3:00 P.M., EDT
NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: I thank everyone for coming today, especially David Henry Hwang. It’s really a pleasure for us to have such a distinguished playwright here with us. You all have his bio, so I’m not going to belabor this introduction. We thought it would be nice to start with a clip from Chinglish.
MODERATOR: We always have to start off our briefings with private citizens by stating that, of course, they are speaking on their own behalf. His views are not the views, necessarily, of the U.S. Government. So I’m sure everyone understands that.
MR. HWANG: That’s good to say. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: But if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask the first question. So many of your plays have dealt with the issue of cross-cultural communication, understanding and misunderstanding, and I was just wondering what in your background has promoted this theme over the years.
MR. HWANG: Yeah. I mean, I suppose it has to do just with being a child of immigrants and that my father’s from Shanghai, and my mother is Fujianese Chinese from the Philippines. So they met in Los Angeles in the 1950s. They were both going to school at University of Southern California. So I grew up mostly in the ‘60s and ‘70s during a period when it was not so popular to think about issues of difference, issues of being an ethnic, being a minority. I think we were raised more to be just regular Americans. And as I’ve become an adult and I became a writer, I just found that these issues started appearing on the page. I started writing about things like immigration and assimilation and clash of cultures. So some part of me was evidently very interested in this. But my conscious mind didn’t figure that out until I started exploring things through writing.
MODERATOR: Open it up to the floor.
QUESTION: I just want to ask: Do you sort of have a mission agenda? You’re trying to correct people’s stereotype image of Asian American? Or you just want to be entertaining?
MR. HWANG: I feel like the two aren’t – are compatible. The two things, I don’t think that they’re contradictory. I feel that the primary thing that I want to do is to create the best plays that I can. If I create work which is, in this case, funny or meaningful in whatever way, if the work is good, then people will see it, people will pay attention, and then in the process – see, I don’t feel like you can really correct stereotypes, because I feel like stereotypes are bad writing. Stereotypes are just characters that are one dimensional, two dimensional that don’t seem like human beings. So I think the way to correct a stereotype is not to try to create something that’s the opposite of the stereotype, but try and just write characters that seem as human as possible, and then that seems to me to battle stereotypical ideas.
QUESTION: This is a question related to what Alyson was asking at the beginning which is about your writing. You told me back in 1989 or so about – we were talking about which comes first (inaudible), the writing or your own identity, which comes first. And I think you mentioned about Sam Shepard being one of your mentors –
MR. HWANG: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- since the – your writing workshop back –
MR. HWANG: Yeah. Have you – you want me talk about that a little?
MR. HWANG: Well, Sam Shepard is a great American Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. He’s also an actor now, since become a movie star. And yeah. I took a playwriting workshop with him one of the summers when I was in college – the summer before my senior year in college. And it was Sam and another great American playwright, Maria Irene Fornes, who taught us to write more from our subconscious, and that’s when I began to realize that I was interested in some of these East-West themes that I’ve ended up writing about. So yeah. I think for me the writing came first, and then the discovery of identity. My discovery of identity came through – as I was saying to Alyson’s question – I discovered it on the page. And then because this started to appear on the page, then I started to read more and try to learn more and do research, but it was really – in the chicken and egg, I think the writing was – I don’t know if that makes the writing the chicken or the egg, but the writing was the first thing.
QUESTION: So you still haven’t changed since –
MR. HWANG: I mean, I’m still – yeah. Since – between ‘89 and now, I mean, I’ve ended up writing a lot of other sorts of projects that aren’t particularly about East-West themes also, so I guess I’ve expanded in that respect, but still, I think the writing changes me. In a way, you can say that the artist creates the work. But it is also true that the work recreates the artist. So yes. That process has continued, because I’m still working.
QUESTION: You mean, the "keep on keeping on" aspect?
MR. HWANG: Yeah. Yeah.
QUESTION: And now, in this global [economic] crisis, all the governments are cutting off from humanities and education. What is your response as a writer to that?
MR. HWANG: Well, in the United States, I feel like the funding for the arts has been under attack since the 1980s. So this is not something that in this country has just started being an issue since 2008. If anything, because I feel we’ve had an administration since ‘08 that’s more friendly to the arts than the previous Administration, things have gotten better. The funding for the National Endowments for the Arts has increased. But I can tell you that through the ‘80s and ‘90s and all the time when the arts were under attack in government, especially on the federal level, I think one has to make the case in a lot of different ways that, yes, there is kind of an inherent way in which culture binds a people together.
