Prince Gomolvilas -- award-winning playwright, solo performer, blogger, screenwriter and USC professor -- is currently spending his time in the company of little green men and little league baseball. Adapted from Scott Heim’s compelling novel of the same title, Prince’s stage version of Mysterious Skin is playing at the David Henry Hwang Theater from September 9th, 2010 through October 10th, 2010. Produced by East West Players, the play features an all-Asian/Asian American cast.
This quirky juxtaposition of disparate subject matter may not seem “alien” (pun intended) to Gomolvilas’ fans and followers, so please be forewarned. Unlike his other work, where he shepherds provoking material through his comedic voice and loving wit, Mysterious Skin does not coddle. Instead, Gomolvilas chooses to emotionally eviscerate and probe his audience with the same violent and unforgiving nature found in the most horrific abduction stories. Do not expect to see a scene with E.T. and his long-distance carrier.
Asia Pacific Arts was able to abduct Prince from his break-neck schedule for a sit down interview to talk about Mysterious Skin, his process as a writer and his beloved cat, YouTube star Pork Chop. --Andrea Apuy
Interview with Prince Gomolvilas
September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Andrea Apuy
Camera by Craig Stubing
Video edit by Ariel Adler
Transcription by Sarah Kirby
APA: How did you come across Scott Heim’s book?
Prince Gomolvilas: In about 1995, I read an interview with Scott Heim in a newspaper, and I thought the subject matter of his book, Mysterious Skin, was fascinating. I was really drawn to the alien abduction aspect of the book. But then I picked up the book, read the book, and loved the book despite the fact that it’s not really about alien abduction. It’s about much, much more than that. It moved me very deeply, and it is my favorite novel of all time, so I decided many years later that I wanted it to be my next project. This was back in 2000-2001.
APA: Is Mysterious Skin your first adaptation, and what kind of challenges did you face while adapting the story for the stage?
PG: Mysterious Skin is my first adaptation. One of the biggest challenges was how to boil down this 200-300 page book into a 90 minute to two hour stage play. So it involved a lot of cutting. The first third of the book is really not a part of the play at all. I sort of reference the first third of the book through some precisely chosen flashbacks, but other than that, the play takes place in the present day of the book which is 1991.
I had a lot of freedom with re-adaptation, because when I was talking with Scott on the phone about it, he told me that I am a playwright and he is a novelist, and he didn’t know anything about theater. So he really gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted with the book. With his blessing, I made a lot of changes: cut a lot of characters and pumped up some other characters, just to serve the dramatic structure of the play. Eric plays a huge role in the book, Neil’s mother plays a huge role in the book, and Brian’s mother and sister also play huge roles, but I just felt that they would have crowded the stage. When you only have a certain number of minutes to tell your story, you really have to pick and choose what are the essential elements of that story in this form.
What became really important in the play was the main story of Brian [played by Scott Keiji Takeda] on his journey to discover what happened to him when he was eight and blacked out twice -- events that he can’t recall. And the second part of the book that I thought was really important was Neil’s story: Neil [played by David Huynh] is now hustling in New York and on a self-destructive path. So I felt that because those two characters were the focal point of the book, I had to make them a focal point in the play, so that dictated that some characters would have to be cut in order to serve their stories.
APA: Why did you decide that Avalyn [played by Elizabeth Liang] would feature in Brian's story, as opposed to his family members?
PG: Brian goes through an internal journey, for the most part. A lot of the things that the Neil character does are very active; there are lots of events with Neil. Brian thinks a lot; there’s a lot of internal dialogue, and I felt like he needed somebody to bounce ideas off, to have somebody to play with, and the most logical person in that entire book for him to interact with more in the stage version was Avalyn, because Avalyn’s so obsessed with the idea of UFOs and the idea of alien abduction. And since Brian has found somebody who is sympathetic to his cause, I felt like she would serve the purpose of bringing Brian out of his internal shell and making him more of an external, active character in the play.
APA: How would you compare the film adaptation [directed by Gregg Araki] compared to your stage adaptation?
PG: The film was really good. I do feel that if you look at the play and you look at the film, those two pieces are very much a product of the people who made them. You know, Gregg Araki, who made the film, is sort of like this renegade, bad boy underground filmmaker, and the movie really has that gritty, renegade sensibility and quality to it. And that’s just a part of who Gregg is. I think the movie also focuses more on the Neil character than I do, and I think that’s because Gregg probably identifies with Neil’s bad boy quality more than I do. The play really has my kind of nerdy sensibility. You know, I’m not the renegade underground whatever, so Brian was really the primary focus. Even though I’m telling parallel stories, I think I do place more of an emphasis on Brian’s journey, even though the two characters eventually meet and merge and go through their arcs together.
