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BWW Interview: Playwright Yilong Liu On Writing Thru The Pandemic With A GOOD ENEMY

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Ojai Playwrights Conference will be presenting online workshop performances of eight New Works Festival plays beginning August 5

BWW Interview: Playwright Yilong Liu On Writing Thru The Pandemic With A GOOD ENEMY

Ojai Playwrights Conference will be presenting online workshop performances of eight New Works Festival plays beginning August 5, 2021. Had the chance to chat with Yilong Liu, one of the 14 playwrights participating in OPC's New Works Festival and Foundry Project for OPC's 2021 Season.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Yilong!

How did you first hear of Ojai Playwright Conference?

I heard about Ojai Playwrights Conference pretty soon after I moved to New York from Hawai'i after grad school. I was just starting to look for places to share my work. So many of my playwright friends, mentors, and heroes have developed plays with Ojai. I read about the conference on their social media and in their bios all the time! It was almost impossible not to know about it.

Has your experience with OPC New Works Festival been an eye-opener in receiving continuous feedback of your script (even via Zoom,) when you're much used to writing by yourself?


It has definitely been a healing experience. The process started in late April, when all festival playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs came together with the OPC new work community to read the plays and give feedback. That was actually the first time I heard GOOD ENEMY read in its entirety. It was also the first time since the quarantine that I shared virtual space with so many theatre artists all at once. Writing can be a lonely process sometimes, so it's nice to surround ourselves with community when we are rewriting.

What was the impetus of GOOD ENEMY?

I wrote GOOD ENEMY during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Like so many people in my community, I have been feeling like an enemy, when anti-Asian hate was rising across the country. It was also a time when we were eager to connect with families, but had to confront our political differences. Writing this play in many ways helped me understand my parents' generations and vice versa.

What is your three-line pitch for GOOD ENEMY?

I have a three-line synopsis: Determined to reconnect with his daughter, Howard embarks on a cross-country road trip that forces him to confront his past as a young cop in China during the 1980s, a period of rapid change in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. As he struggles to navigate new challenges brought about by economic reforms and the explosion of western music, literature, and lifestyle that followed; Howard finds himself caught up in an undercover mission that will change the trajectory of his life and set him forever adrift from the world he called home.

If your friends and family attended GOOD ENEMY, would anyone recognize themselves in one of your characters?

They probably will recognize pieces of me in there.

How did you and your director Chay Yew come to collaborate on GOOD ENEMY?

I have been a fan of Chay's work. CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND was the last show I saw before theatre shut down last year, and Chay was the first theatre artist I reconnected with in person after the quarantine. A lot of the things in our conversation deeply resonated with me and the themes in GOOD ENEMY, so when Ojai offered the opportunity to develop the play, I reached out to Chay. It has been an electrifying journey working with him and this team of extraordinary artists he brought together to work on the play.

Any feedback from the Seven Devils Playwright Conference's reading of GOOD ENEMY last month resonate with you enough to tweak your script?

We did a good amount of table work at Seven Devils! One particular note that Chay and our dramaturg Tanya Palmer revisited with me at Ojai was about character motivation. I wrote GOOD ENEMY during the quarantine, so the pandemic was always at the back of my mind, and it was becoming obvious that it has also affected my characters' choices in the play, so part of my goal for Ojai has been to figure out how does the time we are in right now come into play for this story.

When does your scripts become set in stone? After dress rehearsal? Post premiere performance?

Usually, I like to keep rewriting until the last preview. We never really know how long it might take for the first production to happen after we've finished the draft. So, by the time the play goes into rehearsals, we are likely different writers. It feels natural to want to reflect our change and growth in the play.

How involved are you in your script's pre-production for its premiere?

I always want to be involved as much as possible. I consider many of the pre-production conversations such as key art, blurb, design concepts, casting, and etc. all part of the development process for a new play. There are creative choices being made for the play, literally for the first time, even in the marketing material and the language we choose to talk about the play. I think being involved not only helps me shape the script, but also contributes to a more open collaboration.

