This Saturday on Saturday Matinees, we’ll be joined by award winning playwright and poet Kit Yan, whose musical Interstate won “Best Lyrics” at the 2018 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Born in Enping, China, Yan’s family immigrated to Hawaii where they were raised. Yan describes their work as “a dream space where I witness, remember, and reflect on my queer and trans herstories.” I met Yan at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis where they were beginning their residency as a 2020 fellow. I was charmed by their warmth, and flattered by their generous support of my work. Since then, I’ve remained intrigued by their uniquely vibrant work – a combination of ancestral reverence, queer pride, and lots of pop culture fun. In this interview, we talk about inspirations, cultural traditions, and our shared love of aerobics.
France-Luce Benson – What were some of your favorite musicals growing up?
Kit Yan. – I love Disney lol.
Was there one in particular that left an imprint on you?
I love In the Heights. I have always felt inspired by family, community, neighborhoods, and relationships.
You say “writing is a spaceship into the borderless ancestral past…” I love that because I feel a strong connection to my ancestors whenever I’m creating. Is this true for you as well?
Absolutely. I carry with me all who have come before and all who are coming ahead in all my work. Writing is a dream space for me, to reimagine, retell, remember, and rewrite time and time again. I am only who I am because of the stories, and work of the ancestors. I never take for granted that I stand on shoulders and that gratefulness holds me accountable to telling stories that matter to me.
In another life I was a step aerobics instructor. I still love Step. So naturally, I’m intrigued by your musical MISS STEP. What was the inspiration?
WTF this is amazing about you! I was taking a step aerobics class in Long Island and getting really into it. It helped me feel free in my body as a trans person. Then Melissa (Yan’s collaborator) and I went down a rabbit hole of watching competitive aerobics for 8 hours straight one night while working on Interstate and just fell in love with it! When we dove deeper, we actually found the world of competitive aerobics to have some problems. There were misogynistic rules and expectations embedded in the rules in this sport that is supposed to be a ground for self- expression and frankly is pretty amazingly gay. So we set out to tell a story about trans people challenging these rules in order to feel free in their bodies and connect to something within themselves.
In your short film TO DO, there is a beautiful shot of the protagonist making an offering of flowers and cookies to the ocean? What is the significance? Is it based on any Asian tradition?
Yes! this is a food offering to the person who has moved onto their next life. I’m a buddhist and grew up with kind of a mish mash of buddhist, doaist, and feng shui practices. When we visit our ancestors’ graves we always bring food to nourish their spirits.
During these last 6 months, what has been keeping you sane?
I have been spending more time outside and in nature than ever before. It has been grounding to witness animals returning to their homes, plants growing in places they did not grow before, and people in relationship to the land in respectful and harmonious ways.
What is bringing you hope?
The above is bringing me hope and all this silence is bringing me hope. People helping other people. Collective work towards safety and wellness.
Actors from “Joy Luck Club” and “Hannah” in Fountain cafe.
Ever question if LA has a real theatre community? A true sense of camaraderie? Doubt no more. Last night, members of the cast from the Sierra Madre Playhouse production of The Joy Luck Club swarmed to the Fountain Theatre to support friends and colleagues in our California Premiere of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. After the performance, members from both companies gathered in our upstairs cafe to celebrate and congratulate each other.
It was fitting that the visit happened on Labor Day, the national observance of the value of work. For people who work in the theatre, there is a fervent dedication to the art form and a palpable cord of goodwill between artists.
The bond between the Joy Luck and Hannah casts — both with Asian actors — began when the company of Joy Luck sent a funny and warm-hearted good luck video from the Sierra Madre Playhouse to the Hannah group days before its opening at the Fountain.
The Hannah company replied, posting their own video to the Joy Luck cast.
Happy opening night to the cast and crew of Joy Luck Club at Sierra Madre Playhouse (Victor S Chi Shar Liu Christine Liao Tim Dang Yee Eun Nam Lee Chen-Norman Grace Shen Christopher Chen and everyone) !!!!! — ❤ the cast of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo at East West Players and Fountain Theatre 🎭🥰👏👏👏👏💐
Last night, cast members from The Joy Luck Club were at the Fountain supporting their fellow players. The Hannah cast will soon do the same. Theatre can be a competitive business. It can also be a haven for friendship and support.
