A Conversation with Carla Ching
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Written by Helen Schultz
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Mike Palma
August 18, 2016
Carla Ching is in full LA-mode: she calls us from the car in – you guessed it – immense traffic. She was rolling into a spacing rehearsal for her newest play, The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up at Artists at Play. After rehearsal, it’s home to work on rewrites. There’s a new project for The Kilroys to be constructed, a show to open, and more scenes to be written for her gig on Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick. But she still has time to talk to us about the educational system in America, balancing the worlds of television and theater, and why representation matters – especially when it comes to Asian artists.
Helen Schultz: You developed this play at a week-long Lark/Vassar retreat. For our readers, what’s a quick synopsis of the show?
Carla Ching: It’s the story of a Chinese-American and Korean-American kid who meet when they are nine years old and their parents start sleeping with each other. We follow them through their lives together: they get married, divorced, fall apart, and then get back together. It’s really about who they become to each other over the course of their parents’ relationship.
HS: You have two actors playing two characters are at different stages in their lives – sometimes they’re 9, sometimes they’re 30. Knowing you didn’t want this to be a memory play, how did you decide on the ‘order’ of events? How did you go about casting actors who had the range to do all of these parts justice?
CC: It’s an insane challenge, and I’m so lucky that I have amazing actors – Nelson Lee and Julia Cho – who’ve both gone above and beyond. We also had the help of an incredible movement specialist named Donna Eshelman who taught them the specific behavior and movements and body of a nine year old, a thirteen year old, a seventeen year old, a twenty-four year old, and finding the body that comes to convey how you feel on the inside. So we worked really hard to achieve all those different ages. The play poses a challenge because it’s not in order – it doesn’t go nine, 14, 17, 24. That would be one thing. They have to go through the extra rigor of dealing with a play that is not even in order. They are heroes for sure.
HS: How did you go about determining that order?
CC: It’s something that we talk about a lot. I had originally made it out of order – that’s how I built the play when I was at the Lark, and each day I would write a scene: one from when they were children, and one from when they were adults. And that’s how I really constructed the play. When I was at the workshop, I did put the play in order, largely for the actors to see how it felt to play it in order, and to make sure that there weren’t any holes that were being appeared by the fact that it was out of order. At the time, we sort of enjoyed the chronology, so it stayed that way for a while. But after that, my wonderful dramaturg, Andy Knight, talked to me about the different incarnations it had and the different shapes of the play, chronological and not chronological. He said to me, “Well, can you tell me what you get from the play either way?” He said that when it went forward it felt more like a memory play to him, whereas when it was not in order, it evoked the title more – The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up, and these fragments from their lives. It showed the challenges in their friendship and their relationship, which I wanted. So we kept it like that, but it took us quite a long time to find the right order, and to make sure that it suited them. We were still making changes to the order up until a few days ago. It was a lot of trial and error, but it was trying it a bunch of different ways until we found the order that had the emotional journey that we wanted the audience to go on. We wanted to see what broke them before we saw what got them back together.
Michelle Tse: You used to work a lot in poetry. Do you use a specific medium to achieve a specific goal, or do you stick with your theater and TV work now?
CC: I pretty much stick with theater and my TV work now. I haven’t written a poem in a very long time. I used to very much love it, but I think all of my stories go into the play now. I enjoy writing different worlds and different characters and I have a selfish need to write people, because that way they’re sort of all-encompassing.
MT: Was it figuring out what the proper medium was for you, or were you drawn to different mediums of writing at different parts of your life?
CC: I went down a pretty long road with poetry. I was doing the whole poetry and spoken word thing in New York. I even went back to school and tried to do my MFA at City College of New York in poetry and I got about a year and change through before I realized I wasn’t having a breakthrough and there were other people who were far better at it than me. It’s a very lonely way of writing. In the best case scenario, I could publish a chapbook and forty people could read it, which made me sad. At the same time, I was writing and performing with a Pan-Asian Performance group called Peeling where we would read my poems and they sort of became plays. So I transitioned from doing poetry and writing poetry into doing performance pieces that looked more like theater. I really liked them and the nature of them, which naturally started to send me down a road of trying to do theater.
HS: Is there a big difference for you between writing a play and writing a TV show?
CC: Playwriting is different in that it took me a little while to find that frame. And when I first started doing TV writing, the TV writing made my playwriting suck, and my playwriting made my TV writing suck. And I think – I would hope – I’ve gotten a little bit more of a handle on it. Television is just so much more about digital media, and you have to be a lot more terse and pithy with your dialogue. Your scenes are much shorter. You can control people’s gaze and what they’re looking at, and do a lot with the image in a way. In theater, you need to have dialogue do that for you, because you can’t do a close-up. You can’t focus in on someone’s eye. You can’t do a close-up of someone’s chest heaving. So we have different tools to do it in different media. I enjoy both of them a lot.