Culture defines a national identity, and that’s important. But there are also lots of practical results from the arts that I think are important in terms of helping students to increase their scores, helping creativity in general. Especially now when we live in an age where the kids that are growing up now will evidently have more than one career over the course of their adult lives. And that requires a certain nimbleness and flexibility and creativity that an arts education can supply. So I feel that there’s a lot of, kind of, practical reasons to support the arts and arts education even in a bad economy.
QUESTION: What do you think the artist has to do in the time of a crisis?
MR. HWANG: I think that the artist can address a crisis. But I also feel that a lot of times the art – there’s a certain kind of art that you make in the middle of the crisis. And then there’s a certain kind of art that you can make afterwards that reflects on it. And sometimes I think it’s hard for an artist to really understand the full scope of a crisis as it’s going on, which doesn’t mean you don’t try to address it, it just means that the art that you make afterwards might be better.
QUESTION: Which moment are you at right now?
MR. HWANG: Right now, with Chinglish and some of the things that projects I’m working on now, I seem to be very interested in the future of U.S.-China relations. I feel like that doesn’t mean I know that much about it – (laughter) – and lots of times I work on things and write to learn, but I went through a period, especially early in my career, when I was very interested in what we now call multiculturalism. What’s the place of minorities in different cultures in America? And at this point, I feel like I’m less interested in that, and I’m more interested in how do all these all these issues apply on an international level?
For instance, the notion that, on multiculturalism, we sort of came around to the idea that in America different groups of people, different communities, different cultures, see things differently. You can’t just assume that everybody sees things the same. And so it’s even more important, I think, to apply that to the world. And we are at a point when I think the U.S.-China story will be very important in this century, one way or another. And so I kind of try to address it the way I can by writing stories about it.
QUESTION: Where do you do your research?
MR. HWANG: Well, for instance, sometimes I don’t know what I’m researching. Like this play [Chinglish], I just started – I mean, the first time I went to China was in ‘93, but that was sort of as a tourist and going to see where my father grew up and all that. But then I started going over more regularly in ‘05 about – and really only about once or twice a year – but I try to get over and see what’s going on and read and learn more about China. And then, at a certain point, I started thinking it would be interesting – I was at a new art center and everything was really beautiful except that the signs were very Chinglishy – you know, the "deformed man’s toilet" kind of sign for handicapped restrooms.
And so then I started to think, oh it might be interesting to write a play about doing business in China, but one that would deal with the issue of language, because we don’t do that – Americans, we don’t do that. We don’t speak foreign languages – and when we Americans make movies or do plays about foreign countries, and Americans go to a foreign country – let’s say, you’re watching a movie and Harrison Ford goes to Brazil or something, and all the Brazilians speak English with a Brazilian accent, and it just doesn’t capture the experience at all.
So I’d worked in opera – I’d written eight or nine opera libretti, and so I started getting used to seeing my words projected. So I started to wonder if you could do that in a play, and that led to Chinglish. So sometimes it’s just – I just kind of – I started going to China in ‘05 just because I was interested and I wanted to try to learn. And then eventually it led to a play. So I don’t necessarily always know where the research is leading.
QUESTION: Can you talk more about the movie production of the Chinglish. It’s preproduction or it’s like --
MR. HWANG: I’m still working on the script. I mean, we just announced there will be a movie version of Chinglish. We just announced it like a few weeks ago. And the director is Justin Lin who’s a Taiwanese director originally – Taiwanese American – who made a couple of independent pictures that I love, early in his career, called Better Luck Tomorrow and Finishing the Game, and then became a big Hollywood director by directing the Fast and Furious movie with Vin Diesel and the cars.
And so Justin and I had been – we’ve known each other for a while – and we’ve been looking for something to do together.
And so back in December, he and Elaine Chin who runs his production company came out and saw the show and we began talking about it and then eventually it was great that there were other people who also wanted to try to make a movie of Chinglish, who wanted the rights to the movie, but I felt that it – Justin and I have known each other for a while, we’ve wanted to find a project to do together, and so I – because I trust that maybe this will go pretty well, because as a writer in movies you don’t have any control. As a writer in theater you have a lot of control. They can’t change your words; you have approval of who gets cast. In movies you don’t. The director has most of the control. So I felt like it was really important to try to get into a situation with a director who I trust. And you never know what’s going to happen – maybe at the end of the process I won’t trust – we won’t trust each other. (Laughter.) But hopefully we will.
QUESTION: So you don’t like – so you like to have all the control.
