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INTERVIEW: Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig On 'The World Of Extreme Happiness'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 22, 2014 4:30PM

'The World of Extreme Happiness' at the Goodman. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig isn’t afraid to probe the provocative. Just take her newest play, The World of Extreme Happiness, which started previews this week at the Goodman. The play follows Sunny, a young Chinese factory worker attempting to climb out of poverty despite unimaginable adversity. Yet despite such heavy subject matter, the play is both topical and tragic, a desperate struggle that’s also bracingly funny.

We caught up with Cowhig to learn more about her fiercely intelligent writing style, how her multicultural upbringing shapes her plays, and why you should just stick to TV writing.

CHICAGOIST: What was the impetus for writing this play? Why did you decide to focus on the very topical theme of China’s economic revolution through the lens of a young, rural Chinese woman?

FRANCES YA-CHU COWHIG: My mother is from rural Taiwan, and everyone in her parents' generation is a farmer. My grandmother never learned to read or write, and my mother was the first person in her village to go to college. Her family has been in Taiwan for several hundred years, but was originally from a fishing village in China, so, like over one-fifth of the human race, I am a part of the Chinese diaspora and find the experiences of Chinese migrants—both within their own country, and to other parts of the world—endlessly fascinating.

The protagonist in The World of Extreme Happiness, Sunny, struggles to change herself and her way of thinking so she can stop hating herself. As a woman who survived her teens and twenties, I can relate Sunny's feelings of despair, inadequacy and overwhelming desire to "do something" with her life, so telling the story through her perspective was an organic entry point into a world that I had some exposure to by living in China, Taiwan and Japan from 1992 to 2001.

C: As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, you grew up in several different countries. How has your multicultural upbringing affected your preferences as a playwright?

FC: I am very interested in migration, change and the collisions of cultures and belief systems. I think this is very much a result of my nomadic upbringing. I refer to my BPF (best playwriting friend) Christopher Chen, whose play The Hundred Flowers Project is being produced in Chicago next month by Silk Road Rising, as my doppelganger because we are the same age and racial mix (Chinese/white), but he has lived in San Francisco his whole life and writes about stasis, whereas I have moved around a lot and write about change.

C: Your past works include a political drama about interrogation at Guantanamo and a video game-themed play about the Chinese afterlife. Both have threads of a sort of spiritual cleansing. Is The World of Extreme Happiness a departure from this thread and your writing style?

FC: All my work has explored the theme of trauma and recovery and contained some kind of cultural collision that is central to the story. The World of Extreme Happiness continues in this vein. It is my first play set in Asia, and the most epic in structure.

C: You’ve been quoted as having fallen into playwriting thanks to a class you took at Brown. What is it that drew you to writing for the stage, in particular? What advice do you have for others who seek a similar career trajectory?

FC: I am drawn to writing for the stage because it requires a broad range of skill sets, the pursuit of which provides many opportunities for growth and learning. Writing plays requires that I be disciplined with the way I spend the hours of a day, rigorous in my pursuit of ideas through research, drafting and revision, and comfortable with the long periods of solitude needed to bring the play to the point where it is ready to be developed collaboratively. In order to do this effectively, this requires a good amount of self-awareness and an ability to know when a play is ready to be shared. I have sabotaged my ability to continue work on a play or an idea by talking about it or sharing a draft too soon.

Working on the production of a play is a deeply collaborative process that is well served by healthy communication habits and an ability to separate oneself from the work one is creating. A play happens in the mind of an audience member experiencing the performance of actors and the choices of the director and designers, all of whom are guided by the text of the play but also make choices that are often more interesting than anything I had in mind during the writing process. In the end, writing a play is akin to creating a set of architectural blueprints for a temporal experience. It doesn't exist yet. It's raw potential and requires a huge amount of rigor and dedication from the cast and crew to make it happen. When I am deeply invested in the story the play is telling, and working with really innovative actors, brilliant designers and a great director, as I am with The World of Extreme Happiness at the Goodman, it feels like we are animating a strange, lucid dream and then sharing it. It's fascinating, and when it works there is nothing like it.

In terms of advice, if you are thinking of playwriting as a career, you should probably give up and go write for TV. It is an extremely difficult calling that requires a lot of downward mobility and extreme economic choices unless you are independently wealthy or willing to have a "day job." I hate having a boss or sitting at a cubicle, and wilt under florescent lights. I get existentially moody if I'm not engaged in meaningful work. If you can live a happy, satisfied life doing something else, do that. If you can't, I suggest you figure out how to spend as little money as possible, have as much free time as possible, alienate yourself frequently through travel outside your comfort zone, spend time with people from all walks of life, listen compassionately, evaluate yourself honestly, choose your friends wisely, exercise more, consume less sugar, get a dog, quit social media, draft by hand and typewriter, learn non-violent communication and go on long walks.

The World of Extreme Happiness runs through Sunday, Oct. 12 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are available by calling 312-443-3800 or online.