03/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Third Screen: David Henry Hwang on Defining Yourself in a Shifting World

What are the origins of creativity? Where does inspiration come from? And what's it good for? Not long ago, when putting together a television series on playwrights, I asked David Henry Hwang, best known for his Broadway hit M. Butterfly and for his libretto for Elton John and Timothy Rice's Aida as well as a raft of plays about identity including Yellow Face in 2008. Each of us, he told me, is the artist of our own life, our own community. Here's his how-to for you. 2009-01-29-hwang.jpg

Third Screen: Where does inspiration come from?

David Henry Hwang: I guess I feel I'm always trolling for inspiration. M. Butterfly came from a newspaper article, which I learned about at a cocktail party when someone said to me, 'Oh, have you heard about the French diplomat who had a 20 year affair with a Chinese actor who turned out to be A) A spy and B) A man in drag?" Golden Child was really based on my own family history. So I think inspiration comes from any number of places. I find I'm most attracted to stories about identity, about transformation, and how the individual, in the context of a shifting world, defines his or her self.

Third Screen: Is it limiting for writers to be defined by a particular subject or style? Aren't we all many things, some of them good, some bad, some even contradictory?

David Henry Hwang: I feel most writers basically have one patch of ground, and you continue to work it. Different kinds of plants grow there. And sometimes you have a good harvest and sometimes you don't, but you're basically working that same plot of land.

Third Screen: How'd you find your patch of ground?

David Henry Hwang: Studying with writers like Sam Shepard. They began to teach me how to write more from my unconscious. So, for instance, you would write as fast as you could, so that your conscious mind doesn't have the ability to censor. Or we'd be writing a scene, and the teacher would throw out a random phrase and you'd have to incorporate it into the dialogue. It's really a matter of being free enough to allow voices to almost speak through you. I think most artists feel to some extent like a vessel. That the work is out there, and you're the method through which words and characters are able to come to life on the page.

Third Screen: You work in several media. What is the key strength of theater, as opposed to television and film?

David Henry Hwang: Well, theater is uniquely positioned to address issues of community simply because it's not mass media. I do some work in theater. I do some work in film and television. With the latter, you happen to reach a very broad audience, and a large audience, which means that you can't address the concerns of a particular community very specifically because people outside that community have to be able to relate to it. With theater, it's a communal experience. You go in there and it's like going to church in a way. It's a bunch of people, you are live, you're relating to the performers on stage, and there is a ritual that takes place, a transfer of energy. A community is created right there in that theater on that day.

Third Screen: So we need community and national media, live and recorded? It's not just about entertainment and what we like when we want to have fun?

David Henry Hwang: I think in America we've got this mass culture and pop culture that sort of conquers the world, but what theater enables us to do is step back from that and have a place where smaller communities can express themselves and have a place to find their own identities.

Third Screen: What is the role of the artist then? Is being an artist for yourself or others the new civic responsibility?

David Henry Hwang: In some sense, artists are entrepreneurs. Our product is our vision and our creativity. We're constantly trying to market this, because contrary to a sort of romantic mythology, no artist really wants to starve. Then look at the fact that in the 21st century, most Americans will probably have to change jobs several times in their lifetimes. In a sense, this is going to require that the entire work force become artists and learns to re-invent itself, recreate itself, be constantly re-charging and re-examining. That is the sort of thing that artists already do.

Third Screen: And the role of the audience?

David Henry Hwang: I remember the first time a movie that I wrote was test-screened. They test-screen them before audiences and then the audiences fill out cards. I was watching as the audience filed in, and as the movie began, they all kind of sat back in their chairs. Some of them had popcorn and they started eating the popcorn. And I thought, you know, this is so different than a theater audience. A theater audience sits up. They tend to lean forward in their chairs. They are studying the performance in front of them. They're engaging it. They're becoming part of it. And when theater deals particularly with metaphor, it requires the audience to do more work, to sort of figure things out. 'Oh, it's not going to just look like a livingroom and I need to fill in those blanks for myself.' Whereas a movie audience sits back and expects to be taken on a ride.

Third Screen: We need our power of participation and our power of observation? It's not really about the awards and the outfits after all?

David Henry Hwang: The movies always give me the feeling of being a fly on the wall, that you're seeing something real happen. Even if you're seeing Star Wars or The Matrix where this thing that could never really be happening, you believe that it's happening in real life, in real time, and you're sort of a fly on the wall watching this thing play out. I'm interested in exploring a reality that is different than the one that we live in every day. What is happening alongside us? What implications does it have?

Third Screen: So even if you just write movies in your head, or fantasize about an interview you might do with someone you admire or who challenges you, you're doing the work of the artist, and for your own good and the good of those in your life?

David Henry Hwang: In the 21st century, with machines that do not only labor but even basic thinking, what's left for people to do? Creative work. Creative thinking. In the 21st century, we're all going to have to live like artists.