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Spotlight on David Henry Hwang

By • Oct 6th, 2013 • Category: Interviews

“Lost (and Found) in Translation: How I Learned to Write What I Don’t know” – Some Thoughts from Tony Award Winning Playwright David Henry Hwang

Note: David Henry Hwang will appear at Reston’s CenterStage sharing his thoughts on the writing process and explaining how he creates. The event will take place on Sunday, November 10 at 3:30 PM.

David Henry Hwang is the author of M. Butterfly, show received 1988 Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Awards and was a Pulitzer finalist). He wrote Golden Child (1998 Tony nomination, 1997 OBIE Award), FOB (1981 OBIE Award), The Dance and the Railroad (Drama Desk nomination), Family Devotions (Drama Desk Nomination), Sound and Beauty, and Bondage. His play Yellow Face won a 2008 OBIE Award and was a Finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. His recent work is Chinglish, a Drama Desk Nomination for Outstanding New Play in 2011. He is currently at work on Kung Fu, a “dancical” about martial artist Bruce Lee.

David Henry Hwang also wrote scripts for the Broadway musicals Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida (co-author), Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (2002 revival, 2003 Tony nomination), and Disney’s Tarzan. His opera libretti include three works for composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, The Voyage (Metropolitan Opera), and The Sound of a Voice; as well as Bright Sheng’s The Silver River, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (two 2007 Grammy Awards) and Unsuk Chin’s Alice In Wonderland (Opernwelt’s 2007 “World Premiere of the Year”). Hwang serves on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. He was appointed by President Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. In 2012, Hwang received the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre, the Asia Society Cultural Achievement Award and the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.

Two DC area theaters will be performing David Henry Hwang’s works in the coming weeks. Theater J will be producing Yellow Face running from January 29 to February 23, 2014 and Pinky Swear Productions will be producing Bondage from November 7 to November 23, 2013.

Q. What can the audience expect at your Reston CenterStage event? What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave CenterStage after spending time with you?

I’m going to speak about my artistic process, and how it has changed me over the years — particularly as I’ve looked at the evolving role of Asian Americans, and the shifting relationship between East and West. In a literal sense, the artist creates the work, but it is equally true that the work recreates the artist. I hope the CenterStage audience leaves our time together thinking about the role of creative thinking in their own lives, and their own possibilities for change and growth.

Q. In your artistic life’s work, what are you most proud of? Why?

At this point, I’m most proud that I’ve been able to pursue my art and keep my career alive over more than 30 years, that I continue to love what I do and feel passionate about my projects and explorations.

Q. What have been your biggest challenges over the years?

When I was starting out, I wondered if I could write about subjects personally close to me — Asian American stories, East-West explorations — and have a future in the American Theatre. Then I struggled with the label of being an “Asian American writer” — whether that was limiting or reductive. I also went for ten years (1998-2007) without writing a new, original full-length play, because I was still struggling with the implications of a protest with which I was involved (the Miss Saigon casting dispute) and how to move forward in light of the issues it raised.

Q. What play/musical/opera do you wish you had written? Why?

Gypsy. Just because it’s my favorite musical.

Q. Are you asked for guidance by regional theaters when they produce your artistic works? For instance, Theater J here in DC will be doing Yellow Face in January 2014; have you been asked to provide any guidance or advice? If not, would you want to be asked? Do you ever attend regional performances of your works?

I am often contacted by regional theatres when they do my plays. Ari Roth and I, for instance, began exchanging messages about the possibility of Theatre J doing Yellow Face on Facebook, a year or two before the production was actually set. In general, I try to regard my plays, after their initial NY premieres, as grown-up children, in whose lives I shouldn’t continue to meddle too much. That said, I’m available if theatres have questions, and often like to see regional productions of my plays (I plan to attend Theatre J’s production, for instance).

Q. What has the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award permitted you to do in the past year that you would not have been able to do? [The Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award is presented biennially to honor and encourage the artistic excellence and achievement of an American playwright whose body of work has made significant contributions to the American theater.]

The Steinberg has allowed me to take less film and TV work to support my family, and therefore, I’ve been able to spend more time developing and rewriting Kung Fu, my newest piece about Bruce Lee, and starting new musical and opera projects. 

Q. You have had a long and distinguished career in the theater. In these current times, with the rise of social media and the increase in entertainment options, do think young theater artists just starting out, will have the kind of opportunities to make a long-term impact that you had? If so, how? If not, for those who care deeply about theater, should they be concerned?

I’ve long argued that the digital age would be good for live theatre, and I think this has been the case. As virtual realities proliferated, live art and entertainment became more valuable. Take pop music: artists earn less of their income nowadays from recordings, and more from touring and other uses of their songs. Similarly, Broadway, at any rate, is healthier than it’s been my entire lifetime, and musicals are arguably closer to the heart of American popular culture than at any time since the 1950’s. That said, the down side is that commercialism pulls the cart of the American Theatre in a way it didn’t, say, 20 years ago. I believe in commercial theatre, but I also feel it has to be part of a larger ecology, in which we put just as much, if not more, value on work which is not intended to make money, and never will. If we don’t, then I believe it WILL be harder for young playwrights today to have the same kind of impact. 

Q. What is the future of live theater in America? In your opinion, from where will new sources of inspiration for theater and opera come from?

I think the future of live theatre will be invented by those artists who are young today. I’m just trying to figure out new sources of inspiration for my own works! In that vein, I continue to be interested in experimenting with new forms: Chinglish was a bilingual play with translations projected in supertitles, Yellow Face was inspired in part by the rise of mockumentaries, and Kung Fu is a “danci-cal,” in which dance moves the story forward like songs would in a traditional musical.

When and Where: David Henry Hwang at CenterStage, Reston Community Center, Reston, VA. Performance on Sunday, November 10, 2013 at 3:00 PM. Tickets: $15 (Reston)-$30 (non-Reston). For information visit RestonCommunityCenter.org.

Note: See NY Times Steinberg Award

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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