Yunlu Shen and “Gung Haggis Fat Choy”

Sometimes the best traditions are the ones we invent ourselves. That’s what Yunlu Shen discovered as a Chinese Canadian transplant reading the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Seeking community in a new city, Yunlu hosted Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a mash-up of the Chinese New Year and Burns Night, a celebration of the poet’s birthday.

We fell in love with Yunlu’s essay, “To a Chinese Mouse,” and are excited to perform it on June 17 at Our Stories, Ourselves, in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.

A structural engineer working in New York City, Yunlu likes to read and go on long bike adventures in beautiful places. She kindly answered a few questions for us in advance of our show.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

I first heard about Play On Words from writer friends in the Bay Area.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I began writing more letters to friends during the pandemic. That process often generated ideas for other pieces. I also became more patient. The lock-down created more time and space for introspection and drew me closer to the physical process of writing. I write more drafts by hand and set them aside for longer between editing.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

As someone who moved to North America at the age of 11, immigrant heritage is an direct and personal experience for me. Over the past two decades I have also learned to love the cultural contributions from other immigrant communities and how well they sometimes complement one another. There is a banjo-guzheng duet by Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei, Wusuli Boat Song/The Water is Wide, that melds together a Chinese folk song and an American folk song of Scottish origin. It’s a beautiful example of shared immigrant heritage in America and resonates with me deeply.

What else should we know about you?

I spend most of my day designing structures – skyscrapers, airports, museums. But I think the act of creation is really the same process, whether we are constructing sentences, ideas, or buildings.

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE YUNLU’S WORK PERFORMED ALOUD.

Julian Parayno-Stoll’s “Jar”

What would you do if you discovered a jar of bullets in your family home?

We were taken by the voice and language in Julian Parayno-Stoll’s “The Jar,” which describes a young protagonist witnessing his father adding bullets to a peanut butter jar. We’ll be performing this short piece at Our Stories, Ourselves on Thursday, June 17, with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Julian (he/him) is a mixed/mestizo Pilipinx American whose writing has been performed at De Anza College’s virtual Euphrat Museum, Flash Fiction Forum, San José Poetry Center’s Bauchhaar, and Play On Words San José. He received a BA in Philosophy from UC Santa Cruz. Raised on Kumeyaay land (San Diego), he currently resides on the unceded ancestral lands of the Tamien Ohlone people (San José, California).

He answered some questions for us in advance of the show.

Julian Parayno-Stoll

HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT PLAY ON WORDS?

I was invited to submit to Play On Words by a wonderful creative writing mentor, Lita Kurth, who saw potential in my (very) short story. For that, I am very thankful.

HOW HAS YOUR CREATIVE PRACTICE CHANGED DURING THE PANDEMIC?

In a sense, my creative writing practice began during the pandemic. Although I have l always enjoyed reading and (to a smaller extent) writing out my thoughts, I became more invested in creative writing last summer when I was settling into a kind of despair over the pandemic, the hypermilitarization of the police, the massive climate change-fueled wildfires, and the realities of surviving under capitalism. At that time, writing felt like both an extremely frivolous activity and an essential practice for me to process these things. I feel immensely grateful for the work done by writers such as Ocean Vuong and Gina Apostol, because their books have shown me how the act of making art can be a means for engaging with the world from a new, more thoughtful angle. Despite much trying, I haven’t been able to maintain any kind of writing schedule during the pandemic. But when I do write, that’s the intention I now want to bring to my desk.

WHAT DOES “IMMIGRANT HERITAGE” MEAN TO YOU?

To me, being someone of “immigrant heritage” means multiple different things. On the one hand, my specific position as a mixed/mestizo son of a Pilipina immigrant beautician and caregiver and a white former sheriff’s deputy demands that I recognize my Pilipinx heritage in the context of the incredibly violent systems of white supremacist, patriarchal settler colonialism and American imperialism. On the other hand, as is common for many second generation children of immigrants, it means that there is a certain feeling of “disconnection” from this heritage. For example, I still have never been to the Philippines, cannot speak any Philippine language, and have not met many of my own family members. So in this sense, recognizing my “immigrant heritage” means grappling with the ever-present need to learn more about where I come from and to decolonize myself by engaging with these histories. But in the final and most important sense, my “immigrant heritage” means that I am a present manifestation of a long lineage of beauty which has persisted despite great hostility. In this sense, it is about the love I have for my mother and her family, which is my foundation for trying to bring into fruition, in slow steps, day by day, a different and better kind of world.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT YOU?

Thank you Play on Words! I’m very excited to see “The Jar” reimagined with someone else’s voice!

