Paul Kikuchi has spent nearly half his life pursuing the Great Hollywood Dream: selling a screenplay. A couple of years ago, however, he hit a dry spell and decided to switch things up by taking a playwriting class at East West Players, the nation's oldest Asian American stage company.
Kikuchi, a third-generation Japanese American, had never written about anything Asian American, and his theater experience was, he admits, "pretty thin." Even so, he appears to have aced the class. His first play, "Ixnay," will open at East West on Wednesday.
The comedy-fantasy follows the adventures of Raymond Kobayashi, a thirtysomething Japanese American who dies in a car crash and ends up at a Reincarnation Station awaiting assignment to a new life and, he hopes, a new ethnic identity. When the station boss fast-tracks his return -- with the stipulation that he "remain JA" -- the usually polite Raymond refuses to budge. His mini-mutiny upsets the boss' secret plans and strands other souls-in-limbo including an uptight Chinese American dentist, a feisty Korean American grandma and an Asian-wannabe white guy.
"One thing that attracted us is that this play's very funny," says Tim Dang, East West's producing artistic director. "We're always looking for comedies because Asian American theater tends to be so serious. Ninety-five percent of what's submitted to us is drama, even though our audiences want comedies."
The pan-Asian cast of characters also was appealing to the Little Tokyo-based company, which serves an expanding assortment of communities and cultures.
"Plus," says Dang, "when the show ends you start to think: What if I had the chance to come back again? Would I choose to stay Asian American? It's a pretty heady topic."
How to build a play
Kikuchi, 49, has proved to be a quick study, says literary manager Jeff Liu, who oversees the theater's David Henry Hwang Writers Institute.
"Paul walked into class with this nice, wry sensibility and talent for one-liners," says Liu. However, he knew relatively little about how to build a play. "He learns something and puts it to use," says Liu, who is directing "Ixnay." "Paul even enjoys development -- and we've been doing a lot of development."
Normally, of course, class assignments aren't picked for the main stage. But East West recognizes it needs to do things differently if it wants to cultivate more Asian American dramatists. For instance, Liu says, the institute started "what we call a Monday night drama club because a lot of Asian Americans don't major in the arts and we needed to find a way to make people read and see plays."
The workshop is first come, first served and offers what EWP describes as "a safe environment" for writers at all levels. Tuition averages $400. Each class of 10 usually includes a mix of novices and veterans (some of whom keep returning because they seek feedback and a sense of community -- or maybe just need a deadline). The 10-week sessions are taught by established playwrights such as Doris Baizley and Prince Gomolvilas.
The workshop's main mission is simple: Get everyone to complete a script. "The hardest part about writing a first draft is finishing it," says Gomolvilas, who taught the two classes Kikuchi attended. "So, at this point, I encourage students to write from their gut and not think too much. This philosophy also helps develop the emotional core of the play. The audience responds to emotion first, but young writers tend to over-intellectualize and it slows them down."
"That approach really got me started," says Kikuchi. "We wrote 10 pages a week for 10 weeks and, lo and behold, I had a full-length play." Despite the pace, he says, the environment was "positive and nurturing -- you could find your own voice instead of being told how to write."
Those who crave more intense scrutiny can apply for the institute's rewriting class, in which a half-dozen students dissect each other's work. "That's where we get to the nitty-gritty and intellectualize the process," says Gomolvilas.
Aside from helping with text and technique, the institute is an oasis for Asian Americans who, as Dang puts it, "may welcome a chance to not be 'the only one' in the group so they can focus on other issues."
"I don't plan discussions about Asian American topics," says Gomolvilas, "however, they inevitably come up." He recalls one class in which a playwright's interracial love triangle prompted a back-and-forth about who gets the girl and the depiction of Asian American men in mainstream media.
At the end of each session, every student receives a staged reading of his or her work presented by a professional director and cast. Several pieces have been developed or produced at East West and elsewhere (mainly Asian American theaters). Tim Toyama's one-act, "Visas and Virtue," was adapted by director Chris Tashima into an Academy Award-winning live-action short.
The institute was started in 1991 and named after Asian America's most prominent playwright. "Nobu McCarthy, then the artistic director, wanted to encourage more Asian American writers," Dang says, "and thought it would be a good time because David had recently won the Tony for 'M. Butterfly.' "
'We feel it's crucial'
Thanks in part to support from the James Irvine Foundation, East West has maintained its development programs while many theaters have cut theirs back amid budget woes and doubts about the effectiveness of play development and diversity efforts.
"We feel it's crucial," Dang says. "If you are someone with a reputation, like David, your work will get done. But if you don't have that résumé -- which is who we are looking at here -- how do you get nurtured? That's where we come in."
When Kikuchi enrolled, he wasn't thinking about his future as a playwright. He was trying to come up with a premise for a play.
" 'Ixnay' resulted from my combining two thoughts I'd stored away for a while," he says. "I had gone to the DMV and thought, We are all waiting here, but for what? That seemed like a good scene."
A few years ago, a 14-year-old Chinese American girl -- a friend of one of his two daughters -- told him she wanted to "come back" as Japanese American.
"I thought, No, you don't."
He says he didn't think she realized there was more to it than Hello Kitty dolls and anime. What about the pressure to overachieve in school, participate in Japanese American sports leagues and scout troops, and enter the right college and career? "If you fall short of any of these goals," he says, "people will raise their eyebrows and wonder, What happened to this JA?"
It's easy to see where Kikuchi got the idea for his hero, the reluctant Japanese American returnee. "I dramatized some of Raymond's life," he says, "but for the most part, it pretty much mirrors some of the experiences I went through."
Kikuchi, who grew up in Pasadena, says he did OK in high school, then barely got into UC Santa Barbara. After flirting with becoming a gym coach and a trumpet player, he declared a major in English. "The joke around my family was, 'Paul has decided that being a professional musician was too unpredictable, so he has decided to become a writer instead.' " He now lives in South Pasadena and has been a copy writer, researcher and substitute teacher. A couple of decades ago, he started writing movies. "I've finished six screenplays, had three agents, two options and a handful of meetings with studio people," he says. "Fortunately, my wife was a children's librarian, so she had benefits."
One day, Kikuchi might strike it rich in Hollywood. For now, he is working on his second stage comedy, a look at Asian American basketball leagues.
"If I you had asked me three years ago to write an Asian American play, I would have said, 'What?' and I wouldn't have had anything to write about. This class has really opened up a whole lot of things for me."