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MU student Jessica Huang's 'Mermaids' plunges into conflict, 10 minutes later surfaces with a lifetime

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Meg Morrissey Wilki and Ben DeMeyer perform the play "Mermaids," written by MU student Jessica Huang, during the Creative Performances and Recognition Ceremony at MU. The 10-minute play is one of the four plays that advanced to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival's national competition in Washington, D.C., last month.

*CORRECTIONS: "Mermaids" was produced at a national competition in April. An earlier version of the article misidentified the month of the competition. Jessica Huang is a playwright. An earlier version of this story misidentified her studies.

COLUMBIA — Setting: The play takes place near the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere in New England. Everything – rocks, waves, trees and benches – can be implied or silhouetted. Or not. It's cold, rainy and miserable.

We sit in a hall at the University of Kansas before a stage surrounded by soundproof wooden panels – panels that have heard violin solos longer than the play about to be performed. Scripts in hand, two characters situate themselves center stage behind two music stands. They are bundled against an imaginary cold, but Cecilia’s flowered dress peeks from under her coat, and as she shivers, the temperature seems to drop in the house. The sound of waves lulling up and down an invisible shoreline sound from a speaker on the stage floor. We forget the equipment is there, but the auditorium fills with gull cries and salt spray, and when the two characters stop for a moment to listen, a haunting cry sounds in the distance. We are paralyzed because we know the second we shift in our seats, the mermaids will disappear.

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The clapping brings back reality, but we are still applauding for these characters: this woman, Cecilia, who bought a dress for her birthday, even though it took her hours to find one that hid the scars, and wore it, freezing, in defiance of her fate. This man, Don, who offered to walk miles to get Cecilia a cup of tea. In just 10 minutes, without mentioning the words “breast cancer,” we know the struggle. In just 10 minutes, Don and Cecilia become real people.

It took a few hours, a pot of coffee, some wine and half a pack of cigarettes for Jessica Huang to craft the 10 pages that became “Mermaids.” Her play triumphed at the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Lawrence, Kan., in January, becoming one of four 10-minute plays to advance last month to the national festival in Washington, D.C.

Two professional actors brought Don and Cecilia alive again in hopes of winning a national award for Huang, a senior journalism student at MU. But before theatergoers found themselves transported to the New England shore, they might have wondered: How much can really be said in 10 minutes?

As a journalist, Huang is learning how much information can be conveyed in tight time and space with the right words. As a playwright, she is learning how to let 10 minutes of dialogue address issues as deep as cancer, beauty, relationships and time.

Ask a short-fiction writer, a poet, a comic strip artist, a short-filmmaker, a playwright or a journalist. The world keeps asking for less to mean more, and artists such as Huang are discovering ways to meet the demand.

Don: The ocean, darling. The Vast and Blue … um, gray today, I suppose, but still, it sure is mighty, isn't it?

Cecilia (turning to leave): It's a big lake.

Don: Oh, Cecilia. Look. For miles and miles, there's not hint of another shore.

Cecilia: Miles and miles and miles. Of lake.

Cecilia’s “big lake” came almost verbatim from a conversation Huang had with her boyfriend of four years, Andy Haaheim. It was the end of summer, and Huang and Haaheim listened as a friend talked of seeing the ocean for the first time. He wasn't all that impressed.

Haaheim immediately began to joke, saying, "It's just a big lake. It's full of dead fish, and whales poop in it."

Huang laughed, pulled out her familiar little notepad and started to scribble; "This is a play I'm going to write someday,” she said then.

Huang is always scribbling, taking note of the things going on around her, something she attributes to her journalistic curiosity. One of the deeper themes of her play, death, was inspired by a late-night conversation with roommates about the existence of an afterlife. Huang witnessed the toll breast cancer had taken on her mother’s friend and the pain this caused her mother. Huang interwove both into Cecilia’s character.

In “Mermaids,” Don and Cecilia visit the New England coast to celebrate Cecilia’s birthday. It is a larger milestone than the audience first guesses, and as the play progresses, Cecilia’s struggle with breast cancer is revealed.

“It’s such a feminine thing to me, breasts,” Huang says. “They’re so intricately linked with beauty and our culture’s perception of beauty and femininity.”

