Michael Golamco is escorting the Colony Theatre Company toward a different culture, and the staff there is excited to explore the excursion with him.
The Colony opens its 37th season June 4 with the West Coast premiere of Golamco’s Year Zero. It centers on Long Beach teenager Vuthy’s and his sister Ra’s efforts to assimilate into American culture after the death of their mother. On his website, Golamco describes it as “a comedic drama about young Cambodian Americans — about reincarnation, reinvention and ultimately, redemption.”
The Westwood-based playwright recounts the story’s journey from origin to objective. “I had been aware of the Cambodian genocide in academic terms but not on an emotional level, until I met a girl from there who told me about escaping from the country as a child with her family, as people were being tortured and dying all around them. I knew those basic facts. Her memories provided some flesh to go on those bare bones of facts.
“I grew up in an entirely different environment. I was born in Manila, the Philippines in 1975. We immigrated first through Canada in 1980 and then arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1985 — elementary and middle school in San Mateo, high school in Marin County. I grew up watching cartoons on TV instead of wondering if I would die from a bomb blast that day. It made me realize there are people with parallel lives, right next door to us.”
His Cambodian American source told him that “her parents never talked about those days. I thought there’s a universal connection here that needs to extend to the outside world, a personal history to be passed on from one generation to the next. Tragedy is a fact of life. Look at the India/Pakistan conflicts. Look at what happened in Poland. But even in the midst of enormous tragedy, the will to survive is what drives American immigrants to become Americans, I think, and what contributes to their purging such disastrous memories from their lives. I think people don’t want to infect — maybe infect is the wrong word — I think they don’t want the horrors of suffering to metastasize and follow them. That would explain why they don’t talk of earlier oppressions.
“But we want to know about those things. We need to know about them. We need to feel and live with the effects of oppression and torture so we can help prevent its re-occurrence. That’s what compelled me to write Year Zero.
The Cambodian immigrant whose memories initially inspired Year Zero grew up in Stockton, Ca., a town with a large Cambodian enclave, according to Golamco. “But I chose to set the play in Long Beach, because that is one of the largest communities of Cambodian Americans. Another large enclave in Lowell, Mass. is featured rather prominently in that recent movie The Fighter.
“I wanted the play to be funny. I wanted to illustrate how everyday humor helps fuel that will to survive and move on. I remembered a quote from Bobby Sands of the I.R.A. who was imprisoned for subversive activities. He said, “˜Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’ I wanted to tap into that philosophy of not seeking violent reprisal but basic survival.”
Golamco’s cartoon-watching childhood morphed gradually into a career calling. He says, “As a little kid I initially wanted to write novels because I thought it was the purest form of storytelling. It’s like a direct link into someone’s brain using only words…When I moved to LA in ’94, right away I recognized a huge cultural difference. I think I fit in rather well because I found I really liked driving.
“When I went to UCLA, I got involved with the writing of a show we’d put on free twice a quarter in a 350-seat auditorium. Then at the end of the school year I signed up for Unicamp, an official UCLA charity established many years ago to provide a summer camp experience for low-income kids. There I wrote programs for the kids to perform.”
Those collegiate writing experiences paved the way toward the theater after graduation, although Golamco laughs about his initial effort in the real world. “My first play post-college was this Reality Bites sort of thing with your friends sitting on a couch lamenting life and hoping for the future.”
He continues to laugh about it and seems to want to move on to other matters. Indeed he soon cranked out a handful of projects he need not laugh nor feel apologetic about. His short film Dragon of Love won best short at the Hawaii International Film Festival. His film Please Stand By was singled out for recognition at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival by Tribeca’s All Access: On Track development program. His play Cowboy Versus Samurai enjoyed healthy runs in New York, Canada and Hong Kong and received a Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting.
A New York theatrical agent who died at age 79 in 1997, Merrill willed her assets to the New York Community Trust to establish the award in her name to assist with an emolument for aspiring or mid-career playwrights needing financial encouragement. Golamco shared the award in 2009 with Nilo Cruz, Michael Weller, Lanford Wilson, Zakiyyah Alexander, Bathsheba Doran, Deborah Laufer and Justin Sherin. Each of the eight received a $20,000 stipend.
He confesses, “I had never heard of the Merrill Award until I got a call telling me I had won it. The world is so big, it’s beyond our imaginations. It made me realize people are out there in the world who are looking out for us that we don’t even know are looking out for us.”
After attending the awards ceremony, he was quoted: “The number of Pulitzer Prize winners in the house was high. And also the shrimp — the large, succulent, sweet and wonderful shrimp were awesome.”
When that quote is read back to him, he laughs again but in delight, not embarrassment, this time as he reaffirms, “Oh yes, they were. That evening was quite special for me. It was held at the Algonquin Hotel. I had a wonderful, inspiring conversation with Christopher Durang. But the shrimp put the evening over the edge for me. They were like small lobsters. They were another reason why you want to win one of these things.”
Year Zero premiered at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago in 2009 and moved on to another run at New York’s Second Stage Theatre in 2010. “It was vetted pretty well in both cities,” he says, “because both have extensive Cambodian communities, but I really wanted it to come home. If it plays as legitimate to the Cambodian American community from Long Beach, let’s say that serves as validation that I’ve told the story correctly.” Although he has been to Long Beach a few times, he did most of his research from books and online sources.
Quoting him again from a YouTube interview, he said, “We want to do Asian American theater for everybody; not just for ourselves because we know ourselves already.”
Once more he expounds upon his thoughts: “Oh sure, we want to get the word out. When you’re just preaching to the choir, the choir knows the lyrics to the song already. I don’t want to sound academic and stuffy about it. I certainly don’t want to lecture on the Asian culture, but I do want to share the similarities existing among all peoples.”
It delighted him therefore to receive the call from the Colony. He says, “I’m happy to turn the life of the play over to Samuel French once they publish it, because it frees me to go on to other projects. So when Trent Steelman [executive director, the Colony Theatre] called to say they wanted to produce Year Zero, it made my day. I met the director a few weeks before casting. I’ve made myself available to them since. I’m there to support them any way I can and answer any questions that might come up. I figure if my goal is to make my story accessible to people, it’s important I make myself accessible to the cast who’s trying to tell my story.”
That director, David Rose, welcomes Golamco’s proximity to the process. “It’s a real treat for any cast to have the playwright on hand to answer questions,” he says. “The first moment I finished reading the play after Trent Steelman handed it to me, I felt it’d be a powerful emotional journey for our audience. The Colony is not into developing unfinished material. Generally our M O is to pick plays that are ready to go. This one was already proven.”
Rose proved himself to the Colony beginning in 1990, first as an actor before he segued into directorial duties. He recalls, “I directed a couple of shows during high school in Westport, Connecticut and did some more in college and still more later in summer stock. My process was a lot different back then because I didn’t know anything. I was going on instinct.”
Those instincts plus the educational training and practical experience he’s since amassed enabled him to direct over 25 Colony productions over the last two decades ranging from two-person plays such as Visiting Mr. Green and Billy Bishop Goes To War to large-cast endeavors including You Can’t Take it With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Front Page. He explains how the scale dictates the work. “First of all in today’s economic climate you can’t do a play with a huge cast because you can’t afford to pay 18 to 20 actors an Equity salary. So right away you have to aim for smaller, more intimate, more affordable stories” — such as the four-actor Year Zero.
“That being said,” he continues, “my approach with the actors is not different. With the staging itself it’s another issue, because with a large cast you’ve got to be blocking from day one to accommodate scenes where there’s a dozen or more actors on stage at once. That cuts into the amount of time you can devote to character discovery and relationships.
“I’m not drawn to nihilistic material where everything is meaningless and there’s no hope whatsoever. I don’t mind tough issues such as we explored in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Give to Me By a Young Lady From Rwanda [about a woman who survived the Rwandan genocide], but ultimately I’m looking for the hopefulness of redemption or the promise of some kind of better day ahead.
“For my pre-production work I’ll do a lot of research to fill up notebooks with material pertinent to the story line. I also encourage the cast to do the same. This becomes our archival material and research data that we’ll pass back and forth as we share ideas and explore the piece. I consider myself a student of history so I was already familiar with the Cambodian genocide, but then I met two sisters from Cambodia Town in Long Beach. One was a toddler, the other a pre-teen when they escaped with their family from the Khmer Rouge. Their personal stories about their survival and flight gave me an insight way beyond my initial research.
