In the Moment: An Interview with Playwright Sam Chanse Appearing at ‘Fall for the Book’

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There is lots of ground to cover for gender and demographic parity for playwrights and directors in the multi-cultural world that is the ever-changing DC metropolitan area. Beyond the current Women’s Voices Theater Festival, the annual Northern Virginia-based Fall for the Book brings together a wide, rich array of storytellers to celebrate the many ways there are to tell a story including through theater.

At this year’s event, Sam Chanse will be the featured playwright. Chanse is a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a group of primarily NY-based Asian American playwrights. Earlier this year she participated in the prestigious 2015 Sundance Playwrights Retreat.

Chanse was recently honored by the Kilroys on their 2015 list of “excellent new plays by female and trans playwrights” for her darkly comic play, Fruiting Bodies. It is about a rather unique family that gets lost in the woods while on a mushroom-hunting excursion.  It involves interfamily politics, race and gender. Questions abound. For instance, can an app save them as they wonder in the woods? Who is a mysterious young boy that appears out of the fog?  And, what can be done without WiFi?

Artwork by Matt Huynh.
Artwork by Matt Huynh.

So, who are the Kilroys? What is their “List”? The Kilroys describe themselves as “a gang of playwrights and producers in LA who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action. We mobilize in our field and leverage our own power to support one another.” The group produced a “List” as “a tool for producers committed to ending the systemic under-representation of female and trans playwrights in the American theater.”

Fall for the Book will bring area audiences the opportunity to get to know Chanse and her solo play and just published into book form, Lydia’s Funeral Video.

Chanse turned her script into a distinctive, one-of-its kind book with far more than just her play’s text.  It is a visual trip offering up the text of the script with stream of consciousness illustrations, something Chanse calls “a counterpoint narrative” with a different voice and appearance on the page, and just a total “Dadaist” kind of flavor, all to have us think differently that we might usually about the complexities of life and decision-making.  And there was the book cover with its vibrant poster art look. I was just totally smitten. I devoured the book. And for those who know me, that is rare indeed.

Let me whet your appetite a bit about Chanse and her Lydia’s Funeral Video with this quote from Connie Hwong, from FlavorPill: “Lydia’s Funeral Video follows the plight of a young woman and her sass-talking embryo as they negotiate the politics of a newly invoked 28-day abortion countdown. Spiked with surreal celebrity trash culture references, sardonic moral relativity, and Chanse’s biting wit.”

I had the opportunity to interview Sam Chanse over the past several weeks. This column is based upon marvelously delightful conversations and emails.

Sam Chanse.
Playwright Sam Chanse. Photo by Derek Chung.

David: Why did you want to become a playwright?

Sam: I have three sisters, and we were all pretty shy and sensitive growing up; we read a lot, and wrote a lot, creatively. I was so shy the idea of casually speaking in a room full of people terrified me; but at the same time, one of my sisters and I would also find ourselves performing and trying to make people laugh—at home, we’d set up SNL-inspired sketches (which I suspect resembled Saturday Night Live sketches not at all), that sort of thing. It wasn’t like talking in front of our classmates; we weren’t conscious of it, but I think there was some gut-level understanding that in performing and making people laugh, we were connecting with our little world in a way that felt fresh and satisfying and magical. In retrospect, I think the impulse to perform was the other side of that shyness we had—craving exposure to/connection with others, and fearing exposure/connection.

Eventually, the writing and performance came together for me, and I realized I wanted to write plays and make theater. There’s something about how it brings us into the same space and moment to think and feel and laugh and weep together, and how that experience can challenge us, and change us.

What has inspired your playwriting over the years?

I’m always inspired by other writers and artists, but also by interacting with artists in other disciplines.I spent a number of years working with a tiny multidisciplinary arts nonprofit in San Francisco.I was writing and performing theater at the time, but also working with painters, grafitti artists, musicians, filmmakers, standup comics, spoken word performers, comic book and zine artists—having that constant exchange across disciplines and the energy of that community had a big impact on my work—it’s probably related to how my process has evolved. I’ve realized that sometimes when I begin a new piece I start with a sort of collage, taking different ideas/characters/subjects/ texts that snag my attention and seem to go together for whatever reason, and putting them into conversation with one another, seeing what they say to each other, and collectively. And then from there I work toward finding the whole, exploring why and how they connect, what it is that’s drawing me in, what the story is.

Doing standup for some years has also inspired my playwriting, which is probably evident from Lydia’s Funeral Video.

And then of course I’m also inspired by what I see in the world—subjects that cause friction for me, that I notice I’m responding to. (Right now, I’m working on a play about international surrogacy.)

What can audiences expect to encounter at your Fall for the Book sessions? Will you be reading from Lydia and/or other of your works? Will the session be interactive with the audience?

I’ll be doing something halfway between a reading and performance of modified excerpts of Lydia’s Funeral Video. Folks will get a sense of the world and the style of the piece, and also be introduced to a few of the different characters. I’ll be performing excerpts of scenes, and jumping around from one part of the play to another, so the reading may be engaging and entertaining, and also possibly confusing and disorienting. I think there’s some discussion time built in, too.

There is a new edition for Lydia’s Funeral Video. As I understand, Kaya Press published the book this year, but you wrote it several years ago, in 2008. Did you make changes between the original and the published version?

The play itself didn’t change substantially, but the published version includes elements that were not part of the original play. There’s this additional text—the counterpoint narrative—that lives in the bottom margins of the book and engages with the play—it offers a sort of running commentary throughout, although it’s an introspective voice, someone with a more intimate understanding of the protagonist’s psychology and history. And there are also drawings throughout (made by the visual artist Matt Huynh did them), which are intended to be stream of consciousness doodles (and sort of were—Matt drew them while watching a video of a full performance of the show). The idea with the additional elements is that they might interact with the text of the play to offer a more fleshed-out experience of the piece (since so much is always lost in moving from performance to printed page; and I think that loss from performance-to-print is somehow exacerbated when you’re talking about a solo theater piece).

What’s the difference between this piece and the kind of work you’re doing these days?

These days I generally write plays for other people to perform. Right now, I’m heading into a workshop of my play, Fruiting Bodies and writing a couple new plays—one about international surrogacy, and another about neuroscience and memory. I’m also collaborating with a composer, Bob Kelly, on a few musical projects, including gilgamesh &; the mosquito (which we were developing this summer at the Yale Institute of Music Theatre, and also at NYU’s Collaborative Development and Production series).

Poet Chiwan Choi.
Poet Chiwan Choi.

Playwright Sam Chance and poet Chiwan Choi will be participating on panels entitled, When Poetry and Plays Mingle Choi’s second collection of poetry, Abductions, explores the arc of his life, and that of his family, through an alien abduction mythology. He wrote his “science-fiction poetry book” saying, he wanted to “take a crack at the sacred place of poetry.” There is free admission for Fall for the Book.

Artwork by Winnie Wong.
Artwork by Winnie Wong.

Fall for the Book: When Poetry and Plays Mingle Poet Chiwan Choi & Playwright Sam Chanse:

Monday, September 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the President’s Dining Room, at Northern VA Community College, in Annandale, VA.

Thursday, September 29 at 2 p.m. at Lakeside Theater, Northern VA Community College, in Woodbridge, VA.