school, and kid one says: yeah but I’m not black. And the second kid and I sat there for a second and in my head I’m thinking oh, I must have totally made the wrong assumption about this kid, but the kids conversation goes something like:
kid two: yes you are.
kid one: I’m not black, I’m African.
kid two: but you’re not from Africa, you’ve never been to Africa, you’re from here
kid one: but I’m not black, African American people are black, I’m Muslim, Muslims aren’t black.
It was this really crazy, deconstructed idea that was super complicated and messy and hard and probably has a lot of things that need to be further examined, but the fact that we were able to have this conversation in plain terms was sort of amazing.
LS: That is really amazing. Yeah. I mean eleven...cause I grew up and I was the only non-white student in my graduating class.
CR: Of how many kids?
LS: 401. So I didn’t know. Obviously I was conscious of it on a certain level, but I didn’t have any context for what that meant.
CR: And you grew up in Indiana?
LS: Yeah, in a suburb of Indianapolis. And I couldn't even begin to articulate my own identity then --I'm not even sure whether it would have been useful. Especially in middle school. That was the most complicated time for me. I think middle school is complicated for everyone. You're being confronted with the beginnings of adult responsibility
CR: And impulses
CR: And enforced margins.
LS: But you’re still completely disempowered.
CR: And at a loss.
LS: I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to be self aware about it because I think part of trying to write a play is about excavating things you can’t put a name on, but there’s something about the writing of this play that was really important to me personally, about putting these Asian American kids in the role of heroes. Which, if I had seen something like that when I was that age, it would have meant something so huge to me. So in a way, I’m having a conversation with myself and my childhood self through this work.
CR: I think also the reason I’m in theater period is centered around trying to answer the question: can you teach empathy? Is empathy something that can be learned? And for kids, especially across cultures, there’s a lot of room to try to put your feet in someone else’s shoes and get some kind of way into understanding a piece of someone else’s culture or context, in a way that can be dangerous and hard but also really important. Because if you grow up pretending that either none of those differences exist or, the opposite, that they’re the sole definition we have of one another, then it’s either a matter of lots of heavy lifting or not at all.
LS: It’s such a Lark idea, too, in a way. That the purpose of everything we’re doing isn’t just putting on a show, it’s that the show has a bigger purpose, as a tool towards learning. Something I’m definitely conscious of trying to do is reframing a narrative around my specific social and political identity. There is a very targeted conversation I’m having about Asian America through the lens of a young audience narrative, because… it is really hard. I think about it more often than I want to, just looking at my daughter’s toys, thinking...I’ve gotta get some different images in here. Because those images and narratives get internalized so early, right? I didn’t have a lot of access to theatre when I was a kid, but I did have access to children’s literature, and I’ve internalized those books in so many ways. In particular, stories about navigating the sticky process of defining yourself in the world. Sometimes we think about literature for young audiences as somehow less important than work for adults but in my experience, the stuff for young audiences has so much more potential for impact, to root in and be incredibly significant. If you just look at Pixar or Harry Potter, Star Wars…
CR: I think all of those stories have a really measurable, multivalent impact. One of my favorite students is a total trouble maker - kicked off multiple sports teams, sort of bored by school - really super smart but not willing to own up to being smart or creative. But one day we went to the beach and all the other kids are playing and all of these big clams have washed up on the beach and he said to me, they’re gonna die. And I said, well not if we do something about it, so we spent hours throwing clams back in the water. But a few days before, his glasses had broken and the lens kept popping out, and so as we’re leaning over the surf, of course, his glasses slip off his face and into the tide and the lens pops out. So I’m freaking out in my head and thinking that there’s no way we’re going to find this tiny piece of see-through glass in the ocean and we’re looking around, and he says, well you know what we have to do. We have to pray to Poseidon. And so we spend many minutes chanting to the gods of the sea and lo and behold we find the lens. So we’re cheering and he makes us sacrifice our shells to Poseidon and later he gets really quiet and says, you know what, I think it’s because we did a good thing with the clams.
LS: Wow. That’s intense.
CR: Yes. So I think the earth is really fertile where there are children and narrative--it can’t really be helped. And so finding narratives that mean something is important, because I can think too of all the ways princess stories taught me to wait for someone to come save me. And one of my heroes--a successful, adult woman--said to me not long ago, that she had to come to terms with the fact still, after all this time, she was still waiting for someone to come rescue her and it would probably always be that way, even though she’s learned to save herself. Some of those narratives you can’t tear out by the roots, there’s something about them that lingers--because really, we are beings that are always looking for something larger than ourselves, and story is the only thing that is.