November Spotlight: Debbie Tan
by Suzanne Richardson
Debbie Ann Tan is a playwright currently living in Manila. While originally studying Marketing Management and working as a copywriter, she went on to get her MFA in Creative Writing from De La Salle University. She picked a professor who also wrote plays professionally to advise her in her studies, and after two years she completed her thesis: a trilogy of plays entitled “Yin Yang Trilogy.” “Fate’s Line” – one part of the trilogy – went on to win several awards. Other accolades include Two Palanca Memorial Awards for her plays “Time Waits” and “Teroristang Labandera” (translated from Filipino as “Terrorist Laundry Woman”) and numerous publications including “Balunbalunan Bingibingihan” (translated from Filipino as “Gizzard, Playing Deaf”) and a collection of English Plays in 2012.
She is a fellow of the 6th Ateneo-NCCA National Writers Workshop, and currently teaching at a college level. Debbie is also a freelance writer, editor, graphic and web designer, and amateur 3D animator. Be sure to check out her website athttp://dwritersgrievances.thoughts.com.
In Debbie's own words, "I would really like to thank ICWP for their acceptance and renewed sense of purpose, as well as Margaret McSeveney for her support and publishing my article on the ICWP website, Elana Gartner for being a good leader and letting her participate in the committee for the 50/50 Awards, Sandra deHelen for giving valuable advice for a play which needed feedback from an international point-of-view (sorry, Sandra, the play has not seen the light of day yet, in its right time, perhaps!), and a special thanks to the generosity, patience and kindness of Debbie Weiss, Coni Koepfinger, Cynthia Morrison, Nancy Gall-Clayton, Diane Grant and Jennie Redling who have contributed their works to my textbook project."
Q: When did you start playwriting? When would you consider the beginning of your professional career as a playwright?
A: As an amateur in my third year of high school I wrote a haunted house radio play for English class, and then a play about misfits for Filipino class my first year of college. While I really wanted to be a writer, I went on to study BSC-Marketing Management for practical reasons since the impression was it was ‘easier’ to get a job with a business course. This was not entirely true in the Philippine-political and economic landscape of the 1990s. After going into advertising as a copywriter and dabbling as a journalist for several newspapers (I was definitely not a hardboiled journalist, I wrote supplementary articles and feature articles), I was antsy.
I went to the United States for soul-searching impinging my presence on my relatives. Two of them were scared stiff that I would just try my luck in the US and be an undocumented worker. In four months, I came to a resolution to come back to Manila and try my luck applying to De La Salle University for the MFA program in Creative Writing. It must have been fate, because I went in for an interview with the chairperson with my portfolio in hand, and in less than thirty minutes I was processed and ready to start classes for the first semester.
Graduate school was not easy; I had to take a lot of the core courses in literature to fulfill the basic requirements. I had classmates who were already creative writers, and had met people who would look down on me and other newbies. I had one traumatic experience with a Canadian writer/visiting professor for fiction writing who gave me the only low grade I had, causing me to miss a medal at graduation. She did not like my murder mystery and said I had grammatical errors, which was true since I’m not a native English speaker. I loved murder mysteries, and that was a sock in the gut. Coupled with a magazine editor I worked for who told me I was a terrible writer and to quit studying since it was of no effect to me, I almost did quit school. I definitely did quit that magazine job. I went to one of my professors to quit, but he told me, “Don’t worry too much about grammar, that’s why we have editors.” He was my teacher in editing, among other subjects, and remains to this day my respected mentor. I didn’t quit school, and later discovered the intricacies of playwriting.
By the time I was thinking of a thesis in 2000, I picked a known professional playwright to be my adviser. I had thought of a niche for myself since there were only a handful of female playwrights, and no playwright writing about the modern Chinese Filipino (also known as Tsinoy) in the country. The definition is, I’m Filipino – born and raised – but I have Chinese blood. Being Chinese has a lot of implications here connected to the history of the Philippines. (read more : www.wormenplaywrights.org/25-year-blog/1454173)
It took me two years to write my thesis, a trilogy of plays I called “Yin Yang Trilogy” under a meticulous mentor, now friend. He also brought me to a writer’s group where we read and critiqued plays in a workshop style setting. Finally I said, “Enough is enough,” and submitted my thesis for defense and passed in 2002. I won awards for a monologue and one of the plays in the trilogy, “Fate’s Line” through a small writer’s group that was affiliated with a theater company then. That play also got me a grant which would then publish it into a chapbook: my first solo book.
