Monday, July 31, 2017

Spotlight On...Melisa Tien

Name:  Melisa Tien

Hometown:  Woodland Hills, CA

Education:  BA in English, UCLA.   MFA in Playwriting, Columbia.

Favorite Credits:  Yellow Card Red Card, Control, Familium Vulgare.

Why theater?:  It’s unlike any other engagement with art that a person can experience. It’s a living, breathing, give-and-take interaction with the performers, in a hyper-condensed version of real life, and thus it’s a more cerebral, emotional, and compelling experience than your average 100-minute span of real life.

Tell us about Yellow Card Red Card: A theater-and-sporting-event-in-one, Yellow Card Red Card is about four female soccer players in a small Muslim town in Central Africa preparing for a championship that will determine the future of the team, and the trajectory of each girl’s life. Incorporating movement based on the games and practices of a real-life Cameroonian girls’ soccer team, the play explores what happens when young women in a socially and culturally restrictive environment begin to recognize their own agency.

What inspired you to write Yellow Card Red Card?: Back in 2011, I was talking to a friend who ran a non-profit that raised money for community-based programs in Cameroon, and of them was a girls’ soccer program that encouraged girls to participate in the national sport. What was especially intriguing about this endeavor was that it happened in a largely Muslim region where females can’t normally leave home without being accompanied by a male. The two people who headed the soccer program built it from scratch, literally going door-to- door and asking families to relinquish females of the household for a few hours a week, at no cost to them, so they could participate in sports. In that part of the world, such a request was extraordinary, and they heard “no” more times than they heard “yes”. Still, they were able to get together enough girls to form a league. The fact that the nonprofit believed in the program, even though there was no standard rubric for measuring the impact it would have on its participants, and the fact that those who initiated the program believed in the effects it could have on the girls’ lives—enough to embark on the near-impossible task of recruiting players—these were the things that initially inspired me to want to go to Cameroon, meet the girls, and write the play.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: The theater that speaks to me is formally inventive, emotionally engaging, and/or socio-politically oriented.  The works I enjoy usually have at least a couple of those bases covered. Most recently I saw and liked A Footnote in History by anecdota, The Cost of Living by Martyna Majok, Pipeline by Dominique Morrisseau, and Tear a Root from the Earth by The New Wild. As for inspiration, I gain insights from the work of my contemporaries, and sustain my personal senses of optimism and ambition from artists who are further along in their careers.  If I could only pick a few of those, I’d go with Maria Irene Fornés, Ang Lee, and Laurie Anderson.  Fornés is a playwright whose work is a joy to read or experience—there’s passion, intelligence, humor, politics, experimentation, humanity (all the stuff that makes great art) in her plays.  Lee’s from the same country as my parents, and he’s demonstrated a mastery of a broad range of genres and subjects while maintaining a great deal of humility.  Anderson has enormous curiosity, intelligence, and imagination, all of which drive her to create in remarkable, mind-bending ways.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: Hmm.  Caryl Churchill.  I’d want to work with her along the lines of a composer/lyricist dynamic, meaning she would handle one major component of the work while I handled the other.  How would that manifest?   Character 1/Character 2?  Dialogue/Stage directions?  Text/Sound?  Whatever it was, I imagine it would be ridiculously difficult but also wicked fun.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: Besides the ones I mentioned earlier, the multimedia opera A Marvelous Order.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: Truthfully, I can’t imagine anyone making a movie about me.  But to answer the question, I guess I’d prefer that the actor be an Asian American up-and-comer whom no one has heard of yet.  What would it be called?  My name, I suppose?  Maybe it would be my last name written in Chinese--which looks like a square with a line down the middle and another line across the middle--and everyone would know to pronounce it ‘Tien’.

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: I would have liked to have seen Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatre For A New Audience.  There are a lot of shows I haven’t had the cash or chance to see, but many (fortunately) are available as recordings at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  That one, unfortunately, isn’t.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: I’m not sure how guilty I feel about this but there’s a fancy apartment building about a 15-minute walk from where I live, and every Thursday night is trash night.  There’s a lot of nice furniture that fancy people put out with the trash, simply because they can.  I’ve scavenged enough of it to be able to fantasize about the lives of the people that used to have this stuff; it’s interesting what a person’s discarded furniture says about who that person was.

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: Cooking, perhaps, or coding.  I went to culinary school years ago and I’ve done some professional cooking.  I also ran a supper club for a year.  Last year, I took a basic coding class and really dug it; I’d be interested in doing more of that, for fun.

What’s up next?: Yellow Card Red Card runs August 2-5 at the New Ohio Theatre; you can read more about it here:, and get tix here: Coming up on its heels, on August 8 at the Cornelia Street Café, a group of composers, singers, writers, and I are hosting a night of cabaret featuring new music we’ve been working on, spanning theater, art song, and opera. Find out more here: