In our first podcast episode of 2021, we’re thrilled to feature a conversation with playwright/director/producer, Chay Yew. We’ll all have an opportunity to see his work as a director this winter, with his direction of Brian Quijada’s Where Did We Sit on the Bus? And long-time Geva audiences may remember the production of Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views, which Chay also directed. Pirronne Yousefzadeh joins me again as co-host, for this inspirational conversation that really focuses on the ways in which we can all open doors for others to follow us, and create opportunities for the next generation to grow and succeed.
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We recorded this interview in the middle of January, and in the intervening weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the great thoughts that Chay offered. At one point, we talked about the relevance of stories in the theatre, and the importance, for non-profit theatres especially, to tell the stories of the people. Specifically, Chay said that because non-profit theatres don’t pay taxes, they are essentially being paid by the government, which comes with a responsibility. Shortly after this conversation, I stumbled on a quote from the late Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo, which emphasized this thought. Fo said, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.” An inspirational thought, as we consider the ways in which theatres and theatre artists contribute to our understanding of the times in which we are living. (And it’s not a new phenomenon – Euripedes’ The Trojan Women, from 415 BC, is still produced today and is an excellent example of a play that still speaks to us about the dangers of war and its impact on citizens.)
Chay told us about growing up in Singapore, where his love for theatre began while watching the Chinese street opera before he came to the United States for college. He returned to Singapore to complete his mandatory military service, began performing, and then found freedom in playwriting – even as he came up against censorship from the government. He soon returned to the United States for graduate school.
Chay spoke about some of the theatre artists and leaders who have inspired him and have made his work possible. He spoke about the late Gordon Davidson, who founded Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles’ largest non-profit theatre. Center Theatre Group includes several theatres – the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It was under Davidson’s leadership that Chay Yew first arrived at Center Theatre Group, in a position funded by the Mellon Foundation, and began the Asian Theatre Workshop, which he ran for ten years.
He also spoke about the impact of Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, and his play M. Butterfly, the first play by an Asian American to be produced on Broadway. He spoke about Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, whose play Indecent was produce on Broadway in 2017. For decades, Vogel ran an innovative playwriting program at Brown University, and a similar program at Yale until 2012 – her former students include some of the most successful playwrights in the theatre. And Chay spoke about the incredible Maria Irene Fornés, who died in 2018 after inspiring thousands of writers through the workshops she led in New York City, in addition to penning her own influential works, including Fefu and Her Friends.
And we talked also about the time Chay spent as the artistic director of Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago (from 2011-2016, Geva’s executive director Chris Mannelli was the managing director there, working with Chay). During his time there, Chay produced Universes’ Ameriville (check out episode 6 of the podcast, which features Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz, founders of Universes, or see their website); Brian Quijada’s Where Did We Sit on the Bus? which Geva will present beginning on February 16 (also check out Brian’s website, and episode 3 of the podcast, which featured Brian’s story); Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton; and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, which is scheduled to go on tour after the pandemic.
There’s so much more to this conversation, and I especially urge you to note the conversation’s through lines about the importance of mentorship and the importance of building bigger tables which include more and more voices.
Here’s an abbreviated bio for Chay – please visit his website for a full bio, and explore the gorgeous production photos!
Chay Yew is a director, producer and playwright. His plays include Porcelain, A Language of Their Own, Red, Wonderland, Question 27 Question 28, A Distant Shore, 17, and Visible Cities. His other work includes adaptations, A Winter People (based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) and Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, a musical Long Season and other theatre works, Vivien and the Shadows; Home: Places between Asia and America; and A Beautiful Country. For his plays, he is the recipient of the London Fringe Award for Best Playwright and Best Play, George and Elisabeth Marton Playwriting Award, GLAAD Media Award, Asian Pacific Gays and Friends’ Community Visibility Award, Made in America Award, AEA/SAG/AFTRA 2004 Diversity Honor, and the Robert Chesley Award; he has also received grants from the McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller MAP Fund and the TCG/Pew National Residency Program. Chay recently edited two new anthologies “Version 3.0: Contemporary Asian American Plays” for TCG Publications and “Manifesto Series V4” for Rain City Projects. He is presently working on commissions from Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Writers Theatre.
As a director, Chay has a very long and impressive list of credits in New York and across the country. Here’s a small sample: Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, Book of Titus and Oedipus el Rey, Julia Cho’s Durango and The Architecture of Loss, Universes’ Ameriville, Blue Suite and Low; Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band; Kia Corthron’s A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick; Brian Quijada’s Where Did We Sit On The Bus?; Marcus Gardley’s The House that Will Not Stand; Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views; Brian Freeman’s Civil Sex; Denise Uyehara’s Maps of Body and City; and so many more. He is also a recipient of the OBIE, DramaLogue, and the Craig Noel Awards for Direction.
An alumnus of New Dramatists in New York and an Affiliate Writer at Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, he has served on the Board of Directors of Theatre Communications Group, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ Cultural Advisory Council, the Executive Board on the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and the League of Chicago Theatres. He’s currently on the Executive Board of the Consortium of Asian American Theatre and Artists. He was also an Associate Artist, and the Founder and Director of the Mark Taper Forum’s Asian Theatre Workshop from 1995 to 2005; during that time, he was also producing the Taper, Too seasons.
From 2011 to 2020, Chay Yew was the Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. During his tenure, out of 43 productions, 18 plays received world premieres. One of those premieres went to Broadway, four were produced off-Broadway, and others were presented regionally, and abroad at Donmar Warehouse and Bush Theatre in London. At Victory Gardens, he established several programs: the Directors Inclusion Initiative to develop emerging Chicago stage directors who identify as people of color, disabled, women, transgender, gender non‐conforming, and/or LGBTQ; the Next Generation Fellowship, a professional development program, for our next generation of arts leaders and managers of color through hands‐on experience, mentorship, career guidance; and the Resident Theatre Program, an incubator for existing Chicago storefront theatres to further each company’s growth and stability by giving them a physical home to nurture its audience base, develop its respective boards, and fully realize the next phases of their strategic plans through multi-year residencies.