Write What You Want to Know

  • Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig worked with Interlochen students at a recent playwriting workshop. 

  • Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig worked with Interlochen students at a recent playwriting workshop. 

  • Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play "The World of Extreme Happiness" opened in February 2015 in the New York City Center theatre.  (Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theater in Chicago.) 

  • Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play "The World of Extreme Happiness" opened in February 2015 in the New York City Center theatre.  (Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theater in Chicago.) 

  • Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play "The World of Extreme Happiness" opened in February 2015 in the New York City Center theatre.  (Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theater in Chicago.) 

The 32-year-old, award-winning playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, whose latest play, The World of Extreme Happiness, which opened in New York’s Manhattan Club Theatre on February 3, has never written with a safety net. Her first play, Lidless, depicts a former Guantanamo prisoner confronting his female interrogator. In her second play, 410 [GONE], a grieving sister travels to the underworld in search of her dead brother, who recently committed suicide.

The World of Extreme Happiness, Cowhig said, was inspired by a sharp hunger for new challenges. “I wanted to write a play set in modern China with a cast of all Chinese characters; it was something I had never seen before on a Western stage and … I thought I might be able to pull off. I think writing is a combination of ‘write what you know’ and ‘write what you want to know,’ and this play was a combination of mining personal lived experience and doing intensive research.”

Cowhig’s personal lived experience with mainland China began when her family moved to Beijing in 1996, following her father’s U.S. State Department posting. Cowhig was 13. It was an era of “rapid transformation of cityscape,” Cowhig said, in which “the surreality … of daily life [was] impossible not to notice and be affected by.” She witnessed “cardboard shacks of migrant workers next to skyscrapers … dust storms drowning out the city, clouds being seeded to make rain, dead trees spray-painted green outside my diplomatic compound to appease the Olympic committee, school cancelled for two weeks when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, watching CNN footage of Falungong members lighting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square – only miles away from my apartment.” But ultimately, said Cowhig, the Beijing of her adolescence could be summed up as a “cloistered expatriate bubble of bars, nightclubs, bargain-hunting and overeating,” a world of “strange and surreal juxtapositions, almost all of which were a byproduct of the extremely rapid change happening all around—I was just a teenage witness living in a gated diplomatic compound.”

The World of Extreme Happiness leaves the safe confines of gated diplomatic compounds far, far behind, plunging into the unforgiving world of factory work in China, where Sunny, a rural immigrant, who barely escaped infanticide as an unwanted girl, struggles to realize her urban ambitions. Beyond working hard to nuance her characters, Cowhig also struggled to translate cultural references, a kind of code-switching that the playwright has had to hone her entire life, moving between countries and cultures, with an American diplomat father and a Taiwanese mother: “Growing up going back and forth … makes me very aware of how all meaning and human interactions are socially constructed and specific products of particular moments in history,” she said. “It [can be] hard to know who my audience is and what I need to explain to them. For example, in The World of Extreme Happiness, the Monkey King and Journey to the West figure prominently. To a person who grew up in China, the specific narratives and mythologies around these characters are as known and understood as someone from the United States who might immediately know the whole narrative when you say ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘Cinderella.’ It is sometimes hard to figure out how to utilize mythical elements that would be appropriate to the world of the play in a way that explains them to audience members who don't have any reference points for the myth but doesn't over-explain them to folks who are extremely familiar with these characters.”

During a recent teaching trip to Interlochen, Cowhig took a break from scaling her own artistic cliffs to present playwriting students with a series of creative climbs. In addition to generative writing exercises and reading assignments, Cowhig urged students to eavesdrop on conversations and transcribe what they heard, “as a way to study the rhythms of natural speech.” She also challenged them to ditch their laptops and smart phones for “structured silent writing” periods of sixty to ninety minutes. She found the time at Interlochen refreshing, she said, because “many of my colleagues are deeply jaded and cynical about the economics of art and what is and is not possible. It was energizing to be in a community of creators where all that mattered was the work.”

Interlochen’s theatre director, William Church, said it was a “true delight to have a writer of her stature on our campus for an extended period of time, giving our students unprecedented access to a major up-and-coming voice in American theatre.” Church said Cowhig’s interest in physical and ensemble-based theatre distinguishes her plays from her contemporaries. “Her words are filled with imagery and action and seem eager to be brought to life on stage. Issues of the day stick with her and she uses the theatre as a place to better understand, and to help us better understand, the challenging topics of the day.”

Cowhig’s track record of prizes and staged productions is staggering considering her relatively young age, but she is remarkably grounded when it comes to critical response. Take her website, where her “Reviews” page features both positive and negative reactions to her plays, an unusually honest offering in an age of polished online self-presentation. “I include negative reviews … because they destabilize all the reviews – including the positive ones,” Cowhig said, when asked about this choice. “They are all … specific opinions and perspectives that should be taken with a grain of salt. I have seen plays that changed my life savaged by reviews, and plays I thought were vomit-worthy receive raves.”

Judging from the success of her efforts so far, and the fact that Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and the National Theatre in London have co-commissioned her next two plays, there are plenty of people who can’t wait to hear what Cowhig has to say next.  

“I try not to pay attention to criticism from people who don't love the same things I love, which is why most positive press reviews don't really mean much to me; because I have [often] seen the writer rhapsodize about something I found abominable. [My] advice is to find the people you trust who worship the same things you worship artistically, and listen to what they say.”