October 5, 2022
Season: 2018-19, 2022-23
Language: An Interview
In conjunction with our productions, we publish the Supplements—a book series conceived and curated by playwrights Ife Olujobi and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (also a Soho Rep. Board member) and beautifully designed by Studio Usher. The series is intended to provide audiences with a deeper understanding of the theatermaker’s process through interviews, archival materials, and writings from distinguished activists, theorists, fellow artists, and cultural thinkers. In 2018, Soho Rep produced Kate Tarker’s Thunderbodies—in the process the editors of the Supplements asked Kate Tarker to record a spontaneous telephone conversation with former Yale School of Drama classmate, playwright, and friend Hansol Jung. They were given a one- word prompt. This is the result.
KATE TARKER: Hi, Hansol.
HANSOL JUNG (Wolf Play): Hi, Kate! Thank you for having me on your podcast show.
HJ: Let’s talk about Kate Tarker.
KT: Let’s talk about Kate Tarker. No, let’s talk about our prompt, which is language.
KT: We both speak it.
HJ: We speak it, we write it, we do things to it that people should not do.
KT: We play with it, we abuse it, we analyze it.
HJ: It’s really my bedfellow.
KT: What’s the first thought that comes to your mind in relation to your work?
HJ: When I think language, it’s just a white hot fear of “I’m not worthy, I’m not enough.”
KT: Huh. Yeah, tell me more about that.
HJ: Bilingual means that you’re not… For me, it kind of feels like you’re not really 100 percent in either language, and the fact that now I am using it as my way of being, there’s always a weird feeling of, “I fooled you all!”
KT: Yeah, because you’re writing in your second language, right?
HJ: Right. But you’re also bilingual.
KT: Yes. And I grew up in Germany. You grew up in Korea.
HJ: I did, I did.
KT: And we both write in American English for US audiences. So I’m sure it’s true for both of us that there’s a certain amount of distance or remove from the language.
HJ: Yeah. How do you feel about it? Are you not familiar with this white-hot fear I’m describing?
KT: No, I feel the opposite way. When I think about language, or when I think about American English in particular, I think I feel home. I think home, because I grew up in a small town in Germany. My mom’s a computer programmer who worked with the US military, and she worked on a US military base, but we lived in a German town. And my whole life from five to fifteen was in German except for in the confines of my house, where we spoke English. And there was a lot about American culture that I didn’t understand, that I felt really removed from, but language was this one thing that I had easy access to. And I had a strong need, I think, to figure out what my identity was as an American and what that meant to me. And language was my access point through books, through my family, and also through visits home to the United States once a year.
KT: How do you feel about Korean, the Korean language?
HJ: It’s a little different, because I grew up in South Africa, and we moved when we were seven—this was before I fully read and wrote Korean—and I basically spent my primary school years in South Africa learning non-American English. Even now, sometimes I say things and people are like, “What did you just say?” There’s a weird dissonance, and when I went back to Korea when I was fourteen, I think I had a weird accent. In Korea, there’s these levels of speech, and I could only speak in one level, which is to a friend, and I would talk to all the teachers or elders–
KT: Right, levels of formality. That would give me so much anxiety in Germany, for sure, because that’s a huge part of the language there.
HJ: And so people thought I was mentally challenged. They were talking about putting me in the special class. I do have a lot of trauma about language being the point of where you are accepted or not.
HJ: And so with my work, I feel like I find ways to weasel out of it, to be like, “This is not really English!” If I wrote a realism play set in Ohio, you would catch my fraud. So I’m like, “No, I’m gonna write in this accent,” or, “No, this is actually Korean people speaking, but you can hear it in English so you have different syntax.” They’re like, “No, this is Uganda. Everyone’s foreign. No one speaks the language you know.”
HJ: I think your language is pretty. Or your work that I am familiar with is… I wouldn’t say it’s realistic.
