PGC's Q & A with David Yee
Playwrights Guild of Canada talks with PGC member, David Yee about how hardwood chairs are the devil’s instrument for a writer, what’s been happening at fu-GEN Theatre Company, how playwrights should read the fine print on contracts, details about his upcoming play, paper SERIES, which will appear at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival from June 19-23, 2012 and explores the nature of love and loss, and how every playwright should write like they are trying to save their life.
1. What is your ideal writing environment? Do you prefer to write in public (like in a café, at the library, or in a park), in private (like at home) or in a group (like in a writing group)? Do you like to write in silence, or do you prefer a soundtrack for your writing? How do you write best?
It’s hard to write at a café without the paranoia that someone will think I’m a blogger, writing about something super cute my cat did last week. I don’t blog and I hate cats. I tend to write in private. It’s a private act, to me. Like showering. Some of my best writing has been done at hotels so, if I’ve got a choice, that’s where I’d like to be. Silence to start, but sometimes music really helps drive a scene forward. It depends on the play and what stage the work is at, etc. I want all the options available to me and then choose as I see fit or as the mood strikes me. I need to be COMFORTABLE. Hard wooden chairs are the devil’s instruments. A comfortable place to sit, a pack of cigarettes, a cup of coffee or a bottle of something strong, often both… then I’m good to go.
2. Let’s talk a bit about inspiration, the nature of creativity, and how you work as a playwright. What are your favourite or most helpful writing prompts? What is your method for beginning a new project and where do you look for inspiration?
I don’t look for inspiration. No one should look for inspiration, that seems the most backwards thing to do. I’ve learned patience and to be receptive. I try to be open, leave myself open. Every now and again something will strike me and then I will drop everything, whatever I’m doing, sit down and write. But I never look anymore. When I did, I’d find nothing or worse: false promises of inspiration. Those will kill a man faster than anything.
3. Your play, paper SERIES, will be staged at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Calgary from June 19 - 23, 2012. paper SERIES is a collection of six short plays that explore how we use paper to create, amuse, define, and communicate. Tell us a bit more about the play, the themes and what inspired you to write it, and what you hope the audience will take away from it.
paper SERIES had its world premiere a while ago. 2007 or something, at Summerworks. It was then revisited, revised and mounted again by Cahoots Theatre Company in April 2011 at the Young Centre, and was programmed as a part of Magnetic North after that.
The play started with a book of origami. I had been commissioned to write something for a new theatre company, just a short monologue for their fundraiser, and I was obsessed with this book so I wrote about origami as a kind of metaphor. The fascination, though, was really paper… origami was just a way into that. So I kept writing these single person narratives that all had paper—in some way—at their centre. I’d work on them, just as a pet project, between other writing gigs or just as a way to work things out for myself. I ended up with about 25 of them, give or take, and then distilled those down to six that I thought had a good arc to them when they were all put together. Collectively, they have an emotional arc, rather than a structural narrative arc.
When all was said and done, I was left with these short plays that all used paper in wildly variant ways, but were all very much about the thing I understand the least (love) and the thing I understand the most (loss).
4. You are currently the Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company, a charitable theatre company dedicated to the development of professional Asian Canadian theatre artists through the production of new and established works. As a founding member, can you talk a bit about fu-GEN Theatre Company and its recent projects, including the innovative sex tape project and the recent 9th Annual Potluck Festival? As an Artistic Director, what playwrights have you enjoyed working with?
sex tape project is a multi-writer, multi-location theatrical experiment. Three writers, (myself, Adrienne Wong and Donald Woo) were tasked to write a play in reverse. We started with the physical track, the staged movement of two actors who performed a physical play that had a beginning, middle and end… but no dialogue. Armed with that, we all wrote plays that would fit over top of those physical actions, filling in the dialogue, the intentions, the reasons why the couple were moving about the way they were. It’s a feat of timing, trust me, to get all of those plays to then sync up to the blocking. Those scripts were then all recorded as pure audio plays.
For the presentation, the actors perform the physical play in a room at the Super 8 hotel in Chinatown. The audience was located across the street from the hotel, in front of a window, with binoculars and headphones and listened to the play. Any one audience member only hears one play, but not necessarily the same one that the person next to them is hearing. The action is performed only once, but—in reality—three plays have just happened simultaneously.
Bit of a logistical mindfuck, that one. But lots of fun, and we learn a lot with every phase of development.
The Potluck Festival is much simpler, it’s a festival of new work by Asian Canadian playwrights. fu-GEN runs a playwrights unit called “the kitchen” over the course of our season, and the Potluck Festival is the public’s chance to see the sorts of things we’ve been cooking up in the kitchen. The whole evening concludes with a giant potluck dinner. It’s pretty great. Over ten years there’s been some great work that’s been showcased for the first time at the potluck festival including: Pu-Erh by Norman Yeung, Taste of Empire by Jovanni Sy and Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi. It’s the only new play festival featuring Asian Canadian work, so it’s pretty special to us.
As an Artistic Director I like working with playwrights who actually write. I don’t like playwrights who talk. Talking is for actors, they love the sound of their own voices. Playwrights should write. Got a question? Write until you find the answer. That’s the job.
5. You are currently a playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre. Can you describe what that experience has been like?
Honestly, I couldn’t be more grateful for my residency at Tarragon Theatre. I haven’t worked in a theatre as committed to the artists in their house as Tarragon is. They make themselves so available and accessible to the needs of their artists, they put the work first and they give artists the time and resources they need to create. I’m very, very lucky to be in that house, no doubt.
6. What is the most valuable piece of advice you received as a beginning writer and/or what advice would you offer to emerging playwrights?
The same advice I got is the same advice I’d give: read.
Read everything. Read subway posters and cereal boxes. Read the newspaper (the real newspaper, not the bullshit digital version). Read your horoscope (just don’t believe it). Read plays by writers you admire, but read more plays by writers you can’t stand. The same does not hold true for novels; bad drama teaches you something, bad fiction is just a slow lobotomy. Read graffiti in public washrooms. Read fine print on contracts. Read poetry… for CHRIST’S SAKE, READ POETRY. You’ll understand it later, just READ it now. Read music. Read textbooks on subjects you don’t understand. Read inter-office memorandums. Just read fucking everything.
And then write like you’re trying to save your life.
7. What have you been working on lately? Tell us a bit about your current writing projects and if you have any upcoming projects planned?
I’m working on a play called carried away on the crest of a wave for Tarragon Theatre. It’s an anthological play, like paper SERIES, several short scenes that make up a larger story, all tied together by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It will premiere at the Tarragon Mainspace Theatre in April 2013. You should go.
8. Many authors have a favourite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. Please share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer:
“Don’t try.”—Charles Bukowski
Anything else you’d like to share?
Perry Rosemond asked me to contribute to the Walrus Laughs, an online spinoff of The Walrus literary mag, focusing on humor. I wrote about how the internet has ruined the English language in 'OMG, WTF, LOLz or, Why I don't understand the world anymore'. It’s a democratic kind of site, so the more people who read the article and click the smiley face, the longer it stays at the top of the site. I’d like it to always be at the top, because I have the self-esteem of a mosquito and this is the only way I feel love.
David Yee was born and raised in Toronto. He is currently the Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company. A Dora Mavor Moore Award nominated actor and playwright, his work has been produced internationally and at home. His play, lady in the red dress, was nominated for the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award and is published by Playwrights Canada Press.
Photo Credit: Bob Gundu