COSTA MESA, CALIF: It’s a common storytelling trope: When you are lost, just go back home. It worked for Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. More recently, at the 2015 Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory, it worked for the characters in Melissa Ross’s play Of Good Stock, in which three sisters gather in their childhood home to take account of their relationship.
“I think everyone wants to write something about their families, right?” said playwright Qui Nguyen, whose own family was the inspiration for another play in the festival, Vietgone. “Every single person on the planet has an interesting family story to tell.”
Indeed, family is the never-emptying well of the American theatre. For any playwright, if you need a source of unlimited drama, look no further than the house you grew up in. And yet, out of countless family-themed plays written and produced on the American stage, I’ve never seen a play that talked about my family—or rather, the Vietnamese-American family. Until two weeks ago.
As a Vietnamese-American woman who grew up in Orange County, just a 20-minute drive from South Coast Rep, I have grown used to seeing myself in other people. Some of the people I’ve recently seen parts of myself in include a Caucasian art historian from ’80s-era New York City (The Heidi Chronicles) and a 43-year-old lesbian cartoonist from rural Pennsylvania (Fun Home).
But what happens when you don’t have to contort yourself to fit into a particular character’s shoes? After all, there is no playwriting manual that says the American family needs to be all-white and living on the Upper West Side. When you walk into a theatre and see a story you instantly recognize, with actors who look like you, something shifts. You feel heard, as if the story of your family, and of people like your family, is a true part of the American national narrative.
“I think it’s really important to be able to see depictions of yourself, people that look like yourself onstage in a very positive way, in a strong way, in a sexually powerful way,” said Nguyen. “And so I wrote a sex comedy about it.”
Vietgone details how Nguyen’s parents met and fell in love in an Arkansas refugee camp following the end of the Vietnam War. And, in true Qui Nguyen form—this is the cofounder of geek-theatre troupe Vampire Cowboys, after all, whose Six Rounds of Vengeance is currently up at the New Ohio in New York City—his play also features copious cursing (120 instances of “fuck,” if we’re counting), rapping and ninja fighting. As Nguyen puts it: “It’s as influenced by Quentin Tarantino as it is influenced by David Henry Hwang as it’s influenced by Jay-Z.”
But the backbone of the story—Vietnamese-American immigrants fleeing war—isn’t just Nguyen’s family’s story. It’s mine, too. And in an all-too-rare instance in my theatregoing career, I didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else. Ironically, it felt alien—and incredibly powerful.
Vietgone was not the only play I saw at the PPF to which my overall response was essentially, “Yes! I recognize that! That is me!” I also saw my hometown in the reading of Orange: an Illustrated Play by Aditi Brennan Kapil, as its characters got off the plane at John Wayne Airport and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. Kapil, a writer of Bulgarian and Indian descent who’s based in Minneapolis, wrote Orange as part of SCR’s CrossRoads Commissioning Project, which is supporting eight playwrights in projects inspired by Orange County; though not all of the PPF’s offerings were CrossRoads projects, Nguyen’s Vietgone was, too.
“It’s odd, because I was talking to Qui about this,” Kapil told me after the reading of Orange. “Somehow our journey-through-Orange-Country experience resulted in some of the most personal plays we’ve ever written. And neither of us saw that coming.”
Neither did I.
Orange County is known for many things: beaches, sunshine, conservative politics, the long expanses of orange groves that give it its name. Orangeophiles were in luck at this year’s PPF, which showcased two plays—Kapil’s Orange as well as Big Shot: a.k.a This Is not the Godfather from the Los Angeles–based ensemble Theatre Movement Bazaar—that featured monologues toting the health properties of oranges.
When asked if the orange theme was planned, festival co-director and SCR associate artistic director John Glore shook his head and chuckled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Godfather, so I’m still trying to figure out what prompted that orange sequence in Big Shot.” (He might look here for a refresher.)
The festival, which wrapped up its 18th iteration April 24–26, was founded in 1998 as a way of showcasing the new plays that were being born in Southern California. Previously, said Glore, who was SCR’s literary manager at the time, “the plays we really liked that made their debuts here often didn’t really go on to much.”
PPF, which showcases a mix of readings and fully produced world premieres, has helped correct that. The pedigree of past festivals is impressive: It includes a reading of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole, a reading and subsequent world premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, and the world premiere of Rolin Jones’s The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.
This year’s festival also highlighted the new emphasis on local concerns, which has been a focus of artistic director Marc Masterson, who inherited the theatre in 2011 from founding artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson.
“When I came here four years ago, I was interested in asking the question, What is a regional theatre today? What does it mean to be a regional theatre?” said Masterson, who previously headed Actors Theatre of Louisville.
His answer: to serve the community and its varied demographics, not just the majority white audiences that came to the theatre. That led to two major initiatives: One was the Dialogue/Diálogos project, a two-year bilingual theatre project that incorporated the Latino community in Santa Ana. The second was the CrossRoads project, launched in 2012, and funded by a two-year, $150,000 grant from the Time Warner Foundation, with money earmarked for eight plays inspired by the O.C.’s cultural diversity. (Time Warner recently renewed the CrossRoads grant for another two years, which will enable SCR to commission a second wave of writers.)