“They also provided answers to simple everyday activities of their culture. For example, how would Ra and Vuthy’s apartment look inside? How would they take care of the shrine at their house? When they take their shoes off at the front door, what exactly do they do with them? Little details like that which add to the authenticity of our telling.”
“I’ll have to say I’m blessed with an incredible cast [Eymard Cabling, Tim Chiou, Christine Corpuz and David Huynh]. I’ve got this great, gifted writer and four wonderfully talented actors. Between them they make it a joy going to work each day.”
Golamco echoes the sentiment. “When I sat in on their first run-through, I found it still sucks me in. Between all the rehearsals and performances in Chicago and New York I’ve seen Year Zero about nine million times by now, but David and this cast bring it to life all over again.”
It instills confidence in Golamco to let Rose and company run with it while he gravitates back to his keyboard to tackle another project. Indeed he’s currently working on new play commissions for both South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and Second Stage Theatre in New York.
“When I pitch ideas,” Golamco says, “I have several but I pick the one I really like and pitch that one extra hard. I always try to keep it small in number of characters so I can focus a lot of attention on bringing out their full potentials. If I had a billion dollar budget, I think I’d still limit my play to three or four characters for that reason. I also think it’s important to write cinematically because today’s audience thinks in those terms.
“I often start in the middle of my story somewhere and will have some idea about my endings. I sometimes have trouble with my beginnings. I usually don’t have a title until something jumps out at me. I think in terms of a metaphor — I’ll start with an empty box, and as I start filling in that box with character sketches and activities for those characters to commence or respond to, I’ll put a label on the box to identify or differentiate it from other boxes for other projects. Whatever label is on the box can become its final title. Other times, though, once the box is full, it needs to be called something entirely different. Each play will tell me.
“There are so many good unspoken ideas out there worthy of looking into. I can be walking across a parking lot when something pricks me in the foot and I’ll go, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ and have a new idea. Other times something sneaks up on me and hangs around till I notice it. It’s like show and tell in a way. Hey, I’ve got this cool rock. Let me show it to you. Even if you’ve seen a rock like it before, I’m gonna show it to you from a different angle.”
Does writer’s block ever afflict Golamco? “Writing problems exist. But you ask yourself: how do I make this happen? How do I get from A to B? I’m a structure-based writer so I stake out a blueprint for my house with an idea where I want the bathroom to be. Now I have to figure how I run the plumbing to make it work.”
After Year Zero recedes into the past, the future holds promise for both writer and director. Rose, currently studying for his Master’s degree in education, acknowledges, “I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with it yet, but I love the idea of teaching theater arts on a high school or college level. I love that kids have such open minds and are so thirsty to learn. If I could share my collective wisdom with them, that would make me very happy and fulfilled.”
Golamco meanwhile plans to keep on keeping on. “I want to write at least one new play a year,” he maintains. “This year I’m writing three. Theater is a medium that does things no other can do. Yes, I’ve written screenplays and will write more, but theater is the temple of storytelling. It’s the church where you go to experience the personal. No transmitted medium can match it. As long as human beings remain in a corporeal form, theater will retain its relevance. You can smell the paint. You can smell the smoke. Sometimes it irritates the crap out of you, but it’s the most palpable art form because it’s right there in your face. You can’t escape it. That’s why bad theater is so terribly awful; you can’t escape it.
“I like to share thoughts, ideas, opinions and cultural influences because it’s important to understand what makes America what it is. To do that we need to look at each other, to see what’s going on next door. We see people walking down the street by our house. We smell their cooking at mealtimes. What’s really going on next door that applies to our own lives?
“Some people say theater needs to be more diverse. Well we need to be more diverse too, which is not all that impossible, because diversity is already here in great abundance in America. We just need to tune into it and recognize it in all its multiplicities. Theater can, and I believe will, move us in that direction.”
**All Production Photography by Michael Lamont
Year Zero opens Saturday, June 4; plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 7 pm. Ticket prices from $20.00–$42.00 (student, senior and group discounts are available). Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center. Free parking. 818-558-7000. www.colonytheatre.org/main.html