The Molecules Changed in the Room: Creating a Play from Real Asian Women’s Desires, Dreams, and Heartaches

Danielle: You mentioned theater being a space for so many voices and having the opportunity for anonymity. I would love to hear more about crowdsourcing the answers. How did you come up with this process and then distill everything into the script?

Amy: Ascend! was inspired a lot by the work I participated in at Ping Chong + Company, where there’s a public call for people to be interviewed and anyone can submit. I knew I wanted a narrative arc and to have four women.

The questions in the survey came from some genuine interest, to see what people would say and how they were doing. I also wanted the show to not only be about trauma but seeing Asian American women in their wholeness. I literally asked: How do you want to be seen and what are things you wish people knew about you? Also, questions like: What makes you feel sexy? When was the last moment where you felt a sense of catharsis or joy? And then of course there were questions about how this past year affected them and how they’ve been operating in physical spaces differently. The responses were incredible. They were heartwarming to read but also made my heart burn with anger for how much shit we all go through. One woman wrote this long thing about golf and how much she loves it. Another wrote about her awful boss in the workplace and how she rage-quit.

I also interviewed my amazing ensemble–Ann Dang, Rheanna Atendido, Yi Hong Chen, Wen Ting Wu. That was a huge part of the process too: having the show be collaborative with the actresses. They could be acting out parts of their own lives, but they are still playing characters. During rehearsals, they would also let me know if any staging, a move, or a gesture felt right or wrong. How they felt was important for me to center. I think there’s a beauty in seeing them help carry out each other’s stories on stage.

Danielle: What you said about the responses making you laugh, cry, get angry—that’s how I felt during this show. What was the writing process like for you to be able to encapsulate all these stories and emotions into an hour-long play?

Amy: I had seventy pages of responses. I stared at them and tried all these different things like coding answers in two different columns like, “Okay here’s the sad ones, here’s the more uplifting ones.” Then looking at the actors and thinking about what they could carry on stage. I was sitting in the library, just staring and diagramming and one day I saw it: the narrative arc. I knew there would be four Asian women in a room during the pandemic trying to support each other, and one of them is a writer who just can’t write anymore. The other three are like, “Okay just stop, listen to us, and let us tell you some things,” and in between these stories, a sort of magical realm enters where the writer gets handed answers to questions from the wider Asian American women’s world and they read out the slips.

When I was writing it, I wasn’t sure if it worked, but something about the emotion and narrative arc felt true. Before writing this, I’d been reading tons of stuff from Fleabag to The Inheritance to Annie Baker plays, and what I took from all of it is that the audience needs to be taken for a ride. I made it clear from the outset that this was an experimental process, hoping for people to share their stories on stage. Rheanna wrote in her survey about hula—that it brought her a lot of joy, and I added that movement into the piece, where she teaches the other girls how to dance. It added so much warmth and beauty to the show.

It was really beautiful to see the moments where, even if it wasn’t that woman’s exact story, it was someone else’s, that they had felt that moment and brought in. When we see Rheanna’s character complaining about her boss, it becomes about white male hierarchy and power dynamics. She yells and stomps and everyone yells and stomps with her. In rehearsal, I gave the instruction to channel every time they had felt a microaggression into that moment. To see them take that and run around the theater and take that space as their own was amazing.

Danielle: The stomping scene brought out such an emotional response in me. How did you feel during that moment when it sort of clicked that this was a moment to really take all this anger and frustration out?

Amy: It felt so freaking good! And that’s the magic of theater, right? The process of creating a space for these Asian women and reaching audience members like you is why theater is so irreplaceable as a medium and nothing comes close to it. I felt the molecules change in the room during rehearsal. They suddenly stood up and went apeshit in an amazing way. To be able to have ourselves unleash in a safe space after a year of being confined and scared for our physical safety was an incredible experience.

Danielle: And my gosh, what an emotional experience it was! I also think with the stomping scene and the physicality, there were a lot of things about rhythms and currents. Could we talk about the drummer, Wen-Ting Wu, how she came to be involved, and what the scene represented?

Amy: So the central thrust of the show is trying to answer this question: When you’re a writer and the thing you’ve leaned on forever fails to serve you, what do you do now? This happened, and I was at a friend’s place one day who had a drum set, and I started fooling around and I loved it. It was cathartic and releasing in a way that I needed. I started searching up Asian women who were drummers in New York City that could possibly teach me, and I found one and there’s a video of her solo called “Heartbeat”. I had never seen someone playing drums like that before. She played it like it was a violin, like a concerto of a drum solo.

As I was writing the piece, I knew there had to be music and movement. If it stayed just textual, it would feel too heavy, and I wanted everyone to feel a lift—not only for the actors to feel release but for the audience as well. So I direct messaged Wen Ting on Instagram, met her for coffee, and told her about the idea. We both had tears in our eyes; she immediately understood what I was trying to do.

It was such an exhilarating collaboration. Wen Ting had amazing ideas. She was in rehearsals watching us so she could then compose a whole new piece that was basically transmuting our piece into a drumming piece. Rhythm, drama, tragedy—I’d go to her place with Alison, my incredible co-director and dramaturg, and figure out how her drumming would interweave with my ending monologue. We wanted to see how we could meld text and music in a seamless way.

Alison and I talked about how the drums are one of the few instruments you play with your whole body so if you have a lot of energy in your body, you can actually use all four limbs. We also talked about how in Chinese culture, there’s a lot of massaging and self-thwacking as a sort of self-soothing massage. When we thought about the stomping, we thought of it as a precursor to the drumming rhythm to come.

Danielle: I love that. It feels like your journey too—having all these emotions and channeling it into this art piece telling these beautiful, heartbreaking, and angering stories.

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