An Interview with Christopher Chen, Writer of “A Game”

Marissa Skudlarek continues her series of interviews with BOA playwrights by discussing “A Game” with playwright Christopher Chen.

2012 is Christopher Chen’s first year participating in BOA. He is a San Francisco native whose work has been seen locally at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, as well as nationally and internationally. “A Game” is the story of a couple who start to play an ostensibly therapeutic game that leaves them questioning the nature of their relationship and more.

Marissa: The game played in “A Game” involves revealing your deepest fears and then pretending that they have come true. So, I think we’re all curious to know – has anyone ever tried to make you play a game like this, and if so, what was your reaction?  If not, where did the idea for this game come from?

Christopher: I am forced to confront my deepest fears every day in this game we call LIFE! Dun dun duuun. But no, I’ve never done anything quite like this, thankfully. I’d been kicking this idea around for a while, and it was kind of a mash-up of two different wants. I wanted to do an intimate, two-person drama with no fancy frills, just two actors and a director really digging into a text; and I also wanted to have some sort of shifting of reality that was totally self-generated and perpetuated by the characters. A weird therapy game proved a natural set-up. But then, after I already mapped the play out, I realized I might have been subconsciously influenced by two works I read many years ago: “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera, and Harold Pinter’s “The Lover.” Sigh. There are no original ideas anymore. But honestly, mine is very different from these two and is concerned with different things. No, seriously.

Marissa: What made you decide to center this play on a lesbian relationship, rather than a heterosexual or gay couple?

Christopher: This was actually my director Paul Cello’s suggestion, and I really loved it. Initially I had them as a heterosexual couple, but then Paul suggested two females for several reasons. First, we need more juicy female roles onstage. Second, having two females would make the shifting power dynamics more interesting. Thirdly, it would just be great to have a play which contains a lesbian couple in which their sexual orientation wasn’t the subject. It is the story of a couple and this couple just happens to be a lesbian couple. And I am so glad he urged me in this direction. What I love about the play now is that by making them a same-sex couple, we ultimately get to zero in more, without the specter of male sexual power dynamics hovering in the background. It is a more neutral space in a way, where we can really focus in more on key subjects like trust and delusion (among others).

Marissa: What has it been like working with director Paul Cello? Has the script changed at all during the rehearsal period?

Christopher: It’s been amazing working with Paul Cello. As you can see from my previous answer, he was integral to the play’s conception. This was truly a collaborative process in every sense of the phrase. The great thing about working with Paul is that you get a dramaturg as well as a director. He suggested many little cuts and tweaks, but also talked candidly with me about the play’s ending, which had always vexed me. We went through about three cycles of my changing the ending and Paul challenging me with tough questions, before it finally grew into something that worked. (Ultimately, the script has changed considerably over the rehearsal period, so the play in the anthology for sale is not the one you will see onstage.)  As a director, Paul has a really keen sense of how to get at the nuances of characters and text, and he really knows how to unfold a play in terms of pacing and rhythm. The last play he directed for BOA, “The Pond,” was one of the most suspenseful and masterfully slow-burning works I had seen in a long time, so when I started working with him I pretty much went: “Do that with my play!” He’s really an ideal partner for a playwright working on a new play. I hope to work with him again in this exact way down the line, hopefully on a full-length.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “A Game”?

Christopher: I hope they will be shaken, engaged, and leave questioning the nature of reality.

Marissa: What about “A Game,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Christopher Chen play?”

Christopher: What I aim to do in my plays is to take the audience down a rabbit hole, and to make this a meticulously choreographed journey. I like to first create a solid structure, then slowly pull this structure out from under the audience’s feet, so that they ultimately land in a place of real dislocation and ambiguity. For me, this mimics the process of confronting a work of art, then allowing the work to shift and change until it ultimately expands your mind and upends your emotional state. I aim to have my plays guide the audience through this “expanding” and “upending” process, and I hope that’s what happens in this play, albeit in a shorter time frame.

Marissa: I know you best as a writer of full-length plays, and this is your first time in BOA. What do you like about the short-play, one-act form?

Christopher: I really like how this short form allows me to really focus and singe things down to their essences. If I want to explore this precise mechanism of how these two characters handle this game, then that’s what I’m going to do, goddammit! Nothing else! Because of a different set of expectations that comes with a one-act, I don’t have to worry as much about more exhaustive things like comprehensive backstories or personal histories, things which would muddy up the basic thrust of the play.

Marissa: What’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?

Christopher: My (recently retitled) play Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act will be at Cutting Ball’s Risk Is This festival June 8-9. (Fellow BOA writer Anthony Clarvoe’s piece Gizmo is also in this festival.) Also, my play The Hundred Flowers Project will be at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer, then get its world premiere with Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation in late October at the Thick House.

Marissa: Toward the end of “A Game,” (or at least the version of the script that is in the anthology!) the characters agree to reveal their greatest hopes. So let me ask you: what is your greatest hope for BOA 2012?

Christopher: My greatest hope is to have as many people come to see both programs as possible!

Marissa: We hope the same thing, Christopher, and we’re glad to have you as a part of BOA!

“A Game” will be performed in Program 2 of BOA 2012.