We continue our 16th Writer/Director Lab with Jiehae Park’s new play UNTITLED HIGH SCHOOL MACBETH, directed by Lillian Meredith. This interview with Jiehae continues a series of interviews with the participants of this year’s Lab. Come and join us for the second reading at our theater on 46 Walker St, May 8 at 3PM!
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1. Briefly tell us about your play.
It’s an as-yet-untitled adaptation of MACBETH set in a high school. Dark comedy. I spent the first seven months of lab working on another play, but while at an artists colony this winter, had the overwhelming urge to stop working on that and start working on this. I had some intense educational experiences growing up (magnet schools, taking the SAT to qualify for summer camp in the 5th grade, that kind of thing) but what I did is nothing compared to what kids go through today. No way would I get into my alma mater now. Elizabeth Irwin (from last year’s lab) sent me a recent Times article about the Department of Ed investigating whether Harvard or Princeton discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The outraged language in the comments section feels similar to speech I remember hearing when I was in high school, but the identity of the speakers has shifted; it’s fascinating and also funny-awful. So I guess the play came out of a big soup of questions about diversity, entitlement, group-identity, access…as well as my own very ambivalent feelings about “ambition” and “success”. Also, it’s fun to write heightened language for intense teenagers. I was so sure about everything as a kid, and so wrong about most of it.
2. Who are your greatest influences in your writing?
Constance Congdon, as a writer, teacher, and human being. Connie was my undergrad playwriting teacher, and I’m so grateful. She told me once that it is her job as a teacher to assume that every student has talent, and to try to encourage that talent. And she engages ambitious political and social questions with her writing that inspires me to be a better citizen. One of the beautiful things about living here is the swirling stew of incredible artists to learn from. I’ve seen so many things this year that rocked my world! I don’t know that the specifics translate in a one-to-one way into my work, but I feel a sensation of opening after experiencing some shows that feels like it creates space for surprises in my own work (and my life!). It happened this season at FUN HOME; FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN; the William Forsythe piece at BAM; MR. BURNS; Lloyd Suh’s WONG KIDS…I don’t know what these shows have in common, but I know I left each feeling profoundly excited about what live performance can do. Wait, but you asked “who” and I went on a tangent. Literally, the greatest influences right now are my brilliant colleagues— here in the lab and in the other writers groups I’m currently involved with. I’m in awe of their smartness and generosity…being in rooms with these people has made me a better writer and human.
3. What part of the Writer/Director Lab process was the most instructive and entertaining?
To encounter each piece fully, from start to finish, each time. And to witness the evolution of that whole over the course of a season. There’s some magical gestalt thing that can’t happen in ten or twenty page snippets of sharing. I’ve laughed and cried really, really hard at that conference table. Over these last few months I feel like I’ve had a window into many creative processes different from my own, and respect and admire them all tremendously. (And in terms of pure entertainment, Ken and Knud are shockingly good comedic actors…killer deadpans.
4. How have your dramaturgical skills developed over the curse of the past nine months?
Jenny and Ken create such a safe, generous room— really nuanced ideas have come up that I hadn’t considered before. During our final session, there was an incredible conversation around the beginning of one of the other writer’s pieces. It was about whether a monologue at the beginning was serving an impulse that might instead be served by staging, or sound, or some non-verbal thing. I’d never had that kind of discussion before, and it was deeply enlightening, because in other writers groups you’re only around writers. Sometimes in obsessive writer- mode it can be easy to forget that a play is greater than the text itself, and that whatever surge of feeling is underneath an impulse could be expressed or amplified outside of dialogue or stage direction…And that being so, how do you communicate that to someone reading the script? It’s only because there were directors in the room, because we had seen the directors’ projects in 3D a few months earlier, that this discussion was as rich as it was.
5. Sixteen years on the Lab has produced some pretty great plays. Looking over them, do any stand out to you?
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT… floored me. I know that wasn’t written in lab itself but I think Jackie was in lab when it was produced? I hadn’t been in New York that long when I saw it, and it made me think “I want to be around the people who are making this kind of art!” It cut across so many axes—theatricality, race, politics, entertainment, epistemology (I feel pretentious using that word but it’s literally applicable here!)…and I saw Amy Herzog’s 4000 MILES around the same time, which was this beautiful, compassionate piece of naturalism that was delicately perfect in a completely different way. Beyond the plays themselves, though, the list of past lab members makes me swoon. Like TIGER BEAT for theater nerds.
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Jiehae Park is a playwright and actor in NYC. Her second full-length, HANNAH AND THE DREAD GAZEBO, won the 2013 Leah Ryan Prize and 2013 Princess Grace Award; the script was developed at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and Ojai Playwrights Conference. Current: Ma Yi Writers Lab, Soho Rep W/D Lab, 2015 Emerging Writers Group at the Public, Dramatists Guild Fellow, Princess Grace Fellow at New Dramatists. Upcoming: Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep. She served two years as co-artistic director of title3, a Los Angeles company dedicated to new works by women, and has been a mentor for the O’Neill’s Young Playwrights Festival. As a performer: NYTW, La Jolla Playhouse, Collection of Shiny Objects, Studio Theatre, Young Playwrights Theatre, REDCAT. BA (theater), Amherst College; MFA (acting), UCSD. www.jiehae.com