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David Henry Hwang on Subconscious Writing and His Creative Process

Originally published on May 19, 2018

Across the street from the Curran Theater in San Francisco on Thursday, playwright and Offender David Henry Hwang takes part in interviews in the theater’s office for his latest work, SOFT POWER. The collaboration with Jeanine Tesori had its world premiere in Los Angeles the night before, and a few hours later, the two discussed the process of bringing it to life in a special presentation for CAAMFest.

SOFT POWER is the latest in a long line works by Hwang; joining titles like FOB, CHINGLISH, YELLOW FACE, and the Tony Award-winning M. BUTTERFLY. The inspiration to pursue playwriting started by way of his parents’ involvement with the East West Players in Los Angeles. His father was the book keeper, his mother was the rehearsal pianist.

“I was about eight, and I can either go to rehearsal with my mom, or I can be babysat by my aunt,” he recalled. “So I decided to go to rehearsal. And I don’t remember that much about the show honestly, but it’s interesting to me that when I got to college, the fact that I had, at a young age, seen Asian Americans as actors, as directors, as artistic leaders, maybe made it more likely that I would envision myself as a playwright.”

Hwang studied English at Stanford University, and since there wasn’t a playwriting major at the time, he got his education by way of watching and reading plays, having a professor read his own (and even helped him establish a playwriting major), and studied under playwrights Samuel Shepard and María Irene Fornés. His first play, FOB, was performed in his dorm, before making its way to off-Broadway fourteen months later.

“It was exciting for me to get to hear the words that I wrote spoken, because plays are written… you know, we read them, which is great, but plays are written to be performed,” he said, when remembering the first time FOB was performed. “Until I got to hear the words spoken, until I got to see the characters come to life, I didn’t feel like I knew what I’ve really created. That was, for me, the big revelation of the first dorm production; that I could imagine a world in my head and it could actually come to life in front of me.”

It was from lessons with Shepard and Fornés that Hwang learned to write from his subconscious, which contained ingredients for the Asian and Asian American-focused works he is known for.

“I didn’t know I was going to end up writing about Asian and Asian American subject matter, but once I started writing from my subconscious, these issues started appearing on the page like immigration and assimilation,” he explained. “And so clearly, some part of me was incredibly interested in these issues, but my conscious hadn’t figured that out yet, and that became the key for me.”

Subject matter like the relationship between cultures and how that affects our sense of ourselves still fascinates Hwang to this day; which is a lot for someone who, as a kid, would actively avoid TV shows and movies that had Asian characters in them, because he felt that they would be horrible.

Hwang’s creative process has remained unchanged over the years, but he feels that he’s able to articulate it better now. It starts with a question or something that is bothering him that he doesn’t have the answer to. Then he would proceed with a vague idea on how the play starts and ends, and then figure out how to get from one point to another. Finally, he finds a way to challenge himself by creating something that he maybe hadn’t seen done in a theatre show before.

“For instance, even with going back to FOB, the idea of bringing Chinese opera movement into a Western naturalistic play felt interesting to me, and then this most recent show, SOFT POWER, is about, ‘Can you start with a play?’ and then it kind of jumps and becomes a musical and kind of transforms into a musical,” he said. “SOFT POWER is a show that keeps shape shifting as it goes through the process.”

Outside of playwriting, Hwang also writes for TV and musical theatre. In those mediums, he finds the creative process different by considering how the information is conveyed, and therefore knowing who the primary artist is.

“In a play, most of the information, most of the story is conveyed through dialogue, and the visuals support that,” he elaborated. “I think that’s why the playwright is the primary creative artist when creating a play. But in a movie, most of the information is conveyed visually. A lot of great film directors feel that you should turn off the sound and still follow the story. That’s why the director is the primary creative artist when making a movie.”

When Hwang looks at SOFT POWER in comparison to his earlier works, he sees it as a blend of the two kinds of stories he tells: the U.S.-China relations and the Asian American stories.

“SOFT POWER is about the U.S.-China relationship and what it’s like when it speculates that in a future where China dominates the world, and the idea is that the Chinese have created a musical in the future about 2016 in America, and that’s what we’re watching,” he explained. “Then there’s also a DHH character, just like in YELLOW FACE, who is going through an identity issue and gets stabbed in the neck like I was, which triggers this whole, kind of, fantasy fever dream about this future Chinese musical.”

Looking ahead of SOFT POWER, Hwang already has two more projects in mind that he wants to tackle in the next few years. He’s also considering creating and running his own TV show, but knowing how time-consuming that is from his work on THE AFFAIR, he wants to be sure that this is something he really is up for. In addition, he’s looking into contributing to the amount of Asian American stories that are now starting to be told through film.

“Now that we’re in a time where some of these movies can get made, there’s a bunch of ideas that I’ve had over the years that I haven’t been able to get made, because you can’t get a movie made with an Asian lead,” he said. “But now maybe you can. So I would like to pursue that.”

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