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On April 29, 1996, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” opened on Broadway, a few months after the death of its composer. It has become the dominant AIDS narrative in musical theater, although opinions on its merits and legacy differ wildly. To its advocates, “Rent” brought queer characters to the mainstream and gave marginalized populations a cultural touchstone. Others critics point out that Larson was a straight man whose tragic death had nothing to do with AIDS and claim his representation of early-90s East Village bohemia is inauthentic at best and plagiarized at worst.
This week with #Rent20, we are publishing conversations with artists whose work informed or descends from “Rent” to various degrees. In doing so, we delve into who has the right to tell what stories.
Today, we are looking at the creation of a new musical called “Interstate,” about a queer Asian band traveling across the U.S. It was inspired by the experiences of its creators — poet Kit Yan and Jonathan Larson Award-winning composer Melissa Li — who have toured the country with their band Good Asian Drivers.
NORA TJOSSEM: I want to start with how you came to collaborating in the first place, and what brought you to your most recent project, “Interstate.”
MELISSA LI: So we’re both performing artists — I’m a singer-songwriter, he’s a poet, and we’re sort of in the queer Asian community in Boston. Which is small, so over time, we knew each other, we were performing together, and Kit actually approached me and was like, “Hey, have you ever thought of like, going on tour? Let’s just like, quit our jobs and go.” And so I was like, “Okay.”
NORA: So did the tour precede the project, then?
MELISSA: Yes, so this was like ’08, and then we went on a tour, we called ourselves “Good Asian Drivers,” and we did that for like two years.
NORA: And that was doing music? Poetry, performance?
KIT YAN: A blend. Yeah.
MELISSA: Yeah, so we were touring for two years and then there was maybe like a two-year break, and then after those two years, Kit actually came up to me and was like, “Hey, like I wanna talk about our story of traveling.”
KIT: Wait, did you just call it a break?
MELISSA: Yeah. (Laughing.) No, we like, broke up. We hated each other actually. It was actually really traumatic. I just skimmed over it. I didn’t want to give away that plot line.
NORA: Did that drama make it into the musical?
MELISSA: Some iterations of it. So, yeah, then we just weren’t talking for like two years, and then we became friends again.
KIT: Okay. Let me tell the story. I’m gonna tell the story, because—
NORA: I feel like some parts are being left out.
MELISSA: Alright, you tell the story.
KIT: Okay, we had epic, major, dark period, big breakup. Love triangle, crying, horrible tour. Melissa just left the tour at some point, we had to find her in Los Angeles. And then we didn’t talk, we weren’t talking, she put out a solo album, I put out a solo album, and then at some point we exchanged solo albums, probably some part jealousy, some part anger, some part trying to be friends again—
MELISSA: I think I was trying to say sorry? But then, like, I didn’t want to say sorry. I don’t know. And actually, prior to that I had been working on musicals in Boston, so I had worked on “Surviving the Nian,” and that had gotten the Jonathan Larson Award.
KIT: And during our dark period, I went to Hawaii to work on a collection of poems about the time that we had broken up, and about the split and the tour and all the darkness of it, and I brought back this collection of poems, and I thought it was just gonna be a book, but I was reading through and for some reason I thought it should be a musical. Probably inspired by our time as Good Asian Drivers and hearing the possibility of music and spoken word together. And we had just started to become friends again, and we went to a queer Asian community potluck in Prospect Park and were entirely antisocial at it. We didn’t meet anybody or make any new friends, we just sat under a tree while Melissa read through these horrible poems, and then—
MELISSA: They were horrible.
KIT: I was like, “Melissa, this should be a musical,” and you were probably like, “Yeah, this sucks.”
MELISSA: I was like, “If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this right.” So then that started our four plus years of working on the show. In the summer of 2013, we had a full-length reading at Dixon Place. And that was very close to the story we’d wanted to tell, but over the years, we’ve sort of developed it and shaped it, and now it’s a little bit of a different story.
NORA: Different in that it’s more or less autobiographical?
MELISSA: It’s less.
KIT: Much less. I mean, it’s hardly autobiographical at this point.
MELISSA: Yeah, there are people who are based on us, but it’s very different. I haven’t written a lot of musicals, but my first musical was kind of based on me, and the less I made it autobiographical, the more interesting it became. There’s freedom in making things happen that are way more interesting to these characters. You know, they can make mistakes and you don’t feel like they’re attached to you, and it’s just more interesting that way.
NORA: That kind of segues into a larger question: how do you see the relationship of identity and artwork working for you?
KIT: Identity is so important to us. Identity is at the center of everything I write and do, it’s a focal point for me because, you know, at the end of the day, what shapes my experiences as a person is how I’m read in the world and how I’m experiencing gender and race and relationships and language and immigration history, so it’s hard to not write about all of those things that shape our lives.
“It was all about being out and queer and Asian and traveling to these little pockets of places where you don’t see queer Asians.”
MELISSA: I’d say that identity was a really big part of our collaboration too, in particular. When we went on Good Asian Drivers, it was all about being out and queer and Asian and traveling to these little pockets of places where you don’t see queer Asians, and being visible and doing shows that are unabashedly about sex and about trans issues and queer issues and—
MELISSA: Lesbians. And so that was very much our work together, and that really defines our collaboration.
