Nearly 30 years of milestones in the lives of two pals who meet in middle school are centerstage in Jeffrey Lo’s heartfelt, charming comedy-drama Waiting for Next, finally getting its world premiere production by California’s City Lights Theatre Company this spring after a year’s delay due to the COVID shutdown. It’s been a long wait for Lo, director Leslie Martinson, and actors Wes Gabrillo and Max Tachis but that’s appropriate — the play is all about waiting, the playwright told me.
One of the impulses to write the two-character Waiting for Next, Lo said, “was me trying to wrestle with my seemingly never-ending feeling that I was ‘waiting for my life to begin.’ So the idea came about to write a coming of age story about two men where we would find them in various points in their lives waiting for something — the initial major theme being that as we are all waiting for our lives to begin, our life is, in fact, already happening.”
Here’s how City Lights Theatre Company in San Jose characterizes the play: “Frank is in a school parking lot waiting for his parents (like he always is) when he meets Marcus, who is also waiting (like he always is). What comes next is a friendship that defines both of their lives. This world premiere play follows the boys from ages 12 to 40 as they grow up and apart and together again, supporting each other through school, relationships, and some of the darkest and brightest places life can take us.”
Jeffrey Lo, a Bay Area native who directs and writes plays, fielded a bunch of my questions about Waiting for Next, his process, his background and his commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion in the theater. (You can find some of his plays on NewPlayExchange.org.)
I was intrigued by the simplicity, the economy and the seeming randomness of the exchanges between Frank and Marcus as they aged between age 12 and 40. And as I got to know them, I cared for them as they stumbled, faced adversity and moved forward. How did the play come about? What was the seed of the idea for it?
Jeffrey Lo: The play started from a few starting points that then evolved into others as we discovered what this play was truly about. The first starting point was the actors. Wes Gabrillo and Max Tachis are two actors who I have loved working with over the years and I decided I wanted to set out to write a two-person play for these two close friends of mine because I knew the journey was going to be one we would all cherish. The second starting point was my desire to write a coming-of-age story. What wasn’t intentional but was quite beautiful was that as the three of us worked on this play together over six years — we would find ourselves meeting the different moments that Frank and Marcus find themselves in the play. So, I definitely pulled from some of my friendships — one in particular with my childhood best friend Skyler Garcia, and many others. Stories, relationships and experiences that Max and Wes had in their lives would also find themselves in pieces and parts of the play.
An epigraph at the top of the script suggests that “waiting” is a theme of the play. You quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “How much of human life is lost in waiting!” How did that idea for waiting being an organizing idea come about?
Jeffrey Lo: I started writing to the theme of waiting, as it was thematic itch I was trying to scratch personally. In the first scene, these friends meet waiting for their parents to pick them up from school. As time goes on, “waiting” evolves — it goes from waiting for your college roommate to finish having sex in your dorm, to waiting to hold your child for the first time.
The play is filled with milestone events — graduation, first love, sex, marriage, personal failings, fatherhood, death. In a 30-year relationship between two straight guys from two different backgrounds, there would seem to be thousands of experiences that you might have dramatized. Are there events that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Jeffrey Lo: Oh yeah, a lot ended up on the cutting room floor. We have a handful of scenes that were in different readings and workshops that didn’t make it into the play. We also laugh because perhaps the funniest joke I’ve ever written ended up cut from the play. I’m determined to find another home for the bit.
I wrote the first two scenes of the play rather quickly and then after that I went on and listed different options for ages and things you might be waiting for — waiting for school lunch to start and waiting to open Christmas gifts. Other options didn’t get totally cut but evolved. The original wedding scene had Frank waiting for his father to show up. The original prison scene was Frank waiting to pick up Marcus after a DUI. These all shifted and became deeper as we revised.
I was more and more tense as I fell in love with these guys because I was wondering if mortality might darken their world by the end of the play. When you write, do you generally know your destination and where the characters will end up, or do you let them take you unexpected places?
Jeffrey Lo: Many times when I write, I have an idea of how a play of mine wants to begin and how it wants to end — and my work is to discover how we get there. With this play, I started with just writing a collection of scenes and then discovered the relationship these two had and what was important to them. In the first drafts, actually, we didn’t go quite so chronological. We used to jump forward and backward with each scene. That no longer felt useful as I learned more about the play.
