Respectful Necessity, and the Necessity of Respect

by Fin Coe

After last night’s performance of The War Zone is my Bed, we had the honor of having the playwright on hand for a talkback after the show. Although all of the actors were onstage to take questions alongside Yasmine Beverly Rana (said playwright) and Dani Snyder-Young (our director), I just kept my mouth shut and listened. I wanted to hear about the genesis of the show, and what the person who wrote the script had to say about her work.

The first question, from the talkback’s moderator Jenn Adams, inquired about the inspiration for the piece, which was years in the writing. I was surprised when Yasmine told us that while real life events had inspired the first iteration of the show, her desire to explore and portray identity also informed the script. She talked about growing up biracial, with a name people found difficult to pronounce, and how being the product of different cultures influenced the interplay of identity within this show.

I can relate. I am an American actor of Irish and Chinese ancestry, living in Chicago. People have mispronounced my name on occasion, and I don’t often see my particular genetic combination in the ethnic breakdowns of audition listings. Plays that explore identity speak to me, especially stories of love across cultural divides. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for one such story.

This is all fine and dandy. A biracial writer’s play happens to be performed by a company and cast by a director who are comfortable casting an actor who happens to be biracial himself. Not tremendously important—yet. But then we had another question, from an audience member (Helen Young, who has herself worked with Halcyon several times), who asked Yasmine about the idea of appropriation presented in the play, and the danger of telling the stories of others to one’s own gain, and not that of the original subjects. Yasmine replied that these questions were conscious ones raised by the script, based on first-hand experiences with people treading the very thin line between appropriation and exploitation. And that is indeed a seamy current that runs through the show; a two-sided coin of resentment and guilt, for stories stolen and stories coaxed away. The journalist characters of War Zone tell themselves that they are bringing national attention, and bearing witness, and following noble intentions. But time makes them question themselves, and their guilt grows stronger with their cynicism. It gets complicated; as Yasmine said, when an audience member asked if Yasmine herself had ever returned to the place that inspired this story; “No. I never went back.”

And that’s what’s been on my mind since this project started. How do we tell this story without taking advantage of it? How do we do this justice to this piece?

I think the first question that needs to be answered is: Should we be doing this piece? A lot of gauche theatrical faux pas can probably be avoided if that’s the first question asked: “Should we do The Mikado?” “Should we do this minstrel show?” “Should we really do The Merchant of Venice without any Jewish actors at all?” In this particular case, for this piece, I feel that the answer is an emphatic “Yes.” You can read the Director’s Note about why Dani chose this script, but the short answer is this: it’s an important story. It’s topical, it asks tough questions, it’s well-written, and it will open some eyes, some hearts, and some minds.

Ok. So it’s a story that should be told, but how to do so respectfully? For our production, we did everything we could. We cast a wide net for audition listings, with accurate ethnic and age range breakdowns, in a casting process that spanned months. We had an incredible suite of support staff, providing us with in-depth dramaturgical resources, as well as designers that did serious homework in order to clothe us and place us in settings that did not caricature or distort, but rather honored the people whose stories we tell. We had a dialect coach at almost every rehearsal, and met with her one-on-one so that anyone who was speaking with an accent other than their own could do so with fluency and with accuracy.

I am an American actor of Irish and Taiwanese descent. I am playing a Bosnian journalist. I am doing so because I too feel that this story needs to be told; and I am doing so with the respect that the role deserves. I don’t go onstage to tell my own story; I hope that my own story, my own background, helps me tell this story, the story of these things that happened in Sarajevo and Kabul, and in Rwanda andBaghdad and at Foxconn, in Gaza and in Ferguson. We must tell this story, so we will tell it as best, and as honorably, as we can.

Special thanks to Yasmine for her beautiful work, and Kendra, Tristan, Celeste, Antonio, Tony, and everyone else who is helping us to tell this story as authentically and as respectfully as we are.

"Any Way" - On a Cast/Crew Q&A with Tim McNulty

by Fin Coe

I was somewhat taken aback when I read the email from our Director (Dani Snyder-Young) informing us that Halcyon had invited a war correspondent to come and talk to us and answer questions about his profession, which plays a prominent role in our play, The War Zone is My Bed.  We were told to prepare some questions to ask, and I dutifully scribbled down some nuts and bolts shoptalk things to ask about, particularly things I thought might help me more accurately portray my own character, the Bosnian-born journalist Tony.  I headed to rehearsal that evening excited to hear what our guest had to share with us.

"Usual versus Unusual."

