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.
I’d like to save more money this year. Too much of my budget is going toward J.Crew. But part of how I justify this spending comes from how I identify success for myself. When I can get up in the morning and put on the exact right clothes to express my self, I feel like me all day and my ability to navigate the world goes up exponentially.
This feels shallow and perhaps not something to admit publicly, but it’s as true as anything else about me.
And I think this idea of digging deep or in my case, not so deep, and sorting out “success” for ourselves is perhaps the most important task any of us will face in the coming year—coming to terms with what success looks like both at the surface and down deep.
Success in Theater I think the idea of what defines success in our field has become significantly more narrow over time, like a uniform you wear day in, day out with no allowance for personal style or taste. In fact, I might argue that what defines success has become so tedious and tiresome that new definitions of success are coming out of the closet to challenge a version that is just serving as a cover-up from my vantage point.
Tired Trajectory to Success:
Theater artist gets trained > Theater artist emerges > Theater artist gets small gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets big gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets small gigs in big theaters > Theater artist gets big gigs in big theaters.
I realize when theater artists at the front end of that trajectory ask me for advice, I can no longer under any circumstances continue to support the tired trends of the past, hence my recent piece on the MFA question.
This journey toward success suggests many things that I find problematic for any art form:
That success is linear—that becoming a successful theater artist starts at point A and moves its way down the alphabet.
That the definition of success is predetermined.
That success in the theater is realized by simply counting the number of people sitting in the theater who see your writing or your performance or your design—the bigger the house, the bigger the paycheck, the bigger the impact, the bigger the success.
These problems beg the question: Why? Why do we love theater? Why do we make it? Because if in fact we make it to achieve success, and success is a linear and predetermined trajectory decided by theater size, then our definition of success is the same as Wall Street’s. We are training theater artists in the same frame of success as we’re training our future “successful” business leaders—to go down a path of acquisition toward predetermined markers.
Why Theater? Recently, I flew to Minneapolis to see my ten-year-old nephew perform in the musical Narnia. He was one of the youngest performers, played a small bird, and had only two lines. But in talking with him after about the play, about why he loved doing it I heard about the preperformance exercises they do together, about the bonding between the older and more experienced performers and the newbies. I heard about how much he loves to sing. And I watched him after. The entire cast stood in a line in their costumes in the lobby and greeted the audience. Many young fans approached my nephew for his autograph.
I’ve paid pretty close attention to my nephew over the years, held him in my arms as a baby, was the primary babysitter for awhile, hosted him for “Aunt Camp” for a week in the summer and went to museums and ate copious amounts of ice cream with him. And I saw a transformation in him, standing in that line, greeting his audience. He had gravitas. Through several weeks of rehearsal and performance he had gone from a precocious, typically self-centered, I-want-what-I-want kid, to a gracious and more mature ten-year-old.
Fifteen years in, I keep redefining success for myself. I have been thinking since returning from Minneapolis about the immense privilege my nephew has to explore his interests and desires with the support of family and resources. And I keep thinking about what I want theater to mean for myself, my community, my family, and my world.
Gravitas Success for me might just mean creating theater with more gravitas—a profession that has more weight and bearing in the world—by making theater in whatever way we do it, we succeed when we become more gracious and generous people.
The problem with predetermined paths to success is that for better or worse, the paths are well trodden, and the deep grooves cause us to try and find a way to make ourselves fit into something that has become ossified and unoriginal. And the truth is that not many theater artists, because they are such creative people, can make it down that predetermined road with any regularity.
And strangely, many artists who do find success on these terms don’t recognize it when they get there. I’ve met very few theater artists who will acknowledge that they’ve “made it” even though from the vantage point of those success markers, they clearly have.
Why is that? Is it because they had to make so many compromises along the way? Is it because like for those who go down the Wall Street road, there’s never enough? Never enough money? Accolades? Positive reviews? Awards? Standing Os? Like the billionaires, they’ve spent so much time in acquisition mode, they can’t stop wanting more, they can’t stop and see that at some point there is enough for them, and perhaps in a more generous world, for everyone?
Clothes Can Never Make the Man On that same trip to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at my favorite Minneapolis hangout, the Playwrights’ Center. I love that organization so much because it’s a true home for so many theater artists. I sat around with a bunch of those artists and we talked about this very issue, about how they define success for themselves. I fell into that preachy mode that I can sometimes fall into (sorry) and implored them:
Spend this next year imagining your own definition of success as if it was as important as the next play you write or show you perform in. This will be your most creative endeavor, trust me.
Commit to the success of at least one or two other theater artists you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.