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE JULIAN’S WORK PERFORMED.

The “Minutes” of Muse Lee

Imagine a modern-day Hamlet in which the protagonist’s son is a Black Korean-American man living in LA. Intrigued? Yeah, so are we — which is why we are delighted to perform an excerpt of Muse Lee’s “Minutes” at Our Stories, Ourselves, our June 17 virtual show in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Muse Lee (he/him) is the writer and co-executive producer of ARISTOS: the Musical, a pop/rock Iliad adaptation featuring an international cast and crew collaborating remotely during the pandemic. An artist and educator, he taught writing and performance behind bars as a member of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle, and taught a novel writing course at a court school to youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

At Los Angeles Opera, he founded and led the Opera 90012 Ambassador Program, a training program for teens interested in arts administration. In 2019, Muse graduated with a B.A. in English from Stanford University, where he served for three years as a teaching assistant in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department. He is currently writing the textbook Acting for Non-Majors with noted Stanford theatre lecturer Kay Kostopoulos.

During the pandemic, Muse has been been producing the album of my musical Aristos (www.aristosmusical.com), a pop/rock Iliad adaptation that sings the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. Slated for release in summer 2021, the crowdfunded project features an international ensemble, production team, and fanbase, all creating and connecting remotely from our own homes. 

The musical proudly tells Homer’s immortal story — one that has come to symbolize Western culture —through the voices of a majority queer, BIPOC cast, comprised of earnest aspiring performers, professional actors, beloved music teachers, retired opera singers, renowned stage directors, and everything in between. Our artists range from ages 13-70 and hail from seven different countries. The show can be found on Instagram as aristosmusical and on Youtube as ARISTOStheMusical!

Muse answered a few questions for us in advance of the June show.

Muse Lee

HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT PLAY ON WORDS?

I met Melinda Marks (POW co-founder and casting director) when I auditioned for a show she was directing! While an Aristos conflict meant that I didn’t get the chance to work with her at the time, she reached out to me some months later about performing in “Play on Words: Beyond Boundaries.” I’d grown woefully used to a certain stiff-necked atmosphere in university theatre spaces, and I was enchanted by the energy of the rehearsal: a gaggle of artists bringing life to stories in a cozy apartment on a Saturday morning. I knew that this was a group I wanted to be a part of as long as they would have me!

HOW HAS YOUR CREATIVE PRACTICE CHANGED DURING THE PANDEMIC?

It’s actually become more extroverted! My practice used to be very cloistered, but the pandemic pushed me to find new ways of creating and connecting. I’ve held Zoom readings with my friends, where we showed up in hilarious costumes fashioned out of whatever we could find in the closet. I’ve attended virtual performances and tuned into audio dramas, joyfully reacting over chat with other audience members in real time. I’ve worked with artists all over the world, our tenuous, wonderful connections flickering at the mercy of our WiFi. 

These are all ways I had never really engaged with storytelling before. Sure, there’s nothing like live theatre, but there’s something to be said about how not having that option gives you the opportunity to reimagine theatre entirely. The productions I’ve seen over the last year involved artists of all levels of experience, of diverse ability statuses, and from all over the world. People could pop in and take part after school, or before their evening shift, or during their lunch break. While the pandemic delivered a devastating blow to the theatre industry, I was also humbled by how it forced me to reexamine my preconceptions about what performance could be, who could participate, and who it could reach. So much of what I had taken for granted about the world of performance had vanished in a blink of an eye — including its gilded barriers.

WHAT DOES “IMMIGRANT HERITAGE” MEAN TO YOU?

It’s the way I was alone in New York and thought I was doing just fine, but then I walked into a Korean restaurant and felt a weight lift off me that I didn’t even know was there.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT YOU?

I knocked out the first draft of my featured PoW piece, “Minutes,” at the end of my senior year of college, but I’d actually been trying to write this Korean-American Hamlet for three years. I was going to write from the perspective of the Ophelia parallel character, Jiyun, exploring her heartbreak and grief at losing her boyfriend. I tried and tried, but it just wasn’t working. Which was incredibly frustrating, because I loved the premise so much and really wanted to do something with it!

Then, in my last quarter before graduating, I was in a course about adapting Shakespeare. The final had two options: you could either write an essay about an existing adaptation or you could make your own. I leapt at the chance to make my own. By then, I had realized that I was transmasc and gay. Within just a few months, I would also finally embrace that I was on the aromantic spectrum. I sat down to take another shot at my Hamlet. This time, I wrote from the perspective of the Horatio parallel, Hoseung, who quietly watched his friend fall apart as he swallowed down the feelings he didn’t understand and wasn’t allowed to have. I wrote in one night what I hadn’t been able to write in three years. 

