christopher oscar peña is a super busy, nation-trotting playwright with a lot to look forward to. Up next: the World Premiere of a cautionary tail at The Flea, beginning May 29th!
THEASY: When did you start writing plays? Did you always know you'd pursue a career as a playwright? What's your theatrical background?
CP: Like many people, I went to college (UC Santa Barbara) thinking I was going to be an actor. Then I realized I wasn't very good, and got so uncomfortable on stage, I thought I should just throw in the towel. I changed my major to sociology and was going to pursue a law career, when one day, and I remember this very clearly, Naomi Iizuka, who at the time was the head of playwriting, pulled me aside, grabbed both of my shoulders and said, "You're a playwright. You tell stories." I enrolled in her writing class that quarter and never looked back. To this day, that moment feels a little bit like magic to me. I often wonder how different my life would have turned out had it not been for Naomi and that moment. Another thing that was really cool about this point in my life, is that while most people were reading Miller and Shakespeare for the 800th time, Naomi taught us her peers, her contemporaries and other students who were emerging. So I read David Adjmi, Luis Alfaro, Chay Yew, Jose Rivera, Susan Lori-Parks, Sarah Ruhl, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas and Julia Cho (among many others). During that time I was also taught by people like Anne Garcia-Romero, Lisa D'Amour, and many like minded folks. So I think was really lucky. They all really sparked my theatrical imagination.
THEASY: Who are the playwrights you admire? Who are your mentors?
CP: Naomi will always be my first mentor. I went to NYU for grad school so I was taught by people like Marsha Norman and Eduardo Machado. Eduardo was incredibly supportive in that time. Rinne Groff was also a great mentor and friend. It was great to have been reading her stuff in college and then have a direct connection to her in grad school. There was this running joke in grad school that I didn't like anything written before the year 2000. In a way, thats true. I like to learn from my contemporaries, and the people that have come just right before me. People like Rolin Jones, Itamar Moses, Paula Vogel, David Henry Hwang, Maria Irene Fornes, Caryl Churchill, August Wilson, Carlos Murillo, Sheilla Callaghan, Thomas Bradshaw, Lloyd Suh, Rajiv Joseph, Adam Rapp and Erin Courtney, to name just a few.
I really, really, really love my immediate contemporaries, my colleagues, the people I consider my artistic family, my tribe: Janine Nabers, Bekah Brunstetter, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jon Caren, Josh Conkel, Josh Allen, matthew paul olmos, Lauren Yee, Jackie Sibblies-Drury, Krista Knight, Greg Moss, Carla Ching, Sharif Abu-Hamdeh, Victor Lewniewski, Nastaran Ahmadi, Phil Dawkins, Tanya Saracho, Rey Pamatmat, Mike Lew, Scott Barsotti, Nick Jones, JC Lee, Stefanie Zadravec. I really dig those writers. I think they all have incredible, unique, authentic voices and I love reading and watching their work. I love seeing the world through their perspectives. I love seeing and hearing their stories.
THEASY: What kind of plays do you love to write? What qualities reflect your work?
CP: I think a lot of writers write to say something. I find myself writing because I'm confused and need to understand something. So I write to ask the questions I don't know the answers to, and often that manifests itself in the way my stories unfold. I like surprises. I like theatrical magic, or just plain old THEATER. I love plays where form and language are being used and changed. I love plays where you tell the audience you're going to Florida and you end up on Saturn. I think the audience should be surprised and terrified. My favorite types of plays reinvent things and make you see the world anew. I think those are all qualities that hopefully reflect my work. People often say I'm a poet, though if I sat down and tried to write a poem I imagine I'd be an utter failure.
THEASY: Next up for you is the World Premiere of a cautionary tail. What is the show about, and what are you most excited about from the production?
