Interview: David Henry Hwang

by Dafina McMillan

in Fall Forum,Interviews

Post image for Interview: David Henry Hwang

(Editor’s Note: David Henry Hwang will be the Friday Night Keynote Speaker at our 2011 Fall Forum on Governance: Capitalizing an Art Form. He was kind enough to sit down with Dafina McMillan and answer some Forum – and Chinglish – inspired questions).

1. You are one of the few playwrights moving fluidly between the commercial and not-for-profit theatre. How would you compare the divide between those worlds to the division between America and China you explore in Chinglish?

It’s an interesting analogy – both in the case of the countries and in doing theatre. People strive for the same human goals. In theatre, we try to do good work. There’s always a balance between artists and community.

In nonprofit theatre – we want to create a great artistic product and then we think it would be great if it made some money. It’s almost reversed in commercial theatre – it’s about making money first and creating great art is secondary. The priorities are different but the artistic process is the same in both regards.

Regarding the U.S .and China, both countries have elements within them that are afraid of the country and the only way to overcome those fears is to find ways to cooperate. Next year, there will be elections in the US as well as China. Are these going to be leaders who succumb to fear and isolation or apply values of cooperation and promote open exchange?

2. The media currently gives a lot of attention to the financial exchanges between America and China. What do you think is the current state of cultural exchange between the two?

The Chinese are very interested in musical theatre – and have made many attempts to create their own musicals that end up on Broadway. However, there’s not a lot of knowledge of the artistic process – the development of the play, such as re-writing, nurturing the play before it is produced.  There needs to be more education on the part of the Chinese in this medium. There’s a great need for knowledge.

In terms of US – we tend to be myopic, and not really interested in seeing work about other countries. We have to learn more about their perceptions of us in order to make decisions that are helpful for all of us. A greater understanding will help us bridge the cultural gap and give us insight as to how they see the world. Literature, theatre and exposure to music all help us understand other cultures.

3. TCG’s Fall Forum focuses in part on redefining our assets – including our artistic, financial and people assets. What assets do you think theatres possess that they might be forgetting or undervaluing?

The importance of the artist.  Artists are less consistently supported than the people who operate the institutions. Artists need to be valued as a central asset to the life of theatre.

There’s value of making work that speaks to your local community, which is very different than when a theatre tries to reach the whole country or the world. It’s easy to have a show speak to the people in your 50 mile radius. Theatres are focusing on their disadvantage in trying to reach the world versus their advantage that involves the people closer to the theatre, which will end up supporting your theatre.

David Henry Hwang’s work includes the plays M. Butterfly, Golden Child, Yellow Face and FOB; the Broadway musicals AIDA (co-author), Flower Drum Song (2002 revival) and Disney’s Tarzan; and opera libretti for Philip Glass’ The Yoyage, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (two 2007 Grammy Awards) and Bright Sheng’s The Silver River. He also penned the feature films M. Butterfly, Golden Gate, and Possession (co-writer), and Executive Produced the upcoming indie movie White Frog. Hwang is a Tony© Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time OBIE Award winner and a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. He sits on the boards of the Dramatists Guild and the American Theatre Wing, and was appointed by President Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. His newest play, Chinglish, premiered this summer at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and opened on Broadway this October.

Dafina McMillan is the Director of Conferences and Communications of Theatre Communications Group (TCG). She has expertise in nonprofit arts management and corporate communications. Prior to joining TCG, she served as the Associate Managing Director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, MN. While previously in New York, she was an account supervisor at global public relations agency GCI Group (now Cohn & Wolfe) and implemented communication strategies for Fortune 500 companies. Dafina has served as a speech writer, led executive visibility and corporate social responsibility campaigns, supported brand launches, spearheaded event planning, and conducted extensive media relations on local, national and global levels. She has also consulted with the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts on marketing and community engagement initiatives. Dafina is an alumna of The John F. Kennedy Center’s International Arts Management Fellowship in Washington, D.C. Originally from Houston, TX, she received her bachelor of science degree in public relations from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • Black Ops Artist


    I think David makes a very interesting point about the value of making theatre for a local community as opposed to trying to reach the country or the world. It is an ironic statement because of the strictly locality of theater. I think this is also a reason why theaters are struggling with social media implementation.

    The majority of news coverage for social media success stories highlights how social media is helping companies expand their reach globally. How attractive would this be to theaters, who are desperately in need of butts in the seats? Only problem is, theater is a locality based venture. While there are theaters that can have global reach, it takes a conglomerate of localized theaters that reach out to the world in order to get the world to notice (ie Broadway).

    Anything other than that, it becomes exponentially more difficult for theaters to attract a national audience. So the fact of the matter is, theaters need to shy away from the global reach philosophy and truly embrace the business limits of being a theater company.

    Another interesting point that David makes is the non-profit to commercial mentality of making art. They start at the opposite ends of the spectrum only to progress toward each others starting point.

    non profit is about making great art, then finding monetization. Commercial is about monetization first, then developing it into an artful endeavor. “Artist” consistently judge negatively that commercialization as the primary motive of creation is the antithesis of art, yet no artist likes to starve. Is one better than the other? For actors, is an inside-out process of character development more beneficial than an outside-inside process? Vice versa?

    Thank you for this short, insightful interview.