PlayLabs 2017 interview: Alice Tuan

PlayLabs 2017 features three new plays, including Core Writer Alice Tuan’s A Humbling in St. Paul. Readings are Monday, October 23, and Friday, October 27, at 7 p.m. Reserve your tickets here. We talked with Alice about writing this play based on her personal experiences and friends, finding an artistic community, and why she loves Bruno Mars so much.

Your PlayLabs play A Humbling in St. Paul is based on your experience in Minnesota after your Ruth Easton workshop in 2016. How do you approach writing such a personal play? Do you have to create some distance so that you can think about it critically?

There was no approach—writing the play was vital. I had no idea how I contracted that freak blood infection which landed me in United Hospital ICU for six days after the workshop of California Love, but it was life-altering, was all-consuming. The tenets of my playwright life—living in discomfort, knocking on the doors of mystery, bewildered by the delivery of such drama—helped me through ICU. At one point, laying there, looking out the window, wondering “wtf,” that's what I do when I write a play, except I get up every now and then to sit and type and don't have tubes in my arms and a pic line running through me. After I returned to LA, I was in a kind of joyous shock, having survived the Strep-A in my blood, so grateful to be alive. If anything, writing the play was part of the healing—trying to make sense out of the experience, documenting the strange existential calm, which I attribute to the windfall of a playwright psyche. This experience confirmed the deep currency of playwriting for me.

Your characters in this play are based on you and friends of yours. What do they think about the play? Have they read any of it yet, or will they be seeing it for the first time at PlayLabs?

My dear friends Karin and Sharon, and their dogs Bosco and Bella, shouldered the burden of worry and so now they are my family which means yup, they are fodder for my stage populations! Karin, who is a recent full Professor of Sociology at Macalester, wrote 12 pages of field notes about the incident, which was a crucial part of the play's formation. Sharon, who is one of the most open and accepting people I know has been...accepting of this project. Bosco and Bella are definitely ready for their close ups. I showed Karin the first few pages, and have attempted to prepare low-key Sharon for it (O no! Their seeing it might be scarier than ICU was!). Karin's friends Marlina and Sophia will be in the play, so there are many affinities involved. They got a taste of it at Taste of the Season but yeah, PlayLabs will be their seeing it for the first time.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Home. There is a landing with a high ceiling and a couple of small windows to gaze up at the sky.

What advice do you have for finding or creating an artistic community?

I like to invite people to my place and call it a Write Inn. We have coffee and bagels, and then everyone goes off and writes for a coupla hours, then we reconvene, talk or not talk about what we've written and then eat dumplings and greens.

What do you do when you’re stuck on something you’re writing?

Kinda stuck: make something up for now and move on (important to get to the end). Stuck: Think about the first impulse that made you so excited about blueprinting this play world. Really stuck: After birching yourself and declaring yourself to be the worst writer ever on the face of the planet, read what you have and cathex on that line, that device, that passage that you love no matter what and figure its evolution.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a playwright I would be…

a linguist or an anthropologist.

What is the most thrilling artistic experience you had recently?

At this year's Ojai Playwright Conference I experienced Ren Dara Santiago's The Siblings Play, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar—a thrilling new work by a daring new voice. It captured modern NYC patois with a poetic soul. The reading brought the experience, an anti-family play, insular, suffocating Greek in intensity (we are blood, but why do we keep bleeding?), but liberating, cathartic in the end.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Know your cage. Then you will know why you write.

How does being a writer shape your day-to-day life?

In our current moment of toxic public culture, where the leader is shrinking minds, dividing citizens and appealing to the lizard in us all, writing shows to me an alternate culture where I and my truths are at the core. Creative expression is not valued as much as it should be in late capitalism, but I am grateful to have writing as a spiritual practice.

What is a risk you’re proud of taking?

Writing from instinct, not necessarily from market demand.

Why do you love Bruno Mars so much?

His Aloha Spirit, generosity, loves the ladies and says we deserve it all, loves the chunky ladies, 'shout out to the girls who pay they rent on time,' tuneful, hot, fun, looks at the culture and figures out what is needed, his song-writing tenacity, multi-genre'd, sonic happiness, 'invite the feeling, don't fight the feeling, just put your pinky rings up to the moon...'


Alice Tuan