When it opened, American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Carey Perloff promised to offer more experimental fare at the company’s new Strand Theater on Market Street. And it looks, at least, like she’s delivering.
The Strand season opens with Monstress, two one-act plays of contemporary Filipino-American life in California, adapted from the short story collection of the same name by San Francisco author Lysley Tenorio.
For the adaptations, Perloff tapped Filipino-American playwright, director and actor Sean San Jose, and the Japanese-American playwright and UC Berkeley Theater Professor Philip Kan Gotanda. They've freely adapted two of the stories, with Tenorio's blessing, adding some unexpected songs and music to these immigrant tales.
Here’s an edited transcript of my conversations with San Jose and Gotanda about bringing Tenorio’s stories to life on the Strand stage.
Philip Kan Gotanda, how did you get involved in this project?
I was contacted by Carey Perloff… she came across Lysley’s short stories and was taken by them. And I read them and thought they were wonderful. And I was immediately drawn to "Save the I-Hotel."
That's the story about a pair of elderly Filipino men living in San Francisco's I-Hotel in the 1970's, about their frustrated love affair and the protests that occurred when the building's owner tried to evict all the hotel residents. So what drew you to that story?
I lived through that era. I was going to law school at UC Hastings at the time. Many of the Filipino American students there were involved in that struggle. So it’s a live historical moment for me. And I grew up in Stockton, all my friends were Filipino-Americans. So I was familiar with the foods and the smells and the culture.
The people who were inhabiting the I-Hotel were very like my next door neighbors growing up in Stockton. So I felt immediately that I knew these two men . I could hear their voices. Which was a good sign for me if I was going to adapt them for the stage. And I told Carey this is the story I wanted to tell.
How do you go about adapting a short story into a one act play? What’s the process?
Well for me initially I have to have a connection to it. Then I'll begin to feel there are certain moments that I can use those to anchor the story. In this particular story, it had to do with when the two older gentlemen were touching each other. When one was shaving the other, or helping him dress. And the key moment when there is a kiss. And for me, this is what the story is all about. It’s a love story. And so those intimate moments are the starting points, and then I grow the piece from there, and I fill in the beginning and the end.
Sean San Jose, you picked “Monstress,” the title story from Tenorio’s collection. That's also a love story, about a schlock filmmaker in Manila and his girlfriend and muse, who he always casts as the monstress in the films they make, and how the two follow their dreams to Hollywood.
To me what was really thrilling is that it did this fabulous thing that Tenorio does in his writing, he’s able to take events and capture the essence of the events, and of a people -- who we are as Filipinos.
So it has this beautiful sense of longing and romance and dreaming and fabulousness.
And meanwhile it really is veiled in this strange version of an immigration story. So to me the whole (short story) collection is variations on an immigration story. And while this one story is about film making and the lust to create, it’s also really about landing in a place, and what it’s like to have lost your dreams and lost your home or have no sense of home anywhere.
So how do you turn a story into a play?
For me it’s always finding what is the thing that lives out loud the most in the story. Sometimes that’s a narrative voice. Sometimes a writer writes with a lot of dialogue. So I immediately took to this idea of creating a community of people reliving what happened to these two lovers.
And there was something thrilling about the two pieces that Philip and I worked on… one is very interior ("Save the I-Hotel") and one is very energetic and exterior ("Monstress"). And we could do them with the same company of actors, and the intention of a narrating choruses in both of them, shaping the two pieces to live as a twin bill together.
What do you make of this classic idea that "Monstress" explores of Hollywood as a place where dreams are made and broken.
Having heartache, romance and dreaming, and reality live side-by-side is very familiar to me and many immigrants.
What it reminded me of was how my mom and my aunties watched movies a lot -- especially West Side Story. We would watch it and we all knew what’s going to happen to Tony and Maria, and yet you hope for a happy ending all the same.
So a lot of times we retell our family histories, even though we know the ending might be sad. There’s something about the reliving and the romance of it, that appeals to me.