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"The Molecules Changed in the Room": Creating a Play from Real Asian Women’s Desires, Dreams, and Heartaches

Four performers on stage.

Yihong Chen, Ann Dang, Rheanna Atendido, and Amy Zhang in Ascend! Photo by Joel Lee.

A mutual friend brought Danielle Iwata to the Ascend! show at The Tank, an interview-based show written and co-directed by Amy Zhang with an all Asian woman cast and crew, that was created in response to the pandemic and the anti-Asian attacks. The friend connected the two of them after Danielle remarked that it was the most “nuanced depiction of Asian women on stage” she’d ever seen. Over Zoom video, Danielle interviewed Amy about the show and its interview-based process, Asian perspectives that don’t fit neatly in Asian American ones, and how theatre can be a uniquely suitable place to process rage and vulnerable stories safely.

Danielle Iwata: Let’s just jump in! Can you share a bit about your background?

Amy Zhang: Yeah! In terms of life background, I was born in Beijing, moved to Williamsburg, Virginia at the age of four, and then moved to Hong Kong at the age of eight, where I stayed for ten years until I went to Wesleyan for university. So that experience of being Asian American, but mostly in an Asian context, definitely informed a lot of my work, life experience, and yearnings.

I studied anthropology in college and after school, knew that I wanted to be a storyteller but was not sure in what medium. In high school in Hong Kong, I was really into theatre. I acted in school shows and had an amazing drama teacher, Mr. Doug Baker, who really challenged me—he casted me as Sigmund Freud and Mother Theresa in the same show! In New York, I waitressed for a bit while working at Ping Chong + Company. It was a really transformative experience to learn about documentary theatre, which is a blend of journalism and theatre where it’s interviewing real people about their stories, writing a script, and then having them perform it. After that, I went to Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, where I pitched and produced international episodes on China, India, and American domestic cultural and political issues. I guess the overarching theme of my work is that I’m really into innovative storytelling mediums.

Danielle: I do want to ask if you can dive deeper into what really drew you to storytelling—not just the innovative mediums. What is it about being able to share things that made you really want to focus on that?

Amy: Gosh, I’ve always been a writer, I don’t remember a time where I wasn't into writing and making up stories. I have a feeling it comes with being an only child and having a lot of time in your head. But from a young age, I was also surrounded by lots of art. My parents played a lot of music, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Beijing opera to Whitney Houston. My parents also took me to a lot of theatre. I would watch DVDs at home by myself a lot—maybe some stuff that was too mature for my age!

My love of storytelling grew—or the essentialness of it grew—when I moved to the East Coast. I found that there were parts of me that weren’t automatically understood, which is something I had taken for granted growing up in Hong Kong and China and having my family close. I had to tell stories, find stories, or find people who tell these stories to feel a sense of connectedness and belonging.

Danielle: Absolutely. So, then what sparked you to create Ascend!?

Amy: Oh man, so many things. One: It was really a personal reckoning that I think we all had at various volumes during the pandemic. But for me, during the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of stuff happening that I was trying to figure out. Between Hong Kong’s political dissolution and writing not feeling like a safe space because we were all in our heads anyway, I was really trying to figure out my place in the world. And with all this violence towards Asian Americans in the United States, there was all this rage and confusion—and craziness from being cooped up.

The second thing that sparked Ascend! was realizing that there’s a huge void in hearing from Asian American women during this time when our bodies and agency were really being taken from us. I wanted to create a safe space for that because it’s a lot to put one’s name on Twitter or an article and be that vulnerable to pushback and haters. I thought that theatre could be a ritual space for many voices to come through and for people who wanted to stay anonymous to process and still have their stories be told.

Lastly, I’d gotten a City Artist Corps Grant which stipulated I had to put something on by the end of October and it pushed me to leap. Can I do this to prove to myself that I can make my own work? Can I direct? Can I perform again? Can I write for the stage? After working for and under creative titans like Ping Chong and the resident directors and people at Patriot Act, I was curious to push myself to see if I could create something that felt true to me—both a process and a show that feels true.

Six actors on stage warming up.

Cast of Ascend! with co-director and dramaturg Alison Yueming Qu warming up before a performance. Photo by Joel Lee.

Danielle: You mentioned theatre being a space for so many voices and having the opportunity for anonymity. I would love to hear more about crowdsourcing the answers. How did you come up with this process and then distill everything into the script?

Amy: Ascend! was inspired a lot by the work I participated in at Ping Chong + Company, where there’s a public call for people to be interviewed and anyone can submit. I knew I wanted a narrative arc and to have four women.

The questions in the survey came from some genuine interest, to see what people would say and how they were doing. I also wanted the show to not only be about trauma but seeing Asian American women in their wholeness. I literally asked: How do you want to be seen and what are things you wish people knew about you? Also, questions like: What makes you feel sexy? When was the last moment where you felt a sense of catharsis or joy? And then of course there were questions about how this past year affected them and how they’ve been operating in physical spaces differently. The responses were incredible. They were heartwarming to read but also made my heart burn with anger for how much shit we all go through. One woman wrote this long thing about golf and how much she loves it. Another wrote about her awful boss in the workplace and how she rage-quit.

I also interviewed my amazing ensemble–Ann Dang, Rheanna Atendido, Yi Hong Chen, Wen Ting Wu. That was a huge part of the process too: having the show be collaborative with the actresses. They could be acting out parts of their own lives, but they are still playing characters. During rehearsals, they would also let me know if any staging, a move, or a gesture felt right or wrong. How they felt was important for me to center. I think there’s a beauty in seeing them help carry out each other’s stories on stage.

Danielle: What you said about the responses making you laugh, cry, get angry—that’s how I felt during this show. What was the writing process like for you to be able to encapsulate all these stories and emotions into an hour-long play?

Amy: I had seventy pages of responses. I stared at them and tried all these different things like coding answers in two different columns like, “Okay here’s the sad ones, here’s the more uplifting ones.” Then looking at the actors and thinking about what they could carry on stage. I was sitting in the library, just staring and diagramming and one day I saw it: the narrative arc. I knew there would be four Asian women in a room during the pandemic trying to support each other, and one of them is a writer who just can’t write anymore. The other three are like, “Okay just stop, listen to us, and let us tell you some things,” and in between these stories, a sort of magical realm enters where the writer gets handed answers to questions from the wider Asian American women’s world and they read out the slips.

When I was writing it, I wasn't sure if it worked, but something about the emotion and narrative arc felt true. Before writing this, I’d been reading tons of stuff from Fleabag to The Inheritance to Annie Baker plays, and what I took from all of it is that the audience needs to be taken for a ride. I made it clear from the outset that this was an experimental process, hoping for people to share their stories on stage. Rheanna wrote in her survey about hula—that it brought her a lot of joy, and I added that movement into the piece, where she teaches the other girls how to dance. It added so much warmth and beauty to the show.

It was really beautiful to see the moments where, even if it wasn’t that woman’s exact story, it was someone else's, that they had felt that moment and brought in. When we see Rheanna’s character complain about her boss, it becomes about white male hierarchy and power dynamics. She yells and stomps and everyone yells and stomps with her. In rehearsal, I gave the instruction to channel every time they have felt a microaggression into that moment. To see them take that and run around the theatre and take that space as their own was amazing.

Danielle: The stomping scene brought out such an emotional response in me. How did you feel during that moment when it sort of clicked that this was a moment to really take all this anger and frustration out?

Amy: It felt so freaking good! And that’s the magic of theatre, right? The process of creating a space for these Asian women and reaching audience members like you is why theatre is so irreplaceable as a medium and nothing comes close to it. I felt the molecules change in the room during rehearsal. They suddenly stood up and went apeshit in an amazing way. To be able to have ourselves unleash in a safe space after a year of being confined and scared for our physical safety was an incredible experience.

Danielle: And my gosh, what an emotional experience it was! I also think with the stomping scene and the physicality, there were a lot of things about rhythms and currents. Could we talk about the drummer, Wen-Ting Wu, how she came to be involved, and what the scene represented?

Amy: So the central thrust of the show is trying to answer this question: When you’re a writer and the thing you’ve leaned on forever fails to serve you, what do you do now? This happened, and I was at a friend’s place one day who had a drum set, and I started fooling around and I loved it. It was cathartic and releasing in a way that I needed. I started searching up Asian women who were drummers in New York City that could possibly teach me, and I found one and there’s a video of her solo called “Heartbeat”. I had never seen someone play drums like that before. She played it like it was a violin, like a concerto of a drum solo.

As I was writing the piece, I knew there had to be music and movement. If it stayed just textual, it would feel too heavy, and I wanted everyone to feel a lift—not only for the actors to feel release but for the audience as well. So I direct messaged Wen Ting on Instagram, met her for coffee, and told her about the idea. We both had tears in our eyes; she immediately understood what I was trying to do.

It was such an exhilarating collaboration. Wen Ting had amazing ideas. She was in rehearsals watching us so she could then compose a whole new piece that was basically transmuting our piece into a drumming piece. Rhythm, drama, tragedy—I’d go to her place with Alison, my incredible co-director and dramaturg, and figure out how her drumming would interweave with my ending monologue. We wanted to see how we could meld text and music in a seamless way.

Alison and I talked about how the drums are one of the few instruments you play with your whole body so if you have a lot of energy in your body, you can actually use all four limbs. We also talked about how in Chinese culture, there’s a lot of massaging and self-thwacking as a sort of self-soothing massage. When we thought about the stomping, we thought of it as a precursor to the drumming rhythm to come.

Danielle: I love that. It feels like your journey too—having all these emotions and channeling it into this art piece telling these beautiful, heartbreaking, and angering stories.

Performer playing the drums.

Wen-Ting Wu in Ascend! Photo by Joel Lee.

Amy: It’s meta!

Danielle: There’s so many levels of meta between your story, the process, the actual narrative arc…

Amy: Is it a Möbius strip?

Danielle: It’s a Jeremy Bearimy! That’s a reference from The Good Place. Anyways, I’d love to come back to a moment in the beginning. The opening scene has all the women doing something mundane—writing, stretching, reading, etc.—and the audience walks in and sees that happening for a few minutes. What was your intention behind that setup?

