An Angeleno for decades now, the internationally-produced playwright Henry Ong always manages to find his way back to his home base in Los Angeles (FABRIC at Pasadena Playhouse, SWEET KARMA at The Grove Theatre, to name a few of his works). The prolific writer's latest world premiere THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY will open June 24, 2018 at the Whitefire Theatre. We managed to find a few spare moments of Henry's time to pick his creative brain on L.A. theatre and always giving back.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview with me, Henry!
The original draft of THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY came from your involvement with Jon Lawrence Rivera and Golden Tongues. Can you elaborate on this 2015 association?
I was invited and commissioned to participate in Golden Tongues, which is a joint project by Playwrights' Arena (Jon's the Artistic Director) and UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. The purpose of the project is to draw attention to the vastly untapped treasures of the Golden Age of Spanish theater. Playwrights were asked to pick a play and re-interpret it in a contemporary setting. I picked Tirso de Molina's LE CELOSA DE SI MISMA (JEALOUS OF HERSELF) and modernized it against the backdrop of Los Angeles.
What inspired you to adapt Tirso de Molina's LE CELOSA DE SI MISMA (JEALOUS OF HERSELF) into THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY?
After poring through a catalogue containing hundreds of untapped plays, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the story and the madcap quality of JEALOUS OF HERSELF. Tirso de Molina is himself an interesting character. He was not only a Catholic friar; he was also a successful playwright writing under a pseudonym. The story of a woman who became jealous of herself was simply too delicious to ignore! For me, it also raises questions about society's obsession with beauty and its implications. Apparently, it was no different during 17th century Spain.
What did you learn from your one-nighter at the Odyssey Theatre in August 2016? Any particular audience reaction take you by surprise?
The reading at the Odyssey was magical. We had a sold-out house. And a “red carpet” event, for crying out loud! We, playwrights, never know how our work will be received until it is staged, but the reading was a good gauge that perhaps we were ready for a mass audience. Generally, I had very positive feedback. I don't remember anyone expressing anything negative. There was a lot of laughter throughout the show, and I don't think they were just being polite.
Are there a lot of tweaks from that 2016 reading to this world premiere at Whitefire?
I have done several edits to trim the “fat.” As we rehearse, we are delving into the deeper issues. Hopefully, the comedy goes deeper than just mistaken identity—that deep down, there is also human connection and love. There's a fine balance between being in your face and being subtle. That's what I'm working on at the moment. In the back of my mind, I wonder whether it will work when you have actors try different things. With different casts, the coloring of the play changes somewhat as well.
Any of the actors from your 2016 show back for this Whitefire production?
Unfortunately, the actors were unavailable for this production (e.g. one is moving out of town, another is in India at the moment, etc.) There is also the situation which does not allow us to use Equity actors. So, we have a brand new cast.
How did you come up with the name of your production company - Blue Apple Productions?
Actually this particular production is co-produced by Whitefire Theatre and Artists Against Oppression (AAO), a non-profit organization whose primary mission is to encourage artistic projects in the community that have a charitable bent. We have an arrangement with Thai Community Development Center to honor its Executive Director, Chancee Martorell who supported a number of my artistic endeavors like FABRIC and THE BOONSOM PALAT STORY. There will be at a special event prior to opening for this event, and it will raise monies for Thai CDC as well.
Blue Apple is the literal translation of the name, “Jiang Qing.” She was Chairman Mao Zedong's wife and widow. My first play, Madame Mao's Memories, is based on her life. Because that play defined me as a playwright, I have fond memories of it. Hence, I thought using her adopted name would be an interesting one for my production company.
How does one become a 16-time recipient of Department of Cultural Affairs Artist-in-Residence grants?
By applying for grants with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. I was lucky. I submitted 16 project ideas, all of which were funded. My main proposal was to conduct oral history projects in various underserved or minority communities; it's a way of giving back to the community. I learned that regular people, not just artists, are hungry to tell their stories. It's more about the participants than it is about me, but in the process, I learn about the various communities as well. I've done oral history projects in the Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Thai communities, as well as partnered with Marlton School, Los Angeles' only day school for the deaf and hearing impaired students, to stage several plays for youth. The school had hitherto not done any Asian plays, and there's such a wealth of Asian folktales, so it was a very happy partnership for several years.
Was your six-hour DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER at WHY DREAM IN INGLEWOOD? part of this grant award?
No, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER resulted from an IGAPP (Inglewood Growing Artists Performed Projects) initiative awarded by the City of Inglewood. It gave me the opportunity to revisit my six-hour adaptation of the Chinese classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, a story I grew up with. What a treat to be able to use the beautiful Inglewood Amphitheater and park, as well as its Agee Playhouse theater as the setting to tell this epic tale! We had 13 actors taking on some 70 roles, performing all over the park, over an entire day, with breaks in between, of course. Additionally, we did half the play on one day, and the other half on another. We were also able to use some members of the audience as “actors” for bit lines, which they seemed to enjoy.
How involved are you with your scripts once they get produced past their premieres? Do you partake in any creative decisions? Do you watch rehearsals and give notes?
I do. I try and attend every rehearsal and I like getting various viewpoints, especially from the director. I don't always agree, but I appreciate that everyone wants to do the best for the play. Ultimately, as the playwright, I have final say on whether or not to include suggested changes. And, yes, I do give notes, but always through the director.
Once your plays are published, how flexible are you with any script changes?
I feel that no play is set in stone although, after publication, unless I'm actively involved, any production will have to deal with the published version rather than alter the script.
Did you have any creatives you looked up to in your formative years?
I wasn't originally trained to be a playwright. As with many Asian families, my parents wanted me to be a doctor. So I had to “prove” to them that I had no aptitude for medicine. By which time, I'd graduated with a science degree. I hated my years having to study disciplines I had no interest in, so when I graduated, I decided I would follow my own path. Not knowing what that would be, except that I wanted to write, I became a journalist for a while. I took a UCLA playwriting class, and that was enough for me to decide that that was what I wanted to do. There was a lot of catching up to do, so I immersed myself in reading plays, seeing them when I could. My favorite playwrights were Tennessee Williams and William Inge (the gay ones!). I also looked at Asian playwrights, such as David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda. I'm glad to see there are a number of Asian playwrights now making their mark on the national stage.
How has the Los Angeles theatre community changed in all the years you've been active in it?
My goodness, there's so much theater in Los Angeles. It took me a while to navigate through all the theaters, and I'm still discovering. I like the fact that many productions companies just do it! I even appreciate "bad" theater. No one produces a show to be bad. So there's something to be said for the effort, and there's always something to learn from any production. Plays are also getting shorter. Gone are the three-acts (well, mostly gone!). Today, more and more plays are one-acts, but not any less substantial. The Equity situation certainly is a game-changer. There are so many actors I would love to have worked with on THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY, but we can't. While we appreciate that actors need to get paid, by the same token, they need to constantly exercise their creative muscle. Unless they belong to a membership company, many actors are barred from productions that cannot afford to pay actors more than a minimal wage. Hey, being in a show beats taking acting classes (for which actors pay!).
What emotions would you like Whitefire audiences to leave with after THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY's curtain call?
For this play, I want people to have fun, and at the same time think about the underlying idea of self-esteem and how that's linked to our concept of beauty. I think this play touches on that—excuse the pun—beautifully! I would love it if people can see in the characters, glimpses of themselves. In many of my plays, I would love it if audiences are moved by the message and cry. In this, I hope they are moved to laugh. I remember someone telling me, God loves laughter. I want to my audience to laugh. Pure and simple.
What's in the immediate future for Henry Ong?
I go with the flow. I never know where my next inspiration will come. For instance, last year, I was asked if I would write a play about sexual abuse by Thai Community Development Center (CDC). It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I was game. So we did a movement piece (I asked my friend Donna Eshelman to choreograph) called THE BOONSOM PALAT STORY (title may change), and we presented it at a Thai CDC event. My friend who is opening a Thai restaurant later this year has indicated that I'm welcome to stage it in her restaurant anytime I would like.
I've had several people approach me about writing projects, but I'm considering them one at a time. What I know is, I would love to go beyond just writing plays. I would love to collaborate. I would love to incorporate movement, music, and stage plays in non-traditional spaces. Come to think of it, I've done some of these already! But more. I have several projects in the works, but we'll see if they come to fruition. Some are big, some are simple to execute, but always these projects have to excite me. We'll see. Or I may just not do anything. I remember several years ago, I said I would not write anymore. And I was immediately happy. Then, the next day, I put pen to paper. On the blank page.
Thank you again, Henry! I look forward to seeing your BLADE in action.
For ticket availability through August 26, 2018; log onto TheBladeofJealousy.brownpapertickets.com