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.

While Tania Martin Was Sleeping

“Humanity’s lease on the planet may soon be up,” writes the narrator of Tania Martin’s “While You Were Sleeping,” who envisions bear attacks, drive-by proselytizing and the inevitable downfall of humankind while her partner lays sleeping. Something in this piece’s macabre yet realistic tone felt very 2019 to us—it is at once self-effacing and full of anxiety, yet conscious of the beauty still left in our world. We’re looking forward to performing Tania’s piece at our Beyond Boundaries show at the San Jose Museum of Art on Jan. 12.

Tania is a writer from San Jose. She is currently working on her first novel, which she hopes to complete in 2020. She is co-founder of The Flash Fiction Forum, a literary reading series focusing on short works. She is also an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Tania enjoys teaching art to middle school students and cycling around the bay area on her road bike. She earned a BS in Geology from UC Davis and loves the outdoors. 

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Tania Martin

What are you working on these days?

Flash Fiction Forum will have its next reading series on January 8th at Works Gallery 365 S Market St, San Jose. For more information visit our website.

What inspired you to participate in Play On Words?

I’m a big fan of Play On Words. I love the collaborative energy they bring to San Jose’s literary scene. It’s magical to hear your words preformed by such talented actors.

 Which writers or performers inspire you?

I’m a big fan of Louise Erdrich, Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Proulx, Denis Johnson, and Zadie Smith to name a few; the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop; and re-reading the classics: especially Tolstoy, Austin, and the Bronte sisters. I’m currently reading Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is a gorgeous book about travel and discovery.

 Name a book or performance that fundamentally affected you.

One of my fondest memories is my father reading The Hobbit aloud to me when I was a child. J.R.R. Tolkien’s world building captured my imagination and I looked forward to hearing the next chapter all day. I saw how it was possible to carry entire other worlds around with you in your head. 

Want to see us perform Tania’s work aloud? Get your tickets now for our January 12 show at the San Jose Museum of Art. Entrance includes free admission to the museum.

Arcadia Conrad Stems the Tide

Why is it most high school capers tend to take place in restaurants? The characters in Arcadia Conrad‘s “Stem the Tide” hatch an elaborate plan to scurry away to senior prom, despite disapproving parents, while arguing over tartar sauce. We’re delighted to work with the fabulous Arcadia again at our January 12 Beyond Boundaries show at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Arcadia is a director, educator, intimacy director in training and playwright who has created work for The Dragon Theatre,  Santa Clara Players, and City Lights Theatre Company among others She is currently developing her full length play, Script Doctor, about a Hollywood family coming to terms with its past, and writing a manual for theatre educators based on her blog. Her work as an ID can be seen in the upcoming “The Nether” and “Spring Awakening” at The Dragon Theatre. She was named Teacher of the Year in 2018. 

 

arcadia
Arcadia Conrad

What inspired you to participate in Play On Words?

 

I love the people and am inspired by the incredible contributions of those who create and perform for it. 

Which writers or performers inspire you?

There are a lot of things I wish I had written. I take comfort in the existence of  Lisa Tadeo, Miriam Towes, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Anna Deveare Smith. 

Name a book or performance that fundamentally affected you. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continues to. 

Get your tickets now for our January 12 show at the San Jose Museum of Art to see Arcadia’s work performed. Entrance includes free admission to the museum.

 

Marilyn Horn’s “Elephant”

Move over, Lloyd Dobler—there’s a new romantic in town, and he’s riding an elephant. The narrator in Marilyn Horn’s “Elephant” reconnects with a high school classmate while wearing pants her ex referred to as her “elephant pants.” We look forward to performing Marilyn’s piece on January 12 at the San Jose Museum of Art, where we will be returning for Play On Words: Beyond Boundaries.

Marilyn is a technical editor in Silicon Valley. Her short stories have appeared in Marathon Review, Blotterature and NonBinary Review, among others, and she also presents at San Jose’s Flash Fiction Forum from time to time. A collection of her stories was published in 2016 by Thinking Ink Press.

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Marilyn Horn

What inspired you to participate in Play On Words?

There’s nothing like hearing the PoW cast bring stories to life. Sometimes when I finish a piece, I automatically think, “This would be a good one for Play on Words,” and then I check the PoW submissions page.

Which writers or performers inspire you?
Lately I can’t stop reading Olga Tokarczuk. Weird, funny and dark. What’s not to love?

Name a book or performance that fundamentally affected you.

