Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Carla Ching, playwright of "Fast Company," talks about the play, the Kilroys, writing for television

Brad Walker, Mariko Kita, Sara Porkalob, Kevin Lin in Fast Company (Roger Tang)

Fast Company
Theatre Off Jackson
November 1-22, 2014

Pork Filled Productions’ next play opens this weekend. Fast Company is by Carla Ching and is about a Chinese American family (specifically, as you’ll see her talk about below) of expert con artists, grifters and thieves. It portrays, with comedy and drama, the ins and outs of family dysfunction, even within a family criminal enterprise.

Ms. Ching is a playwright and also a staff writer on an edgy, current and very diverse tv cop show, Graceland. (Well, it’s federal agents, but that still basically makes it a cop show.) I talked to her about her play and writing for television and her involvement in The Kilroys, the group that made headlines this year when they collected a list of 46 plays written by women that theaters could use nationally if they wanted to increase the amount of women playwrights on their production schedule.

First up, her play, which is having its third production via Pork Filled, after having outings at South Coast Rep and Ensemble Studio Theater in New York. EST commissioned the play. Carla has worked with director Amy Poisson on tweaking the script so this script is not the same as either other production.

Carla says that she was commissioned, originally, by EST to “do a play about science or scientists in a good light. If you can figure out an idea, you write a 1 to 2 page proposal and if they like it they’ll work with you over a several year period. I proposed a play about game theory. (My main character) Blue studies game theory and it’s the aspect she thinks will give her a leg up as a conman. At a certain point (in the plot), she realizes she needs a twist to get the comic back from her conman brother because she can’t just pull a con on him. She realizes she can use what she learned in economics classes in game theory to gain some leverage over her brother.”

Carla describes the two “radically different” productions. “South Coast had moving screens and automation. In New York, it was a 74 seat black box situation, lower tech. I loved both productions. But they were also for very different audiences. I did a lot of work rewriting for South Coast and then the New York premiere was this past spring. (Seattle director) Amy Poisson read both versions and she saw a handful of things from the first version she missed in the second and we’ve been in contact throughout to do extensive rewrites for this version as well, to make this production work for this space, this company and this audience.”

So what’s the play “about”? Carla says, “I’ve always been interested in dysfunctional family dynamics. And where these show up in great literature. It’s a particularly American thing where children push back against their parents and carve their own path to be their own people. I have been influenced by A Raisin in the Sun, The Royal Tenenbaums, Long Days Journey into Night. But wanted to re-make the story of the American family my way.

“(Character mother) Mable is one of the best conwomen that ever lived. When her children reached the age of 10, she tested each of them to see if she could use them in the family business. She would drop them off at a faraway place and see if they could find their way home with no money, or map, to use their wits to get home.

"I wanted to ask the question, 'Why is Mable so tough on her kids?' I think that in her mind, (the world is) a dark brutal place and she wants to prepare her children for that, so she sets up obstacles in their childhood in the way she raises them.

“I’ve seen a bit of that in my family and in other families of color. Parents prepare their kids in different ways (to cope with different dangers in the outside world). Some do it by being especially loving and building up their self-esteem and some do it with tough love. And I wanted to explore that.

“They are a family of con artists. The two older boys (return home) successfully, but Blue, the daughter, takes three days to get home, so Mable decides Blue will not be part of the business and teaches the tricks to the older boys. Blue eventually learns on her own. The boys decide they don’t like being conmen. Francis becomes an illusionist, and H has gambling problems but becomes a sports journalist.

“Blue begins running a crew of her own and gets H to come in with her on a big job stealing a comic book worth $1.5 million and in the course of that, all of her crew gets arrested and H makes off with the comic. (Now, Blue has to figure out how to get the comic back from her brother.)”

And making the occupation of the family a criminal one was to amp up the comedy? Carla says, “I did think it would be fun. I also wanted to explore how family members try to pull one over on each other all the time. There are power plays and status moves all the time, even with people we love most. I thought one interesting way to explore this might be in looking at a family who conned other people for a living. Then, how do they con each other?

“The other thing I’m trying to get at is that the boys both give it up and don’t want (what they’ve been taught). They both use what she taught them for good. H is trying to learn winning and losing for sports, Francis tries to use magic to bring wonder back into people’s lives. I was trying to interrogate the bad habits we learn in our families, whether mean spirited or hypercritical or small minded, can we transform them into something good? That’s the larger question I’m asking in this play.

“(I postulate that) if you’re a curious, thoughtful (sort of) person, you’ll be able to take the bad things (you were taught) and go out and live your life and come out better because of that, not because your parents helped you, but because you did it yourself.”

