By Telihard Paradela
Published in 16.3
C.E. (CHRIS) GATCHALIAN DESCRIBES his new play, Falling in Time, as the most ambitious play he has ever written. “No play has ever taken so much out of me as this play has,” he said, “but also no play has ever given back so much.” Weeks before the world premiere on November 5, 2011 at Performance Works, the Vancouver-based playwright sat down with contributor Teilhard Paradela to share some thoughts.
TEILHARD PARADELA (TP): You started writing this piece in 2005. It went through different play development workshops in Toronto and Vancouver before Screaming Weenie Productions programmed it for its 2011 – 2012 season. Through this long process, the title of the play changed. Was that a result of the workshops?
C.E. (CHRIS) GATCHALIAN (CEG): It was partly as a result of that. It used to be called Who Beat Rocky? We changed the title because Who Beat Rocky? is a reference to Rocky Marciano, the great boxer, and he was only associated with the character of Steve. If we kept that title it wouldn’t have been relevant to the other characters. The play is an ensemble piece. Steve may be the most colourful character but it’s not a one-man show. Sean Cummings [the director] and I did a lot of brainstorming and came up with Falling in Time. I can’t take a lot of credit for the title. I give credit to Sean for the title since he was the one who came up with it. And this is the title that we decided to use. I think it is evocative and it honours what is actually happening in the play.
TP: It also resonates with the structure of the play because it plays with time.
CEG: Yes, it does go back and forth in time.
TP: It also deals with histories. It interweaves disparate histories: the Korean War, boxing, and Billie Holiday as well as the personal histories of the characters.
CEG: There’s also the military aspect of the play. When one thinks of the military, one thinks of marching, marching in time. There are many levels to the title. I am happy with it.
TP: Indeed, Vancouver has this strong but silent presence in the play. What is the role of Vancouver in this play?
CEG: When I first wrote the play, Vancouver wasn’t as pertinent as it is in the current version. The play was always set in Vancouver. But honestly I really didn’t think it through quite as thoroughly as I should have. Why does this play have to be set in Vancouver? Later on I began to focus on that question. I decided to flesh out that aspect a bit more. In the current version it has become clearer why it is set in Vancouver. In the context of the play, Vancouver is a meeting point of East and West: a place that stands in contrast to the other places in the play like Korea and Kansas, United States, where the two American characters are coming from. Vancouver is also ostensibly neutral; it is not a city with deep roots, and I say that hesitantly because I think there are deep roots among aboriginal peoples here. There is no question about that.
And the fact is—and everyone says this—Vancouver doesn’t have much of a history. Its lack of history makes it a perfect place to stage this huge battle between cultures that are saturated with history. I also think that Vancouver’s international reputation as a very liberal city is part of it. The two American characters came to Canada. Steve is quite conservative but he moved to Vancouver so that he wouldn’t have to fight in the Vietnam War. Jamie, the ESL teacher, moved to Vancouver, because he was trying to escape the memories of this fairly traumatic childhood. It is also a city of transients and foreigners. Chang Hyun represents that. He is here studying English and also feels a freedom to explore his sexuality here that he can’t possibly feel in Korea.
TP: It is interesting that you actually use the metaphor of a battle in describing the encounters among the characters. One of the weapons in this battle is language. And the other is sex. Can you reflect on these?
CEG: Let’s talk about sex first. Sex is used in two primary ways in this play. It is presented as an instrument of power. You see that in the relationship between Chang Hyun and Steve. They have what can only be described as a sadomasochistic relationship. Steve is mostly a top, but he submits to Chang Hyun. So the notion of top and bottom is milked for all its possible political connotations. For Steve, there’s an element of wanting to purge himself of the stuff that happened in Korea. When I was writing the play, I wanted to play with these reversals of power, and with the notion that Western culture has on the inferiority of Eastern culture. The subversion of that in the play is underscored back to Chang Hyun’s desire for revenge. He is trying to reassert his power over Steve by being the sexual aggressor. But I also think the play shows that sex is also the genuine connection between two people. You see that in the development of the relationship between Chang Hyun and Jamie. The love scene that they have in the second act is important in that both of these characters have lost ownership of their bodies. They have lost control of that because of what they have been through. In Chang Hyun’s case, it was when he was raped in the military; in Jamie’s case, it was when he is punished for exploring his sexuality with a certain person at a certain age. So this love scene is partly about them reclaiming their bodies.
TP: And the language?
CEG: Let’s explore where language was mostly used as a weapon, which happens in the scenes of tutorial sessions between Chang Hyun and Jamie. Jamie is obviously trying to teach Chang Hyun English. In these situations, Jamie is ostensibly in a position of authority. He is the teacher. But Chang Hyun is not very interested in learning how to speak correct English. He says, “I speak however I want.” For him it is an act of resistance against the notion that Western ways are the correct ways. So he doesn’t take to Jamie’s pedagogy. Steve and Chang Hyun spar with each other as well. There’s also the issue of Eun Ha’s language. The language that she speaks in the play is very different than the other characters. She doesn’t speak in clichés as the men do. When she speaks, process is foregrounded. It is completely open. She never talks in platitudes. Nothing is pre-rehearsed. It’s all in the moment. It signifies her being in touch with her feelings. I also play with language on that level.
TP: How did you resolve the problem of representing linguistic differences on stage? For instance, when the characters talk supposedly in Korean, they are speaking perfect English.
CEG: It is mostly stage convention. Originally I had wanted to be authentic and have surtitles and have actors actually speak those Korean passages in Korean as opposed to English. But there are constraints that we have to deal with such as budgetary considerations and the linguistic abilities of our actors. The advice I got from my agent and from my director was to stick with theatre conventions. When they’re speaking their own language, that can be represented by having the actors speak in perfect English. And audiences will understand that.
TP: There are parts in which Chang Hyun speaks English with a heavy Korean accent. And I remember what Nina Lee Aquino, one of the main proponents of Asian Canadian theatre, wrote in her anthology of contemporary Asian Canadian plays about how the mostly English-speaking Canadian audiences need to get used to listening non-Canadian accents on stage. What is your take on that?
CEG: I agree. I think we really need to be open to it especially since the stage has become more diverse; it’s opening up to theatre artists from different ethnicities. We really need to be more embracing of the languages that people speak. That’s the reality.
TP: Do you think the mostly English-speaking Canadian audiences in Vancouver are ready for that?
CEG: Even if they’re not ready for that, I think someone has to lead. I don’t believe that art can advance if it just follows what the audiences want. It’s always a give-and-take. But at some point, you have to lead. In my experience theatre audiences are willing to follow you wherever you go.
TP: Your previous works also deal with power dynamics and how these play out in the verbal and sexual arenas. But you have never touched on how cultural and linguistic differences can inflect power dynamics until now.
CEG: When I was growing up, I wasn’t otherized because of my race. I was otherized because I was queer. Because no matter where you are, when you’re queer, you’re a minority. That’s true with any society. You’ll always be living in a world that is predominantly heterosexual. And so, I have always identified as queer. That informed the issues that I tackled—the issues that were close to my heart—when I first started writing. As to why I am writing about cultural and racial differences now, there is a very simple answer to that. I taught ESL in Vancouver during the year of 2004. Half of my students were Korean so I got to know a lot about Korean culture. I was a conversation tutor like Jamie. No, the play is not autobiographical. But like Jamie, I spoke to my students about a range of topics. One of the topics that came up over and over again was military service. A lot of the Korean guys had recently finished their military service, because it is compulsory in Korea. They all kept telling me that it was a horrible experience. One particular student opened up to me about how he was abused in the military and how that was very traumatic for him. It was something he could not talk about in Korea because it is so taboo. Male-on-male sexual abuse is still taboo here, but imagine in Korea where attitudes towards sex are way more conservative than ours. I was very moved by his story and that really stuck with me. From that came the idea for this play.
TP: What are your thoughts on the development of Asian Canadian theatre? Do you think the movement resonates in Vancouver?
CEG: The answer is yes and no. I think the Asian Canadian theatre movement is more explicit in other parts of Canada. For example, it is very pronounced in Toronto. Not that there are no Asian Canadian theatre artists in Vancouver; obviously there are. It’s just that we don’t wear our Asian Canadian-ness on our sleeves as much as the great folks in Toronto. For Asian Canadian theatre artists in Vancouver, our racial or ethnic background is not, in my opinion, a very integral part of our work. In other words, we don’t write only about Asian Canadian themes. It is only one part of what we do. I happen to be Asian, but I also want to write about things that have nothing explicitly to do with being Asian. And that, in my opinion, is OK.
TP: Thank you, Chris.
Falling in Time by CE Gatchalian ran on November 5 – 12, 2011 at Performance Works. It is directed by Sean Cummings and produced by Screaming Weenie Productions.