More often than not, though, Huang’s inspiration isn’t far from Minnesota, where she grew up. She started dating Haaheim her senior year in high school.

In regard to her characters, “I always end up writing my boyfriend and I,” Huang says. “Cecilia in the play is like me, cranky and flighty, and takes her frustrations out on Don. Don is so much like Andy because he’s patient and just takes it.”

When asked about this, Haaheim smirks and says, “I ghostwrite her plays with my existence.”

Although Haaheim makes fun of Huang’s tendency to find meaning in the slightest of encounters, he understands what makes her tick. Haaheim plays percussion in a jazz band and his own funk band, so his response is tailored to his experience.

“It’s like music,” he says. “Your favorite bands sort of inspire the other bands you listen to and, when you’re a musician, the music you play.”

To meld the bits and pieces that Huang collects into a coherent 10 pages seems a daunting task, but “Mermaids” must be doing something right. To advance even to the regional level, Huang’s script was screened against 85 other entries.

Huang avoids the rookie’s tendency to have two characters on stage share every thought, feeling and desire, says David Crespy, associate professor of playwriting at MU and regional playwriting chairman for the Kennedy Center theater festival. He said if you don’t make audiences work, they won’t be as invested in the outcome.

"That’s where in Jess’ play we get so much,” Crespy says. “We’re just fascinated by those characters. … We have a tremendous empathy and connection.”

An even deeper pull is the mystery of the mermaid metaphor, which holds power over the audience’s imagination. Huang’s details place us with the water lapping at our shoes. The characters shiver, we hear the ocean, and we know where we are. Meaning comes from the characters' interactions, what they wear — “an impractically spring-colored floral dress” — what they choose to say — “There aren't any mermaids” — and what they really mean to say — There’s a chance I’ll die without a miracle.

Don: Now listen, Cilia, when the tide comes in, you’ll see these — enormous — breakers and the sound of the waves on those boulders out there, well, you’ll just have to —

(He holds his arm out and turns to look at her. Cecilia had taken a cigarette from her purse and, with some difficulty, lit it with her mittened hands. She takes a deep drag, smiles and exhales slowly, playing with the smoke.)

A 10-minute play is not a monologue, a skit, a sketch or a crowd-pleasing sketch-comedy. A good 10-minute play doesn't bite off more than it can chew, Crespy says.

"It should be the same as with a full-length play, just deeper desire, bigger problem, larger event, bigger obstacle," Crespy says. "You can feel when a 10-minute play really wants to be a one-act … when you think, 'I wish I knew more about those characters,' or, 'It seems like an awful lot to be fitting into that little thing.'"

The best 10-minute play is made up of three ideas: kick, point and arc.

If a play has a kick to it, it makes use of the magic of the theater and entices the audience into suspended disbelief. If a play has a point, it raises a serious question or feeds surface conflict with a deeper meaning. The arc, or shape of the play, shows the craftsmanship of the playwright in the way the conflict progresses.

In a 10-minute play, the conflict is introduced in the first two pages. The stakes are higher, more immediate, because short plays parachute the audience into the center of the clash.

"People who are arguing, I think, are more painfully themselves than any other time in their life," Huang says. "Because when you're fighting, you're going to be the worst version of yourself."

To make conflicts active, concrete and believable, playwrights must think in multiple dimensions, putting themselves in the position of the audience, the actors and the director. It helps to think of "Star Trek," where there are strange concepts such as four dimensions, says Mary Barile, an MU doctoral student in theater whose 10-minute play, “The Hollow,” was produced at the national festival in 2005.

There also are multiple dimensions to how characters express their conflict. Playwrights, in "wrighting," are responsible for communicating friction through stage direction and action.

“Wright behavior, not write words,” Crespy says. “What we’re after is not necessarily language but the desire that’s flowing under the language and the need, the manipulation.”

Crespy referenced a scene in Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” where two men express an entire intellectual power struggle through a glass of water. Playwrights are capable of condensing rolls of information into a 10-minute span by writing the lies people tell one another into the dialogue.

"It's a challenge to never write the truth, but by never actually typing out the truth, you are writing the truth as a whole," Huang says.

