The Real World – Theater Edition: Interview with Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song

Barbara Jwanouskos brings us a double interview with one of San Francisco’s most exciting writing teams.

When I heard about Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song’s idea for a play inspired by the god Oceanus, for the San Francisco Olympians Festival, I was very excited because it seemed like this really interesting meld of Greek mythology, technology and environmental issues. So when I heard that Dan and Siyu’s play had been selected for the New Play Development Program and the Undiscovered Works Series by Custom Made Theatre, I was jazzed for the play to get a further life at other Bay Area theaters. I’ve always been fascinated by writing collaboratively and have started to venture to do this myself as well. When I had the chance to ask Dan and Siyu how they came together, I couldn’t pass it up. Below is an interview with Dan and Siyu about their process and what to expect next Tuesday at the Gallery Cafe.

BJ: Could you each tell me about your artistic background/trajectory? How did you get into writing?

DH: I’ve been a theatre nerd since I had the ability to throw a towel around my shoulders and call it a cape— but veered towards prose and journalism in college. It was after I graduated that my longtime interest in writing, specifically nonfiction, and theater came together when I started to write plays. It’s my hope that my dramatic work has a journalistic quality and the journalism has a dramatic flair.

SS: I studied computer science in school and worked for a few animation/visual effects studios. I was always very interested in stories and storytelling but coming from a technical background, I was always intimidated by the “creative” side of storytelling. But, I took an improv class four years ago on a whim and haven’t looked back. With improv, I found ways to break down stories and characters to patterns and logic that was very conducive to my brain and the way I was trained to approach problems. After doing improv for a few years, the desire to tell more specific and nuanced stories led me naturally to want to do more writing.

BJ: Tell me how you came together to work on Oceanus — what was the idea?

DH: Siyu and I have been friends since we took a sketch comedy writing class way back when. And we’re both alums of the SF Olympians — a one of a kind new works festival that I’m sure your readers are familiar with. When a call for pitches for the 2015 “Wine Dark Sea” iteration of Olympians came around, we were talking and somehow decided that working together would be more fun than working alone. In discussing the possible prompt of Oceanus, a primordial sea god that controlled an underground river that circles the earth, we somehow got on the topic of underwater internet fiber optics cables. And we’re like, let’s write a play about that. Let’s write a play about what happens when a line gets cut and is somehow inspired by a Greek god. Is that how you remember it, Siyu?

SS: Yea that’s about right. When we were going through the topics for pitches, Oceanus stuck out to me because earlier that year my work had suffered a similar internet outage when a fiber optic line got cut and our provider had to send a boat out to the middle of the ocean to fix it. I am a classically trained engineer, so for me it was a nice reminder that while we regard the internet and “the cloud” as ephemeral, they are things that exist in the physical world and have tangible manifestations. We ran through many iterations of what the play would be, but the fiber optic line being cut was the central idea that we developed around.

BJ: How have you worked together to create the piece?

SS: We met in person in the beginning while we were figuring out how to build a play around the idea of a disconnect in the internet infrastructure. Those meetings were mostly just us hanging out and talking about things we wanted to write about. Data, relationships, talking sharks. There was a lot of agreeing. Partly because Dan and I are very polite humans but (hopefully?) more because we are very similar people with a lot of the same interests but we approach the world from slightly different perspectives so it’s always interesting for me to get Dan’s take on something.

DH: Also, lots of g-chatting! We’re actually both answering these questions via a Google Doc right now. One funny life imitating art thing about this process has been that while we were writing this play about people trying and failing to connect across great distances I moved a great distance— to Pittsburgh where I’m currently working on an MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon. So as we’ve been working together writing scenes about friends trying to see each other on a video chat we too have been trying to video chat.

BJ: Any interesting discoveries along the way?

DH: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating and how you can share authorship with someone. I think we’re still figuring out our process and how we make collective decisions that reflect both people’s sensibilities. And I’m such an overbearing control freak, so that’s hard. Siyu, I hope I haven’t been a total pain in the ass to work with this whole time.