NORA: So going one step further, do you feel, for you as artists, that representation has to be done by an individual whose identity is represented? Or can you represent other groups onstage as an artist?
MELISSA: I think both. I wouldn’t say all the works I’ve worked on, but most of them, there’s an Asian character, queer characters. But I also feel like as a writer, you should be able to explore different stories, too.
KIT: I mean, a lot of our conversations, in the writers’ room, we’re looking into the future. Perhaps these three main characters are heavily based on our identities, but then we’re looking at like, what’s the life cycle of this project in five, 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 years? No way are we gonna play these characters, ever, really, in the grand scheme of it. So who else gets to be a part of that journey and play these roles, and then go on to create more content? It’s our responsibility as artists to plant those seeds for ourselves and then to let others take the reins.
MELISSA: Yeah, sort of like theater as community-building, too. So it’s not just about the show and what comes out at the end. It’s really about the experience.
NORA: I want to go back to you, Melissa, winning the Jonathan Larson Award. Did “Rent” affect you in your career as an artist?
MELISSA: Yeah, it definitely did. I consider myself a theater outsider. I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of theater or going to a lot of theater. It’s very expensive and it wasn’t really part of my culture. But I just remember everybody was talking about “Rent,” and I had come out at a very young age, so there were all these queer kids that just felt like social outsiders, and it was like, “Oh, here’s a show that’s a musical that is not stuffy or white, and it’s about essentially a group of outsiders.” Like, people who were queer and there were bisexuals, there were people living with AIDS and not just people dying from AIDS. So it was just amazing to have that exist. And I think people during that time in my generation were just so hungry for those stories. In addition to it, the music was so different, right? I mean I remember in the years afterwards, when I had gone to some of the Larson Award ceremonies, there would be a bunch of quotes that Jonathan Larson had written or said, and one of the things that he had said at the time was that, you know, I could write the traditional musical theater music, but it wouldn’t appeal to the generation that I want to speak to. So then he started writing pop music for musical theater, and I think coming out of that then we see different genres come into theater now. You know, like today, with “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” — none of that would have ever existed without Jonathan Larson setting that stepping stone.
NORA: How much was the Jonathan Larson Award kind of focusing on Jonathan Larson and his legacy, and how much was it a grant that was open-ended and no-strings?
MELISSA: A little bit of both. It was one of those grants that wasn’t attached to anything, you could use it for whatever. And I think part of it was because Jonathan Larson struggled with paying rent when he was an artist. So I think part of his legacy and part of the award is like, “Hey, if you’re an artist and you’re doing great work, here’s just some money to, like, live.” Right? So it wasn’t like, “Oh, here, go make more theater,” it was like, “Hey, like, survive.”
NORA: For either of you, were there other pieces of art of any kind that were big influences that stick out to you as objects of representation that you felt really a big connection with?
KIT: I think that the most formative thing I watched in my teenage years was a reality TV show that no one had ever heard of, called “Gay Riviera.” Have you heard of it?
NORA: No, please explain.
KIT: It was on Bravo. It was just a reality TV show about a bunch of, like, queer and gay people, and it just followed them around, that’s it! I taped all the episodes on VHS, and I watched them over and over again.
MELISSA: Because there were gay people on it? What was formative about it?
KIT: There were gay people in it! Before I was out to myself, before I knew about anything that was queer. And then they were so far from me. I grew up in Hawaii, and these people were in Miami, and I think they were in New York? They were in cities, and I was like, “Oh wow! Look at this big gay life everybody has!” I particularly was drawn to this woman named Lissette on the show, who I actually became friends with in real life, ’cause I had met her in Boston as an adult, and I was like, “Yeah. Watching, seeing your life, her dramatic relationship in Miami, made the world of difference to me.”
NORA: How do you see that working for your piece? Is “Interstate” made for someone?
MELISSA: Yeah. I think we think of that a lot. I think for us it’s a little bit meta, ’cause we have this character, Henry, who’s a younger version who looks up to this character based on Kit because there aren’t enough trans faces that are like him, in his world.
KIT: By the same token, you know last night at the show me and Nora were at, my friend came up to me at the bar and she had sent me the casting notice like, “I read this casting, and I wonder if it’s Kit’s project — who else would work on a musical with like a femme Asian in it?” It’s significant to have a queer femme character in a musical, too. ‘Cause like, who does that? The specificity of it is very important.
NORA: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it, that the specificity’s important, because otherwise it can just look like tokenism. Do you see your future projects for the most part also coming out of personal experiences?
MELISSA: I always wanna write different things. It doesn’t need to be personal. I think I’ll always have a queer character, always have an Asian American character, those things are important to me, but I think it’s so much fun to write about not yourself.
NORA: Do you think that you’re kind of leading the charge on writing these stories? Or do you think that you have a cohort that’s also operating?
