Posts tagged #Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children’s Books

I was recently invited to write a blog post for the Theatre for Young Audiences Blog. Here is the text of the blog:

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children's Books

As a writer of musicals, I am often drawn to books or written stories for inspiration. My first show Tales of Olympus was based on Greek mythology, my second show The Song of the Nightingale used a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as its source material, and my last show was a musical adaptation of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. My next two projects also pull their inspiration from books. Books are the most appealing source material for me because, unlike visual media such as film, there isn’t already an idea of what the universe of the story should look like. Even though vivid illustrations might accompany certain written stories, for me they serve primarily as a starting point for what a theatrical adaptation of that work could look like.

Looking at the season line-ups of many non-profit TYA companies in America, it is clear that books and written stories are the source of most of the work that we produce. This makes sense because our audiences often want to see something that is familiar, even beloved, on our stages. And yet, oddly enough, this is part of the problem we face as theatres trying to embrace multiculturalism. Earlier this year, I heard a KQED Forum discussion on the topic of diversity in children’s books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that of the 3200 children’s books that were published in 2013, only 6% featured a character of color. Read that again: 6%. This does not reflect the diversity of America. This means that books from which TYA companies want to create new works skew towards the ethnic majority in our culture. If only 6% of children’s books feature characters of color, then that percentage will most likely be transferred to our stages.

This troubles me for two reasons. One: It limits the level of empathy that we can introduce to children. Two: It keeps children who don’t identify as belonging to the majority in the realm of the “other.”

On the first point, theatre companies of all stripes tout empathy as one of the most important experiences we offer our audiences. I would argue, though, that this is only as true as the diversity of stories we choose to tell. If the stories we tell in our theatres are “about-the-majorities-for-the-majorities,” we are missing opportunities for children to relate to cultures other than their own. The depth of empathy we encourage them to experience will be limited to the culture they already know. If, however, we give them an opportunity to relate to characters from different cultures, it can help broaden their knowledge of the human experience. This not only teaches them the richness of cultures that exist outside their own, but that the people within those cultures experience hopes, obstacles and emotions just like any other human being.

On the second point, if our stories remain in the realms of the majorities, those who do not self-identify as part of those majorities are unintentionally sent the message that they are an outlier, an “other.” They merely get to observe the stories of the “main culture” on our stages, but are not encouraged to think of themselves as the leads in our stories. Personal example: As an Asian American, I have grappled with feeling like a career in musical theatre was not an option for me. There were (and still are) very few examples of musicals about or starring Asian American men, and musical theatre’s pantheon of writers remains overwhelmingly white. Thankfully, I have forged a career for myself despite this dearth of predecessors. But I know first-hand how a lack of seeing myself on-stage led to a profound internal struggle about what I “was allowed” to aim for and accomplish.

One thing we do to address this is to practice open casting, where characters who are white in book-form are played on-stage by actors of a different ethnicity. While I think this is a great way of getting multicultural representation in our casts, it does not get at the question of “Whose stories are we telling?” In light of this question, the idea of open casting merely becomes a short-term solution to an on-going problem.

In order to see multiculturalism more accurately reflected on our TYA stages, we need to start by supporting multicultural story-generators, namely, writers. Again, TYA organizations have already begun doing this by commissioning new works written by playwrights and composers from a variety of backgrounds (myself included). But I think we can go even one step further. TYA organizations should be actively supporting multicultural children’s book authors, since they often provide the source materials for TYA writers to adapt.

There are at least two ways TYA producers can do this.

  1. Support the development and promotion of diverse children’s book authors. The good news is that there is already a movement within the children’s book community toward promoting multiculturalism (check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign). We could partner with such movements knowing that supporting them will directly affect the stories that will come to our stages.
  2. Focus in on that 6% of stories that actually featured a character of color. Get to know these authors who are already creating multicultural stories. Find which of their stories excite us, and adapt them into new TYA works. Express to their publishers and/or agents that we are interested in seeing the future work of these authors.

I know the problem of bringing more multicultural stories to our stages can seem insurmountable. But I don’t think it’s about solving the problem in one fell swoop. It’s finding what small steps we can take to eventually find traction toward solving the problem in the long-term. And a very tangible step we can all take is supporting the creation of multicultural children’s books, the birthplace of so many of our amazing works.

Mountain Rehearsals - Tech Week

We are in the final week of rehearsals! Nina Meehan, Executive Director of Bay Area Children's Theatre, asked me to write the latest post for their blog. So, instead of doing double-duty, I shall re-direct you to that posting instead:

Writing Mountain - A Blog Post by Playwright/Composer Min Kahng

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon opens this weekend! I hope you are all able to come see the show!

Tickets and more info: http://bit.ly/JT4rJ6

Posted on February 19, 2014 and filed under Career, Composition, Creative, Musical Theater, Performing Arts, Writing.

Mountain Rehearsals - Week Five

Brian Chow and his  erhu.

Brian Chow and his erhu.