I knew very little about our guest, save his name, and wondered if he was getting off the train with me.  I kept my eyes peeled for anyone looking for Halcyon's rehearsal space, in the hopes that I could help.  But he was already at our space when I arrived, talking with Dani and with our Director of Education and Community Engagement (Jenn Adams), as the last of the cast and crew trickled in.  We all got settled, sat down, and listened as Jenn introduced Tim McNulty.  He started off by telling us a little about his work now and in recent years; teaching, editing, working with grants and foundations, helping young journalists cover political and diplomatic beats, with particular focus on civil liberties and national security (and, as he wryly remarked, the uneasy balance between the two of them).  A fascinating look behind the curtain, certainly, but I did feel myself re-assess the evening.  Ah, I thought, this really will be useful.  Someone who can dispel the romanticism, someone who's here to tell us it's not all bang bang photography and field assignments, it's about the hard work of writing and hitting deadlines and doing your research.  This is my character Tony all over;  this isn't quite what I expected from a "war journalist", but this will be instructive and useful.

Then, after he covered what he'd been doing in the past decade or so, living in the States, he went further back, and my "expectations" got kind of blown out of the water.

"A journalistic bubble."

He briefly listed some of the locations he'd been posted in, assignments in Beijingand Jerusalem and Beirut.  Jenn suggested we all go around and introduce ourselves as well, but he had read the play, and took a shot at guessing which actors were playing which roles.  It was a pretty good shot.  Having already adjusted my expectations twice now, I gave up on trying to guess what would happen next.  He used our script as a jumping off point to talk about his personal experiences, and I crossed out most of my questions and just started writing down snippets of the specific instances and broader ramifications of what it was like to be there, to "bear witness", to chronicle great change and great atrocity.  He referred to thecharacters of Dahlia (played by Laura Stephenson) and Peter (Brendan Murphy), who come in to document conflicts they are not direct participants in, and face peril, certainly, but whom fall into the same trap he himself observed, of having "fooled ourselves into thinking nothing would affect us."  For him, he said, every exotic new posting immediately became just the place he was in before his next posting, and very often the only real fear he could feel was of "getting between two opposing forces".  It was a bit chilling to have it brought home how quickly danger and normal standards of self-preservation become impossible to endure, and how deeply we can be changed to do things we should be too terrified to rationally attempt.

"There should have been birds."

On the subject of Denise Hoeflich's character, Susan, he ruminated on the experience of his own wife, and told us that while the character of Susan was left home in the US in our story, his own wife, and three children, lived with him in his postings abroad, a revelation which floored all of us to hear.  As he told us about the death and horror he saw in a Palestinian refugee camp and in the baffling terror of Jonestown (yes, that Jonestown), he reflected on how "usual versus unusual" lost their meaning, echoing the exchange between Laila (Rasika Ranganathan) and Ash (Sameehan Patel) as Laila talks about "the new normal" in the wake of violent cultural upheaval.  Towards the end, he shared a particularly odd anecdote about an attempted kidnapping in the lobby of the hotel he was staying in, where the would-be victim outright refused to be kidnapped, even after being shot.  There was a dog and an unexpected ending to that story, which if you ever get the chance to ask Mr. McNulty about, I recommend you do so.  I won't mangle his story in the retelling.

"The rest of us drank a lot."

I couldn't believe how much he'd shared with us when his hour ended.  Had that all been only an hour's time? But also, was that really all we got to hear from him? With time for one more question, I looked down at what I'd prepared.  Most of it had either been answered, or felt pretty useless to ask now.  I did raise my hand and ask, "as we get ready to portray war journalists, are there any myths you'd care to dispel, any records you want set straight?"

After giving the question some consideration, he told us he'd read up on the background of the playwright, Yasmine Beverly Rana, and had been impressed with the homework and interviewing research she'd done with other actual journalists and foreign correspondents.  She'd gotten a lot of it right, he said, but he advised us to look beyond the language of the play.  "People connect a lot through silence," he said.  As we thanked him and said our goodbyes, his final piece of advice knocked around in my head for a while.  We're looking for ways to keep the play moving, and the violent action of the play certainly moves things along too.  But as we try and take the air out from between the cues, I think he's right that we should also find where the silences are between these characters that dwell in violence, and in a play about intimacy and vulnerability, how loud and meaningful those silences are.

I am incredibly grateful for this piece of dramaturgy for our show, and Tim, if you read this: thank you for bringing us your perspective with sagacity and with humour, and you were way more helpful than Tom Friedman would have been.

Connection, Intimacy, Beauty, Love

by Allyce Torres

Connection, Intimacy, Beauty, love

These are the words that we’ve proposed as topics for our new blog series to span over the next few months. All of them are values we Halcyon-ites hold very firmly. They’re words that are exciting. Evocative. Cool. Awesome.

