My Year in Review!

A shorter version of this year-in-review was e-mailed to my Newsletter recipients earlier this week. I can often be hard on myself, focusing only on what else I need to achieve, and staring at task lists and check boxes in order to feel like I'm getting somewhere. I can feel like I'm falling behind or failing or not doing enough. So these kinds of reviews help me see the things that I have accomplished, and remind me to take a moment and be proud of my work.


I want to start by acknowledging that for many of my friends and colleagues, 2017 has been a very difficult year. I know too many people who have felt the ripple effects of political policies that seem to strengthen messages of hate and bigotry, rather than freedom and diversity. Additionally, there seems to have been an onslaught of natural disasters this year that continues to this day with the Southern California Fires.

Still, in the face of these trials and traumas, I have also seen amazing creative work flourish around me. I am honored to be part of a theatre community that is committed to being bold and unrelenting in its story- and truth-telling. 2017 has also yielded much fruit for me in my writing endeavors. Here's just a snapshot of highlights by month:

Bad Kitty On Stage! opens at TYKEs in Rochester, NY
Conducted in-class workshops for Story Explorers

World premiere of Story Explorers at Bay Area Children's Theatre

Invited as a Guest Speaker at UC Berkeley to discuss Story Explorers
Helped out as a "Resume Doctor" at the Theatre Bay Area Conference

Workshop of The Four Immigrants at Playwrights Foundation

World premiere of Step Up Crew begins touring Bay Area schools
Bad Kitty On Stage! opens at the Gifford Family Theatre in Syracuse, NY
Table Reading of Song of the Nightingale at Town Hall Theatre

Rehearsals for The Four Immigrants begins at TheatreWorks

World premiere of The Four Immigrants at TheatreWorks - my first LORT Production

First Table Read of Inside Out & Back Again at Bay Area Children's Theatre

The Song of the Nightingale opens at Town Hall Theatre

Taught a "Song-aturgy" class at Musical Cafe

The Four Immigrants receives the Theatre Bay Area Award for Outstanding World Premiere Musical

Workshop for Inside Out & Back Again at Bay Area Children's Theatre

Now onward to 2018!



Playwright as Arranger

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.

The Struggle of Open-Endedness

When I have a production, a workshop, even a meeting to look forward to, I usually find it very easy to focus and get work done. There is a built-in accountability to knowing that others are counting on me delivering something so that further development of a new work/play can begin. However, when I'm in between deadlines, it's a lot harder to find that fire and drive to get the creative wheels turning.

I find myself in such a phase right now. For Inside Out & Back Again, a play which has a definite deadline (it opens in March 2018), the script has been rewritten and brought to a place where the creative teams agrees it's ready for a workshop - which will begin this weekend. All of my other projects don't have deadlines yet. So while I could and should be working on them, it's easy to find myself within a fog of distraction.

To be fair, some of these projects need some time in this amorphous state where they exist primarily in my brain, and are worked and re-worked away from a laptop or notebook. Some of them require research and cogitation before I attempt to create something that even looks like a script. I try to remember this, so I don't feel discouraged by the fact that I might not be "producing" something. Still, structure is good for me. So, I remind myself that there are deadlines on the horizon, even though they may feel far away, or even if I don't see them yet. So, working backwards from those larger deadlines, I try to create mini-deadlines that will help me progress. I have also started to participate in a silent writing group, where I meet with fellow playwrights to stay quiet and just write (or read or research, as the need may be). I find these times to be helpful for focusing because it's harder for the fog of distraction to take hold when I'm out of the house and around others.

I share this because it's so easy to look at the big markers of playwriting and marvel at the world premieres, the workshops, the readings. But, being a playwright is as much about these days/weeks/months of open-endedness, from which they must forge and fashion a pattern and routine that works for themselves - much like the act of writing a play.

Posted on December 4, 2017 and filed under Career, Creative, Research, Thought, Writing.

A special performance of Nightingale

For the most recent production of The Song of the Nightingale, Town Hall Theatre had received a few grants to put on student matinee performances for local elementary schools. These special daytime performances would be an opportunity for children, many of whom may not have seen a live performance before, to see a shortened version of the show. Unfortunately, one of those schools - Shore Acres in Pittsburg - could not attend due to air quality warnings in the wake of the Sonoma County fires last month.

Actors Minseob Yeom, Chris Juan, Pauli Amornkul, Isabel To, and me performing at Shore Acres Elementary.

Actors Minseob Yeom, Chris Juan, Pauli Amornkul, Isabel To, and me performing at Shore Acres Elementary.

The lovely folks at Town Hall decided to coordinate and reschedule with Shore Acres to do a special on-site visit. We polled the cast to see who might be available, and once I knew who we had, I created a 20-minute reader's theatre presentation of the show which featured 5 musical numbers. We had no set, no props, no band (save for me on the keyboard), and minimal costumes. However, as soon as we began to narrate the story, we could tell we had the kids' attention! As Artistic Director Susan Evans put it, "They were rapt!" It was a delightful sight to see the faces of the kids light up and stay so engaged. Of course, this makes sense. Nothing is more powerful at painting the picture of a story than a child's own imagination. Even though they didn't get to hear all of the songs from the show or meet all the actors or experience all of the production elements, they still tracked with the story of the little bird who saves an entire kingdom with her song.