The piece that became “Minutes” was my very first queer work, and I cannot express how much it liberated me to write the kinds of love stories I had yearned to tell my whole life. I think this piece was, to paraphrase Greta Gerwig, me trying to explain myself to myself. 

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE MUSE’S WORK PERFORMED ALOUD.

Selma Tufail’s “Self-Portrait”

At Play On Words, we believe that the stories we tell reveal truths we may not have recognized otherwise.

That’s why we were drawn to Selma Tufail’s “Self-Portrait,” an excerpt of a memoir-in-progress that she is writing with her sister (and fellow Playonwordsian) Anniqua Rana. We’re delighted to perform this piece at Our Stories, Ourselves, our virtual performance with the San Jose Museum of Art on June 17.

Selma, an artist, has always navigated through the worlds of literature, art, and education. Life’s journeys have taken her around the world where she has taught, written, and created art — in Spain, Qatar, the U.A.E., the U.S. and Pakistan. Throughout, she has continued her pursuit of creativity in all its forms. She was awarded the Order of Civil Merit, the highest civilian award of Spain.

She is the author and illustrator of Con Yanci: When Chickens Fly and Other Tales, a children’s storybook. Her writings on gender, art and mysticism have appeared in The Dollhouse, Pakistan Daily Times, Article in Shards of Silence – An Anthology, The Arabia Review: TESOL Arabia, UAE among others. Selma is currently co-managing a blog, Tillism.com طلسم – Magical Words from around the World, with her sister Anniqua. Tillism means magic, and this is where they both share their fascination with creativity in all its forms.

Selma was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself in advance of the show.

Selma Tufail

How did you hear about Play On Words?

I was told about Play on Words by a previous participant, my sister, Anniqua. Then, when the opportunity came up again, and the theme fitted me perfectly, I knew I wanted to participate. My contribution, “Self-Portrait”, is an excerpt from a joint memoir I am writing with Anniqua.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I have reached out and connected virtually with others a lot more. I used to be quite content working alone, but during the restrictions of the shelter-in-place phase, I suddenly felt the need to connect with others for inspiration. My favorite people to work with are the online Shut Up & Write groups. Working with multinational groups of writers adds a really interesting dimension to my own creative process.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

My family and I have been fortunate to live in and experience the cultures of Pakistan, United Kingdom, United States, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. At the moment we are in Spain and continue to enrich our lives through friends we have made here, and our new way of life. 

I have always immersed myself completely in the places where I have lived, making them my primary home for as long as I was there. I carry my experiences with me, the people, the food, the lifestyle and pull out of my treasure chest whatever I need, when I need it.

What else should we know about you?

I am an artist and my work for the past 10 years has focused on the unity that exists within the universe. It is my attempt to restore the feeling that we are all part of a complete whole so as not to feel isolated even as we live on this overcrowded planet. My inspiration comes from the poetry of mystics past and present, from all religious backgrounds and cultures, and my preferred medium is oil on canvas but I dabble in watercolors and pencil drawings too.

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE SELMA’S WORK PERFORMED ALOUD.

Patty Somlo’s “How He Made it Across”

Patty Somlo

While many past Play On Words shows have explored origin stories, family histories and questions of place, we have been wanting to host a show specific to immigrant heritage since 2018, when Donald Trump introduced some of the cruelest immigration policies in the United States to date. Of course, immigrant heritage does not have to center only the experience of crossing borders, but in many ways those narratives are so fundamentally human.

When planning our Our Stories, Ourselves show, we were moved to read Patty Somlo’s short story, “How He Made it Across,” which appeared previously in Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos) and in Somlo’s book, From Here to There, (Adelaide Books). We are looking forward to performing it June 17 as part of our virtual show with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Patty was a journalist for ten years before focusing on fiction and memoir. Her most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Weaving together the real and the fantastic, the 15 linked stories in Hairway to Heaven Stories introduce a diverse cast of characters living in a once predominantly African American neighborhood, now in the midst of gentrification.  

Hairway was a finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were finalists in several book contests. She received an honorable mention for fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays.