Except for what the HELL do they actually mean?!

Belileve me, as someone who has been in theatre since I was four, I hear these words a lot. I can give you dictionary definitions, two page interpretations, and even BFA acting-journal-approved explanations of each of these terms. But at the end of the day, that’s all it is. Talk.

I think if you ask most theatre companies, they would say, “Yes, we’re down with love/connection/intimacy/etc.” And I would be hard pressed to find anyone who said otherwise. But the problem is, not many know how to actually walk the talk and actually implement those values into their art and business any further than a superficial level. For an art form that is supposed to be so basically human, it sure can seem elite.    

So, needless to say, as much of a self-proclaimed Bleeding heart as I am, I went into this a little jaded. It was hard for me to see how we as a company would be able to actually achieve what most theatres simply talk about in every level of our business model and artistic practice.

It came time to test it when we had our first Ceyx Performance of the season. During the series, we- as a company- reach out to various artists in the Chicago-land community who have unique and diverse skill sets and ask them to showcase their talents with us for a night. (This time around: Artist Frank Waln and Hoop Dancer Sam Sampson, Improvised Jane Austen, Brothers Lovish and Mahi, and our own Artist in Resident Robert Salazar.)

This was also our first night implementing our new Radical Hospitality Program.

There are lots of super fancy ways to break down Radical Hospitality (Check out the link here to see more about how we do it) but the basic gist is that, at every performance, a set amount of the house will be set aside as free seating to be given out on a first-come first-serve basis and in order to guarantee seating, you can call the box office or purchase them online. Basically, if anyone wants to see a show with us, they can- regardless of financial standing. As a company that firmly believes in Eradicating Borders, this kind of policy makes perfect sense.  I was already standing behind it, but I was completely unprepared for the true effect it would have.

On that Friday night, as I stood helping with concessions and set up, I saw our radical hospitality take life in the diverse (in every sense of the word) faces that flowed into the space. I already knew the performances were going to be DOPE, but the magic and energy that came from the audience was what made the night stellar.

Sitting there, in the theatre filled with performers of differing backgrounds (watching them snap instagram pics together and promoting each other after meeting an hour before), my fellow Halcyonites who worked so hard to get the night together, and a room full of Albany Park teens, Parents on a night out, College students, kids, and several other members from the community- I felt it. I felt all those airy-fairy words come together.

THIS is connection/intimacy/love/beauty not just in our words, but in our practice. For an hour, we were just a group of humans, celebrating, honoring, and entertaining together and it was entirely fueled by the fact that everyone was welcome.

We say we open our doors to everyone, and by implementing radical hospitality into our event programming, we prove and ensure that we really mean it.  

We’re saving a seat for you, each and every one of you- no matter what walk of life you’re from.

And that’s pretty awesome.

Meet the Artists of Dreams of the Penny Gods: Callie Kimball

by Claire Reinhart

Callie Kimball has been here in Chicago during the lead up to the opening of her play, Dreams of the Penny Gods. She’s been a welcome face in the room, and we’re so happy she’s been here! Callie is an accomplished playwright- her plays have been produced and developed at Team Awesome Robot, Halcyon Theatre, Lark Play Development Center, Drama League, The Brick Theater, Project Y Theatre, Absolute Theatre, Washington Shakespeare Company, The Kennedy Center, Mad Horse Theatre, and elsewhere. Her full bio is here if you want to learn more (which you definitely should- she's awesome)! She graciously took the time to answer a few questions about the show and her process.

Q: Tell us about some things that helped inspire this piece.

This play was inspired partly by the monsters in Beowulf. I find it fascinating that Grendel even has a mother, and doubly fascinating that she's also a monster. I asked myself who would count as monsters in today's world, and it has to be someone who has killed a child. Then I was reading some of the testimony from the Casey Anthony trial, and it astounded me how that family had set up a whole infrastructure of lies and tacit agreements that, when viewed from the outside, were completely unsupportable and ridiculous, but that worked for them. So in this play I'm exploring how a criminal family behaves, and how they provoke emotional collusions and physical collisions of a higher order. Can someone from such a family ever escape? And if they escape, where do they run to?

Q: Why is it important to the story that this play is set in Maine?

It could just as easily be set in a small town in Idaho. It’s about people who are living off the grid, who come from poor circumstances and who make poor choices. Which could be anywhere, but my family happens to be from Maine, so it’s a very specific place in my mind, full of blue-collar (or no-collar) people scraping out a living for generations. The generations part of it is important—we see three generations of this family in this play. My family goes back several generations in Maine—they were carpenters, lumberjacks, and lobstermen. Maine seems to have a hold on people’s imaginations as a place of seclusion and natural charm. I wanted to show the dark side of that seclusion, and remind people that it’s not all postcard coastlines up here. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship borne of limited choices, and a lot of families dealing with that legacy of limitation. That said, it’s an hour from Boston, so it feels remote and urban at the same time, a place you could either escape to or escape from.

Q: What makes this play a good fit with Halcyon Theatre?

For one thing, director Jenn Adams is from Standish*, Maine, the next town over from where the play is set! So I think Jenn connected with the material on a level where it felt familiar. In talking with her about the play, I know she “gets” on a deep level who these people are, what fuels their cruelty and desperation, and how matter-of-fact they are when coping with scarcity in their lives.

Q: What makes this play relevant to a modern Chicago audience?

Halcyon’s commitment to putting diverse stories on stage for diverse audiences is inspiring, and I think there’s a lot in this play that people from many walks of life can relate to. When this play was done as my MFA thesis, I was surprised by the number of men who shared with me that the relationship between Kitty and both Bobby and Bug somehow echoes their own relationship with their father. Each family hands down a psychological inheritance, a specific worldview and set of rules for navigating that world, and in this play we get to see what it looks like when a particularly destructive inheritance is exposed and ultimately rejected. It takes strength to break from family. In this play, we see a 13-year-old girl who’s at best ignored and at worst abused, figure out how to grow her mind, find her voice, and keep hope alive in an extremely toxic environment. She uses every tool at her disposal to make sense of the situation she finds herself in. Any time we can see things through a child’s eyes is a chance to see ourselves anew. But for all of Bug’s inherent goodness, she is a product of her environment. It is not insignificant that her first act, upon gaining her freedom, is a criminal one.  

Q: What is one part of this play that you're excited to see come to life?

The fights. The fights are big and glorious. They start with a real or imagined slight that becomes a dance of escalating hurt and cruelty between Bobby and Kitty. This family has ridiculous fights when they run out of words. Half the time the words are lies anyway because the truth is too much to bear. If Bug is the heart of the play, Bobby and Kitty are fists that can’t open. They have a long history of fighting in a certain way, and there’s a moment near the end when Bobby goes “off-script,” when he takes things to a higher level by speaking the unspeakable—the truth—and Kitty is lost in the face of it. If Act One is a storm on the ocean's surface, where death is a possibility, Act Two is the same storm 100 feet below, where death is certain. Kitty and Bobby are like two monsters in the mud. Any time one of them tries to pull themselves out, the other drags them back in. Act One is about what they think they can get away with; Act Two is about what they can't.

Follow the link here for the event information on Dreams of the Penny Gods!

*An earlier version of this interview had Jenn's hometown as Saco, Maine. She's originally from Standish. However her mom, uncle, and two cousins are all based in Saco, Maine currently!

Arthur Chu On In Love and Warcraft

A note from the program for Halcyon's production of In Love and Warcraft

Arthur Chu HeadshotWhenever I need a funny anecdote to tell people about my personal life, I fall back on the story of how myDungeons and Dragons character started dating my wife’s Dungeons and Dragons character before we ourselves began dating in real life.

That was, at least, an in-person “virtual” relationship conducted at a tabletop over game books, dice and pizza on paper plates--although I’ve also had my share of brushes with the kind of online romance In Love and Warcraft deals with.

It’s an unusual story but maybe not as unusual as it seems at first glance--it’s not so different from the fairly common story of actors who play characters who are in love with each other and end up dating in real life. (Disclaimer: I know nothing whatsoever about the cast of this production or whether this applies to them.)

All relationships start on the surface before going deeper. Everything starts off as a fantasy, a possibility--imagining what it would be like to know this person, love this person, have sex with this person, live forever with this person--that we hold at arm’s length for some time in consideration before we plunge into the reality.

After all, isn’t “normal” dating a role-playing game? We dress up nicer than we normally look, we psych ourselves up to be wittier and more interesting than we normally act, we tell little white lies to put ourselves in the best possible light. We sell a fantasy version of ourselves. Just like the role-playing game of a job interview, or Thanksgiving with your parents.

Geeks just tend to take this a little further than most, as geeks are wont to do. I include the geeks who play D&D and World of Warcraft alongside the theatre geeks here--there is, after all, major overlap between the two groups.

I’d like to think that those of us who are drawn to any form of escapism--high art or low art, Shakespeare or Star Wars--are so drawn because we see the fantasy in reality and the reality in fantasy. We know that all the world’s a stage, and we’re unhappy with the roles we’ve been asked to play. We gravitate to “abnormal” environments where we play “artificial” roles that we feel somehow reveal more of our true selves than what we show when we’re at the office or hanging out at the bar. We’ll repurpose any environment we’re given to our own ends, be it elaborate sword-and-sorcery sagas like World of Warcraft or simple iPhone apps like Words with Friends. (My two friends who got together over Words with Friends got married last weekend.)

And yes, a lot of what we do is messed up and unhealthy. But is it that much more unhealthy than what everyone else does?

In Love and Warcraft isn’t the first work of art I’ve seen that explores the messy world of online gaming from an authentic, insider’s perspective--I’d have to give credit for that to Felicia Day’s The Guild. But In Love and Warcraft isn’t really about Warcraft the way The Guild is.

Only one of the major characters is a gamer, and rather than the all-too-common approach of treating Evie’s alienation from the “real world” as a bizarrely fascinating sickness to be studied and cured, our playwright Madhuri Shekhar explores how Evie’s alienation is just one alienation among many.

Evie is a Cyrano de Bergerac, someone intimately familiar with and fascinated by the idea of romance, enough to make a living ghostwriting love letters for other people. But she’s never experienced romance in the flesh, is physically a virgin and is wrestling with her fear of intimacy. She loves the idea of love but is terrified of its physical reality, whether it will or won’t live up to the image she’s built up for it in her mind.

That’s not so unusual in a world where all of us are inundated by book and film and TV romance plots long before we hit puberty. I certainly find her more relatable than her roommate and best friend Kitty, who’s been through the trappings of romance time and time again--especially the sex part, which is the most fun part--but has neither experience with nor desire for a “real relationship.”

Our culture has plenty of people in both situations. Our technology enables us to move as far as we want in either direction. There’s couples on the Internet who spend months or years communicating by emails and chats without ever meeting; there’s people who get smartphone apps so they can swipe right on a person’s photo within five miles of their location for an instant hookup, no questions asked.

Both are valid strategies. Both are ways to choose to expose one part of your life while keeping another protected. Both are masks you can wear, roles you can play. One isn’t any more or less real than the other.

In Love and Warcraft presents the complicated world we live in and the many masks we wear without judgment, asking us simply to empathize with the hard choices the characters make about what to conceal and what to reveal at any moment.

As a gamer I love finally being able to hear terms like “DPS”, “L2P!” and “noob” on a theatrical stage. But ultimately In Love and Warcraft isn’t about games. It just uses one particular, colorful stage and set of masks--the avatars players assume when they enter the mystic land of Azeroth--to illustrate the eternal challenge of one person, in her time, forced to play many parts.

In 2014 Arthur Chu found himself a viral celebrity after winning $400,000 on the game show Jeopardy!, becoming a controversial public figure in the process. Along the way, he caught the attention of the media speaking on the toxicity in online culture and “geek” spaces. He currently writes about his various cultural and political obsessions for The Daily Beast, Salon and other publications.

Director's Note for The War Zone is My Bed

by Dani Snyder-Young

Gaza. Syria. The Ukraine. We live in a time of violence. This summer, I have returned nightly from rehearsing The War Zone is My Bed to watch powerlessly as global tragedies play out across my television screen. I engage with them as a spectator and as a voyeur, sipping a cool drink and eating a small meal in my comfortable family room in my quiet and safe-feeling home a few blocks from here. I have the luxury of turning off the television or changing the channel when the horror of the images gets to be too much.

This play tells the interweaving stories of three couples whose lives are intertwined with the act of representing trauma in times of war. Tragedy may surround them, but they steal moments of pleasure and affirm their humanity; they love and laugh and find joy in being alive together. But a fundamental imbalance of geopolitical power is embedded in each scene—someone has the power to leave and tell the story and someone does not. What does it mean to have the privilege to tell the story?

The goal of this production is to open up a productive conversation about the way we, contemporary American audiences, engage with global traumas as spectators, watching the horrors of war from the safe distance of our television screens, interacting with them as we choose to click on internet links or play out fictionalized narratives in war games. I ask you to look at this work as a provocation, thinking critically about ways we, as the privileged ones who get to watch, are complicit in these characters’ struggles.

That Little Bit of Hope in the Rubble

by Laura Stephenson

Approaching this project was daunting. There is so much going on, so many layers. First though, I have to say-- It’s crazy how relevant the script is. As fortunate as we are to live here, it’s hard for us to comprehend what is actually happening in Ukraine or Gaza, right? There’s just no possible way to know what that fear, what the kind of daily life is truly like. There is a completely different mentality when you are living in a war zone. Every day things, normal boring stuff is thrown into extreme levels of danger. There is the chance that any moment can be utterly blow apart in an instant.

