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BWW Interview: Jeffrey Lo of WRITING FRAGMENTS HOME at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Believes in the Power of Storytelling as a Tool to Foster Empathy

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Lo's play streams June 5th as a benefit to combat violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community

BWW Interview: Jeffrey Lo of WRITING FRAGMENTS HOME at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Believes in the Power of Storytelling as a Tool to Foster Empathy
Playwright, Director & Casting Director Jeffrey Lo
(photo by Tasi Alabastro)

Jeffrey Lo seems to be just about everywhere these days. As if his day job as TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Director of Community Partnerships / Casting Director weren't enough, he is also enjoying quite a successful career as a director and playwright. With the recent, tragic spike in prejudice and violence toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, Lo decided to take action by calling on his own Filipino American heritage. He is spearheading TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's efforts to stream a benefit reading of his play Writing Fragments Home to raise funds to support and uplift the AAPI community.

The comedic play is an unapologetically Filipino American story about art, family, and culture. The top-flight cast includes stage veteran Emily Kuroda, perhaps best known for playing Mrs. Kim on TV's Gilmore Girls. Co-presented by more than 40 leading theatres and arts organizations in the Bay Area and beyond, the reading will benefit Compassion in Oakland, a nonprofit formed in response to the surge of anti-Asian attacks and dedicated to promoting safety and community in Oakland Chinatown and beyond. Writing Fragments Home will be streamed live at 7pm PDT, Saturday, June 5, 2021 (with streaming on-demand access available June 6 to June 9). For more information, visit TheatreWorks.org.

I spoke with Lo last week about his impetus to write the play, how the benefit reading came together, his thoughts about Asian American representation in the theatre, and his experience working with some of his personal heroes. Lo is very easy to talk to - laid-back, thoughtful and self-effacing with an underlying gentle humor - all qualities which likely serve him well in his roles at TheatreWorks. At the same time, I got the impression he is someone who knows how to step up to the plate and get the job done. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What originally prompted you to write this play?

I started working on this quite a while ago, and it's inspired by my relationship with my mother and also a little bit my relationship to my writing. It's not totally true to say it's an autobiographical piece, it's mostly fictional, but the relationships have sort of hints there. It's the first play I wrote based on Filipino American life. Earlier in my writing career I sort of shied away from that. Not necessarily because I didn't want to write about it, but I think there was a part of me that wanted to make sure that I felt as an artist I was ready to start writing about the community that I'm a part of. I wanted to make sure I could do it right, because it was so important to me that I did it in the way it deserved.

As I grew older, there was a part of me that wasn't sure if, not only was I ready, but did I feel like the theatre community was ready? I didn't see very much, if any, work about Filipino Americans. I did see some Asian-American work, but it's been growing in the past few years. Maybe 7-8 years ago even, it was much, much less. So I think there was a part of me that was hesitant to put something so personal and so important to me out there. And because there's such a limited amount of work about that community out there, if I was fortunate enough to have the work done and it didn't do well, then it was gonna be another however many years before someone does it again, you know?

Writing Fragments Home is being done as a co-presentation with over 40 theater companies and cultural organizations. How did that all come together?

It really was inspired by Aldo Billingslea, a wonderful actor and artist, who organized the Juneteenth Justice Theatre Project last year in a similar format. I was really inspired by that, so I gave him a call and said, "Hey, Aldo, I'm doing this reading to benefit the Asian American and Pacific Islander community due to the horrific rise in race-based hate crimes. How did you go about getting all of those artists and organizations involved?" He sent me the form emails he'd sent to people and it was the standard "Here's the information, here's what we're benefitting, here's why we should do it." And there was a part of me that honestly had a little bit of fear, like "Omigosh, so many people jumped on board because Aldo is so cool. But I'm not Aldo!" [laughs]

But we followed his lead, myself and some members of the TheatreWorks board I'm so appreciative of. We sent it out to theatre organizations, and what I was so thrilled about and so moved by was - yes, Aldo is amazing - but even when it was coming from me, these theatre arts and cultural organizations saw that what we were working towards was something they believed in and wanted to support, they were gonna jump in and do it. Which really was just incredibly moving.

I was excited to see that your cast includes the fabulous Emily Kuroda, whom you also directed in The Language Archive at TheatreWorks a couple of years ago.

Yeah, the legend!

Given that you are still a relatively young director, how do you approach working with a stage veteran like Emily Kuroda or Francis Jue, who was also in The Language Archive? Do you find that at all intimidating? Or do you just put that out of your mind and approach them the same way you would a neophyte actor?

[laughs] A little bit of both. Before I ever had the chance to direct a play after university, I was assistant directing a lot of shows and I was able to make sure I was ready. But you know you talk about Emily and Francis - I'll share a funny story that Francis might deny, but that I promise is true.

The Language Archive was a play I had been wanting to direct for about 8 years. I had been pitching it to different theatre companies and wasn't getting any bites, so this was finally the opportunity, right? I was just so excited to do it, and it was the biggest budget I'd had for a show. Before that I had done The Santaland Diaries at TheatreWorks on a smaller budget, and it wasn't a mainstage show. So this was my first mainstage show at TheatreWorks after working there for, at that time, 9 years. So there was that small bit of pressure in the back of mind, and then like 90 seconds before we were supposed to start the first rehearsal, I walked in and saw that these legends I had looked up to for so long, Emily Kuroda and Francis Jue, somehow, some way had agreed to be in my show. And I'm sitting there, and immediately I forgot how to direct a play. [laughs]

So I'm sitting at the table with all of these amazing artists, and what comes out of my mouth is [haltingly] "Uh, hey everyone, so uh ... should we read the script?" [laughs] And Francis being the most kind, giving person and also someone who has taken so many artists, especially Asian American artists, under his wing, I think he saw what was happening to me. And he just goes, "Hey, Jeffrey, before we start reading the script, would you be able to, um, just talk a little bit about why you love this script and why you wanted to do it?" And immediately, I looked at him and I go [to myself], "That's right. That's how we start a play." I calmed down and said [to myself], "I do know how to do this. I know how to direct a play." It was all because of the generosity of Francis in that moment that I was able to settle myself back down and get ourselves on the way to producing a show I was really proud of.

I also wanted to touch on your work as a casting director for TheatreWorks. It seems to me that role gives you a certain amount of power since in some ways you're a gatekeeper for who even gets seen for a part. Does it feel that way to you?

Um, yes and no. I mean, I understand that perspective, but I try to approach casting in the opposite way. I consider myself an advocate for artists and communities when I'm a casting director. I have conversations with the directors and others in the artistic teams, and I always try to advocate in a couple of ways. The main one is making sure I bring up "What are the ideas that might not be the typical ideas?" What are the ideas that haven't been put onstage in front of us for years and years and years, in terms of who gets to tell a story, what sorts of identities, be it racial, gender identity, physical ability, any number of types of identity that we hold as beautiful individuals. The word that I have sort of adopted that many people use is "identity-conscious" casting, which is to think "What does it mean to have a person of this identity telling this story, or being this character?" And to be mindful of what that means, and to hold that as a possibility.

And the other way I consider myself an advocate is you know I'm rooting for every actor. Especially in the Bay Area, our local community, I'm rooting for all of them. Every year I go to the Theatre Bay Area general auditions and I get to watch actors grow. And when I have directors that maybe are not from the Bay Area, I get to be so excited for them to meet X, Y and Z person who are going to read for a role and give it their own personal flavor, and I'm excited for one of them to work out.

So I totally understand by nature of what the role is, it is a gatekeeper. I'm not going to deny that, but for me I try to approach it as an advocate.

I'm a longtime fan of Broadway musicals, but when I go to New York to see new shows, I have to say the one demographic that still seems grossly underrepresented is actors of Asian descent, and in fact a recent study totally bore that out. But when I attend a show, say, at TheatreWorks and see one or more Asian actors in leading roles, it just seems like standard practice. Do you have any ideas on how we could fix that sort of disconnect between what's going on in some of our regional theaters and what's going on in the big commercial theaters?

I don't know the exact way that the Broadway machine works, if I'm being honest, but I do think that it's really on directors and casting directors to challenge themselves to think differently than they have been. I think these patterns come up because, you know, there's an ingenue and we all have this image of what an ingenue is. And it's like why don't we break that, why don't we challenge ourselves to think otherwise? Or what is an antagonist? Why does an antagonist have to look or sound or feel a certain way?

I understand it's a very broad answer I'm giving you, but I think it's a matter of the first step being all of the artists and producers and everyone who's involved in making those decisions on Broadway challenging themselves. And we need to challenge ourselves because there are a lot of people that are tired of not seeing the world onstage properly reflecting the world we live in offstage.

