TBA Online: News & Features: February 2016

Lauren Yee’s in a word in Her Own Words

Monday, February 29, 2016   (0 Comments)
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By Sam Hurwitt

Lauren Yee had quite a year in 2015. The playwright had two plays premiere in her hometown of San Francisco practically back to back. In April, San Francisco Playhouse produced in a word, her haunting comic drama about a mother whose child has been abducted, and in May, Encore Theatre Company unveiled her serial-killer comedy, Hookman. Both plays wound up on the short list for the Glickman Award for the best play to premiere in the Bay Area that year (in a rare case of a playwright going up against herself for that prize) with the Glickman actually going to in a word. (Yee will be given the award at Theatre Bay Area’s Annual Conference on March 28.)


Playwright Lauren Yee.


SF Playhouse’s premiere of in a word was the first part of a National New Play Network world premiere that also included a production at Cleveland Public Theatre just two weeks later, and another one that’s currently playing at Chicago’s Strawdog Theatre Company. This spring, in a word will go on to play the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia, as well as Bard’s Town Theatre in Louisville.

It was also a good year for Yee in Chicago. Her play Samsara premiered at Victory Gardens Theater, and her latest, King of the Yees, had a workshop production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which commissioned the play.

In in a word, the mother, Fiona, has a nagging feeling that she’s missing something. Her little boy has been missing for two years. The inept detective on the case is no help, and her husband thinks it’s time for her to move on. She’s fairly sure that she keeps running into a guy who claims, matter-of-factly, to be her child’s abductor, as if it were no big deal. Her memory seems to keep shifting, and words and phrases take on life of their own.

I caught Yee on the phone in the midst of her travels to talk about her Glickman Award-winning play. 

What inspired you to write in a word?
I started writing in a word midway through my first year of grad school at UC San Diego. At the time, my roommate and I would each individually forget to lock the door or turn off the stove or something like that. I remember during that period having this feeling of missing things. I was like, “I’m leaving the house and there’s something I’m forgetting to do or turn off or close that’s going to imperil my wellbeing later on.” I was at a Starbucks when someone was talking who was possibly robbed but they couldn’t quite tell, because the door was open but everything was where it should be.

I wrote an ur-draft of the play, about a couple whose child had passed away. That was the basis for what in a word eventually became. Then I wrote the next version, which was completely different and had none of the words that were in that ur-draft except for the names of the characters. It was also a time when I was really interested in wordplay and messing with space and time and collective consciousness of characters. I also wanted to explore the sense of humor that lives alongside pain. I’m always reminded that, at the deeply traumatic moments in our lives, as you’re going through them they’re also absurdly funny. That was the mix of ingredients that went into in a word.

How would you describe this play?
I think the play is a lyrical, absurdly funny meditation on loss and grief and narrative. I’ve also heard the play described as “a play about a child kidnapping, but no, it’s quite not like that.” There’s a version of in a word that is closer to the play Rabbit Hole, that more directly deals realistically with what it means to lose a child, and goes through it a little more straightforwardly. I was just more interested in trying to give the audience a sense of what it’s like to move through grief and trauma in a theatrical way. When you’re in a traffic accident or you’ve heard some terrible news, the world around you begins to move differently, and each interaction you have that day is colored by those events, even though nobody around you may know what’s happened. Everything begins to take on significance, and you see clues and reminders everywhere. That’s the territory that in a word covers.

When you say there’s another version of the play, do you mean an actual previous draft or a hypothetical way that you could have done it?
This would be like a hypothetical version. Like if Lauren of so many years ago had decided, “Actually, I’d like to do a more realistic take,” or “I’d like to move linearly through time.” It would be a very different play.


Tristan (Greg Ayers*) resists going to school picture day with his mom, Fiona (Jessica Bates*) in San Francisco Playhouse's production of Lauren Yee's Will Glickman Award-winning play, in a word. Photo: Fei Cai


Why is the wordplay so important to the play?
I’m really interested in narrative, and control of the narrative, and how different word choice dictates how you might feel about a certain topic. Throughout the play, you have Fiona desperately trying to use the correct words to describe what’s going on in her life in a way that she thinks an audience will find palatable. And it’s only when she is able to do that in more truthful, honest, a little bit uglier words that she’s able to exorcize some of those demons. Whenever I see cases of a missing child, that press conference that the family does is always so weighted and scrutinized and important for those families. Dealing with words so closely seemed really appropriate for this play, in which we’re introduced to a couple that hasn’t been able to talk to each other for two years directly about what went on.

