Conversation with David Henry Hwang, 2020 Bridge Award Judge

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Get to know the Head Judge for the 2020 Bridge Award, David Henry Hwang!

 

We can't wait to announce his decision about the winning play on May 1st! In the meantime, we were delighted to chat with him about new plays, the state of theater, and diversity of stories. For a little bit of background on this amazing writer - a Pulitzer Prize-winner, educator, mentor, and veteran theater artist - check out this Q & A:

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Photo by Brett Van Ort

David, thank you for signing on to adjudicate the Bridge Award this year! You have a lot of demands on your time and attention -- what made you say yes?

DH: In order to be vital, theatre should capture a wide range of voices, perspectives and experiences. Though the history of American playwriting includes many dramatists who served in the military, this community has arguably been less represented of late, which is one of the reasons this Award felt important to me.

 

We're really glad you did. Many of the submitters to the Bridge Award are tackling playwriting for the first time. We wonder--what was the first play you ever wrote? What inspired you to start it, and what was it like finishing? 

DH: I was an undergraduate in college when I first tried writing plays. I liked the idea of imagining a world, then seeing it come to life in front of me. I can't really remember what my first play was, but I showed it to a professor, who told me it was really bad (which it was)! That same professor, however, helped me to design a playwriting major at a university which didn't have one. Soon after, I wrote a play to be produced in my dorm called FOB, which went on to open Off-Broadway about a year later.

 

Wow, that's a pretty auspicious beginning. What is different about the way you work now, as opposed to the way you worked then?

DH: I think rewriting is easier for me now, because I've done this long enough that I have more craft and I know more tools of the trade. Conversely, however, first drafts are harder! 

 

What do you think first-time playwrights should know, especially people who didn't grow up immersed in theater? What's your pitch for why the form matters, and how it works?

DH: I didn't grow up going to the theater. My first exposure was as a pit musician in high school musicals. I feel theater gives a writer the greatest opportunity to express their own unique voice. Don't shy away from writing about what makes you different, or idiosyncratic or weird. This is your superpower as a playwright!

 

As an audience member and teacher, what excites you when you see or read a play? What do you look for/what moves you?

DH: I like a play where I can feel the author really working to understand themselves and/or the world around them, one where they are taking risks and writing the piece that no one else in the world could write, because no one is exactly them.

 

You have mentored so many young and emerging artists throughout your career; what is the thing you try most strongly to impart on your students and mentees?

DH: Don't try to write what's commercial, it's almost impossible to succeed. On the contrary, work that is the most personal is also most likely to be successful. 

 

How do you think theater can be informed by the experiences of people in the armed forces? How do you think the military community can be informed by art?

DH: Going back to my earlier answer about theatre capturing a diversity of voices, military life has long been an important subject for theatre, in works from SOUTH PACIFIC through A SOLDIERS TALE, STREAMERS and so many more. American audiences today also need to understand stories from contemporary military life. Moreover, playwriting can provide a valuable outlet for military authors to explore their own stories and experiences.

 

Hey, how are you coping during this confusing time? What advice do you have for aspiring artists, or just other humans? 

DH: I'm very lucky to be sheltering under much more privileged circumstances than most, including remaining employed. Living in NYC, I'm feeling a sense of unity, empathy and support which I hope people can sustain after this crisis has passed, and that artists can help  create the narratives which will help us understand what we are going through more deeply.

 

Anything else you want to say to the AITAF community? 

DH: Thank you for your service.

(Cover photo by Joan Marcus)

About David Henry Hwang

Suzan-Lori Parks

David Henry Hwang’s work includes the plays M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face, Golden Child, The Dance and the Railroad, and FOB, as well as the Broadway musicals Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song (2002 revival) and Disney’s Tarzan. Hwang is a Tony Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time OBIE Award winner, and a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the most-produced living American opera librettist, whose works have been honored with two Grammy Awards. He co-wrote the Gold Record “Solo” with the late pop icon Prince, and worked for four seasons as a Writer/Consulting Producer for the Golden Globe-winning television series The Affair. Hwang serves as Head of Playwriting at Columbia University School of the Arts and as Chair of the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards. His newest work, Soft Power, written with composer Jeanine Tesori, premiered in 2018 at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, where it won 6 Ovation Awards including Best New Production, and just completed a successful run at New York’s Public Theater.

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