At the same time, I've been amazed by the career path of someone like Francis Jue, an Asian American actor whose career has really blossomed the older he's gotten. Like Last year he was nominated for two Drama Desk awards.

Yeah, for Soft Power and Cambodian Rock Band.

Exactly. So maybe it's individual to him, but I've wondered how is it that as he's matured and reached an age where so many actors struggle to find work at all, he's actually been working more than ever. What do you think that's about?

I have a theory, and Soft Power doesn't totally hold true for this, but as I said in the past few years we've been fortunate that there's been just this amazing crop of emerging and now mid-career Asian American Playwrights following the paths of David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston and a myriad of others. And a lot of the work we are doing involves us trying to understand the experience of our elders, and our parents. There are so many works, you know Vietgone, King of the Yees that Francis was in, The Great Leap, just a lot of stories that are inspired by, based on, or exploring the lives of the playwrights' parents, or those that came before their parents. And I think this is coming right in line with Francis being of age to play Lauren Yee's dad, you know? So that's sort of my theory. [laughs]

Ever since the murder of George Floyd, our country has been engaged in this sort of long-overdue racial reckoning. It has seemed to me, though, that when we talk about race in this country, we tend to concentrate on white folks and Black folks, and sometimes Latinx folks. But the Asian community has often been left out of those conversations. Has it felt that way to you?

Yes and no. I have been listening to the conversations on racial justice and, in the work that I do, hope we will find more space to uplift the issues that are hurting the Asian American community right now, especially when I consider the hate crimes that have been [increasing] against the Asian American community in the past 14 or 16 months.

And also I think that all communities, you know communities of color and also white communities - I hope we're able to still also uplift and support. For me, it's really about us trying to not think about the amount of work we're putting towards racial justice on a scarcity model. It's not like "Oh, we need to take away the attention of the work we're doing in the Black community to talk to the Asian community." But I hope that we can also include, you know, the indigenous community, the Latinx community, the Middle Eastern community. I hope that we're able to put in effort in the plights of all communities. I don't know if that answered your question at all?

Yeah, it did. And I'll admit I struggled with the wording of my question, because I didn't want to imply we have to play one group off another. It's more that I have Japanese American friends, and only recently learned that their parents were interned during World War II. I feel like they grew up with a mindset of "Well, that was just a strange thing that happened to Mom and Dad. We didn't talk about it much." You know, no big deal. And that seems to me like a really big deal!

Yeah. I think it's unfortunately for whatever reason just so easy for the Asian American community to be sort of seen as like this perpetual foreigner. So it's like "Oh, we need to deal with race in America." And it's easy if there's a group that can be seen as foreign to not include them in that discussion.

And also to the point you're making about your friends, I think that for a lot of Asian Americans, especially those who are immigrants or not too many generations removed, there's just sort of like [a mentality of] "Keep your head down, things are gonna be hard, let's just do the work we have to do." And there are things about that that are helpful and there are also things that aren't so much. Sometimes you do need to speak up about issues that you're going through.

I'd like to circle back to your own career. You seem to have fingers in so many pies right now that there are so many different paths your career trajectory could take. Since nobody really knows where they're going to be in 5 or 10 years, how would you just generally describe who you are as a theater artist?

Hmm... similar to what I was saying as a casting director, I just hope that as an artist I'm able to be an advocate and a champion for marginalized communities, and communities whose stories deserve to be told. I truly, truly believe in the power of representation, the power of storytelling as our greatest tool toward empathy. If I'm fortunate to keep doing this 5, 10, 15 years, I hope I can continue to be that advocate for my own community, and communities that aren't mine.

You know, my mom used to joke with me that I was either super, super busy doing a lot of projects, or I was doing nothing. I was like sleeping in, playing video games and doing nothing productive. It was never anything in between. The switch was either on or off for me. I think that there could have been a path in my life that could have been quite aimless. And I think that getting to learn the power of theater and representation and storytelling put me on a path where I was motivated in life. I'm now living my life with that "on switch" on, cause I'm always so busy and working so hard. So in a lot of ways I do see that theatre saved me. For me as a Filipino American artist, I think the story of theatre or storytelling saving me is one that isn't as common as I want it to be, and I hope that as I continue to work that I can make that story for people in other communities more common.


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