Tea in the Desert with Julia Cho
I fell in love with Julia Cho last summer in Oregon. She and I were both writers in the Just Add Water/West Festival at Portland Center Stage, where her plangent, bristling, and very funny play BFE was being workshopped. After rehearsals one night in her hotel room, I tried on some stilettos I’d bought to wear in a friend’s wedding. She joked that if she weren’t straight she’d make a pass at me. The feeling was mutual.
Now, with BFE having just premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut before an immediate move to Playwrights Horizons in May, Julia is bound for the aisle herself. I caught up with her and her mother at the T Salon and Emporium, right after they’d come from a trip to see Julia’s wedding dress.
Eisa Davis: Tell us about the BFE process.
Julia Cho: I was commissioned to write a play by New York Theatre Workshop because they had given me a fellowship. And it was a great fellowship. Just write a play, whatever you want is fine, they said. It was interesting because I’d just written The Architecture of Loss. Architecture’s a pretty serious play, so I wanted to write something funnier. And [BFE] ended up being funny but it also ended up being dark, which goes to show you that you are what you are. And I developed it with them during retreats over the summer. Then they ended up producing Architecture, which was really great, so I started sending BFE around to other theaters. I ended up doing readings of BFE pretty much everywhere. I should get one of those concert shirts made up for it.
I have a question for you.
Listen, I don’t know who you’re—
Question. Would you rather have dark, curly hair all over your body OR would you rather have a small, curly tail that no one can see? Hello? Not good, huh? Okay, how about: Would you rather sneeze cottage cheese or cry vegetable oil? You’re being quiet. Does this mean you’re not going to hang up? I am very bored. If you do not talk to me I will be forced to watch some rather unpalatable television. Okay, easier question. Would you rather talk to me on the phone or would you rather I hang up?
I would rather…talk on the phone.
Welll, peachy. So would I.
Davis: Where did you go to college again?
Cho: I went to Amherst College. And I definitely came at plays from a literary bent rather than a theatrical one. Nobody in college even knew that I wrote plays. I’m a late bloomer.
Davis: (to Julia’s mom) What did you think your daughter would be?
Cho: She had no idea.
Julia Cho’s mom: I had no idea. After Amherst, she went to Berkeley for her PhD. She studied literature so I’m thinking she would become a professor. After a few years, she said, ‘Mommy I want to go to New York!’ I always thought she should do what made her happy. When we grew up in Korea, food is the most important thing. Everything’s related to how to eat, how to live. But in this country, it’s not like food is the most important thing. Survival is not the only thing…I’m a nurse. In our family, there are no writers. But I knew she loved English. Even at three years old, she read.
Cho: I wasn’t reading at three.
Davis: I bet you did.
Cho’s mom: Yes, she did.
Cho: [My parents] were actually very good about being supportive even when they didn’t really understand what theater was.
Cho’s mom: I love her so much.
Cho: Also you’re catching her at a good moment ‘cause she liked the play that she saw [BFE]. My mom was telling the director Gordon Edelstein that when she came to the country she could barely speak English. And now here’s my daughter…and he found that very profound and moving.
Cho’s mom: And that’s the truth. I barely spoke English, I had to learn English. I still have an accent. And when my children call me at work, [my co-workers] automatically think that they should have accents like me. They say who is that? My daughter, my son. Oh, how come they have no accents?
Cho: Isn’t that crazy? That they’d think that was hereditary? Arizona. Very conservative.
Davis: How did you end up in Arizona?
Cho: My dad’s company. He used to work for Howard Hughes’s company in Culver City. And then it moved to Arizona…hence all the desert plays. Which I’m stopping now. I’ve written three and that’s enough.
Cho: I feel like I was relying on the landscape too much. I wrote Durango after BFE. And then I wrote a play called The Winchester House and that’s in New England. So I was like good, no desert.
Davis: How do you feel your aesthetic got formed, or do you feel you have one?
Cho: That’s actually a really great question because I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that before. I’m sure unconsciously my aesthetic is really informed in large part by film and TV, only because I’m not a child of the theater, I didn’t grow up watching theater. I know that I have a sense of speed in storytelling that’s probably a bit more filmic than theatrical. For instance, I’ve never written a play that all takes place in one location and happens over real time. In fact, such a prospect terrifies me, so I should probably make myself do it at some point. I think automatically in cuts and juxtapositions rather than in one long train shot.
But aesthetically, I remember seeing Chay Yew’s House of Bernarda Alba at Intar. Did you see it?
