Hometown: New York, New York
This week is our final installment of our series of interviews with the eight winners of the 2011 Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition. While previous interviews had been conducted over the phone, I had an opportunity for a face-to-face interview with Hayley Tyler Chin, a New York City native who had just come home for semester break. She is also an alum of Young Playwrights Inc.’s Advanced Playwriting Workshop, a free after school program for promising writers of high school age in the NYC area, so like Zachary Weaver, my first interview, Hayley and I already know each other. We chatted over tea about her winning play, Jenna’s Birthday, and her other writing endeavors.
When was the last time we saw each other, Hayley?
Probably January 2011—I visited once when I was home for winter break, and I met Nicole [Lorenzetti, Young Playwrights Inc. Education Manager].
Little did we know that that would be the last time you visited THAT incarnation of the office.
When I found out [about the fire], I was like, “Yeah, that’s where I spent two years of my life.”
That’s right, you participated in the Advanced Playwriting Workshop twice. Is there an experience that you have had as a writer that has defined or changed you?
I think I realized something about writing this semester as I was writing a Snow White adaptation. I realized that most of my conflicts in my plays aren’t really over concrete things; there is always sort of a philosophical question there.
So the Snow White adaptation because you were using a conflict that you didn’t create yourself—that you weren’t building from scratch—showed you that.
I realized that I have always been building on an idea. Jenna’s Birthday is about being incomplete and her disorder is just a physical manifestation of that… and Snow White is all about the consequences of beauty, just in a very concrete, dramatic, and saddening way.
It seems that this is often your entry point into writing. Jenna’s Birthday might not exist if it weren’t for this philosophical question you had about completeness and incompleteness. Are there any playwrights or theater-makers you admire?
Sure. Gina Gionfriddo, who wrote Becky Shaw, possibly one of the best plays I have seen in my life. Every line is like a firecracker, and the dialogue isn’t necessarily naturalistic; it is like reality, but slightly altered, which is nice. And the conflicts are…naked, I guess. Chris Durang is a big favorite of mine. I think I get my courage to be quirky from him. I think I am probably only 20 percent, ten percent as wacky as he is, but I love him for it… And then there is David Lindsay-Abaire—he is able to be very sentimental and very funny and very sad, all at the same time, and there are definitely parts of Jenna’s Birthday that are inspired by pieces of his work… Kimberly Akimbo, which I didn’t read until after I had written my play, and Fuddy Meers… and even Wonder of the World are probably all very helpful in thinking about Jenna. He is very, very good at these complicated female protagonists who are complicated not in the cliché falling all over themselves sort of way.
Do you remember what you said to me when I called you to let you know you won the competition?
I said, “I am finally the bride!”
Because you had submitted before…
Yeah, let me try to recall: so Write A Play! [the local NYC competition] the first time, I won. Write A Play! the second time I think I was a finalist. I have been a finalist for The Blank [another young playwrights competition run by The Blank Theater in California] twice. This competition [The Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition] I have also been a finalist. So this was my fourth entry into a national playwriting competition of some kind. And it was my last year of eligibility—so you can print that: I was finally the bride!
That really struck me when you said that because all of these entries showed that you were tenacious about it, you know, you were getting recognition—you were finalist, finalist, bridesmaid, bridesmaid, and then finally: now is your time.
It is interesting that it was Jenna’s Birthday that won because that was the first play that I ever wrote for Advanced Playwriting Workshop. It is a later incarnation of that first play. Basically I have grown up with that play. I started writing it when I was 16, and it’s gone through—this is going to be its sixth draft. I am re-writing the ending again. Two characters have been cut, so the ending has to change.
So as you hinted earlier, Jenna’s Birthday is about this young woman as she struggles for independence despite the fact that she has a rather unique disability, Neglect Syndrome, which I had to google. Correct me if I am wrong here, Neglect Syndrome is brought about by brain trauma, and in Jenna’s case that was the result of a car accident? And she cannot perceive things that are on the, um…
left side of her field of vision, as well as the left halves of objects…I was in AP Psychology in 11th grade and I heard about [Neglect Syndrome] and it caught my interest. I think a lot of disorders that interest playwrights are inherently emotional—like Bipolar or Schizophrenia, but I find it kind of strange that I picked a perception disorder. I think there is something about the incompleteness of that disorder that really got to me.
And this is rare disorder?
Yes, it is normally a by-product of strokes, which makes sense because most stroke victims we hear about have mobility problems with their left side, and it this case it is just limited to her vision. And some people do recover from this, which actually is something that I explore now in the play. With her independence would she maybe then recover some of her faculties. At his point she hasn’t, but she hopes that maybe through her emancipation that she will recover.
So Jenna has this accident when she is 18, when typically your relationship with your parents really begins to change—you become more independent—but the inverse happens to Jenna. And now it is five years later, and she wants things to go back on that road towards independence.
She’s been in a state of arrested development since all of this, and actually since I have grown up with this play I have come to realize—I started writing this play when I was 16—I didn’t know what it’s like to leave home, to go to college, to even be older than 18. Now I am looking back at Jenna and thinking what would it be like to be a person who has not done the things that I have done in the past year and a half? Ever. So, some added perspective.
Do you find that you revise a lot of the work that you have done?
Yeah, I guess so, but this is a personal favorite. There are some things that I get attached to and some things I leave behind. This is obviously something I have kept up… This will be the fifth ending or something. [Another play I wrote] there was a good four or five drafts. Basically all of that has contributed to me now knowing that there is no right answer in a play, there is no right direction, there is no perfect plot structure.
Can you tell us some of the ways that Jenna’s Birthday used to end?
Sure. Well, I won’t tell you how it ends now, but there was one point where there was like a gun standoff between Jenna, Barry [a criminal who lives a double life] and Matt [Jenna’s love interest]. I say Barry because he has been Barry for years; he’s Bill now. My director and my dramaturg make fun of me all the time because I am constantly calling him Barry. He will always be Barry to me. I changed him to Bill for logistical reasons… there is a nickname aspect and I like the nickname better when his name is William. Another fun one was Matt saving the day—Matt would save the day for Jenna by confronting Barry. Another one… double wedding: don’t ask… another big version was we actually see Matt and Jenna leaving together to go to New York. It’s very different now.
We hope some of our readers will want to come to the readings as well, so those of you reading this: Stay tuned for the new ending… if you want to find out you have to come to the reading! I am really looking forward to how it evolves. I think that is one of the great things about knowing you for as long as I have, I can see you develop as a writer and as a person from a 16-year-old to an independent college woman. I have seen you work very hard and I am so happy to see that it paid off and you are “finally a bride.”
Hayley will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2012 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 4-12. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights Family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers. If you are interested in attending the readings contact us at reservations[at]youngplaywrights.org.
The deadline for writers in the United States 18 and under to submit a play to our 2012 competition is January 2nd.
Thanks for tuning in!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager