A Conversation with Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Few shows feel as specific as they do inclusive, yet Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s solo show, Draw the Circle, currently playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, achieves such a feat. Draw the Circle, chronicling Deen’s journey through a series of monologues as told by the characters from his life, simultaneously breaks your heart while making it swell with emotion. We sat down with the playwright and actor for a wide-ranging conversation about the show, his life, and why inclusion in the theater feels closer yet further away.
Michelle Tse: I want to start with the title of the show [Draw the Circle] and the words that were in the playbill from Edwin Markham: “He drew a circle that shut me out — Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.” How did these words come into your life, and how, would you elaborate on how it all comes together?
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen: I was looking for a title for the play and I couldn’t find one, and at the time I was long distance between New York City–where I was in The Public Theater‘s emerging writers group– and DC, in Arlington, Virginia where my partner was still. So I was going back and forth. When I was in Arlington, I used to like to visit with the Unitarians on occasion—and I’m not Unitarian, but I enjoy them. I was visiting, and this Edwin Markham poem was in the program that day. There was something about it…I felt like the poem spoke to what I’m trying to do in the piece, and so to me, the performance of the piece is a drawing of the circle around the audience. I think it’s also a request that if it feels moving to the audience members, I hope they will leave and go out and draw their own circles.
The circle is meant to be a big circle, so you know the poem goes, “He drew a circle to shut me out — Heretic, rebel, thing to flout, but Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in.” I just say that because I–occasionally I feel like after the performances, people might say, “Oh sometimes you need to draw just a very small circle,” and I was like, “That’s not what the play is about, though.” You can do that and certainly people need to take care of where they’re at, and themselves, but I think the idea is that if we could draw a circle big enough, that we take in the people who are even scared of us and trying to push us away. What could happen when we include them? That’s what I do in the play. I hope.
MT: I think it does. Does part of that include, I think the frustration may be when you do draw a bigger circle, the exhaustion that sets in when you’re constantly educating someone that might not want to understand?
MMD: Right. You know, I was talking to my partner about this, and you know I don’t think there’s a right and wrong. I think it depends on what you’re emotionally capable of in the moment, what you feel like doing where you are. Certainly at a party I am not likely to want to educate people in that moment, but in my art, and because I have perhaps enough distance from my own transition to have really spent time thinking about writing about the characters around me, I feel that there’s something I can understand about [the fact that] neither one of us has to be right or wrong, and we can even take right and wrong off the table. It can be about this is what it feels like, this is what I miss, love, want, and this is what it feels like for you.
What does that space between those two feeling states to communicate where we’re at? What if I was vulnerable to my parents? Which I probably wasn’t, when I was going through this. What if they could actually be vulnerable to me and we could sit with each other’s grief and love and loss and realize it didn’t mean that we didn’t love each other, it just meant that we were struggling with something? I just think something becomes possible, something becomes magical in that moment. I feel like I see it in audiences. I see parents talk to me in ways that I bet they’re not always talking to their kids. I can say things to them that I’ve never, or maybe can’t always say to my parents. In doing so, I’m just like a stand-in.
They’re saying it to the kids, and the kids are saying it to their parents and maybe, over time, that evolves to them saying it to their own parents. I don’t know. I feel like something becomes possible when we’re vulnerable. Again, I’m not saying everyone has to be, I don’t think everyone has the bandwidth for it. It’s not like it’s my job to educate. But I can do that and I’m willing to do that, and I think everyone learns somewhere and I think there’s a lot of allies, or soon to be allies, that could exist if some people have the bandwidth to take them in a little bit.
MT: Right. You just spoke of your parents, and that was something I’m very curious about because the characters in the play seem incredibly personal. How was it to negotiate going through your own feelings and writing them down and realizing these characters? Did you ever get a chance to sit down with your parents and go through what you just described?
MMD: No, they would not have participated in the writing of this play. The only person who was helpful in that way was my partner, who gave me her journals from that time. We talked about it and there are certain pieces of her speech that are lifted from her journals. For the rest of it, as a writer, I have to get out of the way and it can’t be me trying to put across my point of view. Like through my mother, I’ve really gotta listen to the way she speaks and what it says about who she is, and what her behavior is and what does she want and need and it has to be about her. I really had to make sure I was not in the way. So a lot of things that got cut, or I had to toss were moments when I started to get in the way and wanted to, some part of me wanted to defend myself or make me look better or something, and I had to really cut that stuff out because it wasn’t good writing.
