Over the Moon for Min Kahng

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laywright and composer Min Kahng is a recent winner of a Titan award, presented to three of the twenty playwrights accepted into Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS: Playwrights inaugural program, focused on helping playwrights learn business skills and develop a personal career map.   In addition to a play reading as part of the Playwrights Foundation’s Rough Reading series, the Titan award cash prize also comes with a year of mentoring from a theatre professional to help the playwright progress in implementing the career goals established and refined during the ATLAS program.  For his mentor, Min Kahng selected Leslie Martinson, Associate Artistic Director of TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley.  (Titan Awards were also awarded to Jonathan Spector and Elizabeth Gjelten, and mentorship finalist prizes went to Patricia Milton, Ignacio Zulueta, Garret Jon Groenveld and Martin Schwartz.)

Min Kahng photo by Ben Krantz

Min Kahng
photo by Ben Krantz

While participating in the ATLAS program in 2013, Min Kahng was finishing his musical adaption of Grace Lin’s Newberry Honor children’s book “WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON” a story about “a spunky young girl in an ancient mythical China who sets out on an adventure-filled quest to improve her family’s fortune, with help along the way from a friendly dragon.”   I was thoroughly charmed by the song-then-in-progress I heard Min sing from that show at the ATLAS Playwrights Showcase last summer.

The world premiere of the musical Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is now about to open in a production by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre.  Min found time to answer some email questions even in the thick of rehearsals:

SF:  Min, congratulations on winning a Titan Award and on choosing such a great mentor!  How would you summarize your participation in the Theatre Bay Area ATLAS: Playwrights Program?

MK: Thank you! I’m so honored to receive the award, and I’m excited about the meetings I’ll have with Leslie. We had our first meeting a few weeks ago, and she’s already given me valuable feedback and food-for-thought about my career path.  I would summarize ATLAS as a much-needed nudge to get the business-side of my artistic work in order. I had very broad, unformed ideas about my career prior to entering the program. I feel like I’ve emerged from ATLAS with a clearer and more confident sense of what I want to accomplish as a playwright and composer.

SF: You wrote the book, music and lyrics of the musical theatre adaptation of Grace Lin’s Newberry Honor Book,“WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON”, which is now in rehearsals for a production by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre opening February 22.   I understand this is your second full production with BACT (after last year’s  Tales of Olympus) and you’ve had other shows in readings and various stages.  As a young playwright/composer with some solid experience, I’d like to hear about your process in writing the musical Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the experience of putting this production together so far.  First, how did you pick the story?  What was compelling about this book?  Why did it lend itself to a musical?

Mountain Moon Small

MK: The idea to adapt the work actually came from BACT’s Executive Director, Nina Meehan. She suggested I read the book and think about whether I could adapt it into a musical.  “WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON” is a beautiful story with a very poignant message (I won’t spoil it here), and as I was reading I found myself emotionally engrossed in the story.  After I finished the book, my immediate thought was “There’s no way I can turn this into a musical.” Grace Lin’s novel has nuances that I felt were best suited for a reading experience. To “Broadway-ify” the book felt like I would be doing the work an injustice. But the more I thought about it, I realized that the real issue was my concept of what kind of musical it would be. Or, more specifically, what kind of musical I write. The music style of my previous two shows was a pastiche: a combination of all sorts of popular genres thrown together. This would not be the appropriate way to turn Mountain into a musical.  Instead, in order to honor the amazing work Ms. Lin put into creating the book, the adaptation would need to be a musical that was of its own world, so-to-speak. This attractive challenge of crafting something that wasn’t tethered to a previous genre, plus the chance to bring the novel’s meaningful message is what ultimately sold me on the project. The book truly does lend itself to a musical because it is filled with magic and deep emotional transformation, which I think music can truly help convey in a stage production.

SF:  Can you share some of your impressions from the rehearsals so far? Do rehearsals ever make you see your own words or songs in a new light? Any surprises, good or bad?

MK: The rehearsals have been great fun. There is truly an atmosphere of play and building this work together with everyone else in the room. One of my favorite events is handing over my work to actors to see what they do with it. As a writer, I sit with the entire cast of characters in my head, but actors have the opportunity to really dig deep into one character (or in the case of the Ensemble for Mountain, one to five!). As they start to identify the traits, emotions, fears, hopes of their characters, they are able to give true feedback. This can be scary because if my writing has been sloppy, then the actors will pick up on that as they delve into their roles. The great thing about the “building together” environment, however, is that we get to have those conversations. I remain open to feedback from all folks in the room, and we’ll often have a brief discussion about what best serves the story, or what feels the most honest. It can get tricky, especially with passionate people who have differing opinions, but I also know it makes me a better writer. These conversations compel me to intelligently defend my viewpoints as much as they help keep me open to good and helpful feedback. These are two areas as a theatre writer that I want to continue to grow in.

SF:  What had you learned from your musical Tales of Olympus that affected how you wrote this show?  What do you think readers might find most surprising about the challenges of writing for and working with children?

MKTales of Olympus was my first production, so in a general sense everything I learned about working with a producer, director, actors, etc started with that show. I think through Olympus, I learned the difficult task of letting go of songs, scenes or lines that I liked in order to serve the overall purpose of the show. If you were to read the first draft of Mountain and the draft that is being produced, there would be moments where you’d wonder if it was the same show at all. I had to revise entire numbers and scenes in Mountain, occasionally multiple times, and sometimes it involved cutting a section that I truly loved. But thanks to having gone through the process of revisions with Olympus, I think I’ve gotten better and better at saying “Yes, this was good. But something that serves the story or the characters more powerfully will be even better.”

In regard to writing for children, I think the most surprising thing is that there is very little difference between writing for children and adults. Unfortunately, I think the impression exists that because it’s “for children” then it must be dumbed down. Yes, perhaps stories for children should be simpler than, say, War and Peace, but the themes and characters should be just as developed if you want your audience on-board.  For the development of Mountain, we had long discussions, at times philosophical (i.e. free will vs. destiny), trying to create the world of our show, asking questions like “What is the boundary between reality and fantasy here?” “Why is this character acting this way? Is it out of pain? Spite? Selfishness?” If I don’t feel anything for the characters I’m writing for, then why should I think any kid would? Children are very perceptive, and they deserve well-thought, meticulously crafted art to experience. How else will we inspire our next generation of artists?

Grace Lin as Minli and Hugo Carbajal as Dragon photo by Melissa Nigro

Grace Lin as Minli and Hugo Carbajal as Dragon
photo by Melissa Nigro

SF:  Who should see Where the Mountain Meets the Moon?  What do you hope a child thinks about after seeing your show?

MK: I wrote Where the Mountain Meets the Moon for kids who are in the upper elementary to middle school range. But I also wrote a show that I myself would enjoy watching. So, kids of that age and their parents/grandparents should see it. I also think it will be an amazing work of theatre with Mina Morita at the helm and our ridiculously talented cast and production team.  (I’m not joking about this. I am in awe of the caliber of collaborators in the rehearsal room!)  I hope a child who sees the show will think about the primary question of the show: What does it mean to have good fortune? I also hope they will be inspired by the magic we’re presenting on-stage. That their imaginations will run wild. That they will read or re-read Grace Lin’s novel with their families. That they will draw a picture, sing songs, write a story, make puppets, do something creative because of their experience with this touching story about a girl who befriends a Dragon and tried to change her family’s fortune.

SF:  Sounds wonderful —  Break a leg, Min!

The world premiere production of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon will be performed in downtown Berkeley February 22 through March 16.  For tickets, go to Bay Area Children’s Theatre.

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