I eventually discovered that even more so than “waiting” and “coming-of-age” — this play was about the human capacity to lift up the ones we love in times of need, it was about redemption and it was about fatherhood. Once we discovered these things, the direction and framing of the play became much more clear.
How is Waiting for Next different from your other plays, in form or tone or size?
Jeffrey Lo: I like to think that all of my plays have a similar heart and soul as Waiting For Next. But the episodic nature of the play is quite different. This is my first play that spans such a large amount of time — 28 years.
What did Leslie Martinson, your director for the City Lights production, bring to the table? When you are working on a new play, how much do you rely on a director to be a dramaturg/editor/ally?
Jeffrey Lo: Leslie Martinson is actually my mentor. I was her assistant director for forever and it’s been such a thrill to have her in the director’s chair for this show. She has such a smart approach to storytelling and clarity and for a show where the actors and I have been so in the thick of the story for so many years — it was good to have her come in to bring us another perspective. Also, although the play is about two men, I personally really valued having a female voice to add to the mix and add another valuable perspective.
Waiting for Next was to be presented by City Lights in 2020-21 and was sidelined by the pandemic. Did that down time become somehow useful to the play? That is, did you come back to it using a more objective lens? Were there recent rewrites?
Jeffrey Lo: There were some recent rewrites that came about just before the [rehearsal] process and a pretty surprising major addition the script that came right before tech. One thing that I’ll say is maybe the biggest shift for the play during the time off is that both of our actors became fathers in that time. I think that added another level of depth that was invaluable to the story we were trying to tell.
Frank is Filipino-American, which is also your lived experience. In the American theatre world of predominantly white producing institutions, it’s refreshing to see a specific identity and heritage on stage. Did you know when you started writing that your two friends would have different cultural backgrounds — Filipino and white?
Jeffrey Lo: When I started writing the play, I knew I was writing for Wes and Max. In the first week of writing, I wasn’t specifically making Frank Filipino but then there was a moment where I decided I needed to ask myself that question. Wes is Filipino. Should Frank be Filipino? I very quickly realized that the only reason I wouldn’t purposefully make him Filipino was to make the play supposedly more “producible” to theaters. I quickly hated that thought and decided Frank was Filipino.
And, of course, it prompts that age-old question: How much of Frank is you?
Jeffrey Lo: Haha. Here and there but by no means entirely.
People outside the dominant culture have not traditionally seen themselves on stage in American theaters. How much of your mission as a playwright is to turn the lights up on a Filipino-American experience? Not to suggest that there is one monolithic Filipino-American experience.
Jeffrey Lo: It is a huge part of my mission as an artist. Both directing and writing — I want to create and uplift more Asian American and Filipino American stories. Growing up, I didn’t see many stories that I identified with and it made it very easy for me to feel like an outsider in America. My hope is that my work can do a small part in making my experience growing up a less common one.
You work as an educator and advocate for issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Is progress being made in American theater with regard to opportunity for AAPI theater makers? Are there specific obstacles or micro aggressions you’ve faced as you put your work out there?
Jeffrey Lo: I think there is definitely some progress being made and there is definitely a lot of work to be done. I’ve certainly faced micro and macro aggressions throughout my life and throughout my theater career. It would take a few essays for me to fully answer this question but I think that the biggest shift we need to make is moving away from being content with being “diversity-friendly” and [asking] “how can we actively fight racism…?” Those are two different things. Being diversity-friendly can be a passive thing. Fighting for equity and inclusion requires all of us to consider what are the systemic barriers that have been put in front of us that exclude communities — intentionally or not — and how can we create new systems that include everyone?
I once asked a theater company to seek non-white actors in an ensemble play of mine, and the theater said, “We don’t have any non-white actors in our pool.” I said, “Please look harder” — and they did. And the production ended up not being all-white. Is there a strategy you can share with writers to overcome obstacles when we look at equity, diversity and inclusion?
Jeffrey Lo: [A story] like yours is certainly a strategy to overcome it. If we allow ourselves as a theater community to say it is too hard to find performers that are not from under-represented communities of any kind, then how will these performers ever gain the opportunities to grow as artists? Artists don’t just start out brilliant. Acting, like each and every role in creating theater, is a craft that is mastered through work. We need to create the work and give artists the time to blossom.
There are a lot of angles you can approach this from but the big thing for writers is to keep writing their beautifully specific and diverse stories. Keep putting them out in the world. The more good stories and good scripts that are out there, the more opportunities will be out there for actors of all identities, and the deeper and more diverse our acting pool will be.
You say in script notes that the casting of a Filipino-American/Pilipino heritage actor “would be preferred.” I expect the play will have a nice life regionally and in colleges. Is there room for you to collaborate with an organization to change the background of Frank to fit a casting pool? I’m not talking “cast a white dude” here, I mean if a college program has South Asian actors but not Filipino actors, is this an opportunity for expanded inclusion?
Jeffrey Lo: I’m always open to the conversation. I think that with casting we have a radius around the specifics of what a role has and we want to look at how wide we want that radius to go before we no longer feel comfortable with what we are presenting. But with a play like this and a role like Frank’s, I think if a group reached out to me, we could find ways to adapt the script in ways that could make something work.
I try not to be all-or-nothing about how I view it. I think I would take it on a case by case basis to look at what we are trying to present. I also think that as time goes on and if we, hopefully, live in a world where we have achieved more equality in opportunities than we do now… my thoughts may change on how I view it.
You’re a Bay Area native? Where did you grow up, where did you go to high school and what sort of exposure to the theater did you have when you were a kid? Any formative theatergoing or practice you can share?
Jeffrey Lo: I grew up in San Jose and went to Evergreen Valley High School. I did not have a ton of theater exposure until my junior year of high school where I found myself fully immersed in the theater world, sort of suddenly. I acted in a play once in high school but it wasn’t until I wrote and directed a one-act play in my senior year that my eyes were opened to the power and importance of theater and storytelling. That really set me on that path.
You have a B.A. in drama from UC Irvine and a B.A. in literary journalism. How do your degrees specifically inform the work you do today? Is “literary journalism” like long-form Truman Capote-style writing?
Jeffrey Lo: Literary journalism is indeed long-form Truman Capote-style writing! I think the journalism writing supported my writing in general and my drama degree gave me a wider toolbox to create theater. I think that there’s something to be learned from everyday life and applied [to] theatre. For example, I was a community programmer for freshman housing when I was at UC Irvine for a number of years (working with Resident Advisors to foster good experiences for freshman) — I think that I use just as many skills I gained from this work in my theater practice as I the skills I gained from my drama degree.
Speaking of “waiting for next” — what’s coming up for you as a director or writer?
Jeffrey Lo: I was really fortunate that the month of May ended up being a huge month for me. While Waiting for Next is running at City Lights, another play of mine Balikbayan Box is currently having a workshop production at Theatre First in Berkeley and also I directed a production of Jessica Huang’s The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin at San Francisco Playhouse. They are running until the middle of June. This big month ended up with a bunch of publicity for it all in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and other Bay Area news outlets. Everyone has been very kind.
Jeffrey Lo is a Filipino-American playwright and director based in the Bay Area. He is the recipient of the Leigh Weimers Emerging Artist Award, the Emerging Artist Laureate by Arts Council Silicon Valley and Theatre Bay Area’s TITAN Award. Selected directing credits include The Language Archive and The Santaland Diaries at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Hold These Truths at San Francisco Playhouse, Vietgone and The Great Leap at Capital Stage, A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Eurydice at Palo Alto Players (TBA Awards finalist for Best Direction), Peter and the Starcatcher and Noises Off at Hillbarn Theatre, The Grapes of Wrath, The Crucible and Yellow Face at Los Altos Stage Company. As a playwright, his plays have been produced and workshopped at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, The BindleStiff Studio, City Lights Theatre Company and Stanford University. His play Writing Fragments Home was a finalist for the Bay Area Playwright’s Conference and a semi-finalist for the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference. Lo has also worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Asian American International Film Festival, San Jose Repertory and is a company member of Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and SF Playground. In addition to his work in theatre he works as an educator and advocate for issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and has served as a grant panelist for the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Silicon Valley Creates and Theatre Bay Area. He is the Director Community Partnerships and Casting Director at the Tony Award Winning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, a graduate of the Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute and a proud alumnus of the UC Irvine Drama Department. Jeffrey is also a founding member of Our Digital Stories.