Four Questions With PPF Playwright Charlie Oh

Tania Thompson
 | May 03, 2021
Charlie Oh
Playwright​ Charlie Oh.

South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) has been a launching pad for many plays and playwrights, including David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, Qui Nguyen's Vietgone and Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band.

Among the five readings at the 2021 digital festival is Coleman ‘72 by Charlie Oh. The story follows a Korean American family that piles into the Buick for an all-American road-trip: open plains, rickety camper-trailer, kimchi and banchan. But Korean parents and American kids hold conflicting ideas of what they’re looking for when the real purpose of their journey comes to light. 

In an email exchange, Oh talked about his favorite places to write, the moment he knew he wanted to be a playwright, his grandmother and more.

Favorite Writing Spot
Charlie Oh's favorite writing spot.

About Charlie Oh

He is a playwright, lyricist and actor and is a fellow at The Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. His work has been developed at Manhattan Theatre Club, the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, New York SongSpace, The Brooklyn Generator and Catwalk Writer’s Residency. Among his honors are winning the Disney/New Musicals Inc. New Voices Project (2018) and The Craig Carnelia Songwriting Award; his play Long received an honorable mention for The American Playwriting Foundation's Relentless Award (2019). His is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he studied playwriting under Laura Schellhardt. As an actor, his credits include The King and I, directed by Bartlett Sher, and All These Small Moments (Tribeca Film Festival).

What’s your favorite place to write?

I don't know how I got my writing done pre-pandemic! My life was zipping back and forth across New York to shows, auditions (as an actor), rehearsals, meetings and odd-jobs. The most consistent part of my writing life was its inconsistency. I had a series of oases throughout the city—public venues with tables, chargers and WiFi—like The Signature Theater Lobby, the Lincoln Center Archives and the lobby of the W Hotel on E. 17th Street, to name a few.

I've spent quarantine with my family in the suburbs of Chicago. About half a year in, we integrated our bubble with my Grandmother, who lives in an apartment in the neighboring town. I drive to her apartment and write in her guest room overlooking Lake Michigan until lunch, when we order or cook food and talk about life.

As a child, did you read stories in secret?

I come from a family of voracious readers who encouraged me to have a book in hand at all times, so no subject matter was truly off-limits at home. The most covert reading I must have done was in school, where I would ignore the teacher and finish books under my desk. In fourth grade, I finished the last page of a book, looked up and realized that school had been over for 20 minutes. I hadn't realized people had left the classroom.

When did you know you wanted to be a playwright?

Even though I took playwriting classes as an undergrad, I think I was scared of the "P”-word for a long time. It felt like an important title for people over there, that I hadn't earned it. It seems simple, but it all changed when I started bribing college friends with pizzas and beer to come to my apartment to read my plays. I realized that I was already doing the thing.

What play changed your life?

There are so many... but I keep thinking about Mr. Burns by Anne Washburn. I saw its second preview at Playwrights Horizons and had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. I fell in love with how the play mixed pop culture and philosophy, and the profane and the divine. It also changed how I think about structure and time in a play. 

What should audiences know about Coleman ’72?

I never know how to answer questions like this because I hope you can show up (or, in this case, tune in) and not need to know anything else. I'm just really excited to share this play and I hope it starts conversations about family and what it means to be an American.

Watch this #PPFPlaywrights video where Oh is interviewed by Artistic Director David Ivers.

Learn more about ​Coleman '72 and the 2021 Pacific Playwrights Festival.