From 2005 to 2010, I participated in a labfest showcasing new, experimental and original Filipino plays. Within that period of time I won two national awards for one act plays and had three plays commissioned for several institutions, beginning my professional career as a playwright.
Q: When you write, do you focus on developing characters first, or the plot?
A: It varies from play to play. In “Fate’s Line,” it was the characters first: the Chinese Filipino family centering on the mother, Si Ling, and her daughter, Fate. The magic realism plotline just happened, I was writing in a zone – like three days of waking up and just writing. For “Teroristang Labandera” (Filipino, translated “Terrorist Laundry Woman”), it was both the character of the burned out laundry woman, and at the same time, the plot of her kidnapping the clothes of the Chinese Filipino family tied in with elements of magic realism. I was also in the zone for this one. I had this vision of talking clothes.
With “Balunbalunan Bingibingihan” (Filipino, translated “Gizzard, Playing Deaf”), it was more plot first. This was my first play that didn’t involve any Chinese Filipino characters. The title kept replaying in my head for months, thus the gizzard of a chicken (cooked) becomes the metaphor for love between the prostitute and her booker lover.
Q: What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals?
A: I’m not a prolific writer. I cannot churn out writing like some of my friends who have lots of books. I gestate with ideas. How I write is, I feel it in my gut. Those plays and even short stories, poems, essays that I write, which I don’t struggle with, I feel from the gut, from the soul, and thus I can continue nonstop (stopping for breaks, yes). It doesn’t happen very often, or not as often as I want when I’m so aligned with what I’m writing. Other times it’s a struggle, because I don’t like any loopholes to the plot. Thus, I do it the disciplined way, like make the outline, objectives, goals, etc. When I struggle writing, I take a lot of breaks. I like playing computer games and do crafts: origami, loom bands, other crafts. Also, since I’m not a full-time writer, I don’t have the luxury to concentrate on developing a story because I need time. Thus, I’m not prolific.
Q: Where do you pull most of your inspiration from when creating characters?
A: I take public transportation. I eavesdrop on people, sorry. There was the scene in the laundry woman play that I got from a jeepney conversation between two college boys. If one doesn’t know the context of their conversation, it was pretty violent. They were planning how to kill, kick, and box. Of course, they were talking about a video game, so that scene and faux pas drove the laundry woman to the edge.
Other characters are exaggerated versions of myself and some of my family, while other characters, like the prostitute, come from research and from my interviews with real prostitutes when I was in college. Still more are profiles, like I had a character of a fake scholar in “Mga Babaeng Toobright” (Filipino, translated “Toobright Women”), a parody on Fullbright scholars (not an insult to Fullbright, but rather the profile of someone who thought she is the “end all be all” because she studied abroad).
I want to say that I try to seek the truth in people, thus when I’m writing, I have to be sincere and get into the characters as people. They have to talk to me. It’s also very important to me to be kind to my characters. I don’t like to do gratuitous deaths just for plot’s sake. I don’t like to ‘victimize’ my characters. It’s hard to explain, but even if the character is bad, I will always show the humanity in her or him. Funny thing is, when the laundry woman play was staged, people sympathized with her. This was unexpected. I knew I also gave her justice; even though she is a terrorist, in a sense, she had a story to tell.
Lastly, my plays are women-centered because there are so few strong women characters and different women voices.
Q: Do you have a favorite genre you like to write?
A: I look like a serious person, but I’m full of comedy. But my comedy is not the ‘har-har-har-har’ comedy. I like to use lines as kickers or punchlines, some snide and sarcastic quips. Definitely, I like fantasy, the real and unreal merging while also logical and cohesive. And the reader or audience will buy into it, and even think, “Is that true?” I also think I specialize in one act plays; I know the structure and flow so well as I write. I’m challenging myself to make a SUCCESSFUL full length play.
Q: What would you say was your most rewarding moment as a playwright or writer in general?
A: I actually have several, as usual, going with my other long answers (laughs). It was very rewarding when I got published in Philippine PEN, when I got my first collection of English plays published in 2012, and receiving two national playwriting awards (Palanca Memorial Awards in 2007 and 2008). I would also have to say some of my favorite rewarding moments were my firsts: my first publication in a corporate magazine, then in a national newspaper, first play published, first awards, seeing my play staged for the first time, hearing laughter to the lines I wrote, and those first claps and cheers.
Summing up from all this though, the moment that is most rewarding is when I’m able to write from my soul.
