Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.
I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.
I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.
What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.
Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?
Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.
In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.
Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?
Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.
Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.
Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?
Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.
Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?
Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.
Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?
Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.
Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?
Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.
Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?
Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.
Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?
Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.
Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?
Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.
For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.