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Interview: Carolene Joy Cabrera King Shows TOO MUCH SKIN in SheLA Summer Theatre Festival

Carolene Joy Cabrera King’s TOO MUCH SKIN will debut as part of SheLA’s annual Summer Theatre Festival July 15th

Interview: Carolene Joy Cabrera King Shows TOO MUCH SKIN in SheLA Summer Theatre Festival

Playwright Carolene Joy Cabrera King's TOO MUCH SKIN will debut as part of SheLA's annual Summer Theatre Festival July 15, 2022, at the Zephyr Theater. Carolene depicts the story of Filipino siblings navigating assimilation and battling stereotypes via the world of cosplay and videos. Carolene took some time from her rehearsals to answer a few of my SKIN queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Carolene!

Tell us the genesis of too much skin?

San Diego is home to Comic-Con, and my dad was a comic lover who did his graduate work in business on creating a plan for opening a comic book shop. Walking around Comic-Con, even if I don't make it inside the actual Convention Center, has always been quite the experience. One day, after seeing a photo of my sister's friend cosplaying, I began wondering what it would be like to live with a cosplayer. What would it be like to be friends with a cosplayer? Family? From those questions, the Darna and Christian relationship was born.

too much skin has a few other characters who engage with Darna and Christian. Bringing the Jun character in was inspired by a series of comments I heard from Asian women that they "don't date Asians." This became central to Darna's evolution and storyline, and there needed to be a Filipino man who was not her family, who witnessed, and was affected by this part of her. Stereotypical film and television representation of Asian men throughout my lifetime has been incredibly harmful. I wanted a dynamic character who wasn't a stereotype, but a human -- flawed but doing his best. I also really wanted Jun to shatter that nerdy/weak Asian man trope that is so tired and false. (I mean, have you SEEN Simu Liu in Shang-Chi? And he's just one guy! There is SUCH a wide and beautiful spectrum of bodies that we can fall in love with.)

In terms of the Bill and Phil characters, I went on a string of not great Tinder dates in 2014. I journaled about each of those dates, processing through the ways that men chose to message me, and the ways they chose to treat me when we met in person. These choices were largely influenced by the way I look in the photo that they see on Tinder -- my identity as an Asian woman. I lived with my best friend during that time and so I'd relay what happened to her and she'd help me process and sometimes we'd laugh.

When I began writing too much skin and reflected on how I processed those dates, how I dealt with the boxes that men would put me in, I grew increasingly critical of how often I was so dismissive of the poor treatment I was given. How could I just laugh it off? Why didn't I stand up for myself? Why wasn't I more explicit with men when they were being a bit racist? What happened to the next girl?

This string of questions became less abstract and much more grounded in the real world as I processed the news of the Atlanta shootings where a white man chose to target Asian spas, killing six Asians and two white people, saying that the Asian women were "a temptation [he] wanted to eliminate". As I have continued growing in my critical consciousness, especially since 2020, I owe much of my learning to the work of Black Feminists like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and bell hooks. I have grown critical not just of missteps and mistakes in language and the ways we communicate about race, but exceedingly disturbed by when we choose not to speak, and the consequences of our cowardice in confronting mindsets that lead to tragedies like Atlanta. I have been getting clearer and clearer that white supremacy does not only live in white bodies, and that a culture of white supremacy harms all of us. It is time to do the work of dismantling it, and that begins with all of us turning inwards.

When did you start writing too much skin?

Interview: Carolene Joy Cabrera King Shows TOO MUCH SKIN in SheLA Summer Theatre Festival I believe I had a first, very rough draft in 2018. I had the skeletons of all the characters, but they definitely weren't fleshed out. I had a group of friends over at my home for a reading, and I used that reading to really ask a lot of questions about the characters. I was never on a strict timeline with too much skin, which felt like I could really let the story emerge organically. I added a lot of scenes between that first draft and the script that is being performed with SheLA. Something funny that the director Yari Cervas had to urge me to change was my weird scene numbering -- I was continuously adding more scenes in during my process but was frustrated at re-numbering constantly, so I had scene 2.5, 3.5 etc. in the draft she began working with! I've made that change to the script now -- it is now correctly numbered!

In all your press materials, your play title is all in lower case. What is the thinking behind not capitalizing your title?

This is actually another change that came out of this process. Originally, I did not capitalize the title of the piece (or my name on the manuscript) because I was inspired by bell hooks's decision to keep her own name lowercased in hopes of focusing the reader in on the work at hand. There is so much beyond the title of this piece for me. Additionally, there was something about all of these characters, despite any performative behaviors that they did for other people, feeling a sense of smallness, feeling a sense of not being good enough. However, a little bit into the back and forth with Yari about characters, and after listening to the reading with the actors, I realized that the central characters are truly grappling with those feelings of smallness, breaking out of them so that they can be BIG, so that they can be whole, so they can live into their fullness. I began writing the title in all capital letters following that discovery. For all future productions, the title will live entirely capitalized.

What would your three-line pitch of too much skin be?

A brother and sister navigate what it is to be second generation Filipino-Americans in the United States. Through terrible dates and a season of unemployment, Darna, Christian, and their friend Jun have experiences that force them to think about their identities and their place in the world. Weaving between the "real" world, and worlds of make believe in cosplay and video games, TOO MUCH SKIN invites everyone to ask what it would take to shed societal expectations and instead step into who it is you really want to be.

If you were to submit your three characters onto a dating website, what qualities would you list?

Darna: confident, responsible, compassionate

Jun: fit, muscular, a good listener, a creative romantic date planner

Christian: knows what he wants, doesn't do anything that doesn't bring him joy and excitement

What flaws would you definitely omit?

Darna: overly confident that she can use her looks as a way to control men, a bit racist against her own people

Jun: a mama's boy who is scared of standing up for himself, has a bit of a savior complex

Christian: living on his sister's couch, is unbothered living in trash as long as none of his friends sees

Interview: Carolene Joy Cabrera King Shows TOO MUCH SKIN in SheLA Summer Theatre Festival Any of your three characters' experiences based on your own growing up? Were you called racial slurs? Did you excel in cosplay and video games?

There's a piece of me that lives in each of the characters -- including the characters Bill and Phil. I was not called racial slurs, at least not when I was growing up (it's been a different experience being Asian since COVID-19). I know people who were called slurs in my childhood, but that was not my personal experience. I think that the way our conversations about race in the United States are often framed in a Black/White or BIPOC/White folx binary doesn't allow for some of the more nuanced and complex conversations about things like assimilation, and the model minority myth. Particularly for me as a Filipina-American, I grew up not wealthy, but certainly not uncomfortable. It could be very easy to fall into illusion that life is "good enough." I know that in the past, I have fallen into the trap of believing that I should just be grateful for what I have and not ask for too much. I think this "comfortable" and "good enough" place is where a lot of Asians (not all!) get stuck, and a place where many Asians can willingly turn away from issues that demand our attention, like the Black Lives Matter movement. A huge theme of TOO MUCH SKIN is that safe is NOT free. Comfortable is NOT free. I am very inspired by the life and work of Yuri Kochiyama, who was close friends with Malcolm X. Yuri held Malcolm in his dying moment. She too, lived with an illusion that she should just be grateful -- even after her entire family was sent to and returned from Japanese internment camps. Yes, we can be grateful for what it is that we have but we ALSO can want more for ourselves, and we can realize that all our liberation is intertwined with one another's, that all our struggles for social justice are not "those people's" struggles but that all of the struggles are OUR struggles.

I am not a cosplayer myself but have been lucky enough to have had talented cosplayers as students of mine when I taught high school! I am DEFINITELY not a gamer, but I find entertainment value in listening to my husband and our friends' game. It's definitely a whole world! I have a lot of opinions about the complexities of video game land -- I think the ways that people speak to one another online can be incredibly toxic. I'm now asking questions like: Since we do have the internet and we do have online gaming now, how do we shift the culture so we can use these technologies to build instead of destroy? To connect instead of to isolate?

Interview: Carolene Joy Cabrera King Shows TOO MUCH SKIN in SheLA Summer Theatre Festival When does your script become set in stone? Post first readings? During dress rehearsals? After opening night curtain calls?

I'd met with the director Yari a few times before we moved into auditions for this production. I was grateful that through the years they would read drafts and give me food for thought as I wrote. We entered this production with a script that was not in an active revision process. We communicate when things come up, and some small language changes have been made but overall, I felt really good about where this piece was when we began this process. I had done a few online workshops and readings of the piece in August and October of last year. Both Yari Cervas, our director, and Mason Conrad, who is playing Phil, participated in those readings. I don't know that this script will ever be "set in stone." I'll always be open to learning more that might influence changes.

