The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Theater In Dialogue

Unraveling Realities with Christopher Chen

Playwright Christopher Chen.  Photo: Sasha Arutyunova.
Playwright Christopher Chen. Photo: Sasha Arutyunova.

Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater
The Headlands
February 8 – March 22, 2020
New York City

There’s one thing you can be certain of in a Christopher Chen play: the world you encounter at the beginning will not be the one you see at the end. His Obie Award-winning Caught (2016) is a Russian nesting doll of a play that examines deceit, cultural appropriation, and our desire to believe. But long before he burst onto the national scene with that play, he was well known as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most exciting and inventive writers. I first encountered his work back in 2007, when I was literary manager for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. 

Christopher Chen: You know you were actually my first conduit into the professional theater world.

Jonathan Spector (Rail): Really?

Chen: Your call to me from the Playwrights Foundation telling me I was in the festival. My first national event, it completely blew my world apart.

Rail: I remember everyone on the committee that year wondering, “Who was this local kid that nobody knew, who was writing so distinctively, so confidently?”

Chen: I was constantly, obsessively going over to the website because I was afraid I had imagined it.

Rail: And now you’re about to be at Lincoln Center!

Chen: Yeah, just completely overnight!

Rail: So your LCT3 play, The Headlands (forthcoming, February 2020), is set in a house in the Sunset District of San Francisco, and right now, we’re sitting here in the living room of your house in the Sunset. I was picturing your living room as I read it. Were you imagining this space as you wrote it?

Chen: I wasn’t necessarily imagining the interior of my house, but definitely the Sunset District recast in a noir light. But actually, Knud [Adams], the director, and videographer Ruey Horng Sun came over here for a whirlwind three-day video shoot. We worked from 10am to midnight with me driving them around the city, and we did tons of interior shots right here. So this house in fact is the house in the production.

Rail: Amazing.

Chen: And I work at the San Francisco Public Library History Center, so we looked at a lot of archival photographs. The head of photography showed us this series of videos taken by kids in the ’70s, in various parts of SF, including a young Chinese filmmaker. We’re including some of that footage in the play. So yeah, I’m harnessing all of my SF resources.

Rail: Was the video element there from the beginning?

Chen: It was. This was my biggest commission, so I really wanted to use this as an opportunity to go for broke. And I’ve always loved video in theater, when done right, so I told myself I was going to do my dream project. I had experimented with video in The Hundred Flowers Project (2012), and this pushes that love of mine to the next level. I asked Evan [Cabnet, LCT3’s artistic director] if that was okay, and he said, “Yeah, go for it, go for it!” 

And so, yeah, in terms of a video dream project—in addition to indulging in noir and true crime genres, which I love and are the influences that are referenced in the play itself—I also wanted to do a play that was in the spirit of my idol Kazuo Ishiguro, who does these very precise and very mysterious novels having to do with memory, and memory seemed a perfect match for video use because to me memory takes the form of these little, tiny, second-long film clips you store in your mind.

Rail: This is your third play in NYC but the first one to premiere there. When I had my first show in New York this summer, I remember thinking: “I’m so glad this is not the first production, because I already know how the play works.” I can imagine being paralyzed about making changes because of the pressure. And also, it’s an audience I don’t know. Did that affect your thinking?

Chen: There is something strange about writing a San Francisco story for a New York audience. But I think because I’m indulging my love of genre elements, that gives me a kind of grounding—even though it’s a genre I’ve never tried before, film noir and true crime. But there’s something that is known about working with genre that is the thing that carries over from place to place.

Rail: And it’s such a San Francisco play.

Chen: It’s a San Francisco play, but it’s also a play about—since I was born and raised here—my own nostalgia for the city. For both the authentic and idealized version of my own city. As captured in movies like Vertigo (1958). It’s so strange. I’m not sure if everyone has this about the city they grew up in, but I still feel like the city is magical and that all of these idealized portraits of San Francisco are actually somewhat accurate. Or at least maybe they’ve seeped into my consciousness and affect how I perceive it. But, yeah, I feel romantic about my city in the same way I see it portrayed by outsiders like Hitchcock.

Rail: Right, I didn’t make that connection that so much of the classic noir is set in SF.

Chen: Yeah, Maltese Falcon , Dark Passage, Vertigo, even, like, these ’90s thrillers like Basic Instinct.

Rail: Was that San Francisco?

Chen: There were a whole slew of San Francisco movies in that era.

Rail: Pacific Heights.

Chen: The Presidio, Mrs. Doubtfire. Which is maybe not a traditional noir, but…

Rail: You told me recently that although all the characters are Chinese American, it’s not a play about race.

