Playwright Interview: Jiehae Park

Playwright Interview: Jiehae Park 
By Laura A. Brueckner

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up, and where’s home for you now? 

Born in Korea, grew up in various suburbs on Long Island and Maryland. Lots of moving! Which I guess became a way of life, because I’d actually never lived in one place more than a few years before my current apartment in New York, which is as much home as anyplace. And of course, wherever my family is—they have a place in Maryland, but spend most of their time in Seoul.

What got you started writing this play?

I was at the MacDowell Colony, stressing out about finishing my play for the Soho Repertory Theatre Writer/Director Lab. I think it was March, and I had 100 pages of this other, sprawling, super-ambitious project that I knew in my gut I wouldn’t be able to finish for the reading in May. But I was lucky enough to run into David Adjmi at MacDowell, whom I had met at Soho Rep earlier, and because he is an intuitive and geniusy human, he saw I was freaking out and told me, “Just stop working. Don’t do anything for a few days.” So I did. And three days later, I sat down in my studio at 9 p.m. and wrote the first 30 or so pages [of peerless] in about 15 minutes, pretty much exactly as those pages still exist.

Did you intend it as a riff on the Scottish play from the outset, or did that develop later?

I did have it vaguely in my mind from the beginning—I’ve always loved the first half of Macbeth, but fall asleep about halfway through, when we move away from the central relationship. And around that point in the writing (halfway), I started thinking a lot about the Gibbons twins, who are utterly fascinating—if anyone’s interested in them, they can read Marjorie Wallace’s fantastic book, The Silent Twins.

What were some of the main surprises and challenges that cropped up for you as you were writing?

I got through the first two-thirds very quickly—maybe four or five days, and then another big chunk in a couple of weeks. But the ending took much longer. 

I did the reading at Soho Rep in May with a sort of placeholder ending, then took a break for a few months while I had some other projects. Then, early that fall, I was doing one of Madeline George and Anne Washburn’s brilliant Writer’s Army retreats [silent weeklong retreats in NYC]; I worked the whole week with zero success, but in the last 15 minutes of the last day, I had an “Aha!” moment, and knew exactly how the play would end. 

Editing this play has been much harder than writing it—because the writing process was so intuitive, it’s taken (and continues to take) a lot of effort to zoom out and think about it dramaturgically. But luckily, Margot Bordelon, who’s been the director since the first workshop production at Cherry Lane, is about as rigorous a dramaturg as you could ever ask for (while also being incredibly generous and intuitive). I’m grateful to have her eye on it.

For such a fun, fast comedy, peerless touches on a lot of truly serious subjects. What made comedy feel like the right approach?

I actually don’t know how to write about big topics without comedy. I couldn’t even if I wanted to—it feels important as a tool to open people up (both myself and audiences) to what might feel heavy or ponderous. 

Family attachment is a prominent theme in peerless—from omnipresent siblings to parenting-by-Skype. What interests you the most about the challenges families face today?

Everything. Family is one of our most basic, tribal drives and attachments...there’s an endless depth of potential fascination there. But I have noticed that, in my work, there’s a theme of “the spiritual cost of success,” specifically as it relates to the immigrant experience. That might mean someone from Asia moving to America, or someone from a blue state moving to a red state, or any experience where we have to reforge our identities in a new context outside our original families. I’m interested in what we give up to get what we think we want...and how that experience feels after the fact.

 You’ve worked with director Margot Bordelon on peerless before—what new questions are you exploring with this production?

We’ve learned a lot from both our previous productions, but there are still some things that haven’t been cracked yet. But I actually won’t say what they are in print because it might potentially influence the audience’s reception of those elements...we want to keep the experience as pure as possible. Audience reaction in those moments will actually be the best gauge of whether we’ve succeeded.

What are you working on next? 

Right after Marin (or semi-simultaneous with!), I’m up in Ashland for the world premiere of another play, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. Chay Yew is directing, and it runs end of March through October at Oregon Shakespeare Festival—please come if you’re in the area! It’s a very different play than peerless

Then I have a workshop/residency in May at Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, through the Princess Grace Foundation, for a semi-devised project I’m working on with designer Tristan Jeffers.

Learn more about playwright Jiehae Park at jiehaepark.com