Talking with playwright Chay Yew

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The director of Taper's Asian Theatre Workshop as well as Resident Director at LA's East West Players, Chay Yew is everywhere in the theater world. "A Distant Shore", playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is the newest notch on his extensive playwriting belt.

He puts you at ease from the get-go. He paints himself a master procrastinator. He makes flippant remarks about answering to the call of "whoever signs the paycheck first." But, then you remember...this is the guy who directed last year's M Butterfly at East West Players, and more recently, Naomi Iizuka's 36 Views at the Laguna Playhouse. You read his bio (Plays: Porecelain, A Language of Their Own, Red, A Beautiful Country, Question 27, Question 28, Long Season. Awards: London Fringe Award for Best Playwright and Best Play, George and Elisabeth Marton Playwrighting Award, GLAAD Media Award, AEA/SAG/AFTRA 2004 Diversity Honor, etc. etc. etc...) You see his thought-provoking, intelligently complex play, A Distant Shore. And you wonder who he's trying to fool with his "I procrastinate just like all college students," and "Oh I decided to jump ahead 80 years in Act 2, just because I get bored easily" act. Multi-talented doesn't begin to describe... Chay Yew. -- Ada Tseng


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APA: So you wrote A Distant Shore, but you do a lot of directing as well. Would you consider yourself a playwright or a director first?

Chay Yew: I probably am a playwright first, and a director second. But, since I do a lot of directing sometimes, it's an almost equal thing. Writing is very exciting to me because I'm able to control the world that I want to create. And, as a director, you go into another world, and you kind of help flesh out a world that other people have created. So for example in [directing] David Henry Hwang's play, I have a take on it, and I try to make sure I represent what David wants to say about the play, and yet I also want to not give him a production that that he's already had before. So I have to try to find a different way around the play. So directing is great, because, as a playwright, you can't write every play in the world. You are always very excited about the world, but you can only write X amount of plays. Thank God there are other writers who will write about other aspects of the world in plays you want to see. So what happens with directing is that you get to move and visit someone else's world for four months, not having to write it, but help create it. So, in a way, it's a lazy way out of writing a play that I could have written, but it's also a way to share in another person's perspective, and it's great to have a sense of going backwards and forwards, instead of just doing one thing.

APA: You do a lot of work in theater. Do you have goals or plans to work in film or television?

CY: No I don't. I used to when I was younger, because I would work in both film and TV. But at some point, I went back to my love, which is theater. The reasons that I stayed in theater are very personal. I think Asian-American stories can be best served in a place where you can tell them the most, and for me, where I can see that happening is in novels and in plays, because it's more easily done. In plays, anyone can do it, so the opportunities to tell Asian-American stories are infinite. Movies and TV are harder because of the sheer fact that it's not controlled by Asian-Americans. And also, because the resources are so expensive, to do something takes a lot of time and money. And I feel like there are too many stories for me to just wait, in order to tell one story. [In theater], all we have to do is spend some time, get some information, work together with a group of people, and tell the story. And [even though] sometimes the story may only be told to a handful -- 500 people, that's it, and never to be told again.

But the way that I look at it is that this is one way to communicate with a community. I just came back from a new musical I did with Filipino cannery workers, and it's about their experience in the 1920s. I don't think I would have been able to do that in film or in television, but the fact that the theater allows you to tell that story, and that story can be brought back to Alaska…The connection when you see Filipino-Alaskans coming to the theater, young and old, the old remembering what the life was, the young saying, "I never realized that's what my mother and father had gone through... and I never thought I wanted to go to the Philippines, but now I do." So even though money is the thing we hope to get, to pay rent etc, the reward is that we get to tell these stories, because it makes you aware of the struggles your father and your grandfather and grandmother went through to make this country yours. So in a very strange way, it's very selfish for me. The only way that I can learn about Asian-American history to make myself more complete as a human being is actually by going and telling stories of history.

APA: So you can tell a story to learn about your own history, but then it also affects other people's sense of history…

CY: I think the thing about art is that you cannot want to tell a story in order to fill people's lives, because then it becomes a product. Just like, I can make toothpaste and I know it can make people say "my mouth is going to smell fresh." But the weird thing about art is that it has to be selfish and sometimes egocentric. You have to be an egomaniac to do art. Because you want to tell a story, and the story has to be something you really believe in. So you find yourself very compulsive, very passionate to tell the story in any way you can. And if you're honest and truthful enough and you show what these lives are like, the art takes on its own life, and you surrender it. Because once you put it onstage, the director and playwright are forgotten, and the story has its own life. The actors become the characters, and the theatrical experience is given to the audience. And what they receive is very individual. Some will hate it, some will like it, some will have a connection to it and take home something. And I always feel like: If you really believe in it -- sounds like Kevin Costner saying this but -- they [the audience] do come.

APA: I wanted to ask you about your play that was banned in Singapore…

CY: Yeah, I was very young...

APA: What happened?

CY: When I was young, I was in Singapore, where I come from, and a theater company was interested in giving me work. At the time, I had done a lot of British plays and American plays. Being colonial, we always did those plays -- when we saw ourselves doing Elephant Man, it was so weird because there was Asian people putting on English accents. So we thought we'd do some original work. And at that time, it was the late '80s, and the AIDS epidemic was coming down from Thailand all the way up to Southeast Asia, and my friends thought it would be great to tell a story about what Singaporeans could learn about the AIDS epidemic. So I decided to write a play. I was inspired by a lot of playwrights at the time, writing political plays. So I wrote one about a Singaporean man who goes up to Thailand, and gets AIDS. This man is straight, and he got it from a prostitute overseas, and the person who's helping him out is a very gay social worker. So, not only are we talking about AIDS and perceptions and how anyone can get it, but the person who is helping him out, who is not stricken with HIV, is a gay man -- so, the government was very upset and said that these were not the right social values. To which I said, "Well, I'm leaving, thank you." So, I didn't do anything to the play, until my friend called me up. I had gotten back to the U.S., and he said, "We have to do this, because I know about your principles and your artistic integrity, and people need to know what this is about." And I got hesitant, because I hate feeling educational, but I thought about it, and then I went back and revisited the play. Basically, [all I did was] I just took out what the gay guys says and instead just put in stage directions, so you don't know if he's gay or not. But then opening night, from what I was told -- when the guy slid in and basically spoke in a certain way, everybody knew he was gay. [laughs] So that taught me one thing: how not to write literally, how to write between the lines...

APA: That's funny. So what other goals do you have for the future?

CY: Keep telling stories. I think there is a wealth of stories that we all have. And to find different ways of telling stories -- sometimes not with words, sometimes with dance and with multimedia. And also, to make sure a new younger audience of Asian-Americans, and also, non-Asian-American audiences come and see what the histories are all about, because as much as doing Asian-American theater can be exciting for and within the community, I also think it defeats the notion of what Asian-American theater is, if the plays and our lives and the histories that we have ourselves are not told to people outside of the Asian-American community. Because we are part of this country.

APA: Thank you so much for your time.

Click here for a description of A Distant Shore, by Chay Yew and actors Eric D. Steinberg, Emily Kuroda, and Tamlyn Tomita.

Next issue: Interviews with the women of A Distant Shore: Emily Kuroda and Tamlyn Tomita.

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Published: Thursday, May 26, 2005