Nothing like summer in the city: a dispatch from off-Broadway

Now is the summer of our discontent made mind-numbing winter by the air conditioning of the Public Theater. No, seriously, I was getting cold urticaria on my hands the other night. It feels like a horrible thing to complain about when last week was hot enough to drive Lin-Manuel Miranda and Shockwave to release the third installment of their hex-annual “Hot as Balls” NYC Heatwave series, to say nothing of other discomforts such as Scarlett Johansson colonizing yet another demographic, precedent for the revocation of naturalized citizenship being set, kids in cages (some resources to help listed here), and the threat to the Constitutional rights of vulnerable citizens for decades to come via hostile takeover of the judicial branch of the United States government. But sometimes, it’s the little things that are just insult to injury.

 

 

 

I’m currently on Day 18 of my 39-day long streak without a day off. By far not the longest that anyone will ever have gone without a day off, let alone at jobs that they love and completely voluntarily agreed to. Still, I’m undeniably glad to be almost halfway through this bed that I made to lie in. Five and a half weeks of 74-hour work weeks (and that doesn’t count the two days per week where there are hours between shows when I’m technically not working but am physically stuck at work) is a lot of time, even for something that you enjoy, to say nothing of the resultant trashfires that are my apartment (there’s an actual tower of unopened mail on my desk) and also me (#tfw it’s a predicament situation between sleeping and showering… but at least showering is less of an urgent matter because it’s not like I’ve been exercising).

In other words: kids, this is why they say “don’t do it unless you love it.”

The first few days of this period of time, one of the jobs was still being done remotely, as it was the pre-rehearsal preparation work. I was starting to experience some mounting anxiety, which is normal for me during any prep week, especially if I haven’t worked with anyone involved. People sometimes jokingly refer to first rehearsal as the first day of school, but as a description, it’s not all that off. Who are these people? Will they like me? Will I leave a good impression? Am I prepared? Have I taken care of everything that I need to? Sure, I may technically be holding the same position, but everything is still entirely new and different – will I do a good job? Do I even know how to do my job anymore?? What is stage management??!!

Knowing that I would have the personal challenge of starting this second production while still running the first just added to my anxious energy. It was like I was getting pushed closer and closer to that pool where you know that the water is freezing cold and your legs suddenly stop listening to your brain because you  know the pain that lies ahead of you – only in this case, whether my legs were listening to me or not didn’t matter because I stand upon the relentless treadmill of time that’s carrying us all to our eventual biological deaths and erasure from memory. Barring apocalypse, the day of first rehearsal would arrive even if I did finally suffer that nervous breakdown and go running for the Adirondacks to live the rest of my life as a hermit. I might as well stare it dead in the eyes and meet it like the honorable warrior that I am in my very active fantasy life.

The production that I already had running is Ma-Yi Theater’s Teenage Dick by Mike Lew, currently playing at the Public Theater. (Yes, the Public is the Hamilton people.) Commissioned by the Apothetae, a theatre dedicated to productions that explore and illuminate the disabled experience, the play is a reimagining of Richard III set in high school – a Shakespeare high school AU, so to speak. Richard is now a teenager with cerebral palsy who has his sights set on the senior class presidency, with a tongue no less agile, charm no less entrancing, and mind no less dangerous than his namesake. Gregg Mozgala, the actor playing Richard and artistic director of the Apothetae, noted that part of the impulse of making the show happen came from the experience of all of the uncertainty and physical indignities of adolescence amplified by the realization that, unlike most of one’s peers, one’s body wouldn’t grow out of this phase to become “normal.”

Another part was having the play titled Teenage Dick.

Ma-Yi Theater gave me my first job when I came to New York, PSMing Lloyd Suh’s amazing all-ages play The Wong Kids and the Secret of the Space Chupacabra, Go!!<With the mission of bringing the work of Asian/American playwrights to production, there really is no one else doing what they’re doing in the field. This collaboration with the Apothetae for Teenage Dick has given me the pleasure of a six-person cast that is one of the most integrated that I’ve ever worked with: half non-white, two-thirds women, one-third disabled.

Originally scheduled to play through July 15, it was extended two weeks through July 29. Not that reviews, like, mean anything, but hey, we got some great reviews.

While wonderful news, learning about this on opening night, four days before starting rehearsals for Henry VI,  meant that I knew that my fate was sealed for the next month-plus. Still absorbing that reality, I was starting from a place of increased grumpiness the Sunday before rehearsals began for Henry VI, as I sighed about how my two-show day meant that I would be working all day during Pride. Commuting to work that morning, I saw a smattering of rainbows and glitter, and it was simultaneously lovely and a bit of a selfish bummer, as it reminded me of what I’d be missing.

