Theater In Dialogue
FREQUENT FLIER: Kyoung Park Gets disOriented
I remember as a child being shown tunnels at the North/South Korean border through which North Korean people tried to escape to the South, and I thought to myself that those tunnels were the closest way to get home.
We began the “official” conversation over a month ago, but really I’ve known Kyoung Park since college and we’ve been having on-and-off-again discussions/arguments about art, life, and politics ever since. Rarely have we met face-to-face. Kyoung is one of my rare, elite, and “true” e-friends. We’ve exchanged e-mails, embedded text swaps, phone texts, voice mails, and Facebook statuses.
When I began writing this I was in New York and Kyoung was in Bodhgaya, India (home of the Bodhi tree where Siddartha Shakyamuni became the Historical Buddha). When he was back in Sanskriti Pratishthan in New Delhi, I was on a cross-country road trip to deliver relics to a Buddhist temple in the desert mountains of Arizona. When Kyoung was back in New York to begin rehearsal, I had flown back to Miami to write.
The flow of the conversation jumps across continents, different modes of communication, and even time. This “In Dialogue” was done via e-mail, text message, embedded documents, and, finally, over the phone.
Aurin Squire (Rail): Why was this play necessary?
Kyoung Park: I took a hiatus from playwriting and spent two years studying Peace and Global Governance at Kyung Hee University’s Graduate Institute of Peace Studies and then returned to my plays. I went to the Royal Court’s Young Writer’s Programme in London and started writing disOriented, and even though I wanted to write a political piece, I ended up writing a play based on personal experiences and family stories.
By that time, I had spent two years in Korea getting closer to my family, especially my mother’s family, and I felt awful because my uncle—the youngest of seven—had died back home in Santiago, Chile, and for over three years, we had kept his death a secret from my ill grandparents. I took this play as an opportunity to tell my grandparents that he had died and that’s how it all began.
Why do you keep things secret?
Some things are too painful to remember. Some things hurt too much, even to say.
How am I supposed to know who I am,
if you won’t tell me where I come from?
All I hear are little bits of stories:
That there was war,
That there was hunger,
That our families suffered…
That everything was so sad
you cannot even say it.
All I am are these little fragments
of things I hear,
of things I see.
Do you want to know who you are?
You are a good son.
And you should grow to be a good man:
a good husband to your wife.
a good father to your children.
That’s all you need to know to live.
All the hardships and pain from the past:
we need to forget them
and move on.
Park: I had an awful time writing this play, it was so close and painful, I couldn’t think about the play objectively. I tried writing a modern family drama, but a traditional Korean fan dancer kept on appearing on-stage. The story was non-linear, it was building itself on an emotional/thematic narrative, and there were flashbacks—I hate flashbacks!—and I just couldn’t get rid of these elements. I guess if I hadn’t had a chance to deal with the fact that I was writing an abnormal play that didn’t want to behave, I wouldn’t have learned so much about me, and my family, during the rewriting process, and working on disOriented has been edifying in many different levels.
Rail: When did you add in dancing, and why Korean fan dancing?
Park: I started adding the Korean fan dancing because I was using traditional Korean music as inspiration for the play, and this fan dancer kept on popping up on-stage. I really wanted to cut the dancing out, but it helped me get through the play. And while writing the dance, I was having fun with it, exploring different ways I could interpret and change the dances as I went along with the story, and that led me to realize how this dancer was connected to my initial impetus for the play. That’s when I started making a character out of a dancer, giving her a name and a story, and finally, made it work.
Rail: Do you have dreams about this play?
Park: I had a dream last week in which the dancer was dancing the “Seungmu,” it’s this traditional Buddhist, Korean dance in which a dancer wears these really eerie, long, white sleeves. I think the visual is quite stunning and dramatic—I’m hoping we can recreate some of that in the production, but it’s really up to Carlos Armesto (the director), Yanghee Lee (the dancer), and our choreographer to figure it out.
Rail: Does the issue of uncovering secrets force you to live up to your play?
Park: When I started writing, people kept saying, “Consider this your debut play.” And someone handed me A Raisin in the Sun, and I thought, “So am I going to have to write about my family?” I had been living abroad for seven years at that point. And my brother had been living abroad and he had been insisting on getting together and I had been putting it off. Because I was keeping my own secrets. Being gay, and then other secrets.