Writing brings up a lot of fear for me. Mostly I’m afraid of what I’ll discover the digger I deep. So the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway has helped a lot. As for performances, I’ll have to go with Liz Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Talk about someone who dug deep. Amazing.

Get your tickets now for our January 12 show at the San Jose Museum of Art to see Marilyn’s work performed. Entrance includes free admission to the museum.

Leah Griesmann’s “Standpoint of Water”

What does a hurricane feel like from the perspective of water? Is it a crashing, a reunion, a departure, a homecoming? Leah Griesmann’s “Florence, Katrina, Maria: The Standpoint of Water” offers three stories of hurricanes, as reflected by the water itself. We’re delighted to welcome Leah back to Play On Words on January 12 at our Beyond Boundaries show at the San Jose Museum of Art, where we will be performing this great piece. Leah was one of our featured writers from our POW premiere way back in October 2013, so we are excited to welcome her back to San Jose!

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Hilton Head, South Carolina, from the perspective of water. Photo courtesy of Leah Griesmann.

Leah has received grants and residencies for her fiction from the MacDowell Colony, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the Virginia Quarterly Review Writers’ Conference, The Key West Writers Workshops, The Writers in Paradise Conference, as well as a Steinbeck Fellowship in Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in The Weekly Rumpus, PEN Center’s The Rattling Wall, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, and This Side of the Divide: Stories of the American West, among other publicationsShe will be a writer in residence at the Studios of Key West in summer 2020.

She agreed to answer a few questions in advance of the show.

 

What inspired you to participate in Play On Words?

I’ve long been a fan of reading series in which actors perform pieces of literature. California is home to several great reading series that I’ve been thrilled to participate in, including Sacramento Stories on Stage, the New Short Fiction Series in North Hollywood, and of course San Jose’s own Play on Words. I also participated in a reading at the Shanghai American Center, when I was on a writing residency at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Two of my Las Vegas-based stories were performed by actors, and I took questions from the local audience afterwards, including, “Why does your country have so many guns?” I much prefer to see my work performed on stage by talented artists than read it myself!

Name a book or performance that fundamentally affected you.

Recently I visited Chicago for the first time, where I got to see the improvisational comedy troupe The Second City. Particularly in dark times, good comedy has a way of calling BS and shining a light on truth while making people laugh. But more than that, I was struck by how humanizing good comedy can be. There was one piece—totally improvised—which was a sort of “This is Your Life.” A random audience member, in this case a teacher from New Jersey, answered a few questions about a typical day, and then the cast improvised a scene with her sitting on stage. Not only was the scene hilarious, with Second City cast members playing her colleagues, family, and friends, it was also incredibly humanizing in that it made this “ordinary” teacher the ass-kicking hero of an otherwise (hilariously) dysfunctional day.

Come see us perform Leah’s work! Tickets are free but going fastreserve yours now for our January 12 show at the San Jose Museum of Art. Entrance includes free admission to the museum.

Anshu Johri

What if you could rent wings? Where would you go, and how high would you fly? We were charmed by Anshu Johri’s imaginative “Wings,” a lovely prose piece that explores flight. We first became familiar with Anshu’s work in 2017, when we partnered with San Jose’s Flash Fiction Forum to create our chapbook, Activate. We were amazed by her October performance of Anniqua Rana’s “Birth Canal” and can’t wait to perform “Wings” on January 12 at the San Jose Museum of Art.

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Anshu Johri at our Live in San Francisco show on October 19, 2019. Photo by Branden Frederick.

Anshu authors poems, short stories, and plays in Hindi and English. She has a master’s of science in electrical engineering from San Jose State University. Her work in English has appeared in SAGE, Caesura, Calliope, “Dukool”, “Vine Leaves Literary Journal”, “Creation and Criticism” and “Storizen.” Her published work in Hindi includes publications of three poetry collections (Tumse Jude BinaWithout Being With You, Boond ka Dwandwa— Dilemma of a Raindrop, and Khule Prishtha—Bare Pages) and two short story collections (Adrishya Kinara Invisible Shores, Shesh Phir…— More Later…), also available at Audible and iTunes. She’s an active theatre artist who loves to act and direct and dabbles poems on canvas.  She received the 2017 Glorious India Award for contributions to literature.

“Play On Words has two of my favorite passions: play and words—and some incredible people to work with and work for,” says Anshu.

Get your tickets now for our January 12 show at the San Jose Museum of Art to see Anshu’s work performed. Entrance includes free admission to the museum.