Interview with David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang is one of America’s greatest living playwrights. Over his thirty-plus year career he has been a three-time Pulitzer finalist and won a Tony Award for M. Butterfly, the first Asian-American to do so. His work has been produced in over four dozen countries across the globe. In addition to his work as a playwright, he has written musicals, libretti for operas (he is America’s most-produced living opera librettist) and works in film and television.
This summer three of his plays are being produced in Chicago, Chinglish premiered at the Goodman before heading to Broadway this fall. Yellow Face was seen at Silk Road Theatre Project, and Halcyon is producing his early play Family Devotions. David recently came back to town for three days, and spent time with each of his shows, watching Chinglish and Yellow Face over the weekend, and then watching a rehearsal run-through of Family Devotions last Monday. Armed with a flip cam, he and I sat down in the lobby of the Greenhouse Theater Center--where Family Devotions will perform beginning August 11--for a conversation while the cast was warming up.
Note: There was some unanticipated arrivals to the theatre while we were talking, hence the background noise, so the full interview is transcribed below. Hope you enjoy.
Update: this will be on the 2amt podcast as well. Also made a couple corrections to the transcript.
Tony Adams: I guess to start out, what’s the one question you always wished somebody would ask you?
David Henry Hwang: Is the porn scene in Yellow Face true?
TA: (laughs) Is the porn scene in Yellow Face true?
DHH: Yeah, actually. That is true.
TA: Is it?
TA: Is there a correlation between that and Asian Pride Porn?
DHH: No, not really. There’s a total coincidence that there’s that much porn in my life and history.
TA: Do you consider yourself a playwright? Or now that you work in film, and opera, tv and everything else, do you consider yourself a writer who still writes plays?
DHH: I think I consider myself a playwright, because that’s still kinda my base form. And really, even though I work in a number of different forms, they’re all scripts. And I think they all derive from being a playwright. And, for me, when I do a play, that’s still the most personal and those are the things that are most me. I think I self-identify as a playwright.
TA: There’s a big conversation in the field about to MFA or not to MFA, and I was looking back over your bio. I was struck by... the fact that you got an MFA from Yale in ‘83...
DHH: No, I dropped out.
TA: Oh, you dropped out?
TA: ‘Cause the thing I read said you got an MFA in ‘83
DHH: Yeah, sometimes they say that. Had I graduated, I would have gotten an MFA in ‘83. But I was there for a year, from ‘80-’81, and honestly--
TA: You were doing pretty well by that point.
DHH: Yeah, it’s not that dramatic a story. It’s just, ‘cause I wasn’t there very much, and it didn’t make much sense for me to stick around New Haven. I just wasn’t around New Haven, so it didn’t make much sense for me to stay in the program.
TA: Ah, cool. When your first couple plays debuted at the Public-- I was talking on a boat at the TCG conference last year with Morgan Jenness, and she was saying that the first year she was there, I think she said they premiered 23 plays?
DHH: That sounds right, I’m sure she would know.
TA: How do you think the landscape has changed for playwrights since then?
DHH: I think it’s harder, you know? When I think about the fact that between the time--I wrote FOB to be done in my dorm. So between the time it was done in my dorm at Stanford, and the time it premiered at the Public theatre in New York, it was fifteen months. And it’s just really hard to imagine anything like that happening today. And in some sense...
Why? Well that was a period when funds for arts in general--and for theatres...therefore was in a growth mode. So there were theatres that were being founded, a lot of the field was starting up.
And also, I feel like the field has become more professionalized, which has its advantages and disadvantages. It reflects to a large extent the generation that founded the not for profit movement, which were basically baby boomers, and then as baby boomers grew up, and these theatres became institutionalized--then, the good part was when you go to another city to do a show, you don’t have to sleep on somebody’s couch.
The bad part is they need to make more money, they became more of a feeder for Broadway. Broadway pulls the cart to a larger extent, a much larger extent, than when the not for profit movement was started--which was supposed to be an alternative to Broadway. So the field’s just different.
TA: Now, to kinda compare, what was the gestation period for Chinglish?
DHH: Well, Chinglish actually happened pretty quickly. Unusually so. With Chinglish, the reading we did of the first act was December of 2009.
TA: And that was at the Lark?
DHH: That was at the Lark. And the I finished, the second act, and we did the whole thing in January of 2009. No, I’m sorry January of 2010. And we opened it here, in June. So it’s somewhat similar. But it’s not similar, in the sense that I’m not an unknown playwright any more and the idea of just some kid who wrote a play, who was a senior in college, and a year later it was done at the Public, it’s just hard to imagine that happening anymore.
TA: Is the story true about when you first gave FOB, Joe Papp told you to rewrite it and you just stuck it in your drawer, did nothing, and gave it back to him?
DHH: That is sorta true. (laughs)
DHH: I don’t quite know how I knew to do that. But it was really about Joe--
What it tells you is that, particularly in those days, I mean now you have more professionalized dramaturgy departments, but people generally shoot from the hip when they give notes. And they don’t necessarily remember what they said.
And, I think it was really, from Joe’s point of view about establishing a power relationship, just to sort of make it clear that if he wanted me to think about changing something that I was open to that.
TA: You’re the kid, I’m Joe Papp.
DHH: Right. And in fact, I mean with that particular set of notes I wasn’t, but in general I am. (laughs)
TA: How do you navigate the burden that writers of color have placed on them, that some people expect them to be a representative for their entire community?
TA: Even in something like the Asian-American community where there are no real ties other than geography. How have you navigated that over your career?
DHH: I’ve gone back and forth in it a lot. You know when FOB was done at the Public, I was twenty-three. I remember there being a review in an Asian-American paper that said it set Asian-America back twenty years. FOB. And I was twenty-three.
DHH: (laughs) And that kind of hurt my feelings. But I started to realize that this was part of this was about. And you know, really, now I feel like--look, two things.
Number one, it’s impossible for any artist to represent an entire community. And so what we have to do try to do is foster a community of artists and that can represent a community.
And number two, of course Asians are the ones that are going to care the most and have the strongest opinions about Asian work. If you do a piece about morticians, it’s the morticians that are gonna go “well, you know it’s not really like that.” (laughs). So I just think that’s part of the job description.
TA: Do you think that’s changed as you’ve looked at more global issues as opposed to more American?
DHH: I don’t know. I’m not sure because M. Butterfly is not really an Asian-American play in terms of content. Only because it’s written by an Asian-American. And you know, there’s a big section of the Asian-American community that feels like it perpetuates the emasculation of Asian men. And so, simply going to an international subject doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to get criticized. And, you know, criticism--although it’s not pleasant--is ultimately a healthy thing.
TA: If you could change one thing about theatre now and today, what would it be?
DHH: I think it really has to do with the whole culture, but theatre has succumbed to this shift in the culture which argues that anything that can’t make money is not worthwhile.
I work on Broadway, I believe in the commercial theatre. But I also believe that commercial theatre has to be part of a larger ecology. And that means accepting the value of things that are never going to make money, and that are not about that, and aren’t trying to do that.
And I feel that if I had to change one thing about the field that we work in, it would be to restore respect for work which has no desire to be commercial.
TA: Is that kinda like, I think it was August Wilson, always said “if you want to help a playwright, produce his first three plays.” Kinda along the same lines?
DHH: Yeah. I think that’s... I didn’t know that quote, but that’s a really good quote.
TA: I could be mis-attributing, but I think--
DHH: That very well may be. Yeah, and another thing, and I think people are trying to change this, is to move from the reading culture into a production culture. And I think the field in general is aware that this is a problem. I don’t know that we’ve necessarily figured out how to solve it. But there are different people that are trying to take different stabs at it.
TA: Now how has the reading culture evolved over the course of your career? ‘Cause it’s kinda came now, and my sense is that when your first three plays were done, readings weren’t as big of a--
DHH: No, you sorta did one reading, so that the artistic director could decide if he was going to produce the show. But, I don’t really think there was this sort of notion of developmental readings and professional dramaturgy field and literary departments--I mean there were literary departments, but they were more about picking plays, than trying to develop plays.
And I’m very involved with the Lark play development center, so it’s not like I don’t believe in development. And I certainly develop my own work, but you know, when development started to become about believing there was some sort of a formula, there was a right way to do a play, that’s when I think it really went off the tracks.
I feel that now there’s more of an effort to and a recognition to bring it back to the notion that it’s the authors idiosyncratic vision, and if the dramaturg can help an author achieve what he or she, what his or her play is meant to be then that’s great. But when you start to try to mess with it and impose your own aesthetic, that’s a problem.
TA: Now do you think that--with the Lark, it’s sort of an interesting example that there aren’t a whole lot of corollaries across the country. Playwrights Center in Minneapolis of course, but they’re very clear, “we’re never going to produce your play. We don’t produce plays.” That’s not what they do. How do you think that effects development there as opposed to somewhere like South Coast Rep or something?
DHH: The advantage with the Lark saying they’re never going to produce your play is it also don’t have an aesthetic agenda really. I mean everyone has an agenda, in that they have their own taste. But institutionally it’s not like they are paying a mortgage on a big new theatre that cost, whatever, ten, twelve million dollars. So they can be more about helping the writer figure out what his or her play was about. As opposed to thinking “our audience is going to like it better if the play is more like this.”
TA: Something I’ve always been fascinated about is revisiting work. So, if you look at Irene Fornes’ body of work, one thing that stuck out to me as I was reading through--because we did a festival of her work last year.
DHH: Oh cool.
TA: Morgan and her assistant Micah sent me pretty much all of her unpublished scripts. They scanned them and emailed them to me. And I was astonished to see how she would, continually, she would have an idea. And it wasn’t very good. And then she’d revisit the idea and it was a little bit better. And then she’d revisit the idea and then Mud comes out. And the first half of What of the Night, there was a couple of times she wrote Nadine, and a progression and then knocked it out of the park.
DHH: That’s very interesting.
TA: And I was thinking about that when I was watching Yellow Face, in some ways it was you revisiting Face Value.
TA: Are there other works that you’d like to go back and revisit? Or do you think when they’re done they’re done.
DHH: In general I feel like when you’re done, you’re done. Only because, otherwise it’s just really easy for you to just work on one play for the rest of your life. You can rewrite until the cows come home.
TA: Is that like Pirandello wrote one play in a hundred acts?
DHH: (laughs) Yeah, well you certainly could argue that. But you know I feel like, Yellow Face is a revisiting of the themes in Face Value and it refers to it, so it’s self-referential in that way. In some sense I wouldn’t say it’s a rewrite of Face Value. Because a rewrite of Face Value would be about trying to go back to that premise. So I feel like there are certain projects that-- I mean, to some extent Chinglish revisits some of the M. Butterfly themes. I feel like Golden Child revisits some of the Family Devotions themes. So, I don’t necessarily go back and rewrite a play per se, but I’m still interested in advancing a certain argument or a certain exploration.
TA: When you were writing Family Devotions, it’s probably been a while, but do you think--did you have in your head consciously that that was going to be a trio of plays, or did it just happen like that?
DHH: No, it just happened like that. I’m assuming you mean Family Devotions, Dance of the Railroad and FOB?
TA: And FOB yeah. Thirty years later, there’s a very strong thematic link.
DHH: Yeah, it feels like that now. Because after Family Devotions then there’s a gap, and then there’s the Japanese plays, House of Beauty and Sound of the Voice. And then there’s the somewhat unsuccessful experiment of Rich Relations and then M. Butterfly, so therefore you end up with these first three plays being kind of isolated in a certain period. But no, there was no plan to do that. It just kinda happened. (laughs)
TA: (laughs) Is there anything you could tweak about it, if you had to rewrite it?
DHH: Family Devotions?
DHH: You know, I’m really curious to see how the ending works. Because for me, the thing that was always tricky about M. Butterfly and then I revisited this also in Rich Relations, and tried to make it work in Rich Relations, and then I revisited this technique, if not the theme in Yellow Face. Which is, to try to create a farce which then becomes something of a tragedy. So I would say, I feel like Rich Relations is really not successful at it. Family Devotions, I think, is pretty successful at it? But I’m curious to see how that shift in tone works.
TA: (laughs) Me too.
Oh I forgot to say, this is David Henry Hwang, and I’m Tony Adams
David Henry Hwang is the author of M. Butterfly (1988 Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Awards, Pulitzer finalist), Golden Child (1998 Tony nomination, 1997 OBIE Award), FOB (1981 OBIE Award), The Dance and the Railroad (Drama Desk nomination), Family Devotions (Drama Desk Nomination), Sound and Beauty, and Bondage. His play, Yellow Face, which premiered at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum and New York's Public Theatre, won a 2008 OBIE Award and was a Finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. He wrote the scripts for the Broadway musicals Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida (co-author), Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song (2002 revival, 2003 Tony nomination), and Disney's Tarzan. His opera libretti include three works for composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, The Voyage (Metropolitan Opera), and The Sound of a Voice; as well as Bright Sheng's The Silver River, Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar (two 2007 Grammy Awards) and Unsuk Chin's Alice In Wonderland (Opernwelt's 2007 "World Premiere of the Year"). Hwang penned the feature films M. Butterfly, Golden Gate, and Possession (co-writer), and also co-wrote the song "Solo" with Prince. A native of Los Angeles, Hwang serves on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. He attended Stanford University and Yale Drama School, and was appointed by President Clinton to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. His plays Chinglish (World Premiere at the Goodman Theatre) and Yellow Face (Chicago Premiere at Silk Road Theatre Project) are also playing in Chicago in the Summer of 2011.
Tony Adams is a Chicago based theatre artist, husband and father, and artistic director of Halcyon Theatre. He has hundreds of credits as a director, designer, actor, writer and producer.Before moving to the Chicago, Tony was in Paris where he worked as an actor, director, writer and designer. As co-founder and Artistic Director of Halcyon, he has worked on each of Halcyon’s productions to date. He also staged managed twice. He is a horrible stage manager.