An Interview with Chisa Hutchinson
Written by Victoria Myers
February 25th, 2015
Chisa Hutchinson is the type of person who will stop and talk to an intern who is standing alone in a corner (really, I know), and that’s just one of the reasons why we were super excited to hear that she was receiving an award from The Dramatists Guild for early career playwriting. Chisa’s plays include The Wedding Gift, Dead & Breathing, and She Likes Girls (to name just a few), and her work has been presented at The Lark Play Development Center, the Rattlestick, and Atlantic Theater Company (again, just to name a few). Additionally, she was both a Dramatists Guild and Lark Fellow, and has won a Lilly Award and Helen Merrill Award (and, yep, you guessed it—she has more awards as well). Chisa shared her thoughts with us on everything from writing to representation to community. Her open and thoughtful answers show that she’s not only an asset to theatre as a writer, but also as a community member.
You’re getting an award from The Dramatists Guild for early career work. Congratulations! What’s the most exciting part of getting this award?
Thank you. Apart from the big honking prize, the fact that for a few months now I’ve been home sort of feeling sorry for myself—I have multiple sclerosis, so I had to take some time off to deal with that—I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t meet friends, I couldn’t do anything really, and I especially couldn’t get to the theatre. I was feeling really not a part of the community, so it was really, really cool to find out that people remembered me, even though the last play I had produced was in West Virginia. I haven’t had a play produced in New York since 2013, and that was a self-production. So to hear people were thinking of me was really cool and an honor.
What’s the best thing that could come out of this award for you? Like your dream scenario?
More productions. Local productions would be nice. That’s pretty much it.
What do you have coming up?
I’m working on a commission from the Working Theater. They’re doing a project called Five Boroughs/One City. They chose five playwrights for the five boroughs and I got Staten Island. First of all, I live in New Jersey right across the bridge from Staten Island and I’ve never really been there till now. But I’m learning a lot about Staten Island. A lot of racial tension, but also kind of a bizarre isolationist culture. It’s a little weird. So I’m writing a play about that. I think March 28th is going to be the first informal presentation. And the River Front Festival in Newark is going to be presenting a play I did called Dirt Rich, about five kids from the projects who find a big wad of money buried in their playground and have to figure out what to do with it. And I have another project in the fall, but I don’t think I can talk about it, but I’m really excited about it.
Do you see any themes in your work?
People that you don’t necessarily get to see on stage a lot: transgender people or wealthy black people—you never really see wealthy black people on stage—or really poor people. You never really see really poor people on stage unless it’s a Lucy Thurber play. So, I guess, just stories about people who mainstream America wouldn’t normally come into contact with. I come into contact with plenty.
You write about a lot of contemporary social issues. What’s the best way to write about social issues in a play?
The best way to write a play about a social issue is to not make it about a social issue. To take my last play [Dead and Breathing], in which there is a transgender nurse, I focused on what she’s doing as a nurse in her life. She’s interacting with this woman who, once she finds out her nurse is transgender, flips the fuck out, but the play isn’t about that. It’s about their relationship and the challenges they’re facing individually and together. Just human shit. So if you can just human it up and just focus on emotional, personal stuff and something audiences can relate to, then they won’t mind so much that you snuck in some social agenda in the play.
What’s your process like as a writer?
It depends on the play. I feel like with most of my plays, I’ve read or experienced something that really pissed me off, or that I was really confused by, and then I try to build something around that. But as far as how I actually sit down and start a play when there’s a blank screen and blinking cursor, it just depends on which way the wind is blowing. Sometimes it comes at me—like the opening image—and it’s just like, “Yeah!” and other times I think I know how it’s going to end and I write towards the ending image, but it can go places completely unexpected.
What other areas of culture do you find evocative?
Film, of course. It’s a huge influence. I just think… slavery movies, for example, seem real popular right now and I’ve been feeling some kind of way about it.
Tell us more about that.
Broader than just slavery, it’s black victimhood. There are all of these black victimhood movies that are out. I feel like, “Okay, it’s great that we’re facing up to what we, in this country, do to our brown people, but rubbing our faces in our victimhood is really starting to wear on me.” The play that I just finished [The Wedding Gift] is a play about slavery that’s not about slavery. It’s just a regular guy named Doug who basically finds himself enslaved. It’s kind of sci-fi, which is really not in my wheelhouse at all, but it was shaping up to be sci-fi. And Doug can be any ethnicity, but ideally he’d be a white guy—like a big burly white guy—who’s being owned, like literally owned, by people of color. I just wanted to literally put mainstream America in the position of someone who is the victim, is the captive, and who is put in a position no human should be in.
How do you think theatre can better address race?
To give room to everyone. It’s hard for me to listen to people who literally cannot imagine the experiences of other people and therefore dismiss those experiences like, “No, of course that doesn’t happen. This is post-racial America.” Can we just make room for other experiences? Or just acknowledge that there are experiences different than yours? For example, one of my favorite playwrights, Dominique Morisseau, wrote this beautiful, poignant, awesome fucking play, Detroit ’67, about a family getting along and coping in the midst of the Detroit riots. The New York Times critic likened it to a ‘70s sitcom, which was so insulting and demeaning. It didn’t do justice to her vision. The problem, I think, is that reviewer only had one particular frame of reference for black family life during that time period. So I feel like there’s just no room for other experience to be validated.
It’s something that’s come up a lot in our interviews; critics talk about plays by women and people of color differently. They use condescending language a lot—like quirky or whimsical—or they don’t have the frame of reference, so instead of going to the play, they try and reframe the play to bring it to themselves.
Yeah, that’s it. That’s like every review of a Theresa Rebeck play. I have these experiences too, where I’ll get a reading at a theatre and after the reading there will be a standing ovation, and then I’ll talk to the producer and he’ll be like, “Oh, yes, it’s got potential. We could work on it.” I don’t get that so much with women, but with the men they want to rewrite the play. It’s frustrating. It’s hard to tell if it’s because I’m young or because I’m a woman or because I’m black or all of the above, so they just kind of assume that I don’t have the skills or that the play couldn’t be as good as the audience thought. It’s like they’re thinking, “You may have fooled those people, but you won’t be able to fool a New York Times critic.” And I probably couldn’t—because they’re going to liken it to a ‘70s sitcom.
We’ve wondered if play development has the potential to be more harmful to female playwrights, since society teaches women to be people pleasers and maybe take notes that they don’t want to take.
I think I’ve gotten better at filtering. You just have to ask yourself, “Is that note going to make the play better or just different?” A professor once told me, “What I do is I don’t take notes. I listen, and the things that stick and keep me up at night, those are the things to try out. And the other stuff? Just let it go.” And I was like, “Yeah, right on!” But it’s hard. It could cost you a production. I’ve definitely had that experience of being like, “That’s not the story I’m trying to tell.”
What do you think can be done to improve new play development?
Well, there are limited resources. I know for a fact that there are theatres out there that specifically get grant money to present readings of new plays for “new play development.” I just feel like there has to be a different way to distribute resources. Like this whole, “let’s just develop things,” seems to be a not very satisfying model. It doesn’t really benefit the people who it’s supposed to benefit, which are playwrights. I work a lot at the Lark Play Development Center, which is one place where I’m always like, “Yes, develop my play.” They just know how to treat artists. They know how to respond to work in a way that’s not, “Let me fix your play,” which is really refreshing. And they have these actors that are just so great and super smart. Actually, most of the really great notes that I get are from actors who just sat in the characters and felt it. So actors always, always, always help me.
From looking at your website, it’s clear you have a lot of personality. We see people using their personalities publicly more and more as almost part of the brand of their work. We see it less in theatre. Do you think that’s changing?
Playwrights literally can’t afford to not put ourselves out there. Theatres don’t just want to produce your play—they want to produce you. So they have to know that they like you. They have to get a sense of who they’re going to be working with. If you put yourself out there, it’s more likely they’ll be able to tell if you’re someone they want to work with. I’m sure there are people who look at my website and are like, “She’s so loudmouthed. She’s not professional at all,” which is fine, since that’s not the place for me then. But yeah, I think it’s important for playwrights to personalize their things. I have a professional bio too, but that’s not the one on my website. And even with my professional bio, I try to stick a little something in there so people know I’m not going to be the one buttoned up and not wearing jeans—I’m going to make a little noise.