Do you like to attend your premiere's opening nights?

Yes, I do. Opening nights have this magic. Sometimes they feel like first dates. Sometimes they feel like graduations. No matter how many times I've heard the play, I still get nervous and excited, and I still discover something new. A few years ago, the New York production of JUNE is THE FIRST FALL actually happened to open on my birthday, and it was one of the most special nights.

How did you keep creative and sane during these pandemic months? Working on PrEP PLAY...?

I hosted a silent writing Zoom with a few other playwrights every Tuesday morning, and the most comforting thing was actually watching them procrastinating and struggling to find the focus to write just like me. Sometimes all we did was just holding coffee mugs, yawning, and staring blankly back at our laptop screens. It was important to be reminded that it's okay not to be productive sometimes. Not writing is part of the creative process, especially in the pandemic.

Have you mastered the new normal of Zoom?

I actually have been enjoying developing plays on Zoom. I like not having to worry about travel, where to get a bite in between rehearsals, printing deadlines, and all that logistic stuff. I've also found surprising comfort working this way. It somehow feels familiar and intimate. I think it's because this has been the normal for me before it became the new normal. My family lives in a different country, so maintaining significant relationships online and having uncomfortable conversations through a screen are things I had to learn how to do from a young age. I think there's also something about being in my own space that makes me feel safe. I have been attending rehearsals from my own bedroom. I feel comfortable with sharing things that might have taken me longer to open up about if we were in an actual rehearsal space. It's probably easier to be honest and vulnerable in our own homes.

Do you plan on utilizing Zoom post-pandemic?

Yes, absolutely. I think early development, table work, and dramaturgical conversations can still happen on Zoom. We can still "grab coffee" and connect with out-of-town collaborators virtually instead of waiting for them to be in town. I hope we won't be too quick to dismiss the power of Zoom to bring people together.

You're fluent in both Mandarin and English. Which language was easier to write in when you wrote FLOOD in the VALLEY - A BILINGUAL FOLK MUSICAL in 2018?

The musical weaves two stories together that are thematically and musically talking to each other. We had two creative teams. I was actually writing the story set in America, so I wrote the book and lyrics in English. I did put my bilingual theatre skills to use dramaturgically, which felt quite exhilarating and refreshing.

Out of all your numerous awards and commissions, is there one that still stands out to you to this day?

I got very emotional when THE BOOK of MOUNTAINS and SEAS received the LAMBDA Literary Award for Drama. The evening they announced the award, I was brought back to my middle school days in China, to the countless nights where I hid under my bed cover and read all the queer literature I could find, with a flashlight in my hand. Most of those stories were only posted online, in chatrooms, written under pseudonyms; still, I devoured them. They gave me so much joy, hope, and light; and part of me always knew that I wanted to be a writer too. It is such an incredible feeling knowing that my plays are possibly doing the very same thing, passing on that hope and light, to those who are reading and watching them too. I feel very lucky, not only for the award, but also for the fact that I am writing. I feel lucky to write every day. I feel lucky to be doing the thing I wanted to do when I was younger.

Your scripts have been produced all over the world. Do you write certain specific details to be performed in certain countries? Or would you say your work is universally understood?

I don't think I would want to add specific details just for a production in a different country. I want to trust the audience. The universality is in the specificities, which should already be in the original play. If there are things they don't quite understand culturally, then maybe the play can inspire them to research and learn more from there.

What's in the near future for Yilong Liu?

PrEP PLAY, or BLUE PARACHUTE is kicking off its rolling premieres with a production in New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco next spring. I am also in the new cohort of Core Writers at Playwrights' Center so hopefully will get to work on something new there soon.

Thank you again, Yilong! I look forward to seeing your GOOD ENEMY.

For viewing passes for GOOD ENEMY August 6, 2021; or for any or all of the seven other New Works Festival plays through August 15, 2012; log onto www.ojaiplays.org. Each play will be streamed twice on their respective day.


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