Monday, February 29, 2016

From the Playwright and Director: Julia Cho and Neel Keller Talk About "Office Hour"

Playwright Julia Cho.  Photo by Jennie Warren.
Betsy Brandt and Leo Marks in SCR's 2010 world premiere production of The Language Archive.
Linda Gehringer and Toi Perkins in SCR's 2007 world premiere of The Piano Teacher.
Office Hour is the third Julia Cho play to premiere at South Coast Repertory, after The Piano Teacher (2007) and The Language Archive (2010). Her new work, an SCR commission, is the story of a college teacher dealing with a student who frightens her. The cast includes Sandra Oh, Raymond Lee, Corey Brill and Sola Bamis. In this conversation, Cho and director Neel Keller talk about the play’s genesis and more.

What inspired you to write Office Hour?

JULIA CHO: The subject had been on my mind ever since the [2007] Virginia Tech shootings, which stuck with me, in part, because the shooter was Korean. I did not want to write a play about it, but I wanted somebody to write about it. Nothing came out, so I thought, well maybe I should write it.

I felt that the most responsible thing to do would be to write it as nonfiction, maybe interview people who were there and explore it like a documentary. I quickly learned that was not my forte, so I put it away for a few years.

Then I read an essay by a university teacher who had a student that scared her. That really clicked with me because, as a graduate student, I had spent time teaching undergrads. I remembered that time of my life very easily and could completely see the scenario. That was what got me to write the play.

How did you choose the structure when you wrote Office Hour?

JC: I wanted this to be a classic, two-person, one-set drama, but I couldn’t write it. In the story, once the student sat down with the teacher, I would write a little bit of dialogue, but it felt contrived, like I was forcing them to say things to each other.

Increasingly, when I start to write, it’s like trying figure out where the water wants to flow. When I was younger and reached a wall while writing, I would power through it and break down that wall. Being an older writer now, I feel that if there’s a wall, it means I go a different way. In my attempt to write a traditional narrative for Office Hour, from A to Z, in linear fashion, I failed completely! But once I accepted the fact that the play could go a different way, it freed me up to keep writing.

NEEL KELLER: That point is interesting to me as a director, because I also let a play lead me like the water Julia talked about. By stumbling into this structure, Julia gives us a play about this contemporary subject matter and it lets us examine the issues the way a teacher would; it never feels like a play that was forced through a wall to be a straightforward narrative with one answer and one point of view.

What’s at the core of Office Hour?

JC: The play is about both race and culture, but more about alienation. There’s a story to be told when people fall through the cracks—who are disempowered—and you don’t need to be a minority to feel that way. It’s not unusual to find large numbers of disaffected people on college campuses and that may be the last place where we can reach them. So when you see someone who is troubled, what do you say? How do you connect? Do you even try?

NK: I also feel that it’s really about storytelling. It’s not an accident that all the characters are working in or taking a college class in creative writing. I think that part of what disaffected people do is to write their story through action.

Office Hour is on the Julianne Argyros Stage April 10-30, 2016.

Learn more and buy tickets.

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