This is a story about three women trying to escape to New York. Of the two who make it, only one is real.
Mia Chung is the playwright of “You for Me for You,” a world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company on Nov. 5. The play focuses on two sisters from North Korea who attempt to sneak out of their homeland and move to America. One sister gets left behind.
Before Chung could write this play — before she was even a playwright — she was living in Los Angeles. By day, she worked a handful of assistant jobs. By night, she wrote screenplays. And really the only problem with this existence was that she hated L.A., and also her screenplays were terrible.
She’d always wanted to be a writer, but this L.A. thing just wasn’t panning out. Even though Chung had enjoyed a stint working for HBO at the Comedy Arts Festival, she wasn’t so sure sketch comedy was really for her. It was a lifestyle she wasn’t entirely psyched to adopt, and the sketches themselves were unsatisfying. “You write it, it goes up,” she recalled. “It’s almost like you sneezed and it was gone.”
For a couple of years, what she refers to now as “probably the least happy part of my life,” she tried to make it work, the operative word being “tried.”
“I feel like the time [I was] in L.A., I was slowly losing the will to live,” she said.
And then a friend offered Chung a spot in this “illegal-illegal sublet” in New York, and Chung, like a protagonist she hadn’t written yet, bolted to the city.
Once Chung arrived in New York, she nurtured a longtime appreciation of theater with ushering gigs at off-Broadway playhouses. When she was an undergrad at Yale, she “sort of fell in love with theater.” Having decided not to pursue sketch comedy or screenwriting, she wrote a one-act play, just for kicks, and “It felt like I’d found my medium,” said Chung. Her first crack at playwriting gave pretty telling glimpses of her work to come: the play, “We Spend Our Lives,” was about two middle-aged Korean sisters.
On a cold day in October, Chung sat in the lobby downstairs at Woolly, taking a break from rewrites and sitting in on rehearsal to discuss her work. With elbows on her thighs, shoulders forward, she seemed to talk as much with her hands as her mouth.
Between her first playwriting effort and her professional theatrical debut, Chung met and married her husband. They moved together to Berkeley, where he was a professor. While there, she explored the theater scene, getting a few readings and landing a short play into the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. From 2006 to 2007, she and her husband lived in D.C., where Chung interned at Arena Stage.
While her screenwriting career was one dead-on-arrival draft after another, her playwriting track record tells a significantly brighter story: she's had work developed all over the country, from the Doorway Arts Ensemble in Silver Spring to the Icicle Creek Theatre Festivalin Leavenworth, Wash. to the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival. “You for Me” will move to Boston’s Company One after its Woolly run.
When her husband took a position at Brown University in 2008, Chung enrolled in a graduate playwriting program there, first as a guest and then full time. Her thesis play, which would ultimately become “You for Me,” was inspired in large part by two events in the summer of 2009: Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two Asian American journalists were captured at the North Korean border (Bill Clinton negotiated their release) and Jaycee Dugard, who had been kidnapped as a child and held against her will for 18 years, was discovered in Northern California.
Chung grew up in San Diego, but her parents were born and raised in South Korea, so Chung has always felt fascinated by and yet foreign from the goings-on in North Korea.
“Whenever North Korea is in the news, I’m always interested,” she said. “Because especially [when] I was growing up, I had a very limited understanding of North Korea. Essentially my understanding was from Western media, which is somewhat propagandistic, and my parents. My dad would just write North Korea off.”
“Up until that point [in 2009],” she said. “The only question I had in mind was: why hasn’t it fallen apart, and when is it going to?”
Learning about Jaycee Dugard and her sympathy toward her jailers introduced Chung to the concept of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon wherein hostages bond with and even grow to care for their captors.
That knowledge “gave me the paradigm for understanding North Korea,” said Chung. “Because the social control [there] is so based on concepts of family and loyalty.” Instead of assuming North Korea’s demise was imminent, said Chung, “The new question was: Will this ever fall apart?”
“You for Me” is the first play funded by Woolly’s Free the Beast campaign, which aims to produce 25 new plays over the next 10 years.
“Without Free the Beast, we very well might have looked at this script and said, ‘We can’t do this,’” said Howard Shalwitz, Woolly’s artistic director. “Because you could just read the play and go, ‘Wow!’ But it’s a theatrical minefield.”
Chung’s narrative unfolds on two continents and time moves differently in each place. In an effort to keep the audience on the side of the Korean-speaking protagonists, Americans spend much of the play speaking in nearly incomprehensible sounds; Chung employs a “no broken English” rule because, she said, “I think that is immediately distancing for an American audience.” As the Korean sister in New York improves her English, the speech of American characters becomes clearer.
In addition to paying Chung a completion commission, Woolly used Free the Beast money to hold a three-day workshop on site and, with the Ma-Yi Theater Company, a four-week workshop production in New York.
Yury Urnov, a Russian native who is in the States on a visa, is directing the production. “I must say the juxtaposition of this, the psychology of an American person and somebody coming from a totalitarian background . . . is something I have to deal with in my everyday life,” he said.
Less familiar to Urnov is the experience of working side-by-side with the playwright from Day One. That kind of insta-integration is one of the driving ideas behind Free the Beast, but it’s taking some getting used to for Urnov, who rarely had to interact with writers back home. “90 percent of Russian theater is plays by dead authors,” he pointed out.
“It’s a new kind of creation,” he said of the “You for Me” process. “The play is growing, and you’re participating in each other’s professions. That’s obviously challenging, and obviously interesting, and by now I must say it’s obviously useful.”
As rehearsals wrap up, Chung is grateful that the premonition of her high school mentor has, so far, proved false — he’s the one who advised her to head to L.A. in the first place. Don’t go into theater, he told her, “unless you want to starve.”
As for what’s next, Chung, who has two brothers and two sisters, said, “You know, [my brothers] are probably waiting for the next play, for the play that I write about them. . . . We’ll see what happens.”
at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company from Monday to Dec. 2. 641 D St. NW, www.woollymammoth.net, 202-393-3939.