An Interview with Teenage Dick playwright Mike Lew

by | Dec 27, 2018 | ART Productions, Table|Room|Stage

Artistic Director Dámaso Rodríguez had the chance to sit down with playwright Mike Lew to discuss the origin story of Teenage Dick, disabled representation on stage, and what the rehearsal process can add to his playwriting process.

DR: Teenage Dick is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Why Richard III, and how did you go about modernizing it?

ML: The play was conceived as a commission from Gregg Mozgala who runs a theatre company called The Apothetae. We were longtime collaborators at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and found that the advocacy work that Gregg does on behalf of the disabled community dovetails well with what I’m trying to do for the Asian-American community. The deeper we got into questions about representation and our personal responsibilities as artists, he hatched an idea to commission plays that would reexamine the disabled experience. So he’s the one who came to me with the idea of adapting Richard III in a high school, and calling it Teenage Dick, and I just jumped at it. The idea of it was so compelling to me. I think that the high stakes of royal ascendency smashed into the feeling of high stakes in American high schools worked well to make the situation in extremis sing from a modern context. We also were interested in looking at the archetype of Richard III and his inherent evilness and the way that Shakespeare ties that into his disability, and connecting that with how we treat people with disabilities today. So those contrasts, and the language of high school slang vs. Shakespearean dialogue sort of swirled into this new play.

DR: The way Richard in particular speaks feels both Shakespearean and like a high school student trying to use elevated language. Did you have an instinct for that going into it?

ML: I find it really funny that even if we as adults are really far away from high school, a lot of times those stigmas and traumas from that time can be tapped into almost immediately. Especially because I’m in residence off-and-on for the year at La Jolla Playhouse, which is where I grew up, I’m having these flashbacks to my high school self and the armor that you put up as an adult gets stripped away so easily. So I found it very easy to get back into the mindset of feeling like intellectually, I was an adult, but in terms of body and responsibilities, I was not. So I think that smashing together of language is coming from a personal place of having some intelligence but not the temperance to know how to use it, and playing at being more mature than I was and the consequences of that.

DR: So the Teenage Dick premiere was produced by Ma-Yi Theater at The Public in June. Tell us a little about the rehearsal process, and how that production did or did not change the show.

ML: The play had a long development process, I think I completed the first draft in 2013, and it had lots of development around the country with readings and workshops. So to get into the rehearsal process and actually know that I was working towards a production did accelerate a lot of things. I just find it really funny because in some ways, play development is a little more about how much you trust the artist and less about if the play is objectively ready for production or not. You can have a script that seems like it’s perfect on paper but as soon as you put it in front of people, all of it flies out of the window. But for me, it’s a lot about adapting the play to the specific actors. It’s had a couple of consistent cast members and several that were different, which is part of why I’m really looking forward to the Artists Rep rehearsal process to continue adapting the script to this particular set of performers and seeing what will stay consistent and what’s going to be adapted. As far as specific changes that happened in this process, physicalizing everything was so new, so seeing how those dance scenes affected things physically, and seeing what the emotional ramifications of that were, was really useful.

DR: Can you talk either in general or specifically about what a second production does to a play, and how that relates to when you’re finished with a play, or whether you’re ready to move on from it?

ML: I think you’re never really done with a play. That being said, I think at a certain point because of life circumstances shifting, you can’t really write the play anymore. I’ve read old plays of mine and I appreciate them, but I don’t think I could write them now, because I was a different person when I wrote them. It’s not always the case, but to me I feel like in an ideal situation you would get two or three cracks at a play, because audiences in different cities are different, and actors are different, so I’m enormously grateful for and try to utilize rehearsal time in second and third productions. My previous play, Tiger Style!, for instance, premiered in Atlanta and then there was a production up at La Jolla, and my wife Rehana said she thought I needed to drop this scene in Act I. I was on the plane to Boston for the next production and implemented the change, and the Boston production from a script perspective was better because of it. So there were two companies doing it in different states with different scripts, but I just think that there’s so much you don’t know when you’re writing a brand new play that these opportunities to continue playing are really precious.

DR: I want to circle back to Shakespeare for a second. Did you feel any pressure to be true to Richard III? Were there any rules you were following, or was it just a jumping off point?

ML: I definitely didn’t feel beholden to Shakespeare himself, because that guy gets a lot of productions. It’s funny because even though I studied Shakespeare somewhat in college, I don’t necessarily love Shakespeare, so it’s not like I was coming from a place of reverence. But that said, it was interesting to take apart the play structurally. We’re trained to take it apart more thematically, or to approach it from a directing perspective in terms of how to make things work. But to think about how the play works structurally was an interesting exercise. I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed to follow the beats exactly, but I wanted to take the high stakes that are achieved in the original and see if I could make it work in a high school context. I think it does in that you don’t think of high school as life-or-death, but then there’s a lot of bad shit that happens in high schools that’s hard to reconcile with. Especially in media high school is portrayed as a sheltered time that feels inconsequential and everyone ends up okay. But, actually, a lot of people die in high schools these days! I also wanted to tease out the disability and gender politics of the play. Like, what do we do about the unsubstantial female roles in the original text, and what do we do about the assumptions made about the connections between Richard III’s physicality and morality – and see how that fits in a modern context. I also noticed from a structural context that there’s a lot of direct address in Richard III that devolves as the shit hits the fan, and I wanted to replicate that structurally. You’re initially brought in as a co-conspirator, but as Richard III has less control there’s less direct address and the scenes become more impressionistic, so I wanted to mirror that.