Jeffrey Lo is no stranger to a busy creative life. In 2016, we published his short play, “Where You’re From” in our IX Lives issue. Not long after that, he let us know that he was workshopping a full-length version of the play around the Bay Area. Why not partner with Exposition Review for a staged reading in Los Angeles? We jumped at the chance, and held an Expo Presents Staged Reading—the first of many, thanks in part to the success of Waiting For Next.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey has not slowed down. As a director, he has productions scheduled through Summer 2020. As a playwright, he spent 2018 writing a new play each day while also developing new full length work. His plays are now produced around the country. You can’t go into a theater in San Francisco and not have someone in the room know who Jeffrey Lo is.
Lauren Gorski and Jessica June Rowe, Editors-in-Chief of Expo, recently caught up with Jeffrey to find out more about his recent projects and how he manages a creative life differently today than he did when started.
Expo: We know that you had a reading of Waiting for Next at the San Francisco Playhouse in October 2018. First of all, how has the play evolved since we first saw it?
Jeffrey Lo: It’s been a wild writing process. When we did the reading last October, it had been a year since I had even looked at the play, which is one of the longest periods of time I’ve had between writing a play and staging a reading. We learned a lot and there’s still so much we’re discovering.
ER: Did you work with the same actors who inspired the play, Max Tachis and Wes Gabrillo?
JL: Yes, but I wanted to have a different director to have a new point of view and work with someone who hadn’t lived with the play for as long as have. The director, Giovanna Sardelli, was interesting to work with. She would look at the play scene-by-scene and ask: how much less could these characters say and the audience still understand what they’re feeling or doing?
What surprised me the most was how between myself, Max, and Wes, our perspectives had changed since we started the play. Over the year, Max and Wes had gotten engaged, and I moved in with my girlfriend. Because the play is about growing up, our own growth directly influenced the play and made it change over time.
ER: We loved following “The 2018 Project”, in which you wrote 365 plays over the entire 2018 year. What you inspired you to take on the challenge?
JL: I usually blow off New Year’s Resolutions. I try to better myself all the time, not once a year! Then, at the end of 2017, for whatever reason I felt like I needed to do something.
I listen to the Bill Simmons podcast. He’s a sports writer and runs the website The Ringer. He did an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author and journalist, in November 2017. Both Simmons and Coates were reflecting on the fact that they don’t get to write as much as they used to when they were small-time columnists. They were worried they lost the ability to do it. They likened it to a boxer having to practice every day and needing to keep your muscles moving. So, I convinced myself to work on my writing “muscles” and write one play every day.
[Listen: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Storytelling, Challenging Obama, and the Kaepernick Situation]
Overall, it was a success. There are a handful of the plays I’m quite happy with. I also ended up writing a first draft of a full length play. Of course, there were times I would get out of a tech rehearsal at 11:50pm and I would only have 10 minutes to write. Those days, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t about writing something good, it was about writing something.
ER: What did you learn about yourself as a writer?
JL: I learned not to edit myself until I finish a draft. I can write a version that doesn’t work now and deal with that later. It was an exercise in allowing myself to let go. The point of writing a first draft is not to share it with the world, it’s to get to the end.
When I was working late or stuck at rehearsal, as I said, I had to remind myself that this project is not for anyone else. I could write whatever’s on my mind. The world is no worse for it; I’m no worse for it. I’m going to take those 10 minutes to write.
Other times, I had something I really wanted to explore and I was committed to exploring it. All of us as writers have that experience. We have this great idea and we think, next time I have time to write, I’m going to look at that. Then, a month later, we finally have time to sit down and we aren’t thinking about it anymore. But for a year, I made time every day to explore all of my ideas. Maybe in the future, I could look back if there is anything worth playing with or pulling apart.
I will also say that because I was writing every day, I could feel myself writing faster. Back to the boxer metaphor, the writing muscle was used to being active every day and when I had a substantial idea I could write through it rather quickly.
ER: To create something new every day is not only a creative commitment, but it’s also a time commitment. Did you have a plan of how to dedicate the time to write?
JL: I should have… that would have been smart. On January 1st, I finished the first play at 11:55pm and I thought, uh-oh, this is not a good start. Then, I had another idea for a play and kept writing through the night. I didn’t give myself a time limit.
For each short play, I wanted to write beginnings, middles, and ends. Some people thought I wrote 10 plays in a day to have backups, but I never did that. I wanted each play to feel very present. I might’ve written two plays in a day sometimes, but not often.
In hindsight, I should have done it when I woke up. The worst part of the project was that I would think about the need to do it throughout the day. I stressed myself out. If I could do it again, I would have woken up, spent 45 minutes writing and then go about the day. Whatever comes out, comes out.