We’re always interested in trying to expand the theatre-going audience, and also expand the perception of who goes to theatre.
I think there are two sides to that. There is the more mature crowd, usually white and pretty well off, who can drop a hundred and some on a Broadway ticket. Then there are the people who come from Iowa or Kansas to see something spectacular. So there’s that crowd. Then there’s this other crowd, which is the off-Broadway crowd, who are like, “I’m going to see what’s happening at Rattlestick or Wild Project.” People who are looking for theatre that is a little more challenging, and maybe pinch their pennies to buy a ticket or call in a favor because they know an actor who’s in a show. So I feel like those are the two types of theatre-goers. I keep hoping there will be this revolution where there will be more people who demand more cutting-edge, substantial, challenging theatre, and that the bigger institutions will realize there is a demand and feed it.
Earlier you mentioned that the Dramatists Guild award made you feel part of the community again. We’re really interested in trying to build community. What do you think has been the most useful thing in feeling like part of the theatre community? And how did you find that?
I guess going to see everyone’s work. I’m so serious. That helps. If I get stuck in a rut or if I’m feeling isolated, just go see someone else’s play. The writer is usually there—at least the plays I go see, they’re usually there chilling in the audience. Then I’m always inspired and feel energized and more connected. Finding a place like The Lark or New Dramatists where they have this cast of regulars who are just kind of there and around, and coming to the roundtables and the panel discussions and things like that. And staying social. It’s not just, “I’m going to do my play.” It’s about going out. That’s the stuff that builds the community, I think.
Is there anything you can think of to go along with that? Like, “It would be really cool if theatres…”
Hosted purely social events, maybe. They do that some, but they’re usually fundraising parties, so there’s this added pressure of like you have to participate in the silent auction and whatever else. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit around, and that’s kind of sad that you feel like there has to be a special event for people to just be and rejoice in each other’s company. I like theatre people and I’d like to hang out with more theatre people not in a theatre.
What’s the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I saw Cabaret in ‘96 or ‘97. It was Alan Cumming’s first go at the Emcee—he hasn’t aged at all, by the way—and it was the first musical that I actually liked, since I wasn’t so into musicals. It had a point and depth and it was edgy. And I thought, “Oh my God, theatre can be edgy,” and it wasn’t all fluff and spectacle. So I feel like that was eye-opening. Oh, and the Neo-Futurists. The Chicago Neo-Futurists came to the National Theatre Institute when I was studying there and did their non-illusionary theatre. They did these very short plays that were extremely personal and funny and jarring, and I was like, “Oh, theatre can be that too.” It doesn’t have to be this linear one story where you’re following a family in a kitchen. So I think those two things. Also, Kia Corthron’s play, Breath, Boom, at Playwrights Horizons. That was huge. I was like, “Oh my God, black people on stage! Yes!” It was a black woman in prison in a gang, and violence. And I was like, “Yes, that’s what I want to write about,” because you don’t see that ever.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Kia Corthron became my hero after that. Lorraine Hansberry. Anna Deavere Smith. Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison. Lauryn Hill, before she got weird.
What are your top five favorite narratives with great female characters?
1. All About Eve
2. Ruined by Lynn Nottage
4. How to Get Away with Murder
5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
I’m still waiting for that. It’s something that just sneaks up on you, I guess. I don’t know what it would take for me to wake up and feel like, “I’m a badass adult now.” I pay my taxes, but that does not an adult make. So I’m still waiting.
(viii.) Representation: Part Two
Do you have what you consider to be a defining moment in your creative life? Or one that shaped how your creative brain works?