MT: You discovered theater in high school. Would you say that’s maybe why you gravitated back to theater?
CC: Theater will always be my first love. It’s this seed of an idea and then it grows into something collaborative in the room. In TV, you get these great writers together in the same room and it’s just the biggest treat ever. It’s very different breaking story in a room with seven or eight other people. It has its challenges, but it’s also really wonderful because it means that you have seven or eight other minds at work and all their stories of the world. Sometimes you can break through a problem at lot faster with eight brains. With most of them you are writing to the world of the show, you are writing to the showrunner’s voice, but once the story is spoken together, you’re allowed to go off and spin out the story and give it a bit of your art. There’s some art in that you have to go off and write it all by yourself. And then it becomes lot like play production again where you have actors and directors and your own production team working together to spit this thing out really fast. In a lot of ways, theater is similar when you get to that juncture. Theater was a really great training ground for the other stuff. They’re both great in different ways. I wonder if – cause I’ve never been a showrunner and I’m still working my way up the ladder – I do wonder if perhaps being a showrunner is exactly like being a playwright.
HS: How does the writing process differ for you in New York versus LA?
CC: In New York, I had this really tiny, tiny apartment and my place was essentially a closet. I would try to write there, and I would sometimes write there, but the only place I had to sit in my apartment was on my bed. It was hard to be sleeping and working in the same place, and I’d also just get claustrophobic. I’d just have to go to a coffee shop or the library, or – for a little while – I subscribed to Paragraph Writing Space just to have a sure place to write. Even in a coffee shop they’ll eventually kick you out. Here [in LA], I have a little more space so I can work at home, but there’s also a completely incredible library near me that has these doors and windows and I can look out on this beautiful sculptural design center. I still need to hustle, but when I lived in New York I had six jobs at any given time – I wish that were an exaggeration. Now I still have to hustle, but I’m able to have one survival job and that’s the TV writing. And then I do my playwriting. For whatever reason – cost of living, hustle of life – I feel like I have a little more time to write [in LA]. I go to my job at I Love Dick from like 10 until 5 or 6, and then I go straight to rehearsal from around 7:30 until 11. Sometimes, at 11, it’s like, “are there any rewrites that need to be attended to, any more information? Then I get up again and do the same thing again. It feels a little like New York.
MT: So, just FYI, I’m also Asian.
CC: Oh, awesome!
MT: I bring that up because for me, it’s so great to see an Asian playwright, but also someone who is socially engaged – you’re part of The Kilroys. Does that clue you into social and political engagement?
CC: Completely. To me, writing a play with two Asian-American people is a political act. I do this with intention. I do not do it accidentally. I want to put Asian-American people onstage. My partner is an actor. I know a lot of super talented Asian-American actors. It hurts me sometimes, the parts that they get to play and they don’t get to play. So I just wanted to write a play that would show the breadth and depth of all of these actors, and to show a life. You probably grew up watching a bunch of stories over time – I know I did – and they never contained people that looked like me. So I wanted to write one.
MT: Yep. There’s this one scene in your play where they’re talking about Chinese school, and that their parents just wanted them to have a place where they belonged. Was that something you experienced as a kid? I know that you taught middle and high school, and you did a bit of teaching artist work. Does your identity and working in the education system foster your sense of empathy and how these kids are affected?
CC: I think because of a lot of gaps in my educational career, feeling invisible and not noticed… I worked hard and wasn’t the best student in the class but certainly wasn’t the worst. I sort of fell between the cracks. I was often frustrated in school and often felt unchallenged and lost. So I went into education to sort of figure out how to – at least for that period of time – how to give back and figure out how to engage young people in a real and meaningful way. I think that’s why, in a lot of my plays, young [characters] show up, because it bothers me how young people are often portrayed in theater, in TV, and in film in only a small fragment of their complexity, their bravery, and in how their incredible stories are told. So I try to put those out there too.
MT: Were your parents dismayed that you wanted to go into the arts and become a writer?
CC: My mom was horrifically dismayed. To be honest, I don’t think that they truly accepted that I could have a career as a writer until maybe a year or two ago. Their whole thing was, “Make sure you get a safety job,” which is part of why I actually got into teaching. I thought, “If I’m going to have a safety job, I want it to be something that I’m engaged with, that I can stand to do for the rest of my life, that is meaningful.” That’s why I chose teaching. Although, she got mad at me – she was a former teacher, but she got mad at me for teaching. She said something like she thought I could do better, or something about a teaching degree being a bullshit degree. Anyway, she didn’t agree with my choice to become a teacher.
MT: Sounds about right. And dad?
