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An Interview With Christopher Chen

Edited by Katie Craddock January 23, 2023

One January evening, beloved San Franciscan playwrights Lauren Yee and Christopher Chen met over Zoom. Chris was at home in the Outer Sunset (a setting of The Headlands), where a massive windstorm raged outside; Lauren was in New York City, where it was quite late and her young children were ostensibly asleep. While their imaginations and sensibilities are wonderfully distinct, both Chris’s and Lauren’s works are marked by their San Francisco upbringings. We at A.C.T. are superfans of both; we are proud to have produced Lauren’s The Great Leap and Chris’s Communion, and were thrilled when they agreed to have a conversation for this program, musing on Chris’s creative inspirations, evolving relationships with home, and the moody mystery of our city.

Lauren Yee: Chris, where are you right now?

Christopher Chen: I’m in San Francisco right now, in the Outer Sunset District, which is also which also happens to be the setting of The Headlands. So I’m living inside the play right now.

LY: What is it like outside? The weather reports are making national news.

CC: The winds are huge. A while ago, the wind was pretty scary.

LY: San Francisco weather makes me think about noir. There’s a certain feel to San Francisco—the air and the weather feel different than other places.

CC: There really is. Obviously, there’s the fog. And the hills—you can see the fog banks from the hills, or the hills can hide things, just like the fog does. All the little neighborhoods have their own little mysteries going on inside. San Francisco is such a noirish city, especially the Sunset District, with all its kind-of-but-not-really-uniform, suburban-like Eisenhower 1950s houses side by side. It’s a bit mysterious, a bit desolate. Everything in the Sunset District is a little weather-beaten. Even surfers say that Ocean Beach is more rugged and wild than any other surfing beach around. It's beautiful here, but there’s something wild and feral just under the surface.

LY: Yeah. All the microclimates, too—I grew up in the Richmond District and would put on a jacket in the morning, and then head into the heart of town and it’d be 10 degrees warmer. Do you hear the foghorn in the Sunset?

CC: No.

LY: Back home in the Richmond, visiting, I was keenly aware of the foghorn after my husband pointed it out. I never noticed it growing up, but after he said that, I would hear it every five seconds.

CC: Hmm. I’m going to listen for it. Sometimes ambient noises are so engrained in the soundscape of where you live that you don’t notice them anymore. But where I live, I can hear peacocks from the Zoo.

LY: Why do you think San Francisco in the first half of the twentieth century is so deeply connected with noir? Is it the fog, the weather?

CC: The fog, and it’s a port city—it just has so much atmosphere. A lot of San Francisco noir has to do with boats coming in. And the bridge—you know, someone jumping into the water right near the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s this town of lost dreamers, in a way. The Gold Rush, then hippies, then Silicon Valley—dreamers trying to make a fortune. There’s a melancholy searching and New Age movements. I feel so much more at home in San Francisco than in any other city. All the beauty and melancholy coexisting. Walking through Golden Gate Park, it’s very wild, compared to manicured English gardens.

LY: There is a certain wildness, and so much of the identity of being an American, for better or worse. That idea of “go West,” you know, which is problematic in its own way. But people went west, and the journey stops in California; San Francisco is the end. You can't go any further west on this continent. You've reached the end that road, of that dream. Of course, The Headlands is a San Francisco play—but what was the germ of the idea? What did you intend to write when you started?

CC: I set out to write the ultimate Chris Chen play: something that encompasses my personal obsessions and passions and loves. It was commissioned by LCT3 [Lincoln Center Theater’s new play wing], and at the time it was the biggest commission I had received. I treat my plays—or at least I did back then—as potentially the last play I’ll ever get produced, so I’ve got to go for broke. I started adding ingredients: I made a San Francisco story; I made a San Francisco mystery, which I love; I’m a big film fan and I love the San Francisco mystery as a subgenre of mystery thrillers, and then I just kept adding ingredients. Vertigo is the main San Francisco mystery film I took as inspiration. I threw Kazuo Ishiguro into the mix—his sensibility and use of genre and unreliable narrators. And then I’m a huge fan of using multimedia in fun ways in theater. It's sometimes given a bad name, if you’re using it just for the sake of using it. But I think, when used correctly and innovatively, it's thrilling. One of my biggest successes in San Francisco, The Hundred Flowers Project at Crowded Fire Theater, used multimedia. The film noir fit neatly with the multimedia design. That’s how it all came together, kind of piecemeal.

