Playwright’s Commentary: “The Swan”

Ten months ago, I made my return to the theatre both for the first time since the pandemic began and the first time in a couple of years, when I made my playwright debut with Rainy Day Artistic Collective. My one-act virtual play, “Interview with an Aswang,” was part of the lineup for their inaugural production. It was such a collaborative experience to be a part of and from the sound of what the audience was saying online, it seems like it was well received.

While I knew that this wouldn’t be the only time I collaborate with the Seattle-based theatre collective, I just wasn’t sure when the next time would be. How thrilled I am to be working with them again right before the year closes out, as I now have a play featured in their lineup for their Twisted Tales One Act Festival.

My play is called “The Swan,” and it’s about a man who, while attending his virtual high school reunion, is in search of a former classmate he had a crush on. When he does come across her, his big reveal doesn’t pan out as he expected, and in the process, sees and understands the swan she has since become.

So I first learned about this particular showcase over the summer. Originally, it was pitched to me as a festival of different iterations on fairy tales. While that was later broadened to be twists on classic stories (i.e. Shakespearean theatre, Biblical stories, etc.), I was still very intrigued by the idea of doing a twist on a fairy tale. I had narrowed it down to three different fairy tales, and after playing around with different ideas for each one of them, I ultimately decided to go with The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen, and for a very particular reason.

2020, aside from being one of the most traumatic years of our lifetimes, also marked ten years since I had graduated high school. I have no idea if there were ever any plans for a class reunion, but regardless, I wouldn’t have gone. Aura’s experiences of how she was viewed and treated in high school are very much iterations of my own; from classmates being cowardly enough to talk sh** about me behind my back, to witnessing and experiencing favoritism (notably from the adults), and just overall not feeling like I was understood for the most part. I was voted Hottest Temper my senior year for the yearbook’s superlatives. That, in of itself, should speak for what kind of environment I endured for four years.

Inspiration for “The Swan” has roots from reality, but it’s otherwise very much a work of fiction. As I said before, I have never been to a high school reunion, in-person or virtually. Is there a guy who had a crush on me back then, but never had the guts to tell me? Not that I know of. No one ever said I was ugly. In fact, the only remark made about my appearance was the age old “What are you?”

“The Swan” also draws influence both directly and indirectly from the works of Wong Fu Productions. I know that might sound kind of weird, but let me explain. Without going into detail as to how (in order to avoid spoilers), the conversation between Aura and Elijah draws from a scene from Wong Fu’s 2013 short film, “To Those Nights,” where Justin Chon’s character, Elijah (the same name is a coincidence, I swear!), is having a conversation with his ex-girlfriend, Audrey (played by Janel Parrish). That quiet yet thoughtful conversation with a past love (or crush, in my case) about the past and how to proceed in the present is something I wanted to emulate in my story.

How Wong Fu’s works influenced “The Swan” indirectly is something that came to my attention when I had a friend of mine read over a draft of the script. When he gave me his feedback, he said he liked how I, in his words, drove a stake into the “nice guy” tropes that were often romanticized in the 90’s and 2000’s. He finds my approach more in touch with the 2020’s.

Deconstructing the “nice guy” trope was most definitely not my intention going into this, and I found it so funny to read my friend’s comment on it, as a fan of Wong Fu Productions. A lot of their works, especially earlier in their existence, were often centered on the “nice guy” archetype. So even though that wasn’t my goal with writing “The Swan,” from that point on, I couldn’t unsee it. It also feels very hand-in-hand for me. I love writing female characters who challenge their male counterparts.

I’ve been talking a lot about the writing and development of the script itself so far, and that’s because unfortunately, I wasn’t as involved with this one as I was with “Interview with an Aswang,” due to other obligations I have going on currently. However, knowing that Laura Uyeki was directing again, I knew that it was in good hands.

While the casting needs weren’t as specific as “Interview with an Aswang,” I did make it clear that I wanted as many people of color cast in this thing as much as possible, and it’s here that I wanted to make a point about that. Although my efforts are mostly concentrated in creating stories centered on Asian American and mixed-race characters, if I’m ever in a position to create roles open to anyone of a marginalized community, I want to do that. Aside from the fact that it’s reflective of where I grew up, I would like to be one of the ones to write stories of everyday human experiences that anyone can relate to. Actors of color shouldn’t just be limited to roles specifically regarding what race or ethnicity they are; they should also be able to have access to these kinds of roles too. So for all and any current and future collaborators out there, let me say this: Unless if there’s a specific casting requirement, do not assume the role is for a white person.

I’ve interacted with the cast a couple of times and have seen them do a run of the play already. I really like the backstories they came up for their characters, as they feel very aligned with who they are. When it comes to their performances, they nailed it; so much to the point where I chuckled at the points that were designed to be humorous. Everyone has put a lot of heart into this play, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that they’re ready to perform this for an audience.

“The Swan” was born out of an itch in need of being scratched regarding what my former high school peers would make of me if they knew what I’ve been up to since graduation day. It’s not something I dwell on, but it’s something that I wanted to entertain. We all either knew or were someone who went from an ugly duckling to a swan. I don’t have any particular agenda of takeaways for audiences as they go into this, but I hope they are both entertained and enlightened by the end of the story.

Catch Stephanie Kamau, Roland Shorter IV, and Adrian Chamblee in “The Swan” as part of Block B of Rainy Day Artistic Collective’s Twisted Tales One Act Festival. Performances are tonight at 7PM and tomorrow at 2PM (all Pacific Standard Time) on YouTube.

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