MT: In that sense was–who was the hardest character to actualize?
MMD: I don’t really know; you know, in some ways the Molly character is very hard because she’s so close to me, that for me to get enough distance to see her sometimes can be a challenge. Also, Molly’s character had to do double duty. She both had to represent herself, and her wants and needs on stage, but there were moments of my journey that only she would have access to, and so I have to find a way that she can also bring that up so that the audience can follow what my journey is through it. She has some very long, long monologues because she’s doing so much work as a character in the piece.
MT: I loved those monologues. Could you elaborate on the decision to draw the circle with the characters around you and not have the protagonist show up until—
MMD: Not even in the play.
MT: That last very powerful moment.
MMD: Yeah. There’s a few things that go into that one. I don’t like self-serving plays. I’m not a fan of defending. I just don’t think the writer should be there trying to prove a point or defend themselves to the audience. I think writers should always question themselves and their own values as much, if not more than they’re questioning everyone else in their play. So that’s part of it. Another part of it is I’d already lived through it, and to tell it from my point of view felt very redundant, and I wasn’t learning anything.
Telling it from other people’s points of view was a way for me to discover and learn as a writer. Then, I know that you’re getting Deen’s journey. I’m aware that even though I’ve taken my character out, I know that you’re still going to get what my journey was for me, and in some ways in a much more nuanced and complicated way than if my character got up on stage and told it to you. All of those things together were why I took myself out. There was one draft in the middle where I tried to put myself back in, and it was terrible because every time I spoke I could tell I was defending myself or trying to prove something, and it sounded horrible, and so I cut the character.
MT: How was it working with Chay Yew, who is also a playwright himself? Was there any collaboration in terms of writing, or was it a strictly director and writer relationship?
MMD: Oh it was strictly director/writer. He’s brilliant. I think he knows what I’m doing when I’m playwriting, from his own experience of writing. He’s dramaturgically brilliant, and so there was a way that it allowed me to sometimes get lost in the trees while he always had his eye on the forest. So he would keep his eye on what do audiences need to know to get them from A to B to C to D to E–so that they understand what’s happening. While I could be sort of be lost in the intricacies of each character. So he did help me shape things. He’s been very generous in that we were set up at The Public Theater for him to direct a reading. He met with me many more times than just the one day before the reading and he stayed with it for years afterwards.
He likes to joke around and say this is the longest piece he’s ever worked on and then he’ll roll his eyes. I know he loves me when he says that. I think the only reason he would have done it is because he believes in the piece. He doesn’t have to. So that’s meant a lot to have his support over the years. I really like working with him, I actually think there’s a way he understands when I, especially when I’m overlapping issues of either immigration or Asian ethnicity with queer issues that he intrinsically gets without me having to explain anything. That makes for a very quick frame of reference for each of us, and we can move into deeper issues. I really enjoy working with him a lot.
MT: And speaking of intersectionality—
MMD: Oh it’s such an intellectual word.
MT: Hah. How are you doing in this climate? How are you handling or dealing with it? Do you step back from the news, or does it becomes such a catalyst?
MMD: A catalyst of?
MT: To be like, “Yeah, I feel that fire more than ever, let me be an even bigger activist and … ”
MMD: I feel like I come from an activist background, so I had taken a step back from doing that work just because it’s kind of burnout work. After the election, my partner and I and some neighbors started a civic action group and we meet once a month. I think it’s really important to get together face to face with people and share actual community and not just be online. There’s something that just feeds a helplessness online, and I think a desperation. When you’re actually in the room with people and doing it together, something’s different about it. So, I mean, post-election I think we are more engaged. I think I struggle with [whether] online engagement is true engagement? I feel the addiction of it. It is really frustrating also, and during the show I definitely take a step back from being online just for my own sanity.
