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Recovering Trauma:
An Interview with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig

By Caridad Svich

[Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play Lidless will receive its New York City premiere as a P73 production at Walkerspace on September 20, 2011, directed by Tea Alagic. The play was the third winner of the Yale Drama Series competition for emerging playwrights selected by contest judge David Hare. It re-imagines a futuristic reunion between a Guantanamo detainee and the female interrogator who tortured him. Since its world premiere at Lab Theatre of the University of Texas-Austin in 2009, Lidless has been seen at the 2010 HighTide Festival in Suffolk, England, where it transferred to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia and Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia. This email interview was conducted in September 2011.]


Caridad Svich: History teaches us that memory is fleeting, that the same, if different, wars are fought over and over, and that the power to invade other countries, defy civil liberties, and "right" wrongs can override even the most nobly spoken intentions of those possessed of the larger army/power (beware of good intentions, as playwright Mac Wellman says!). What draws you to write? Not only Lidless, which is the focus of our interview, but other plays as well? And why for the stage?

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: I wasn't a scribbler as a child, and didn't have any creative writing courses in high school, so it really was something I stumbled on accidentally in a playwriting class my first year of college. I had gone to Brown thinking I would (or should) study public policy or international relations since I had grown up as a diplo-brat moving around from country to country. But then I took a playwriting class my first semester, my professor, who was the artistic director of a campus theater, produced the first play I ever wrote, and I really found grounding and a kind of rootedness in the process of writing, and kept at it for many years not because it was enjoyable or I was any good at it, but because it was something to focus on and get better at.

Only three of my plays have ever been produced -- the first one, only produced on campus at Brown University, was about foot-binding in ancient China and one woman's decision to defy tradition. The second one, 410[GONE], which was produced both at Brown and UT-Austin, is about a sister trying to use any means possible, digital, ancient or otherwise, to make contact with her younger brother who has just killed himself and entered the Chinese Land of the Dead. Lidless is the third play, and the only one of my plays that has been professionally produced.

I wish I had some grandiose reason for focusing on the theater as opposed to other genres -- but it just happened to be the one I started in, the path I was encouraged along, so by the time I decided to apply to graduate schools as a way to have something to do, a structure for life in my early twenties, the only work I had produced that could get me into anything was a play, so I applied to a playwriting program. And spent the next three years writing plays. I'm not really the story of finding your passion and pursuing it. More like pursuing something until it becomes your passion. I was a sociology major in college, and my interest in how a person's background can influence their character and choices certainly is something I think a lot about in my work.

CS: Lidless is explicitly political. But what is your relationship to entertainment? Are there obligations you feel as a writer to have the audience be "with you" on the play's ride?

FYC: I'm quite populist in my belief that a story needs to be interesting and engaging before it can be anything else. The novelist Ian McEwan once told me in a fiction workshop something I try to remember: that the reader is trusting the writer to hold their hand and help them walk through the dark. And if the writer doesn't do this responsibly, the reader will trip in the dark and stop trusting the writer. For that reason, I believe that if entertainment is not accomplished, nothing anything else can happen. As a viewer or a reader, if I don't care what happens next I don't want to listen for another minute or turn another page. That being said, I do always have lofty and grandiose goals about what I want to accomplish in a play beyond entertainment. But those must be secondary to good storytelling. Of course, a dynamic, physically rigorous production could make someone reading a phone book hold my attention for hours. So good storytelling doesn't necessarily have to be confined to the writing, and of course many a play has been saved by a director who has found a way to create enough distance between the text and staging that another story emerges.

CS: In regard to Lidless, did you know when you began that your antagonist/protagonist Alice, the former U.S. interrogator at Gitmo, would be female? And that she would have a daughter? The future-scape is a given in the play, but the more complicated terrain between mother and daughter, and between female interrogator and male detainee, emerges, and for me the various complex lessons and anti-lessons handed down are at its heart.

