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.
- 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.
- A new playwright sometimes
has trouble getting the work noticed or breaking into the business.
Did you have any problems like that?
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
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.
- 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?
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.
- So you didnít start writing
when you were a little kid or in high school or something like that?
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Like Stories
from Nan-Jing for example.
- 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.
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)
- 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.
- 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
- Iím very lucky and I was very fortunate to have them.
- 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.
- 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.
did an excellent job as Nelson, the cult leader.
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.
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?
- 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.
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.
- Do you think there might
be any negative repercussions against you if you were to do a sort of
exposť like that?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hopefully through your
writing and plays people will learn the truth.
I read that you are doing something with the Playground LA group.
- 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.
- Letís assume that you continue
your successful playwriting career.
What do you see yourself doing in about ten or fifteen years?
- 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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
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
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