MR. HWANG: I like to have all the control on some things. I feel like there are different – the different genres have – there’s usually somebody who holds the primary artistic vision and the other artists support that.
So in a play, I hold the primary vision, and everybody else tries to make my vision come to life. But I work in other forms where I come in as the cross-person to try to help someone else realize their vision. So if I do an opera for instance, I feel like part of my job is to help the composer do his or her best job. And if the composer doesn’t like a line or the composer wants something shorter, then I feel like I defer – that’s because the composer’s the primary artist. And in a film it’s usually the director. So it kind of depends from genre to genre.
QUESTION: How did you bring this particular play, Chinglish, to Broadway? Because nowadays with the horrible economy whatsoever, you need lot of investors, you have to convince them first of all.
MR. HWANG: Yeah --
QUESTION: But is it the sort of Tony Award thing?
MR. HWANG: Well, yeah, but I mean, it doesn’t mean that everything I write goes to Broadway. I mean, I feel like it’s kind of – especially with plays – I feel like I just write the play that I want to write, and then I see who wants to produce it. Most of the time, I don’t expect the plays to go to Broadway because it is expensive. And there’s a big risk and – but this happened to be a play where, I mean when I wrote it I had – I thought – what would I, in my dream, what would I like to happen? So my dream was like, okay, we would start it in Chicago because I like to do the play someplace else first, it would give me another chance to work on it. So we start in Chicago at the Goodman, and then we would bring it to New York and we would eventually come to Broadway. And so I sent it to the Goodman in Chicago, they decided they wanted to do it, and – I mean everybody who read the play just kind of decided they wanted to do it in like 24 hours. It was really quick.
So I don’t know. I mean, I think there was the feeling that, oh, it’s a comedy. China is a very – people are very interested in China. For whatever reason, people decided that – the producers who took the show to Broadway decided that they wanted to take a gamble on it.
QUESTION: So was it supposed to be shown in the Public Theater first?
MR. HWANG: It was originally going to be shown at the Public Theater. The original plan was to start at the Goodman, go to the public, and then go to Broadway. But the Broadway producers were so eager to take it to Broadway that we kind of skipped the Public Theater step.
QUESTION: And what did you think of the new formula of putting a Hollywood star?
MR. HWANG: Well, we tried to not to. We tried to go to Broadway without a movie star. And we didn’t run through the whole season either. So I’m proud of the fact that we tried to do something that kind of bucked the trend, but it’s hard when you don’t have a movie star.
QUESTION: I want to know, what do you attribute your success? Because you be doing a thing in Chinese, but you have become success in Americana. Most of times, I mean, ethnic plays or stories do not resonate that much in Americana. What is it that you attribute this to?
MR. HWANG: I don’t know. I mean, first of all, I would say that there are – it’s necessarily true that just because a story features a minority or an ethnic group that – some of those do succeed. Even -- there’s a lot of African American plays that succeed, there’s --
QUESTION: African American plays are also not part of the mainstream. I mean, I know that there’s Evita and so on and so forth, but that’s not the point. What is Chinglish, for instance?
MR. HWANG: Well, I --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Indian – I’ve seen some Indian plays, but they have no success of, like, Chinglish.
MR. HWANG: Yeah, it’s really hard for me to know why it is that some things are commercial and some things aren’t.
MR. HWANG: And that’s why, like I said, I don’t know when I write the play whether –
QUESTION: It will be --
MR. HWANG: Whether it’s going to be commercial. And some of them just happen to be – get lucky. I remember when I finished the first act of this play, we read it in a room like this with the actors sitting around the table, and we used a sort of PowerPoint to simulate what the titles would be like just because I had no idea, like, well, can you really do a play where you have to read part of it? So it’s always an experiment for me. But yes, I’ve had whatever – seven plays on Broadway – seven shows on Broadway now, and that’s a lot for – most people don’t – that doesn’t happen to most people. And so what is it? Is it I’m good? I’m – I don’t know. It’s just –
QUESTION: Have you censored your shows in order to be more commercial?
MR. HWANG: No.
QUESTION: Let the show run as much as possible?
MR. HWANG: No. I really want the show to run as long as possible, and I try to do whatever I can to go to functions and talk to people and try to sell tickets. But in terms of the actual content of the play, I don’t, especially if it’s a play. I’ve worked on other things that are more commercial projects, like I wrote a couple Disney musicals that have been on Broadway. And I think in those projects, there is the sense that we do – we are trying to make something that’s commercial. With the play, I feel like I’m trying to write the thing that I want to see, and if I’m lucky, someone takes it to Broadway, and if I’m lucky, people buy tickets. But that’s not why I’m doing it.