Davis: I went to see it and got there an hour late because it started at 7. I was so upset I missed it.
Cho: I saw it on the last night. I just ran over there and it was such a beautiful production. He’s really got such an elegant directing style. It was a bare stage with one incredible tree hanging over. And I remember seeing that and being like wow I really love that. That was something that felt really right to me. And that’s the aesthetic I’ve gravitated toward, something that’s really simple and something that requires you to use your imagination. So the way I do all these cuts is not because I want to literally see five different locations but because I want you to imagine yourself in these different places….My aesthetic was already developing but [Yew’s production] is what made it really concrete. I don’t like kitchen sink, I don’t like literal…I like things that are imaginative and spare.
Davis: Have you ever had something happen, either a moment in rehearsal or on stage, where you thought, Oh my God, I can’t look, I can’t believe this is happening to my play?
Cho: You mean in a bad way?
Cho: Yeah I have. There was one reading of BFE where all the actors—they weren’t bad actors, but they were all making really horrible choices. It was one of those things where I was cringing and telling myself, okay, this is going to be a bad reading, but it’s going to be fine. And my director was like, what are we going to do? So we did this divide and conquer thing where we were like, you take these people and I’ll take these. And I went back to my hotel room and I was like: you know what, it’s just a reading, it’ll be fine. And it was so bizarre because they ended up being great. I was like, my entire cast got body snatched and replaced! But the harder moments I’ve had are not when the actors aren’t doing what I’ve written, but when they do what I have written. That makes me cringe more. Like with BFE, during a lot of the Man/Panny scenes, I had to leave. One, it was hard to watch because basically she’s being abducted, but it’s also hard to watch because it’s mine. You know just— I can’t believe I wrote that. It’s scary to see something and know that you’re capable of that.
HAE-YOON, a young Korean girl
My name is Hae-Yoon, but if it make you happy, call me Elizabeth, because this is American name I like. I like Elizabeth because it can change and be many things, like ME. It can be Liz or Beth or Eliza or Betty, which is GREAT because in Korean, Hae-Yoon is just Hae-Yoon….I have long hair the color of Coca Cola and I drink Coca Cola every chance I can. My mother say this is why I am so short and have legs like radishes. But I think Coca Cola is GREAT! I have many question for you. 1) Do you have boyfriend? 2) Do you live near Hollywood? 3) Do you have blond hairs?
Davis: How about the difference between audiences? When you’re doing something at the Long Wharf or Playwrights Horizons, which is pretty white, versus doing something with Ma-Yi, where the audience is more racially mixed?
Cho: I have no idea what Playwrights is going to be like, but at the Long Wharf—which is an older audience, a loyal one, people who have a history with that theater— they’re interesting. They’d laugh at certain lines, like they’d get all the General MacArthur jokes. All generations would get it. When we did have slightly younger audiences, I think there was more of a response because the world was a bit more recognizable to them. I will say that one of the best readings I ever had for BFE was at the Taper as part of their Asian Theatre Workshop Festival. That’s one of the places I can consistently have an almost predominantly Asian audience because they have a really supportive community there. And to have a lot of Asians in the house for BFE was so much fun, it was great. And other audiences can be good too, but there’s just this extra layer….So it’s nice to know that the play works at Long Wharf, because if it works there, it should work at Playwrights. The audiences at Long Wharf have been really great and really supportive.
With Architecture at New York Theatre Workshop, I did a lot of talkbacks there. And they were almost all with older, New York theater-going white people. And some of those talkbacks were the best I’ve ever had because they were so smart. And that’s what I’m looking forward to more than anything. New York audiences are no joke. Not the tourist crowd, but the people who live here and go to see theater a lot. They are very sophisticated, and that’s actually kind of scary. They see so much stuff and they’re so smart you can’t fool them.
Davis: Is there anything else you want to say?
Cho: I have to say, this is an ingenious idea of having playwrights interview playwrights because it’s so utterly disarming.
Cho: It’s like I’ve totally forgotten I’m in an interview. It’s such a clever and devious device.
Julia Cho’s BFE, directed by Gordon Edelstein, runs at Playwrights Horizons from May 19 through June 12. For tickets: www.ticketcentral.org or 212-279-4200.
Eisa Davis is a Berkeley-born, Brooklyn-based playwright and performer. Current projects include Angela's Mixtape with the Bay Area Hip Hop Theater Festival, and Bulrusher with Urban Stages.