INTERVIEW WITH CHLOÉ HUNG
Chloé is an actor, filmmaker, playwright and director based out of Toronto and Los Angeles.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to pursue the arts in a serious way?
In a way, I’ve always known. There was little else that interested me, career-wise. But actually committing to pursuing the arts in a serious way took a while. I kept waiting for something else to strike me, some other career, and so I stalled for a long time. That’s not to stay the “stalling” part of my life was not important. I learned a lot – academically and in life – and I wouldn’t trade that time. It has made me a better writer. I think I might have found it harder to go straight from high school into a BFA program. I needed time to explore other things and other interests. But I always came back to writing. While I was teaching in South Korea, I decided that I would apply to graduate school for writing. That’s when I actually committed, in a serious way.
While you were studying at the University of King’s College you were very active in the King’s Theatrical Society, as an actor performing in works such as The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl but also as a director, taking on complex projects like Noises Off. What did you take away from these years as an undergrad theatre artist? And what were some moments from the Pit that really linger with you?
The King’s Theatrical Society was incredible. We did so much with not a lot. It was completely student run and at times that proved difficult as we were just kids figuring out budgets and how do we build this elaborate set and how do I tell this complicated story about people much older than us. My time with the KTS really showed me just how collaborative an art theatre is. You really can’t do it alone. I learned a lot from each show I was a part of. Moments from the Pit that linger are polarizing but mostly I have many cherished and magical memories.
How did you experience teaching English in Korea transform your perspective on storytelling?
It gave me perspective – not just of my own experience but of many others. It opened me up to nuances in race and gender that I hadn’t thought of before. In Korea, I looked like everyone but I was still an Other. It was a different experience to being an Other in Canada. There was also being a part of expat culture in another country and with it brought all kinds of personalities. There were people who welcomed being seen as a foreigner and others who couldn’t reconcile not being the “majority” or part of the group (race) in power. It was fascinating.
Your time spent studying dramatic writing in New York City seemed to be a very fruitful period for you. What were some of the challenges you were up against during your years at NYU?
My biggest challenge was believing that I knew what I was doing. Part of the reason I wanted to go to grad school was because I thought I knew nothing about playwriting and screenwriting. I learned so much from my teachers and my peers, I was a sponge and I took in every comment but it was then learning to take that feedback and then trust my instincts to sift through what was a helpful note, what was an extraneous note, and what was the note within the note. For most of my NYU years, I didn’t trust my instincts. I’d try to incorporate every note I got and often the result was a camel (a horse designed by committee). I’m still learning.
Your 2015 play about the women kidnapped by Boko Haram, All Our Yesterdays, was very well received by theatre critics in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, amongst many others. How did this story idea germinate? What was your research process like?
When I first read about the Chibok school girls’ kidnapping, it was the spring before I began grad school. There was this stark contrast of me going to school (and not just any school but pursuing a master’s degree at a renowned university) and these sixteen-year-old girls who were kidnapped for, in part, going to school. There was something that felt so immediate. Education is something I take for granted because I’ve been so privileged in the schools I’ve attended. It’s heartbreaking that 62 million girls around the world don’t have access to education and so many are penalized for trying to seek it out.
I knew I wanted to write about the girls but I didn’t know how. It floated in the back of my mind until a class assignment to write two-scenes (non-linear) where we begin in the present and the second scene moves us into the past to illuminate something about the first scene. In my mind, I had an image of two girls huddled together. They were sisters, I decided, and I wanted to know more about these sisters. And I wrote what would later become the ending of .
The research process difficult but I had a lot of help. My stepdad, Michael Kaufman, who is an activist, put in me in touch with his colleagues in Nigeria who put me in contact with Hadiza Aminu, who drafted the campaign for #BringBackOurGirls. We skyped a couple of times and she was an invaluable resource for what was happening on the ground as there was little information online. My stepdad also put me in touch with Pablo Idahosa, a Nigerian-born professor at York University in African studies, who was able to give me a lesson in the historical context and the issues that affect this conflict in Nigeria. For the Asperger’s and autism research, I spoke with Kristen Mayne, the communications director of Autism Ontario, and between the Toronto Fringe production and the Next Stage production I corresponded with Adam Schwartz, a comedian with Asperger’s whom I had met at the Toronto Fringe. He gave me wonderful feedback and great insight into Asperger’s syndrome that I was able to incorporate into the Next Stage production.
What were you most afraid of while considering your move to LA? What were you most excited about?
I was most afraid of failing and I still am. I know that failure and success is all relative but that’s the truth. I was most excited about the opportunities that lay ahead.
In Issei, He Say, Three Women of Swatow and Model Minority, you explore the Chinese experience in North America. Who are some filmmakers or playwrights you admire who are exploring the Chinese-Canadian or Chinese-American experience? What is the biggest challenge in depicting these stories, either in the writing or production stages?
There’s this interesting cultural shift happening now where storytellers of colour are getting the opportunity to tell more nuanced stories of their experience growing up in North America. It’s still difficult to get these stories made but it’s encouraging to see film and television shows like Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick or Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special Homecoming King. On stage, I’m excited that there is this new wave of Asian-American female playwrights like Lauren Yee, Carla Ching, and Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Check out http://thekilroys.org/list-2017/ and http://the49list.com for lists of women (and more specifically women of colour) playwrights.
The biggest challenge is best exemplified in the episode of Aziz Ansari’s show called “Indians on TV” where Aziz challenges this notion of “there can’t be two.” The assumption that everyone from one background is the same and has had the same experience and therefore we only need one is insulting. There is a move away from that kind of thinking but it’s still so pervasive.
The ‘Swatow’ in Three Women of Swatow is the name of your maternal grandparents’ homestead in China. To what extent does your own heritage work its way into your writing?
Always. In retrospect, I probably should have changed Swatow to a different city since this is a play about women who kill their abusive husbands but Swatow has swirled in my mind since I was a kid. I always was aware that my mom’s family were minorities in Hong Kong, that they were from another place and spoke another language. I think my heritage works its way into my writing the same way anyone’s does. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the women in my family, especially my Grandmothers whom I have written a lot about. There’s a lot of pain and strength in these women and it’s rich with story.
In Three Women of Swatow you look very carefully at matrilineal heritage. You’ve also run a podcast entitled ‘Stories from My Grandma’, in which you interviewed people about their inspiring Grandmothers. What have you learned from your matrilineal relationships? What about matrilineal relationships makes them special or complicated?
You don’t know how much your mother has influenced you until you blurt out something your mother always says and you think, “oh my god I’m becoming my mother.” Mother/daughter relationships are so fascinating because there’s so much love and hurt that can be mined and a lot that people ingest unconsciously. Part of that is being the same gender so your mother has experienced certain societal things that she knows you’re going to experience and she’s trying to teach you what she knows but often she doesn’t realize that’s what she’s doing. Some mothers are successful communicators and others aren’t and both of those qualities have lasting impacts and affect who we are. Again, it’s endlessly fascinating to me. Legacy is something I love writing about. So I wanted to explore how other people’s families worked and surprise, surprise, we’re all the same. The reason ‘Stories From My Grandma’ is stories relayed by grandchildren and not children is because often we don’t know how interesting our parents are because they’re so ordinary to us or rather we’re so used to them. My mom would tell me stories from my grandma in the context of her having heard it a thousand times and having grown up with them, but when I hear these stories I’m completely taken and transported. I was interested in how we pass on our family’s legacy through oral storytelling.
In All Our Yesterdays and Three Women of Swatow you examine men’s abuse of power in their relationships with women. How do you brainstorm the visual representations of this power abuse, especially when the men do not appear onstage?
In both All Our Yesterdays and Three Women of Swatow, I had conversations with people whom I showed the plays to (both originated in classes at NYU) where people wanted to see the man. In All Our Yesterdays , the trajectory of the play and the message was so clear to me from the beginning that I knew I didn’t want a man to enter the stage. A scene between Ladi and her captor was not interesting to me at all, what came after was much more interesting, what she wanted her sister to know and what she didn’t want her sister to know was more telling of the abuse than seeing the abuse itself. Three Women was more of an exploration. I didn’t know where it was going when I started it so for a few drafts the Husband was a fourth character. All my feedback then was about the Husband. It took me a while to realize that my issues with the Husband being in was the same reason I didn’t want a male character in . Once a man walks on stage, the play is about him. But the core relationship I wanted to explore in these two plays weren’t the women’s relationships with the men, which were important aspects to both these plays, but they were the relationships between the women. So in both cases, I decided to stay with the women. The women’s relationships with the men in their lives then became a factor of influence in their relationship with each other.
You’ve recently been awarded the RBC Emerging Playwright’s Award, representing years of work writing, creating, promoting. What advice would you give to a young playwright looking to achieve a similar degree of success?
It’s a great honour to receive this award and I’m grateful for the opportunity it will give me to continue working on . I still feel unqualified to give any kind of advice for other young playwrights except to say keep at it and keep writing. Write what feels right to you and write what fascinates you. The business side of being a writer is hard and unpredictable so make sure you’ve got material for when the opportunities come.
What are you looking forward to?
More stories by and about women of colour.