Interview#13…David Henry Hwang, writer and producer

At certain moments in my writing journey I have had to pinch myself, to be sure I wasn’t dreaming – this was one of them.  One of my most-admired playwrights, David Henry Hwang, answered a few questions for me and I wanted to share it here so that any other writers or film/play fans can benefit.

A multi-award winning writer, he won the prestigious Tony Award for my all-time favourite play, M.Butterfly, and was at the forefront of ground breaking Asian American writing and the launch pad for actors such as John Lone to reach a wider audience.

It’ been a delight to read David’s other early work such as ‘Family Devotions’ – a play that was included in the same book as ‘The Dance and the Railroad’ and I very much look forward to watching his more recent work, The Affair, which David has writing credits for and co-produced.

To write the script for M.Butterfly and the screenplay for M.Butterfly – how easy was this process – writing more visually?  I personally like the feel of plays on screen, such as Hitchcock’s Rope, and wondered how different this was for you – was it a seamless process, or plenty of re-writes to write for screen?

One of the major differences between writing for theatre and film is how story information is conveyed, which then determines the project’s principal artist. In a play, information tends to be conveyed through dialogue, with the visuals supporting; hence, the playwright is the principal artist. In a movie, however, information tends to be conveyed visually; this is why we call them “pictures,” why they were originally silent, and why some film directors feel that a viewer should be able to turn off the sound, and still follow the story. As a result, the director becomes the primary artist; hence, “Hitchcock’s Rope,” as opposed to Patrick Hamilton’s or Arthur Laurents’Rope.

Therefore, though I wrote the screenplay for the movie of M. Butterfly, the film is more David Cronenberg’s take on the story. I wasn’t even on set during filming, except for a one-day visit. Moreover, there’s a truism that movies are written twice: first on the page, then in the editing room. Ultimately, David wanted to make a movie about how all romantic love is self-delusion, which is a perfectly good theme, but different from my play. Though I don’t dislike the movie, I like the play better.

Is anything lost when characters are converted from stage to screen?

As with any adaptation from one medium to another, qualities can be both lost and gained. Some movies improve on their source material (arguably, Rope), while others get lost in translation (arguably, August: Osage County). For that matter, it’s fascinating how The Audience evolved into The Crown for TV.

Would you ever write The Dance and the Railroad for screen? If not, why?

Joseph Papp did produce a television version of Dance & RR for the fledging A&E Cable Network back in 1983. I would be open to adapting it into a more epic movie (or limited TV series) and have occasionally had discussions about doing so.

Your powerful introduction in The Dance and the Railroad was written at a changing time in Asian American theatre, would you say there is still room for improvement?

There is absolutely still much room for improvement. While I’m pleased that the mainstream of American theatre has moved in the direction of diverse stories over the past decades, Broadway still has only produced a total of five Asian American playwrights over its entire history, and New York theatre remains 70-80% white in terms of actors cast.

Is there any advice you can give me on my journey to write my first mini-series, a S.E. Asian protagonist (based on the previous performances of John Lone)? 

It’s hard for me to offer advice without knowing the story you’re telling. Basically, though, assuming you are writing about a culture outside your own, lots of research and an openness to receiving notes/criticism is always a good thing.

Mr. Hwang, thank you so much for your time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions.  May I wish you all the best with your upcoming projects, and I truly hope to see The Dance and the Railroad on screen. 

Other resources:

You may be interested to read my reviews of M.Butterfly and The Dance and The Railroad.

Sheila Benson’s interview with John Lone in 1993 on his role in M.Butterfly

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