Drama Notes: Julia Cho

Julia Cho on writing Office Hour
Long Wharf Theatre is thrilled to welcome Julia Cho’s acclaimed work back to the stage for Office Hour, directed by Lisa Peterson and produced in conjunction with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Office Hour marks Cho’s third play to be produced at Long Wharf. The first, BFE, premiered at Long Wharf in 2005 directed by Gordon Edelstein, and transferred to Playwrights Horizons later that season. The second, Durango, premiered in 2006 directed by Chay Yew and then moved onto the Public Theater, where it won Obie Awards for both performance and direction. In addition to BFE and Durango, Cho’s play Aubergine received a reading in Long Wharf’s first-ever Contemporary American Voices Festival in 2015 directed by Eric Ting before premiering at Berkeley Rep in 2016.

Office Hour grapples with a particularly timely and difficult topic: school shootings. With the tragic events of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook in mind, Cho’s play takes the subject on from the point of view of a college instructor who tries to forge a relationship with a student who is feared to be a possible shooter. Long Wharf’s Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto and Berkeley Rep’s Literary Manager Sarah Rose Leonard sat down with Cho to ask her some questions about the play.


Q: What inspired you to write this play?
A: When I really think about where the first idea came from, it was probably the Virginia Tech shooting. It was on a college campus, it was a Korean American shooter, and it was the highest body count at that time. It was such a striking event, something I couldn’t really forget. I didn’t think of writing a play about it initially. How could you possibly write about an event that sad, violent, and troubling? At the time, I was thinking more about writing and its purpose, and what I wanted to say with my plays. I had been doing a lot of thinking about identity, and the role of an Asian American writer, an Asian American citizen, an Asian American artist. I was sort of like, who am I? And what kind of work do I want to do?
The next event that really stood out in my mind was Newtown. It really broke me. I remember I saw it on the news and I just fell to my knees. I started asking questions about this violence in American culture, where it was coming from, and whether I, as a writer, had anything to say about it. Being in the theater has been like one very long, unending class in empathy and understanding. So much of our energy has been spent trying to understand each other, trying to understand characters, trying to understand people who are different from us. I think that extension of empathy makes sense to me in terms of trying to understand what this violent phenomenon is and why it is happening. I don’t think Office Hour is an answer to any of those questions, but it at least posed the questions and could say look, these are the things I’m struggling with, are you struggling with them too?


Q: How did you find the structure of the play? And, how does it connect with Gina’s experience of paranoia and fear?

A: I struggled to write the play for a very long time. It was such a huge topic, such a terrible thing, this idea of writing a play about mass shootings, that I just had no idea how to even approach it. For the longest time I had it sitting on the periphery of my awareness but I couldn’t really figure out how to even walk up to it. After one of the shootings, I read an Op-Ed personal essay in The New York Times. It was written by a woman who had been a teacher at a college. She had a student who scared her, and she actually had a conference with him. I immediately grabbed onto it, because the essay described my own experience of being a grad student instructor at several different institutions. That relationship between professor/instructor and student was very familiar to me, and I thought, this is how I can approach this, with a very specific encounter between teacher and student.
But sitting down to write the play was really difficult. I thought I would write a play that’s just an hour and a half of two people talking—just one conference, with a beginning, middle, and end. That seemed to be the most logical way to write the play. But as soon I sat down to write that play, the sort of linear two-hander, I couldn’t get past page one. I literally had no idea what they would say to each other, and simultaneously it felt like as soon as they both sat down, I knew where it would end: the office hour would start, and then it would end. It just didn’t spark my curiosity, and I never felt like “Oh what’s going to happen next?” I also felt like I was making them talk to each other, which is always a bad sign because it feels forced, like I’m consciously creating the dialogue and the characters aren’t alive or real.
I kept banging my head against its structure, and then I happened to get one of the recent volumes of Caryl Churchill’s plays. I love Caryl Churchill; so many of her plays are about play structure. They’re very exposed; you can see all the wiring underneath. And they’re also really experimental and challenging and mess with classifications. It wasn’t that I was consciously trying to emulate her, but I thought, why am I trying to write a linear play about something so jarring, fracturing, and complicated? So I sat down and asked myself, “What is the elephant in the room? What are we worried will happen?” It’s very simple and it happens in the play almost immediately. If that’s not what the play is about, then what is? After I wrote that, I truly did not know what was going to happen next. Something really cracked open, and the play took over and could have its own drive. Finding that structure enabled the play to be written at all.