CP: The plot. Well, its about two Chinese-American siblings in a New York high school dealing with identity and making choices that have scary consequences. That sounds dumb. I'm bad at plot analysis, especially of my own plays. But I can tell you theres a Tiger on stage, like high-fashion couture tiger. And there is a purple man. And there is crazy movement. I'm super excited because this play can be done by eight actors, but the Flea has been incredibly supportive of the work and have really let me do whatever I want. The director, Ben Kamine and I, are basically like an old married couple. We speak the same language. We look at each other and communicate volumes. So that collaboration has been pretty special. During auditions for the play it was clear very quickly, that there were more actors that we wanted to work with, than we could actually fit in the way we were telling the story. So he and I immediately looked at each other and thought, what if we could build an ensemble, not one that moves furniture around, but that really populates the world of this play and really affects the momentum, plot, storytelling. We went to the producers and said, we want to do this, and they said, GO FOR IT. So we have this ensemble of TWENTY actors. Can you believe that?! TWENTY. And they're all so different and talented and unique and bring so much to the production, so I feel very blessed. I'm also a little sad, because I'm getting all these amazing things on my first production, so it can only go downhill from here right? Just kidding. I hope. I'm also excited about the family we've created. This sounds like I'm twelve, but whatever, I don't care. One of the actors is married, and he told me that the other night he explained to his wife that this isn't just a play, with rehearsals and shows, it's a whole experience, the CP experience. Which, of course, I love. So we've built an incredibly tight community. We're all reading things and listening to music videos and tagging each other on Facebook all the time. There is a karaoke scene in a bar, so now we do "research field trips" and go out as a creative team and drink and bond. There was this awesome moment where these two people who I LOVE LOVE LOVE, can actually sing their faces off, and they did, so we were like, how do we use that in the show? So I'm incredibly excited to share this production with everyone, but in a way, the thing that has been the most exciting is seeing it come to life with these people that I now consider part of my family. It's called a play, and we do. There was a joke the other day, about how we're all going to get tattoos, Lord of the Rings style, because that's how obsessed we all are with each other, and this experience. Also, the designers, you have no idea. I'm working with two people new to me, Jonathan Cottle and Jeremy Bloom, who are the resident light and sound designers respectively at The Flea, and it's been awesome to hear them enter my play as total strangers, and come out with these innovative, cool ideas. There are these epic movement/dance/ choreography sequences so we have this GENIUS movement director working on the play, Laura Brandel and she is (to take a term that has become a part of our daily life during this experience) EVERYTHING. From the first day we met, she understood me and what I was trying to get at with these sequences, so watching her build movement with the company has been so exciting and thrilling, I never know what I'm going to see next. And Andrea Lauer and David Meyer (costumes and sets) are old friends from grad school, so it's really fun to have my first production with people I've come up with that I've thought are brilliant for years.
THEASY: What can audiences expect when they see a cautionary tail?
CP: My hope is that an audience watches a story, and learns something new, that they have to question their own experiences and that there is a sort of deep, communal experience with an audience. So I want like "deep" things to happen. But at the same time, it's incredibly important to me that people have an awesome time. I want people to laugh and be terrified. I think often when we go to "deep" or "serious" plays, they can be really boring. I'm hoping that you can have an intellectual and emotional experience with my show, but still have a kick ass time. I want it to feel like a concert. And with what this cast and creative team are coming up with, I think people are going to really enjoy themselves.
THEASY: What's next for you?
CP: For the past year, I've been in residence at the Goodman Theater in Chicago working on a new commission (along with the amazing Alice Austen, Ike Holter, and Greg Allen), so we're going to have big public readings of our plays in July and see where we go from there. We just released the first season of a webseries I co-created "80/20" and we had an amazing response. I'm acting in it. Oops. Alongside some of the most talented actors working on stage and screen so I'm super blessed to have them. It's been so well received that we are hopefully beginning work on the second season. And I'm going to start spending some time in LA. I'm writing a couple of pilots and my first feature screenplay so we will see what happens. So many possibilities. And obviously, this experience with The Flea has been so amazing, they've really given me a home, that I hope to continue a long and fruitful relationship with them for years to come. But for now, I'm just having a great time with the cautionary family!