Chen: So, actually, one of the reasons I made this about a Chinese American family is, I wanted to make this a play that was an Asian American story but that did not explicitly address the issue of race. I felt like that is something I don’t see as much. I sometimes sense that it’s like this added burden for POC writers to feel like they have to address it always, in their plays, and it’s totally understandable, because who else is going to do it? And it’s part of who we are. But I’d addressed race very specifically in my last two NYC productions, so I wanted to write a psychologically complicated Asian American play that did not address the characters’ otherness explicitly. Just let them be their own people in and of themselves. For me, personally, that’s a statement in and of itself.

Rail: I saw somebody on Twitter the other day who referred to you as “the great trickster of American Theater.” And I was thinking about the way The Headlands introduces itself as a true-crime story, or your Manhattan Theatre Club commission…

Chen: The Motion.

Rail: Right, The Motion tells the audience it’s in the form of an Intelligence Squared debate. And this happens to some degree with Caught too, where the play tells us what form it’s going to take and then subverts that. Structurally it reminds me of—is it Penn and Teller? Whose thing is to tell you how the magic trick is going to work, and then when they do it, you’re still surprised? I’m curious, when you’re thinking about the piece, does it come initially from thinking about what the subversion is going to be?

Chen: Yeah, it’s interesting, because when talking about Caught, I always reference magic acts or magicians. I do use a lot of rug-pulling in my plays, and it’s very fun from a structural perspective, but it’s also very serious and meaningful to me. Because it’s supposed to mimic the act of uncovering something deep within yourself. It’s not meant to be like a “Gotcha!” moment or an attitude of the play being smarter than you.

I’d say the main journey in all of my plays is a digging process, where a reality is presented, and we see below that, and then we see below that. With The Headlands, it’s the genre of a mystery, so there is inherently going to be a process where you dig to solve the mystery. But, yeah, I always like to challenge myself to find ways of making that digging and uncovering process as visceral as possible. That’s why I write plays, in a bigger spiritual sense, in order to uncover more about the world and challenge myself to see the world in a different way. So it’s the process itself that I want to capture, because it’s kind of a sacred process, this uncovering and digging process. 

But after saying all this, the digging and the rug-pulling should be fun, too. It is meant to be more like a magician’s act, like you said, where you go in knowing you’ll be fooled, and hopefully you’ll be delighted to be fooled. And hopefully enlightened, too. 

Rail: I was thinking back over the whole oeuvre of Chris Chen, and I noticed the way your first couple of plays—Into the Numbers, Aulis, and The Hundred Flowers Project—are all sort of structured as disintegrations. And Caught has some of that, but it’s more of an unraveling, where the whole is still intact at the end.

Chen: But in the previous plays, the realities they start with end up in tatters. Or not tatters. But they’ve been excavated.

Rail: Yes, but there’s something that still exists at the end in newer plays.

Chen: Sure, sure.

Rail: I don’t know if I’m reading too much into it, but…

Chen: Probably just my more youthful impulses of my 20s of wanting to (in a Johnny Rotten voice) “Destroy, Destroy, Destroy!”

I guess as I grow more mature, it’s more about acknowledging that there are different whole realities that exist simultaneously in the world. So the question becomes: how can I express that multiplicity of different realities? This is the first time I’m trying to articulate this, actually: so, rather than the destructive impulse, it’s more of a morphing of reality. Because reality is malleable, too, and multitudinous. I would say probably Caught tries to capture a vision of the multiplicity of realities, and that’s the same impulse as The Headlands, though done in a very different way.

Rail: So…you’ve just quit your day job, which you had for over ten years. Do you think you’ll leave the Bay Area now?

Chen: We’ll see. I love the Bay Area. But it’s exciting to finally be more mobile now. 

Rail: I wasn’t writing plays yet when I lived in New York, and I often think if I’d stay there, I may never have started. Both the fierce competition and the intensity of that spotlight.

Chen: Yeah, totally, totally. I would not want to start out in New York. I would not have been able to do that at all.

Rail: Plus in NYC or LA, you would be constantly aware of and probably frustrated by so many things about the industry that we are sort of blissfully unaware of, living here.

Chen: I feel like if I started out in New York, there would’ve been more calculation about, like, “How do I make my mark?” compared to all the other stuff around me, just because there’s so much going on there. But I’m sure it’s inspiring too. 


Jonathan Spector

Jonathan Spector is a playwright based in Oakland, California. His play Eureka Day was produced last summer by Colt Coeur (NYT Critics' Pick).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues