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Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler: ‘We need more Asian-American women on stage’

Leah Nanako Winkler. Photo: Leni Kei Photography

Leah Nanako Winkler knew she wanted to be a writer when she was about seven. The playwright had been underestimated in her Japanese school in Kentucky – “because I’m half-Japanese and not full Japanese” – but in the second grade, a teacher singled out a personal essay she had written, and told her mother.

“[My mum] read my essay and said: ‘Leah, this is really good.’ I clung on to that at a very early age and thought: ‘Oh, this is what I’m good at.’ ”

Winkler has fulfilled that childhood ambition and forged a writing career in stage and television. Her new play, God Said This, premiered Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in January. Winkler was also awarded the Yale Drama Prize for the story of a family that gathers together during the mother’s chemotherapy treatments.

God Said This revisits the same family from Winkler’s earlier play, Kentucky – a Japanese mother, a white Kentucky-born father, and their two biracial adult daughters, one a born-again Christian still living in Kentucky and the other a New York executive – but seven years later. They have a hard time being in the same room as each other without fighting but they cannot let go either.

Satomi Blair, Emma Kikue, Ako and Jay Patterson in God Said This. Photo: James Leynse

While Winkler grew up in Japan and Kentucky – and she wrote God Said This while her mother underwent chemotherapy – she is quick to point out that the plays are not autobiographical. “I use writing as a coping mechanism for everything. So that’s probably why my work feels very personal.” With these plays, Winkler challenges assumptions about the American South, class and identity. She also explores themes of family, trauma, loss and growing up.

Her writing style varies. She embraces the playful, experimental, surreal (Kentucky has a talking cat) and naturalistic. It reflects Winkler’s unusual playwriting journey and on-the-job training through a broad swathe of New York theatre scenes. She only entered the Brooklyn College master of fine arts programme in 2015 after self-producing her own work in New York for almost 10 years.

Q&A: Leah Nanako Winkler

What was your first non-theatre job?
I bagged groceries at a Japanese grocery story in Kentucky.

What was your first theatre job?
I was an usher for Little Shop of Horrors at my high school.

What is your next job?
Some exciting theatre, TV and film projects coming up that I can’t announce yet but I’m super-happy about.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That a lot of people pursuing theatre are independently, financially comfortable – and that it’s harder if you are not because there’s not very much money in theatre. You’re going to have to work really hard, not only at theatre, but to keep doing theatre.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
The world.

If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
A bus driver.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I drink on opening night before the show. I wear headphones during the intermission so that I don’t hear people, because people don’t think I’m the playwright. If there’s an intermission in your play, wear headphones, because people will say things like: “Well, that sucked.” Also, wear headphones as you’re walking out of the theatre.

When she moved to New York, Winkler became “infatuated” with the downtown theatre scene at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater that Richard Foreman had founded in the East Village. She started her own theatre company with friends, Everywhere Theatre Group, modelling it on Young Jean Lee’s company, who hired Winkler as an intern.

Everywhere Theatre Group comprised two playwrights, a video designer and an actor. The work was “very collaboratively made and extremely experimental,” Winkler says. She spent those years directing as well as writing. They would put on at least two shows a year and, as she describes it: “We were choosing between eating and producing the show.”

It worked for Winkler. “I got my name out there very quickly. I had a following, before I had a career,” she says. Even more than that, she learnt how to self-produce work and that it “isn’t really dependent on what’s in style or what’s on trend, or other people always wanting to produce you”.

Yet there were problems along the way. In 2012, Winkler’s theatre company started falling apart after its controversial work Flying Snakes in 3-D. “It was about rich kids and theatre, essentially. And [the rich kids] were the snakes. It was satire under the guise of a science-fiction parody.” While Winkler points out that this is “an issue that’s now widely accepted about class division [in theatre]”, at the time, several critics – who had not even seen the show – attacked it over the subject matter.

When the company folded, Winkler was unsure what to do. “I thought that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And I was just so fucking sad,” she says. But at that time, she was accepted into the prestigious writers’ group Youngblood at Ensemble Studio Theatre, which connected her to a whole other theatre community – playwrights and Off-Broadway.

Founded in 1993, Youngblood is a professional playwriting group for writers under 30 that provides artistic support, guidance and feedback. It boasts a litany of now-famous alumni including Annie Baker, Clare Barron, Martyna Majok, Christopher Shinn and Robert Askins.

The group would do ‘brunches’ – short play festivals every month around a particular theme. Four playwrights would be chosen to put up a 10-minute play that would be fully produced. Youngblood gave Winkler a break from the exhaustion and distractions of self-producing. “That was the first time I was able to focus only on playwriting,” she says.

‘I’d make every institution do only plays by women and people of colour, and then gradually put white men back in’

Winkler’s star has been rising since – and not just in New York. Her 2017 play Two Mile Hollow is already on its seventh production across the country. It developed from a joke at a Youngblood retreat where playwright Will Snider dubbed a certain Off-Broadway theatre’s season all “white people by the water” plays. Winkler explains that’s “where a bunch of rich white people get in a big house by the water and complain about their family problems over white wine”.

Two Mile Hollow is a satire of the genre. Winkler loves many of the plays it references and skewers – she rattles off Long Day’s Journey Into Night, August: Osage County, The Cherry Orchard (without the water) and The Country House as inspirations. But she rarely saw actors of colour getting to play those roles so she wrote such a play for them.

If she could wave a magic wand, she says: “I would make every institution do only plays by women and people of colour, and then gradually put white men back in, but make them fight for one slot and just do the reverse of the thing that has been happening. Because I was looking at the statistics and the gender parity is still really bad.

“I’d also minimise dead playwrights for a little bit. I would have Asian-Americans be represented more, because they’re still 4% of casting decisions.” Winkler has been trying to address this: “I write a lot of roles for Asian-Americans – women specifically. They all come to my auditions and I look at their resumés and it’s still Miss Saigon, King and I, King and I, King and I.”

Winkler does not shy away from challenging issues on stage or off. In 2015, she publicly rebuked the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players for its forthcoming production of The Mikado because the marketing showed it would cast white actors who would be heavily made up to appear Asian – a practice known as yellowface. After she brought this to wider attention, NYGASP cancelled that version of the production and revised it.

She does not take on an activist role lightly. “I actually only speak up if I do a ton of research. I check with other people to make sure that I’m not the only one who’s angry because I hate performative activism.”

With The Mikado, she says: “It was a lot of work. There were so many calls. There were a lot of interviews I could have done but didn’t because I didn’t want to be branded. It was difficult to navigate.”

While these fights are necessary to bring about change, Winkler says: “I only choose to say something if I feel like I have no choice and still it sucks. It takes over your life for a while if you actually want to make any sort of progress.”

With both Kentucky and God Said This, she circles around the idea of ‘home’. She says, “I think finding yourself, finding your wholeness, is a theme that I really love. That’ll always be a part of me, as somebody who has lived in between cultures. But also, theatre is where I feel most at home.”

CV: Leah Nanako Winkler

Born: 1985, Kamakura, Japan
Training: Brooklyn College
Landmark productions: Death for Sydney Black (2011); Double Suicide at Ueno Park (2015); Kentucky (2016); Linus and Murray (2017); Two Mile Hollow (2017); God Said This (2018)
Awards: Mark O’Donnell Prize (2017); Yale Drama Series Prize for God Said This (2018); Jerome Fellowship (2017-19)
Agent: Beth Blickers, APA Agency

God Said This runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York, until February 15

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