How hands on are you with this SheL.A.Arts production?

I was hands on with building the team and very hands off once rehearsal began. I called Yari when I heard the news that the piece was selected, and from there Yari connected me to Luz Twiggs, who wrote another one of the plays in the festival, Electra, who I've been in close collaboration with. I reached out and found our producer, the wonderful and beyond gifted Leah Vicencio. I read through many LinkedIn pages and websites to eventually find our stage manager, the brilliant Trixie Hong. Yari and I worked closely to cast the piece. I had asked Mason Conrad to play Phil and I asked PJ Cimacio to join the team as Christian very early on in the process. Mason had read for Phil multiple times over the years, and PJ had read for Christian in one of the earliest drafts. Since those readings, both of them had relocated to L.A. so it was exciting when they both agreed to be involved in the premiere. I have a deep, full-body trust in Yari as a director. Yari directed my play colored at the OB Playhouse in San Diego a few years ago, and I had chills watching the production in ways that I'd never experienced with my own writing before. I was very, very excited to hand this off to Yari Cervas and to let go once the rehearsal process began.

You're organizing a GoFundMe for your book Unassimilating. Which mode of writing do you prefer: script or prose?

Throughout my life, I've primarily been a playwright. My family tells stories about me organizing my cousins during family parties to put on plays for everyone. However, in the last three years in particular, I've realized that writing is writing is writing. It's a form of communication, and it's a practice that I love. There are some things that live in beautiful ways on stage and some intimacies that can only be experienced in the silent exchange between reader and author on a page. Unassimilating is a series of essays I wrote during a time of drastic change in my life: before, during, and after my pregnancy with my first child. It captures the things that I was thinking about as a mother, as a pinay, as a woman, as someone who wants to build a better world for myself and for my family. TOO MUCH SKIN has similar topics and similar thematic building blocks, but TOO MUCH SKIN has more space for play, for laughter, for humor. I love all types of writing--they're different flavors of a wonderful practice: communicating with one another.

You hold a theatre degree with an emphasis in directing and a literature/writing degree with an emphasis in poetry and playwriting from UC San Diego. Are you planning any future projects to exercise your directing chops?

I won't say that I'm done directing forever. However, at this moment in time, with a one-year-young baby, my focus has been primarily on figuring out ways I can still practice my art AND be here for my child. I've really dropped into writing in the last couple years, especially after I learned I was pregnant. I can write on my own time, whether it's poetry or a play or a book -- I can write when my whole house is asleep, by candlelight in the closet, or I can wake up early and bring my laptop into the yard and write as the sun comes up. There are no limitations with when I can write, and it allows for me to mother in the ways I want to mother too. Never say never though -- I love directing and I'm constantly inspired by watching pieces of theatre, and especially inspired by the energy with which Yari directs!

Interview: Carolene Joy Cabrera King Shows TOO MUCH SKIN in SheLA Summer Theatre Festival What else is in the near future for Carolene Joy Cabrera King?

I'm working with our producer Leah Vicencio on finding a next home for TOO MUCH SKIN. I'm really excited to see where this play goes from here. Unassimilating will come out at the end of this year or beginning of next year. I'm growing a lot in the editing process. Some intentions I'm setting for this next chapter of my life are spaciousness to write and create AND care for my child and our family in ways that feel good and aligned. I'm also calling in some screenwriting experience. It is my big dream to write for a sitcom. I often think about how Kim's Convenience by Ins Choi was a play that premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival before it ever became a show in Netflix. I've been letting myself dream about that kind of life for TOO MUCH SKIN. Just yesterday, my sister and I were talking about our dating experiences and how our identities as Asian have informed so many of those interactions. Bill and Phil are just the surface of some of those mindsets that exist in the dating world. In a sitcom version of TOO MUCH SKIN, I think that there would be more room for further development for characters like Bill and Phil too. I do think that it is possible for us to shift some of these dehumanizing mindsets that exist. I was watching a rehearsal video yesterday that the team sent to sound design, and I was feeling really good about the fact that it is Bill and Phil AND Christian who are fighting against white supremacy in the gaming scenes -- all together. I think that we need to learn the nuances of what it is to be allies and to really stand together in solidarity.

Thank you again, Carolene? I look forward to experiencing TOO MUCH SKIN.

For tickets to the live performances of TOO MUCH SKIN July 15th or July 16th; click on the button below:

From This Author - Gil Kaan

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