An Conversation between C1’s Director of New Work, Ilana M. Brownstein, and Hookman playwright Lauren Yee.
(An excerpt appeared in the Hookman program notes.)
IMB: Talk to me about the genesis of this play. How did we get here?
LY: For me, Hookman came from two different sources: one kind of funny and goofy, and the other a little more serious. The first boyfriend I had in high school would always try to scare me about the idea of the Hookman. We would be driving home from the movies and he’d be like “oh, there’s that scratching on the door.” I’ve always been someone who’s really afraid of anything scary or horror related, I just can’t take it. And so the idea of this Hookman coming after me, and being at the door, I always found unsettling in a creepy way. The other thing was that maybe a year and a half ago, one of my high school acquaintances, who wasn’t a close friend, but was someone who traveled in the same circles as me, passed away very suddenly. I found out kind of by people’s odd comments posted on her Facebook profile, and the more I looked, the more clear it became that she had indeed passed away. I remember feeling like I deserved to know how she died, because it actually wasn’t revealed. I found that kind of disturbing, because why should I need to know it all? It really wasn’t any of my business, even though I felt like it was. That was the beginning of Hookman. I actually wrote the first draft of the play in order, which is extremely unusual for me. But the first scene of the play that I wrote was Jess and Lexi in the car, and Hookman coming out of nowhere, and killing Jess. Every scene I wrote after that was chronological.
IMB: How does this piece fit into the rest of your work? Where does it line up with what’s come before, and where does it depart from that?
LY: I think all my plays tend to try to dramatize and make funny something that is inherently unfunny. Like, I have my funny kidnapping play, I have my funny indentured servitude of Asian people play, I have my funny misogynistic play. This one is my funny young girls dying in tragic ways play. I think it falls under the auspices of slightly inappropriate humor. Where I think it diverges for me is that in this play I’m trying to explore the intangible things about conversation and human interaction, all those moments that are important to us: when someone doesn’t hear what you say, or when you go to shake someone’s hand they try to hug you, or someone misinterprets what you say. All those in-between moments that humans experience, I find them really potent. Hookman is my first attempt to try to get those into a play. So, I’m taking something that is inherently undramatic, and trying to make that dramatic.
IMB: You’re also taking the undramatic and making it dramatic in the most extreme way possible by putting it in the middle of a horror movie.
LY: Yeah, that’s true. The play juxtaposes really minor mundane moments, like blowing your nose, or trying to scratch yourself, with overblown horror and death and mind-tricks.
IMB: Given that you don’t love horror movies, and you shy away from scary, shocking genres, what made you want to dive headfirst into a play that demands massive amounts of stage blood, and violence, and suspenseful discomfort?
LY: I think I felt like there’s room out there in the horror genre for something that is scary, but is also awkward; that there’s more than one way to look at death, and see the different facets of it. Also, as someone who doesn’t like scary movies, it was a way to deflate the genre for myself. If I could take horror, and make it kind of awkward and goofy and uncomfortable, that might be kind of fun for me. There could be a horror story that I could sit through.
IMB: Did you watch any horror movies in preparation for this?
LY: [long pause] Not really. I thought back to all the trailers of horror movies that I watched, and got terrified by. I know some of the stories but…
IMB: …The trailer is enough.
LY: Yes. The trailer is enough. I admit it. I did not watch a lot of movies to prepare for this.
IMB: Do you remember ever having watched one all the way through?
LY: I watched The Ring. All the way through. One of my friends was a big, big Japanese horror fan, and it terrified me. I went home and – the premise behind The Ring is that you watch this kind of grainy videotape – and I turned on my TV, and it was like the grainy videotape quality, and I turned it off. I couldn’t – yeah.
IMB: Did it follow you around? Like, when you see these things, do you carry that discomfort with you for a while after you see it?
LY: I think so. I think you begin to see the ways in which your normal every day life begins to warp to accommodate these horror images.
IMB: That feels so connected to this play, that idea of being so uncomfortable about something that –
LY: – That your mind begins to change things right in front of you. Or, that you begin to see more into silences, or objects, than you should.
IMB: Let’s talk about the Facebook and social media part of this play. I know that has a source-point in the conception of the play, but could you talk more about your feelings on the recent social media explosion? What’s your relationship to that?
LY: I think that my current attitude is fatigue. It’s just so hard for me to keep up with all these different things that are being posted, or are going on, or that are constantly – like a virus – morphing, becoming a stronger, more powerful thing. I feel like I can’t keep up. I’m one step behind everything that’s being developed, or is the New Thing. My relationship with social media is one of being not too up-to-date on what’s going on. But also, I feel like everyone develops an extreme curiosity for someone that they know tangentially. Like, that person that gets engaged, and you need to know everything about their new fiancée.
IMB: I think there’s a desire, or a reflex maybe, for people to see this as a generational thing. But I think in an earlier draft of the play certainly some of the older characters we never see, like Lexi’s Dad, were just as involved in Facebook as the younger characters, and that involvement was the stepping stone to deep discomfort.