Patty answered a few questions about herself in advance of our June show.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

A local author who knew my work told me about Play On Words and suggested that I submit something for the focus on immigrant heritage.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

During the pandemic, I have found myself writing longer pieces and doing considerably more revisions. I am thinking – and hoping – this will result in better work that is more emotionally resonant.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

My grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Hungary with my grandfather, would get up at five o’clock in the morning to start rolling out dough, to make dumplings for my favorite of her dishes, Chicken Paprikash. When she visited us, she arrived on the Greyhound bus with bags of cooking supplies. She would meet people in the grocery store, come home and make batches of stuffed cabbage, and then deliver the meat and tomato-filled cabbage to her new-found friends. She baked elaborate cakes, with thin layer upon thin layer of fruits, nuts and cream, because she didn’t believe that saving time with pre-made anything was worth it. Immigrant heritage to me means memorable food shared with others and the hard work that makes life better.

What else should we know about you?

I grew up in a military family that picked up and moved nearly every year. That upbringing has had a significant impact on what I write. Home – or the lack thereof – is a frequent focus of my work, including writing about immigrants, as well as the homeless.

LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR JUNE 17 SHOW.

Bienvenido a Camilo Garzón

Not even a week after the unjust murder of George Floyd last year, a 22-year-old Latino man was killed by a police officer in nearby Vallejo, Calif. His name was Sean Monterrosa.

Colombian American writer Camilo Garzón wrote a beautiful poem in his memory, A Carpenter with a Hammer, that we are delighted to perform as part of our virtual show, Our Stories, Ourselves, June 17 with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Camilo (b. 1993, Bogotá, Colombia) is a writer, interdisciplinary artist, and poet based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated from Rollins College with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Philosophy and Religious Studies. He is currently a managing editor for Poets Reading the News. His poetry, prose, crónicas, and essays have been featured – or are forthcoming – in on-off.site, Nomadic Press, Rollins College’s Brushing Art and Literary Journal, Rollins College’s The Independent, Revista Cultural Días Temáticos, among others. His work has been read to an audience at LITEROCALYPSE and The Emperor’s New Prose. And his proetry has also been published in two self-published works, Entombed: A proem in five stages and Ontologies: Ten Proems. He recently won one of the inaugural San Francisco Foundation/Nomadic Press Literary Awards for poetry.

In June, Camilo will become an artist-in-residence for Bay Area digital collective, on-off.site. His work will heavily feature interactive elements and openings for the public to participate in the co-creation of a communal poem.

Camilo Garzon. Photo by Claire Breen.

How did you hear about Play On Words? 

By scouting for Bay Area and California literary series and community events.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic? 

Fully. My creative practice was something that I was coming back to, but not something where I was coming from. Now it’s part of most projects I am a part of or want to become involved with. I am connecting more fully with myself, others, and where I am and the timeframe I live in. 

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you? 

It means understanding accidents and happenings as something that I can subvert on a daily basis. I am a first generation immigrant to the United States from Colombia. My heritage is not only from the geographic and historical accidents that I happen to have associated with my name, this heritage is also within what I do, what I keep discovering, and how I enact selfhood in all its multiple and hybrid presentations. 

What else should we know about you? 

I am working at the moment as a managing editor for Poets Reading the News, as a contributing arts and science writer with publications like the American Geophysical Union’s Eos and The Creative Independent, as a freelance Spanish teacher and tutor, as a bilingual translator and interpreter, and as the lead audio producer and oral historian for the SFMOMA IMLS-funded arts and community-based initiative “Mission Murals Project.” In the past, I worked as a digital content editor, multimedia producer, and contributing writer with the National Geographic Society, as an audio producer and arts contributor with NPR, have led a conference at the United Nations Headquarters, and have given a TEDx Talk on narratives and the self, among others.

join us june 17 to hear camilo’s work performed.

Intrigued? So are we! Join us at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, to hear one of our actors perform Camilo’s poem.

How City Lights Streams Magic

http://cltc.org/thenextstage

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit 2020, theaters around the world were forced to pivot to an online environment. Ever wondered how they do that? So did we. We sat down (virtually, of course) with the one and only Rebecca Wallace, marketing director of San Jose’s City Lights Theatre Company, to go behind the scenes of a virtual show.


How does a virtual livestreamed event work at City Lights?

We host livestreams every Thursday night at 8 p.m. through our streaming and video series The Next Stage, which we started in April 2020. Our goal is to provide a virtual venue for as many artists in our community and beyond as we can: actors, writers, musicians, dancers, designers and, really, all other creative types.

While we sometimes have streamed via Twitch and Instagram, we primarily broadcast through Zoom or Facebook. Many musicians choose to perform concerts on City Lights’ Facebook page because they already have a following on that platform, and it’s an easy way to reach their current audience members and find new ones.

Other artists choose to have their events on Zoom, where I host the Zoom room, conduct artist interviews, and moderate an audience Q&A. The ambiance feels up-close, and we have lots of lively discussions. It feels like a great match for Play On Words.