Don: Oh. Well, you see, they were written, drawn, before whales or dolphins — you know the like — had been discovered. Those old sailors must have been a little homesick, you know? For their beautiful wives, or girlfriends, or whatever … And they fantasized that they saw some bare-breasted creature alongside the ship.

Huang's interest in theater began when she was in the sixth grade. She, her brother, Matthew, and her parents, Jay and Amy, belonged to the Chaska Valley Family Theatre in Chanhassen, Minn. When she and Matthew landed roles in “The King and I,” her mom, who used to work in special education, and her dad, a microbiologist, helped build the sets.

“We were little dark heads in sea of blonds,” Huang says, hinting at her Chinese ancestry. “I’m sure that’s why we got in.”

When Huang told her dad she was going to Washington, he cried. Her family has always supported her writing ambitions. Huang recently wrote a one-act play about clown-robbers for her brother to direct at Chaska High School.

“It’s hard to be away sometimes,” Huang says.

Whenever she is at home in Minnesota, Huang visits her high-school drama director, Jim Lund. He taught her how to look at a script as an actor and translate the words into action. He emphasized that every character has a desire, something they are trying to get.

“Now that I’m a playwright, I have to make sure the actors will know what they want,” Huang says.

Huang became interested in writing plays after acting in a friend’s 10-minute play at the Missouri Playwrights Workshop her freshman year. She wrote “Windblown,” about a man receiving love letters from the wind, to bypass the beginner’s course and jump to Crespy's intermediate-level class. She and three classmates became what Crespy called “the Four Musketeers of brilliant playwriting.”

“They each had very different styles, but they wrote incredibly well,” he says. "So Jess is kind of a part of this little cowl of strange playwrights. … And all of them have actually ranked very high at the (Kennedy Center) contest. They all kind of nipped it, and then Jess finally got in.”

Not all of Huang’s endeavors have been straight plays. Last summer, she asked a family friend — Charlie Title, a retired composer of commercial jingles — to write a musical with her just for fun. The same techniques Huang uses to write 10-minute plays applied, with the exception of the musical element.

“This is what Mr. Lund, my director, told me,” Huang says. “In Shakespeare, people start speaking in iambic pentameter when they are moved to do so — when they are operating on a different plane, and they are so emotionally charged that they just have to speak in a different way. So that’s how we thought about the musical; when one of the characters gets so angry he doesn’t know what to do with himself, he’s just going to sing.”

When Don and Cecilia don’t know what to do with themselves in “Mermaids,” they change the subject.

Cecilia: You know what happens when fish die, Don?

Don: Cecilia, look. You’ve got to cheer up and think positively, OK?

Cecilia: They decompose.

Don: Plenty of people have to take two or three swings at it before they kill it for good. And you’re stronger than most of them.

Cecilia: That’s what happens. Things rot and disintegrate and later, there’s no sign they ever lived.

Ten-minute plays are a relatively new phenomenon, with the most attention coming from competitions such as the Kennedy Center festival. The Actors Theatre of Louisville premiered some short plays at a festival in the 1977 Humana Festival of New American Plays and is often credited with the birth of the genre. Crespy attributes much of the formula (kick, point, arc) to Michael Bigelow Dixon, who worked with the Louisville theater until 2001. The 10-minute form did not fully integrate into the theater atmosphere until the 1990s. At the time, the genre had a sort of radicalized edge, Crespy says.

That raises questions about its staying power with broader audiences. But for recruitment purposes, these mini-productions provide countless opportunities.

"A lot of newer theaters, younger theaters, do 10-minute play festivals to get a lot of people involved," says Matt Fotis, a doctoral student at MU who teaches the form in his beginning playwriting class. "It's sort of becoming the new way for a company to introduce its audience to a lot of writing or for writers to get their work out there."

As stand-alone art, 10-minute plays are rarely performed beyond a staged reading, acting solely as springboards from one tier of the playwriting hierarchy to the next. Yet at the same time, as entertainment branches out into new mediums and reaches new audiences, short forms of theater are finding a place outside the festival world.

"I think we have a short-attention-span audience these days," Crespy says. "Even on Broadway now, it's rare that you have a two-act play. It's almost all 90-minute one-act pieces, even musicals."