FYC: I began writing the play that became Lidless with very simple constraints: I wanted to write a five-person ensemble play for three female and two male actors. I didn't want to write a ghost story, and I didn't want there to be any magical worlds that I would have to elaborate rules for. (The previous two plays I had written both fall into the category of magical ghost-story.) I was pretty sick of my previous work and aesthetic and wanted to do something radically different. Each of my projects are in part a rejection of or violent departure from a previous project. This is just another way to say that I go hard in a different direction from play to play so I don't get bored with myself. The protagonist was always a female interrogator, because the original idea for the piece came after reading an article in The Economist about the sexual tactics being used by female interrogators in Guantanamo. In my work I am far less interested in the actual traumatic event than in its consequences over time, which is why I knew that Alice had to have a daughter, so that I could begin to examine how Alice's choices and behavior in the past continue to affect her present life and specifically her daughter (her future.) I also knew from the beginning that I didn't want to write a political diatribe or anything that could be reduced to a simple "Shame on you America" anti-war piece that could just as easily be expressed in an op-ed essay.

CS: You recently completed a playwriting residency at Marin Theatre Company. Would you like to talk about the piece you were making there, and how you see yourself as a writer facing the page now, three years after Lidless first was staged?

FYC: I finished up my Marin Theatre Company residency in June, and recently completed my first commission, 72 Transformations, written for South Coast Rep. The dramatic provocation I gave myself for this play came after reading Arthur Miller's essay "Tragedy and the Common Man" -- Can I make an uneducated, 19-year old Chinese peasant girl who works in a Christmas Tree Factory in Southern China a Tragic Hero?

In terms of where I am now as a writer, I would say that I am more disillusioned than I was three years ago, but not in a bad way, if you consider what the word actually means: to be freed from illusion, or enchantment. I understand now, more than I did a few years ago, that Western theater, with a few exceptions, has failed to reinvent itself after the advent of film and television, and I understand the economic forces at play in season selection and audience attendance.

I agree with activist Ward Churchill, who asserts in his book On The Justice of Roosting Chickens that if any work of art, alternative lifestyle, consumption decision, peace vigil, or mass demonstration actually threatened the status quo in any way it would be illegal. Quite frankly, I think the mass media could do more in a month than all the playwrights in the world could do in the next hundred years if they chose to focus their reporting and images on the human costs of war and capitalism.

What this means for me as a writer today is that because I don't hold onto any delusions that the work of writing is important and meaningful in any big picture way, my theater work must always push and provoke me personally and creatively, and create a structure in which I can interact with great artists and interesting people in intimate and surprising ways. In my theater work, the journey has to be the destination because any other way I look at it would make me stop writing, and I like writing a lot. So I suppose I do cultivate deliberate enchantment in this regard -- and see playwriting as a way for me to connect my interior self with the vast world beyond me.

CS: Would you speak to your relationship with the director Tea Alagic in NYC working on the play? What are you learning now about the play that is different from when Steve Akinson staged it in Edinburgh?

FYC: I have wanted to work with Tea on this play for four years because of the personal and artistic perspective she brings to this piece. Tea is a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and her life has been shaped profoundly by war and its aftermath. So her understanding of the plight the characters in the play find themselves in isn't as hypothetical or imagined as it would be with someone who hasn't experienced war first hand. Additionally, she has a lot of training in physical theater, having worked with some of the greatest European theater companies. I wrote this play to be a text that could be best activated by artists who come from an ensemble physical-theater background, and Tea really gets this, and has really drawn on her knowledge to activate a lot of these principles with a cast that doesn't come from this background. So some physical dynamics and ways of staging that I have always wanted to draw out of this play are finally being explored under Tea's direction. Both Tea Alagic and Steven Atkinson chose to stage the play very simply on a minimalist set, so that colors and objects really pop.

CS: I've spent at least 10 years writing plays that reflect upon and deal with traumatized bodies and societies in one way or another, and I often wonder: how to you tell such a story truthfully, give it its due, but not overstep the limits of effectiveness in a Western culture inundated with and anesthetized to images to trauma?

FYC: As a writer, I'm more interested in the recovery process than the traumatic event itself. So far, in all that I have written, the traumatic event happens either at the very beginning of the play or right before the play opens, and the play itself is about consequences of that original event, the characters' attempts to reinvent themselves and reframe their worldviews after their previous one was ruptured by the traumatic event. When I was researching Lidless, I talked to a psychologist who worked with survivors of war, and from her perspective the whole idea of "Post-Traumatic Stress" was a flawed notion. She thought the more accurate way to understand it was through the term "Cognitive Reframing" because the experience of war, for example, is not one emotion or experience -- it is a complex, heightened experience that shatters one world view and forces another. So I suppose I am not interested in straight victim stories, or what might be the most common experience for survivors of X event, but in the unusual, more complicated situations that provide a way into looking at a dynamic or relationship from a different perspective. Honestly, because any image in theater is happening right in front of you, as opposed to being mediated and framed by a screen, I don't think the questions of inundation and anesthetization are the same as they are in video games and on-screen entertainment, because very few people go to the theater casually. It costs money, requires time, attention and a physical journey from one place to another, so when you go it is an event to which you try to give your full attention. And I think anesthetization takes place when one is trying to shut out the full impact of violence because it is peripheral to whatever task one is trying to accomplish.