LY: I think that the issues that Hookman explores – like miscommunication, and feeling awkward, not really knowing your place or purpose in this world, or just dealing with traumatic events – I think the importance of it is magnified when you’re younger. If you’re 18 years old, and you’ve just gone off to college, there are certain events that seem much larger than they are. But at the same time, it’s something that we all go through. We all have traumatic events in our lives, we all have grief, we all have sometimes the inability to connect properly with those we love and those we want to love. These are problems that afflict more than just 18-year-old college freshmen girls, but the circumstances are particularly heightened with that age group.
IMB: I feel like in some of our talkbacks in our earlier public readings of the play, there have been at least a handful of older audience members who have watched the play and articulated “ah yes, that is the problem with youth today.” Is that a place where you want audience to go? I don’t think you’re condemning the youth of today and their crazy Facebook ways. I guess I’m curious about your thoughts.
LY: I definitely understand what you’re saying, and I think that hopefully people will find something a little more universal in the characters, even though they are very specifically not the same as the audience. I mean, most of the audience will not be this group of 18-year-old college freshmen girls. But I think some of the struggles they encounter, the everyday problems that they have – like trying to have coffee with someone who doesn’t want to have coffee with you – will be something that people can connect to and follow.
IMB: You’re in an interesting place with this play. It’s been a long development process with us, but also simultaneously you’re in process at school, with a whole different set of people. How’s that been for you? What surprises or challenges have come up?
LY: So I’ve also been thinking about this play, Hookman, with my classmates and professors at UC San Diego. One of the benefits is having a wide range of perspectives and people to bounce ideas off of, which has been great. The ability to see different actors handle the same part has been really helpful. What can be a little difficult to keep straight sometimes is design. Particularly because for this play, what the exact design looks like effects how we view the action and themes. Sound and light and how set moves, that’s all going to be very important in how an audience views a play at the end, so kind of balancing two different design visions is tricky. Right now at UCSD, we’re figuring out the set, but other elements like sound and costume and lights are much more in flux. For the Boston production, all those things are much further along, and decisions have to be made while the script is still slightly in flux.
IMB: So are you able to keep straight the multiplicity of aesthetics that’s going on between the two productions? Is it helpful, or not helpful to have all that going on at once?
LY: It’s a little schizophrenic sometimes to keep them separate, because I recognize what’s going to serve one play is going to not serve the other play at all, in terms of interpretations of the script. So, I just have to remember to keep them separate, and to think about how the script might support different visions at the same time.
IMB: I think a lot of playwrights don’t have an opportunity for those kinds of experiences so close upon one another, so for you, there really is something unique about what it might mean to have two distinct versions of this world in existence at the same time. They’re each deeply connected to the script and born of that same material, but I also imagine that at the end of May, when the UCSD production finishes, you could potentially have two very, very different plays on your hands. Not just the looks of them, but the words on the page could be divergent. We’ll have had to set the script in stone at a point that precedes the UCSD rehearsal process.
LY: It’s really exciting, and also I think as much as the script is very specific at times, it is also extremely open to an actor’s interpretation. You could have wildly different versions in that way, too.
IMB: I asked you this about 9 months ago, so I’m going to ask you again, now that you’ve lived with the play longer. What is the nightmare production of this play? Where do you think a production could totally go off the rails in the conception of the event (not in the writing)? Where do you think people could totally misunderstand it?
LY: I think the “crazy” production of Hookman would be a production that doesn’t have any sympathy for the characters. Especially Lexi and Jess. I feel like they are young girls who say things – and don’t say the smartest things – but I feel it would be a mistake to write them off as idiots. I think that the heart of the script is their vulnerability as these young girls trying to figure out their way in life, trying to deal with this traumatic event, and what happens when you don’t quite know how to deal with it. So I think one of the best things you could do for Hookman is to play the characters with an emotional intelligence and depth.
IMB: I know you also have other projects lined up, even though this play is all-consuming for the moment. What else are you working on, or what’s niggling in your brain, saying “I’m next”?
LY: I’m working on a commission with Mu Performing Arts. They’re an Asian American theatre company up in Minneapolis. Right now the play centers around this Hmong American family in the Midwest, and struggles over land and power and class, and what happens when the father begins acting erratically. It’s set out in rural Minnesota, where I stayed for a month during hunting season, and that’s something that really influenced my perception of the Midwest. Then I have a play ay Impact Theatre in Berkeley called Crevice, which I will start working on as soon as I’m done with Hookman. It’s about this pair of lost, 20-something-year-old siblings, who maybe discover this parallel universe underneath the surface of their living room.
IMB: I really want to read that play. It sounds awesome.
LY: It deals with California earthquakes.
IMB: I’d love to pick your brain for a minute. This is sort of a moment for Asian Americans in the theatre, what with the meeting of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) two weeks ago – which was the result of several other meetings over the past year – talking about a study of the vast underrepresentation of Asian Americans on New York stages over the past five years. The statistics were staggering, and prompted a wider discussion in the press, side-by-side with references to the simultaneous and meteoric rise of New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin. What are your feelings or thoughts about all this?