Carla reports that other companies have asked if this play could be performed by non-Asians, and explains that her feeling is “no,” and that this family’s issues are particularly wrapped up in the cultural values of a Chinese-American family. “I said that I really feel like this particular family works particularly out of the Asian-American context. Gambling is a big part of the Chinese-American family where it’s not unusual for 5 year olds to play blackjack and aunties to play mah jong and fathers to be playing poker. It’s a way of everybody being entertained but keeping the money in the family. It’s how (I remember) we socialized. All of this is part of the fabric of my upbringing. It’s not an identity play, it’s not about race, but it is about an Asian-American family for a reason.”

How did Carla develop the career she has currently? She describes a bit of her background. “I started off as a poet and got involved with an Asian American autobiography group and we performed everything we wrote. We created these hour to hour-and-a-half shows. (The theme) was often about identity. I decided I liked writing for stage and to go back to school.

“At the time I was a high school English teacher. I taught for 4 years. I have my Masters in English education. I began a Masters in poetry and changed my mind and went for a Masters in playwriting at New School for Drama. I really did (my career development) the hard way. I came up through independent theater in New York. I went to a lot of plays and built relationships and was part of writers’ labs. It took a long, long time.”

Carla began television writing after a literary manager who knew of her work was asked by a television agent about finding playwrights who want to work in television. The literary manager suggested Carla among the other recommendations. The agent in Los Angeles then “started sending out my play and getting me meetings with networks and tv studios and it took some time, but eventually I got an interview. I started to get interested in the notion of working in long form storytelling, because I'd work for 3-4 years on a play, have a three week run and then have to say goodbye to the characters. I thought it might be nice to spend more time with characters, and have longer story arcs to play with."

Carla gives a bit of an insider look at the schedule of a television episodic writer. She says, “Structurally, it’s much more visual. There still has to be an event in every scene, but five pages is a short scene for me (in a typical play). In television, a page and half or less is a scene, so you have to be super economical. I just have to turn one brain on and the other off to do different jobs.

“There are seven total writers (for Graceland). We come up with the storylines together, but each goes off alone to write an episode based off the direction the group decides. We talk to each other a lot, the person ‘behind’ you and ‘in front’ of you (in episode order). We’ll (design or plot) the entire season and then we’ll do each episode one by one and Episode 1 will get sent off and then we’ll work on Episode 2 and that writer will go off and Episode 1 will come back for rewrites. It’s a hugely intense cycle of working together.”

The Kilroys:
Carla is a “member” of a loose association of women in theater in Southern California called The Kilroys. She describes, “They formed and then asked me to join. It started out like a pot luck and then people were talking about being playwrights and tv writers. We were thinking there aren’t enough female playwrights being produced. How can we change that? What can we do tangibly to get more women’s writing on stage?

“We heard a lot that heads of theater say (about the plays they produce), ‘These plays are what come through the doors. We are not seeing plays by women.’ We thought we’d help them get access to great plays and we did a survey and asked what are some great interesting plays written by women in the last year? We compiled and put them out as a reading list. ‘Here’s a bunch that are recommended by people in your field who read a lot and see a lot of plays.’

“In total about 236 plays were recommended. (The list was) the 46 most recommended, which you can see here: http://www.thekilroys.org/thelist/.  All 236 nominees are here: http://www.thekilroys.org/complete-list-of-nominees.

“We’re going to do another list this year, so any writers not included last year might be seen in this cycle. That (list) was also a product of what plays were in circulation, but playwrights are feeling emboldened to submit the companies around the country and put their work out there. And people in the field are feeling emboldened to recommend and seek out great plays by women. So it’s ongoing effort.”

Carla is going to be present for opening night, so you might get to meet her if you attend. Tickets are here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/press/809123 and Opening Night is Saturday, November 1. Carla says, “I’m excited to come see the play with a Seattle audience. Every audience is different. My mom went to UW many years ago, so I’ve always wanted to spend time there and this will be my first chance.”

If you’re interested in what Carla is up to next, you can check out her website at http://www.carlaching.com/. She reports that she has been commissioned by the South Coast Rep to do a play focused on diversity in Orange County, California. “Nomad Motel is about a parachute kid sent by Hong Kong to go to the States alone to go to school with no supervision. It’s also about ‘motel kids;’ a lot of low rent motels are near Disneyland where an entire family will live in a hotel room, and I’m writing about a kid whose family has fallen on hard times who befriends the parachute kid.” I certainly hope that can make it up to Seattle, as well.