Transgendered characters and hate crimes, identity and social conformity”¦sounds quite serious. But don’t worry, it’s a comedy. A tragic one.
Playwrights’ Arena believes in Los Angeles playwrights. So much so that it produces only original works by LA writers. The group has partnered with Latino Theater Company (in association with PAE Live! ) to produce the premiere of Girl Most Likely To, by Michael Premsrirat, directed by Playwrights’ Arena founder and artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, at downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Premsrirat has spent most of his adult life living between Southern California and San Francisco, settling full time in LA during the summer of 2007. Mild-mannered and respectful, he describes many LA theater artists he has come to admire””Culture Clash, Luis Alfaro, Nancy Keystone and his director Rivera””just to name a few.
He’s lived here long enough to feel lucky about where this project has landed and the artistic growth only a full production can bring to a new play.
“What you so often hear is the story about “˜this person’ who has been here toiling a while who suddenly got something Off-Broadway and then it leads to an LA production,” Premsrirat states. By seeking LA playwrights for LA productions, “[Rivera] really champions LA writers when so many won’t.”
Premsrirat is no stranger to artistic accolades or professional production. His first play The Clouds, The Ocean and Everything in Between, won the 2000 East West Players New Voices playwriting competition and went on to be featured as a reading at the Public Theater’s New Work Now! Festival in May 2001. The play had two full productions, first at Asian American Theater Company (San Francisco, May 2001)
and then Asian American Repertory Theatre (San Diego, February 2005).
Rivera learned about Girl — a finalist for Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Playwrights’ Conference — when Premsrirat offered to write grants for Rivera’s company. Premsrirat was inspired to help the company after seeing a workshop of Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey directed by Rivera, who later staged a full production of Alfaro’s play at Theatre @ Boston Court.
“I was so moved by that production,” Premsrirat recalls. “I knew I wanted to work with Jon. I pretty much offered to do anything that would get me around him.”
Premsrirat describes thin beginnings for the script that has become the nearly two-hour, full-length Girl. Premsrirat was in his final year of the MFA Playwriting program at USC, where he graduated in May 2010. As a last-minute thesis project, the first draft incubated for two weeks as part of a development workshop directed by Nancy Keystone. That development time proved invaluable.
“It was really written during those two weeks,” Premsrirat thinks back. “Talk about actors and a director having an influence on the work. They had so much to do with where it went and how it evolved. I was so fortunate.”
Joining the Playwrights’ Arena team before he even graduated from USC, Premsrirat was thrilled when Rivera expressed interest in the script and proposed a premiere in Los Angeles. Premsrirat had continued his work on the script and felt it was nearly complete but still valued the insights from Rivera in the staging.
“I sometimes think of myself as a re-write monkey,” Premsrirat laughs. “Sometimes every word feels precious, but then at times I’m so filled with doubt it gets easier to let actors offer feedback and ask questions. I really trust this group of people. I trust this cast so much.”
Premsrirat credits his ability to embrace a fully collaborative process to his experience with 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, an award-winning Asian American sketch comedy troupe he worked with while living in San Francisco. The company developed material and performed regionally as well as overseas at the Hong Kong Fringe. Premsrirat describes the world of think-on-on-your-feet sketch comedy as strong training ground for letting go in a collaborative process.
“I learned so much from doing improv,” Premsrirat says. “So many things I thought were perfect and good were actually wrong and didn’t work for an audience. That kinda kicked my ass a little.”
Premsrirat still carries that experience in all his writing. In fact, his inspiration for Girl came from what many mainstream comedians use for source material — current events. Only this current event has a dark side.
Loosely based on the true story of Gwen Araujo, Girl unravels the tale of a notorious hate crime against a transgender teen from San Francisco through the lens of sexual identity. Premsrirat recognizes many predecessors to his story including David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (his favorite play), Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. But Premsrirat has stayed away from any outside influences and focuses on his own thoughts about the subject and his personal experiences with transgender friends and colleagues.
The 2002 murder of Araujo received substantial coverage at the time, with comparisons to the hate crimes that ended the lives of Matthew Shepard in 1998 and Brandon Teena in 1993. But rather than simply re-create the events leading up to the crime, Premsrirat engages the question of how such an incident results in violent, explosive behaviors that turn would-be lovers into killers.
Premsrirat has also researched the actual experiences of transgendered people, especially those making the dramatic medical transition through extensive procedures and hormone treatments. But he admits some of his most informative material for dramatizing the story wasn’t derived from LGBT research but rather from feminist theory and ethnic studies related to identity.
“I want to know how does sexuality identify who we really are?” Premsrirat asks firmly. “We all have masculine and feminine characteristics we relate to. How do we come to those decisions about ourselves?”
He is particularly intrigued by what he describes as “the cycle of violence” against transgendered people by male lovers, which he has discovered time and time again in LGBT crime reports. He was also drawn to Araujo’s close relationship to her own mother.
“All these stories are very important but I have kept a distance from what others have already written about,” he admits. “I do feel I have carved my own space in this story.”
The brutality of the true event remains, but Premsrirat hopes the journey also offers moments to enjoy the irreverence and carefree celebration of men in drag. Two drag queens serve as a chorus in the play and help soften the harsh blows the story delivers.
“It’s a tragic drama that’s funny for 95 percent of the ride,” quips Premsrirat with just an inkling of spark before melting back to a reverence for the original story. “It’s quite a ride”¦quite exhausting but worth it.”
The Girl Most Likely To, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 South Spring Street, Los Angeles. Opens April 20. Plays Thu- Sat 8 pm; Sun 7 pm. Through May 13. Tickets $10 ““ $30. 866- 811-4111. thelatc.org.
Girl Most Likely To Please insert production info here.
***All photos by Adam Blumenthal, except where noted