QUESTION: So did you travel back to China recently (inaudible) in 2005? You travel there regularly.
MR. HWANG: Yeah. I have been traveling about once or twice a year. Although, I have to say I have not been this year. So I have to find an excuse to go this year.
QUESTION: Then usually how long you will stay there?
MR. HWANG: Just two or three weeks, not that long.
QUESTION: While you’re there, you want to know the Chinese culture, right? So what do you –
MR. HWANG: So what I usually do is I have people who kind of set up an agenda for me to go and see shows, meet people, just kind of try to soak up as much of the environment as I can and talk and meet as many people as I can, and that’s really all I can do. And then the rest of the year I try to read things. And so I don’t feel like I know very much, but I know more than I used to.
QUESTION: Have you ever thought taking this Broadway Chinglish to China, or have you tried?
MR. HWANG: Well, that’s an interesting question. I would love to take the show to China. Of course, the play that I’m best known for is M. Butterfly, which can’t be done in China and was just, a few years ago really, there was a – they tried to do a production in Shanghai in English. So it was just for expats. And like five performances in a hundred-seat theater, and that got shut down after three performances. So M. Butterfly can’t be done in China. Chinglish I think maybe can, but it kind of just depends, because you never exactly know which way the winds are blowing and who’s going to – yes.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) plays (inaudible) in the communication and culture exchange, but I saw in the play that misunderstanding language can be very funny and very cute and even making people fall in love in this play. What do you think this kind of misunderstanding in language? I mean, should people always conquer that or this can be there?
MR. HWANG: I think there’s always going to be misunderstandings. Even if we speak the same language, there’s misunderstandings, especially when it comes to love. Once you fall in love with somebody or you’re trying to have a romance, probably you’re misunderstanding each other on some level. So none of us speaks any language perfectly. And I think the play is really – is about all the different ways that we misunderstand each other from not speaking the same language, which is the most superficial level, then to having some basic different assumptions about things like love and marriage. So I don’t know that – I don’t think the play is trying to say that we should work to – or we can – overcome misunderstandings, because I think there will always be. But I think it’s important to be aware that you can’t just assume that the other person, when you’re – whether you’re in business or in an interview or in love or whatever, you can’t just assume that the other person knows what it is that you’re trying to say.
QUESTION: So is there –
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: You are very interested in the China and the U.S. relationship, and now – maybe if there is a next play, what do you want to write about? It’s about the (inaudible) of the two countries or –
MR. HWANG: I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I mean, I’m not writing it, so – I mean, the next thing I’m working on – the next play is about Bruce Lee. So it’s more historical – recent history. But I do think I want to do something else about contemporary relationships between the U.S. and China, but I don’t have a story yet. If I had a story, I’d be writing it.
You – oh, I’m sorry. In the back and then you. Sorry.
QUESTION: Okay. I’m sorry. I just wanted to follow up on my, like, movie production question about –
MR. HWANG: Okay.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) about like the – different market in China and the U.S. I’m saying in terms of market barrier movies, like, less difficult than plays. So also there is an ongoing trend about U.S.-China cooperation like production things, like a lot of Hollywood studios, they set up their own production film – production studio in China, producing China scene-related content just for the Chinese market, maybe a little bit over (inaudible) market. I just want to know your – in coming a future movie is Chinglish. What is the production – what are the funding? How are you going to finance it? What type of audience on the movie scale; it will be like small scale like another small, like, Asian – Chinese American (inaudible) movie like stay this kind of small scale independent movie, or it’s like more bigger like studio-backed movie?
MR. HWANG: Yeah. I don’t actually know. I don’t think we’re at that point to know yet. I think it will be some sort of independent movie just because generally these days it seems to me that American movie studios essentially make sort of temple movies. They make movies that tend to be comic book movies these days or romantic comedies. Those seem to be the basic businesses that the American studios – movie studios are in, which has changed a lot, by the way, over the last 20, 25 years. And I think that this is kind of a romantic comedy, but ultimately not. So my guess is that – and this is totally a guess, because we haven’t really talked about this. We’re just kind of working on the artistic end of it. My guess is that it will be some sort of independent movie, but a relatively – not a particularly low budget, sort of a mid-range movie.
QUESTION: My question is about your work habits and styles. When you’re writing, do you tend to finish the project you’re on? Or are you working on multiple projects at the same –
MR. HWANG: I tend to work on multiple projects simply because it takes so long for any one project to come to fruition. Musicals take about five years to – if you’re assuming they don’t fall apart at some point, if you do actually make it to Broadway, that’s about a five-year process. A play is three years maybe. A movie, who knows? And so as a result, if you’re fortunate enough to continue to have a career, the – you end up with a lot of projects in different stages of development – something that’s just an idea, it doesn’t have a first daft; something that has a first draft but needs some more rewrites; something that’s in preproduction; something that’s – and so as a result, I end up working on – I’ve usually got five or six things going at the same time, and it’s kind of like juggling.
QUESTION: Do your arms get tired sometimes?
QUESTION: And how do you organize yourself?
MR. HWANG: Sometimes, but I’ve gotten used to it. Over the years, my arms have gotten stronger. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Are you (inaudible) in (inaudible) Chinglish in London or –
MR. HWANG: We are working in a London production, and –
QUESTION: London (inaudible)?
MR. HWANG: Yeah. I mean, I’m not – it’s not anything that I can announce yet, but I think we will get a London production.
QUESTION: Very soon?
MR. HWANG: I can’t say.
QUESTION: Are you going to have to rewrite it into proper English?
MR. HWANG: Right. (Laughter.) No. Because it’s an American character, so –
QUESTION: How many –
QUESTION: Yeah. It’s always the same. I mean –
QUESTION: How many hours do you work a day?
MR. HWANG: I guess it depends how you define work. I mean, I usually – I mean, I have an office in my home, and I just go down and start writing. I think about nine or so, and then I write till about one or so, and then the afternoons are about meetings and emails and events and just things that are career-related, but not actually writing.
QUESTION: Do you usually get stuck on a line or a character or –
MR. HWANG: Usually, I don’t get stuck. Or if I do get stuck, I mean, that’s another advantage of working on more than one thing. If I get stuck, I can go work on something else, and hopefully I’m unstuck over there. Then I can come back to this and feel better about it.
QUESTION: What do you think about this year’s Tony Award? You tweeted so graciously, giving blessing to all these nominees, but at the same time, for example, this week’s Wall Street Journal reported in the past 65 years, only three women have won Tony Awards for this play, and it’s not fair to the minority as this article stated. So what are your thoughts?
MR. HWANG: I’m just – are you – is the question about the Tony Awards in general, this year’s Tony Awards, women and minorities as represented in the Tonys? I’m not quite –
QUESTION: As a previous winner yourself.
MR. HWANG: So wait. Which question are you – just anything about the –
QUESTION: No. I want to know anything about it, your thoughts on it.
MR. HWANG: Okay. First of all, this year, it’s been an incredibly busy year on Broadway. There are – particularly for plays. There are more new American plays this season on Broadway than there have been any season since the 1982-83 season. So that’s what, 30 years? So, I mean where it comes to Chinglish, sure. I mean I would have loved to have been nominated this year, but I also knew that it was a very tough year because there are four slots and there are about 20 shows. And I think it’s harder when you’re not – well, I know that it’s harder when you’re not open. Because having been a Tony nominator myself, I know that there is a tendency to want to support the shows that are open and help them to keep running. So I thought we had a shot, but I thought we had a less than a 50/50 shot.
Where it comes to the Tonys in general, the idea that, for instance, there’ve only been three women who have won the Best Play Tony Award, which I guess – I’m trying to think which ones that would be. But anyway, it is really reflective of a larger issue. It’s not about the Tony Awards; it’s about not having enough female playwrights on Broadway, period. And we recently did – there’s an organization called APAAC, which is the Asian Pacific American Actors Coalition, I guess. And every ten years or so, as in the Miss Saigon case, this issue comes up about casting and casting of minorities and how difficult it is for minorities to get work on Broadway. And so now this applies to women, minorities, people – the creative teams like the playwrights and the actors as well. And this group, APAC, did basically kind of a town meeting with the theatrical industry. And this time, instead of being confrontational, necessarily, they went and gathered a lot of statistics. And they found out that just minority casting in general is much smaller. It’s something like 15 percent or something – I don’t have the exact numbers on me.
PARTICIPANT: It was in the news.
MR. HWANG: Yeah. You can look it up on the web. And the number of Asians cast – Asian Americans has actually decreased over the past four or five years. So what’s the problem with that? Well, I mean, there is a basic kind of employment issue about do people get the chance to audition. And also, it’s – I think the – everyone in Broadway industry would agree it’s not good for the industry. I mean, you have a field which basically caters to middle – upper middle- to middle-class white people and older. And that’s not – any product you would go, that’s not a good recipe for having a healthy, sustainable future. So I think everybody in the industry agrees that things need to change, but it’s very slow and there’s impediments, I think, along every piece of the chain to having more full participation by women and by minorities and by younger people in the field.
