Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Interview with a Playwright: Don Nguyen

It's Natasha again! I'm back with our interview series, this week with playwright Don Nguyen whose play Sound explores identity and Deaf culture.
Don Nguyen

Natasha Brown: Thank you for letting me interview you! First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?

Don Nguyen: I think my style does change depending on the play I’m writing. With most of my really serious plays I inject as much humor in it as possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to watch it myself. I guess, in that respect, all of my plays have a certain layer of humor. However, I think the type of play does demand a certain level of difference in writing style. 
NB: Yeah, I agree. Are there any interesting stories about how your new play, Sound, came into being?

DN: I spent some time at Martha’s Vineyard (where the play is set) for a writer’s retreat. I did some research about the island and found out that, at one point, the island had the highest concentration of deaf people in the country. What I found interesting was that there were so many deaf people on the island, all of the hearing people had to learn their sign language in order to communicate with them. Back then it was about hearing people integrating into their society as opposed to the other way around. It made me want to write about identity.

Martha's Vineyard

NB: Wow, I bet that's something a lot of our audiences won't know. That's really fascinating. For you personally, how did Deaf culture become a necessary topic for you to write about?

DN: Before I wrote the play, I actually never had any personal experience with or attachment to Deaf culture. My father is getting older and is slowly losing his hearing. It’s been on my mind. When I’m at a loud party and I can’t hear a single word anyone is saying I think “Is it just me or is it really loud in here?” Those experiences provoked my na├»ve fears about losing my hearing. Since writing this play, doing research and working with Deaf artists, I’ve learned that deafness is not a handicap or a disability.  A deaf person can do everything a hearing person can do, except hear.  But also, there are many things deaf people can do that hearing people can’t do, one of which is being able to sign at loud parties! I realized what a great experience it is to have relationships with people I felt completely unattached to before.

NB: That's really great. What makes this play different from other plays written by hearing people about deaf people/culture?

DN: One of the challenges for the festival is how we make sure both deaf and hearing audiences can understand. I think that my play is bilingual – half of it is written in Sign and the other half is written for hearing audiences. My play is definitely trying to do a lot more than a lot of other plays about or including deaf people are designed or willing to do. What we did in a New York reading is to use supertitles that told the audience the general idea of the scene, and then the entire scene would be signed onstage and our hearing audiences would watch the scene unfold. They were forced to get out of their comfort zone, which I think is important. I’m not trying to “represent” Deaf culture because I’m not deaf myself. I’m trying to represent the universal theme shared by deaf and hearing people alike, which is identity and how it shapes us based on our unique circumstances.

NB: Yes, and we know that you have worked extensively with deaf people to make this play inclusive and accurate. What has the process been like? Have you experienced any pushbacks?

DN: Thankfully, I’ve not experienced any pushbacks from the Deaf community, which is one thing I was very sensitive about. The response has been really positive. There is a sense of happiness that someone is writing about their culture and that they get to tell their stories onstage. I’ve had positive feedback about accurately depicting the experiences of many deaf people.

NB: Last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?

DN: I would say definitely there are a lot of great new playwrights that writers should read: Everyone in the Ma-Yi Writers lab including past festival participants Kimber Lee, Jiehae Park, Lauren Yee, Mia Chung, and Clarence Coo.  Also Lucas Hnath, Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Rajiv Joseph, Brandon Jacobs Jenkins, Laura Marks, Bekah Brunstetter, Kate Gersten, Yussef El Guindi, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Sam Hunter, Jessica Dickey, and Marcus Gardley just to name a very few.  

NB: Thanks, Don!

Check out Don's hilarious blog, Sad Playwright, for a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of playwriting.

Sound is showing on July 20th at 12pm and July 27th at 4pm. Get your tickets here!

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. 

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