Welcome New Members
France-Luce Benson, USA
France-Luce Benson earned an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Her plays have been produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre where she is an honored Lifetime Member, Adrienne Arsht/City Theatre of Miami, Crossroads Theatre, The Fire This Time Festival, The Billy Holiday Theatre, and New Perspectives Theatre among others. She has also had readings and workshops at Primary Stages, Classic Theatre of Harlem, and Victory Gardens Theatre’s inaugural Ignition Festival. Awards and Honors include: Winner of the National Award for Short Playwriting, (Risen from the Dough 2015); The Kilroys List- Honorable Mention(Boat People2015); Alfred P. Sloan New Play Commission(The Devil’s Salt) Alfred P. Sloan Award for original screenplay( Healing Roots); National Black Theatre, I Am Soul Residency Finalist; Kenney Center ATF Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award (Honorable Mention-Fati’s Last Dance, 2008); three time scholarship recipient at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and two time Schubert Fellow. She has just been published by Routledge Press, and is currently a professor at St. Johns University. Visit www.francelucebenson.com
Chris Caffrey, USA
Mariana Catalina, USA
Mariana Catalina is a playwright, performer, and director based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work centers around reviving a holistic approach to theater, exploring how the essential elements of voice, body, and psyche move, interact, and evolve. Originally from San Francisco, she studied theater at UCLA. She is currently writing and developing a new work. For more information, please visit tooth-tongue.com
Suzanne Richardson, USA
Suzanne Richardson has been involved in theater since her high school days, writing for theater since her sophomore year. After graduating in 2007, she went on to study theater at Stephens College in Columbia, MO and then finished her degree at Lindenwood University. Some of her favorite shows she has worked on have been "The Country Wife", "Fiorello", "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", and "The Dixie Swim Club." During her college career, she participated in her college's improv troupe - the Happy Tuesday Players, started up a Sketch Comedy group, and wrote several plays which were later produced in the new play production company she started, The Backstage Productions." She is currently a board member at the High Springs Community Playhouse and is always looking for more ways to get involved.
Christine Toy Johnson, USA
CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON is an award-winning writer, actor, director and advocate for inclusion. Her plays and musicals have been developed at such places as the Roundabout Theatre Company, Crossroads Theatre, The Barrow Group, CAP21, The Weston Playhouse, Gorilla Rep, and Leviathan Lab. A collection of her written work is included in the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection. Other plays and musicals include THE NEW DEAL, PAPER SON, INTERNAL BLEEDING, ADVENTURES OF A FAUX DESIGNER HANDBAG, THE SECRET WISDOM OF TREES, GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT, MY BOYFRIEND IS AN ALIEN (AND I’M OKAY WITH THAT) (with Bobby Cronin), ANTONI & AN WEI (with Jason Ma), DIARY OF A DOMESTIC GODDESS (with Kevin Duda), RIDING OUT THE STORM (with Michael Mott), and the screenplay NO WAVE WITHOUT WIND (with Charles Randolph-Wright). Christine is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Certificate of Screenwriting Program at NYU. She was honored with the Rosetta LeNoire Award for “outstanding artistic contributions to the universality of the human spirit in American theatre” from Actors’ Equity Association, in 2013. For more information, please visit www.christinetoyjohnson.com.
Naomi Westerman, UK
Actress, screenwriter and playwright, also runs the all-female theatre company Little but Fierce which specialises in Shakespeare adaptations and Shakespeare-inspired new work.
Articles of Interest
"If life worked like the theatre, four out of five things you ever heard would have been said by men," Marsha Norman.
"Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20% of it is reported in theaters," The Dramatist Guild.
The Count was a collaboration of the Dramatists Guild and the Lilly Awards. It looked at American theaters for three seasons to determine the number of productions by women playwrights and a further breakdown of the ethnicities of those playwrights. This article, in the Dramatist Guild Magazine delves deeply into the status of women in theatre, and the many inequities between men and women playwrights.
An interview with playwright, Susan Lieberman, "Women in the Chicago Theatre", touches on the numbers of women playwrights, gender parity, and equalizing the "playing field". "Men dominating the production process in theatre," Lieberman states," is similiar to men dominating the decision-making roles in business."
Denise Gough: Let Female Characters be Flawed Too
“I am playing one of the most flawed, broken, damaged, brilliant, human women, and I haven’t felt that people have found it difficult. If anything they’re crying out for it.”
|Yours for innovative, engaging, and equitable theater,