But in between shows, I went out to buy some office supplies for Henry VI and I saw clumps of Pride-bedecked people flowing from the area below Union Square. I traced them back to the source, and what I found was the day still going strong. The street booths were in their last hour and began packing up while I was wandering through them, but the crowds were going nowhere, and nearby, I could hear the parade still marching. Walking down to Washington Square Park, it was an absolute sea of sparkle and color. There were so many people wearing flags that proudly declared who they were, alternative fashion that couldn’t do anything but stand out, or next to nothing, bodies on display without shame.

I’m as much dour, all-black-wearing, happiness-hating New Yorker as anyone, but on my soul, it was a joyous sight.

It was such a beautiful fantasy land of “us” being the norm. Even for the most confident of people, the element of wondering what people think of you can still be constantly running as a background process when one is in a position of lesser power, compounded by being an actual numerical minority – not just a product of emotional uncertainty or matters of personal regard but a very practical question as well, one that could impact employment or housing or safety – and being able to release that load for a day, not have to have that constant leak of processing power, is a positively buoyant experience. As much as I truly love and appreciate everything that I gain from existing in diverse and integrated spaces, to not be the minority for fucking once is such a relief. As I learned in Korea, it can be a necessary place to visit, even if I wouldn’t want to live there.

And then Staples was closed because apparently not everyone needs office supplies on a Sunday evening? Weird.

The next morning, I was in the rehearsal room with sixteen actors who had been brought together to perform all of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, presented in two parts playing in repertory. The theater that had brought them together was the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), which produces American and European classics with Asian American casts, re-interpretations of classics by Asian American playwrights, and new plays not written for or about Asian Americans but realized with Asian casts, giving both the actors the opportunity to play these roles for which they are often overlooked and audiences the opportunity to see these amazing actors in those roles.

As we started reading through the play, I looked around the room and felt something similar to the day before at Pride. The room was incredibly diverse. (While commercial imagery might not reflect the fact, Asia is, in fact, REALLY BIG.) We even had a few white people on the production side. (Although it’s worth saying that NAATCO does make an effort to network with Asian design/technical/production staff as well, despite that not being something as publicly “visible” to the audience in the same way that the actors onstage are.) But again, there were those unspoken commonalities and understandings between us that we didn’t have to put energy toward managing, and we were doing the work the same as anyone else would, except that the opportunity to do it doesn’t usually exist. We were, in that room, “normal.”

That was the moment that, as the past twenty-four hours gelled together, I knew for certain that the next five weeks would be worth it.

A few days ago, we were staging a scene for the first time where the stage direction “Voices within” appears, indicating the sounds of a mob of commoners offstage. As is usual when reaching such a direction in the script and not knowing exactly what to do, there was a moment of pause and then the cast began messing around a little. Not as usual, instead of shouting various emotional inflections of “Watermelon watermelon watermelon!”, the commoners instead began tossing out random, but legitimate, words and sentences of Korean and Chinese. It was hilarious and, for me, heart-squeezing.

I’d never experienced anything like that before in my life.

These are the feelings that I carried with me through this Fourth of July, which inspired me to start throwing down these thoughts in the spare moments of my commute whenever I had a seat available to me and also wasn’t occupied with actual work. While I’ve thankfully grown from the immature nationalism of my childhood, I do still believe that there’s something special about the experimental ideals upon which this nation is based. I also one-hundred percent do not blame anyone for whom the participation of themselves or their ancestors as involuntary cannon fodder for this experiment, whose crushed bones are mixed into the mortar of our foundation, keeps them from sharing such sentiments. But as much pride as I have for my roots, I do think that the U.S.A. has something worth keeping in not being a monocultural ethnostate. We’ve got some good shit. We just have to acknowledge who paid the price for that good shit, recognize who hasn’t had access to that good shit, and never stop trying to get that good shit to everyone.

Speaking of good shit: a couple days ago, Holland, the first openly gay Kpop idol, released a new music video. Both that video and his first one feature a same-sex kiss, which earned them 18+ age restrictions in Korea because – sigh – Korea. The fact that they exist at all, though, is progress. While I’d found his first single Neverland to be a pleasant chill jam with a softly sweet video, his newest is a summer jam that resonates a lot more personally with me. Pride Month in the U.S. may be over for this year, but I’m stoked to keep that dance party going.

Until I see you again – keep your spirits high!

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