LY: The video projections are pretty comprehensively laid-out in the script. You built a kind of sandbox with space for your collaborators to play with the exact images. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CC: I came to theater initially because I wanted to be a director. I have these directorial fantasies present on the page, but with the understanding that an innovative, visionary director is going to take what’s on the page and lift it up—and really make it their own. I wanted to include as much detail as possible, with the understanding that director will take what they want and leave what they don’t. Each stage direction points to the minute level of detail I’m looking for from the director and designer. I’ll include images like the details of a Sunset District house, or a person’s eye, or a piano playing again and again. The director can do whatever they want with it; I just want it to feel really immersive—almost like a movie that's being created before our eyes. The magic of theater is that you can have different projection surfaces, and it's very interesting to be able to have multiple videos playing simultaneously. You can use film in three-dimensional space, which is what videography and projection work in theater has over regular movies.

LY: Have you ever directed your own work?

Chris Chen: I directed my earliest plays—I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I also played cello accompanying it. I directed short plays at UC Berkeley for this Asian American company called Theatre Rice. It was primarily known as a sketch comedy group, but I directed these dark existential plays that the poor audience had to sit through before they got to see the comedies.

LY: Do you think you would ever direct your work again?

CC: Maybe in a very low-stakes setting. I would like to co-direct. I’ve been blessed to work with really great directors—I’m in awe with what people do with my plays.

LY: You used to be an actor, too, right?

CC: I took acting classes and dabbled a little bit in the community. I played Horatio at Impact Theater. I also had this tiny role in a Shotgun play, Love is a Dream House in Lorin, by Marcus Gardley. I was not good.

LY: How do you write? Do you rewrite a lot? Do you like working through things with actors?

CC: I like to have deadlines. When I’m focusing on a certain play, I’ll walk or meditate on it, letting my mind wander, but with my phone near me to take notes. Oftentimes my best notes come when I’m just about to fall asleep, or waking up in the middle of the night. And then, of course, as the deadline approaches, I frantically just write for a week. What about you?

LY: There will be some times when an idea comes and I'm out and about in the world, and I’m so compelled that I need to write it down in a notebook (or my phone nowadays). That happens very rarely, like once a year. I start workshopping earlier than most writers do. I love hearing it being read by actors—workshopping it and generating pages that way. My brain wakes up in a way that's harder to achieve when you're by yourself, and you're looking at the script, and you've seen it a million times. Just somebody saying, “Oh, it could be this…” or you think you've written a great scene, and even if the actors are very nice when they read it, it's not the reaction you want. You realize, “Oh, this doesn't work.” They can't lie to you.

CC: So you might write individual scenes and have actors read it?

LY: Yeah—with a commission, I’ll tell a theater that part of my process is workshopping very early, and they will bring in actors to read a clump of scenes, or a certain number of pages. I find it very motivating when you have actor. I’m like, "Oh, I have actors here tonight. I should go write something for them."

CC: It makes it real.

LY: Getting back to the city for a minute—you’ve stayed in the Bay Area your whole life. Has your relationship with the city changed over time?

CC: In some ways, it’s stayed the same, because I've always lived in places I’m very familiar with. For example, the Sunset District where I live has really withstood changes—apart from a few, for my money, welcome coffee shop additions. There is some melancholy of things changing. For example, I grew up in the Noe Valley, and 24th Street, this stretch from Dolores to Douglas, used to be this really funky little street with used record stores and multiple use bookstores. Even jewelry stores run right out of people's garages. There was a magic shop, and a video store. I’d get 5 movies a week there as a teenager. All of that is all gone now. There’s a melancholy, but it's the same kind of melancholy with just growing up, with aging, period. I don't even buy CDs anymore. San Francisco is so in my blood that we are both kind of like aging together and experiencing the same kinds of changing, and the wisdom and melancholy that comes with that.