ER: Looking back, what were your favorites?
JL: Definitely the ones I leaned into as writing exercises became my favorites and I thought were really funny. There was a play called: “This Page Intentionally Left Blank” and that’s that what it was! The first page was blank and the stage direction was a note to not perform it.
[Read: “This Page Intentionally Left Blank”]
I had another memorable play when I was in the final previews for a show. It was one of those days were I had to write and was really tired. The whole play was a meta monologue about how I’m not copping out of the project by doing a monologue about being tired. It’s interesting because I was trying to feel better about not writing something as I was writing something.
[Read: This is Not an Excuse (A Play About Not Jeffrey)]
There’s also a few others that mean a lot to me for various reasons.
• I Forgot You Wouldn’t Be Here
• Millennial Artist of Color
• Why I Kissed Who I Kissed
ER: You talk about making sure each short play has a beginning, middle, and end. You also talk about how writing exercises allowed you to lean into some fun ideas. At Exposition Review, we publish flash and 10-minute plays, celebrating the short form. What are your thoughts on short plays as a writing exercise vs mastering the short play in its own form. If there is a difference?
JL: The short play has the ability to make a huge impact on the audience. Done right, (which I’m not saying I’ve done it right, because I probably didn’t) it gives you the opportunity to play with tension and expectations. Last summer, I produced a night of 10-minute plays by female playwrights as part of our New Works Festival with Theater Works. It was cool to share short plays with our audience, who may not have seen experienced them before.
What I love about short plays is it forces the audience to fill in a lot of gaps for themselves. For example, Aaron Lobe’s Ideation. It’s a full length play about a group of consultants. The first 20 minutes you have no idea what they are consulting about but it sounds like they are trying to commit a mass murder. Then the play unravels and reveals more information. After I saw it I thought, what if the play ended at 20 minutes? You’d have no clue what was going on!
[Read Script: Ideation by Aaron Lobe.]
ER: That might be a great idea for a show.
JL: That’s a wild thing to think of as an audience: that’s all we got?
ER: Even before The 2018 Project, you’ve always had a lot going on. Between a full time job, directing, writing, and producing—how do you manage burn out?
JL: I don’t say yes to everything. Early on in your career, it feels like you need to, and I had a time in my life when I did say yes to everything. I have a complicated relationship with that time, because some people see that as what started my career as an emerging theater artist in the Bay Area.
I was working on projects non-stop. If anyone needed something, I was the person to do it. I owe a lot of relationships that I have now to that time. But, by the end of it I was very unhappy.
I also went through a break up. To avoid thinking about it, I went on overdrive. I kept working and trying to prove something. I even wrote a break up play, which turned out to be the first play of mine produced outside of college. It still gets performed around Valentine’s Day. Actually, I spent three Valentine’s Day in a row watching a different production of this play!
[Read an excerpt: A Sad Kind of Love Story]
The point is, I eventually burned out. I realized I needed to fix something because as an artist, if I’m putting a mirror to society to reflect life—I actually have to live life. If all I do is work in theater, go to sleep, wake up, and work in more theater, then all I’m qualified to work on are productions about productions. I had to take a step back.
Now, I have more opportunities because people know who I am and I can collaborate with a lot of organizations. I also take days off where I don’t work on anything related to theater, including seeing shows.
I used to ask myself if a project would help my career, and I’ve learned to change the question. Because, yes, everything is going to help your career. But, is it actually fulfilling?
ER: How do you choose which projects to work on next, now that you have the freedom to choose your own?
JL: I’m one of the only artist in my family, so when I decided to be in theater, I had to figure out my why. Why do I need to be an artist? Why do I want to do this?
When I decide on a new project, I ask myself if this project is actually going to be artistically fulfilling for me. Does this have anything to do with my mission as an artist?
ER: Those are great questions to ask.
JL: Side bar, also very helpful to ask if you are an artist applying to grants.
ER: So, what’s next?
JL: Theater Works just announced their upcoming season, and I’m going to be directing The Language Archive by Julia Cho. This one brings me full circle.
A few years ago, I was in a directing apprenticeship where we had to write an essay on which show we wanted to work on as an Assistant Director. My first choice was Ghost Light by Tony Taccone and my entire essay was about how I wanted to work with the Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep. My second choice was The Language Archive, and my essay was about how much I loved the play. The theater company gave me my second choice, The Language Archive. They told me it was because that’s the show I really wanted to work on. The show itself.
I have never let go of that experience.
[Check Out: The Language Archive by Julia Cho, Directed by Jeffrey Lo this Spring]
To learn more about Jeffrey Lo, check out his website: http://www.jeffreywritesaplay.com