Say hello to the erhu (pronounced ar-hoo). The erhu is a traditional Chinese two-stringed instrument that I've included in the orchestrations for Mountain. It has been a welcome challenge getting to know the erhu and composing for its specific qualities. There were some limitations: no pizzicato, no double-stops (since the bow is placed between the two strings), and the combination of a very rich low range and a thinner high range.  The erhu also favors certain keys over others, so I did my best to keep the key signatures throughout the show within that realm.  I am still learning the instrument, and will probably learn more once we get it amped in our performance space and mixed in with mic'd actors. I can't say I've perfected the ability to write for erhu, but I have found the process of getting to know it very rewarding. The result is that I have woven a Chinese instrument into the fabric of the score, giving the music a connection to the culture from which the stories stem.

I would be amiss if I neglected to mention our erhu player, Mr. Brian Chow. Finding him was quite the feat. I Google- and Facebook-stalked, I mean... searched, for hours trying to find a Bay Area erhu player who would be open to being part of a theatrical piece. Last Fall, I found Brian, who at the time was studying erhu at the Conservatory of Music in Beijing. As luck would have it, Brian was returning to the States in January, just in time to start rehearsals for Mountain. I was beyond thrilled! Working with Brian has been such a treat, and he brings a level of professionalism and dedication to his art and performance that has been a great asset to our production as a whole. So, audiences will not just be taking in Grace Lin's re-imagining of traditional Chinese folk tales; they will also be able to experience the beautiful tones of a traditional Chinese instrument!

In other news, I made a few more script changes to tighten up the pacing this past weekend. These flexible and up-for-anything actors are rolling with the changes and making this magic happen! We're at the stage of running the show, working specific notes and smoothing out transitions to get us ready for TECH NEXT WEEK!!! Can't wait for you all to see this brand-new work!

Mountain Rehearsals - Week Three

Happy New Year! It is the Year of the Horse for those who may not know the Lunar New Year traditions. Usually, the Lunar New Year is just another day for me, but I think I'm more aware of the event because I have been working on Asian-themed shows this year (The Song of the Nightingale, Mulan Jr., and now Where the Mountain Meets the Moon). In preparation for writing Mountain, I did my best to research various aspects of Chinese culture. In discussions with Mina Morita and Oona Hatton (the director and dramaturg, respectively), we decided that just as Grace Lin had taken Chinese folklore and re-contextualized them to tell Minli's story, we would bring aspects of Chinese and other Asian cultures and re-contextualize them for our stage version.

Chinatown, San Francisco

Chinatown, San Francisco

This meant a variety of research in many forms. Web searches and YouTube videos were a great place to start - reading Wikipedia articles and watching footage of the Dragon and Lion dances. On one occasion, Mina and I walked through Chinatown, San Francisco in order to see if objects and musical instruments might inspire the sound and look of the show. I had the joy to sit in on a Chinese orchestra rehearsal in order to take cues on what Chinese instruments sounded like. Now there is an erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument, included in our show. We also learned about Grace Lin and her artistic process as she wrote and illustrated Mountain. It seems she too dove into research of all kinds to create the book.

The fruit of our research labor is evident in our rehearsals. I believe we have an understanding of the world we're trying to create with Mountain. We know the boundaries of reality and fantasy as they apply to this show. We have a particular aesthetic and style in mind that borrows from Chinese and other Asian cultures. We aren't grasping at straws to make stylistic choices, because those discussions were had long before. I see more clearly now how doing good research will lead to good writing and good theatre. Even if the audience doesn't pick up on it, I think they will sense that something about this show feels firmly supported with a sturdy foundation.

Mountain Rehearsals - Week One

Rehearsals have officially begun for the world premiere of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. These early days are fascinating because what began as words and sheet music slowly starts to get its own skeleton as a performance piece. We are in a modest dance room in Oakland. We use some props that are just for rehearsal, and sometimes props that will make it to the actual production once they are painted and embellished. We try things, throwing ideas out and taking cues from each other. There is spike tape in a variety of colors outlining our imaginary set. We have looked at sketches and color swatches. We've listened to sound samples. There's a lot of waiting, discussion and thinking.

Minli's dining table in the rehearsalroom. Inside the bowl are two coins, one of which starts our protagonist on her journey.

Minli's dining table in the rehearsalroom. Inside the bowl are two coins, one of which starts our protagonist on her journey.

Perhaps what fascinates me the most is that the final product will be built upon this skeleton, but only after much has been pruned and plucked away. To the audience's eyes, it will arrive as a complete package. But those of us in this dance room will know the sparser versions of the show that had to come before. The discarded drafts, the revised movements, the great ideas that ultimately had to be cut will still be with us. As well as the joy, the jokes, the shared memories that come from working together on this project. It's funny because from day one of rehearsals, the end is always in sight. But I already know that the end will come much too soon.

So I take to heart the lesson that Grace Lin teaches us through her novel. "Thankfulness."

I am thankful to be here in the midst of this creating, as it unfolds before me.