When you first meet my character, Dahlia, the Bosnian war is still going on literally right outside her window. There’s a large possibility that her entire family has been killed, her hometown destroyed— that she has very, very little left. And during that same moment, the man she loves is going back home to America. Back home, to be with his wife. He’s going back to safety and comfort, after having robbed her of a life she can hold on to. I mean, YIKES. That’s some pretty intense shit that I’ve certainly never been through.

So, where exactly do I begin? – I’m playing a character whose entire historical background and life alone I can barely even grasp. As an actor, my imagination has to be my greatest tool. I exercise it often, but with this show, it is hard to know if I am truly doing justice to what that must have been like. Even with research and being alive during both the Bosnian War and Invasion of Afghanistan— I watched from a television screen, or an internet media outlet. I was very distant and very safe.

We were incredibly lucky to have a Q&A session with an actual war zone reporter, Timothy McNulty. Hearing his stories sounded like something straight out of the movies. There’s no real way to comprehend the magnitude of what he saw and lived through, unless you had been there too. I left rehearsal that night thinking about what an incredible life this man has had so far, and how brave and intelligent he is— and how I could never do anything like that. I am a complete wimp! It genuinely blows my mind that he is excited about going to Israel in a couple of months. WITH his journalism students.

Not that I’m a total square, but I’m certainly not about to throw myself into a war zone.

And yet, that is exactly what my character does. Well, first Dahlia was born into the Bosnian War- but she chose to stay, write and find the humanity where there was little to none to be found.

And that… that is where I was able to find some common ground when playing Dahlia. I completely understand wanting to be a voice for those who can’t be heard. Trying to find that little bit of hope in the rubble, to feel it and bring it out into the open- that is something that makes us want to see stories like this one. I took a lot from this idea, and it created further life for the character.

I will also say that this play focuses so much on the personal relationships of these people- which is a fantastic gift to the actors. Relationships. There’s something I can understand. Maybe not all the specific layers included in this show- but it’s much easier to play make believe when you get at least 50% of what your character is going through. And those relationships really are at the center of this story. Despite the desperate circumstances surrounding it, the story is very personal and very grounded in human connection. It can be hard to understand the ways in which a person visits, or attempts to even live in a war zone. But we can access the soul of these characters because of how very human they are.

I am incredibly proud to be part of such a remarkable show. These stories feel real. These people could have actually lived. And when I watch the other scenes, I am genuinely moved by the vibrant lives and the sheer will these characters have to come alive. I only hope the audience will enjoy the journey as much as I have.

When The Stars Align: Writing Heart Shaped Nebula

by Marisela Treviño Orta 

Me: Hey, Tony. I’m happy to write a blog post for you guys leading up to the [Alcyone] festival.

Tony: Great. Write a blog post explaining why you decided to write play about astrophysics.

Why did I decide to write a play about astrophysics?

Short answer:

I didn’t.

Long answer:

And I do mean long. I didn’t mean for this blog post to go on and on, but it did.

As for answering the question, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to see if I can do so without including any spoilers. But, dear reader, if you’re up for it so am I.

It started with an image.

This is how most plays begin for me, as a moment of visual inspiration. I was watching television. Yes, playwrights watch television. The broadcast was abruptly interrupted by an Emergency Alert and as its message scrolled across the screen an image arose in my mind: a girl and a man in a motel room.

I knew two things immediately. First, this image was a play. And second, I did not like the set up. Meaning, I did not want to write a play about a child in the clutches of a predator.

So then, why? Why were they in the room together?

And this, dear reader, is where we teeter very close to spoilers so you will have to forgive me for not giving you a direct answer. But I will say that I found my answer by turning to science.

I grew up with a lot of science in my life. My father taught Earth Science at my local Jr. High. So I participated in science fair from kindergarten to high school—and let me just say that volcanoes are not proper science experiments. Sorry, but after 13 years of applying the Scientific Method, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

But yes, lots of science.

As a child I saw Haley’s Comet through a telescope in a dark Austin park with hundreds of others. I’ve walked the rim of a dormant volcano. Stood next to dinosaur footprints. Marveled at the beauty of stalagmites and stalactites. Was disappointed that Meteor Crater is fenced off and no, you can’t go down into it. Witnessed multiple lunar eclipses, solar eclipses and the Perseid Meteor shower.

The Perseid Meteor shower holds a special place in my heart. It happens every year mid August and the first time I saw the shower was a spectacular experience. I mean, the shower varies from year to year but the first time I saw it was special. Special because despite the light pollution in my small town (not a lot of light, but usually any lights from town or houses impede viewing) didn’t matter. That year there were so many meteors that streaked across the sky. Their tales were so wide I could hardly believe it. And they seemed so close, as if you could reach up and grab a hold of them.

