For the last two weeks of June, I got to participate in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Ground Floor Summer Lab. What's great about Ground Floor is that they offer playwrights freedom to work on and explore their plays as needed; they do not require any kind of presentation. Some writers end up sitting in a room and typing away. Others hold public readings of their work, like I did for my play Calafia: A Reimagining. I haven't been able to finish a first full draft of the play yet, but I learned so much from discussions with my director, dramaturg, and actors -- as well as from audience feedback after our reading. I'm excited to see what directions Calafia will take as a result of the exploring, churning, and learning that happened during Ground Floor!
Krystle Piamonte, who plays lead character Hà in the current production of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, recently shared this story on social media, and it was so sweet I just had to include it in my blog:
"Today after our first matinee performance, I received the most precious note/gift from one of our littlest audience members. A mom and daughter duo came to see INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and handed this to me after the show. The mom said her daughter felt bad that I was having a rough day (I cry about 3x in this play) and that she wanted to write me a note to make me feel better. She also included this cute lollipop. I’m overwhelmed by this little girl’s empathy and kindness. It’s these kinds of interactions that remind me why theatre is a powerful way to connect to our humanity. Thank you, little girl. You made my heart so full today."
- Entire Production Bay Area
- Entire Production South Bay
- Original Script - Min Kahng
- Original Music - Min Kahng
- Stage Direction - Leslie Martinson
- Music Direction - William Liberatore
- Choreography - Dottie Lester-White
- Costume Design - Noah Marin
- Lighting Design - Steven Mannshardt
- Set Design - Andrew Boyce
Winners will be announced at the ceremony on March 26, 2018!
The process of writing the stage adaptation of Inside Out & Back Again has been a unique challenge for me as a playwright. Thanhha Lai's book uses a series of poems to tell the story of Hà and her family. In early discussions with Bay Area Children's Theatre, we decided Lai's poetry was so beautiful and vivid that we didn't feel it necessary to create new text for the stage version. All of the spoken words (with only a handful of exceptions) in the play are taken directly from Lai's text.
My role in creating the play could be likened to that of an arranger of music, taking what already exists and re-organizing it to suit the needs of a play. In order to create my first draft, I typed the entirety of Lai's book word-for-word into a document I called "Source." When I decided which portions of Lai's text to include in the play, I would cut it from the "Source" document and paste it into my script document. I did this to keep track of which segments of the book I had already used, so as not to repeat myself in the script. I have cut, spliced, re-ordered, and re-contextualized the original poetry to try and create a version of the story that plays out well on-stage.
Some slight word modifications have been made. Since I wanted to avoid the feel of an overly long monologue from Hà's perspective, portions of text have been given to other characters in the story. Things like pronouns and verb tenses had to be changed to accommodate these different voices. But for the most part, any new text that I do contribute to the story comes in the form of stage directions – describing setting, gestures, reactions, visual cues to help accentuate and potentially convey more than what words might allow.
This method of building a script has had both its limitations and advantages. On one hand, sometimes I have wanted the poetry to provide words that it simply did not, and I've needed to find creative solutions to those problems by either re-contextualizing what is there, or by trying to go about it without words. On the other hand, I have not had the problem of typical "writer's block," where you must generate words yourself, but can't seem to find them. In this case, all the words are there, and it's up to me to place them where I need them.
The result will hopefully be a piece that highlights Lai's beautiful poetry unpacked and opened up in a stage experience that will transport the audience along with Hà and her family.
I recently finished all 10 episodes of The Vietnam War, a new Ken Burns documentary on PBS. My primary reason for watching was to understand more about the conflict which is an integral part of the setting of Inside Out & Back Again. The documentary is quite an achievement, and there is much that I could write about it. But I'll focus instead on how the documentary contributes to my work as a playwright. During a recent dramaturgical meeting about Inside Out & Back Again, I realized I had more informed thoughts about what could be happening for the characters after having watched Ken Burns' work. Here are just a few of those insights:
War was "normal" life: After our first table read of the play, a question was put forth as to whether we could show more of Hà's "normal" life before the Fall of Saigon. That it felt like we were too quickly into the war without a sense of peace. However, historically speaking, ten year-old Hà has never known a Saigon without war. And with attacks like the Tet Offensive in 1968, Hà has already seen terrible events, or at least been nearby. For Hà, war has always been present. Even if Saigon has seen days of peace, the threat from the north is always imminent.
The Fall of Saigon was imminent: The eventual Fall of Saigon is laid out very clearly in Thanhha Lai's book, but it didn't dawn on me just how frightening that specter might have seemed to a mother of four living in the city. In early 1975, the North Vietnamese were making their way south, taking city after city, and it would only be a matter of time before Saigon would succumb as well. Understanding this helps me begin to grasp the desperation of the predicament Hà's mother finds herself in, figuring out whether she should flee or stay.
The white American perspective dominates our narrative of the war: One criticism I have of the documentary is that it definitely gives more airtime to the experience of white families affected by the war. While there are interviews with Vietnamese from the North and South side of the conflict, the more emotional through-lines of the series center on white Americans. This gets me excited about working on the stage version of Inside Out & Back Again. This play will be a chance to turn the focus onto a Vietnamese family and their experience and journey. Hà's family ends up in the U.S.A., so it is still very much an American story. We'll be inviting our audiences not to view the Vietnamese as an "other," but as the main characters of a story that all can relate to or at least empathize with.
These might all sound like things that I should have known already, and I kinda did. But it is one thing to know the facts of the war, and quite another to be brought into the emotional experience of it, and I think Ken Burns' documentary helped do that for me. It is worth noting that the documentary focuses heavily on the American perspective, and most of the personal stories in it are focused on a predominantly white narrative. The breadth of Vietnamese perspectives (of which Thanhha Lai's book is one) is barely covered, so I will be doing some reading of Vietnamese accounts as well. But I still highly recommend watching it, if only to learn a bit of the overview of events, and especially if you don't know much about the Vietnam War to begin with.