Playwrights of Page 73: Hansol Jung, Clare Barron, and Caroline V. McGraw
Photography by Tess Mayer
November 7th, 2016
With their range of programming, from productions to a writers’ group, Page 73 is known for being one of New York City’s premiere incubators for emerging playwrights. We recently gathered three playwrights— Hansol Jung, Clare Barron, and Caroline V. McGraw, —who are participating or have participated in their programs to discuss Page 73, being a playwright in New York City, and how they’d like to see gender equality improve.
On their relationships with Page 73 and what they’re working on:
Hansol: I’m the 2016 Page 73 Fellow, and I’ve been using it to do some workshops. I’ve already done one and I have two more coming up on two other plays. Wild Goose Dreams is set in Korea and it’s about a South Korean man whose family is living in America, and a North Korean defect woman who’s living in South Korea, who meet on an online dating site and have a one night stand. It’s sort of the fallout of all that. It has some music that is a bit weird. It’s like a bunch of binary codes that people sing. Page 73 has helped with figuring out a very music-specific workshop, which was really helpful. I think we’re going to do a workshop on a very, very new play about drugs that I don’t know the name of yet, and another one is Wolf Play, about an adopted boy who is put up on a website by parents in Arizona, his first adoptive parents, and is then found by a lesbian couple on the website. Then, the father delivers the boy not knowing that the couple are lesbians, then freaks out and tries to get the boy back.
Clare: I was the 2014 Page 73 Fellow, and that same year they produced my play You Got Older, which is a play about a woman who goes home to take care of her dad when he’s diagnosed with stage four cancer. I guess it’s a play about coping when your life falls apart and intimacy with a parent. As part of the fellowship I also did some workshops on this play called Dirty Crusty, which has a lot of ballet in it. It’s sort of about loneliness and hopelessness.
Caroline: I’m the 2015 Tow Foundation Residency, which is the first time that Page 73 has gotten to do that program, and I was the 2013 Page 73 playwriting Fellow. For both of those fellowships, I worked on my play Ultimate Beauty Bible. I started writing it in the 2013 Fellowship, now Page 73 is producing it, and it opens tomorrow, which I am very excited about. It’s a play about three editors at a fashion and beauty magazine. One of them has a brush with mortality, and it’s about the fallout from that from her friends and the other characters in the play.
On their writing processes:
Caroline: It’s really different with each play, especially in terms of the quick versus slow first drafts. I wrote a full-length first draft of a play this year in two weeks. Another play, it took me three years to write the first draft, so it just kind of depends on how my brain is sort of working around each issue. I start with a big question I’ve been asking myself. For Ultimate Beauty Bible it was, how do you build a life when you don’t have the things that a traditional life is supposed to contain? The women in my play are not married, don’t have children, don’t sort of have any eye toward that and are in their mid-thirties. I was interested in writing about how they’ve built a sort of different life for themselves. I just start with a big question, then usually a character that I want to be asking that question.
Clare: I agree. I feel like every play I write has a different process, even to the point where some of my plays I write by hand and some of my plays I write almost entirely in my notes app on my phone. That’s my latest thing. I still feel like I’m trying to figure out how to write plays. I was an actor before I was a writer, and I really didn’t know if I would be able to do it. It sort of felt like it might just not happen, so you kind of close your eyes, hold your breath, and cross your fingers. Now I’m thinking a little more intentionally. Where I write for actors, and the feel of the thing and what I want to talk about, whereas before it was just holding on and praying for dear life. I think for me, my plays all come from—this is kind of bleak—but basically all of my plays just come from pain. It’s something in my life that’s really hurting me, and I kind of feel like I write for therapy. I think that’s why some of my plays are sort of embarrassingly autobiographical. I mean all writing is autobiographical, but I mean more like embarrassingly, obviously autobiographical. I also feel like that’s shifting as I get a little older and work on plays a little more. I still think they’re coming from a very personal place, but I’m exploring different scaffolding around that very personal center.
Hansol: I think the starting point is always the same. Something happens and I’m like, “Wow, that actually happens?” Like people putting up children on a website when adoption doesn’t work out, or child soldiers or just like, “How is that possible?” Or pedophilia. What goes on in your brain? Around that, I try to create a situation. It’s basically just me trying to understand what that situation and group of humans is. Building toward that in an effort to just understand, to say, “It’s okay to live in a world where this happens, and this is maybe a thing that we need to talk about. A thing that needs to be brought to light.” The writing process was really binge-y at first, I think, and just like groping for dear life, haphazardly. “Oh my God, deadlines. Oh my God this is shitty. Make it less shitty.” I think now it’s sort of come to be a more paced thing. I think I can only write in 30 to 40 page chunks. That usually is sort of an act—it feels like an act break or like a whole thing. Then I have to let it go and write something else. Then I come back to it a couple of months later and write the next 30 [pages]. And I think when I write the next 30 is when I learn it’s actually going to be a play.
