Apr 27

Snow in Midsummer playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig found a moment to chat with CSC’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Phil Haas, to discuss the play and specifically what makes this staging in this moment so unique. 

Phil Haas: What are your thoughts on the power of making classic stories contemporary like you’ve done with Snow in Midsummer? How do you feel that serves audiences and theater, in general? 

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig: It is exciting to witness my adaptation of Snow in Midsummer being embraced by college professors who had already been teaching the original text in their theater history survey courses and subsequently began teaching my updated version alongside it. To me the most meaningful part of the new play process is when my plays are produced at the high school and college level. It has been meaningful to hear from students involved in a recent high school production of my adaptation at an international school in Singapore and ones engaged in upcoming college productions about how meaningful the roles and stories in my adaptation are to them, and how invigorating and liberating they find it to see an example of how bold and edgy an adaptation can be while remaining true to the spirit of the original work. 

I grew a lot as a dramatist during my engagement with Guan Hanqing’s work for the Royal Shakespeare Company. My original instincts as a playwright had been bolder and more theatrical than they had become after fifteen years of engagement in the U.S. new play development process. Some of my earliest theatrical impulses, such as direct address, mask, heightened language and spectacle, had gotten ‘ironed out,’ and I am so grateful to the dramaturgy staff at the RSC for encouraging me to embrace heightened language and direct address. 

Phil: You mention your work with RSC. What do you think is different about this production compared to the previous stagings in the UK and at Oregon Shakespeare Festival?  

Frances: At the RSC, the focus was on new play development, and I was rewriting the script throughout the preview process. At OSF, the actors were often in two other shows at the same time, and might be in rehearsal for my play for four hours and then performing in a Shakespeare that night. Consequently there was simply not time to sink into and focus on the acting in the way performers have been able to do in the CSC production.  

This is also the most intimate space the play has been staged in—the actors are often only inches away from audience members seated in the front row. I love “in yer face” theater, and think this production is the best embodiment of that quality thus far. It is also the first production of the play in an urban setting—the Ashland and Stratford-upon-Avon settings were rural, and the audiences were mostly from out of town, and the actors were not rooted in the area, unlike this New York production.

Phil: I can imagine the kind of added resonance this play can have for audiences in a more rural setting. Somewhat relatedly, you previously mentioned to me that during Snow in Midsummer’s 2018 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, there were local wildfires that caused audience members to remain masked during the performance. Audiences will be masked at CSC as well, albeit for a very different reason. What kind of dynamic do you think that brings to the piece?  

Frances: The resonance of audience masking for the CSC production is different than what it was at OSF.  There is a point in the play where onstage characters are masked because of drought-related fires in the play–so the masked OSF audience (because smoke was getting into the theater) was in a sense experiencing the same consequences of inaction in the face of severe injustice that the stage characters were. 

In contrast, I think of audience masking at CSC to be more in conversation with the positive values and yearnings of the play-community care, and making simple choices that can help protect the most vulnerable members of a group. I have extended family in Taiwan, China and Japan, and for as long as I can remember, masking has been a regular part of their life as a reflection of that very ethos. If your child has a cold, you send them to school with a mask—to help keep their classmates healthy. If you aren’t feeling well, you wear a mask on the subway—to protect your fellow passengers. 

I think of audience masking at CSC as a simple act of community care and a way to try and make even those who might be immunocompromised or more susceptible to sickness feel that they are welcomed, valued and wanted in the audience at our show.  

John Yi and Tommy Bo in Snow in Midsummer. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Phil: “Community care” is a great way of putting it. We’ve been thrilled to have so few issues with audience members masking and they really understand how to care for each other at our shows. It’s very important right now and everyone seems willing to do the work. This summer, the run of Snow in Midsummer at CSC will fall during Pride month here in NYC and there is a gay couple at the center of this story. What do you think audience members from the LGBTQIA community will take away from seeing this particular love story on stage? 

Frances: Both the wealthy gay couple in the show and the poor rural women in the show are engaged in the same struggle: they want to be as they are in their bodies, without shame or fear of bodily harm.  One of the things my adaptation explores is the power hierarchies within this common struggle, and I hope some strands of my play offer intimate ways to engage and unpack these hierarchies in our own lives. 

A quote from Sonya Renee Taylor’s book The Body Is Not An Apology comes to mind when I think about this question:  “Body terrorism is a hideous tower whose primary support beam is the belief that there is a hierarchy of bodies. We uphold the system by internalizing this hierarchy and using it to situate our own value and worth in the world.” 