Amy: Actually, I want to ask you about this! Can you tell me about your experience as an audience member coming in and seeing that? What was running through your head?

Danielle: What I loved about it was that it was Asian and Asian American women doing everyday things because we don't get the opportunity to be mundane. If we’re in the news, it’s because of a horrible tragedy, or hate crimes, or through a fetishized lens. Or the focus is on folks that are really excelling—in the model minority myth way. It doesn’t leave a lot of space for us to exist in our own bodies doing everyday things that you just do because you’re a human being. So for me, walking into that space, I was like, “This is actually really beautiful to see this happening.”

Amy: Oh, that’s so cool to hear. Yes, that's basically the exact premise. I was inspired by watching The Inheritance, where the actors break traditional theatre conventions immediately because as you’re going to your seats they’re already on stage, in motion. There was something about breaking that wall, especially when it forces the audience to just observe and look at Asian American women. If it feels weird to watch the actresses read or stretch or write, why does it feel weird? I wanted the audience to get a little uncomfortable; to have it be long enough that someone might think, Uhhh is this one of those super experimental shows where it’s just this? I certainly wanted to do something for Asian women on stage—and for our visibility in general—that I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted people to experience that.

Danielle: I definitely haven’t seen this type of representation before—or this type of nuance. I feel like with so many Asian stories, because there are so few of them, they sometimes are a little one-dimensional in their in their portrayals of us. So I'd love to know a little bit more about how you also had an Asian narrative within the Asian American space and what that was like.

Amy: Over the past couple of years, I’ve basically learned how to be Asian American. When I went to the United States for college, I didn’t feel Asian American, given that I’d grown up in Hong Kong most my life. When all the racist attacks here were happening, even before the violence, people would be so indignant about being yelled at to go back to China. But for me, I was also like… what’s so bad about going back to China? Why is that seen as a bad thing, you know? There’s a way that Asia looms in the American imagination, including the Asian American imagination, that I find a little strange. And that carried over to the pandemic when people were being attacked and this sort of movement circulated around the “I Am an American” slogan. But many people don’t consider themselves American here—I have cousins who don’t. But they still obviously deserve to be safe and feel like they belong here. I wanted to put that front and center in Yi Hong’s story. Each actress brought so much, and I’m lucky that Yi Hong found this project because she carried the raw emotion of that monologue beautifully.

My incredible co-director, collaborator, and dramaturg Allison Qu, with a similar diasporic background, also really understood what I was trying to do. She complicates the Chinese American narrative in Chuang Stage, a theatre collective she started in Boston. Having these amazing collaborators that are also passionate about telling stories in the periphery of the Asian American narrative was essential for this show.

Three actors on stage.

Ann Dang, Yihong Chen, and Rheanna Atendido in Ascend! Photo by Joel Lee.

Danielle: There’s a whole historical context to the phrase “I Am American” and being Japanese American; it’s one I’m deeply familiar with. But when the character makes the point of, “You shouldn’t have to be American to feel safe,” I was like, “Oh shit, I’m doing some internal learning right now.” Whoa. I really appreciated having that moment and that whole conversation in my brain as I was watching the show.

Amy: It’s complicated because yes, there absolutely still needs to be that movement because Asian Americans should rightfully feel like this is their home and no one should make them feel differently. But can we give space and recognize this other narrative as well? It was very meaningful for me to be able to put that nuance into the piece.

Danielle: What was it like having one of your first scenes be about arousal in the library, especially in a world that really fetishizes the Asian and Asian American woman?

Amy: It took me by surprise, but I had one interview and two separate survey answers that were from women who all got into reading sexy fanfiction and erotica! And I was like, “That’s fascinating.” I want to hear Asian American women and other people talk about it! We are sexual beings. When you think of sexuality and Asian American women, you automatically think of something being done to them—from desexualized to over-sexualized. But what do we actually do or feel, especially in these sorts of quirky or happenstance events that make people think about their sexuality? I wanted the theatre piece to start off on a surprising note for the audience, so I just started with Harry Potter sexy fanfiction!

Danielle: I love that. As an audience member, it was a really amazing piece of storytelling that I didn’t know that I needed to see. I’m very grateful that you were able to put this together with such a remarkable cast of women.

Amy: Oh my gosh. Thank you. I didn’t want to make a piece that centered a white audience or something that was purely educational. I wanted to create a piece and a process that was just about the Asian American audience and its performers and give them the space to release and transform. So it matters so much to hear that from you.

Danielle: One last question for you—what’s next?

Amy: I definitely want to continue this work writing, directing, and acting in this hybrid and adaptive space. I’m so grateful to have had this experience and learned that, as a person who is so used to working alone as a writer, that my ideas can get bigger and bolder with more people in the room. I’m excited to learn more tools to push the boundaries in the Asian and Asian American theatre space and to think about interactivity too. I just want to keep making things with people!

Actors dancing on stage.

Yihong Chen, Rheanna Atendido, and Ann Dang in Ascend! Photo by Joel Lee.

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