SS: Ha! No it’s great. I think for me when we landed on a sort of anthology piece with lots of vignettes that was when everything clicked. To Dan’s point about sharing authorship- there are threads that feel very much like Dan’s personality and threads that are very much Siyu’s but my feeling after the SF Olympians reading in November was that the ways the threads connected and the structure felt like something we created together.

BJ: Has the piece changed substantially since the SF Olympians reading? And what are you aiming for developmentally?

DH: It’s about 20 minutes longer. We’ve added several additional scenes to really flesh out the cast of characters we have and to make sure each vignette gets something like a full arc. I also think when we first started working on this we really only envisioned it as something that would be a staged reading. Now, as part of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series, we’re trying to envision this thing more as an actual play.

dansiyu copy

BJ: What are you hoping to hear at the Custom Made reading next Tuesday?

DH: This play has so many different characters and plotlines, I’m just hoping to see if the audience can follow it all and that each of the vignettes lands in some fundamental way.

SS: We talked a lot about the world we were building to tell all the disparate stories. I’m interested in hearing about what worked for the audience and which characters or scenes didn’t quite sit in the world.

BJ: I’m curious about your creative process and artistic development personally– what do you do (or not do) to keep yourself, or at least feel, a forward momentum?

DH: Spreadsheets. Specifically, I keep a spreadsheet of all the plays I’m working on and where I’ve sent them out, where I’ve been rejected, etc… Accumulation of material feels like momentum.

SS: HA! I’m impressed and mortified at “spreadsheets”. I’m nowhere near that organized (but also not as prolific as Dan) I’m lucky to be an ensemble member with the SF Neo-Futurists, part of that means being in a weekly show for months at a time where we write/direct/perform pieces.

BJ: Tell me about the theater scene either here or more broadly — is there anything you are seeing/not seeing that makes you excited?

DH: All the current dialogue that’s happening about diversity and inclusivity in theatre feels positive. We could see a lot more representation of underrepresented communities out in the world and on our stages, but I’m glad there’s a sense of urgency about getting there.

SS: I echo all of what Dan said. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be an art maker in San Francisco. Hopefully I’m not setting the bar too low here, but seeing anyone put up original work these days, my reaction is “Yes. Please. More.”

BJ: Any advice that you have for others that would like to do what you do?

DH: Don’t take advice from people who aren’t qualified to give advice? Well, actually, the best piece of advice I heard recently from someone else is: finish things. I think that’s true for writing and life. You don’t know what you’ve got on your hands until you written— figuratively or literally— the words “the end.”

SS: Again, I echo everything Dan says. Just to be different though – I’ll say pursue lots of endeavors and don’t get bogged down in a specific form or medium. Sketch writing isn’t so different from dramatic plays isn’t so different from improv. Trying different forms will expose you to new ideas, new people, and new opportunities.

BJ: Any plugs and shout-outs for other work you have coming down the pike or friends’ work we should check out?

DH: Everyone should keep an eye on the rest of Custom Made’s Undiscovered Works series. On the second Tuesday of every month you can hear new plays by the talented likes of Marissa Skudlarek, Kirk Shimano, and Alina Trowbridge and us (we’re coming back in October with a new draft!). Also, Siyu is one of the members of the totally bad-ass SF Neo Futurists that perform weekly, you should check out their extra special Pride Show, Wednesday, June 15. I’m positive it will be exciting and surprising and very fun.

SS: Dan’s play Subtenant is premiering on June 17th at the Asylum Theater in Las Vegas. I got to see a reading of it a while back and it was so good it made me angry, it was like when Salieri hears Motzart’s symphony and goes into a fugue state. I haven’t tried to poison Dan yet, but it is that good. It will be playing until July 3rd so if you’re in Las Vegas you should definitely make an effort to see it.

DH: Salieri to my Mozart? More like Romy to my Michelle! By the way, rest in peace Peter Shaffer…

You can catch Oceanus this coming Tuesday, June 14th, at the Gallery Cafe at 1200 Mason Street in San Francisco. For more, click here.

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