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At The Public Library With Philip Kan Gotanda

March 15, 2007

The discussion last night at San Francisco Public Library with playwright Philip Kan Gotanda (whose new play, After The War, is about to receive its world premiere at A.C.T.) revealed something interesting about the interests of the audience at the event -- and maybe of audiences at these kinds of "talk-backs" more generally.

As moderator, I was instructed to keep the conversation to the topic of the play's development. Since it was commissioned by A.C.T. nearly four years ago, After the War has gone through roughly 50 drafts and 5 workshops not to mention a variety of different cast members. So the story of its lifespan thus far has been an epic one. Philip answered my questions about the play at length, speaking eloquently about the inspiration behind it, how he worked to get the contrasting ethnic voices of the characters correct, how recent news and events in the political sphere in this country had shaped his thinking about the play etc.

But when it came to the part of the evening where people in the audience got to ask the playwright questions, all they wanted to talk about were the play's themes and subject matter. They wanted to know about the history of Japanese internment camps (the play, set in 1948, depicts San Francisco's Japantown when the Japanese population, many of which had been incarcerated in war camps after WWII, came back to San Francisco to try to pick up their lives where they had left off) and Philip's views about racial integration in modern day America. No one asked process-related questions. They didn't seem a bit interested in hearing about such aspects as the rehearsal process, Philip's relationship with director Carey Perloff, his views on revisions, and his work with composer Anthony Brown.

It strikes me from listening to other discussions in the past with artists, that this is quite common. People are interested mostly in themes and how the work in question relates to their lives and the real world. Discussions about artistic process, on the whole, tend to be of greater interest to people within the artistic community and students. If this is in fact true (and it would be fun to monitor this in future discussions I attend, whether moderating them or sitting in the audience), then I wonder whether it's still worth having process-related public forums? I'm inclined to say yes, for listening to someone like Philip describe what it's like to tune into the speech patterns of an African-American shipyard worker or a Jewish immigrant who speaks a mixture of Russian, Japanese, and English, is fascinating. But maybe it's worth thinking about how these events can be more tailored to suit the specific interests of the attendees.

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