Compared to a live in-person show, what’s different?

Nothing beats live theater when we’re all sharing the space and experience together, of course. But we have discovered some silver linings in the last year.

The intimacy of the Zoom room and the Facebook chat makes it comfortable for audience members to talk directly to artists, when they might feel shy about asking a question in aa regular talkback. This is especially nice when artists are debuting a new work and really want valuable feedback.

It’s also wonderful to bring people together across the miles. We’ve had several artists performing with City Lights from their homes in New York, and audience members watching and engaging from as far away as Finland. Casts of past City Lights shows have reunited and performed together again from afar.

The feeling is bittersweet because online theater wouldn’t be our first choice, but there have been moments of real theater magic.

The most moving for me was when actors Ivette Deltoro and Davied Morales reunited four years after their powerful 2016 performances in Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You, and did a scene once more. I got so choked up that afterward I could barely tell the actors how much it had meant to me. Well, also because I was still on mute. #blamethefeels

sound like fun? Join us on Thursday, May 13 to watch Melinda Marks perform “Not a Gardener” by Melissa Flores Anderson.

Introducing Melissa Flores Anderson

After a year of hibernation, Play On Words is finally emerging from the fog of the pandemic to share stories of our community. On June 17, we’ll return virtually to the San Jose Museum of Art for Our Stories, Ourselves, an evening of stories and poems inspired by individual and collective immigrant heritage. In the weeks to come, we’ll be offering a peek inside contributors’ brains to learn what their heritage means to them and what has kept them going this year.

We are delighted to start with Melissa Flores Anderson, a native Californian, award-winning journalist, former speechwriter and a current communications professional in Silicon Valley. She has had news articles and features published in the Gilroy Dispatch, the Hollister Free Lance, BenitoLink and the California Health Report, and was the city editor of the Weekend Pinnacle for seven years. She has a bachelor’s in psychology and media studies from Pitzer College, and a master’s in print journalism from the University of Southern California. Her story “Redemption Songs” is forthcoming in The Ice Colony.

Melissa’s story, “Not a Gardener,” follows Teresa, who doesn’t think she inherited a green thumb even though her grandfather maintained a thriving garden beyond his duplex for most of her life. When she moves into a new house with her husband and young son, Teresa discovers an affinity for it and a connection to her heritage.

HEAR “NOT A GARDENER” ON CITY LIGHTS’ NEXT STAGE

There will be two opportunities to hear Melissa’s great story. On Thursday, May 13, Melinda Marks will perform this piece as part of City Lights Theatre Company’s Next Stage program, which will also feature a brief Q&A with POW co-founders and City Lights Marketing Director Rebecca Wallace. Register for this free event on the City Lights website.

Melissa Flores Anderson

Melissa agreed to answer a few questions in advance of our May 13 show.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

My friend Julia Halprin Jackson is one of the founders so I’ve heard her talking about Play On Words for years, and know some people who have had pieces featured in shows before. I’d been working on a story inspired by my grandfather when I learned the theme for the virtual show was immigrant heritage, and decided to submit for the first time.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

In a weird way the pandemic gave me space to be creative. I used to write stories and poems back in high school and college, but haven’t had the energy to write in the last decade or so. Then when I had insomnia over the summer because of the pandemic and the wildfires, I returned to some of my half-written stories in the middle of the night. A story I started maybe 15 years ago turned into the first draft of a novel. I worked on some other old stories and then started to be inspired with new ideas.

I’m back to sleeping at night, but I do some writing on my lunch break, in the evenings or on weekends.]

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

Three of my grandparents moved to the United States as young children, two from Mexico and one from Italy. They came between 1910-1920 at a time when most people left behind their language and culture so there were only scraps of their heritage left for my sister and I by the time we came along. The one thing I do have is the family recipes—or impressions of flavors might be more accurate. My father’s mother never wrote down her tamale recipe and my mother’s sisters don’t have one for the gnocchi they make, but we have moments in the kitchen together when we make these dishes that tie us back to places we have never seen

What else should we know about you?

As I started to write again, I also started reading for leisure for the first time since having my son nearly four years ago. I’ve read plenty of board books and early readers in recent years, but in January I started making my way through a stack of books on my nightstand that followed me unread through two moves in three years. My favorites include Love by Roddy Doyle, Normal People by Sally Rooney and a short story collection curated by David Sedaris called Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.

join us june 17 for our stories, ourselves

Play On Words is going virtual with the San Jose Museum of Art at 7. p.m. on Thursday, June 17. Tickets are free but registration is required. Sign up to save your space!