For the YouTube generation, even 2-minute plays might make sense. There is a show called “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” put on by the Chicago Neo-Futurists for more than 20 years now, in which the actors perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Some are hysterical, some are political and some are moving, but none lasts more than 120 seconds. What is interesting about this spectacle is that each play has the potential to pack the same punch as a 10-minute play with its question or subject matter.

This rapid-fire style of entertainment is something Michael Porter, an associate communications professor at MU, sees as a shift in a long-standing entertainment paradigm. Consumers are now becoming producers; Internet dramas, short films and video clips are created in bulk by average users. The 10-minute play phenomenon of the past 10 or 20 years could be a reflection of this trend. In addition, the users creating content are often of a younger generation.

“Some people will say our attention span is so terrible,” Porter says. “But the amount of drama says that we’re changing, and this is what happens, and it’s OK. I think it’s designed to speak to the audience; it’s a new way of seeing the world.”

That new way of seeing often comes through new generations, Crespy says.

“I think 20-somethings have a lot to say,” he says. “I think there’s a freshness; they see the world in a way that you stop being capable of seeing it at a certain age.”

Don: You’re going to be fine.

Cecilia: You don’t know that.

Don: Yes, I do. Remember Gladys —

Cecilia: I know, Don. But there’s always a chance.

Don: Well, if there’s a chance of that, then there’s a chance of mermaids.

Almost everyone Huang meets inspires a character. As she walks down the street, she might notice someone with a particular way of speaking and write down a sentence of dialogue. Then a thought might cross her mind: What if a character spoke in rhythm? Or, sitting in a coffee shop and looking at a man staring at his coffee cup, she will invent a scenario: The man is paranoid because if they write on his cup in pen, it will poison him.

"If I was stuck in my room all day, I would never have any good ideas," Huang says. "I can't create all these wonderful worlds and ideas and people without having met them first."

This is where Huang's journalism intersects with her playwriting. A fascination with the way people communicate drew her to writing profiles and long-form nonfiction pieces, and the same passion drives her characters.

“The actual techniques that I use in playwriting come from writing down quotes,” she says. People don’t talk in complete sentences, she says, and “you try to mimic that in your writing.”

But to write plays, Huang has to get into character. Journalist Huang must take off the mental power-suit, set down the whiskey flask and stop chain-smoking in time for Playwright Huang to emerge, long cigarette holder in hand, head dwarfed by a huge hat and sunglasses, ready to scribble on the edges of napkins in a Parisian cafe. Before the staging of “Mermaids” in Lawrence, she bought a poppy-colored felt hat complete with an oversize rose from an antique store.

It seems like an elaborate transformation, but Playwright Huang pays attention to the intangibles that Journalist Huang glances over: smoke, wind, water. They remind her of humanity, something you can feel and are affected by but can’t hold in your hands.

Huang’s dual personas share an interesting conflict. Journalism, like theater, is a time-sensitive art. And like theater, its format is steadily shrinking. Efficiency in the age of the Internet is giving rise to news bursts and blasts — each new minute, a new sentence — blogging and live feeds of journalist commentators offering their opinions of events as they unfold.

When asked about her future — journalist? or playwright? — Huang wavers.

With journalism, she wants more experience writing about people: “I haven’t written enough. I haven’t found my favorite story yet.”

But some of those stories might inspire her playwriting: “There are too many things that I can’t put in a story that I want to put in a play. It’s an outlet, I guess, for all of the craziness I have stored up.”

When “Mermaids” won the regional festival in January, her excitement tempted her to quit journalism and become a playwright. Now a little calmer after last month's Kennedy Center theater festival passed without a national award and with a summer reporting fellowship lined up at The Arizona Republic, she has decided to avoid choosing one over the other. Journalism gives you the chance to write every day, she says; playwriting is where you can put your heart.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t about making the choice. Whether playwright or journalist, Huang is a writer, and as stories contract in size according to a new paradigm and a shifting audience, writers will have to invent ways to pack meaning into fewer words. Huang has already chosen to transport an audience to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with a single shiver. And she has captured Don and Cecilia’s fear of loss with a simple, ethereal image: Mermaids.


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