Interview: Playwright Sam Chanse
Creating Art in Marginalized Spaces
Intro by Melissa Slaughter
Interview by Alex Chester
Melissa: A few months ago, I saw a theatrical production that continues to haunt me months later. Trigger, put on by Leviathan Theatrical Productions, is a show that deals with all of my Trump-era fears. Without shame or fear, the play barrels through discussions of race, gender, oppression, white fragility, Islamophobia, passive liberalism, and so much more. It was difficult to, well, not be triggered.
But, it was also invigorating to see so many mixed characters and Hapa women. And especially so, since the writer Sam Chanse is Hapa as well. Post-2016 Presidential election, many activists, artists, women and people of color felt motivated to express themselves through their own mediums. Sam was no different. After seeing such a wonderfully intense show, how could we not want to talk to her. Sam was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.
What inspired you to write Trigger?
A friend and playwright Mia Chung organized a new play “bake-off” at New Dramatists in December 2016—basically you get a set of textual ingredients and have (in this version) a week to write a new play. Like a like of folks, I was in the throes of the immediate post-election nightmare sh*tshow and grappling with a lot of anger, fear, despair. (Not that we’ve since emerged from said nightmare sh*tshow, unfortunately.) At the time I remember there were these calls to reach out and try to understand where the Trump voters were coming from, and I experienced a serious resistance to (and anger toward) those calls. The play came out of that resistance, and that anger, and my interest in investigating it.
When and how did you get into playwriting? Has being a person of mixed-Asian descent impacted your writing? If so, how?
Yeah, being mixed has had a huge impact on my writing. Whether or not I’m writing characters who are multiracial (and I often have/do), it’s an integral part of who I am, and I’m always drawing from that experience and perspective. I don’t think I could break down every specific way in which it’s impacted my work—for me there are so many interconnected aspects and moving parts to being mixed. But on a pretty fundamental level, I grew up struggling to identify myself definitively as any one thing. It was really viscerally uncomfortable—it felt slippery and inauthentic whenever I tried. So I think some of my impulses in writing come from that: wrestling with questions of (in)authenticity, trying to understand and come to terms with an underlying sense of instability and uncertainty, wanting to figure out something that doesn’t have a definitive answer. (Although the play itself is never actually figuring something out – it’s just asking questions and digging into the unfigureoutable [sic] mess.)
Being Asian-American has had an equally, incalculably large impact on my writing, for similar reasons (i.e., [it is an] integral part of who I am, always naturally drawing from that perspective). When I really started writing for theater, though, it was in the context of Asian-American arts communities. I was lucky enough to stumble into a few incredible and dearly cherished arts orgs: Bindlestiff Studio, a Filipino-American theater where with a collective of folks I was writing and performing sketch comedy, plays, and other theater pieces; Kearny Street Workshop, a multidisciplinary Asian-American arts [organization] where I was a program and artistic director for a few years; what was then Locus Arts, an all-volunteer run Asian-Am arts space. Being a member of those communities had an immeasurable impact on my writing—the characters and questions I was (and still am) drawn to, the stories I was telling and continue to tell.
Related to that, but pulling back a bit: when I look at what I write, I’m generally drawn to characters who occupy some kind of marginal space. I’m interested in how stories located in a marginal space wind up centering that marginal space. And I’m interested in how creating new centers from historically marginalized spaces contributes to re-mapping our understanding of who we are.
Re: when and how I got into playwriting: I was always interested in theater and in writing—grew up writing short stories and (wannabe) SNL sketches that my sister and I would act out, performing in school plays, things like that. But, I didn’t really start writing plays until after college, when I moved to San Francisco and started writing and performing with the folks at Bindlestiff, and when I started developing work as a solo performer and as a standup comic. I eventually moved back to New York to focus on playwriting, and I’ve mostly been writing plays (for other people to perform) the last several years.
I hate this question, but I’m always curious when meeting another Hapa what their ethnic background is. So what’s yours?
Hello fellow Hapa.
Ethnically speaking, my dad is Chinese American and my mom is Pennsylvania Dutch.
As a playwright woman of color do you feel a responsibility to create more roles for POC (people of color)? Specially Asian- Americans? What about Hapas? How do mixed-Asians fit into it all?
I do feel strongly that it’s important to create roles for people of color, including for Asian-Americans, and for Hapas and other multiracial people—it’s important to see ourselves reflected back in the art /culture/media we experience and interact with; it’s important to see other underrepresented folks in that same art/culture/media; it’s important on the level of giving opportunities and employment to actors of color. I naturally write characters who are mixed and POC, so my impulse to write these characters probably precedes my sense of responsibility to do so, but it’s definitely something I’m very aware of as both a writer and as a reader/watcher/consumer.
And as a reader/watcher/consumer –we’re still so underrepresented in the stories that get amplified that I still get a gut-level thrill whenever I see a central, complex character who is Hapa or asian am. It’s been getting a little better—in theater, it’s been exciting and gratifying to see more mixed playwrights telling those stories. Leah Nanako Winkler and Susan Soon He Stanton are two incredible Hapa writers who immediately come to mind.
What’s next for Trigger and yourself?
After working with Leviathan on Trigger, I had a workshop production of another play, The Opportunities of Extinction, at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, directed by Ed Iskandar. I’m now in the middle of rehearsals for another production of the same play with Broken Nose Theater, in Chicago (opening in June). And I’m doing a workshop of my play Fruiting Bodies in June, at New Dramatists, with director Shelley Butler. Thanks for asking.
END OF INTERVIEW
Sam Chanse's plays include The Opportunities of Extinction, Trigger,and Fruiting Bodies. She is a resident playwright at New Dramatists, a MacDowell Fellow, and a member of the Ma-Yi Writers' Lab. Her solo play, Lydia’s Funeral Video, is published by Kaya Press. More information at www.samchanse.com.
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.
Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.