Sam Chanse on unstable memories, applying an Asian American perspective, and WHAT YOU ARE NOW

Sam Chanse

Sam Chanse

On Thursday, April 27, this year’s  EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature as its final event a reading of WHAT YOU ARE NOW by Sam Chanse. Cutting-edge neuroscience commingles with ancient culture in this compelling family drama as we watch Pia, a neuroscience postdoc, research how the brain copes with pain even as she tries to come to terms with the traumatic events of her family’s past. Sam kindly took a moment to tell us more.

What sparked the idea for WHAT YOU ARE NOW?

A few years ago I read a piece in The New Yorker, “Partial Recall” by Michael Specter, about memory and trauma, and latched onto the idea that a memory, in the act of being retrieved or remembered, is unstable and vulnerable to change. The article also profiled a neuroscientist, Dr. Daniela Schiller, who studies how emotional memories are formed in the brain, and who describes her work as driven in part by a desire to understand her dad, a Holocaust survivor. Her story resonated with another one that had been on my mind for a while, related to the experience of Cambodian refugees in the U.S. who face deportation – and consequently another major trauma.

Dr. Daniela Schiller (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images North America)

Dr. Daniela Schiller (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images North America)

We see the main character, Pia, early in her career as an enthusiastic young neuroscience student and then, ten years later, as a beleaguered postdoc. Both feel very real. The play also references specific research by Nader and LeDoux, Eric Kandel, and work on zeta inhibitor peptides (ZIP), among other things. What kind of research did you do to write your play?

Linsay and Graeme were kind enough to connect me with Dr. Schiller, so I was able to meet her in person and talk with her a bit (she’s a pretty phenomenal human and scientist, not to mention musician and songwriter). And then I did a lot of reading and some watching – books on the science of memory, and essays and articles on memory and trauma, as well as some videos.

WHAT ARE YOU NOW is wonderfully steeped in Cambodian culture: Cambodian creation myths, Apsara dancing, the music of Cambodian singer Ros Serey Sothea all play important roles. Is this your first play that conjures with Cambodian culture? Has it played a part in your life?

I’m Asian American, and mixed (Chinese and Pennsylvania Dutch – basically Swiss-German), and it’s always been a key aspect of where I’m coming from as a writer. A lot of my plays have centered around Asian American or Asian characters and implicitly involved an (or multiple) Asian American perspective(s), but this is the first play I’ve written with Cambodian American characters, and that involves elements of Cambodian culture. I’ve been grateful for the chance to explore these characters and their history and where they’re coming from through working on this play. In particular, I did a brief residency at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I was able (thanks to MRT folks Megan Sandberg-Zakian and Elizabeth Kegley) to connect with members and leaders of the Cambodian community there – including Sovanna Pouv of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, and Linda Sopheap Sou, Dahvy Tran, and Tim Thou, of the Angkor Dance Troupe.

The Angkor Dance Troupe performs “Apsara Dancing Stones” (Sun Photos/Julia Malakie)

The Angkor Dance Troupe performs “Apsara Dancing Stones” (Sun Photos/Julia Malakie)

The play dramatizes powerfully what a world apart the refugee’s experience of America was in the second half of the twentieth century – and thereafter. And how scars can pass from one generation to another. Are there other writers you look to who have also captured this phenomenon?

From left: Qui Nguyen, Mona Mansour, Michael Golamco

From left: Qui Nguyen, Mona Mansour, Michael Golamco

Yeah, absolutely – I know a lot of writers have written plays about the experience of being a refugee (or the children of refugees), in the US and elsewhere – and given the current political and global climate, it’s a subject that feels especially immediate. Some writers and plays that come immediately to mind: Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going, and Michael Golamco’s Year Zero.

What do you want the audience to take away from WHAT YOU ARE NOW?

I’m interested in what the audience will take away from it, but I’m not sure I want to predefine what that is. For myself, there are a few things I take away from it. One of those things: we can have these concretized ways of thinking about our own history, which can sometimes be damaging. I’m interested in the possibility of changing the stories we tell about ourselves – not in a way where we’re making shit up or being dishonest or erasing history, but in a way where we’re revisiting and maybe changing a potentially destructive relationship to painful experiences.

Have you written other plays about science?

There are other plays I’ve written or am working on that explicitly involve or reference scientific ideas and concepts. A collaborator, Bob Kelly and I, have been developing a musical (gilgamesh & the mosquito) whose main characters include a genetically modified mosquito and a biotech scientist, so there’s some science-y stuff in that (I mean it’s an anthropomorphized genetically modified mosquito, so not necessarily a strictly-scientific approach). And a couple other plays, Fruiting Bodies and The Opportunities of Extinction, include a fair amount of material from a more environmental and ecological perspective.

I don’t think of this play as being about science so much as being about people struggling with their relationship with one another and with their own history and past. The science is part of how the main character, Pia, is wrestling with these things – it’s a way for her (and us) to try and understand what’s going on.

What do you like about science? What scares you about science?

For me (and from my very layperson perspective), scientific ideas and theories and methods are another way of interpreting and understanding (or trying to understand) the world we’re in – I love how science offers us these other lenses through which to view and consider different aspects of living and doing this human thing we’re all doing.

A couple things scare me about science and technology, including the accelerated pace and issues of access. We’re developing new technology and scientific processes at an unprecedented rate, which of course can be exciting and promising and potentially life- and planet-saving. But I wonder if the development of this science and technology – and our enthusiasm for it – might be outstripping our ability to thoroughly consider and explore the intended and unintended consequences. I'm also concerned about access – the gap between people who can make use of all the amazing new technology and scientific advances and people who are shut out of it – and maybe an overreliance on science and tech alone to save us from some pretty serious problems.

Lydia's Funeral Video cover

You turned your one-woman play, Lydia’s Funeral Video, into a book but added a “counterpoint narrative” through drawings and marginal comments. What effect were you going for there?

Lydia’s Funeral Video is a solo play I wrote back when I was making work as a writer and performer. Kaya Press published it in 2015 (several years after I wrote it). The counterpoint narrative and illustrations were elements developed with Kaya Press specifically for the publication as a way to adapt some of the dimensionality of the live performance into printed matter.

What’s next for Sam Chanse?

On May 9th I have a reading of the opportunities of extinction as part of the Lark’s Rita Goldberg Playwrights Workshop Reading Series. And in July, another play (the other instinct) will be part of Stage Left’s Leapfest in Chicago.

The 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 30 through April 27 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its nineteenth year.

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