Clare: Do you guys write every day?
Caroline: No, I don’t write every day. I feel like it’s such a thing to sort of be like, yeah I’m writing every day, but I do feel like I think about my plays every day. I’m sort of seeing everything that’s been happening sort of feed into the play.
Hansol: Yeah, it took me a while to learn that. That it’s okay to do that.
Caroline: It’s all right. It sounds kind of hippie, but it’s all writing.
On building a life as a writer:
Clare: I think that there is a really big difference when it starts to be your job. In the beginning, when I first started writing plays, I had a job. I would maybe write a play in a month once every 15 months. I would not write for months and months and months and months, and then all of a sudden I would write a play very fast. It’s been a big and difficult transition. I feel very lucky and very fortunate to have the opportunity to write a lot of different things, but I do find that transition between almost not being a writer, until you have to be a writer because something possesses you and you need to get it out, and to treating it more like a job when you have to meet deadlines, or working on multiple projects [to be difficult]. I don’t like to be working on more than one project at a time, but you have to. You just have to, and you have to switch gears a bunch, and I found that transition difficult, and I’m still trying to navigate how to do it in a way that I like to do it, but not be totally in denial of the external world.
Caroline: This year with the Tow Fellowship has been the first time since graduate school that I’ve pretty much just had all my time dedicated to writing. There is something about that sort of adrenaline of like, “I only have this much time to do something. I have a deadline and I have to do day-job stuff and then work at night and work on weekends to get it done.” Having the wonderful freedom to work on multiple projects at once, but also having to, like Claire said, make that brain space and switch around from one thing to another is wonderful, but it’s such a different way of thinking. You have to kind of get used to it. Now I am, sort of.
Hansol: I think for me it’s month to month, like how is my life going to look this month? Is there a production? Is there a week-long residency during which I can’t really do things for a week? Because my day job is translating, it’s also not encumbered by other external factors, so it’s always been this haphazard thing, like these are the things you need to do. Your deadline is in six months, and that’s just really hard to maneuver. This year, with Page 73, it’s been freer, and I can ask for the things that I want at the time that I want. Because I have it, I can kind of say no to other things that I would have jumped at just to get the week of research or a week away. I can just ask this Fellowship, which has been really great, but also it sets it apart from the other years. Now I’m getting used to that sort of life. Now I have to get un-used to it next year. Then figure out another way to do 2017.
Clare: Yeah, I feel like there’s no stability. Being a playwright, there’s no stability. I also think that people don’t talk enough about money and how much that matters and the difference between moments when you’re having to work multiple jobs, or have a day job or a nine to five. Whatever you choose. I’ve worked in an office. I’ve been a tutor. I’ve done the nomadic thing and I’ve done the steady thing. Something that Page 73 does is they give you $10,000 when you’re the Fellow, and I remember always thinking that was an interesting choice. They really are making that choice of financial security, which I think is something that’s really, really hard to get. I feel like sometimes people are shy about talking about money, and I feel like it’s actually really, really important that we talk about money, because it’s just economically hard to be an artist and it’s important to acknowledge that fact. You might be in a room full of peers, but not everybody has the same money situation, either because of a day job or family support or playwriting opportunity or TV writing opportunity. That financial stuff really does influence the way you work and the pressure you’re feeling. I think it’s really visionary of Page 73 to make the decision to make financial security part of the fellowship.
Caroline: I remember when I found out I had the Fellowship, I was like, “Oh, I don’t have to…” I mean, I worry all the time about everything, but having this sort of net under me where I don’t have to worry that taking time away from a day job will leave me scrambling or panicky [is helpful]. I think that a lot of art does come from being panicky and worried, but I don’t think that is sustainable. The starving artist myth is not really actually conducive to following through and making a play and making a project what you want it to be, and Page 73 really does help with that in an incredible way.
On opportunities with Page 73:
Hansol: There’s the huge chunk of money part and then there’s, “This is a chunk of money that’s for your development, for the work and workshops and whatever you need.” What I’ve really appreciated this year is that they’re so flexible. I’ve had meetings upon meetings with Michael [Walkup, Artistic Director of Page 73] where we’re just deciding, “What’s it going to look like? How are we going to budget this so you can get the most value out of it? And what is the thing that we can offer that others cannot?” Such as a workshop [for just music]. In Wolf Play there’s boxing. One of the characters is a female boxer, and we were even talking about doing boxing lessons. That would come out of the development funds, like research.
Clare: I did a bunch of dance stuff with them on this play. I didn’t need a reading of the play, because half of it is ballet, so how are you going to ever figure out the dramatic structure when half of the dramatic moments are dance? It’s really hard in more traditional development models to have that flexibility.
Hansol: Totally. I think it has a lot to do with donor visibility, or involving that. I’ve sort of not had that be part of the conversation with this Fellowship at all. I think, aside from yes, my play is being developed, I’m taking away the ability to ask for what I want and the talent to diagnose what I need at this moment for this play, and to not feel like, “Ew, is it asking too much to ask for boxing lessons?”
Caroline: Yeah, during my Fellowship I had a different play that takes place in Edinburgh and I hadn’t been in a long time. It takes place all over the city and they sent me to Edinburgh. I went to Edinburgh, and I got so much work done. I was able to write. When I was there the last time I was like, “Oh, I have this idea for a play.” I wasn’t writing it. I got to write around where the play was taking place. It’s just a really amazing thing. Working on Ultimate Beauty Bible and knowing it was going to be produced, which is a rare thing. When you’re workshopping a play, you don’t know when it’s going to be produced or where, or who’s going to be directing it. There’s a character in the play who pretty much only speaks in monologue and has her own mini-arc through the script, and we did a workshop of just that part of the play and building that character. Then we had a different 29-hour workshop with the full cast and really with an eye toward what it was going to look like on the stage. Michael Walkup is an incredible producer and dramaturg. We’d have a reading and then have coffee for such a long time and talk about all these things, and having that space to breathe and not just have it be, “Okay, here’s your workshop and we’ll see you the first day of rehearsal,” was really great.
Hansol: Right, because there’s also a production component to it, which is very rare.
On new play development:
Clare: I think the big thing that needs to happen is to stop focusing on readings. Also, I really feel like this whole idea of leading up to a showing, like a public reading, is so flawed. A certain thing happens in play’s life when you know you have to hit a public reading at the end. At a certain point in the workshop it stops being about exploring the play and it starts being about preparing a reading for an audience. Sometimes that’s great and sometimes that’s really valuable, but it’s not valuable every time. I do feel like a lot of companies are starting to do this and be interested in this, but I think that flexibility in understanding how a particular play needs to be developed and allowing that play to develop in a way that’s unique to its own structure, its content, is a really big shift, important shift. I do think it’s happening, which is great.
Caroline: Yeah, I think the one size fits all for both plays and writers is not always, as Clare said, conducive to the best possible outcome. And also a shifting of what is the best possible outcome for the play? It’s that the playwright gets to learn more about it. It’s that the company that’s helping with the workshop, putting up the workshop, gets to know the play and the playwright better. It feels like it should be a longer game than maybe it sometimes feels. What we’re all saying about Page 73, and I do think it is happening with other companies too, is that they are committed to you as a playwright. It’s not like, “Oh, we like this one script. Great.” It’s really a commitment to your career. That’s very challenging and that takes a lot of resources and time, but I think a development model geared toward a holistic look at everything that’s happening with the play and playwright would be wonderful and ideal.
Clare: I feel like right now, not just in new play development but in new play production as well, there’s just this really bizarre rigidity and a system that I’m kind of like, “Who made this system, and why are we assuming that it’s right for everyone or everything?” I identified as an actor and then I was like, “Now I’m a playwright.” Now I’m sort of like, I don’t know what I am. I find these boxes really weird. That sort of strong bias that people have toward working with a director, not directing your own work, or acting in your own work, blurring those lines. I think multi-disciplinary artists are a real thing. I think it’s weird that people want to channel us into boxes so much. I feel like that’s true also in the structure of production. Why does tech have to be a certain amount of time? Why can’t there be a play where the sound designer is in the room the entire time? I think it all comes down to money and people’s schedules, but I do feel like we are making most people who are operating from script-based theatre stick to a really tight formula of development and production and I find that limited.
Hansol: I started in grad school, and that was to be expected. I never wrote before, so that’s sort of the model I modeled my process on—having pages and having it read and then having a workshop of it. Then after grad school, you go to these development things and it’s to be expected. [And my brain would think] This is where I correct my plays. The first draft would be like, “Whoosh,” then I would expect a development thing. That’s how my brain is working right? I’m going into tech after this interview for the play [Among the Dead at Ma-Yi Theater Company]. This was the first play I wrote that I got into Yale with. I had not touched it since, and when Ralph [Peña, Artistic Director of Ma-Yi] called me and said he was going to do the production, I freaked the fuck out. Because I was like, “But I’ve never done any development.” But then we went into rehearsal, and there was just a different muscle in me that awoke, in that this was a raw play that was not touched by anybody else. Now it is gifted to these people who are saying the words for the first time, and there was a very intimate chemistry that happened with this play. We’re about to start tech, so ask me again tomorrow, but right now I’m in love with this play and the production that’s being made of it.
On gender equality in theatre:
Clare: This is a really depressing answer. I feel like the sexism and the misogyny that upsets me the most right now is the invisible kind, the kind that exists in the world, like in people’s biases that they don’t see. So, sometimes I get overwhelmed by what needs to change, because I feel like it is so cooked into our flesh that really good and lovely and intelligent people don’t even see it.
Caroline: Yeah, the fact that theatre is filled with smart, wonderful people with incredible intentions who also have grown up in the same world that we have and have unconscious biases—maybe conscious biases—and that both women’s stories and, frankly, stories with women as protagonists are seen as other and male stories are seen as universal. It feels like, how could that possibly still be? But it’s so ingrained, and I’m interested in how long it will take to sort of get out of the blood flow there. Joy Meads wrote this wonderful piece for HowlRound about unconscious bias, where she really breaks it down, and the takeaway is you have to look at why you think a certain thing about a play, about a writer, about a character, and that it’s hard work, but that it is very necessary if theatre is going to tell stories that are for everybody and not just a specific segment of the population.
Clare: I’m really interested in making work about the female body and I’m continually astounded by how uncomfortable that makes people. I don’t think that any of my plays are crude, but I think people find them sometimes to be crude and I think that’s because of what we feel like we’re comfortable looking at and not looking at, and what we feel like should be visible and what we feel like should be invisible. I feel like we still live in a world where we want women’s bodies to be invisible. The other thing that I would like to change is I would like to feel more authority. I feel like sometimes as a young woman artist I have to fight for my authority and I have to prove it. I feel like, especially with playwrights, you can be kind of infantilized, and I feel like that becomes complicated as a woman. I feel right now that I am existing in a system where I have to prove myself again and again and fight for my authority, and I don’t think that male artists have the same experience of that.
Hansol: I feel like I’m in a very minority of minority of minorities. I’m Asian, but also I’m not American. I feel like the otherness is something I completely had to embrace coming to America. It’s almost my superpower, in a way, and I feel like maybe I’m being way optimistic, but I feel optimistic about how the conversations are changing and how they have been very visible, for Asians and for women and for LGBTQ people. I just feel like it’s actually a really great moment to be creating things that can make conversation and generate conversation and key into something that people are feeling or articulate those things. Having said that, it’s terrible. It is. You go into theatres and everyone is male and everyone is white, and they got there because of that thing. The problem I encounter actually is not, why aren’t there more female bodies, the problem I encounter is: you’re not good at your job.
Clare: Hallelujah. So many mediocre men are rewarded.
Hansol: That’s what’s annoying to me. Like, dude, how’d you get here?
Caroline: Because men are given the benefit of the doubt so many times. This playwright gets a chance. This director gets a chance, and they don’t have a track record, but we believe in their potential. Women have to have the track record.
Hansol: And they’re having this sort of, I don’t know, masculine fragility thing, and it’s really hard to navigate when they’re bad [at their jobs]. You have to bring them into your process and your play and they’re there because of what the institution has done, which is pick them to do the job and picked your play to produce. That’s how you meet, and it’s a thing. It’s a problem.
Clare: I think this stuff is really hard to talk about. I had a woman who’s an older mentor of mine, who I was talking to about that very thing, about mediocre men being rewarded for their potential or given the benefit of the doubt, and she was like, “People will think you’re crazy if you say that.”
Caroline: Not to get into the election, but the way that misogyny has been such a big part of the election, I’ve not been happy about it, but I’ve been like, “Yeah, women’s lives are having men talk about us like this and think about us like this.” And it’s not just this terrible man who’s running for president. It’s many, many terrible men of all ages and creeds.