A packed house of passionate theatregoers, donors and guests, friends and family, and the invited press enjoyed Saturday night’s Opening performance of our California Premiere of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo by Jiehae Park. A collaboration between the Fountain Theatre and East West Players, the audience reflected a lively engagement from the communities of both companies.
Following the performance, guests enjoyed a catered reception upstairs in our charming cafe. The delicious Korean cuisine was served by Kimbap Paradise, with Korean beer provided by Lotte Beverage America.
It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.
With a cast that is made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.
Carolina Xique:First, let me say that I’m thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles.
Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? Is it personal to your own experience or indicative of the holistic Korean American experience? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?
Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play. I was primarily a performer at the time (Jen and I both went to UCSD for acting). There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.
Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers. She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into. Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.
What kind of research did both of you dive into when writing Hannah?
JP: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.
A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
JP: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.
Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
JC: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is Korean American. There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable. It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking and sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea. I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration. I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience. Having worked on Vietgone by Qui Nguyen has really helped. These plays are vastly different but they both have scenes that shift at a cinematic pace in widely varying tones that need to be woven together in the same play.
East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?
JP: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago…in the time since I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was. And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee (the Shapeshifter) that Howard Ho (Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.
JC: It’s an honor to be able to helm a project with the support of two highly respected institutions in Los Angeles. I think it’s really smart theatre making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color. A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.
What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
Creation myths and family histories meld in a wildly theatrical, startling new comedy that explores what it means to walk the edge between cultures. The Fountain Theatre, in association with East West Players and with generous support form the S. Mark Taper Foundation, presents the California premiere of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo by Jiehae Park. Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle Award-winner Jennifer Chang (Vietgone) directs for an Aug. 17 opening at the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, near Koreatown, where performances continue through Sept. 22.
Set in NYC and Korea in the winter of 2011, just before the death of Kim Jong Il, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes Hannah’s Korean American family on a surreal, funny and heartbreaking adventure back to their roots in South and North Korea and the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them.
“The play is a funny-tragic look at what it means to be caught in between,” says Park. “The characters are striving to reconcile the contradictions of their immigrant lives: North/South, past/future, coming/going.”
Thirty-something Hannah, played by Monica Hong (Ivanov at the Mint Theater in NYC, Please Stand By at Actor’s Playpen in LA), is two weeks away from becoming a board-certified neurologist when she receives a FedEx box from her grandmother with two things inside: a 100% bona-fide-heart’s-desire-level wish — and a suicide note. Hannah’s father (Hahn Cho, recently seen on TV in For the People, Magnum P.I., Swedish Dicks) and mother (Elaine Kao — upcoming feature film Paper Tigers, recurring on Netflix’s No Good Nick) have already moved back to South Korea to be near Grandma at the Sunrise Dewdrop Apartment City for Senior Living, which sits right on the edge of the DMZ. Meanwhile, Hannah’s slacker brother, Dang (Gavin Lee, whose credits include Blood, written and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, and a recurring role on Fox’s The Orville) bonds over music with a student activist played by Wonjung Kim (Korea Musical Award for Best Actress, Ovation nominee for The Last Empress in L.A). In this strange and wonderful play that is a mix of unexpected whimsy, delightful comedy, profound despair and more than a little bit of magic, actress Jully Lee (Ladies at Boston Court, tokyo fish story at South Coast Rep) appears in many forms.
Helping make that magic happen is the Magic Castle’s Dominik Krzanowski, who will create original illusions for the production.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo premiered at the 2017 Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where the Mail Tribune called it “blisteringly original, acerbically funny, powerfully dramatic and deeply thought provoking… If you’re keen to have your mind expanded by an evening of theater that is not going to be comparable to anything you’ll see anytime soon, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is a good place to start.”
Last week, the American Theatre Critics Association announced that Hannah has been selected as one of three finalists for its prestigious Francesca Primus Prize, sponsored by ATCA and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation.
“I saw the world premiere in Ashland and was completely charmed by the play,” says Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. “I was enchanted by its whimsical, dreamlike surprises, and truly moved by its poignant revelation of a grandmother, mother and daughter relationship. Once the lights came up and the performance was over, I knew I wanted to present it at the Fountain.”