LY: I would love to see an ideal world in which Asian American artists could be working on whatever they want, being in any random show they want, and they wouldn’t necessarily – especially for the actors – only get to work every five years when a theatre does a show like Wild Swans [currently at the American Repertory Theatre]. It’s really exciting that they’re doing that, but it seems like you kind of have a big show that calls for Asian American actors – like David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish which just closed on Broadway – once every 5-10 years. What is there in between? It would just be nice if, as a playwright, I could work on whatever I want. Asian American identity is important to me, so it will continue to come up in my writing. It would be nice if whenever I have a piece that calls for an Asian American actor, the theatre would be easily able to find talented actors that are known in the community, that have been working consistently. I want playwrights to be able to put that kind of character into the script and not have people just be like “oh my god it needs an Asian American actor, but there’s nobody for the role!”
IMB: do you have any feelings or thoughts about why now, or how did we get to this conversation at this moment in the theatre? I mean, do you think it’s because we’ve had Chinglish on Broadway this season? Or, more probably, is it a million things that can’t be codified?
LY: I think it’s a really interesting time because if you look at all the plays that have been produced in New York in the past year, it’s actually been a pretty good year for Asian American actors, relatively speaking. There was Chinglish, there were a couple of other plays like Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar on Broadway, or Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles at Lincoln Center, which both have Asian American actresses …it’s not a bad year to be Asian American –
LY: – Yes –
IMB: – Do you think we broached some threshold of visibility? Like, enough people have seen and noticed the presence of Asian Americans in these high-profile shows, that we also notice the lack of them in the larger context?
LY: I’m not sure why it’s coming up right now. I wish I knew the answer.
IMB: Hm. It is, perhaps, unknowable, though it’s definitely something we at Company One have been thinking about. We have several highly-involved Asian American board members, and we are in residence less than a mile from Boston’s Chinatown. Bringing your work to our stage has been a great opportunity to start larger conversations about how intersect with these parts of our community. That said, why did you decide that you wanted to propose this play to this company?
LY: That’s a good question, and I think at first when I gave you guys Hookman I was like, I don’t know if this actually quite fits within Company One’s mission. I guess from what I knew about Company One, you guys were interested in specific communities of people, and it’s probably easier to think in terms of race and culture, but that’s not what this play does entirely. So at first I wasn’t quite sure where Hookman fit, but as I was hearing more about the XX PlayLab, and its mission to develop and produce new plays by women, it made more sense to me. This play might address the concern of a specific group of people in society.
IMB: How do you identify that group?
LY: It seems to be young women, and how they function in this world. Maybe the roles that we put young women into, and all the things they have to deal with. I think the play does touch on somewhat taboo issues in terms of young women: they talk about their periods, they talk about violence against women, and it intersects with Company One’s mission in that way.
IMB: What was it about C1 that made you want to be affiliated with us?
LY: I met people who’d worked with Company One who I thought were fantastic people. I saw C1’s production of The Aliens, which I also thought was fantastic. It made me think a little more broadly about what it means to talk about stories from different communities. The company seemed really committed to an accurate multicultural vision of the world, which was really neat.
IMB: This is one of the first times the company has engaged in a development process this thorough, long-term, and involved, especially with a writer who is not in residence with us. How’s it been for you?
LY: It’s been great! I’ve loved all my trips to Boston and it really feels like I’ve made progress on this script. When I met with you last year to discuss the script, I was at a stuck place. I felt like the play needed work, but I’d gotten as far as I could on my own. I knew it needed changes but I didn’t know what those changes might be. It feels like now I’ve gotten over that mountain, which feels good. That’s been really gratifying.
IMB: That’s awesome, because that is, in essence, the goal.
LY: The worst thing is a play that you can’t finish, or a play that you know needs changes but you can’t get there.
IMB: Is there anything else you want to add about general thoughts on the script, or the work we’ve been doing, or Boston?
LY: I think one of the things that was interesting to me was trying to cast characters who were largely 18, and maybe a couple years older than that. It was harder than I thought it would be to find the right fit in terms of type, in terms of being able to handle language. I was like, y’know, young actors must be all over the place! And we did see a lot of people for auditions, but this play can also be very tonally difficult for actors. It’s not quite straightforward on the page – what this play’s about and how the world operates. So you need actors with intellectual firepower who can handle it.
IMB: And do you feel well-represented on that front?
LY: Yes. I think this play, for any actor, requires a lot of thinking about the world. So what’s been nice this past week while I’ve been here is thinking about the rules of the world, and clarifying them with these actors, right here in the process.
IMB: You have said that the play, for you, is about dramatizing the intangible moments of the human experience. I thought that was a great way of talking about it. Is there anything you want to add?
LY: The more I listen to human beings, and the more that I watch them interact, there are just so many high-stakes moments for very low-stakes things. People standing in line, or people jockeying for seats on an airplane, all these very small movements that seem to take on a great significance to human beings, I find fascinating.