This year I was one of six co-judges for the Yale Drama Series Award, and your question makes me think towards one of the plays we selected for the Short List, NYC playwright Aaron Coleman-Rodriguez’s moving work Tell Me I’m Gorgeous At The End of The World: The Last Gay Play, which illuminates some ways body hierarchies shaped by race, ableism and body size operate within the LGBTQIA community, which I find to be in conversation with how body hierarchies operate with my play .

Wai Ching Ho and Teresa Avia Lim in Snow in Midsummer. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Phil: Many of the themes in Snow in Midsummer echo issues at the forefront of many audience members’ minds today. What do you think an audience based in New York City in 2022 will relate to when watching this production? 

I think of myself as a writer who uses a layered approach to writing in order to provide a range of possible avenues an audience member can take through the play. I do this because my dream audience is generationally, economically and racially diverse, and I want my stories to be able to be engaged allegorically or realistically, through the lens of murder mystery or love story.  Contemporary issues a NYC audience might latch onto include wrongful imprisonment, the question of restorative justice, and climate change. The central character’s quest for justice from beyond the grave also resonates with the skyrocketing Anti-Asian violence in New York City, the recent murders of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Alyssa Go, and on a national and international level, the mass movement to bring attention and justice to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada and the United States.

Phil: The rise in anti-Asian violence here in New York is something I think we need to speak about more as a community. I hope this piece allows some room for that while the city continues to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic as well. This is actually your first production since the onset of the pandemic. Your last play to premiere was at the Hampstead Theater in London in September 2019, just months before the shut down. How have your thoughts about writing for the theater shifted during this pause? 

Frances: Before the pandemic hit I thought I was done with writing plays for institutional theaters. It had gotten to the point where I felt like I was in an abusive relationship with the commissioning theaters—not because of rejection, which I love because rejection is communication—but because of how frequently representatives of theaters I was writing plays for would simply ignore my emails and submissions of new drafts for months on end, or simply ignore deadlines they had given themselves to respond to me.

More significantly, and on a level I found even more existentially devastating, was the fact that while I had been successful in creating a body of work that provided mainstage roles to Asian heritage actors on major stages in the U.S. and the U.K., the corporations sponsoring the seasons my plays were produced within operated in direct opposition to the values of ecological balance and economic justice that were centered in my works. My plays were being used to improve the public image of banks and oil companies. Specifically, my plays at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company were part of seasons sponsored by Shell and BP respectively, some of the largest oil company in the world, and my plays at the Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club were part of seasons sponsored by Bank of America, which played a central role in the 2009 Financial Crises that resulted in 10 million people, including some of my former students, losing their homes. 

I recently read Mel Evans’ book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, which illustrated the ways in which theater artists like Mark Rylance and Caryl Churchill spoke out publicly against the BP and Shell sponsorship of the RSC and The National, which contributed to both theaters ending their relationship with these oil companies—much more effective and life-expanding responses to their theatrical work being programmed in seasons sponsored by oil companies than my own past tendencies to feel terrible and retreat inwards. 

From the ashes of this introspection and shame about how productions of my plays have carried water for the Corporate State, I am emerging with a desire to study and focus artistic attention on the corporate civil rights movement.  The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a desecrated temple—it is a Reconstruction Amendment, written after the Civil War to give formerly enslaved people equal protection under the law—but has instead been used far more often to expand the civil rights of business corporations. As I think about the ways in which past productions of my plays have been entangled in PR-ops for banks and oil companies, I am increasingly interested in using this heartbreak and cognitive dissonance to fuel future work that attempt to illuminate and explore the origins and consequences of this desecration. 

Phil: Okay, last question. Starting during the pandemic on the CSC Podcast, I began asking guests what pieces of art they think should be considered ‘classics’ but are not. I’d love to hear what would you add to that list. 

Frances: I have three choices: 

  • The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Mary Harris lost her husband and four children early in her life to yellow fever, but went on to become labeled “the most dangerous woman in America” due to her success in organizing laborers against industrialists.
  • War Is a Racket. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General and two-time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley D. Butler spent his military career fighting overseas wars to benefit U.S industrialists, and writes a scathing indictment of his own participation in the Military-Industrial complex in this booklet.
  • The Powell Memo. Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote this to the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971, two months prior to his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Greenpeace calls it “a corporate blueprint to dominate democracy” and I think that, 50 years later, it is worth engaging with as a classic text to see how the suggestions he made, which were embraced by business corporations, have played a significant role in shaping our present moment.

Snow in Midsummer by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig will play at Classic Stage Company May 20-July 9. Learn more here.

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