CC: My dad was very different. My dad is unusual as an Asian-American parent in that he thought it was very important to chase what you love. My mom is opposite – my mom is “do what’s practical.” I think that came from him growing up very poor – there were seven kids in his family and his dad was a gas station manager. He didn’t go to a restaurant until he was in college. They struggled.
MT: Were they first generation?
CC: They were not – my parents were third gen. When he said he wanted to be a doctor, they said, “You’re crazy. You’re reaching too far. You’re trying to be out of your station. You need to do something way more reasonable.” He fought his way through. It took him a long time, and he had to serve in the Navy in order to pay for it, but he came out and by the time he was forty-one he was a doctor. He loved what he did every day of his life, and you could see it. Having him as a role model was pretty great. And, in a way, having his permission, to “be smart about it, but try to do what you love, and then hopefully the money will come or you’ll get paid for it but you have to enjoy yourself, whatever you choose.”
MT: That’s incredible!
CC: I know. And especially – he’s a little older – for an older Asian-American man to have that mentality for sure.
MT: Are you at all sick of talking about diversity?
CC: No. I’m not. I’d really like to get to the point where we don’t have to talk about it anymore, but we obviously still do. It’s such a part of our theatrical seasons, and the problems are better in television and there’s still not as much representation as I’d like to see in front of the camera, and especially behind the camera. My first job, I was the only woman; often I’m the only person of color. What happens and who gets in front of the screen is determined by who’s writing stuff. No – I think diversity is something we still need to talk about. It’s why I work with The Kilroys, it’s why I worked with Second Generation for a number of years. I was still a struggling playwright myself, but Lloyd Suh gave me the opportunity: “Hey, you want to run 2G for a couple of years?”
MT: He’s incredible.
CC: He’s completely incredible. And I owe so much of my career to Lloyd: he gave me my first production, he was in my first production, he gave me the opportunity to run 2G, and he’s always been a dear friend. I learned so much from running 2G, and the best part was that we [tried to] see how many people – how many Asian-American artists we can cull. How many plays we can get started, how many directors, actors, and writers we can get to know each other? Let’s really community build here in New York so that most of the Asian-American theatrical artists that are working know each other. I think that’s fantastic. And what’s incredible now too is that so many names that I came up with, Maureen Sebastian, Ali Ahn, Rey Pamatmat, Mike Lew – everyone’s over there doing what they’re meant to do. People are working across platforms in theater and TV and film and just killing it, rooting for each other, helping each other, and casting each other when they can. I think it’s going to take all of us to change things. It’s a small force. But the more that we’re working together, the more we can pull the community forward, I hope.
MT: For us, as a community, it’s like we haven’t even identified all the problems yet.
CC: Yes. We still have work to do. I remember when I was in class in college, I was told, generationally, we’re behind the African-American movement by a generation or two. And I was like, “That’s not true!” But yes: we have a way to go.
HS: How did you get involved with The Kilroys?
CC: I was lucky in that they had already gotten started up a bit. Before it happened, there was sort of a backyard barbecue with a bunch of the women who are now The Kilroys who were meeting up and sort of talking about how they were sick of seeing seasons that were so non-diverse, and so many all-male seasons, and what they started to say was, “We can keep talking about it, or we can do something about it. Can we band together and leverage the people that we know and figure it out?” So I think they just started to get started, and I arrived a little later with Kelly Miller and maybe a couple of others. What I appreciated about them was that they were interested in doing specific actions. The idea of The List emerged to sort of combat the notion that the reason that more women aren’t produced is that they’re not in the pipeline, i.e. they don’t exist. So we figured, why don’t we survey the field, and ask what are the good plays being written right now? And they put them out here, they’re here, and here are the ones that they recommended. They do exist. So that artistic directors and theater companies don’t have the excuse anymore. So it seems like it’s been helping out a little more in terms of female playwrights getting more traction, which we are happy about. But also there should be celebration of the companies that are producing lots of women. That’s why we do the Cake Bomb. It was someone’s idea that we should do something fun and celebratory. And there are other projects that are currently in the bubbling process. It’s a group of women who were tired of waiting and ready to put their action where their mouths are. What I really appreciate about everybody is that it’s a super busy group of folks, but somehow everybody makes the time, finds the time, to pitch in.
HS: Something that we’ve talked a lot about is that some theaters think it’s okay to now produce 50/50 men and women, but that 50/50 is solely white men and white women.