KIT: We’re certainly not anywhere near like, the first of our kind. I think the kinds of themes we’re exploring have always been around. People in our communities write plays, music, poetry, all sorts of art, visual arts, about these sorts of identities, throughout time. As long as folks have existed. But I think we are experiencing more support and more interest in that work.
MELISSA: And I think we kind of have a little bit of a unique approach or perspective. I know that a lot of queer people in our circle who are working on queer art, it’s specifically geared towards queer people as well. And I think that’s great, and that’s wonderful and so necessary. But I also think for us, it’s like yes, this work is for our community, but it’s also a little more mainstream as well. We’re trying to share it with the world at large as well and tell our stories honestly but not in a way that’s like, if you don’t understand then we don’t care about you. So I think, I dunno, I think that’s sort of — we’re a little more on the mainstream side. At least I am.
KIT: Well, I was like, wait a minute — as you were saying this, I was like, wait, I feel all those things that you’re saying we’re not doing.
MELISSA: Do you?
KIT: Yeah, I’m like, if they don’t understand—
MELISSA: Well that’s why I’m here! I’m here, I’m like — all the songs are very, they’re not weird, they’re very enjoyable pop songs. So I dunno, I feel like we’re more on the mainstream side.
KIT: Yeah, when I write poetry and stuff, I like to work in modern, contemporary styles of poetry, too. But I also think part of it is, when we’re thinking about presenting the material to a larger audience, that it’s also on other people to catch up with the material. We have, like, the internet now — you know? You can just go and find out your questions.
“I also think part of it is, when we’re thinking about presenting the material to a larger audience, that it’s also on other people to catch up with the material.”
MELISSA: That’s true. We don’t want a show that teaches people “This is what trans is, and this is how it feels to be trans.” They just exist. They exist, just like, in the world. But we also don’t wanna be like, “Here’s a lot of really detailed queer theory stuff that only queer people would understand.”
KIT: We don’t even explain either Dash or Adrian’s coming out stories. It isn’t a show about how they arrived.
NORA: Yeah, which is important, I think that’s something we don’t see a lot. A lot of times it is explaining the identity and how you “got there,” or whatever.
MELISSA: Right, exactly.
NORA: What’s some of the most interesting feedback you’ve gotten along the way, now that this has been in development for four years?
KIT: We have so much feedback, we’re so good at collecting it.
MELISSA: We don’t listen to anyone.
KIT: (Laughing.) Oh my god, you’re so right.
MELISSA: It’s so interesting, because the story used to be about us, and then there was a white character who was traveling with us, and it was all about how that white character was having trouble adjusting to being in a queer Asian band. And then it became very focused on that character, and many people in the audience — who were white, actually — were like, “Oh, I really identify with this, this is really, really interesting.” And then we just cut them out of the show.
KIT: We just cut the whole character.
MELISSA: We were like, “Actually we don’t wanna tell that story.” We were like, “That’s not interesting to us.”
KIT: No matter how compelling it is to the audience.
MELISSA: We have this one song — it’s not really a song, but it’s like, a percussive sex piece. So these characters are having sex, but they’re breathing and it’s very percussive, and there’s this very graphic, lurid poem that Dash performs about masturbating to this—
KIT: This is a trans person masturbating onstage to two lesbians having sex in the background.
MELISSA: And every single person is like, “This doesn’t belong here, we gotta cut this.” Even our closest creative team. And we’re just like, “No. We gotta keep it.”
NORA: Can you articulate the reason you want to keep it despite everyone’s comments?
MELISSA: Well, first of all, it is a great song. But in addition, it’s like, when do you see that? Graphic sex between these two lesbians. And it’s also a character moment for the main character, too. He’s really lonely, really sad, and it’s just so heartbreaking to see this happening. He’s in love with one of them, and he’s masturbating to them, I dunno, it’s just so moving to me even though it’s really kind of gross.
KIT: It is kinda gross. The significance for me particularly for “Those Hands” is that sometimes in life, as a queer person or a trans person, when you have exhausted all your options for peace or resolution or problem-solving — you’re, like having your lowest moment and your job sucks, or you’re dealing with a partner — you know, you just masturbate.
MELISSA: I think it’s also kind of revolutionary in that it’s a sexualized trans person. You know, he talks about his cock, he talks about his pussy.
KIT: It’s on his own terms, the entire time.
MELISSA: Yeah, he’s talking about his own body and owning that, I think that’s so great.
KIT: The music is so hot.
NORA: Is that unapologetic attitude something that you carry with you through all your work? Or are there places where you do feel like, okay, audience may not respond well to this, I’m pulling back?
MELISSA: I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like we’re really vilifying white people.
KIT: Oh, yeah. We definitely do.
MELISSA: But we don’t really pull back.
KIT: It’s purposeful.
MELISSA: It’s purposeful, yeah.
NORA: ‘Cause that seems like a hard balance, being unapologetic but not losing large swaths of your audience. But maybe that’s the trade-off.
KIT: Yeah, that is a trade-off. But also, I often think that not everybody deserves to see a show like ours. Like, if you’re a bigot, if you are a horrible person, you don’t deserve our art. We don’t need you to come see our show.
MELISSA: Yeah, we kind of don’t care.