Q&A: Lloyd Suh’s ‘Great Wall Story’

In 1899, three bored — and slightly drunk — newspaper reporters decide to concoct a story that the Great Wall of China is being torn down. The story takes off, and suddenly the reporters find themselves at the center of the swirling controversy. That’s the premise for “Great Wall Story,” a new play produced by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and which is based on actual events.

Here’s a clip from the scene in “Great Wall Story” when the idea is hatched:

Lloyd Suh is the Korean-American playwright who wrote “Great Wall Story.” The play was developed, in part, during a three-day Colorado New Play Summit in 2011. Art Beat caught up with Suh in Denver before Friday’s premiere.

Art Beat: Tell us a little about the play.

Lloyd Suh: It’s based on actual events. In 1899 a group of reporters from Denver, on a slow news day, fabricated this storysuh.jpg about the Great Wall of China being torn down. In a certain way, it’s the perfect idea — if you’re going to fabricate something — because China at that time was very isolationist and you could never get confirmation or contradiction of what the reporters were saying. So it was very speculative: People are going over there to help tear down the wall. It was an easy lie to start. The play itself tracks the growth of that story from Denver to spreading nationally and then internationally. And the play follows these three reporters as they deal with the growing interest in the story. They wrestle with questions: What kind of trouble am I in? What kind of emotional torment will I have to live with because of what we’ve done?

And one of the reporters has to deal with how this affects his son.

Yes. The main reporter, a character named Jack Tournay, I wanted to give — to this question of consequence — an emotional heart. So the father-son dynamic is based on the reporter’s relationship with his 10-year-old son. It’s a rather strange relationship. The kid really latches onto this story as this beautiful thing: China is opening up, they’re tearing down the wall, and the 20th century is going to be wonderful and full of hope. And the father has to wrestle with the fact that this beautiful relationship he’s starting to have with his son is predicated on a lie. Even though the hope the son feels becomes much more than just tied to the lie itself.

What attracted you to this story and what are the themes you’re trying to explore in the play?

So many. I’m always very interested in stories that have a certain moral ambiguity. I was interested in the fact that it was 1899, this era of hope. I remember living in 1999, the conflicting feelings of hope, but also fear. Perhaps it would be the end of everything. So I wanted to explore that dichotomy: this beautiful idea of an open China and an open world, but what happens when it’s discovered that it was all fabricated.

I should also say that almost everything I write deals with family in some way. The father-son dynamic was inevitable. It’s something I tend to do. Not always father-son. Sometimes mother-son, sometimes sibling relationships. I think all plays are about “who am I?” and “what am I going to be? and “what can I be?” I think identity is shaped by the people around an individual, the family and community and those intimate relationships.

I also thought it was interesting to look at perceptions of the East, to a certain degree. The play isn’t about that. But this is the first play I’ve written that doesn’t have specifically Asian-American characters in it. So while the play isn’t really about that, it’s something I was interested in exploring for myself.

Do you think in the age of the Internet and the way news has changed since 1899, do you think it’s more or less likely for people to fabricate stories like this?

I think it’s less likely for major news media, for the major institutions that require fact-checking. But I think in this era of bloggers and social media, there’s potential for viral things to really mount, because people don’t watch one newscast anymore. We don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore, and because anybody with a computer can put together a rumor that can really spread and can be impossible to confirm or deny.

How do you go about writing your plays?

It’s always a mysterious process. It starts from a seed. I like to sit on an idea for a while before I write about it. I also like to know what I intend to do before I sit down to do it, although I don’t always follow that map. In that spirit, it’s like what an actor does in a scene, which is come up with an objective in a scene: what do I know about the character, what is the situation? But once they’re in the scene, the actor has internalized all of that and just has to be open to whatever happens. That’s always been my approach to writing an initial draft. I have a plan, but I’m open to new possibilities. And then I go over it and over it to determine what is missing, what is extraneous.

So you brought a draft of this play to the Colorado New Play Summit in 2011?

Yes, I would say it was a third draft. At that point, I had a sense of what the play wanted to be in a larger sense. Being able to go into a weeklong process where I knew there would be two public readings, I knew would help in fine-tuning things.

Do you get comments from the public in those readings?

Not direct feedback, like a Q-and-A session. But there are always valuable things to learn just hearing the audience respond. In a way, that’s the most valuable thing because it tells you about rhythm and tells you about tone. It tells you about energy and when people are with you and when they aren’t. That’s almost like polling an audience as a collective, rather than getting individual opinions. So that process was very valuable, especially to be in Denver working on this play and to hear a Denver audience respond to things. There were certain jokes that I didn’t realize were jokes because they mean something specific to this community.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a few different things. My play “Jesus in India” just closed in San Francisco, and we’re working toward a second production of that, which will be announced soon. From here, I’m going to Seoul, Korea, for a production of another play of mine called “American Hwangap.” It will be produced in translation in Korean, so that is very exciting. And then I have a couple of commissions I’m working on. One is a play for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. I’m also working on a commission from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commissions new plays on science and technology, so I’m working on a commission through them about Benjamin Franklin as inventor, the early inventions of Benjamin Franklin, before he invented America and how being an inventor prepared him to invent America.

Lloyd Suh, thanks very much.

Thank you.