Scary Stuff

Here’s Ellen:

OB-JK479_DeGene_E_20100729204527

Here’s one of my favorite bits of hers:

Isn’t it great? It’s one of my favorites. I think it’s super funny and kind of masterful.  I love Ellen’s comedy, because well, I love her. (Who doesn’t? I mean, honestly, it’s crazy how well-beloved this woman is.) I don’t really feel like analyzing the bit, because things just get way less funny when you lay out exactly why they’re funny, right? Yes, you say. In this case, I think the bit’s power is in some crazy, wonderful combination of subversion and absurdity and character. I thought you weren’t gonna analyze it, you say. I also think—okay, I am analyzing, I can’t help myself, Really? Can you really not just stop—that the absurdity of all those scary thing (a bat biting her ear, a rack of lamb, a legless leopard) is the lesser absurdity. Oh my God. Isn’t the joke that they’re all sitting in that room being forced to listen to this winding, ridiculous string of thoughts? She’s holding them captive, guys!

Your italicized voice has no words.

(Brief parenthetical: I’ve been told that my prose is too self-effacing—saying “kind of masterful” instead of “masterful”, for example, or using a lot of “I think”s, instead of just making statements. I qualify things, unnecessarily, say people in positions of authority. I don’t know why I thought giving myself a snarky, italicized, Reader alter-ego was a step in the right direction.)

Ellen holding her audience captive is actually one of things I’m most excited about and scared of in my play. I’m excited because I can chuckle at this bit when I’m listening to it alone, but I’m sure if I was in the room when she performed it, I’d be having trouble breathing. Stand-up and theatre have that in common. It’s really all about the shared experience, the inability to walk out. You are a part of the work, because the artist can see you, because it’s all happening in real time and space, and you’re real, too, and in that time and space, affecting things. I think this makes theatre and stand-up either truly transporting, or unbearable. (I have rarely been so completely uncomfortable and miserable as I was last week with Madhuri at a show of new stand-ups.

Me, looking scared.

Me, looking scared.

The MC was antagonistic (and all over the place). Comic after comic tanked, and blamed us. I want to laugh, I kept thinking. I paid to laugh. You give me something… You poor, poor person for whom I now have sympathy hives. I have a pretty low tolerance for social awkwardness, let me just say, even less tolerance for other people’s pain, and the very least for any kind of lack of control on my part (Do better, I also kept thinking, concentrated, like a Jedi). So when the room was dead and nervous and small, I wanted to throw up, in between my fake laughs, which couldn’t be too soft or the comic might not be properly encouraged or the scary MC might call me out, or too loud, in which case, he might also, call me out. It was a nightmare, and I don’t think I’ll ever recover…. And if Madhuri had a fine time, if it was just another interesting, enjoyable, healthy evening for her, that is because she is an unfeeling person.)

I’m scared of this whole captive thing in my play because there will be stand-up interludes in it, and they will be written, and in some cases, have already been written, by me… as is only natural since they’re in the play and I’m writing the play and I’m a writer. I’m not scared at all. And if I was scared, it would only be a sign that this is a good thing artistically, right? Right.

I actually don’t think that is always true. Scary things are not automatically “good things artistically.” But sometimes, maybe, everything else considered.

I do qualify things. That is the truth.

“You know what would have been even scarier?…”

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My play, my Valentine

I’m so relieved Valentine’s Day is over (as I am every year). But Luis Alfaro surprised us with the sweetest gesture yesterday, during our 7-10pm thesis class on 2/14, with these racially-specific teddy bear Valentines.

valentines

(We’re all doing the faces of our teddy bears. Megan really captured that soulful look there).

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

I think a lot about romantic love and relationships in terms of storytelling, and A Nice Indian Boy is all about love and marriage. As the title suggests, it is the story of my protagonist Naveen falling in love and deciding to get married to a nice Indian boy. There are a whole load of complications in that relationship (a pretty major one being that his boyfriend is technically more Caucasian than Indian), but the play ends with Naveen deciding to trust his heart over his head, and getting married to the man he loves. 

Although I celebrate romantic, passionate, impetuous love in this play, and have a lot of fun writing about it, I’m not sure I would do what Naveen does. There’s another couple in this play- his older sister Arundhathi and her husband- who had an arranged marriage years ago, and are now going through a divorce because Arundhathi can’t deal with the lack of romance in their relationship. But I’m not entirely on her side either.

The third couple in this play are Naveen’s parents- Archit and Megha- and they are the ones who represent my ideal. Two vastly different personalities who had an arranged marriage, and have stuck it out for 35 years. They bicker a lot, and disagree, and get frustrated with each other, but throughout the play they move as a team, as a single unit. Even as they disagree in private, they stick up for each other in front of their kids, and by the end of the play I hope the audience is left with a real feeling of how deep, true and steady their love for each other is.

It’s not the kind you write songs about, or celebrate with flowers and rings and fancy meals on a certain day, and it’s not for everyone. As much as I respect it, it’s probably not for me. But it’s the love that my parents share in real life, and it’s the love that inspired me to write this play.

May 31st, 1984

June 1st, 1984

Baby Megan Kelly & Friends <3

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Baby Megan Kelly is a cutie. Did you all see her last blog post? If you didn’t you really should, because there you will see the cuteness that is Baby Megan Kelly. I kept telling Madhuri– “I want to draw her” and she was encouraging about it but I wasn’t inspired to do it quite yet. BUT THEN Megan went ahead and made the bear cub comment (please refer to Madhuri Shekar’s last entry to read that little gem) and that changed everything.

Above is the result. It was effortless, really. I drew it late saturday night after the three of us (Madhuri, Megan and I) went to South Coast Rep to see David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish”–which was really funny, btw. 

I wanted to keep the drawing a secret, make multiple color copies, and use them for Valentine’s Day cards (hence the hearts), but then I remembered that required effort, so… that wasn’t going to happen. 

Madhuri and Megan already know about this drawing, btw. I showed it to Madhuri on Sunday afternoon (via email) and to Megan in class earlier today (Madhuri and I both wanted to see her reaction, so we had to wait). Megan’s reaction wasn’t what we expected. She was confused. 

“It’s Baby Megan Kelly”, said Madhuri.

“Is that a rolled up piece of paper?” asked Megan.

“No. It’s Madhuri “Cinnamon Stick” Shekar. See, she’s wearing her green coat”, I said. 

“Oh”, Megan replied– still confused.

“Zury’s supposed to be the bear cub. See, the glasses”, Madhuri added.

“Oh”, said Megan, clearly still processing it.

Well, that was a bust. 

 

 

Artistic Statements (stab stab stab)

Oh, hello.

Oh, hello.

Hey, writing is hard, has anyone mentioned that yet?

Last night, during our thesis class, Megan explained how tricky the rewriting process is.

Megan: I’m trying to do this high-wire act with my play as it is, what happens when a 50-pound bear cub falls on me?

Zury: I can see the expression on the bear cub’s face as it’s falling on you. [bear cub noise]

ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ.

In addition to my thesis play, one challenge I’ve been struggling with is writing artistic statements for applications for grants, and fellowships and residencies… it is seriously time consuming, and very, very hard to do. Because that’s not how you usually write. You usually try your best to write subtextually, subtly, to let your characters tell the story and not beat your audience over the head with what your story is about. I don’t think any writer sits down at their desk and thinks, “Ah, now I will write a scene that will encapsulate the duality of a bi-racial existence in a post-post-racial world with ironic elegance and just a hint of pathos”, no, mostly you’re just sitting there trying to figure out how to make your story not suck.

And so now I’ve had to teach myself to write artistic statements that really just seem to be an exercise in humble-bragging in 1000 words or less. ‘Here is why I’m so awesome you should give me the money/the stipend/food and shelter/fame and glory, but not so awesome that you’re put off by my self-important pigswill. Here’s why my writing will CHANGE THE WORLD, even though, really, has a single play actually changed the world yet? Has it really? Call me if it has, I should probably read it.’

My first round of statements are done for now, and I might share them later if I draw up the courage, but here’s what I really wanted to share this week. As I was angsting about these applications, and questioning my life choices, I stumble across this absolutely perfect, brilliant, heart-breaking quote by certified genius Junot Diaz, who just off-handedly says it all. 

“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

– Junot Diaz, Speaking to students at Bergen Community College

I found this quote on the Facebook page of the awesome Tumblr  Dark, Lovely and South Asian.

Thank you, Mr. Diaz, you beautiful soul. I am pinning this quote up to my wall now.