It was interesting to see in a word and Hookman so close together. Although they’re very different in style, they seem almost like companion pieces in their depictions of grief. Were these pieces connected for you when you were working on them?
They were both plays that I wrote in grad school, and they were both plays where my goal was to put the audience in the protagonists’ shoes. I wanted to give you a sense of what Fiona’s and Lexi’s (the protagonist in Hookman) worlds were like, and what it felt like to be inside their brains. I think that’s where their DNA especially overlaps. Both plays are about what story you tell yourself and how control of narrative can become an addiction. And they’re also plays about how you grieve for the loss of someone you love, and how you come to terms with your complicity, perhaps, in why they’re not here today. I think that’s probably right that you felt a lot of parallels. I like the idea that they are these 70-minute, tight, dark but hopefully funny windows into grief.

How would you say that in a word fits into your body of work in general?
I can kind of chart chronologically how my work has developed from Ching Chong Chinaman up until the present. In Ching Chong Chinaman, the story was told linearly, and it was just digging into magical realism and theatricality and trying to do something onstage that a TV show or a film couldn’t do. By the time I got to in a word, I was interested in not only giving us those things, but also trying to break up time and space more. I was interested in seeing what happens if you break more stuff up and make the language a little more abstract. And it’s interesting, because now that I’ve gone there, I’m beginning to see myself turning again. My newest play, King of the Yees, is essentially completely linear.

With the long periods over which these plays are being developed, is it weird to revisit earlier Lauren and get back in that head space?
It is. When I’m revisiting earlier work, I sometimes have to curb my impulses to figure out how Lauren of today would try to solve the play. When you look back on any play that you wrote three or four or five years ago, you’re looking back at a different writer with different interests. It’s almost like how dramaturgs look at a play and they have to think about not how they would solve the play, but how they would get that particular playwright to finish their play. So I have to resist the impulse to take Lauren 2016 and imprint it on this play and change everything.

What brought you together with San Francisco Playhouse on this?
I think they’d known about the play for a while. I think it was Lauren English who first championed it at SF Playhouse. Then I did some final rewrites on it and I felt like the play was in a good place to be produced. One of the nice coincidences was that SF Playhouse, Cleveland Public Theater and then, later on, Straw Dog in Chicago, where it’s playing right now, were all interested in doing the play, so that became a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. Even though the productions of the play are not overlapping or sharing design or actors in any way, it’s a nice way to get more excitement around the play, and shine a little more light on it.

Is the rolling world premiere just those three theatres, or are there additional theatres that are part of that?
Those are the three theatres that are in the official rolling world premiere, and then there are some other, smaller productions that will be rolling out in the spring. It’s nice to have a play that feels like it has some life and momentum behind it.

How did seeing these different takes on the same text inform or change your view of the play?
I think I got to see what each director was interested in by what the things were that keyed them into the play. I think I realized more clearly that the play wants to start off with some sense of humor, or at least lightness; then you have some place to go by the end of the play. So it taught me stuff about the play tonally. The spaces that each show ran in were quite different, and that dictated a lot of how the play moved. For instance, SF Playhouse was in that Tides space; it’s like a wide, very shallow proscenium, whereas at Cleveland Public Theater, it’s like an enormous warehouse space, where you have to handle appearances and disappearances much differently. I was surprised by how much the spaces influenced what the play was.

Were there changes that you made in the play after seeing these productions?
No, I was pretty happy with where the play was. It’s also a play that’s so tight that if you change one word, you have to change all the other words that are connected to it. So I didn’t make many changes at that point. I’m also excited by multiple, very different productions, so the fact that they were different was nice and refreshing for me.


Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area-based theatre critic for the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News, among others. He is also the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization.