Julia Cho on her Windham-Campbell Prize win, 'feeling' Korean-American, and theatre in the time of lockdown
Playwright Julia Cho, winner of this year's Windham-Campbell Award for Drama, speaks to Firstpost about her inspirations, keeping theatre alive during a lockdown, and her response to the pandemic as a writer.
“It was funny to discover that my physical reaction to great news was almost identical to having a big scare: my heart started to beat fast, my mind became a blank and I had trouble finding words,” says playwright Julia Cho, describing the moment she discovered that she had won this year's Windham-Campbell Prize for Drama.
Winning Yale University's prestigious literary award with American playwright Aleshea Harris, Cho became one of seven women to take home the honour from a total of eight prizes. Each winner was also awarded a sum of £165,000.
When asked how she would utilise the amount, she explains that while she longs for a home, she would want to use the money to further her avenues for writing. And yet, at a time when the world is engulfed in battling the coronavirus , whilst also living through ‘unimaginable catastrophes’ such as climate change, there is an added sense of responsibility prompting her to use her resources to do some good.
Cho’s plays reveal some of the complexities and layered thoughts that the writer experiences, for instance, in her 2017 work Aubergine, which is the story of ‘a man reckoning with death.’ The play places food at the centre of life and memory, and manages to weave this into a discussion on diaspora as experienced by Asian-Americans living away from their homeland.
However for the writer, Aubergine, which took a long time to materialise, began with her father’s death. “I was shocked at how little I knew of death before it happened. I felt almost angry that I knew so little. And I wanted to write a play that recorded what death is like so that someone else might be more prepared than I was.”
The fact that Aubergine is often described as a play that explores Asian-American identities, is something Julia Cho finds quite amusing. She says, “I wrote that play as honestly as I knew how, so that's why the characters were Korean and Korean-American.” Cho can speak a ‘smattering of Korean’, but English being her only language, there was never really any choosing between languages she would express herself in. Having said that, she does strongly 'feel' Korean-American, which can be majorly attributed to her affinity for Korean culture, more significantly, Korean food. Additionally, she is absolutely delighted at how popular K-pop has become globally.
Julia wrote her first play when she was in eighth grade – a story about people stranded in a bomb shelter. However, what planted the seed of becoming a playwright within her was a production of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation that she watched as a 14-year-old at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. “The play hit me like a two-by-four,” she says, “There was the magic of Lincoln Center with its lights and fountains; the gorgeous set with a Kandinsky spinning in the middle; the cast; the language; something that night just seized me and it has never let me go.”
Subsequently, while in her last year at Amherst College, she met with the then newly-hired professor Constance Congdon, who “began offering classes in contemporary American theatre and playwriting,” continues Cho. “I signed up immediately, and that's how it really began.”
She followed this entryway into writing with a Master of Fine Art (MFA) from New York University, and a residency in Julliard’s Playwrights programme, which led to plays such as 99 Histories that delved into the life of Eunice, a musical prodigy, and BFE, which spoke of life in high school, as experienced by her protagonist Panny. It also led her to her 2007 work, The Piano Teacher, which explored the nostalgia of an old woman and her decision to get in touch with her now grown-up students.
Describing how the play came to life, Cho says, “The Piano Teacher was one of those plays that was written suddenly.”
She recalls how the genocide in Rwanda had left a deep impression on her. “I don't know how it merged with the character of an old woman, alone in her house, thinking back on her life. But it drew on my own memories of taking piano lessons as a child. How intimate that was – stepping into someone else's home – and how different my teacher's home was from my own. The play then transformed all those elements, of course. But often, that's how it starts: something familiar turned and turned until it becomes something quite different.”
Besides plays, Cho also writes for the screen. Some of her works include the screenplay for a few episodes of American dramas Big Love and Betrayal. There are, of course, many differences in writing for screen and for theatre, she says, besides the more obvious “visual versus aural, a camera versus a proscenium, recorded versus live" aspects. “But maybe less obvious are the ways in which they're just so differently structured,” she points out.
“TV and film writing – unless it's experimental – is extremely structured. There is beauty and genius in finding new ways to be surprising and innovative. But the structure is very unforgiving.”
“Theatre, on the other hand, is truly wild,” she concedes, “If TV and film are manmade gardens, theatre is a wild, primeval forest with no path and no rules. I think that's why I love it so.”
Every now and then, a play comes alive all at once, and that is a magical experience, Cho explains. But usually, a new play for her is born out of a tiny itch, and it can be a long time before she decides to do something about it.
“For years, I will follow my curiosity and read whatever catches my eye: fiction, poetry, but also books on magic or birdwatching. I might write some poems or prose fragments. And then at some point, I'll start to feel the pressure building. Sometimes it's internal, but sometimes it's a theatre asking for something. And then, when I can't take it anymore, I sit down and write. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it just leads to utter failure. But if I kept going, eventually there's been a play.”
What Cho aims to incorporate in her plays is a lot of ‘monologuing.’ “Some of the first plays I admired and read did this very well,” she says, drawing on works such as Six Degrees of Separation and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Cho is drawn to plays with monologues, in which a character tells a story. “I like an actor addressing an audience directly, almost as if there's no barrier between you.”
Yet, she muses, “I suppose I should someday force myself to write a play where I don't rely on monologuing at all.”
Now, like everyone else, the playwright is also in the middle of social distancing and lockdown as a consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving her with ample free time. For Cho, the strangeness of this act of social isolation is how for some people, work grinds to a halt, while others continue to work unabated. “I've begun working on an adaptation of a [Anton] Chekhov play,” she says, “But I'm still in the research stage. I hope to clear some time for writing and dreaming soon.”
It’s tough to keep the theatre alive during such times, especially in a world that only exists online. The playwright emphasises on how the medium relies on "a communal gathering of bodies and voices." While there are performances that can be streamed online, or radio plays can be resurrected, Cho maintains that theatre, by its nature, is not a medium which is meant to be recorded.
And yet, there are some wonderful plays that can be read and savoured at this time. Her recommendations include classics like Our Town and Antigone by Jean Anouilh, as well as plays by Sarah Ruhl, Brendan Jacob Jenkins, Caryl Churchill, Anna Deavere Smith, and Terrence McNally.
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