It was seeing August Wilson and Robert Brustein debate color-blind casting at this packed lecture hall. My high school drama teacher, who is a hero too, took me to see it, and this is when people still gave a shit enough to pack a lecture hall to see two leading theatre authorities knock heads over an issue. And we were in the balcony in the lecture hall, and I was leaning over the rail because I was riveted. August Wilson put his finger on exactly the thing that was making me itchy in the theatre. At this point in high school, I had been cast as anything but a black person. I’d been a Theban princess and a beauty queen, who was obviously not supposed to be black, and the DJ in Talk Radio, who is supposed to be middle aged and a man. There was always this weirdness with that. I almost felt a resentment that I’d be cast as “this” instead of something closer to who I was. I’d be flattered because it would be a big part or a juicy part, but it was also a little insulting. So to go and hear August Wilson talk about color-blind casting being a little bit of another way of saying our experiences aren’t universal enough… Well, it’s back to, “Room for our experience, please.” People think, “Oh, the lady in Proof, her experience is universal. Everyone can relate to that.” “August: Osage County, everyone can relate to that.” No, not really. It’s a great play but…[not everyone can relate to it]. There’s still this idea of, “That’s universal and nothing else is.” So for him to say, “We really want to employ fully a black actor and have black people write it,” was a big deal. And that goes for any people of color or any under-representation. I primarily identify as black, but I’d love to see more plays about women where the woman isn’t the prize that needs to be won at the end of it, or she’s the ingénue or the love triangle. That’s still all about the men. Can we just have the full dimensions and not just the one?
That ties into a couple of things we talk about a lot. Like theatres having the diversity slot.
Yes! The slot. The February slot. So of course, with only one slot, that is a determent for people of color or women or gay or disabled people getting their stuff up on stage. But the other side effect of that, that no one likes to talk about, are the feelings of competition and resentment that come when someone doesn’t get that slot. Feeling like, “Oh man, I lost out because such-and-such got that slot,” so instead of focusing on, “Why was there only one slot in the first place,” you start to aim all of your animosity at the person who did get the slot. And that’s a really unhealthy dynamic. I had to consciously break out of that. Dominique Morisseau, who is one of my favorite writers ever, won the PONY the year I was a finalist and I was like, “Great, now they’re not going to give it to another black person for five years.” I was feeling a little bit bitter like, “Oh, I knew they were going to go with her.” Then the Lark invited me to be part of a workshop that year and at first I was like, “I don’t want your consolation prize,” and then I was like, “Fuck it, I love the Lark.” It was like the best thing I ever could have done. It was the most liberating thing to go and hear her work and how fucking awesome it was, and everyone else in that room—all of their work was so freaking awesome—and to be like, “Oh, they had a really hard time choosing.” It’s really hard to hold a grudge and to hold onto that toxic energy. There are limited resources and tough choices. It doesn’t make me feel better that the resources are limited to begin with, but it does make me appreciate my fellow writers more. That energy used on negativity is energy that could go elsewhere.
One thing we want to do is help make it cool to support other women. And it seems that attitude of misdirected anger is too prevalent. Like people who were more upset about not being on The Kilroy’s list than just being happy there was a list. Our thing is: more leads to more.
Right. Let someone else go forth and scout that shit out and come back and tell us how it is. And succeed. Like I pray, “Please succeed,” because it will make it that much easier for me. Maybe there will be two slots next time. But, even more than that, I feel like if we pulled all of our resources together…. Why focus on the places that only create one slot for us when we could be making slots for ourselves? I produced my own play and I did that with the help of a female producer and a director. I pooled my resources. I think it’s important not to lose sight of what the enemy is, because it’s not a “who,” it’s “the way things are.” There are limited resources, so you can either bitch and moan and wallow and cut yourself off and not go see your sisters’ work—not go see another woman’s play because she got the slot—or go see it and support her and create a bond, and maybe work with her in the future. I think that’s important.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to see theatres solve this problem, so I really do think, at this juncture, it’s up to the women. If that means an all-female 13P type situation where people pool their resources and work together and collaborate, then cool, let’s do it. Sign me up. I think that right now, we just need to focus on us. I feel a little bit like this is the way black theatre has operated. Like, “You don’t want us? Okay, then fuck y’all, we’ll establish the Negro Ensemble. We’ll have a National Black Theatre and we’ll do good work, and you’ll see the good work, and then maybe you’ll open a slot for us.” That’s not to say that theatres shouldn’t attempt diversity, but I just don’t think they’ll get there soon.
You can follow Chisa on Twitter: @chisahutchinson.