Conversation with Jesse Mu-En Shao

Playwright of The End Times

Jose Ruiz

 

 

After seeing the play, The End Times at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles, we wanted to learn more about the playwright and how this play came about.  (see review here)

The play is a polished and professional piece of work that handles a difficult subject.  It's intense, powerful and gripping and we wanted to know more about the person who wrote this and what motivated such a strong expose of a life, so we asked the author, Jesse Mu-En Shao about this play and if he had written other plays.

JMES - Mostly readings.  Iíve had productions but on a college level, so I really have to say that this is my first entry into a professional production.

RP -  A new playwright sometimes has trouble getting the work noticed or breaking into the business.  Did you have any problems like that?

JMES - I was very lucky.  This play started two years ago back in my thesis play at USC and there were three artistic directors who saw it. One from the Pasadena Playhouse, another from the South Coast Rep and Loretta Greco from The Magic Theatre (in San Francisco).  They all saw the show Ė the reading Ė and they liked it and were very encouraging.  They really supported me through this bridge I guess you could say.  Seema Sueko from the Pasadena Playhouse took me on to join the Hot House Plays development program and at that meeting there Jon Rivera saw the play and reached out to me and asked about doing the show.  So really, it was mostly other people who came forward to support me and the project, and of course, Iím extremely grateful for that.

RP - Thatís great! Iíve known of playwrights who sometimes have spent months or years getting a project done.   Let me ask you this, when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

JMES - I think I decided after my second play (in college.)  My first play was Where You End I Begin.  I did that as an undergrad.  I wrote a story about a multi-generational home and how story telling is passed down in a Chinese-American home. I remember at that time I was in the University in Portland; thereís less than twenty thousand people there when the students are in town, so I didnít think anyone was going to relate, but I remember that many audience members Ė older people came up to me and began sharing their stories where their parents began to go through dementia and Alzheimerís as I discussed in my play.   At that time, I thought that was the one thing I was going to do, but when the next play came around, once again at the Next Stage One I realized that this was going to be something that I thought I needed.  I think thatís when I decided that I was going to be a writer.

RP - So you didnít start writing when you were a little kid or in high school or something like that?

JMES - Well, having grown up in the Lordís Recovery I didnít really have a chance to express that.  If I did it was always like private and for myself.  There was a thing called Zenga Ė it was like a blog and I used to write things on there but I never shared with anyone.  It was just something I wrote for myself.  I think Iíve always had a love for language and Iíve always been drawn to philosophical questions.  I think thatís always been a part of me. Iím not one for large crowds but I love when I sit down for hours with someone and share ideas.  Iíve always been that way I think. I still remember being a young brother in the Lordís Recovery and when we would go out to lunch to have a burger or something all I wanted to do was to sit there for a couple of hours and talk.  It always bothered me that people wanted to leave to find the next activity Ė find the next thing to do.

RP - In your play, Where You End I Begin I saw in your web page that the cast is all Asian.  Are all your plays Asian based or with that foundation?  When I saw The End Times it seems that it could be cast within any group.

JMES - It depends on which plays Ė for example Triumph could be cast anyway.  There are some plays that are very specific and would require casting Asian actors.

RP - Like Stories from Nan-Jing for example.

JMES - Yes.  That story I wrote from something I heard when my grandmother was passing away.  My uncle told me a story about how my grandfather and his brother had escaped before the communist invasion of the city.  I remembered that story and I began to write about it.  There was a time when I was kind of ashamed of being Chinese in America and I didnít want to talk about where Iím from and mostly because I didnít really know.  My parents are very stoic.  They keep a lot of secrets.  But I gathered what I could from what my uncle told me and made it into a play.  It became a symbolic moment from me when I decided to use my name, Mu-En Shao and I made up my mind that Iím not going to back down from who I am and where Iím from.  I decided to make a discovery out of this.

RP-   Letís talk about your current play.  Did you have any input in selecting the cast or was it all the casting directorís choice (Raul Clayton Staggs)

JMES - Well, I have to say that was a very interesting experience.  That was my first time doing this in a professional setting.  I had a pretty good say it the process.  Of course Jon and Raul had the first say, but it was nice that their ideas never really were never in conflict with my ideas.  For example, when Christian T. Chan, the lead actor, stepped up to the stage and he put up his first scene it was very clear that what he could capture on stage was so great and he fit the part well.  I remember Mariah Robinson was the same way.  When she came up she just won everyone over.  It was truly impossible to say no to her.  I remember when we met Matt Pascua.  When I saw him he brought a new level to the anger in a way that I had never seen before.  Whenever I read that part for me, Iím always yelling Ė it would be a terrible acting choice.  For me, I was really steeped in that role because of where I was at the time in the Lordís Recovery, so for me it was always like yelling and acting out, but Matt found a way to make that anger subtle, and to make it very painful as well.  I love that tone.  So even though I had a say, we only really had a couple of other choices but by the end we all knew that these were the right choices.

 RP - Yes they were.  I felt that the cast was very committed and they were very believable, which as you know is one of the most important elements in a play.

JMES - Iím very lucky and I was very fortunate to have them.

RP -   You had somewhat of a coup bringing in Joe Spano who is very well known for his work on television in NCIS and other shows.

JMES - You know something funny? My father-in-law came to see the preview and he immediately knew Joe Spano and he just like turned into a little boy.  Here is a 40 plus year old man Ė the kind of guy with broad shoulders who drives a truck and looks like he carries a shotgun in the back and he just melted when he saw Joe Spano.  He was so excited.

RP - Spano did an excellent job as Nelson, the cult leader.

JMES Ė He was so attentive to the role.  He was sending me emails before we shot the scenes and he was very clear on the day he came in to shoot.  He said he had watched every video I had sent him and he really found the mannerism of the character.

RP-   He was very good Ė ominous and a little scary.  On a different topic let me ask you this Ė do you have anything coming up in the near future?  Anything new in the works, so to speak?

JMES - Iím sort of torn about which project I want to commit to at this point.  One of the plays Iím kind of revising is something I wrote in grad school.  Itís specifically about an Asian -American body builder who has never competed in body-building, but the size of his body is causing so much strain on his heart that he is going to die.  So the whole crux of the play is that he decides Ė ďthis is the last time Iím going to compete and Iím going to be happy with my body.Ē  Itís an exploration into masculinity Ė specifically Asian-American masculinity and what this body distorting disease is; where does it come from and what itís doing to his heart. 

A second piece Iíve been thinking of sort of builds off The End Times.  For a long time, Iíve been wanting to write a piece that is another church play.  This deals with a church scandal that happened in the 1980ís and how it was covered up and the effects it had on all the believers.  Right now I want to get away from church things, but at the same time because the play (The End Times) has opened a lot of doors for former Lordís Recovery members who have reached out to me. Itís really hard to ignore them.  Theyíre so excited and they keep talking about their experiences and the different things they have gone through.  They have opened up about things that even I didnít know and the more I learned the more disturbed I got.  As crazy as it sounds I canít believe all the things that happened and the people just let it happen.   Thereís a part of me that wants to do this historical biopicplay on these events and maybe show it from all sides Ė sort of a less biased version from what I have already done.

RP -   Do you think there might be any negative repercussions against you if you were to do a sort of exposť like that?

JMES - Oh, itís definitely possible! I know that when I was growing up I knew that the Living Stream Ministry which is an organization that essentially runs the local churches but the local churches donít like to say that.  But this organization has a propensity for suing people and they started really ramping that up in the year 2000 when I was in the sixth grade.  I still remember those days.  Thatís when they created this thing called DCP, the Defense Confirmation Project.  Itís a branch outside the Living Stream Ministry that handles all the legalities of the churches.  Itís kind out ridiculous now because as I researched and looked into later I discovered that this thing they say is a separate entity is pretty much run by the same board of directors and the money flows from one to the other.  There is no difference and itís really disturbing.  Especially when one considers how many millions of dollars it pumps every year. 