QUESTION: Why –
MR. HWANG: I don’t qualify as younger person anymore.
QUESTION: Why do you think there is this tendency – is it – I don’t think it’s just people in Broadway (inaudible). I mean, they’re not that discriminating.
MR. HWANG: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think people are trying to be discriminatory.
QUESTION: No. So –
MR. HWANG: I think it’s just – I think it’s a --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) is there not enough roles? They’re not enough plays which also seem to –
MR. HWANG: I think it’s a failure of imagination. I was using – the APAAC thing – I was using the example of Jeremy Lin; this was before he injured his knee. But you know the basketball player. So – and that nobody – and so that the organizations, the Golden State Warriors or the organizations that dropped Jeremy Lin or that didn’t play Jeremy Lin didn’t help themselves. They just, for some reason, didn’t think that he was going to be a very good player. And – so I feel like when you – discrimination doesn’t only hurt the individuals being discriminated against, it also hurts the institution doing the discriminating because they’re not taking full advantage of the talents that are available.
But why does this happen? Well, I think where it comes to plays that are about different sorts of groups, plays that have Asian characters or plays that have Latino characters or whatever. I think it’s risky enough for a Broadway producer to think about producing any new American play, which is why generally – except for this season, for some reason – generally it’s – you have very few new American plays on Broadway. That’s risky, and then on top of that, they go, “Oh, my gosh.” And this is not only a new American play, but it’s a new American play about a Mexican family and we haven’t had a lot of those on Broadway that have had success. So it feels that much riskier.
And then where it comes to just kind of what’s called blind casting – so you do a play that’s not about any particular ethnic group, but then do you allow all sorts of people to audition, as long as the race isn’t specified. So you’re just doing a play about contemporary – a group of 30 something people in New York City. So theoretically, they could be of any race. But a lot of times, they only – they end up only auditioning white people – white actors. And then that decreases the amount of diversity on Broadway.
So I think there’s a number of different factors that go into it. Yeah.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) of imagination, I want to know when you’re growing up, have your parents encouraged you to be an artist? Because most Asian American family or parents encourage them to be a doctor, lawyer, or banker. It’s like –
MR. HWANG: Yeah, I was not raised – I didn’t have tiger mom. (Laughter.) My grandmother used to go, “Why is everybody so concerned about getting A’s? What’s so wrong – bad about getting a B?” So I – it was a very strange Chinese family. And then my mother was also a pianist. So – that said, and my father was a business man and I don’t – they certainly didn’t expect me – I’m first generation American. I’m the oldest son in my generation. They didn’t expect me to become an artist. And so I remember – I told this – did I tell this story the other night at China Institute? Who was at China Institute? Yeah, I think I did. I told the story about my dad, yeah.
So I wrote my first play, FOB, to be done in my dormitory. And my father read it, and he’d never read a play before. We didn’t grow up going to the theater. And he saw some swear words, and he was like, “Oh, I send you to this fancy school and you write this junk.” (Laughter.) And then then he told my mom, “Okay, we’re going to go up and see it, the production in my dorm. And if it’s good we’ll encourage him, and if it’s bad, we’ll tell him to stop.” And fortunately, after he saw the show, he was in tears. He was very moved. And I think it was because I was – it was sort of an immigrant story and I was using some of the things that were from his experience. Then so after that, he was supportive. And then things happened – I was very lucky, and things happened for me quite early. In terms of getting that play onto New York about a year later. But I have to give my parents a lot of credit, that it wasn’t something that they wanted me to do really, but they were open. And then afterwards, my father – after I started to have a career, he was very proud and he always carried my newspaper clippings around until he passed away about five years ago.
QUESTION: I have a question. I think the economics and the cultures go together. So – like for example, in ‘80s or ‘90s, you will have a lot of portrayal of Japanese and German in American movies. So now, like you have a lot of Chinese elements. So when you think back, do you think this is about the right timing because people actually pay a lot of attention to Chinese business, Chinese culture from an American perspective. If you go back 10 years or 5 years, will you think this is more risky to do this show like Chinglish?
MR. HWANG: Well, I mean, yes. I think that the time is more right because everybody’s – America is invested in China. Not necessarily financially, but –
MR. HWANG: Yeah, right. (Laughter.) But China matters to America in a way that it didn’t 20 or 30 years ago. Twenty or 30 years ago – I mean when I was growing up, China was either the enemy, because it was red China, or if people were interested in China it was because there was sort of an exotic appeal to it. But it was not necessary to know about China, where as now it is. Which is why you have so many young people of any race who are studying Mandarin and – China’s important now.
That said, I mean Chinglish ran three or four months on Broadway and M. Butterfly, 20 years ago, ran two years on Broadway. So it’s – you can’t necessarily track it that – it’s not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence, which is why you can’t predict in the theater or in film really what’s going to be a success.
QUESTION: So – Chinese the – I mean, China now own, like, $15.3 trillion of American (inaudible).
MR. HWANG: Yeah, that’s what I mean. That’s why it’s important to know about China and – in a practical sense, in a way that wasn’t. But that doesn’t necessarily – so I think it was a better time for Chinglish, but on the other hand, we didn’t have a movie star and we didn’t run as long as we would have liked to, so it’s hard to know.
QUESTION: Talking about the age of the theatergoers, I don’t know if in your meetings with Broadway people, do you talk about how to attract younger audiences?
MR. HWANG: Oh, I think everybody is really concerned about trying to attract younger audiences. I mean, part of the problem with Broadway and younger audiences is just the cost of tickets. If you have to spend $200 to go to the theater, it’s unlikely that people who are in their 20s are going to be able to afford that. Now there are a lot of ways to get cheaper tickets. It’s kind of like airline tickets. You can always find a cheaper way to get a ticket. But you have to sort of already be going to Broadway and be savvy enough to be able to know those things.
So I think it’s hard, and that's one of the things that I think Broadway has been very successful at over the past 20 years is attracting families. So there’s a big emphasis on family shows, and certainly Lion King is the best example of a show that has been huge for families – but that’s parents taking their kids, which hopefully translates into those kids getting older and then wanting to go on their own. But – yeah, and I think that the – it’s why – I mean, a show like American Idiot; American Idiot is not a baby boomer show. American Idiot – what, the album came out in ninety – what, ‘96 or something? So it’s kind of a Gen-X show, and it did pretty well.
So there’s attempts – if you look at the range of a Broadway season, there are always shows that are attempting to bring in new audiences. So this – just now, it closed, but there was the basketball show, Magic/Bird, which is – because the thing that they always say is that the audiences that you can’t get in, that won’t buy tickets, are kind of basically straight men. Straight men don’t want to go to the theater. So you do a basketball show, or you do – (laughter) – or Book of Mormon has been good and appealing to straight guys. And so everybody’s – so there are all these different groups that you’re trying to appeal to, and I think Chinglish we did a better job of appealing to. We had certainly a larger percentage of Asians and Asian Americans in our audience in those Broadway shows.
And if you went to see a show like Stick Fly, which was the Lydia Diamond play about an African American family – it was on Broadway earlier that season – those audiences, I think, were about 60 percent African American. So there’s attempts to try to broaden the pool. How successful they are is another question.
QUESTION: So why do you think the straight men (inaudible)? (Laughter.)
MR. HWANG: I think those of us who work in the theater and if we happen to be straight, it’s – we don’t understand it, but then again, it’s easy for –you’re a bit strange if you’re a straight guy who works in the theater. You’re – it’s always like it’s a little unusual.
QUESTION: It’s the gay domain only, or no?
MR. HWANG: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: It’s only a domain for the gays?
MR. HWANG: No, no, it’s not. I mean, the – I think we’re – (laughter) – I think this conversation is going off in a direction that I don’t want it to go in, but I mean the – I mean, it’s sort of a joke, but essentially, most of the people who buy tickets are women. And so women will take their husbands and things, but how do you get the husbands to want to go? That’s the question.
QUESTION: They don’t go to ballet either. They don’t like the ballet.
QUESTION: Oh, God, that’s true.
QUESTION: I like ballet.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) wives and girlfriends.
MR. HWANG: Well, yeah, and that --
QUESTION: By the way, we do end up paying for the tickets. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Well, we’re getting to the end of the hour and the conversation seems to be degenerating a little bit. (Laughter.) Is there a last question or --
QUESTION: There is a theater in downtown LA in Little Tokyo named after you. Can you tell me – us a story behind it?
MR. HWANG: Sure.
QUESTION: East West Players?
MR. HWANG: Yeah, it’s just – okay. East West Players is the oldest Asian American theater in the country. It’s was founded in 1965 and it’s in Los Angeles. And they were started in a church basement, then they were in a little theater, and then they moved into a larger theater in the late ‘90s. I think it was around ‘96. And that theater is called the David Henry Hwang Theater.
