alongfortheride.pdf (Adobe Acrobat Reader required).
Q&A With Isaac Ho
What role do you see for a writer in today’s society?
Eight years ago my answer would have been, “To be the conscience of society.” As I’ve grown older and have experienced some of what life has to offer, I know that being “the conscience of society” is abstract and has no practical definition. A person is at once both an individual and a participant in society. As individuals we decide what role to pursue in our society. Whether we choose to educate children, to entertain prisoners, to expose corrupt politicians or to criticize scientists, just to name a few, writing is one possible way to accomplish our chosen endeavors.
Personally, I consider myself an entertainer. I also consider myself a philosopher and a musician. I have chosen to express my entertainment, philosophy and music through writing plays because it offers the purest connection between two minds. Whether or not that is my role in society really depends on how well I practice the craft of writing. Shakespeare practiced the craft of writing so successfully that he remains a part of our society today despite being dead for nearly four hundred years.
Many people believe theater to be a dying art, that it is no longer relevant in a time of mass media and the Internet. Why are you drawn to the stage?
Theater always has the potential for being relevant. The danger I see is when theater is relevant but no one values it. It is an art form that creates a very personal experience. While films, television, and the Internet also have that potential, they also can manipulate a large number of people simultaneously. There is something very fundamental about watching a live performance. Anyone who has ever participated in a live performance as an audience member or as a performer shares a common language that was invented when the first performer stood up in front an audience thousands, perhaps even millions of years ago.
I’m an avid theater goer, yet I often find myself surrounded by an audience that is middle-aged, white and wealthy. How can theater attract a more diverse audience? Should it even try?
Ask yourself, what kind of plays am I watching? If the play centers around the story of middle-aged, white and wealthy people then maybe they are the ones who identify with it the most. While you can appreciate the play for what it is, why don’t you truly identify with what you see? Do middle-aged, white and wealthy people deal with problems you deal with? Do they experience the same things you experience? Do they get upset about the same things you get upset about? When you do see someone of your own race, does he or she remind you of anyone you know?
It is human nature to be selfish about our entertainment. We go to see what we want to see. When we look at movie listings we often choose something we might enjoy. These choices often serve to validate our beliefs and desires. Live theater cannot compete with the roller coaster of images, explosions and illusions films use. Without the deeper exploration of these beliefs theater provides, the beliefs of the mass media soon become our beliefs.
Theater relies on story and character and requires an investment of thought and emotion from the audience. When theaters mimic films and provide a steady diet of stories and characters that consistently deny the existence of your race; that consistently refuse to give the same care to developing minority characters as they do its white characters; and, that consistently holds white characters up as “universal” while perpetuating stereotypes of minorities then it’s probably time to re-evaluate what purpose theater serves in our society.
When we are able to come up with a better purpose for theater, then perhaps there will be diversity in the audience.
You’re an Asian American and a playwright. But do you consider yourself an “Asian American playwright?”
I have a difficult time accepting that term because it implies a unity of aesthetics. I use it more out of convenience than anything else. I use it to attract an audience but beyond it’s usefulness as a description of my racial background, I really don’t know what it means. What exactly do I share with writers who consider themselves “Asian American”? We are all Asian Americans writing plays.
In your writing, do you feel you have an obligation to deal with issues relevant to Asian Americans?
Indirectly. I write what is relevant to me and since I am Asian American… you get the picture.
Many Asian American writers have complained of the expectations placed upon their work to be “ethnic.” Have you felt a similar pressure?
I have been asked of various pieces I’ve written, “What does this have to do with being Asian American?” My short answer is typically, “You mean beside the fact that it was written by an Asian American?” I have neither won too many friends nor influenced too many people with that remark.
The pressure is real. I think it’s rooted in the fact that playwrights typically want their work seen by lots and lots of people. It is very tempting to give the audience exactly what they want. When you’re writing for someone else, that very well might be the case. However, if there is an “ethnic” story with an “ethnic” issue that you really want to write about, then by all means, write it.
You’ve said of more established Asian American playwrights (such as David Henry Hwang, Frank Chin and Philip Kan Gotanda) that you “have something different to offer than they have.” What did you mean by this? Is it related to a generational difference?
I have the benefit of reading what they’ve written. I’ve had the opportunity to see their work and be inspired by it. I have also discovered within myself a treasure of experience and knowledge on a wide range of topics not covered in their work. While I can see the similarities among our writing, I’m also thrilled to celebrate the differences.
Much of Asian American theater deals with issues of racial identity. In what ways do you think these issues differ for Asian Americans of your generation? Do you think these questions will change for Asian American kids growing up today?
Asian Americans enjoy more public visibility now than ever before. If you are a high school senior and had to decide your major today, there is a good chance that there is a highly visible Asian American that you could look to as a role model. Your dreams would not seem as far-fetched as they would have twenty or even ten years ago.
Speaking of growing up, did you have any particular role models as a child that helped you to consider a career in the arts?
Do you see more opportunities for Asian American performing artists today as opposed to when you first began your career? Are things getting better or worse?
Overall the number of opportunities has increased but the quality of those opportunities is still dismal.
You wrote, directed, produced and acted in your play “Along for the Ride.” What was that experience like?
During the production I experienced every extreme of every emotion possible. Unfortunately most of that was offstage, dealing with one problem or another. Quite simply, it was the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I’ve ever worked on. The cast and crew were a joy to work with.
How important is it for you to maintain creative control over your work? Are you comfortable with the collaboration so necessary to produce a play?
You can control creativity about as easily as you can control a watercolor painting… not at all. You must allow the medium to work its own magic. The approach I used was to set the artistic priorities of the production, communicate that to the staff and let them figure out how to attain it. The collaboration is absolutely necessary to take their individual solutions and fit them all together as one piece.
Has the growth of the Internet influenced your work in any way?
I lurk around many discussion groups. Opinion much more than information abound.
What projects are you currently working on?
Currently I’m working on a documentary about my grandmother, Siu Chu Ho, who survived the Japanese occupation of both Hong Kong and Shanghai during World War II. Between developing scripts for various TV shows, my focus remains on creating new work that expresses the contemporary lifestyle of the generation that came of age in the 1980’s as seen from an Asian American persepctive.
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
I have never gotten this question right. Year to year, I often end up in a very different place than I expected. While I do have some personal goals, I usually let life sweep me around. It’s a lot more fun.