KT: Yeah, it’s not naturalistic. I just started thinking about how maybe if you grew up feeling more a part of something, there’s something about naturalism that makes more sense to you. Like my desire to want to keep it more standard or more formal, and examine the language and play with the language, that all of that keeps it at a bit of a remove and lets the audience maybe experience some of the remove that I carry with me at all times, and makes me more aware of it. Whereas if you really grew up in a community, you’re going to want to really capture the authentic nature of that speech more, possibly.
HJ: I don’t know what that feels like.
KT: Yeah, I don’t understand the inner workings of the minds of naturalists…
HJ: But I do sometimes envy it, of being so deeply soaked into a monoculture that you are able to express deeply within it, and from it, and for those people. And I always feel like I’m expressing for people who are completely not a part of anything.
KT: I also think that there’s a rhythm to your language that is so you. I’m sure there’s a rhythm to my language that is so me.
HJ: Oh, yeah. Do you find comfort in that when people are like, “Oh my god, yeah, that’s a Kate play,” when you have created something so idiosyncratic that people see you?
KT: Actually, I think a lot of people don’t… I actually don’t get that a lot.
HJ: You don’t get people recognizing your voice?
KT: Well, I haven’t… No, I guess I haven’t had that conversation so much in relationship to the work on the page. What I hear more often from people is, “Woah, it’s so crazy, you write all these different worlds.” It’s funny, because I do think that’s true, but also I’m very aware of all the “me-ness” that is in every single one of the plays, so I’m not as surprised by the rules that I change for any given play.
HJ: What are those things, do you think, your “me-ness?”
KT: My “me-ness.” Why are you making me talk about my “me-ness?”
HJ: ’Cause I wanna know.
HJ: Get into the soft, squishy parts.
KT: I don’t wanna answer that question. I like knowing it, but I don’t like defining it for other people so much because… oh, gosh, what’s the word I’m looking for? I have to reverse psychologize myself pretty much all the time.
HJ: Reverse psychologize?
KT: Yeah, reverse psychology is really important for my way of being. So if I say that I am blah, blah, blah, then I’m gonna have this intense impulse to rebel against that, and–
HJ: Oh, I see.
KT: I don’t wanna be at war with myself right now, so I’m not gonna state what I am.
HJ: That’s fair. Lots of wars going on. Don’t need internal ones.
KT: I’d love to know about your moment of becoming a playwright, and what kind of consciousness around language you brought to that. Because for me, it was, again, another moment in translation where I was neither operating in English nor German, but I was volunteering at a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, where the primary languages were French, and then also some African languages, but really mostly French. And I knew some French, but there was an additional level of estrangement from the language, an additional level of remove and–
HJ: You speak French?
KT: Yes. I studied it in school, but I was plunged into a French-speaking environment that year in a way that I had never been before. And that for me was the birth of me becoming a playwright, and I distinctly remember it changing my ear and how I listened to language.
HJ: Woah! Really?
HJ: What was the moment? What were the distinct transactions?
KT: Well, really specifically, I think because everything was in another foreign language and the situations that I was encountering were so extreme, I became really aware of language as an instrument of power. And also I think I was in a bit of a state of trauma from the things I was experiencing, and in order to process it, I started keeping a journal where I would just write down verbatim things that people were saying to verify that they were real and to verify that I had witnessed them.
HJ: Oh, wow.
KT: It’s hard for me to imagine what it would have been like if everything was in English, but the fact that it was all in French just created this truly heightened level of remove.
HJ: You say that a lot, the creation of a remove.
HJ: And are you very aware of it when you’re writing, that you want to do that?
KT: I think I’m very aware that language is something with levers and pulleys, and I want to manipulate those levers and pulleys. I’m very aware of crafting something, and very disinterested in just replicating something, like a mad scientist with my sentences.
HJ: Speak more on the remove; this is how you receive language that is not American English, because that feels like home to you. But when you are writing, you do tend to enjoy the stylized… is that the right word? You do enjoy non-realistic versions of language, and I’m wondering if you are looking for ways to remove the audience from… what is that space you’re talking about? What does that achieve for you theatrically?
KT: Well, in truth, I am my first audience, so when I’m writing, I’m not really thinking about what it’s going to do to the audience so much as looking for new ways for me to understand something.
HJ: Ah, okay. And so that removal from verisimilitude of language helps you understand things, and that’s why they come out that way.
KT: Yeah. Well, you didn’t answer my question. For you, your birth as a playwright.
HJ: My birth! I’m still birthing.
HJ: So you were coming from the world of art, visual art. I never knew that about you writing down all those words verbatim, and I wonder, just visualizing them maybe, is that how you have led to plays? I’m thinking all sorts of things about you. But I also came from a place of doing something else that led me to writing, and it was musical theater.
KT: Right. And you’ve done a gajillion translations also.
KT: Leading into this?
HJ: Yes, which, when you’re translating… I never thought that I would actually write my own thing, because it’s incredibly… It’s so long, and there’s a lot of things that you have to… musical theater also is really hard to write, and this is not a thing I would ever think to do. It just seems like a heightened thing that you also have to have all your facilities around language intact, and I just felt like I’m not really good with words, as you can sense by my word vomit right now.
KT: That’s not true, though.
HJ: I took an undergrad class and I wrote a scene that was about the Korean military and some kind of injustice that had happened that resulted in two young Korean girls being run over by the American military. And it was just a thing that I had been thinking about because it was in the news a few months ago. And the way people responded to it was really amazing, in a way that I felt seen, in a way that I didn’t feel seen when I was directing Oklahoma!, or a scene from My Fair Lady, where I feel like I have to mold myself to get it right, to gain the approval of people I don’t know. I felt like I had agency to, in whatever barbed or fragmented way I could at the moment, show what’s inside myself, and to have people actually read the words I made and not be able to say anything else made me feel seen, I think.
KT: When you phrase it that way, that makes me think of playwriting as this truly weird art form where we ask other people to perform ourselves for us.
HJ: Yeah, it’s a bit… I don’t know, I always feel a little bit like a bully. Within the ethos of new play development of American theater, whatever the playwright writes, you have to say those words exactly. So if, in my attempt to get at something poorly, I wrote dot, dot, dot, “Uh, um, so, are you, um, are you coming?” They have to say all the “uh” and “ums” and that’s just incredible that there’s a sense of, “Ooh, that’s so much power.” We don’t have any power, so that’s an illusion, but sometimes I’m aware of those things. Like, in italics, you write, “Something goes poof,” and they have to make something go poof, regardless of what it is. And it felt great. I think I wanted to get really good at it to a point of “I can make many people do what I tell them to do!”
KT: So, you’re an evil genius. We’ve established that much on this first and only episode of my podcast.
HJ: Oh, no, I’ve revealed too much.
KT: Okay, I have another line of questioning and thought. Yes, it’s true that I was a visual artist before I turned to theater, and there was a choice that I made to use words or language in my art. I’m curious, for you, where thought resides, because for me, I think of thought as actually a very preverbal thing, and–
HJ: What do you mean by thought? Whose thought?
KT: Any person’s thought.
KT: I’m talking about everyone’s thought, a person’s thought. As I said, I also spent a year working with chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo, and I would spend every day from dawn ’til dusk following our closest non-human relative from nest to nest, from when they got up to when they went to sleep. And they didn’t speak, obviously, in our language, but they had just as much presence of mind and intention and awareness as any other person I know. And they were
communicating nonverbally, and also through gesture, and also in ways that I don’t understand and that I don’t think other humans have fully been able to understand yet because we’re blinded by language, by our reliance on that as a way of communicating. And there were multiple times when the chimpanzees outwitted us humans who were studying them in ways that clearly required them to have been doing some intense communicating. For example, these two adolescent chimpanzees made a choice to nest quite close to our camp, which was unusual for them. Normally they were more exploratory and went out into the forests, but for a couple days, they just started nesting right next to our camp, and we didn’t know why. And one day—chimpanzees normally get up with the sunrise, you could call it unnatural for a chimpanzee to do anything other than that—but these two chimpanzees somehow communicate amongst themselves that they wanted to get up an hour earlier while it was still dark, sneak to the door of our camp, wait for us to open it and grab the door so that they could wrest it open and raid all of our food. And that’s actually an intense level of communication that they had to be doing, right? Between themselves and planning, and there was no language as we know it that was a part of that.
