By Brian Robin
Noa Gardner Climbs the Playwriting Staircase
Noa Gardner wants you to know he’s in love with the idea of the staircase. So much so, that he wishes the title of his play A Small Man was The Staircase.
Alas, HBO beat him to it.
“If I had a staircase similar to the one in Tennessee Williams’ I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, that would be the image I would build toward here,” he said about one of the inspirations for his play. “We had a local reading and I think the title is wrong. The original title was The Staircase. I think it should be The Staircase, but there’s an HBO drama series called ‘The Staircase.’ I hate the fact there’s art with the same title.”
Gardner will console himself with the fact A Small Man earned a place on the 2023 Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) lineup. The 25th PPF, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious showcases of new plays, is May 5-7.
“This is an opportunity for me to swing big. This a great opportunity for me to go down swinging and give people a show,” he said. “I want to fill that stage with something they’ve hopefully never seen before.”
Already, Gardner has connected with no less than an authority as Jerry Patch, one of the co-founders of PPF. SCR’s resident dramaturg and the co-project director for the first eight PPFs, Patch received a copy of A Small Man from PPF Co-Director and Director of The Lab@SCR Andy Knight. It didn’t take long for Patch to go all-in.
“I was reading that and got about 20 pages into it and said, ‘Is this as good as I think it is?,’” Patch said. “It’s a terrific play, written by a former student of Luis Alfaro’s at USC and I’m really excited about it. If he can write like this, that’s one hell of a first play.”
Like all of Gardner’s plays, A Small Man is set in his native Hawaii. The characters carry names like Mother, Son, Sweetheart and Father and the story focuses on the touching, yet turbulent, relationship between Mother and Son and the point where the child takes over care of the parent. The dialogue is a rich mix of English, Hawaiian and Hawaiian Creole, otherwise known as pidgin Hawaiian and Gardner’s script notes mandate no translation of the Hawaiian text is provided in the script and none should be provided for the audience.
“Audiences are smarter than writers give them credit for,” Gardner said. “I’m trying to write in a way that assumes you know something about what I’m writing. If they (audiences) get lost, I’m going to give them enough to catch up. But I’m not going to spoon-feed the audience. I want them to feel a part of this.”
Gardner borrowed elements from Williams’ I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow to flesh out A Small Man’s plot. Williams’ play is about two friends, a man and a woman. The woman is sick and the man is in love with her. He comes over to play cards with her, keep her company and bring her groceries. Toward the end of the play, she tries to keep him out. He insists on staying and pushes his way in. They have a lovely night, even as the unspoken element of separation lingers.
“Any other night, she’s going to lock the door behind her and she goes up the stairs and turns out the light. You think she died,” Gardner said, before reiterating his love of the staircase, which he uses in A Small Man.
The play is deeply personal even before Gardner climbed the figurative staircase to write it. He wrote it as a way to articulate what it’s like for the child to become the parent. Both his parents endured this while caring for their parents at the end of their lives. His father took his dying mother to doctor appointments, got her groceries—much like the Son does for his Mother in A Small Man—and provided that end-of-life care. Conversely, his mother’s father recently died without much interaction with the family. Yet, his mother grieved after his death.
“I’m writing about this dichotomy of children to their parents in their later lives and the end of their lives. It felt like my mother was romanticizing her father and my father kind of spoke plainly about his mother, both good and bad,” he said. “Those were the things that were sticking with me as I was writing this play. That’s where it started.”
Gardner’s writing career is just getting started as well, but when you consider both his parents are English teachers, this path makes perfect sense. Except for a while, it didn’t.
After earning his undergrad degree at Loyola Marymount, Gardner found a restaurant job that he enjoyed. He enjoyed it much more than the rejections that were coming in for grad school. Two weeks before the semester began, USC offered him a spot. There, Gardner honed his already considerable skills under the likes of Alfaro, Velina Hasu-Houston, Oliver Mayer and Paula Cizmar. They taught him to get lost in the writing process and discover as he wrote.
He’s doing that. Gardner enrolled in a Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies program at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He’s tackling another degree for what he plans as his magnum opus. His way of getting lost in his work and his culture as he goes up the staircase of his playwriting career.
“This is my big plan and it’s inspired by August Wilson. I’m a nobody. I’ve never had any plays produced and I have two or three plays under my belt. I say this with all of that in mind,” he said. “August Wilson provides a very good template for what I want to do. He wrote 10 plays that encompassed everything in a century (in Pittsburgh). I could do the same thing in Hawaii.
“I don’t want to write 68 plays, but have six, seven, eight solid plays that shine light on a different facet of Hawaiian culture or speak to it. … This is a realization I had in the past year. Playwriting is a Western model of storytelling. For Hawaiians, we’re an oral culture. A lot of our stories were told through chanting and mnemonic devices. … There’s not a lot of Hawaiian playwrights because we have our own way of storytelling. I gravitated to playwriting because I’m aware I’m of both worlds. There is a way to flawlessly blend the two.”