To go to your first part of that question, which was how do you handle the cultural moment we’re in? I actually think it’s really difficult, particularly because I think with social media the conversation to me feels very—and I don’t know if this is also a factor of me getting older or what—but it feels very black and white, us or them, right or wrong. In these clearly defined ways that I find coming from the theater, or just coming from myself, I don’t find right and wrong so easily defined. I’m always very suspicious of people who do, because I just wonder if they’re also questioning their own motivations and wants. I think that it’s true that people “other” us all the time. Whether it’s because we’re minorities or because I’m trans or queer, whatever, they do do that, but I don’t think it makes it better if I then turn around and do it back.
If I “other” another person, I’ve just done the same thing they’ve done and I don’t know that that makes me any better. I think they do it out of fear. Probably if my community does it back, we’re also doing it out of fear. So we’re just sort of stuck in the cycle. For me I really crave a more complicated conversation where people could somehow really be there with what they’re feeling about something, and not try and win an argument, but just, could you just be like, this is what frightens me about it or, like I have only known two genders my whole life you’re really scaring the shit out of me when you say there are more, or you take it away. I can hold that. I can say, “Yeah, I can imagine that is really scary. That’s okay. Also, now let me share with you back what it is like to not fit into the gender you were assigned and how you know, that might have led me to kill myself at one point. Or might have led me to be really hurtful towards myself,” or all those things, and how I found my way through it. Now what? Now we’re all in it with our feelings, what happens? I just don’t think, we don’t have those conversations very much and I really yearn for them and I think I’m never going to get it. I’m just this idealist. I’m going to turn into that curmudgeonly old guy who’s like, “Why don’t people talk about their feelings? Why?”
MT: I think that’s partly because we’ve turned into a culture where you know, even watching a video, even a news clip, I feel like for a lot of people if it’s more than two minutes they’ll just shut it off. So if you can’t even stare at a screen for 120 seconds, but you’re trying to engage them in a conversation, and maybe an intellectual one at that—
MMD: I don’t want to engage them in an intellectual conversation. I really want to engage people in a heart conversation. I want people to get out of their heads and get in to their hearts, and so for the talkbacks after the show I’m really particular and I’m always revising them with the people who are facilitating because I don’t want it to be an intellectual conversation about politics, because there’s some retreating we do from our vulnerability, and we go to a safe little bunker where we start throwing out ideas. I really want people to be naked and vulnerable in a place together where they talk about loss and fear and love and those things. I just think something’s possible there that’s not always possible in our heads. I get it. I mean, not that those conversations aren’t important, it’s just not what I want.
MT: Have there been any conversations from those talk backs that have maybe affected your next performance or anything?
MMD: No, not like that, but I mean they are very moving to me. I feel like I’m always terrified before I go on stage and for much of the time when I am on stage. Then afterwards I feel like people will often open up to me and share with me what it’s like to be a parent. Once I had a conversation where one parent said, “You know, my kid’s growing up and they’re going to leave home soon and I’m just always so scared that I can’t protect them in this world. I see what the world is like and I know they’re going to go into it and I know I can’t, I shouldn’t stop them, and I’m really nervous that I’m not going to be able to protect them.”
Then across the aisle we had a young man who said, “I always wanted to come out to my dad, but I was too scared to, and then he died. Now I’ll never get to come out to my dad.” There was just something about those conversations that I think they’re talking to me, but really they’re talking to each other. If they can start to talk to each other and hear things that they’re not maybe hearing elsewhere, could they then take that back to their families and potentially have that conversation with the person they actually mean to have it with? You know, I think someone asked me about, oh god, “love” and “family” in this cultural moment. I was like, “What do I do with that?” I thought, you know I think family is where we practice love.
So we’re with people we didn’t choose often, and even when we do choose them, they still drive us crazy. Even though they drive us up the wall, we know so much about them that we still love them and they drive us up the wall, and we love them, like all of those things are true at the same time. So if that’s true, is it possible that I could look out into the world and see somebody I don’t know and think, “Well I don’t know the rest of them, but probably they have lovable traits and probably they drive people up the wall, and probably they’re flawed and human, and probably they do some really kind things that I’m not aware of, and probably all those things are true.” Then it just becomes a more complicated conversation because I can’t just see you as an idea, right? That’s my soapbox.
MT:Yes, empathy. To switch gears a tiny bit, what are your thoughts on Asian representation in theater?
MMD: You mean all of it?
MT: All of it, any of it. I know it’s a huge umbrella question, but I think about aspects of it every day and am always curious to hear from others.