HJ: Spoken language?
HJ: In that case, the thought resides in nonverbal communication, you think?
KT: Yeah, I don’t think language and thinking are the same thing, and I’m just curious, since you’ve passed between so many different languages, if you’ve had any sort of similar epiphanies, or if you’re just like, “No, Kate, I did not study chimpanzees in the woods for a year, you weirdo.”
HJ: I did not study chimpanzees.
HJ: But I do think a lot about… maybe not language, but about communication, and I feel like there are many forms of languages, and a lot of the more profound moments that happen in the theater that I feel deeply have nothing to do with words, like in Paula [Vogel]’s Indecent, when the rain starts falling, I just start weeping every time. I’m weeping thinking about it. But it’s like a buildup of having gotten there, and a gathering of a communal desire. And I think about how to sprinkle in thoughts, or… thoughts is not right, but sprinkle in things that will pull at a different part of the fabric of your brain, of the political things, and wherever you are, to find hooks. I want to write in hooks; little, little, little, tiny hooks that will pull at different parts of you that will amount to you being ready to receive the rain moment. And usually, the rain moment is very nonverbal, or at least it’s just a gun going off, or it’s aural for me, and I know it’s different for a lot of people. I think we are made up of thoughts, made up of things that are swirling in our brains, and I feel like it’s my job to wake some of those things up so you can experience my event as I put it. And that’s done through language, I think. My hooks are in language.
KT: Would you ever write a wordless play?
HJ: I would not.
HJ: Would you?
KT: Yeah, I think so, maybe. I don’t know.
HJ: I think you could.
KT: I don’t know. It’s tricky. Maybe. The thing is, I love language. The thing that made me think, “No, why would I ever do that?” is that I actually just love language. It gives me so much pleasure to play with it, and I definitely can see giving myself a prompt like that, but I suspect language would somehow, in some form or fashion, creep in again.
HJ: Sure, you can love it, but also you are very much in love with… I’m telling you what you’re in love with now.
KT: Tell me.
HJ: You’re in love with fooling around, and you’re in love with challenges, and you’re in love with rebellion, and, not to start a war inside you, but to say, “Hey, I love this thing, but I’m gonna go sleep with other things now.” I think it’s possible. Remember when you did that Buster Keaton thing in Liz’s class?
HJ: That was…
KT: Liz Diamond is an esteemed director teaching at the Yale School of Drama. And Hansol, would you like to explain a bit more what the Buster Keaton thing was?
HJ: The Buster Keaton thing was an exercise that we had to do in Liz’s class, which was a directing class for non-directors, so we, the playwrights, took it with designers and stage managers and producers together. We tried to direct and act and all that. And this particular thing was… I don’t remember what the exercise was. I just remember–
KT: Might have been a western. Was it a western? It doesn’t matter.
HJ: I don’t know. Wasn’t the prompt that it had to be nonverbal?
KT: I don’t remember.
HJ: But, yeah, Kate was a clown, I guess. You were totally clowning, going through several fraught moments as this wordless being that kept failing, and then tried to succeed. And there was a moment with the pole and you were trying to climb it and it didn’t work, and it’s very vivid in my brain.
KT: With the pole?
