OPEN STAGES: An Interview with Playwright Christopher Chen

Wilma’s Resident Dramaturg and Literary Manager, Walter Bilderback sat down with playwright Christopher Chen to chat about his career and the world premiere of his new play Passage at the Wilma Theater.  

Walter Bilderback: Let’s start with a general introduction: where are you from? What led you to become a playwright?

Christopher Chen: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind, and after dabbling in fiction, poetry, music composition, music performance, filmmaking and theater directing, I finally found my medium in playwriting, which to me is a union of all the aforementioned disciplines. I love the way it is a medium of almost endless possibility. I can push far into my literary impulses while grappling with social issues with as much emotional and intellectual intensity as I can. And I can also be the instigator of huge theatrical spectacle. To sit down with pen and paper and let my imagination run with all these artistic extremes is thrilling.

W: You’re known for creating plays of ideas that are emotionally gripping and that “pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet.” (Each play also engage different ideas and pull different rugs.)  I remember reading Caught for the first time and discovering that each scene changed my perception of both the style of the play and what the “story” was. A Bay Area critic has created the hashtag #ChenMindFuck. You seem to distrust conventional narrative as a way to address your concerns: could you talk about that?

C: As an artist, a consumer of art and as a person, I’m interested in being challenged, in having my perception shifted. Upending conventional story structure is a tool for this. I don’t inherently distrust conventional narrative. I am, however, interested in interrogating the ways by which thought and point of view are constructed, and how we trap ourselves– by outside imposition and on our own allowance– inside these constructions. With this interrogation I often find myself turning convention over, since constructing stories for plays is related to how we construct stories for ourselves in the real world. This play, Passage, doesn’t exactly employ the same kinds of extreme rug pulls I’ve used in the past, but it has the same spirit. It is a minimalist fable that upends convention by removing all explicit markers of time and place, so that discussions of race and power that are otherwise familiar to the current discourse are presented in a disarmingly uprooted context. The goal of this familiar/unfamiliar dynamic is to have the audience lean into the dialogue perhaps more than they’re used to, making them engage and question their own internal wrestlings with the issues as they are watching. I want to activate the audience in such a way that they’re forced to bring fifty percent of the content– their own thinking– to the table in real time to complete the experience.

Rug-pulling play CAUGHT (InterAct Theatre Company production). Photo by Kate Raines.

W: You describe Passage as “a fantasia inspired by A Passage to India.” Tell us a little about your interest in Forster and how he relates to today.

C: And actually I would say the piece is a response to his work instead, because it is a contemporary work that is meant to be in dialogue with it across time. The dialogue centers around his themes of human connection across great divides– economic, societal, racial– and how these themes have evolved, morphed, and remain unresolved in our present day. It is also a piece that is in a more personal dialogue with him stylistically. A Passage to India was a formative book for me when I first read it in high school, and remains a key influence on my writing to this day. What I really respond to is the book’s scale. The book examines a big sociopolitical issue across a wide spectrum of the epic and the intimate: From intimate conversations between friends, to the geological formations of the earth as seen from the sky. Forster uses pattern and metaphor in incredibly seamless ways, finding genuinely organic links between the spiritual and the political. I’ve tried to maintain a similar macro-lens ethos myself in all of my plays, including this one. For me, the parallel of America today to the British Raj is that you have one place with completely separate realities existing for different people, with power discrepancies at play that make these differences unbridgeable. Colonialism was an evil proposition that was normalized in the Western mind at the time, along with its accompanying, reprehensible power dynamics. Similar power dynamics exist in America today between groups that, again, are  experiencing completely separate realities simultaneously. So one thing I wanted to do with this piece was to respond to Forster by directly linking colonialism to modern day racism, in the name of giving the systemic nature of today’s racism a different kind of historical parallel.

W: One of the first things that strikes a reader of Passage is that the characters are identified not by name but by letter – B, Q, F, for example – and a note says “Race, Gender and sexuality are fluid.” Talk to us a little about your decision to do this.

C: The goals of this are twofold. First, it is about disruption. The experiment of this play is to get at foundational human dynamics at play within a situation of extreme power imbalance. We carry a lot of baggage and preconceptions when thinking about who has power and who doesn’t in America, and so with this piece I wanted to see what would happen if we shed a lot of these traditional markers in order to isolate the specific problem of individual perception within the equation. By encouraging fluidity and diversity across a number of different variables, the idea is to let a greater degree of humanity within characters come forth as they push against a fundamentally imbalanced power structure. Second, I purposefully wanted to create a minimalist fable that was wide open to diverse collaborators, so that the piece could be performed in different communities with different contexts. (Hence the two locations are Country X and Country Y.) My hope is that each group that takes this play on will make it resonate in ways specific to them. You will find that this production will land in a very specific way based on the casting within this group. And that is the point. Once specific bodies inhabit the roles, the play becomes specific. In the same way that interpreters find different resonances in Shakespeare and Greek tragedies across time and place, I purposefully sought to write a play that was elastic and foundational enough to be taken and molded and owned by different persons across time and place too.

W: You were able to be with us in December for a workshop with the cast. What was that experience like for you as a writer? What most excites you going into rehearsal?

C: It is safe to say I have never had a text engaged with in this manner before. Through a series of innovative exercises focusing on putting the text of the play immediately and directly into the bodies and voices of the actors (as opposed to psychoanalytic table work), I was able to experience my play anew. The HotHouse process is deliberate, rigorous and, quite frankly, astonishing. Sentence for sentence, word for word, they uprooted layers of humanism and poetic truth to the characters I didn’t know were there. Their work brought forth the central nervous system of the play in such an unexpected way that I found myself shifting my perspective of how theater should be practiced. I’m looking forward to diving into rehearsals with this group of amazing artists. I’ve developed a deep respect for each person involved, and am grateful beyond words that they chose to engage with my work.

Passage begins at The Wilma Theater on April 18 and runs through May 13. To purchase your tickets call the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824 or go online at WilmaTheater.org/Passage.

Photo of Christopher Chen by Sasha Arutyunova. Photo of the Wilma HotHouse Company by David Sarrafian.

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