If you haven’t created a personal ethics statement for how you will achieve your definition of success, do it. If your success is achieved on the backs of your collaborators or by breaking the backs of others, I promise you it won’t feel like success when you get there.
I’m old enough to know that clothes don’t make the man. I know that no matter how many orders I make to J.Crew, the clothes can never tell the whole story and that the surface can never stand in for the depth. If I can hold this thought long enough I might just save some money this year.
Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound.
When asked a few years ago if someone with talent and desire to write plays should get an advanced degree in playwriting, I said unequivocally yes for two reasons:
I’m a huge advocate of graduate school of any sort. Graduate school is an indulgence that every one who can access, should. I don’t have a timeline for when, but I truly believe taking three or more years to think about things that interest you and make you passionate and advance your understanding of the world is absolutely essential—especially if you want to tell stories that you hope will mean something to an audience greater than your best buds and your mom.
As far as making theater goes, the significant career opportunities in our business are so few and far between that I would tell prospective students any leg up was worth considering seriously. For example, if your script was on a pile, or if you were applying for a directing fellowship, those letters M-F-A might advance your script/application up the stacks.
My advice to graduating MFAs used to be different too and extremely practical! As you’re thinking about that final year in the program focus on:
Having one fully realized “straight” play with no more than four characters is essential. The MFA is a launching moment and to launch in any significant way into the regional theater movement, your most realistic shot is to have one solid producible play in the most conventional sense.
Make connections with all of the play development centers (Playwrights’ Center, New Dramatists, the Lark, Sundance, Playwrights Foundation, etc.) and apply to every opportunity they offer. In other words, find an artistic home to develop as an artist. This advice hasn’t changed.
But as I experience the work the next generation of theater makers is creating and in what context, I’m beginning to shift my advice. More importantly, I’m convinced now that I’m not the right person to give advice. I’m not being humble here, but rather acknowledging that I’m giving advice from the vantage point of having a salary and health insurance and that my advice is becoming less and less practical and perhaps makes assumptions about what people want out of a career that are more about what I think they should want.
But here goes some advice anyway.
Don’t apply for an MFA in anything right out of undergrad. If you desire to be a storyteller from any vantage point (playwright, director, dramaturg, actor, designer, stage manager, etc.) spend some time living in the world and figuring out what stories you want to tell. Travel, work strange jobs, taste exotic foods, become a marathon runner, join the Peace Corps, and engage everything that feels unfamiliar.
Don’t take a menial job in a large theater just to be near established theater artists. I think the worst thing an aspiring young theater artist can do is to learn too soon the business-as-usual way of making theater.
See as much of every kind of art that you can take in. Close down your Facebook and Twitter accounts for days at a time and read novels, listen to authors read their works on podcasts, go to museums, operas, symphonies, rock concerts, and ballets.
Volunteer at places unrelated to theater. Understand that theater is a part of a whole, but not the whole.
Fall in love. Break up. Fall in love again. This can be love with people, other artists, art objects, remote camping sites, whatever.
Then after all of that, if you still find that you must tell stories, and that you must live in proximity to a stage, by all means apply to an MFA program. It will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.
For those of you graduating in the spring with your MFA:
Maybe go to New York, but maybe not.
Don’t worry about getting an agent.
Find one or two or three other people you want to make theater with and live in the same city, or rural town, or on a tropical island together, and make theater according to your mutually agreed upon definition.
Tell the stories you want to tell and only the stories the want to tell. You will get many opportunities to tell stories other people want to tell; minimize these gigs.
Introduce yourself to every theater maker who inspires you, but don’t bother to try and ingratiate yourself into institutions or try to get next to artistic directors whose work you don’t admire just on the off chance they might throw an opportunity your way. There will be plenty of time in your career for compromising and groveling. Save your knees as long as possible.
Think big. Big plays, big performances, big social change, big bold theater that will burn the house down.
For anyone trying to sort out how to make it in this business: there is no formula. As artists, I personally think rules and boundaries and formulas and systems and even institutions can dampen the possibilities for our artistic expression. And nothing can be more harmful to creativity than believing there is one path toward it.
So get an MFA, maybe. Move to New York, maybe. Write only two-handers, maybe. Buy bottles of expensive wines for Artistic Directors, maybe. But for sure, find a way to tell the stories that will choke you to your very death if they aren’t let out, and don’t make any assumptions that there’s a singular career trajectory for the theater artist.
Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound.
We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude. – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.
Money Trumps Love
During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.
From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”
I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.
I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.
In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.
My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.
When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:
What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.
The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.
Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.
Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.
Going to Church
In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.
Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:
It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.
When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)
Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience. Continue reading →