Sachs continues, “The Fountain is committed to diversity and inclusion, which makes this first-time partnership with East West Players very meaningful. It’s an invigorating sharing of resources, artists and audiences benefiting both companies and the communities we serve.”
“We are honored to partner with the Fountain on this production,” agrees East West Players artistic director Snehal Desai. “EWP first did a reading of the play in 2013, also directed by Jennifer Chang. The Fountain is a theater whose work and mission I have always admired; this seemed like the perfect project for our two companies to collaborate on, with its mix of humor, theatricality and timeliness.”
The creative team for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo also includes scenic and video designer Yee Eun Nam, lighting designer Rebecca Bonebrake, sound designer/composer Howard Ho, costume designer Ruoxuan Li and props designer Michael Allen Angel. The production stage manager is Bryan P. Clements.
Playwright Jiehae Park
Jiehae Park’s plays include peerless (Yale Rep premiere, upcoming in NY at Primary Stages), Hannah and the Dread Gazebo (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Here We Are Here (Sundance Theater-Makers residency, Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, Princess Grace Works-in-Progress @ Baryshnikov Arts Center), The Aves (McCarter Spotlight Series) and contributions to Wondrous Strange (Humana/Actor’s Theatre of Louisville). Her work has been developed through the Soho Rep Writer-Director Lab, The Public’s Emerging Writers Group, p73, Playwrights Horizons, NYTW, Atlantic, Old Globe, Dramatists Guild Fellowship, Ojai, BAPF, CTG Writers Workshop, Banff Playwrights Lab, ACT New Strands, and Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Awards: Leah Ryan, Princess Grace, Weissberger, ANPF Women’s Invitational; two years on the Kilroys List. Commissions: Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, Geffen, OSF, Williamstown, MTC/Sloan. Residencies: MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, McCarter/Sallie B. Goodman. She is a NYTW Usual Suspect, Lincoln Center New Writer in Residence, former Hodder Fellow, and current New Dramatists. As a performer recently: Ripe Time/Naomi Iizuka’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Sleep (BAM Next Wave, Yale Rep); Celine Song’s Endlings (A.R.T.). She was a staff writer on season one of Marvel’s Runaways and currently teaches Playwriting at Princeton University. BA, Amherst; MFA, UCSD.
Jennifer Chang won the 2019 LADCC award for excellence in direction for her work on the Los Angeles premiere of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone. She was a 2018 Drama League New York directing fellow and was the assistant director for the Broadway world premiere of Bernhardt/Hamlet by Theresa Rebeck starring Janet McTeer. Ms Chang’s multi-disciplinary work has been honored with Ovation, LA Weekly and the Stage Scene LA awards, among others. She is a founding member of Chalk Repertory Theatre where she served as artistic producing director and produced, directed and acted in numerous plays over the course of eight seasons. Upcoming directing credits include Where the Mountain Meets the Moon at South Coast Repertory and The Time of Your Life at Antaeus Theatre Company. Select directing credits include Death & Cockroaches by Eric Reyes Loo (Chalk Rep at Circle X/ Atwater Village Theatre); 53% Of by Stephanie Del Rosso and Birds of North America by Anna Moench for the Wagner New Play Festival; Animals Out of Paper at East West Players (Los Angeles Times “Critics Pick”); Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them for Artists at Play (GLAAD Media Award and Ovation-nominated); and Residence Elsewhere, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 at the Japanese American National Museum. She is very active in the development of new plays with the Geffen Playhouse, Chance Theater, Circle X Theatre Company, EST/LA, Playwrights Arena and East West Players.
The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include all-star readings of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall and the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in the Music Center’s Our L.A. Voices festival at Grand Park. The Fountain’s 2018 productions of The Chosen and Arrival & Departure each enjoyed months-long sold out runs and was named a Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” The company’s West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, was named to the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list. Its current production, Daniel’s Husband, was named a Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice” and is enjoying an extended, sold-out run.
As the nation’s premier Asian American theater organization, East West Players produces artistic work and educational programs that foster dialogue exploring Asian Pacific Islander (API) experiences. Founded in 1965, at a time when APIs faced limited or no opportunities to see their experiences reflected outside of stereotypical and demeaning caricatures in the American landscape, EWP not only ensures that API stories are told, but works to increase access, inclusion, and representation in the economy.
Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs welcomes guests.
Friends and supporters of the Fountain Theatre and East West Players gathered Sunday at the lovely Hollywood home of Diana Buckhantz to celebrate the upcoming California Premiere of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo by Jiehae Park. There is much to celebrate. The production marks the first time the Fountain and EWP have collaborated and both companies share excitement about this meaningful opportunity.
“For almost 30 years, The Fountain has opened its doors to diversity and inclusion,” Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs stated in his welcoming remarks. “We welcome East West Players into our home. From day one, our collaboration has been open and generous. As the nation’s premiere Asian American Theatre, EWP brings its artistry and authenticity to the production, as we share resources, audiences and communities with each other.”
EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai echoed Sachs’ enthusiasm for the partnership. Desai shared EWP’s history with the play and director Jennifer Chang. EWP hosted a reading of Hannah in 2013 directed by Chang, winner of the 2019 LADCC award for excellence in direction for the LA premiere of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at EWP. Desai kept his eye on Hannah and planned to include it in a earlier season. After Sachs saw the world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in 2017, he secured the rights to the play and reached out to EWP in partnership. Everything fell into place.
In the play, Hannah receives a FedEx box with two things: a 100% bona-fide-heart’s-desire-level wish and a suicide note. Hannah tracks the package back to Seoul, where her grandmother recently jumped from the roof of her retirement home onto the wrong side of the Demilitarized Zone. Hannah and her family need North Korea’s permission to retrieve the body, but Kim Jong Il just kicked the bucket, and things in the DMZ are even stranger then they seem. The play is a whimsical, surreal and poignant tale about a grandmother, mother and daughter striving to reconcile the cultural contradictions of their lives.
At Sunday’s gathering, guests enjoyed some Korean delicacies catered by Don Tahara of First Street Cuisine. A brief scene from the play was presented in the living room read by cast members. Then Fountain Director of Development Barbara Goodhill explained to the group how they could support the production.
Guests included James Bennett, Jason Blackwell, Diana Buckhantz, Rose Chan, Jennifer Chang, Wendy Chang, Charles Chatelain, Hahn Cho, Chris Christensen, Snehal Desai, Kiyomi Emi, Lois Fishman, Barbara Goodhill, Elaine Kao, Serena Kim, Jully Lee, Gavin Lee, Simon Levy, Dick Motika, Sally Pai Unruh, Pia Palomo, Youn Park, Dora Quach, Stephen Sachs, Allison Thomas, Steve Warheit, Jerrie Whitfield, Dorothy Wolpert, Kim Wonjung. Melina Young.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo by Jiehae Park, opening at the Fountain Theatre on August 17th in its Southern California Premiere, has been named a finalist for the Francesca Primus Prize, sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation. The award, presented annually since 1997, recognizes the best work by an emerging woman playwright who has not yet achieved national prominence.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo earned glowing reviews in its recent world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
“Masterful! So powerful and indescribably beautiful.” – Stanford Daily
“This is theater as it should be — blisteringly original, acerbically funny, powerfully dramatic and deeply thought-provoking.” – Mail Tribune
Playwright Jiehae Park
In the funny and poignant play, Hannah is two weeks away from becoming a neurologist when she gets a strange package in the mail from her grandmother in South Korea, who may or may not have just ended her own life. A surreal adventure leads Hannah on a journey back to her homeland and the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides South and North Korea. A startling comedy about a daughter, a mother, a grandmother and the mystery that connects them.
The Fountain Theatre partners with East West Players in the Southland premiere directed by Jennifer Chang. As the nation’s premier Asian American theatre organization, East West Players produces artistic works and educational programs that foster dialogue exploring Asian Pacific experiences.
Named in honor of Francesca Primus, a playwright, dramaturg, theater critic, and ATCA member who died of cancer in 1992, the Primus Prize was originally administered through the Denver Center Theatre Company. Since 2002, ATCA has adjudicated the award, which includes a $10,000 grant presented through the generosity of the Primus Foundation as well as a plaque for the winning author. The winner will be announced in July.