And because it’s Friday, and because I think Mr. Diaz would appreciate it, let’s have some Grover.

The things that help you write a play. (Shrug.)

Megan and her mom, on a swing.

Megan and her mom, on a swing.

So, I planned to do a little post about this picture and my mom and the original impetus for writing this play for my Wednesday post, and guess what? It’s my mom’s birthday today! Perfect timing!

I actually found this picture right when I had to build a story idea for a screenplay last winter. I had in my mind this mother-daughter relationship—this mother that can talk to Jesus and hear Him talk back, and the intellectual (Christian) daughter that secretly struggles with that fact.

I found this picture, and I loved this picture, instantly and for all time. Look at my mom, beautiful and laughing, and look at me, tiny and worried. Look at that face. I’m clearly trying desperately to enjoy myself. I know I’m supposed to be enjoying the ride. It’s a swing. Mom’s holding me. And if nothing else, I have always been a person that knows what’s expected of her—even at age 2, trying to smile on the brink of my own death. Because really, my little self is convinced that my mother’s joy is premature, that she’s gonna slip, I’m gonna slip, something’s about to go horribly wrong, whatever it is, it’s gonna be terrible, my little self knows it.  Look at my face, my furrowed brow! Look at my little leg, twisted behind hers, clamped, a guard against life’s many and overwhelming dangers.

So, this is what I took into the writing process with me—this picture, these two characters, and this relationship between two people that have fundamentally different understandings of their circumstance. Then, of course, I made the daughter a comic, and the screenplay went its own way, and then the adapted play really went its own way, which is good, and annoying, and I have a lot of work ahead. Re-writing is difficult. Madhuri, Zury, and I have been talking about it. Sometimes a collection of funny, interesting scenes doesn’t add up to anything special, or to the special thing you hope for, and it’s really difficult to stay true to small moments and characters within them while also trying to develop a more meaningful structure.  Something horrible might happen. It might all go terribly wrong.

I re-found this picture recently, and I’m gonna keep it with me for the re-writes, because it’s surprising how much of that little Megan is in the play and how much of her laughing mother, despite the characters’ individual views of comedy and God. I have a tendency to complicate plays. I get nervous or bored, and add another dimension to the character, another relationship, another conflict, something else that can simmer, hidden, something else to boil over. Why did she have to be a comic? (Shrug.) See, I do it even before I start writing, so there’s no real way to un-do it. Sarah is a comic, and Pilar heard from God she’s gonna die in a plane crash. Now, how does that relate? I’ve learned not to dislike this about my work. But it requires some extra discipline in shaping the whole thing.  It requires me to keep a hold of fundamental things, even if they’re hidden and slippery and there’s a lot going on besides. What does this character Sarah really believe in her heart of hearts? And what does she want?  Basic dramaturgical questions, and I’m working on them. I think it might have to do with the swing, but I could also be crazy. That’s a possibility. It’s a great picture, though, right? My mom is so much fun—she’s that much fun, all the time—and I’m so glad she was born.

The Oddities of My Quarters… because a Writer Needs A Room of One’s Own (Whether they Like it or NOT!)

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I hate writing in my bedroom and I wouldn’t recommend it. Oprah would agree with me.  I once saw an episode of her now defunct talk show dedicated to Feng Shui. The guest interior designer stressed that the bedroom should be a place of relaxation, and that work should have it’s own site.  Unfortunately, no matter where I go to write, it just never happens. If I’m at the library, I worry I might need to use the restroom and someone will take my stuff. If I’m at my local café, I become too invested in the music that’s playing or I stare at my favorite barista who I’m convinced has had a sex change, but I just can’t tell. At the end of the day when I’m hitting a deadline and I’ve no work to show for myself, I end up in my room and become the crankiest writer ever. No relaxation takes place here. Oprah would not be pleased.

How can relaxation, and for that matter writing, take place here when it’s chaotic, both inside and out? Despite having installed a chained lock, family members continuously attempt to enter for no good reason. Even our three Chihuahuas—Lita, Koki and Lucky, come by hoping I’ll let them borrow my bed for a good forty winks. When I lived alone I used to dream of this attention, but from one individual, not my entire family. Coming from them, I somehow resent it.

