Nov 6, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 401: Melisa Tien
Hometown: Woodland Hills, CA
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A bunch of very different and exciting things: I'm co-creating (along with 6 other writers, 5 directors, and 4 producers; all from the current Women's Project Lab) a full-length play that will close out Women's Project's 2012-2012 season; I'm co-writing a play with 7 other playwrights about Jackson Heights at 3:00 in the morning, based on late night/early morning explorations in that most diverse of NYC 'hoods; I'm writing a play about a young woman who can rewind her life, but only within the last five minutes (potentially effecting do-overs in life); I'm starting research for a play about a women's soccer initiative in Cameroon that is changing how young Cameroonian women are seen and how they see themselves--I'm thinking of structuring the play like a soccer match, so it's a sporting event and theater event in one; all kinds of good stuff!
Q: Tell me about your involvement in collaborative theater projects.
A: To my mind, there are a few different things people are referring to when they use the word 'collaboration' to talk about theater. There's the inherent collaborative aspect of various people working together to put up a show, from the stage manager to the costume designer to the director. There's also a kind of collaboration that happens when you workshop an existing but not finished text, which involves actor input, director input, sometimes designer input; and they help to introduce new and helpful elements, or subtract extraneous elements, but by and large the playwright is the creator of the written text. There's also 'Collaboration' or 'devised work', wherein everyone who will potentially be involved in the final production, including actors and directors, are deeply involved in the inception, creation, reworking, and polishing of the play; this kind of creation often feels more like choreography (not because it's movement-based but because of the manner in which pieces are built on their feet). The first kind of collaboration happens no matter what. The second kind is what I'm doing with Jackson Heights project. The third kind is what I'm doing with Women's Project. They require different levels of involvement but they're all fun and they teach one to remove one's ego from making work.
Q: Tell me about the Women's Project Playwright's Lab.
A: I love the 2010-2012 lab; it's a bunch of smart, diverse, ambitious, big-hearted, sometimes self-doubting, often openly awesome, immensely creative women: Tea Alagic, Alexandra Collier, Liz English, Charity Henson-Ballard, Jessi D. Hill, Andrea Kuchlewska, Manda Martin, Dominique Morisseau, Kristen Palmer, Roberta Pereira, Sarah Rasmussen, Mia Rovegno, Nicole Watson, Stephanie Ybarra, Stefanie Zadravec, and me. The writers meet to share/discuss work, and the lab as a whole (producers, directors, writers) meet to share/discuss projects and learn ways to be more efficient/productive as an artist, via monthly workshops and guest speakers.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was around ten, my brother and I used to get up at 5:30 in the morning and sneak into my mom's study and write stories. We'd sit on the shag-carpeted floor and put pencil to ruled paper until it was time to get ready for school. It was dark and cold, but it also felt like we were doing something secret and noteworthy.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: In this country it's hard to make theater without private backing (the government has other priorities). The good news is it seems like there are a lot of rich people who appreciate theater and want to donate their money to it. The issue, perhaps, is connecting those donors to theatermakers so that there is a more direct flow of funding to incipient theater projects--projects donors might not have heard of yet, but would gladly support. How can we connect these two? Is there an easier way to distribute money without having to go through a foundation/granting organization? How can theatermakers get the funding they need right away to get their projects off the ground? How can donors get a more real sense of the people and projects they are supporting? Is the answer direct patronage à la de Medici? I'd like to see ways in which rich people can easily connect to and give to poor theatermakers.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: María Irene Fornés. Adrienne Kennedy. Jyoti Mhapsekar. Chinese opera makers, old and new. Also, everyone who struggles to be heard as a theatermaker in New York City and elsewhere.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Lots of stuff. I like intellectual theater, emotionally wrenching theater, impressionistic theater, puppet theater, dance theater, straightforward straight-up realistic theater, brave, weird, quiet, deep, outrageous, hilarious, moving theater. People say this often and I agree--if the theater work is rigorously true to itself (whatever form it wants to take, whatever story it is trying to tell), then it'll be exciting.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A; Try not to become bitter. Know that it takes a long time for most playwrights to get where they want to go. Make peace with the fact that you won't make money in theater (and find a different way to earn money if you need to). Exercise your writing and creative muscles. Do other things besides theater to inform your theater-making. Be open. Be generous. Try not to become bitter.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I have a play called REFRAIN currently running at The Wild Project (November 3-19, Tuesdays-Saturdays @ 8:00 PM; Sundays @ 3:00 PM) / www.refraintheplay.com), directed by amazing collaborator Jessi D. Hill and two actors who are a joy to work with: Brooke Eddey and Marc Santa Maria.