        I felt for a while that I was beginning to get away from it and as people started to find my play then more things started to come to light that I didnít even know about.

RP -   Well, it would be a great thing if your writings could bring some of these things to light. Think of all the good it would do.

JMES - I still think to myself that the people who are in this organization deserve to know the truth.  A part of me isnít against the practices necessarily, although I do have lots of criticism against them.  I believe the practices have now been used to usurp the benefits of the actual members.  Itís been used to protect the church authorities and I think in a sense that there is a line that has been blurred.  The more I learn about it the more I see that they are crossing it in so many ways because I know that there are people like me growing up being told things are not true.   And I know that many of those kids are going to leave and they are going to wonder what they are supposed to be doing with their lives.

RP -   Hopefully through your writing and plays people will learn the truth.  I read that you are doing something with the Playground LA group.

JMES - Yes Ė thatís for their year-end program.  Thereíll be six other writers showcasing their works also. They are a wonderful group.  You want to talk about finding a community of writers in Los Angeles, Playground LA is an excellent place.

RP - Letís assume that you continue your successful playwriting career.  What do you see yourself doing in about ten or fifteen years?

JMES - Oh man!  I said something to my wife that I wanted to write fifteen plays in my lifetime that Iím very happy with.  And by happy I mean that I told the story I wanted to tell.  It doesnít necessarily mean that it has to be produced Ė it has to be something that I found the truth in.  I think that from my upbringing I have this unrelenting quest for something that is true.  Iím not sure if thatís trauma or thatís just who I am.  I hope that it is who I am because it would be a scary thing to discover that it was some obsession. 

I would hope that I would have at least one play that deals with the issue of Asian-American masculinity.  Iíve tried and failed several times. Growing up my only real idol was Bruce Lee.  There was a lot of depictions in film but they were these meek, effeminate nerdy Asian men, but these werenít the men that I saw in my life and it wasnít what I saw in myself.  I felt as if some sort of brainwashing that had been going on far longer than my childhood.  Itís crazy that this type of thinking has been going on for over eighty years!  Itís evolved and changed in different ways but that doesnít mean it isnít the same.  Iíve looked at that and said to myself that I have to break the cycle.  Maybe itís that what Iíve written at my best so far is just an aspect of healing.  The plays that deal with the experience.  Maybe I should stop thinking so much about aspiration and more about feeling and maybe that would be the right thing to enter into my work.  I think I have many more years to try and different ways of getting into it.

RP -   Have you ever considered writing a novel rather than a play?

JMES - Ah Ė no!  Iíve never been really good with prose.  I donít even know if I have the focus to do something like that.  Now when I write a play I set myself up so that I have consecutive hours of my day that devoted to organizing my thoughts.  Then when I actually get to the creative part I can bang it out in thirty to forty-five minutes.  Because if I donít do that I wander.  Iíve come to the realization that I really lack focus! I have a hard time focusing through long hard things. In the act of crafting a full length play I have to always remind myself that itís the little things done daily that achieve extraordinary results.  Like you build a play over the course of years!  You can get a lot of material; you can do some writing exercises but it you want it to last you build in the strength. Itís a little like distance running.  My mind and even my body are just naturally built for sprinting but I have to always trick myself into running the long race.  I just think that a novel would be way too long of a race to trick myself into.  I donít think it would be for me.

RP -   Well, we have discussed your future plans, some of your past and some of the things that motivate you.  Thank you for your time Ė you must be very busy working on this project and I look forward to your next production and our next conversation.

JMES-   Thank you.

With that our conversation came to a close but it was clear that Jesse is a person who is on a long and perhaps difficult voyage of self-exploration navigating some uncertain seas.  On the one hand he seems to have a tenuous relationship with the church and the religion that he has left behind and on the other hand is plotting a course forward with the firm sextant of his writing talent, focusing on his personal north star which he hopes will point him to the distant shores of self-realization.  We are confident that as we follow his future works his goals and ambitions will be slowly unveiled in every unique story that he unfolds for us on stage.

Comments? Write to us at: Letters@ReviewPlays.Com