HJ: You were trying to slither up it and then fell, and then slither up. And you were in so much pain, but we couldn’t stop laughing. And then you got it right and we’re like, “Yes!” And Liz Diamond’s comment on it was, “It was delightful, and it reminded me of Buster Keaton.” And I didn’t know who Buster Keaton was, so I had to look it up. But that was a nonverbal theater piece that you created.
KT: Yeah, that’s true.
HJ: But, again, I would say that’s still language. You’re still trying to communicate something, and you are planning, plotting out the moments so you can grab us when you do succeed, when you know that you’ve been planting the seeds of us wanting you to succeed by failing. And then when you do succeed, we’re very happy.
KT: Right. And for our lovely viewers at home, I also ended up studying clown and commedia [dell’arte] with Chris Bayes, which… well, actually, commedia ends up being a very tremendously hyperverbal art form, but clown is mostly nonverbal, and both of those forms are about finding a deeper emotional expressivity. It’s not about just trying to make you laugh, it’s about revealing this raw self underneath your social self. And that self is a very emotional creature.
HJ: And very vulnerable.
KT: Yes, incredibly.
HJ: As a viewer, you’re very susceptible to empathy to this being, right?
KT: Right. I sought that out, and I’ve practically followed Chris home. I just went anywhere he would go because the teaching, it really resonated for me in a deep way. And I do have this feeling about my work, for sure, that the want and the needs and all that, that is the meat of it, and that there’s a way in which you could probably take all of my plays and do them nonverbally.
HJ: Oh, it’d be such a shame.
KT: I was trying to think that through. Could you? Yeah, you’d miss some stuff, but I think you would still understand the story, I hope. And that makes me think about also watching foreign films, and what you are able to still understand about who we are when you take away the language. And I’m a clown.
HJ: You’re a clown.
KT: I’m a rebellious clown.
HJ: Do you ever think of writing in different languages for the audience that will not understand that language?
KT: For the audience that will not understand…
HJ: Like how Sarah Ruhl did in the beginning of The Clean House.
KT: Oh, I see.
HJ: Because that is that verbal/nonverbal tactic–
HJ: Of extremely distancing an audience.
KT: Right, right, or Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist?
KT: Yeah, but they both already did that, so I don’t really need to do that.
HJ: No, no, no, not to do that as a form of art, but what is the thing that you gained from it to use as a moment or a tactic in creating something you’re trying to create?
KT: Yeah, I don’t feel super drawn to that. I am curious about German more, since that is a specific language that I grew up with. There’s a lot of German stuff in Thunderbodies, actually. And there’s my love of consonants and harsh pronunciations, and the “ach” sound. I’m curious about that and how that has molded my aesthetic, and I do have moments when I want to translate things from German or into German or just explore that particular language more.
HJ: But not as just a potpourri of sounds that you don’t understand for an English-speaking audience in one of your plays for the English-speaking audience?
HJ: I do think about language. I think a lot more about sound and how it sounds.
KT: I think about sound all the time, too. Speech as music and the rhythm. And it makes obvious sense with your background in musical theater, and also you’re a violinist. Not everybody knows that about you.
HJ: And no one should!
KT: It’s funny, because I do think I am so aware of the musical properties of speech. I get very antsy around sound design coming into my plays and not intruding improperly and bombing the work.
HJ: I feel like that about all the collaborators.
HJ: Don’t intrude improperly.
KT: Fair, fair.
HJ: But also please intrude and make better.
KT: Actually, I’m having a really wonderful time with my current sound designer on Thunderbodies, Chad Raines.
HJ: Oh, cool, you know him from before, right?
KT: Yeah. He’s a true musician and part-time rockstar in addition to being a sound designer. And it’s really exciting to have a moment where I feel like he is aware of the music of the speech and able to find the notes to play along with it that flesh out the music.
HJ: That’s extraordinary.
KT: Yeah. And you have music in your play that’s about to open at The Public, yeah? Wild Goose Dreams?
HJ: So much music, it’s like a crutch. I don’t ever write plays that don’t have music in them. But also, there’s a moment where one of the characters sings in Korean, and it’s been plaguing Leigh Silverman, the director, for a long time, how to provide the translations. There was a version made when we did it in Morocco with Sundance, where we just handed out leaflets to people. And there was a version where one of the characters would hold up placards for translations. And I was thinking, I don’t know what the effect of having that be Korean necessarily is. It feels right, it feels right that it’s bringing my ears home, but the hard part is that I don’t know what it does for the English-speaking audience because I’m not them. And the busyness of seeing the translations while
listening to a song, is that actually disrupting? Is it helping? It’s a puzzle, and I’m very much thinking about that right now.
KT: That’s interesting. I’ve seen the workshop versions and readings of Wild Goose Dreams, and I can tell you that I didn’t feel kept out of it, or like I was missing anything from not knowing the words.
HJ: Yes, and as we’re speaking, I’m realizing that it’s not being used as a distancing device.
HJ: There was a whole period where I was like, actually, I should write them in English and have them sing in English, because I didn’t understand why I’d done it. It’s just mostly personal and emotional for me. But because it happens to be in the play, you understand the characters enough to want to hear them in their own words, is my theory.
KT: Yeah, I think that’s true.
HJ: But it’s a new feeling. You don’t usually listen to people singing songs in another language and feel feelings about that. And maybe if the play works, it’s a new feeling that you get to enjoy.
KT: It’s a funny thing about the United States, too… Growing up in Europe, everybody was, it felt like, bilingual.
HJ: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes.
KT: Because you’re in such close proximity to all these different countries, and there’s a real survival need to know more than one language. Ultimately what I’m trying to say is it could be such a treat to get to encounter other languages, and because the United States is so culturally dominant and English is so culturally dominant, it’s a treat that I think a lot of people haven’t gotten to experience. It’s so exciting that you get to awaken them to the pleasures of another language.
HJ: Yeah. The aural signatures of a different language in America is something that needs to be tolerated, right?
HJ: That’s how it’s framed. You see bigots on YouTube being like, “Hey, speak English,” and I’m always very curious about what that impulse is to be like, “Speak English, because you speaking that is irritating to me.” Why is that irritating? Like you said, If I meet someone who speaks something else, I’m trying to pick up what they’re saying. It’s fascinating.
KT: Look, I’ve never posted any bigoted videos on YouTube, but my guess is that it would be more about ethnocentrism and a negative reading of the idea of language as home.
HJ: Because never in the history of America has it had just one language. There’s a dominant language, but it was always a bunch of people from all over.
KT: Right. But then there’s those people who are fighting a culture war who want English and all the cultural history of English to be the dominant and ultimately only culture. And it makes me think of France, too, which has had various laws meant to preserve the French language and keep foreign media to a minimum so as not to intrude or corrupt their language and culture.
HJ: So it’s fear.
KT: Fear, yes.
HJ: That something is encroaching.
HJ: So the aural activity of another language in your ears ignites that fear.
KT: I think so.
KT: Alright, I do feel like we’ve drifted away from our original prompt… should we stop there?
HJ: Did we drift off from language?
HJ: We’re speaking in language, so I feel like we can never fully drift away from language.
KT: That’s true, it’s really, really, really, hard to drift away, except with silence.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hansol Jung is a playwright from South Korea. Her productions include Wild Goose Dreams (La Jolla Playhouse), Cardboard Piano (Actors Theater of Louisville), Among the Dead (Ma-Yi Theatre), and No More Sad Things (Sideshow, Boise Contemporary). She has commissions from National Theatre (UK), Playwrights Horizons, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory, Ma-Yi Theatre Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and fellowships from Royal Court (UK), New York Theatre Workshop, Berkeley Repertory, MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Sundance Theatre Lab, O’Neill Theater Center, and Page 73 Productions. Hansol is a recipient of the Whiting Award and the Helen Merrill Award, a proud member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab and NYTW’s Usual Suspects. MFA: Yale School of Drama.