Now, because Heart Shaped Nebula was using a scientific principle to explain why Amara (a 13-year-old girl) and Miqueo (a 36-year-old man) are in the same motel room, I decided that the third character—Dalila—was going to be an astronomer.

And that’s when Heart Shaped Nebula became a love story. And to be honest it’s a love story on many levels. I put my love for astronomy and Greek mythology into the play. I put my nostalgia [read love] for my home state of Texas into the play. And I put personal, almost autobiographical, love into the play.

So the long answer is, I didn’t “decide” to write a play about astrophysics. It was almost as if the play sorta made the decision. And more than once it’s felt like the stars were aligning for this play in a mysterious and wonderful way.

For example, the title Heart Shaped Nebula. When I first began writing this play I struggled with figuring out a potential title. But then while working on a monologue for Miqueo—a muralist—I found myself describing one of his murals. I was scribbling notes when I wrote down “heart shaped nebula.”

Is there a heart shaped nebula?

That’s what I wondered as I looked down at the phrase. I mean, I knew there was a horse head nebula. A crab nebula. So I immediately went online to do a google search. Lo and behold there is a Heart Nebula.

Gift number one from the Universe.

But not only is there is a Heart Nebula, there’s also a Soul Nebula, too. And it turns out they are both located in the Perseus arm of the Galaxy.


As in the Perseid meteor shower. The meteor shower has that name because the meteors appear to come from the constellation Perseus. And coincidentally both the Perseid meteor shower and the constellation Perseus are important elements in the plot of the play.

Gift number two from the Universe.

I mean, it sounds like I planned it. Like I knew in advance. But I didn’t. Instead I merely uncovered the connections that already existed. And all on chance. All on the happenstance of stringing three words together: heart shaped nebula.

Turns out those three words unlocked the play. And as the tumblers fell into place it felt like the entire Universe opened up to me in that moment and gave me a brief glimpse of something very special. I hope you’ll come see for yourself.

Down the Silk Road

by Fin Coe

What I’m about to say may get me in trouble. But it’s true.

Last night I went to Silk Road Rising, looking for a fight. They were hosting a panel discussion called Building a Theatre of Inclusion, with Eliza Shin, Jamil Khoury, Danny Bernardo, David Henry Hwang, and Chay Yew1. The discussion was to focus on challenges faced in building a diverse community in Chicago and in the US, recent controversies in casting, and issues faced in the casting of Asian stories and Asian-American actors.

My upbringing has ingrained in me a stubborn, do-it-yourself, don’t-ask-for-help attitude. As I’ve followed the recent controversies in “multi-culti” casting, I’ve had extremely mixed feelings. Perhaps the most shocking of those feelings is, “Ah, stop whining”. I haven’t always felt accepted by the Chinese or Asian communities (a distinction I sharply draw, by the by), and there have been times in my life and in my career where I’ve felt that if I wasn’t seen as a member of a community, it was my prerogative to not care about that community’s problems. And if Asian-American actors had a hard time getting roles, I thought, maybe they could imagine what it was like being told you weren’t Asian enough. They could damn well make their own opportunities, as I had always struggled to. And on and on.

This was not the ideal headspace to be in, as I settled in to a seat in the front row at a discussion on diversity and casting.

The discussion took a while to get started, as additional seating needed to be rustled up, latecomers were made room for, and the omnipresent technological hurdles had to be navigated. I took out my ubiquitous little moleskine book and scribbled down things I’d thought about in the days leading up to the event. “Inclusion as Exclusion”. “No Chinese advertising for Chinglish”. “Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s conscious decision to alienate”.

I craned my neck constantly, appraising the audience, the ethnic breakdown, the friendly chatter, the camaraderie, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. There were friends and acquaintances and collaborators there, and I smiled, but part of me dreaded the beginning of a discussion on Inclusion, wherein I feared I would feel more of an Outsider than ever.

The discussion and filming began a few minutes later. Malik Gillani introduced Danny Bernardo, who would be leading the discussion. One of the first talking points was the most recent series of casting controversies that the Asian theatre community in Chicago has been talking about; the trifecta of La Jolla’sNightingale, Circle Theatre’s Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Orphan of Zhao. Danny got the ball rolling by going down the line and asking each panel member to say a word about each controversy.

My heart sank. “Arrogant.” “Wrong.” “Irresponsible.” It seemed as though my fears were to be concerned. Everyone onstage in lockstep, a united Asian front that was out for revenge. A discussion of anger.

And then: “Heartbreaking,” said Eliza, the actress on the panel, in response to the RSC’s Orphan casting. She spoke about living in Europe, and about the difficult reality that it is another world on that other continent, and the kind of racism faced there in the most mundane and idyllic settings. David was asked to talk about the casting controversy of Miss Saigon that happened “So long ago”, and he said something that hit me. “It was just one week. But it was kind of a big week. It scared me.”

And the discussion really began. When you ask people to give a one-word reaction to something that’s insulting, yeah, you get a wall of angry or dismissive words. But that’s just an icebreaker. Once Chay started talking about the importance of a theatre that is truly American, an idea which Jamil talked about as being “polycultural” rather than “multi-cultural”, and Eliza was open about the double-edged sword of racial casting on film – “I have absolutely benefited from my color when it comes to casting on film” – I began to believe that this was a dialogue. That this was not a rally like the ones I have known, of us versus them, but a rally of us altogether.

Danny and Chay both spoke about not understanding themselves as anything but American. Danny didn’t categorize himself until, at age 10, his agent told him that he didn’t get a part based on his look. Chay thought nothing of his decision to write a play where all the characters were Caucasian; until he saw David speak at Brandeis after a production of M. Butterfly. David talked frankly about his big break coming from a political maneuver of affirmative action, and his being in the right place at the right time, and about hearing, years after the Miss Saigoncontroversy, that the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer came down, not to racism, but to nepotism. “’He was our friend, we wanted him to come with us’. You go to Broadway, you want to bring your friends, you all know each other from college and you want to help each other out.”

I can’t deny that that one hit home, considering I co-founded and run a theatre company with my college friends. As the panel speakers told their stories, it became personal for me. This was about progress, not recompense. My major takeaway was this: GET A DRAMATURG. Invest in your communities. Honor the text. Do the work, show your work, prove that you made the best effort you could to cast as responsibly as possible, because as David says, “the burden of proof is on the theater, and most of the time they’re just lying.” Another controversy of sorts was discussed, the decision by Lifeline Theatre to make their production of Bridge of Birds, which was based on another Chinese story, “multi-culti”. And how the theatre was willing to deal with the Asian community’s response to that, and open up communication, and work to make it right. Members of the Lifeline theatre were there that night, in the audience. It wasn’t a rant. It really was a dialogue.

It was honest, too. Danny said, “It’s tough when we spend so much time just being thankful we have work.” Jamil talked about investing in your community, your polycultural community, even when you speak to the Philippino and Chinese communities about polyculturalism and they say, “You do know we hate the Japanese, right?” Chay talked about that, saying that the theatres need to mingle their DNA, and that we all know what happens when you only stay in your own corner of the gene pool. Eliza spoke about the reality of tokenism, where Asian-American actors will be used for minor roles, but the protagonists are invariably Caucasian. “Realize what you’re doing when you do that. I’m sorry. You guys get the basketball like… 90% of the time,” she said, and it was exactly the kind of statement I’d been scared to hear, but it was real, it was true, and there is no reasoned argument against the feeling of being heartbroken.

As the panel wound down, I listened, rapt. This wasn’t about the jilted minority, clamouring to get privileges for Asians, it was about people who were in a position to make change, getting rights for Americans. It was about being authentic to more than just the mythology of Asian stories, but to the reality of an American theatre scene. Danny opened the discussion up to the audience, and the responses were equally frank, provocative, and insightful. I looked at the things I had written in my book, before the discussion began, and I looked at everything I had frantically scribbled down during the last hour and a half. I kept my hand down.

I had my concerns still. I’m wary of the dangers presented by the ubiquity of “Asian-ness” as a concept. I’m still thinking about Inclusion as Exclusion. I still wonder about my place in all this. But what I had taken away from the discussion was positivity, and a measure of peace. I’ll pester them with contentious emails a-plenty in the future (and I daresay that this piece itself, if read, may encounter some mixed responses) but at the end of last night, I wanted to give back the good things that I had taken away for myself. I listened more, and wrote down more, and after the event ended, I shook hands, and thanked the speakers for what they had shared, and for being there. I spoke to the people I knew, and I thought about the future.

You can sit alone and have your thoughts, they can be well-reasoned thoughts, they can be shocking, earnest thoughts, you can lecture and argue and rage in your own mind. And then you can walk into a room, sit down, and have your mind changed. I’m embarrassed by what I brought with me when I walked in to the theatre last night, but I’m willing to share those dark thoughts and feelings so that you understand what a 180 last night was for me. And to the people who showed me that, I should maybe apologize, but I’m not going to apologize for who I am and how I feel.

Instead I will say, Thank you.


Update: Video from the panel is now up