CC: It’s so difficult. I feel like, currently, in seasons, we’re lumped together. In most rooms in television, when they talk about diversity hires in writers’ rooms, women count as diversity. That’s how bad it is. That’s how male-dominated it is. I don’t think much of theater is any different – when they’re looking to diversify their seasons, I feel that they’re looking at women and people of color the same, in the same breath. I don’t really know how I feel about that. I’m surprised nobody has done this yet, but I think some coalition building is in order to get people of color in the theater to work with groups like The Kilroys to really put pressure on theaters to do better. It’s also not just about putting pressure on the theaters – it’s about putting pressure on the theatergoers to chime in about what they want to see. Again – I would like to sometimes see people like me onstage, and so I probably need to make more noise about that than I do to my local theaters. That’s an action I can take – that’s an action we all can take – and if we are loud enough and there are enough of us, they have to listen.
HS: Something that we talked with Leah Nanako Winkler about was that a theater asked her to provide them with her own list of Asian actors. You tweeted about having a theater ask you to replace your cast with white actors. Do you feel that playwrights of color have an unfair responsibility to educate theaters in diversity?
CC: Oh yes. White writers rarely have to provide a list of white actors, although they might have to provide a list of actors that they’d rather have. I’ve been asked to help cast before. Which is okay because I do know – through 2G – a lot of people. And being in Los Angeles for a couple years now, I know a lot of people here. I’m happy to help out if the people who are casting don’t know better. I personally feel a responsibility to be representative or to write Asian-American characters or to write people of color because if I’m not going to do it, then who’s going to do it? If I’m not seeing people of color onstage, then I need to write them. I, as a single writer, need to do it in any way I can. Again: I look at that as a political act. I’m putting people of color onstage – that’s intentional. However if I can change the world’s mind about how they view us, and give them a richer and more detailed perspective of what they’ve already seen, then great. I’m doing my job. I know that not all Asian-American artists or playwrights feel that way and they just want to write what they want to write, and more props to them. I don’t want to say I have an agenda, but maybe I have an agenda.
MT: But your plays seem to never be “here is an Asian person.” They just happen to be Asian.
CC: They just happen to be, and I don’t write overt identity plays. But I also like to say that my plays, like The Two Kids, need to be played by Asian actors. It’s how it’s written. These are these people. There are influences that are taken from my life, people that I know. So it can’t be done by white people. I don’t even think this could be done by another group of people of color – it’s race-specific. One of my other plays, Fast Company, a pretty massive regional theater said that they would consider it, but only if they cast it with white people. I said no. There are Asian-American people in your city that you could find to play these parts and it’s an Asian-American family – that’s the story. It’s the story of an Asian-American family. You can’t do that. I was even asked by another theater company if we could make it half-Asian, and the unspoken phrase after that was “and half white” so they could get more of their company membership in the show. And I was like “no – if you want to do this play, you need to get more Asian-American company members or you cast outside this company. I’m not going to change the race of these characters.” Even though it’s not an identity play, I think that it is very important that the characters are Asian American. They’re meant to be that; they’re meant to be that way. The way that they interact onstage is partially influenced by their identity and who they are to each other.
MT: And usually all of Asian cultures are lumped together. We’re just Asian… strength in numbers?
CC: I think identification and this umbrella is partially a political act, right? We coalesce communities so we can have more power. We stand together so we can fight together. While we’re radically different and our communities speak different languages, have different customs, ideologies, I still am proud that we’re able to fight the good fight together.
HS: Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?
CC: Read and see as many things as possible. Being in New York for so many years was so great because theater is so accessible. There are ways to find cheap tickets – 99 Cent Sundays at Soho Rep is a great example. There are great ways to find a cheap ticket. My advice to theatermakers is always to see as much as you can, because – certainly – all of my practice is formed by the mind-blowing amazing shit that I’ve seen onstage and going to stuff and making yourself available for readings and making shit from the ground up as much as possible and learning every job that you can. New York feels so warm – if you’re really willing to spend time, you can insinuate yourself into so many different communities. They welcome you. Find your tribe.
A Los Angeles native, Carla Ching stumbled upon pan-Asian performance collective Peeling at the Asian American Writers Workshop and wrote and performed with them for three years, which she still considers her first theater training. Her plays include Nomad Motel (2015 O’Neill Playwrights Conference), Fast Company (South Coast Repertory, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lyric Stage, Pork Filled Productions; recipient of the Edgerton New American Play Award), TBA (2g), The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness (Ma-Yi Theater Company), and The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up (also forthcoming from Mu Performing Arts). Alumna of The Women’s Project Lab, the Lark Play Development Center Writers Workshop and Meeting of the Minds, the CTG Writers’ Workshop and the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Former Artistic Director of Asian American Theater Company, 2g. TBA is published in Out of Time and Place. Fast Company is published by Samuel French. BA, Vassar College. MFA, New School for Drama. Proud member of New Dramatists and The Kilroys. On television, Carla has written on USA’s Graceland, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead and is currently writing on Amazon’s I Love Dick, executive produced by Sarah Gubbins and Jill Soloway.