MMD: I think it is also a conversation that has a lot of complexity to it and I think in general I feel like we’re not having the complex conversation. I understand why, like in this greater white dominant culture that is not making a lot of space–and in fact is often making less and less space for Asian-Americans on stage–there is a very human and self-preservative way in which we get defensive. We’re trying to push for certain things and for more Asian actors on stage, more Asian writers to be produced, more Asian directors and like, that is really important. What we really need is Asian-Americans to be part of the institutions. That needs to happen. That said, I also think there is truth to the idea that it’s acting. It is theater, so how specific do we need to be, and in this globalized world, why is it okay to have a “South Asian” actor? South Asia’s huge.
Why didn’t I say Indian actor? India’s like a fifth of the world. Like that’s big enough. I didn’t even say South India, like what part is specific enough, authentic enough, true enough? If you’re Indian-American are you really Indian or are you Indian-American? Those are not the same thing. When I go to India, I’m American. They don’t see me as Indian. Here, I’m Indian, so what does that mean? Then I just think, how far outside of India counts? Like 50 miles, 100 miles–like at what point are drawing the line? I have somebody that’s Southeast Asian, but not Japanese; am I going for cultural knowledge of a character, or am I going for the visual effect I want my audiences to see? Am I going for the best actor who understands the heart of my character? All of those are considerations. I just think it’s complicated.
I have talked to some South Asian actors who have said, now that people are starting to get on board with trying to cast more Asian actors, they’re like, “Now they’re going to put in a character in the play, in the TV show, and his name is gonna be Ali and that is the only part now I can audition for. I can’t audition for all the other parts anymore because now I’m only allowed to audition for the one part.” It’s progress and also it’s a step back, and so how do we navigate that? I think it’s a really important thing to keep talking about. I think institutions need to do diversity trainings, have conversations. If their mission is to be more inclusive and more diverse they need to look at the fabric of their institutions and see if the fabric is representing that mission or not. It’s hard and it’s complicated and we need to hopefully wade into these conversations together, with some understanding that it’s hard and complicated.
It must be really frightening for artistic directors who have been fighting just to have theater with no money in a country that doesn’t subsidize the arts, to be in a different generation, to now, I’m sure, feel attacked on some level for not being liberal enough. They’ve been spending their whole life fighting to be a certain kind of liberal in the world that they knew, right? So how do we say, “Yeah and that’s great, and now let’s do more and I actually think you want to do more, so let me help you do more.” I think that’s possible. There’s always going to be assholes, but not everyone is.
MT: Recently a big institution had a round table about women in theater, and I think on a panel of five they had four white women and one black woman. It feels to me that whenever it is a larger institution that does try to say, “Okay, let’s talk about this,” and when I show up, I end up feeling like, “Oh, I think I’ve been to this talk five years ago at a smaller company,” but because they’re a smaller company they’re sort of stuck because they don’t have the finances and reach. It’s a vicious circle—
MMD: I think as we’re in this new era of more civic engagement, what does that look like in the theater? How do we become participating audience members who write to our theaters and say, “I really loved that show because I loved seeing more different, more diversity on your stage. It was so refreshing. I really didn’t like that show you know, and I felt like we see so much of that and it’s not representative of our culture anymore. I would really like to see you change what you do.” Do people do that? I don’t know. Do people call and say, “Hey, artistic director, I want to talk to you about this,” and maybe they won’t get a call back, but I mean what is the pressure that we can as artists, but also as audiences, put on a theater for the greater good?
But I think that’s also a double-edged sword because I actually think in America I’m a little disheartened that, because we have no subsidized art I feel like audiences and subscribers, the people who have money to be subscribers, lead their institutions. What I really wish, and which I see in other countries where they do have subsidized art, the theaters can really be the ground breakers leading the audiences and the audiences don’t know where the fuck they’re going but they’re happy to go. They’re happy to hate it and love it and argue with it, but they’re happy to go. I wish we could retrain our American audiences to do that.
MT: Every time I go to London, I’m like why are tickets so cheap? Why is the director 25 years old? I get jealous. There’s a track and you get out and you get hired by national theater.
MMD: Yeah. Then you know, we have a real love affair with youth in this country–
MT: We really do.
