Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Inside SCR: Relating Plot to Real Life

by Jonathan Castanien

Jonathan Castanien, SCR public relations assistant.
“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I work in public relations at a theatre in Costa Mesa called South Coast Repertory.”

“Oh…so what does that mean? Like a movie theater?”

This is how a conversation usually goes when people ask me about my job. After I tell them more about what I do, their eyes seem to glaze over.

One of the things I do at SCR is write blog stories. In fact, I’ve written this piece that you’re reading—and a good portion of the stories that have been posted in the last year. So, when I was asked to write a story about myself, it felt natural to make it a little less formal and to write it in first-person.

My name is Jonathan Castanien and I’m SCR's public relations assistant. I received a BA in theatre arts from California State University, Fullerton, with an emphasis in technical design and production. I focused on stage management during my four years and also worked part time on campus in the theatre and dance department’s marketing annex. I knew nothing about marketing, but caught on quickly and fortunately, it led me to SCR.

Typically, I assist in the day to day communications for the theatre. On any given day, I could be writing a blog story, clipping articles, brainstorming ideas for a photo shoot or scheduling interviews for reporters with an actor in one of our upcoming productions.

With my mom.
More importantly, I act as an extension of the storytelling happening on our stages by sharing the stories of the people involved in our productions and even finding audience stories that may reflect the story on stage.

That’s why, when last spring SCR announced Vietgone by Qui Nguyen as part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, I immediately knew I had to take a particular person in my life: my mom, Sophia Castanien.  I knew that this play about a Vietnamese refugee experience had to be seen by an actual refugee who lived through it. And, Mom also kept asking to see a show where I worked.

My mom was born as Nga Cao in Saigon, Vietnam, to my grandparents, Van Cao and Diep Truong. She was the third girl among four brothers and three sisters. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Qui Cao and Dr. Ha Ta Ngoc, who were unable to have children. She would be raised by them alongside their first adopted daughter, Phung. Mom spent much of her childhood in Bạc Liêu, while also studying in Đà Lạt and in Saigon. Although she was adopted, she still saw her biological parents and siblings often.

(L to R) My Aunt Phung, grandfather, grandmother and mom
Since she lived in the city, the war was something faraway and removed to her. She would only see the effects of the war when soldiers returned to the city, injured and worn, or when family members would leave to serve in the military. It created a shrouded sense of peace that didn't last forever.

By the spring of 1975, panic grew quickly as the North Vietnamese troops advanced towards the south. It felt like more and more people, displaced by the war, were coming to the city. With their arrival, whispers filled with fear began to spread and the sense of safety around the city faded quickly.

Filled with uncertainty, some of my aunts, uncles and cousins had begun to leave by boat. Due to my grandfather’s age, and the chaos around them the day Saigon fell, my mom and her immediate family were unable to escape and had to face the aftermath of their government's fall. Her family lost its properties, money and status in a world that had dramatically changed around them. Mom lived for four long years under the new government, and waited patiently for her father to be released from the reeducation camps.

When her father was released in early 1979, she hoped that the whole family would be able to escape together. But her father was in poor health, making it impossible for him and my grandmother to leave, so the family faced a difficult decision. My grandparents urged them to go–to have a better life away from what was once considered home.

Posing as ethnic Chinese, also called nguoi hoa, my mom, her first husband, my aunt, Phung, Phung’s first husband and my two cousins escaped. At the time, the new government was making deals with nguoi hoa to allow people to leave the country if they paid a large sum of money. Once my family paid, things happened very quickly and my mom didn't even have the chance to properly say goodbye to her father. It was the last time she saw him—he would pass away a few years later while she was in the U.S. Her mother accompanied them to the dock and saw them off. With only a few steps away from her escape, my mom wasn't able to hold it in anymore and she cried in my grandmother's arms before boarding the boat.

It wasn't an easy journey. “I knew I wouldn’t eat for a week and just have a little bit of water to drink,” Mom recounts. “It’s easier when you’re younger. If I had to do it now, I wouldn't.” The group had no destination, just the hope that they would make it to a country that would take them in.

My mom (R) on her  first visit to Disneyland with my Aunt Oanh (L)
When they reached Singapore four days later, they weren’t permitted to land. The Coast Guard provided them with a few supplies and then the group had to head into the unknown once again. Two days later, they reached an island in Indonesia, where they were allowed to stay overnight, but were told to leave in the morning. It was a prospect no one wanted to face: pirates, rough waters and darkness lived out at sea. They knew they had to do something to stay.

That night, under the veil of darkness, they set their own boat on fire.

With no way to leave, they were allowed to set up a refugee camp—one of the first in the area. The U.S. government was quickly contacted, beginning the process of interviews and securing sponsorships from families in the U.S. to enable migration to America.

My mom was  fortunate to have reached the U.S. six months after setting up that refugee camp. Her sister, Oanh, who had reached the U.S. years earlier, sponsored my mom to come to California. My aunt, Phung, and her immediate family were sponsored to Chicago, Illinois. The two sisters had known from the beginning that they would be separated in the U.S.

In October 1979, my mom flew into LAX, where she was reunited with her family and settled into their home in Long Beach. They welcomed her with the best American meal they could think of: Pioneer fried chicken and pizza. Among her sisters, brothers and biological parents, she had found a new home after a long journey. Two weeks later, she was able to secure a job through a family friend and quickly began her new life in the U.S.

(L to R) My father Steven, Mom, me and my brother David.
As the years went on, she became a U.S. citizen, gave birth to my brother, David, ended her first marriage, married my father, had me and reunited with her adoptive mother, Qui, who years later was able to immigrate to California.

Mom dedicated herself to raising a family and making sure her two sons earned a college education and lived a better life than she had.

Which leads us back to 2015 and the reading of Vietgone at the Pacific Playwrights Festival. After the theatre emptied and we walked back to the car, I asked Mom what she thought of the play.

“It reminded me about a lot of things I almost forgot,” Mom told me. “I forgot people wanted to leave the refugee camp right away to be with their families. They didn’t want to stay because of the people they had to leave behind.”

She also found the characters and story familiar. She saw one of brothers in the main character, Quang, who had to leave behind his wife during the chaos of the fall. The details may have been different, but she knew this story in her family and friends. They all had lost something along the way and made sacrifices.

“There can be a misunderstanding about refugees,” she went on to explain. “We came here as refugees—not immigrants. We didn’t plan for any of it. This play is important because it reminds us that the war ended drastically and suddenly. We had to try to adopt a new country.”

She also made a point of declaring that my brother and all my cousins had to see Vietgone as well: “They should see it to understand. There’s a part of the experience that the first generation born here doesn’t understand, doesn’t know."

As I continue to work in theatre and help tell SCR's stories, it’s important for me to remember how plays can affect audiences. It’s especially great to see works being done that I can identify with, with stories or characters that I can see both myself and my family in.

It also makes my job a whole lot more fun.

Buy tickets to Vietgone
Quick Q&A with Jonathan Castanien

What do you do outside of SCR?

I freelance as a stage manager in the Orange County and L.A. areas.

What's currently playing on Netflix?
I'm trying to catch up with "House of Cards." I know...I'm kind of behind, but I'm in the middle of season 2!

What are you excited to see this season at SCR?
Vietgone, of course! I'm also looking forward to seeing Red. It's easily one of my favorite plays.

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic story about your mother's journey! :) Thanks for sharing.