CS: Some basic questions: when did you start writing? And why? And do you wish to enter into a conversation with writers who draw upon their heritage, ancestry, background, ethnicity and see their work in part as a way to represent voices that are less represented?

FYC: As I said, I started writing plays because it was the first genre I was exposed to, during my freshman year at college. I didn't like it more or less than anything else I was doing at the time, though it suited my personality, so I kept at it. I liked that it created a structure for learning, required both years of solitude in the scripting process, and intense community during the rehearsal and production component. So really writing for me has always just been a way to structure life, and the thing I could pursue that best suited my somewhat aloof, awkward creature who craved intimacy and solitude in equal parts.

I write in multiple genres, and usually start with ideas and relationships, working somewhat impressionistically at first. Different stories fit naturally into different genres, and while I don't have allegiances to one form over another, I'm afraid I currently am a bit of a capitalist in regard to why I choose one form over the other. For example, even though I love writing short stories, they don't pay enough to scrape together a living, so I am not spending much time in that genre at the moment because I am trying to make my living with my writing and not have to pursue additional employment.

And in terms of your question about dialogue with writers -- I have grown weary of identity-politics conversations and questions of representation, not least because very often the works discussed in these regards aren't even very "good." I love Suzan-Lori Parks's provocation to "Write for them, fight for them" when talking about telling marginalized stories -- but this is complicated because the more marginalized the group I am trying to represent is, the less likely it is that a member of that particular group will ever even see a production of the play I've written. For example: the way I wrote about the female migrant worker in China and tied it into contemporary events going on inside China has made the play one that will probably never be produced in China and seen by the peasants who inspired the story, because the political slant of the play would cause it to be banned.

CS: Naomi Wallace and I talk often about the U.S. theater and its need for poetry, as well as its surprising disdain for poetry. Poetry in theater: what are your thoughts about the ways in which language is deployed, staged, put in motion, and composed for the stage?

FYC: It's interesting that you bring up Naomi Wallace, because I think she is one of the masters of putting poetry or ideas into physical objects on stage, and making theater happen through the physical manipulation of objects in front of a live audience. This is where I find poetics most interesting -- when, in a strange kind of alchemy, language is endowed into things that we can track non-verbally. I don't know if it's generational, because I didn't grow up listening to many speeches or sermons, or play too many computer and video games as a child, but I tend to just space out if someone is just talking on stage, poetically or not, and not activating the ideas and language through some physicality. If I am just listening to a talking head, I might as well just be reading the play at home in the bathtub, which is always more comfortable than a theater seat.

CS: Lidless is playing in NYC now after the ten-year anniversary of September 11th, right down in Soho. Do you feel the experience for the audience in NYC will be different comparatively than, say, for the audiences at Trafalgar Studios in the U.K. or CATF in West Virginia?

FYC: I don't have enough of an idea of what the audience for this production will be to speculate on that question. It is true that all the events that happen in the play are direct consequences of government actions taken after the airplanes hit the WTC buildings. I hope that the play will be felt and understood in juxtaposition to the events going on at the Ground Zero site. It could be interesting and provocative to walk from Ground Zero to the play, or from the play to Ground Zero, and see what is provoked by that experience.

Beyond proximity to the WTC site and 9/11's relationship to the play, I think the downtown New York audience is younger than the regional audience that the play had in Philadelphia and West Virginia, and there has sometimes been a generational divide in how my work is received. I'm not sure that the American archetypes of the born-again-hippie, the tough Southern woman, or some of the text's very American references, made sense to the British audience, though to their credit Brits seem to be far more receptive to plays that are politically inspired or "about something" than American theatergoers.


Photo 1: Brian Awehali
Photo 2: Wallace Flores courtesy of P73 Productions


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