“JFK, Nixon, hippies, drugs, music, moon landing, religion, and””most importantly””the rise of mass media, especially television…If I really want to be an American,” says playwright Damon Chua. “I gotta know more about the ’60s.”
Thus began the inquiry leading to the play 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape written by Chua, the current executive director of the award-winning Off-Broadway Keen Company and a former resident of Los Angeles.
An Outside Eye on America
Hailed in recent years as one of the most produced playwrights in his native Singapore, Chua lived and worked in Los Angeles for nine year before moving to New York in 2011. Part of his time in LA included winning an Ovation Award (for best world premiere play) for his first American production””the full-length noir mystery, Film Chinois. He also served as the literary manager for Company of Angels and the playwright-in-residence for Brimmer Street Theatre Company.
It was during this time in LA, and after years of experiencing American politics firsthand, that he was inspired to write 1969.
“I became eligible for American citizenship in 2009 and decided to figure out what being an American was all about,” Chua elaborates. “I felt that our current socio-political situation was shaped to a great extent by the ’60s, which was the beginning of what became the new conservative movement.”
Chua embraced this idea by participating in Brimmer Street’s play development program, the Blueprint Series. Working closely with the Brimmer Street actors, Chua investigated the events that transpired in the summer leading up to 1969’s moon landing, an event watched live by more people than any other in history.
Brimmer Street actors were instrumental in this early process, bringing in research and questions based on assignments from the playwright. Chua sculpted his story from what they discovered about “the chaos” that ended that decade””particularly in religion and American politics.
“I wanted to capture that moment where the tide began to change in the so-called “˜liberal ’60s’,” he explains.
When a first draft was completed at Brimmer Street, Chua began shaping the story and developing the theatrical tools to tell it.
Chua’s focus on investigating real events rather than themes resulted in a different kind of play compared to his previous work.
“The focus on time rather than theme was very liberating,” Chua says. “This play has almost 50 characters. It’s kinda crazy but it’s meant to be chaotic and capture that psychedelic, unsettling feeling toward the end of the ’60s.”
He hopes the invention of scenes between historical people””not intended to be documentary in nature””will offer interpretations of the larger meaning of significant events and how those events can be better understood in hindsight.
“I always knew there would be certain strands to the story,” Chua elaborates. “Going to the moon, the Chappaquiddick incident, America’s most infamous atheist, America’s Christian sweetheart, and, of course, the Kennedys.”
Through the re-write process, he found those seemingly unrelated pieces of story had connections to each other. His revelations about American culture caught the attention of colleague and former artistic director of Company of Angels, Tony Gatto. Gatto remembers the first reading of 1969 at Brimmer Street in 2009.
“I was perplexed, moved and confused but incredibly overjoyed at the same time,” Gatto recalls. “It seemed so huge and epic in scope. I left there wondering what theater company could take it on.”
But as the play continued to evolve, with more public readings and with Chua constantly refining the text, it gained momentum toward a production.
Creation of a Production Company
“I never at that time thought I’d produce it myself,” Gatto reflects. “It really scared me.”
Part of that fear came from Gatto’s vision of how the play would best be produced. He wanted more than a simplified “black box” version of the story, but to do so meant intricate period costumes, detailed sets and video design. The budget alone seemed impossible for a small theater. But he also doubted a small theater company in Los Angeles would have a large enough space to manage the staging.
A final reading took place at the Elephant Theatre in 2010. Gatto and Chua decided to join forces and mount the production as co-executive producers, with Gatto directing. After another year of shopping for theater companies or appropriate venues, an amenable deal was struck with Jeff Murray and his space at Theatre/Theater. GatChu productions was born, and fundraising began to create the production Gatto originally envisioned.
“The whole world celebrated in this event of landing on the moon and there was such euphoria around that,” Gatto says. “It’s how we react to the challenges of this country that defines who we are.”
When Chua was hired in 2011 to become the new executive director for Keen Company in New York City, production work continued with the writer and director working long distance. Gatto brought in Fayna Sanchez, who had been part of the final reading in 2010, to assist in producing responsibilities.
“This play especially slaps you in the face with its energy,” Sanchez comments.“It’s the first play I’ve read that was like that.”
Long Distance Process
Now engaged in the busy life of running an Off-Broadway theater company, Chua is excited to return to Los Angeles for the production and to see the work done mostly by artists, particularly in the large ensemble cast, he hasn’t met in person.
“I think it’s good that I keep a distance,” Chua says. “I’ve really done all that I could, and now is the time to let the actors and director play with it.”
As a seasoned playwright, Chua admits he has grown over the years through his production experiences. Being outside the rehearsal process wasn’t always easy.
“I was a control freak. But I learned my lesson,” he laughs. “I’m very open now”¦as long as there is truth and honesty, I’m not too worried if it’s not within what I intended or imagined.”
This Los Angeles production of 1969 is an easier long-distance pill to swallow because of Chua’s previous working relationship with Gatto through their time at Company of Angels.
“Tony and I know each other really well. He’s sometimes too concerned about being too faithful. I told him to go and have fun,” Chua comments. “You do want to have a faithful rendition of your work, but I’ve learned other input can elevate it. I have learned to trust the process.”
Politics, History and Artistic License
Gatto has a mutual respect for Chua’s work and vision as an artist — particularly, how his observations about America feel perceptive even though they are coming from someone not raised in this country. In some ways, Gatto believes that distance has served Chua’s ability to see connections others might take for granted. “‘I think I came to the conclusion recently that America is such a young country,” Gatto notes. “And it’s going to take us a long time to learn from our mistakes.”
Sanchez and Gatto also feel Chua combines historical characters placed in realistic but not historically accurate situations as a way to show all sides to an argument. This “fantastical” element has created some of the biggest challenges as well as the most excitement in creating the visual possibilities for the production.
“But you don’t feel hammered by one side or the other,” Sanchez emphasizes. “You get to leave with your opinion fully in you. I really respond to that. I want more of that.”
As he moves toward becoming a citizen of this country, Chua believes the writing of this particular play has brought him closer to his personal American experience.
“It was a journey of discovery for me,” Chua says. “And it is still ongoing.”
1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape, presented by Gatchu Productions. Opens tonight. Plays Fri.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through April 29. Tickets $25. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles. Opens March 23. 323-930-0747 and 323.960.7770. www.plays411.com/1969 or www.1969theplay.com.
***All 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape production photos by Brett Mayfield