The desk is no good to write on. Not only is it small and wobbly, but also it’s become the crash pad for all the trinkets and toys that haven’t found their proper place in my room, a sort of Island of the Misfit Toys. Rebecca Nutcracker lives there. She hates it, but she hates most everything. She’s lived on my desk since Christmas 2011, when my parents got her on sale. She used to be a simple beauty, sporting glittery heart shaped glasses and head full of brown yarn for hair, but my youngest dog, Rocky (R.I.P., My Love) got to her. Now she reminds me of Little Edie of Grey Gardens—balding, detached from reality, and full of regret. She knows she could have been something better, maybe a pencil, but that was never in her cards. 

Back outside, the neighbors do their best to provide my room with a continuous soundtrack. I know their lives without actually knowing them. The wife and mother, Vera, is always home with the couple’s toddler, Jesus. Jesus is becoming quite the little asshole. I don’t know where he’s learning curse words, but he’s been using them to insult his mother and I don’t like it. I would gladly spank him, if she let me, but she doesn’t know I exist.

Despite the chaos, there is a level of comfort. I’m a nervous person in general– I over-think things in life and in writing. In my room I don’t have to think about theft, music or sex changes because I know the oddities of my quarters. That has to be some form of Feng Shui.

 

 

A Nice Indian Boy

Ganesha on the iPad

Ganesha on the iPad

Back in January of 2011, when I was 24, my parents were trying their best to arrange my marriage. (If that sentence doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will). My wonderful, liberal, wordly parents called to tell me about the various nice Indian boys who had responded to the online matrimonial profile they had set up on my behalf. I love my parents and I trust them, but wow, was this hard to take. I decided to go along with it at the time, deeply conflicted about the whole thing, but also treating it with the same attitude I treat everything else in my life- hey, it might make a good story.

It was also time for me, at the beginning of my second semester, to start writing a new play. Our professor Oliver Mayer encouraged us to write something personal. Of course since the idea of arranged marriage was in my head, I wanted to write about that, but hadn’t it been done a million times already?

I remember walking through campus with my friend and director Nathan Singh (here he is)

nathansingh

and talking about this problem, when he said- “You know, I’ve always had this idea. This Indian guy goes to his parents and says- ‘Mom, Dad, I want an arranged marriage.’ And they’re so happy. But then he adds… ‘to a man!'”

And suddenly the play appeared before me. I saw that scene in my head, I knew who the family was, the love interest arrived fully formed a few days later, and I wrote the play over the course of the semester like my fingers were on fire. I had so much fun writing it, and I got to ask the big big questions that were bugging me- why get married at all? How can you reconcile your own romantic and sexual desires with what your family expects from you? Does arranged marriage make more sense these days than the irrational process of marrying for love? What happens if I ‘settle’ for an arranged marriage and wake up one day ten years later unhappy and regretful? How do my parents (who had one conversation before they got married, and have stayed married for 25+ years) make their marriage work?

The reading at the end of that semester was so fantastic- it was so gratifying to hear these great actors read the play out loud, especially since I had written the characters with them in mind.

Sunil Malhotra, Pia Shah, Karthik Srinivasan, Kyle Gundlach and Puja Mohindra

Sunil Malhotra, Pia Shah, Karthik Srinivasan, Kyle Gundlach and Puja Mohindra

My friend Paul Rockower who happened to be there that day, amidst his nomadic travels, blogged about it and made my week.

Last year this play won 2nd place in the 2012 East West Players Face of the Future Playwriting Contest, and I got to see it done as a staged reading at the David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo, directed by Nico Raineau. The turnout was so surprisingly great- so many South Asians in particular showed up, and laughed at all the right places. We got a standing ovation at the end, and it really was an incredible feeling.

Karthik and Kyle, in rehearsal for our East West Players reading.

Karthik and Kyle, in rehearsal for our East West Players reading.

And now, this semester, my challenge is to push the play to the next level. First drafts are typically much easier for me than re-writes, so this is tough. The advantage is that it’s been nearly two years since I first thought of this idea, and I’ve changed and matured as a person, and I’d like to get the play to mature over the next few months as well. I can see what it could be- and that is very exciting- but I am also a little lost about how to get there.

But I have time, and Megan, Zury and my professors, and with their help I can hopefully end up with something I’ll be happy to show the world (i.e., my parents).

Amrish Puri says I can do it!

Amrish Puri says I can do it!