Jul 14, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 369: Don Nguyen
Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska
Current Town: Astoria, Queens Baby!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: What am I working on now?
I just finished a first draft of my sign language play called SOUND for the Civilian's R&D group. It's about a deaf couple dealing with the difficult decision of getting a cochlear implant and Alexander Graham Bell's struggle to find a cure for deafness.
This summer I've got three projects I'm working on. I'm one of the writers (along with Josh Koenisberg and Sarah Burgess) for The Living Newspaper, and we'll be up at the Tofte Lake retreat in July working on a new show. I'm also working on rewrites for RED FLAMBOYANT, a play about Vietnamese women living with AIDS, who summon ancient female warriors from the past. I'll be developing that play at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in August. I'm also working on a play about my father's life in Vietnam. It's called THE MAN FROM SAIGON, and I'll have a reading of that sometime in the fall hopefully for Naked Angels. I say hopefully because I've had to postpone the reading several times already. It's my one play that I just can't seem to ever finish. No one else has that problem, right?
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: The summer after my freshman year in college, I took a poetry class for easy credits. I wrote about my friends farting in my car. It was titled "The Shitless Echo." When I shared it in class, my professor, after a very long pause, said "If I were a foreigner and I came to this country and I had never read any poetry before in my life, and I read this piece, I would in fact...consider this poetry." It was a strange compliment and it made me want to write even more because I can accept strange compliments so much easier than I can regular compliments.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: We need to find a way to make theater a basic human need. Like if you don't go see at least three plays a month, you die.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Tony Kushner for his audacious writing, Martin McDonagh for his cutting humor, dialogue and good ol' yarn spinning (Pillowman, Lt. of Inishmore), Christopher Durang for writing The Marriage of Bette and Boo, the funniest saddest play ever. Robert Schenkkan for writing The Kentucky Cycle, epic yet intimate. David Henry Hwang for writing M. Butterfly, Yellowface and the upcoming Chinglish. Elevator Repair Service for doing Gatz. It was the longest and one of the most rewarding times I've spent in a theatre. Annie Baker for writing Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. She says so much with the minimum amount of text. Sarah Ruhl for writing Eurydice. I saw that show twice. Kristoffer Diaz for writing The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety. I saw that show three times! Rajiv Joseph for writing Huck and Holden and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Arthur Miller for writing After the Fall. Bertie Brecht for Caucasian Chalk Circle and Good Woman of Szechaun. Horton Foote for his deceptively simple yet elegant plays. The Orphans' Home Cycle at the Signature was a theatrical masterpiece. David Mamet for writing Glengarry Glen Ross. Richard Nash for writing The Rainmaker. Also anyone who works in Literary departments of theaters, because of the way they champion playwrights. Liz Frankel from The Public and Annah Feinberg from LCT3 and The Civilians, just to name a few. Sadly I'm leaving out a lot of other heroes.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: The kind that tries new things and isn't afraid of falling on it's face. I'm talking about Spider-Man the Musical of course. Seriously though, I admire anyone who has the audacity to do something that's never been done before, and you cannot deny the fact that the creators of Spider-Man did just that on many different levels. Or maybe I just like things that fly on stage? Like Angels in America and Peter Pan. Come to think of it, even my own play Red Flamboyant has flying in it. Yeah, I like flying.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I love this question because I'm just starting out myself, so fair warning, whatever advice I give could be deemed haphazard by anyone who takes it. That being said, wiser men and women on this blog have spoken about the importance of relationships. My agent uses the term "Grow your garden." I absolutely agree with them. These relationships that you will build throughout your career just might be the most important thing you do. It may even save your life one day. I give you exhibit A:
Read this if you were too lazy to click on the link:
It was an amazing video of a colony of fire ants in a flood, who learned to lock their legs together to form a makeshift life raft in order to survive. It was amazing...and you missed it.
Read this if you watched the video:
Wasn't that an amazing video? I know, I'm glad I didn't skip over the video too! Wow, my life is so full right now.
This video proves my point that you need a team/tribe/circle of champions that believe in each other and are willing to lock legs and help each other get to the next moment in what will hopefully be a long and fruitful journey.
Also, go see shows. If not to support other artists, then for entirely selfish reasons. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in a theater and worked out my own story problems while watching a show. Something about sitting in a theater and having a visceral reaction to what's going on, it really does jolt all the hundred monkeys and typewriters sitting in your frontal lobe.
Also, don't be afraid to use...the ellipses. It is awesome and will make your actors super happy because they'll take it as a sign to really emote or think...longer...before speaking. Also, literary managers love this and will consider you a true pro for using it in your scripts.
My last piece of advice is probably the most important. Be genuinely happy for your fellow artists. It is not a competition. It's a journey for all of us. Champion each other. Advocate for each other. And for God's sake man...clap for each other!
A: If there's anyone in the LA area, my play RED FLAMBOYANT will have a reading up at Ojai on August 12th. You can find all pertinent info here: http://ojaiplays.com.
Also, friend and fellow playwright Josh Koenigsberg's play Herman Kline's Midlife Crisis will go into production August 14.
Also check out The Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, The Civilians, The Ma-Yi Writers Lab, The Pack, the 52nd Street Project, and PigPen Theatre Co.