Mia Chung’s new play You For Me For You, opening this week, kicks off Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s “Free The Beast” campaign: a ten-year commitment to producing 25 world-premiere plays. Chung’s new play is a poignant look at the unique and insular life of contemporary North Koreans. A graduate of Brown University with an MFA in Playwriting, she has had her plays workshopped and produced all around America over the last few years.
“This is an imaginative and charming work, but also very moving,” said Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz in a recent phone interview. “We were drawn to Mia’s imagination as a writer. She’s just been great to work with.”
Chung took time during her final days of script work to speak with DC Theatre Scene about the development of the show, working with Woolly, and finding her way into one of the most secretive societies on earth: North Korea.
Hunter: You For Me For You has been workshopped at Ma-Yi Theater Company in New York City, as well as at Woolly several months ago. Now that the show is getting a full production you have been in rehearsals every day. What kind of work have you been doing on the script?
Mia: The past week or two have been really great, and also completely nerve-wracking. I‘ve been well-supported in my rewrites, but we did hit the point recently where the team finally said, All right, the actors need to learn their lines for sure now, so finish up! That’s a good thing, of course, when the playwright can take a back seat and the director and actors can find everything they need to find. They’re really investing now in the characters they’ve created.
Initially the project was to write about North Korea’s control over its citizens. I wanted to write a play that used humor to deal with the subject, so it wasn’t all just grim. It’s been an interesting process, finding that humor… In August I realized that the play had actually become too humorous, and some important aspects of North Korea were missing. I didn’t want to write about something serious but not do it justice. That’s what this most recent draft has been about. I didn’t want to let go of it until I’d found that certain way to tap into the world of North Korea I was looking for.
But you have to let go of individual control at a certain point and trust in the group. It can be hard to do, but it’s essential. Collaboration allows you to always be discovering new things about what you’ve written.
Like the other day, an actress spoke one of her lines with a different intention than I thought I’d written. I assumed I was being specific in the script, but the actress had this impulse to deliver the line with a different tone and intention. And we needed that. The show is in a really good place right now.
Most of what I’ve been focused on during my time at Woolly is how to balance the two sisters at the center of the play. They attempt to escape North Korea together, but one gets sick and is left behind at the border while the other continues on to America, to New York City.
How did the idea for this play first come to you?
This was initially my thesis project at Brown, where I got my MFA in Playwriting in 2010. I had a few different projects going at the time, and wasn’t sure which would become my thesis. But then, that summer, the two female journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were taken at the North Korean border and sentenced to the gulag. Remember, Bill Clinton was sent over to get them back? I was gripped by that story, and really interested in all the political machinations. It re-opened this interest in North Korea for me.
I’m not an expert on North Korea. I start writing plays mostly out of curiosity, out of a sense of fascination. Then this pushes me to learn more, to do the research. That’s always an interesting step. You need to do enough research to have some legs to stand on, but too much research can swallow you up and limit your imagination.
What other parts of your research inspired you?
Actually, 2009 was also the year that they found Jaycee Dugard, the woman in northern California who had been kidnapped for 18 years. They didn’t find her locked up somewhere — she was walking around Berkeley with the children she’d had with her kidnapper. When the police questioned her, she didn’t want to say anything bad about her kidnapper. She didn’t even want to testify against him.
That story really caught my attention. This sympathy for the person who controls you, this Stockholm Syndrome, gave me a paradigm for looking at North Korea. Early on my question was: How soon until the system falls apart? How long until the North Korean characters start challenging their own beliefs? But then the question became: Will it ever fall apart? North Korea controls through fear. Neighbors are encouraged to turn each other in if they’re disloyal. It’s actually a very stable world in many ways.
And why New York as the counter-point?
The culture clash really interested me. I wanted to see what would happen when the North Korean and the New Yorker encounter each other. In the eyes of North Korea, the United States is an arch-enemy. So I wrote about a North Korean traveling to what is perhaps their most feared place on earth.
One of the narratives that really binds North Korean society is the sense of the collective, of concerning yourself with the larger social good rather than the individual good. And in some ways New York is the opposite. It’s very individualistic. In good and bad ways it represents American upward mobility. So New York is a place of extremes too, just like North Korea.
Did you know from the beginning that you were going to have these two sisters end up in such different circumstances?
My original impulse was to write from the perspective of someone who is loyal to the North Korean way of life. I have been working closer and closer to understanding that point of view. From the way the Western media has portrayed North Korea, we have a sense that if people from North Korea could just see how the rest of the world lives, they would immediately denounce their own country and want to move out. But the truth is much more complex. The mental control over the North Korean population is so intense that I expect they have ways of observing how Americans really live and still believe that the North Korean ethic is correct.
So these two sister characters walk that line together?
Yes. The idea of sisters was powerful to me. I saw a documentary on BBC a few years ago about a North Korean woman who smuggled herself to South Korea. Then she raised money to get her younger sister to come to South Korea too. But when the younger sister did join her in South Korea, they had a sort of showdown. The younger sister accused her of becoming a pawn of the West, of being corrupted by Western culture, and she insisted that her older sister smuggle her back into North Korea. Which they did! So this juxtaposition was fascinating to me: two people who have such different perspectives on their home country.
It’s also interesting that Yury Urnov, the director, is from Russia. He has had a lot of first-hand experience with people who honestly feel that Russia’s best days were under Stalin. They grew up in the Soviet Union, and many of them are still caught mentally in a certain way of looking at the world. Which, of course, is what is going on in my play too.
North Korea is extremely isolated, politically and culturally, from the rest of the world. How do you attempt to paint a picture of North Korea when it’s virtually impossible to see what life is actually like there?
It was daunting. I thought to myself: I can’t do this, because we don’t know anything about what life is like there. But then I realized that because we know almost nothing, there’s even more for our imaginations to do, and that is always a great challenge.
Closes: December 2, 2012
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I don’t know if I thought to do this from the beginning, but what I ended up doing was using the narrative style of magic realism. It just started to appear in the play. The fact that a woman from North Korea crosses the border and ends up in New York City… that’s close to impossible. But I wanted that confrontation to happen, so I employed some magic realism.
What does magic realism mean to you?
For me, magic realism means that the plot deals with the real world, but magical things are allowed to happen. Not only that, but the characters deal with magical events as if they are just a natural part of the world. Nobody is taken aback by the impossibility of it — it just happens and they treat it as a part of life.
I’m happy to hear you so excited to open this show.
The play has definitely grown a lot. One weird thing about playwriting is that, when you start creating something that has its own life, it starts to tell you what it needs. I know that sounds a little loopy. But really, plays eventually show their imbalances, and the playwright gets to see what’s missing. Working on this script with Woolly helped me figure out the things that weren’t quite working, using the clues I’d written in but hadn’t really discovered yet. That’s always a surprising set of discoveries. But once it started to happen and I worked through it, each time I’d get a little closer to where I needed to go.