MMD: I know if you’re an older, not if you’re an older white man writer, but like there are older writers who have been working for a long time, and they’ll say, you know if you’re not the new, young thing nobody cares about you anymore. I feel like if you look at our TV shows everything is about being young and pretty and, so, how can we bring in young voices and older voices, which are not very represented stories, and minority stories, and minority older stories? What’s it like to have all of that together in one space?
MT: Yeah. I’ve been trying for ages to put together a series of round tables on inclusion. I, being a little selfish wanted to focus on Asian representation and within half an hour had a 15-page document. I don’t even know where to start. Maybe I should just get a bunch of people in the room and–
MMD: I hear the argument about writing our own stories and I think that is so important because nobody else really does the work to get it right. So we are providing nuance and complication and authenticity that most other people writing about us are not. That said, I don’t want to only have to write stories about South Asian trans people, my imagination and my political engagement in the arts is much bigger and wider than that. How do we also sort of keep that space open, and call people out when they don’t do the work? Be like, “You didn’t do your homework, we just wrote another stereotype, that’s not cool.”
MT: Without fearing for your own standing…
MMD: Yeah, you know, I wonder about that, but I find, and I have had writers tell me, “Oh don’t bring it up with so and so,” and I’ll just be like, you know, but if they, if I bring it up respectfully and I am concerned. I show that I care. If they really hate me for it and are like, “Why are you questioning me?” We’re never going to work together anyway, because our work is never going to be, you’re never going to be interested in my work. I find a lot of people actually will have the conversation with me, and maybe they haven’t changed what they’re going to produce that season, maybe it stays with them. Maybe they start to think about something in the long term. Maybe it’s like a seed that gets planted for later. So, I think it’s really important to be engaged citizens and colleagues to each other and say, “Hey, I generally love what your theater does and I’m really concerned about this show, or I’m really concerned about this season. Why did you do that?” I think if it was meant to be they’re going to respect you more for it, and if it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be.
MT: So what would you say to a younger South Asian or an Asian artist trying to break into theater?
MMD: So many things. I would say work really, really hard. Pay attention to the politics of our industry, but not to the exclusion of your own work. Don’t rest on the argument that the industry is not fair—of course it’s not fair! So work harder, make things of great beauty and change the world with them. Make it because it needs to be made, not to be famous or well-thought of. Get coffee a lot, with actors, directors, literary managers, everyone. We don’t get paid enough in this industry, unless you’re very commercial. To “work with crazy;” we want to work with people who we enjoy spending time with. Get to know people—and not for their usefulness to you, but really get to know them: Why do they love the theater? What can you do to help them? Can you introduce them to writers or directors they would click with? Be generous. What goes around comes around.
MT: As long as you can afford to.
MMD: I guess if you can marry rich, it won’t hurt. Financially, this is a rough profession. But marry for love first, because putting yourself on the line is emotionally hard and sometimes eviscerating, and you will need that love to sooth your hurt. And you should always put yourself on the line in your work. Never play it safe. Safe is a waste of everyone’s time. When you put yourself on the line, you honor your collaborators, your audience, and yourself, and they will honor you back by traveling to magical places with you.
MT: I love that. I’d love to close with your thoughts on being an artist.
MMD: There is a poem by Rumi: “The way of love is not a subtle argument. The door there is devastation. Birds make great sky circles of their freedom. How do they learn it? They fall, and in falling, they’re given wings.”
To me, my job as an artist is to devastate with kindness. To crack the shell around your heart–and it might hurt a little bit—but that wall was keeping your heart in, and now your heart can ooze out, expand, breathe, and reform itself, and it will be bigger than it was before. And then we’ll do it again. If the walls around your heart are too thick, or you are someone who gives your head more power than your heart, then you might not like my work. And that’s okay. But for me, I am most interested in the heroic journeys of the heart. That is where Love is, where God is, where You are, and where I am. That is where I want to meet you.
MT: I love that. Thank you.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (The Betterment Society, Resident Playwright at New Dramatists), is making his New York debut in the New York premiere of Draw the Circle. The hilarious and moving story of his transition, Draw the Circle is told entirely from the point of view of Deen’s family and friends, as portrayed by Deen, bringing to life the often-ignored struggle that a family goes through when their child transitions from one gender to another.