Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Interview with BAPF's Christopher Chen

Chris Chen's play Anomienaulis, an adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis, will be part of our Bay Area Playwrights Festival this year. Chris was born and raised in San Francisco, and his play Into the Numbers was first featured at the 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, receiving further readings at The Lark, hotINK Festival, Theatre Mu, and Silk Road Theatre Project. Most recently, his play The Window Age was commissioned and produced by Central Works Theatre Ensemble in Berkeley.

We spoke to Chris about Anomienaulis and his work.

PF: Anomienaulis is an adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis. What spoke to you about this particular story?

CC: I was first of all fascinated by the initial sequence of events in the story. For the supposed good of his country, the great king Agamemnon makes the tough decision to send for his daughter to be sacrificed. Then, he immediately changes his mind and sends a letter reneging his first order. But when this second letter is intercepted, he essentially resigns himself passively to his initial decision. It was this existential space of indecision and uncertainty that I wanted to tease out and expand upon. The set-up is very Beckett-like. An entire army is stranded indefinitely on the shore, waiting in vain for the wind that would carry their ships to war. In the midst of this restlessness, endless cycles of paralyzing doubt, anti-climaxes, and Hamlet-like wavering are played out, even as the march toward unstoppable violence grows inevitable. I wanted to specifically focus on how Euripides takes the decision-making process and opens up the psychological and moral gray area in between. I wanted to use his text to explore the arbitrariness and absurdity that more often than not determines our “decisive” actions.

PF: How did you approach writing an adaptation as opposed to an original work?

CC: My approach to adaptation wasn’t that different from my approach to an original work. Even when starting from scratch, I usually find it difficult to put any word on the page without first having in place a detailed outline. So working from the rigid outline of the Euripides text felt very natural. And not only was I working from the structure of the original text- I was also working from the structure of the “postmodern Greek adaptation,” a virtual genre unto itself, complete with its own set of conventions (including finding your “modernized take” on the material). I like working within these confines. Somewhat paradoxically, the more narrow and specific the areas of exploration, the more freedom I feel I have. Armed with a pre-existing storyline and a clear concept of my take on the text, I felt more liberated than ever when I started to write. I found myself working more directly from my subconscious.

PF: You grew up in San Francisco and studied playwriting at San Francisco State. What is the San Francisco playwriting community like and how has it shaped your writing?

CC: The playwriting community here is incredibly supportive and close-knit. I’m sure this is due in no small part to playwright-centered organizations such as Playwrights Foundation, Playground, and S.F. State’s playwriting program. Not only are the professors at S.F. State great playwrights, but they are incredible teachers as well. I owe a huge debt to Brian Thorstenson, Anne Galjour, Michelle Carter, and Roy Conboy for helping me develop my voice. Of course, working in a nurturing environment runs the risk of lulling a writer into complacency, but I’ve found that it also provides the perfect testing ground for new ideas. In a safe environment, I feel I have the courage to run with more wild conceptual impulses.

PF: This is your second Festival experience with PF. What was your last experience like last time, and what do you hope to achieve this year?

CC: My first experience at BAPF was a watershed moment for me. Not only did it help launch my playwriting career, but it was really my first time working with a professional artistic team. The experience ultimately elevated my play to a new level. This time around, I feel I have a clearer idea of how to use the festival to really explore new possibilities of the play. Central to Anomienaulis is a strong sense of anarchy and absurdism. This time I really want to allow my director and actors to tear into the script and tear it apart as they see fit. I want to see what happens when the text comes alive with a cast running with their wildest instincts. I want to see what shape the play will take.

PF: What's next for you?

CC: I am working on another Euripides adaptation- Herakles. It’s set in early 20th Century China and takes the form of a bad translation. It’s been a blast to write, and will get a reading at Fluid Motion Theater Company in New York next year. I am also working on a Borges-inspired take on Mao and the Cultural Revolution. And my first play with Playwrights Foundation, Into the Numbers, is going global. It was recently translated into Russian for the Belarus Free Theatre, and this Summer it will be translated into Chinese and premiere at the 2nd annual Beijing Youth Theater Festival, founded by experimental director Meng Jinghui.

PF: Anything you'd like to add?

CC: Donate to the Playwrights Foundation!

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