And honestly, it was just that my dad donated some money and he wanted to name it after me and – (laughter) – the theater was fine with it because they were like, “Oh, good, – he’s a playwright.” And I think it’s a little over the top that there’s a theater that’s named after me.
MR. HWANG: But it’s nice that my dad made the donation, so --
QUESTION: After the crisis --
MR. HWANG: That’s really what – yes.
QUESTION: -- the rules of the theater game have changed? Like now, you try to put a movie star or something like that?
MR. HWANG: I don’t know that that’s the result of – I think that was really happening even before the financial crisis. If anything, Broadway, as a field, I don’t think has been affected that much by the recession, because this is a recession that, in general, has hit middle and lower income people harder than affluent people. And Broadway is a luxury item, and a lot of luxury items have not suffered during this recession, and Broadway is one of them.
QUESTION: That’s true. That’s true. They --
QUESTION: So you said that you usually – to learn new things? And I want to know if you’re really reading books or do you research online? What kind of --
MR. HWANG: I mean, I try to do – I grew up with books, so I still read books. And I try to – yes, of course I look at things online and I try to talk to people and --
QUESTION: Do you have --
MR. HWANG: Do I have?
QUESTION: Favorite websites?
MR. HWANG: Huff Post is good and – I don’t know, I don’t feel like I have regular websites that I check in on. I think a lot of it’s when people tell me to look at a particular book or something. I feel like I have a couple people who are specifically my – the people that I am trying to learn more about – learn more from about China. So they’re always giving me books and movies and things that – just trying to – but my education’s very scattered, it’s very just whatever.
QUESTION: Do you use Facebook or Twitter?
MR. HWANG: I do, yeah. I have a – I’m David – I have a David Henry Hwang handle on Twitter, so if you want to follow me on Twitter.
QUESTION: What do you read? Which are your favorite writers or --
MR. HWANG: Oh, gosh, that’s – there are so many. I mean, maybe it’s easier for me to talk about favorite playwrights because at least then I can limit it. I mean, when I was starting out, I think the people who I was most interested in are people – are playwrights who wrote – who could write about ideas. So I was interested in Bertolt Brecht and Shaw and Stoppard and Sam Shepard, who doesn’t really fit in that category. But – and then at a certain point, I started feeling like, oh, I can write that kind of play, but I’m not so good at these plays that are really about details of character.
And so then I started to read more Chekhov and Brian Friel and people who I feel are – it’s a more kind of delicate kind of playwriting and not so much – the ideas aren’t as much in the forefront, and the character becomes – and nowadays, I feel there are a lot of great – so many good American playwrights. And who do I love? I love – last season, I loved Kris Diaz’s play, the – what is it called? It’s the wrestling play. It has a very long title.
But there’s a – and there’s a group called the Lark Play Development Center in – right now, they’re on 43rd street. And it’s a place where a lot of us are playwrights develop our stuff. So when I said that the first reading we did of Chinglish was around the table with PowerPoint, we did it at this place called The Lark. And there are a bunch of us who are mid-career writers who work there and there are a lot of younger writers. And it gives us an opportunity, I think, to have a community, and a lot of those writers, I love. And I just think we’re in actually a very good period for American playwriting. It’s just Broadway is hard.
QUESTION: What do you think of the fact that, as a Chinese American playwright, not only 3 percent of the books in the U.S. market are translation from other languages into English?
MR. HWANG: Yeah, well, that’s really terrible. And it’s particularly bad for me because I can only read things that are in translation. So that again limits what I can know. So that’s why – when I do something like Chinglish and then people who are Chinese nationals or people who have lived or worked in China feel like it’s accurate, then I feel like very – I’m very moved by that. So like, I actually don’t know anything. So it’s like really nice if you think that this is accurate.
And yeah, it’s terrible. And it’s the same reason even, I guess, that I had the impulse to do a bilingual play in the first place because we’re so – Americans, we’re so myopic. And we don’t – I’m trying to put together a – I don’t know that I can announce this in public, because – well, but – anyway, let’s put it this way. I’m trying to bring more plays and playwrights from greater China to the United States because I feel like these writers who are incredibly important in the rest of the world. And Americans don’t even know them, but I can’t say who yet. (Laughter.) But even Gao Xingjian, I mean, he has the Nobel Prize and he can’t get produced in America. So it’s terrible.
MODERATOR: So my whole "last question" thing didn’t work the first time, but we are at five minutes after four and I know that you have places you have to be. But we really, really appreciate your coming to the FPC. Thank you so much.
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