By Brian Robin
Chay Yew’s Directing Journey Comes Full-Circle
Chay Yew remembers his first meeting with Charlie Oh. It was one of those pay-it-forward conversations that theatre people are known for having. One of those conversations that hold a glimmer of after-the-fact foreshadowing, but a conversation innocent of significance at the time. Conversations like the one Yew had with director Lisa Peterson (SCR’s The Little Foxes) that spurred him toward his successful directing career.
It was at The Public Theatre in New York, where Yew was directing a play. Fresh out of Northwestern, Oh worked at the theatre as he pursued his acting and playwriting career. He caught Yew during a break and asked the director for a moment of his time.
“I remember sitting in the lobby with Charlie for an hour, just chatting. It’s always a joy for me to get to know the young playwrights and open as many doors for them as I can,” Yew remembered. “Charlie was excited about writing. He was running around the theater at that time and he approached me about being a playwright. It became a wonderful circle.
“Sometimes, you speak to someone and you don’t know what this young artist is going to do then, but you realize he’s on his journey and you can be a part of it. That feels very gratifying.”
That “wonderful circle” has now come full-circle at SCR. Yew finds himself as the director of Oh’s world premiere production of Coleman ’72, which runs April 23-May 14 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.
It marks Yew’s return to SCR five years after he helmed the successful world premiere of Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee. That play just wrapped up a run at Berkeley Repertory, its latest stop on a national tour. Yew directed that production, as well as the Signature Theatre’s production in New York.
Both artists have experienced their own metamorphosis. Oh was an actor who realized his artistic mission was as a playwright. Yew was a playwright who realized his passion was directing. Part of this realization came watching Peterson direct at Center Theatre Group, where Yew spent 20 years in various roles, from starting the theatre’s Asian Theatre Workshop to working as an associate director, then director.
The moment Yew started directing, he was hooked.
“It’s like crack. You try it once and you want to do more of it,” he joked. “It’s the perfect story. …
“(Former Artistic Director) Gordon Davidson allowed me the freedom to do anything I wanted to do there,” he said. “When I started the Asian Theatre Workshop, I invited playwrights to develop their plays. We had a lack of directors, so someone said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ That was the beginning of the end.”
It was the beginning of the end of an award-winning playwriting career that brought Yew’s plays to such theatres as the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, the Mark Taper Forum, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Royal Court Theatre in London. His first play As If He Hears was banned by the government in Yew’s native Singapore because the gay character “acted too sympathetic and too straight-looking.”
The beginning of Yew’s directing career came on one of the trickier assignments in the director’s playbook—a one-person play. The person was Margaret Cho, who Yew directed in Mondo Cho, which Yew described as “a difficult piece for her to write because it was a deeply personal play.”
Yew became so good at directing, bringing a sharp eye, using his writing experience to understand and command a script as the playwright intended, and honing his ability to cultivate relationships and get the best out of actors and designers, that he became a regular go-to director at most of America’s major regional theatres. He also earned numerous New York credits, including Durango by Julia Cho at The Public Theatre, for which he received an Obie Award for Best Direction.
It also earned Yew interest from theatres looking for artistic directors. Yew took that plunge in 2011, when he became the artistic director at Victory Gardens—one of Chicago’s “Big Three” theatres. Like SCR, Victory Gardens is known as a playwright’s theatre and Yew’s eye for talent bore that out. During his nine years at Victory Gardens, 18 out of 43 plays were world premieres. One went to Broadway, four were produced off-Broadway and several others went on to regional or success abroad.
Yew didn’t have to go too deep in his directing/playwriting reservoir to see the brilliance of Coleman ’72. The way in which Oh navigated not only generational gaps among Korean-born parents and their first-generation Korean American children, but also the ever-shifting burden of memory and nostalgia grabbed Yew from the outset and never let go.
“The structure of this play is ingenious in how he manages to create points of view through memory or distorted memory to view the past and how that past affects adults years later,” Yew said. “Charlie has created a play on how memories come in and out. The other part I find remarkable is in terms of emotions. Charlie doesn’t shy away from them, he confronts them. Because of how truthful it is, most of us come back to our childhoods (reading this play).”
Yew said the play resonated so deeply with him and his cast that rehearsals became a group therapy session of sorts. Cast members found themselves coming to painful grips with their own past simply by reading Oh’s script. This was a byproduct of Oh’s talent for creating complex, three-dimensional characters who come alive in all-too-real ways.
“Some of the scenes we were doing were frightening, whether it was the actors acting or recalling moments they had from their childhood,” Yew said. “It was a fine line from what was performance and what was real, because of the way its written is eerily relatable and specific. We had reason to recall moments from our childhoods and we had to stop many times to talk about these moments and what they meant.
“In the end, even though it was somewhat traumatic to recall moments, it was also cathartic to see our past in a more objective eye and a more adult eye, now that we have some distance from it.”
Oh once said that nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Except when it brings director and playwright together in a serendipitous, artistically wonderful fashion.