Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
October 20th, 2016
Vietgone, the new play by Qui Nguyen currently playing at Manhattan Theatre Club, is based on how his parents met; spans two continents; ranges in style from romantic comedy to buddy roadtrip to war drama; is, at turns, quiet and phantasmagorical; and, oh yeah, there’s rap. Director May Adrales is in charge of all of this—not just at MTC, but for another production of Vietgone, as well. May has a long history of working with a wide range of playwrights, and directing new plays everywhere from LCT3 to Williamstown Theatre Festival to the Lark Play Development Center, where she was Director of On Site Programming. Before a preview performance of Vietgone, we sat down with May to discuss her process for creating the world of the play, figuring out the tone, new play development, and much more.
What was your process like for working with the tone of Vietgone? It has big comedic moments and then very heavy dramatic moments. How did you find the balance between those two?
The tone of the show is difficult to land in one place because it’s messy. It goes to extremes. It goes to very broad humor. It goes to very intimate moments. What we’ve been working on in the rehearsal process has been to develop really grounded characters and give them a range of choices that they can mine from within the world of the show. The first part of the process, I spent a lot of time just talking about the style of the piece and the infinite range that Qui is writing for, meaning that the comedy can be very, very broad and that they can have many imaginative choices within that and not limit it to realism because that’s hardly what it is. I try to ground it by also establishing the stakes of what each character is facing currently. [There was] A lot of dramaturgical research about the war, a lot of dramaturgical research about Qui’s personal history and what his family went through, and giving a visual of what they’re visualizing when they’re talking about the fall of Saigon and fleeing Saigon on that fateful day.
Did you bring in a lot of visual references for the actors? What was your research process like?
When we first started working on the play, Qui and I went to the UC Irvine archives because they have a portfolio of a ton of Vietnamese refugees, and so they have a great online research database for stories of people that have settled in America and also what the journey was like. We were able to look at firsthand research from Camp Pendleton and also Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where the play takes place. Most of my research is actually drawn from those first sources. Not only were we able to get photographs of what the camp actually looked like, but also stories of what it was like before the fall of Saigon, why people were leaving, how people were able to leave, their route of escape. We were also able to talk with people that survived the war that had the same story as Quang Nguyen. Obviously Qui was able to interview his parents, but we also had the opportunity when we first developed it at South Coast Rep to talk with different refugees and their children about what that experience was like. Our first full reading of the play actually took place at a Vietnamese-American arts organization, so the first time it was heard was by people that actually had the very same experience of leaving Saigon on April 29th, 1975 and landing in some strange spot called Arkansas. In fact, one of the people that was sitting right next to me would laugh every time the motorcycle sequences came up, because he also took a motorcycle road trip from Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas all the way to California. His exact route was the same one we were describing in the play.
The play also has all these great Americana and pop culture references. What was your process for incorporating those and making them stand out in the right way?
I think it’s just understanding the style of the piece. This is a story about refugees, but so often we look at refugees as someone that’s “other,” that speaks a different language, somebody that is different from us. I think what the play magically does is it actually places the Vietnamese characters as the most relatable, the most like us, so that we have a greater empathy for them. The way to do that was through a language that Qui and I grew up in. It’s in hip-hop and it’s in America’s pop culture references, so that was actually easy to access because it’s the closest thing to us personally, but it’s also a way that we can relate to our audiences. Conversely, the American characters speak in this other sort of pidgin English and so, for the first time, it’s the white characters in the play that are sort of made distant and almost oddly exotic, whereas the Vietnamese characters are the ones, the real protagonists of the play, where we’re really relating to them.
What was your process like for collaborating with the designers to create the world of the play? Because the set is really integrated in the storytelling.
