This month’s essay is by Chisa Hutchinson, a theater artist who has recently moved back to New York to focus on playwriting and is enrolled in the Graduate Dramatic Writing Program at New York University. We know her because she submitted her play She Like Girls to the Lark in 2006 while she was still teaching at a school in California. It is a beautiful and passionate play about high school kids in the inner city, and about the consequences of love and life choices, and it was selected for inclusion in our annual Playwrights’ Week festival and was further developed as a BareBones® production at the Lark directed by Kristin Horton. It was a conversation with Tina Howe, whom she met at the Lark, that encouraged her to return to graduate school to focus on her writing, and, almost immediately things started to change in her life: she got into NYU, she got a good literary agent, and she received commissions from the Atlantic Theater and the City Parks Foundation.
We are delighted that Chisa is a part of our community, attending the work of other writers and sharing new work of her own from time to time. She is a powerful and hungry writer with clear ideas about how she would like to see the world change. She has an enormous and generous spirit, an overwhelming sense of fun, penetrating intelligence, and a desire to connect with audiences from communities that she knows would benefit from having theater as a part of their lives. In the essay that follows, she discusses how she understands her evolving role as artist and teacher in relation to her community and her belief in theater as a platform for telling stories that especially honor and include Americans who have been marginalized, in part, through their lack of connection to culture and the arts.
We look forward to reading your responses to Chisa–and to one another!
To Make A Contribution,
You Must First Exist
by Chisa Hutchinson
Maybe you know that person who came out of the womb quoting Shakespeare. Who wrote a play in five acts at the age of six and had an informed, well developed opinion on the absurdist style at ten. Yeah. I’m not that person. In fact, I didn’t even see a legit theater production until I was in high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about theater. I saw the commercials for Cats. It’s that I grew up in Newark, New Jersey (before the New Jersey Performing Arts Center existed), and my family had more pressing things to spend money on than theater tickets. Like food. And bail. And rent. And food.
Then, at fourteen, I got a scholarship to a swanky private school. The school had— along with a field house, a dance studio, and a theater— an art gallery where the work of a photographer who takes pictures of the poor was once exhibited. There was one picture in particular of a woman sitting next to a huge hole in her wall. One of my classmates, who was standing right behind me as she looked at this picture, asked in astounding earnest, “Ew, why doesn’t she just get that fixed?”
This girl. I knew what she got on her Chemistry test that week, about her obsessive devotion to Dave Matthews, where her family summered (yep, it’s a verb, too). But she didn’t know that people like me— people with my background and my circumstances and my struggles—even existed. I saw her almost every day, but she didn’t see me. She didn’t see me in that picture.
And this is why I write plays.
I want to validate people who get too little validation. I try to write plays about things that matter to them to let them know that they matter. I have two plays slated for production right now, both of which are about kids from the inner city. She Like Girls, which was developed at the Lark, is being produced in the fall by Working Man’s Clothes Productions. We’re planning a benefit performance to support a shelter for gay kids who’ve been disowned by their families. The second play, Dirt Rich, was commissioned by the City Parks Foundation and will be presented—admission-free—at four outdoor sites around the city this summer. The idea, of course, is to bring theater to people who’d love to see it, but who, after all, have more pressing things to spend money on than theater tickets.
There is another idea, too. A subtler one that has implications beyond whether or not people can afford to come see a show. In my experience as both a student and a teacher of theater, I have both felt and seen the impact that art can have on the drive of a human being, even one who is not particularly interested in art. As a student, for example, I was taken to see two powerhouses, August Wilson and Robert Brustein, debate the issue of color-blind casting. I remember thinking, “Now here is something that affects me. They’re talking about me up there!” Back when I still acted, I’d been cast as everything from a Theban princess to what was supposed to be a middle-aged, male, Jewish radio host. While I enjoyed the challenge and was flattered by the vote of confidence, I worried that my audience must have been thinking things like, “Why is Antigone black? Is it some sort of statement?” or “Couldn’t they find an actress who looked more the part?” or more to the point, “Couldn’t they find a play that would be more appropriate for this girl?” When I heard Wilson’s call for more stories actually about people of color, I knew what I had to do. I was practically catapulted out of that hall into the world of playwriting.
Of course, I know that broadening the spectrum of dramatic narratives isn’t exactly a job I can do alone. Which is why I teach. Right now, I teach creative writing at a free after-school arts program in Brooklyn. Before that, I taught creative writing with NJ SEEDS, the very same program that got me my scholarship. Before that, it was high school English and theater at private schools very much like the one I attended and, before that, SEEDS again. I’ve been teaching since I was eighteen years old. I’ll probably keep teaching for as long as the universe will let me. When producing entities begin to view artists of color as more than ornaments, when institutions that reward creativity decide that it’s okay to give a prize to an Asian writer two years in a row if the writing is just that good, I want to be sure that my students are ready, their voices strong and distinct, their hearts full-to-bursting with purpose.
I recently got an email from a former student. She’d read about me in the SEEDS newsletter and wanted to let me know that she remembered me and the (race-appropriate) monologue she performed for the theater elective I taught back when I was still an intern with the program. She’s now an investment analyst at the World Bank/IFC. Obviously, I can’t exactly take credit for that. The fact that she was a brilliant student with an inhumanly strong work ethic might have more to do with it than anything else. But the fact that nearly a decade later, she remembers the exact monologue she recited one silly summer and felt compelled to let me know… well, that’s got to count for something right?
Here’s my theory: people with access to art—both as audience and as subject—tend to have a sense of entitlement that makes them better equipped to succeed in the world. Seeing yourself or someone you know on stage, seeing a house that looks like it could be your grandma’s in a painting, even hearing your name in the refrain of a song (I’m still waiting for that one) can go a long way to make you feel like you belong in the world and can contribute to it. Totally underrepresented people, on the other hand, lack the sense of entitlement and confidence they need to fulfill their potential, whether as business magnates, technology whizzes, or playwrights. They are simply too invisible to feel essential and society totally misses out on what they might have to contribute. Makes me wonder how many Sakeenahs, Seong-Euns, and Soledads out there have something to offer the world and don’t know it. You can bet your sweet, culture-loving ass one of them makes an appearance in my next play.