It forced me to address my own experiences with violence and Korean culture. They were slow discoveries. This play is going to bring my family together for the first time in four years because they’re coming to see it. A lot of gaps are being brought together by me doing this play. And that’s sort of significant for me as a person, as an artist, and as a playwright. But that is a very kind of personal sense of accomplishment, and I had to articulate that for myself. I remember Lloyd Suh telling me that writing plays is most rewarding in intangible ways. I had to figure out what that reward was, and now, with my family coming, I’m realizing the rewards.
Rail: Kyoung, I thought you were gay from the moment I met you and that you were writing with female characters a lot, but felt like it was a very “touchy” thing you were working with so I never broached the subject. Do you think there’s something that has shifted in your writing with more emotional clarity? If yes, why?
Park: You are tapping into a very sensitive subject right now. During my four years in Korea, I had to return to the closet in fear that I was going to lose my scholarships, and eventually my job teaching at Kyung Hee University, and I could only come out to a few people during that time. Living under the radar in a less tolerant society was very hurtful, and when I returned to the States, I realized I had to clear up my personal life in a way I hadn’t done before.
I came out to my father last March and he took it pretty badly. He was confused, shocked, angry, embarrassed—at one point, he told me I should die alone or kill myself. That was very hurtful. Things are better now, but I don’t know how society, especially the Korean society, is going to respond to the fact that I’m gay. I don’t think it’s an issue in New York—I’ve been out to everyone here since 2001, but I’ve been pretty much in the closet to anyone who is not close to me, or not American.
Rail: But isn’t being a little bit out like being a little bit pregnant? Once you’re out, you’re out, thanks to the Internet and instant-access to everything. I found that once I told some people, it quickly spread. And still, I wonder, “What am I so afraid of?” What are we so afraid of? It isn’t really discrimination. I’ve faced that as a black person and I don’t feel fear. It is that internalized homophobia or “homophobia” in the classic psychological sense. Don’t you think?
Park: When I came out, I came out to my 10 closest friends via e-mail and that e-mail spread like wildfire. I had friends of friends in weird parts of the world finding out that I was gay. But in my mind, I wasn’t out unless I came out to them in person, and I pretended to be straight and changed genders of my significant others (and past experiences) until I came out to them and set the record straight. And, when you’re traveling, you get this weird chance to recreate your whole life story surrounded by a bunch of strangers, and you can pretty much tell them what you want, and not say anything about what you don’t want. I want to stop doing that, because after a while, I started feeling like the biggest liar in the world and completely dishonest with everyone, particularly myself. But it is really, really hard to knock down all the bullshit you’ve built around you to excuse yourself, and permit yourself to be dishonest, because, most of the time, you’re doing it for survival. It is also really humbling to start all over, and to give yourself the freedom to be yourself and just be. It’s actually a lot more vulnerable than following stereotypes, role models, or false ideals, and that is my challenge right now.
Heartbreak/India, which I’ve been writing and rewriting in several incarnations since 2005, has been tracking my coming-out process and every version of the play has absolutely failed. As we speak, I’m preparing a backpack to travel to Bodhgaya on a retreat to see the Bodhi tree. During my retreat, I’m planning on rewriting the play from scratch for the fifth time, and hopefully, this time the play will hit the mark.
I think I’m less touchy about being gay than I am touchy about talking about it publically. I’m expecting to be put down, attacked, discriminated, marginalized, isolated, and it’s a lot harder for me to deal with my internalized homophobia. Especially because I understand how many decisions I had to make about who I was based on need, rather than on being honest or speaking with integrity, and a pragmatic side of me is screaming because being publically gay can definitely have negative effects.
Rail: One more wacky question: if you could go back in time and “Kyoungfuture” could talk to “Kyoungpast” as he was beginning to write this play, what would you have warned him about? What would have said, “Stop!!” in trying to save yourself.
Park: Don’t hide and don’t lie. I think I can get away with not being honest, and just making up a story, but then I listen to actors read it out loud and I know, I know, that I’m not being honest. It feels like cheating, which it is, but I kept on thinking that I could get away with it. It’s like watching an actor making a good choice, but not really an honest one, and I think if I had kicked myself in the butt to just be straightforward from the beginning, I would have done myself a really huge favor.
Rail: But the play grew out of that hiding initially, right?
Park: I think we live in such contradictory times, and my work is totally set on the contradictions of wanting peace in a conflict-ridden world. I think trying to be honest about ideals that are within reach makes the truth a lot more compelling—not because it’s not present, but because it is attainable.