LY: We both went to Lowell for high school. And we met because—

CC: —because you reached out to me as a young theater entrepreneur. You organized a young playwrights conference or—

LY: —festival. Yeah, I was in undergrad and ran it long distance. When you were at Lowell, like which crowd did you run with? Were you with the theater kids?

CC: I was not. I had a group of friends that bonded by playing Magic the Gathering and basketball every day. We also played cards at lunch. My closest friends were from orchestra, though. We had a little string quartet.

LY: I did the newspaper. I didn’t do so much of theater, either. I never, never wanted to be an actor. Never in the school play.

CC: How did you stumble into theater, then?

LY: In high school, I found an email in my father's inbox from Asian American Theater Company. I was like, "I could write a play," and they chose my play to do as one of the one of their readings of short plays about Lunar New Year. And it was like my first experience being in a new play setting, where I was like, "People who are here wrote these plays! That's fascinating." Your experience at school is very different where you're doing The Crucible, or you're doing A Midsummer Night's Dream—classics you’re interacting with but not creating yourselves. I was like, "I'm gonna make my own theater company." My earliest experiences in theater were as a producer because I was producing theater in order to write theater. I corralled a lot of Lowell kids, and some kids from Wash [George Washington High School] joined eventually. It was called Youth for Asian Theater, and it ran for 10 years. When you have to be the one to do it, it gives you a lot of sympathy for producers, and what they have to do, and the marketing, and how we want to run the house—you realize that yes, you write it, but somebody has to make it. You have a sense of empathy for how hard everyone's jobs are.

CC: Your plays are very generous to all of the people involved—they all have a spunky inventiveness about them; that core could come a do-it-yourself kind of aesthetic. There's a makeshift attitude, like "Come on, let's put together a play." 

LY: I have a great respect for actors, and so if an actor is going to be in the play, I want to give them something to do that’s fun. So thinking about all your plays that have been done in the Bay Area—what does the San Francisco audience feel like to you?

CC: Oh. I love the Bay Area audiences.

LY: (chuckling, breaking the fourth wall) We love you. Thank you for coming to the show.

CC: In the theater scene in San Francisco—audiences and makers alike—there's this openness and generosity. I think a lot of San Franciscans have a kind of pioneering spirit; new things are rewarded here. I'm a San Franciscan audience member, too, so I write for myself.

How would you define your relationship to San Francisco? It’s in your bloodstream; it pops up in your plays.

LY: Because it's a place where I don't currently live, writing about San Francisco is my way of going home. I grew up with a very large family in San Francisco, and most of my family lives in the Bay Area, or a short drive away. It is the place I think of as home. It's a place I return to physically again and again, for long periods of time. It's a place that I've gotten to work in artistically, which has been really gratifying. I feel it in a longing for home—like the Chinese food in San Francisco feels very specific to me, and I can't quite get it other places, even places that have Cantonese populations and those foods, it just doesn't quite taste the same. That's how I think about San Francisco.

What would be your ideal day in the Sunset District or San Francisco?

CC: I just love taking long urban walks throughout the city. A walk I’ve taken sometimes is more or less the length of California Street, starting in the Richmond District and going to the Ferry Building. San Francisco is unique because it has so many amazing little neighborhoods so tightly packed together. The past and new energy coincide. It doesn't seem to be dominated by one thing or another.

LY: In an earlier stage of the pandemic, my family came back to San Francisco for a couple of months, and we also took a lot of very long walks—some of them with you. It was amazing, because most of them like were in the Richmond District, where I’ve lived and grown up in, but there were whole pockets of the Richmond District where I was like, "What is this?" All the little beaches around Sea Cliff that I really never walk to, discovering paths.

San Francisco is a great city, but there's parts of it where the lifestyle feels very suburban, especially on the west side. I drive places. I go to Costco, I come back. I have my house with the backyard. You kind of forget about the wilder pockets of it.

CC: Right; this is the Sunset District, and I do feel more suburban. But I would argue that because of the weather, it's still wild. It's not a sunny picket-fenced suburb. Your paint is chipping off because of the water damage, and you still hear the fog horns, and you can still hear the Zoo.

LY: Yeah, or it's colder inside your house than outside. I've had that.

CC: And you walk down Taraval Street, you know, and places have been there forever—it’s suburban, but you don’t really know what’s going on behind… there’s still mystery there.

LY: Any favorite Sunset District small businesses you want to shout out? If someone finds themselves in the Sunset District, where should they go for good coffee or a snack?

CC: There is an old standby called Old Mandarin, which is Islamic Chinese food, on Vicente, close to my house. There’s a place on Taraval, Kingdom of Dumpling (which on Yelp is called Asian American Food Company), where you can get dumplings wholesale. What's your favorite San Francisco place? Is there a Chinese restaurant you like to go to?

LY: It rotates over time based on my grandmother's preferences. She’s like, "We don’t go to that place anymore; we go to this place now—this place has a great deal." We’ve gone to Golden Horse a lot, Hong Kong Lounge, Kirin, Dragon River. Garden will validate your parking at the Portsmouth garage, which is pretty nice. Growing up we’d go to a lot of the banquets, many of which have closed. What is it like living in the house where your grandmother lived, where your mother grew up?

CC: I’ve lived here for so long now that it's really become my own. So I don’t think about it much. I used to visit my grandmother here all the time, and my great-grandmother, her mother-in-law, owned a place on 37th, and was renting this place to my grandmother and her husband. We have a lot of history in the area.

LY: I have this theory that all writers have this primal or ur-story we return to over and over—that there’s a specific box of things we find inherently dramatic and compelling. If that were to be true for you, do you have a sense of what is your ur-story?

CC: Do you have your ur-story on the tip of your tongue?

LY: I do, because I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s the story that you’re constantly writing, and only you deeply know what it is. An audience might not recognize it, because it's different settings, different characters. For me it's intergenerational stories, families, and secrets. I think a lot of the time, the arc of my plays is literally revealing the truth, and that's what you do for two hours: start with "we don’t know the truth" and end with "now we know the truth." I also find sunrises very dramatic. I've had a couple of different plays end at sunrise.

CC: Interesting. Okay, let me think… I keep gravitating towards—similarly to you, but coming out in a different way—the search for truth. Something is nagging at the characters and causes them to go poke at it or pull a thread of it. And the thread keeps pulling and pulling and pulling with no end in sight; they keep getting deeper and deeper into whatever they're picking at. It's not true for The Headlands per se, but usually that manifests in long, twisted conversations where they poke and prod at an interpersonal relationship. The characters that are new to this poking and prodding process find it difficult, and that difficulty is one of the places the tension comes from. The characters are searching for something that's deeper than their status quo. Sometimes they find it; sometimes not, but the journey is the thing. The meaning I go back to is that they should be in the present more, and be aware of their blinders. My plays always have unreliable narrators who are blinded.

LY: That’s fun. In your work, I also think of it like there are a lot of locked boxes inside of one another.

CC: Yeah. There's always something structural that has to happen to surprise people. My main philosophy as a writer period is surprise.

LY: Do you know those surprises when you start writing?

CC: I used to know more. Now I go by instinct a little more. Oftentimes the creative process for me just becomes: in this next beat, what would I be surprised by? Even if the surprise is a moment of kindness, for example.

LY: That seems like a good place to wrap up. I think I’ll go to bed now. I always enjoy talking with you, Chris.

CC: I always enjoy talking with you, too, Lauren. I call dibs on interviewing you next time!