Yeah, we’re excited about it. It’s gone through a couple of evolutions, and we knew just from reading the script that projections were going to be a big part of the mise en scène of the piece. We needed to account for that, but also we just looked at the bones of the play. We’re like, “Okay, we have to go to like 35 different locations and it has to move like that,” and so we were looking for that container and we were thinking we wanted it to be Americana, we wanted it to represent the road trip, we also wanted to give some sense of the refugee camp they were in, but most importantly we wanted to give it the comic book feel that the play has, so that all of the ridiculousness of what happens, the fight and these bump-and-run motorcycle battles and the raps, they could all live within this world. We knew it had to be bold and imaginative and it had to do a lot of tricks.
What was your dramaturgical process like for that?
For the projections in particular, because it’s so intricate and so specific, Jared [Mezzocchi, projection designer] and I have met a couple of different times over Skype and in person and storyboarded though the piece, talking through each scene about what we wanted everything to look like. For the raps, which have a lot of projection, we would go through line by line and actually do an imagery search of what that line conjured for us and then looked at it compositionally once we were in the space. It was very specific in that way. But at first, we were just looking at a swath of realistic images from the time period, as well as various comic book artists, and also different art work of the 70s, when this play takes place, to inform the aesthetic. Then, as we were honing in on very specific images and choosing them, we were just looking at the emotional impact of each image in that dramatic moment.
Timing is so important for comedy. How much did you think about the timing of those transitions?
We actually were fortunate to have a design workshop with all the designers and the actors at South Coast. At that point it was a co-production with MTC, so they were helping us with the logistics of that. We were able to actually move through the piece in three dimensions and collaborate together as a design and acting team and figure out like, “Oh, okay, this can move here and this can move here.” In terms of the finesse and timing of how everything moves, that’s been our process for the last couple of weeks in tech and just trying to figure out what’s the most dynamic and exciting way to move from one scene to the other.
Could you expand a little on the design workshop you had?
It was a four day workshop with all of the members of the design team and the actors. We had a footprint of what we wanted the set to be, but we were able to incorporate different suggestions from the actors. Then we actually looked at scenes on our feet, not as if to rehearse for a final product, but we were able to just play around and say, “Okay, what if this scene took place here? What if this scene took place somewhere else?” We were able to just play around with a lot of different scenarios without being locked into anything. It was just a way or us to develop a relationship with one another, because a lot of the designers hadn’t worked together before, and it was a way for people to get excited about the world we were creating and feel a part of it.
How much has the play changed from South Coast Rep?
I’m so grateful for the time to do it again because you learn so much from doing a first production. Also, we had a very short performance period at South Coast, so you and the actors learn so much. The majority of the actors are actually from the South Coast production. We have two new raps [now], and also I think everyone’s understanding of the play and also the potential of each of the relationships [has deepened]. The stakes have kind of risen; our understanding of the stakes of the characters has actually increased over time just from building a deeper understanding of the play. Then in addition to that, for me as a director, just seeing how things move and being able to correct any mistakes that I made the first time.
Have you found audiences different here than in California?
Most definitely. We’re still getting to know the audience here. South Coast boasts, I think, the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Or Orange County at least is where a lot of Vietnamese settled. So we were able to actually capitalize on that audience, and we also developed a really deep relationship with a lot of the community leaders there over the two years’ time that it took us to develop the play. That sort of tie to the community, we don’t have the fortune of that here. At South Coast we were able to get a lot of the students. Because of the quality of the show, the hip-hop nature of it, there were a lot of students that came, so we’re hoping actually to tap into that demographic here too.
When you get a project, do you gravitate towards things where you’re immediately like, “Oh yeah, I know what that is, I know how to put that on stage,” or do you gravitate towards things that are like, “Oh my God, I have no idea what to do with this”?
I think I actually have both of those feelings whenever I look at a piece. I’m attracted to this piece for a lot of reasons. Qui and I had just finished working on a devised piece at NYU when we started work on this. I knew I really wanted to work with him again. We just have a really great working relationship and it was so much fun. Also the story is so important for right now because the heart of the piece is this incredible immigrant story and how you find your home when you’ve lost everything. That touches me personally because of my own background, but also right now, at this political time, when we are threatened with dire xenophobia, to do a piece like this where we can expand our hearts to other people from other countries and religions, and we can open our arms that way. That’s why this piece is some important to me. I’m gravitating to it for those reasons.