“Most people outside of Orange County don’t have any idea it’s as diverse as it is,” said Masterson. “There is an idea of Orange County that is perhaps driven by media—‘Real Housewives’ and so forth—that it’s all very white and very conservative. That is here, but it is also side by side with literally one of the most diverse counties.” The numbers back him up: Orange County is comprised of 43 percent non-Hispanic white, 34 percent Hispanic and/or Latino and 19 percent Asian.
The CrossRoads playwrights, made up of three men and five women, came from all over the country and spanned the gamut ethnically, from Latino playwright Luis Alfaro to African-American playwright Marc Bamuthi Joseph to Middle Eastern-American playwright Mona Mansour. The playwrights were not required to write plays about Orange County, but Kapil not only made the region her theme, she borrowed its name for her play.
“I’m vaguely embarrassed by it,” she admitted during a Sunday morning panel on playwriting. “’Write a play about Orange County, I’ll call it Orange!’ It’s horrifying.”
Orange follows a young girl from Calcutta on the autism spectrum who goes on an adventure with her Indian-American cousin through the O.C. For Kapil, whose own daughter is on the autism spectrum, Orange is intended to address multiple audiences, including those with autism and those of Indian descent. It’s a complicated juggling act; Kapil was still giving new pages to the actors Saturday morning, before Orange’s first-ever public reading.
“I always want as diverse an audience as possible,” she explains. “I think we gather to commune and tell stories, and the more of us the better. And I do feel a responsibility to diversify the stories that are in our theatres so we can all be a part of that more diverse discourse.”
As part of the research for their plays, the CrossRoads playwrights spent four initial days in the area, touring the county and meeting with community groups and individuals. For Vietgone, Nguyen visited the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at University of California–Irvine to look for information about his parents there. Last fall, SCR held the first public reading of Vietgone at the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association. It’s fitting considering that the O.C. houses the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.
“The whole room was all Vietnamese people, from different ages, 16 all the way up,” recalled Nguyen. “And one guy, this older gentleman, after we did that reading actually was like, ‘I know your dad! I trained where he trained at—I was the class right after him.’”
Vietgone will receive a full world-premiere production at SCR this fall (Oct. 4–15), and will then play at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (March 30–Oct. 29, 2016).
“I think it’s so crucial, especially when it comes to those underrepresented communities, to see high-quality theatre, to see it with full professional production values,” said Nguyen, whose play received a standing ovation at its Sunday morning reading from a crowd consisting of a mix of industry professionals, SCR subscribers and members of the local Vietnamese community.
“I think if I’m trying to influence and give inspiration to younger generations, or to an underrepresented community, I think it’s important that a bigger institution is connected to it,” said Nguyen. “And not just for the community here, but for anyone who feels underrepresented.”
In the lobby of SCR there is a map of the United States. On that map is a partial list of plays that either had a world premiere or a reading at PPF and where they went afterwards. In recent years, that list has included the 2015 Pulitzer finalist Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison (PPF reading in 2014; world premiere at Center Theatre Group) and Smokefall by Noah Haidle (PPF reading in 2012; world premiere at SCR, then the Goodman and at MCC Theater in 2016).
Theatres love to host world premieres, but no playwright can live on world premieres alone; they need second and third productions of their plays. As Glore said, that was was one of the reasons PPF was created in the first place, to give a continued life to the plays being developed at SCR.
“It’s so impossible to make a viable living writing plays in the theatre unless you can get multiple productions of your work,” Glore said. “One production is not going to pay your rent for any period of time.”
SCR’s track record on that count is strong, Glore pointed out: Of the 113 plays offered in the festival prior to this year’s, he said that 80 percent have gone onto further productions outside SCR.
The theatre also strives to maintain relationships with writers, bringing them back with multiple commissions, readings and productions. Three of this year’s festival offerings came from artists who are SCR alums: Theatre Movement Bazaar, who returned to SCR for a third time with Big Shot, their vaudevillian deconstruction of the Godfather films, and Itamar Moses, whose Completeness was read in 2010 and then produced at SCR in 2011, and whose The Whistleblower—about a Hollywood screenwriter who decides to give up his career and make peace with all of the important people in his life who he previously neglected—was read at this year’s festival.
This year’s festival also featured relative SCR newcomers Rajiv Joseph—whose Mr. Wolf received a reading at last year’s festival and got its full-length production this year—and Bekah Brunstetter, with the reading of Going to a Place Where You Already Are. Joseph’s play is a dark mystery about missing children and their parents, while Going to a Place… is a meditation on death and whether or not heaven exists. Brunstetter’s play will receive a production at SCR next season (March 6–27, 2016).
Having SCR as a new-play fairy godmother has been a boon for emerging playwright Melissa Ross, whose Of Good Stock was among the fully produced plays at this year’s festival (the other two were Big Shot and Mr. Wolf). SCR was the first theatre to commission work from her while she was still a student at Juilliard. It also showcased her play You Are Here at PPF in 2012 and gave her her first LORT production this year with Of Good Stock.
“South Coast Rep has been a big part of a lot career firsts for me over the past five years,” Ross effused this week over e-mail, in the midst of rehearsals for the Manhattan Theatre Club production for Of Good Stock. The play runs at MTC June 4–July 26, and is being helmed by artistic director Lynne Meadow, who not coincidentally helmed the 2014 PPF reading of the play.
Though she’s New York-based, Ross, too, feels the pull of the orange groves.
“For playwrights, it is so important to find theatre communities where we can connect both artistically and personally,” said Ross. “Every time I come back to Costa Mesa it’s like coming home.”