IAP Interview: Catherine Yu, NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting

IAP Interview: Catherine Yu, NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting

“ It’s not enough to go with your gut – you have to be responding to what’s around you. That practice of listening is not just true in art but across all industries.”

Catherine Yu strongly believes in listening as a discipline. Her interest in non-profit work was inspired by her grandmother’s passion for promoting Chinese culture. We talked about the importance of collaboration, and her award-winning plays.

NYFA: Do you have any mentors or role models that inspired you to follow this career path in the arts?

CATHERINE YU: My grandmother is my role model. She was not an artist but she was artistically inclined and very passionate about culture and the arts in general. She promoted the legend of Monkey King to young children in schools, at a time when Disney was becoming a craze for kids in Taiwan. In response to Mattel’s Barbie dolls in Asia, she worked with a company to create Asian dolls dressed in traditional Chinese clothing from different periods of Chinese history. They were collectibles in Taiwan and the manufacturer made them in the image of my grandmother. She supported every artistic inclination I had. Most importantly, she was a gentle force and a kind spirit.

NYFA: How do you approach collaboration?

CY: Collaboration requires the practice of listening along with the balancing of the pursuit of truth in the work with the artistic and emotional history of your collaborators. It’s not enough to go with your gut – you have to be responding to what’s around you. That practice of listening is not just true in art but across all industries. The skill of listening is crucial to being a human in the world. We can’t help but be shaped by the world we live in and the company we keep.

NYFA: In 2016, you received a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship in Playwriting/Screenwriting. Please tell us about the work you submitted.

CY: The Sun Experiment is a play I began on a fellowship at New York Theatre Workshop. It’s set in three eras: a 21st century New England college town, 1912 Cambridge, England, and the out-of-time Illyria of Twelfth Night. The different eras revolve around each other based on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s experiment with the rotation of the sun until, in the end, they are spinning into the cosmos around Twelfth Night. Here’s an excerpt:

LUDWIG: Africa. It won’t be where the progress of science is found. We may look at the same stars at night but it won’t mean in Africa what it means in England. The context —you’ve changed it. Be aware, that’s all. I hear the sun isn’t kinder over there. It’s more of a brute. You’ll sweat a lake daily and ants will trudge in the puddle by your feet. But they say humans can get used to nearly anything and now you’ll just be a sample of the truth.

NYFA: Can you tell us a little about what you are working on right now and any future projects?

CY: I recently completed a draft of a screenplay on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I don’t know if it will go further than that. With the help of funds from the NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, I traveled to Mexico City in November to research a new play that explores cinema and globalization. That’s all I’ll say for now. Lastly, I’m about to go to the MacDowell Colony, and while I’m there, I will be working on a museum play with 44 characters. It’s a nice incubation period of ideas.

NYFA: Do you have any advice for artists that want to write plays and follow this career path?

CY: For an art form so bound to structure and plot, remember with relief that life works differently from art. Life often goes off-script. For those who feel daunted by the unknown, allow me to quote the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “The future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens.”

Catherine Yu‘s plays include Le Jeté (Soho Rep W/D Lab 2016), Stargaze (MaYi Spring LabFest 2016), The Sun Experiment (FringeNYC 2014 Award for Excellence in Playwriting, Time Out New York’s Top Ten Music, and Nightlife Events of The Week, published by IndieTheaterNow), and The Day Is Long To End (MaYi 2015 Spring LabFest). Her short plays have been commissioned by the 52nd Street Project, UglyRhino, and Culture Project. Her short play A Sand Romance is a 2016 Heidman finalist. She has been a NYTW Emerging Artist of Color and Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab writer, a 2016 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting, and a 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellow. She is currently a member of the MaYi Writers Lab. She has been a writer’s assistant to an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, and a GED tutor for prison inmates. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University, and a M.F.A. from NYU. 

Learn more about Catherine Yu

This interview is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #90. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events here.

– Interview conducted by Alicia Ehni, Editor of the IAP Newsletter and Program Associate, NYFA Learning

Image: Catherine Yu, Photo: Luke Fontana ©

Amy Aronoff
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