In terms of knowing how to put it on stage, this piece throws you for a loop because you’re thinking, “Well, how do you transition into this rap? How does it really serve the play in that moment? How can it serve that character’s journey, and what are the choices I can make?” Those are questions I’m asking myself every time we’re viewing the play and every time I’m trying to stage it. And so, yes and no. Sometimes I know like, “Okay, I know exactly what I want this to look like. I know it’s going to be vibrant. I want the production to be vibrant, I want it to be comic. I know how I want projections to work.” In our design process, we looked at a ton of artwork and comic book artists to actually narrow down the aesthetic, but there are also this moments of like, “Well, I don’t know, so let’s just throw something up there.” At that point, when we’re throwing things up there, I can usually say, “Nope, it’s not that. It’s going to be something else.”
Going back to what you were saying about the particular political moment that we’re in, have you found yourself more drawn to pulling out certain themes of the play because of that?
Yes and no. I think our understanding of the plight of these characters and what it means to be an outsider in this strange land has become more poignant for me and the actors, and therefore there are more full, rich moments onstage, but ultimately it is a romantic comedy and I feel like it’s really important, in the face of adversity, that we always look for the light and we look for the joy and we look for the laughs. I think that’s why it’s such a special story. It’s a survivor story. I feel like the way to encapsulate the whole beauty of the piece and power of the piece is to really focus on the comedy of it.
You also have some very autonomous women in this play.
Yeah, it’s totally kick-ass. That’s another reason to gravitate towards it, because so often Asians are depicted in a very reserved, sexless way in our media, and so to have these characters that are so sexy and so powerful and so independent and so cool, that is part of the importance of bringing it to the stage in New York now. It’s important to actually show different types of people onstage embodying that kind of sexiness. These actors don’t have that much opportunity to play it, and so we’re all grateful that we can be a part of that.
How do you think new play development could be improved?
I focus most of my career on new plays and I love partnering with different writers and exploring these new worlds with another collaborator. I love that aspect of it. I think in terms of new play development, I’m glad that the industry is embracing doing more new plays, especially from a more diverse array of writers. I do think that new plays tend to stop after the world premiere, and what’s been so special about [Vietgone] is that we’ve been able to not just do it at South Coast, we’ve been able to do this production here at MTC. I also have another production of this play with a different cast and design team running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which will go to Seattle Rep. I think the more we can bring the story around and also learn from each production, the more important it is. It always breaks my heart if you have a new play that has its world premiere, maybe there were some faults in it, and it doesn’t move on and then that story doesn’t get told to a large swath of the population. That, I feel like, is hopefully going to change in coming years. Also I feel that the actors’ and director’s contribution to a new play don’t often get incorporated into the production process. We were lucky to advocate for a design workshop so that we could bring the designers and the actors together, and I think in the tight model of most producing, they don’t account for the fact that a play is not just a thing that you hand over, this written set of pages. It’s actually a much bigger, 3D moving-part machine, and you have to bring in different collaborators to really explore what it could be.
I’d imagine that it’s also helpful when you can have a long-term relationship with a writer rather than being thrown together for a production?
I think the writer/director relationship is sort of like a marriage, and the strongest marriages get better over time. You develop a shorthand of speaking to each other, and trust. You develop a deeper trust so therefore you can be even more emboldened in your choices.
What’s your process like for working with different actors in the rehearsal room, or actors that have different processes in the rehearsal room?
It varies, it really does. My modus operandi is that I feel like people do their best work when they’re in an environment that fosters that and nurtures them. I try to create a really warm room. With this play, we’ve been blessed because all of the actors are so talented but they’re also like a family. They’re very generous, and I feel like giving that sense of family will also help the work. That’s one of the things that I try to do in each of my rehearsal halls. Everyone has their own process, and I think it’s just getting to know them. Some actors are very private about their process and like to just process notes not in the rehearsal room, but like to talk about it and then go away and come back, and it’s up to me to work around that, because I’ve made it a priority of mine to give people the space to be able to create and bring the most vibrant bold choices, so I need to create an environment that allows them to do that.