Q: What made you want to focus on this school shooter character? What came up for you and what surprised you as you sat with Dennis?
A: I think it wasn’t so much about creating somebody out of complete imagination. Instead, it was really saying, what if you could take a normally troubled person—we’ve all had people in our lives who are depressed or angry or lost—and then take that to the extreme? What I found in writing Office Hour was that I have a very large sense of what fits within the circle of humanity. With Dennis it was about trying to make him so he wasn’t an “other,” so that he wasn’t inexplicable; to say if I start off with a person who is in pain, where is that pain going to lead?
After writing the first draft of the play, I read a book about the mass shooting in Norway called One of Us by Åsne Seierstad. The title is so great because basically it says that the shooter was one of us. In some ways, that’s a part of the American dialogue on mass shooting that I was interested in. What if we could say that they’re still part of us? Not everyone’s willing to go there, which is fair enough. But where do we draw the line, and how do we define who could become that kind of person and who couldn’t? That’s where the play lives, in that ambiguity.


Q: How does Dennis’ experience as a first generation American inform his character?
A: I think the experiences that Dennis has of marginalization and disempowerment are not limited to the immigrant experience. That said, I picked a huge mountain of a topic in writing this play, and it was hard to approach, so I felt the more I could ground it in something I knew, the better. I can only write from my own perspective, and it felt to me like the kind of shooter I could get inside of was a first generation immigrant like me. I was trying to create as real and grounded a person as possible.
Even though it sounds naïve nowadays, I am still a believer in the American Dream. The American dream has taken a lot of blows. But I’m so grateful to be here, and to be able to be a writer. As a child of immigrants, I’m so grateful to have the English language, this beautiful language that gets to be my language—the language I write in, dream in, think in. But also, I know that being an immigrant can be a very difficult experience. You can experience feelings of alienation, of thinking maybe I’ll never make it in, maybe I’ll never be allowed in. And that seems to me like a place where Dennis’ pain could start. Being an immigrant is being given amazing opportunities, but there’s also a lot of heartbreak. I think Dennis’ character is located on the heartbroken side of it. That’s not to justify or suggest that anyone coming out of those experiences would turn out the way Dennis does, but it helped me understand him as someone whose way of being in the world was rooted in something real, as opposed to someone who’s just crazy or a sociopath.


Q: The play seems to deal with the connection between fear and violence, and specifically gun violence—that once you fear a threat, you can start to see it everywhere, and that the fear of violence can breed more violence. How can we break that cycle and choose humanity over fear of the other?
A: That’s a question I have too. All I know is that before any step can be taken towards progress, we have to sit with the difficult things. Gina chooses to go into a room and sit with the difficult thing. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean Dennis—but all of it. To say to an audience member, “Will you come and sit in the dark with a bunch of other people with this difficult thing?” And then there’s no answer, right? You don’t walk away thinking “Now I know what to do!” But, at least you’ve sat with the difficult thing. And in some weird way, I think maybe that’s at least a start. Looking at this thing and not tuning out, or doing something else, or distracting yourself, but just carving out this space and time to think about it—that’s all the play asks. And I think just that is a lot. It feels so small and yet so big. I don’t know how our goodness can outweigh our destructiveness. That is the question of our time. But, I think there’s a lot of hope in the play too. There’s certainly hope in me, that despite everything, I think connection is still possible.

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