Mar 18, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 559: Alvin Eng
photo by John Quincy Lee
Hometown: Flushing, Queens, NYC
Current Town: Manhattan
Q: Tell me about Three Trees.
A: It’s an historical drama about the unique relationship between 20th century Parisian artist, Alberto Giacometti, and his muse/model, Japanese Existential Philosopher Isaku Yanaihara. (Isaku also translated Camus “The Stranger” into Japanese.) During the 1950s, Giacometti created many portraits of Isaku in drawing, painting, and sculpture. For five years, Giacometti kept flying Isaku from Tokyo to Paris to continue their portrait sessions. Still, the artist felt that he could never fully capture the philosopher’s essence. A deep and complicated love, through art, grew. This love became an obsession, a force that upended everything and everyone in its path. This force forever changed Alberto’s intimate, insular home and studio life with his wife Annette and brother Diego. Isaku was also never the same. “Three Trees” is the first work of my Portrait Plays cycle of historical dramas about artists and portraiture. As such, the play also dramatizes the premise of a portrait’s spiritual ownership. When we become enraptured by a portrait, are we under the spell of the artist or model? Can spiritual ownership of a portrait ever be assessed?
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: “33 & 1/3 Cornelia Street,” the second Portrait Play! This historical drama examines the circumstances surrounding painter Alice Neel’s iconic and controversial portrait of poet/oral historian manqué, Joe Gould in 1930s Greenwich Village. The portrait had a profound effect on Gould in life and afterwards. Neel’s portrait indirectly lead to “Joe Gould’s Secret.” This novella framed Gould posthumously as a fraud and was also the swan song of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes? What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I took my first playwriting class with Lavonne Mueller at ”The Writer’s Voice” program at the 63rd Street Y in 1988. The previous year I had just taken my first trip to my ancestral homeland of China. At that time I was a lifelong Flushing resident and worked as a “professional rock & roll fan” (i.e.) a music biz publicist and journalist. After China, it was hard to go back to my old life. I wanted more than a job or career, I wanted a creative life. While I had written 3-chord songs and “performance art” interludes for various teenage/college rock bands, I had never attempted any creative writing as an “adult.” As a pre-MTV rock and roll fan, rock & roll song lyrics (and LP liner notes) were what I lived for as a child. I particularly loved the extended storytelling of song cycles or “concept albums” like The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Lou Reed’s “Berlin.” Concerts of this era were not live “infomericals” that recreated an artist’s latest music video. In this era the stage was where we experienced the transformative power of rock & roll—often in unpredictable performances that deepened our connection to the lyrics and music that were already tattooed on our souls. By offering the duality of the solitude of composing and the collaborative nature of production, playwriting resembled the rock & roll songwriter’s process of writing and recording the album, then touring.
During this heady, transformative period, three plays spoke strongly to me: John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” (’86 Lincoln Center revival); Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio” (‘87 Public Theatre) and David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” on Broadway, 1988.
“House of Blue Leaves” strongly articulated that quintessential Queens feeling of being so close yet so far away from the center of the Universe that is Manhattan––as well as the universal yearning to make meaningful changes in one’s life. “Talk Radio” felt like a graduation that I was looking to achieve. Before this production, Bogosian was part of a downtown performance art scene that channeled punk rock energy into theatre. With “Talk Radio,” he became a full-fledged playwright and still got to perform in his own work. Although he was still below 14th St., he had created a theatrical bridge between “downtown” and “uptown” sensibilities. “M. Butterfly” seemed to pull all these strands together—especially for someone who was just beginning to explore and embrace his Chinese-American and global identity. It was profound to see many of the east-west themes I was beginning to contemplate after my China trip being explored on such a grand theatrical scale . . . Then David and BD Wong won Tonys for “M. Butterfly”!!!
To become a playwright, I don’t think you need to reinvent yourself immediately. Find sources and inspiration that nourish you and help you build the foundation for that bridge between who you are and who you want to be.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: A few years after The Writer’s Voice, I was accepted into NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. One of our first assignments was to write about a powerful turning point in your life. This assignment triggered a childhood memory that was so deeply repressed that I had never even discussed it with my family or closest friends. This assignment eventually lead to a monologue that I performed for years called “F.O.B.” This was a pun on the expression, “fresh off the boat,” as well as the title of David Henry Hwang’s breakthrough play. In my monologue, ”F.O.B.” stood for “Fat Oriental Boy.” In the early ‘90s it was very un-P.C. to use the term, “oriental.” (It probably still is.)
But back in the 4th grade I was a very chubby kid and the only Chinese/Oriental kid in my class. I was a prime target for what would now be called “bullying.” My nemesis collective were a bunch of girls—lead by a cute blonde girl on whom I had a huge crush. She knew this and, with her girlfriends, took turns teasing me mercilessly every day. One day, things got out of hand. This girl and her friends somehow started calling me “fat chink” and wouldn’t stop. Things got very blurry. I only wanted to get them to stop, but somehow wound up pushing the girl’s head into the corner of a chair. She started bleeding profusely from her forehead. No one was more shocked than me. Next thing I knew I was in the principal’s office––crying hysterically at the conflicting emotions running rampant through me. Finally, the girl’s mother sat down across from me and simply asked, “What happened?” Through my still uncontrollable sobbing and choking, I told the mother what her daughter and her friends kept calling me. To my astonishment, she apologized to me for the behavior of her daughter and her friends. That was the first time a grown-up outside of my family told me that I was right. It took almost twenty years to process this moment. I aspire to capture these profound moments in my playwriting.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: “Three Trees” will have its World Premiere production with the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, March 23 – April 14, 2013 at West End Theatre, 263 W 86th Street, NYC. http://www.panasianrep.org/three_trees.shtml
“33 & 1/3 Cornelia Street” was chosen as one of three plays to be presented at the Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore on April 5. (Edward Albee will be the keynote speaker.)
Books by Adam