Do you have other areas of culture that affect your work?
Yeah, I have a lot of different passions. I love all kinds of music and studied it for most of my young adult life. I also spend a lot of time looking at different architects and architecture. As a director, I feel like one of the most critical things you do at the beginning of the process is looking at the set design, and so I’ll look at installation artists, sculptors, and different architects to inspire, spark some kind of vision for me. In my free time I spend a lot of time at museums. Right before this play I went to Dia:Beacon and I try to go to the Whitney and MOMA and just to experience different things outside the theatre, just to open up my imagination.
When you’re doing that and it’s right before a production, do you try to go to ones that might have something that’s very related to the piece, or do you go in the opposite direction to just let your mind wander?
Sometimes I’ll go because there’s an artist that I’ve been following or that I’ve run across in my image research and I’ll go and check out their work, but very often it’s just a way for me to keep my juices flowing when I’m not in rehearsal.
Do you feel like the spaces, particularly in New York City, are limited in terms of what you can do or what they do or do not do for the imagination?
Yes. But I think you can be creative about a number of spaces. You just have to kind of look and see what would fit best in it.
Once you know the space that a show is going into, do you think about it being a theatre in Midtown versus being someplace downtown where the vibe is different? And how that might affect how to get them into the world of the play in those first couple of minutes?
Definitely. I mean with this play in particular, Qui has a company, Vampire Cowboys, that is primarily downtown, and this play is actually of that ilk. It’s very much a show that we could have done south of 14th Street and that would have been great. The play itself also addresses it in the prologue. I think that prologue is actually a way to invite people into saying, “This is the kind of play that you’re going to witness. Be prepared. Hold onto your seats.”
What do you think the theatre industry can do to make things better and more equal for women working in it?
There are so many things. I think now is a great time to be a woman in theatre. When I first started, I never assisted a female director. I assisted some great people, but I never assisted a woman. I think now there are a lot more women that are in leadership positions and in directing positions. I always think it’s important for me to mentor a younger woman. Things we could do better: I wish it wasn’t the case, but sometimes I have this nagging feeling that as a woman, you sometimes only get one chance, that you have to be that prepared and that much better and that much better well-received than male counterparts in order to continue to get work. I feel like it’s a slight perception problem.
You’re not the first person who has said that.
You feel like you just have one chance. I definitely feel that. And just face the institutional sexism that’s just been handed down generation to generation. And I feel like my leadership style is actually very feminine in a way, because it’s very nurturing, and at the same time very directive. I have experienced, at times, where that’s been perceived as being weak. Being collaborative in some ways is not as clear as being sort of authorial. You have to really be emboldened and confident in how you lead the room and how you are carrying yourself and how you project yourself in the world. I think you have to be that much more confident because more people tend to doubt you.
Did you go through a phase or period where you felt like you had to be more aggressive or more authoritarian to be taken seriously?
I did. When I was in grad school [at Yale], my directing chair, Liz Diamond, actually observed one of my rehearsals and she started laughing because she’s a very petite woman also, and she would pull me aside and she’s like, “I used to do that too,” which is because I’m very petite, I would always sit on tables and I would sit on backs of chairs just to make myself bigger and sort of overcompensate, and I was always very loud. She kind of pulled me aside and was like, “You won’t have to rely on those tricks anymore, but use them now while they bolster you up.” I don’t do that quite as often. I don’t sit still a lot, but I don’t feel necessarily that I need to hide myself. I also like to wear dresses. I like to wear heels and that sort of thing. At the beginning, especially when I was assisting, I would stifle all of that personal style because I just felt that people weren’t taking me as seriously. I soon realized that I really needed to be myself, my whole self, in rehearsals. That was the only way I was going to be able to do the best job that I could do. Also, how could I ask actors to be vulnerable and open in front of me if I didn’t feel like I was doing the same? I started being much more myself and my directing got much better. It’s about a journey of building confidence and just realizing, just stick to who you are.