APA: What did the actors use for reference - the book, the film, or strictly the play? Did you encourage one way or the other?
PG: I think about half of the actors really used the book as a constant reference when trying to get into the psychology of the character and trying to create a back story for the character. As you know, actors love to create back story for their character, but here, they really didn’t have to invent back story because there was already source material that provided tons of historical information about each of the characters. So I think some of the actors did actually use the novel as a point of reference.
And about half of them have seen the film also, but I know that the other half of them had not seen the film because they didn’t want to be influenced by the way the characters were portrayed by other people. So it really depended on the actor, what their process was, and whether or not they wanted to be affected by either the original source material or the movie adaptation -- which actually came out a year after my adaptation [2004 vs. 2003]. I just had to mention that.
APA: In the play, there's full frontal nudity, and it's graphic. As a writer, why did you feel this choice was important to the play? Did you think it'd be a perfect dramatic device?
PG: The way that I wrote the play, it gave directors and each individual production the option not to show nudity. You know, I never write in a play that this actor needs to be full frontally nude. I may mention that they have no clothes, but you know, directors can do very imaginative things. An actor can have no clothes, and you still can’t see anything if they’re standing behind things strategically. So it really depends on the production and the directorial choice. I don’t specifically call for nudity in any of the plays that happen to have nudity, but that option is always open.
I think its okay for this play. I’ve always said that for me, one of the major themes that I really responded to was the idea that the book was about extremities. Extremities of experience, of desire, of all different types of things, and I think Scott really pushes things to an extreme -- not for shock value, but because it really is one of the major themes in the book. So any way that the play can push extremes, I think is a good thing, because it’s serving one of the thematic thrusts of the novel.
APA: And in terms of graphic extremities, **SPOILER ALERT** there’s also the event with the coach. But in your play you actually chose not to feature him at all, so I was wondering what the thought process was behind that.
PG: Well the spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! The traumatic event is an event of sexual abuse perpetrated by a little league coach upon two eight-year-old boys. And the event is actually described in pretty graphic detail in the book within the first couple chapters. So it really is no mystery in the book. The first 1/3 of the book is all the events that happened to the kids when they were eight, but since I cut all that out, there really wasn’t any room structurally for the coach to be in the play. But I also thought that it served its purpose in the play, being that the coach and this event was sort of this distant memory that none of them could ever revisit or change. And not having the coach in the play physically, and instead to just have him hover over the play as sort of a ghost or a specter, was I think more powerful than having some guy come on stage and… you know. **END SPOILER ALERT**
APA: This play is a stark contrast to your solo performance work: the Jukebox Stories and also your online persona with Bamboo Nation. As a writer, how do you tackle different subject matter and genres?
PG: Most of my plays and most of my writing tend to veer toward the comedic, and Mysterious Skin is actually my first and only drama. It is definitely the darkest thing I’ve ever written. I may return to dark drama one day, but I was just so moved by the book that I felt compelled to take it on as a challenge. With each new project I work on, with each new play that I write, I always want it to be a challenge to me somehow -- either in terms of subject matter or in terms of structure. The challenge was: 1. I had never done an adaptation before and 2. it was a really, really heavy, dark drama -- also something that I had never done before. So when I’m faced with a challenge like that, and I’m kind of fearful as to whether or not I can achieve it, I know that it’s a good idea to go forward, because you always want to keep challenging yourself as an artist.
APA: Do you have any projects that you’re working on now?
PG: I am working on a short musical, and I’m collaborating with my long-time collaborator, Brandon Patton on this short musical that I will be filming in the fall. It’s a short film.
APA: Great! And for the last question: How is Pork Chop doing and how much does he currently weigh?
PG: Pork Chop is probably about 21 pounds right now. Last night, he was panting so much from the heat. Last night it was 112 degrees, and it looked like Pork Chop was going to pass out from heat stroke. His tongue was wagging. Cats don’t wag their tongues. This was insane, so I decided the air conditioner in my apartment could not cool him down quick enough, so at 9:30 at night, I actually had to go Craigslist shopping for a portable air conditioner in order for Pork Chop not to die from heat stroke. I did get an air conditioner, and Pork Chop is still alive. I left the fan on before I left the house today. I hope it doesn’t blow a circuit or something because it’s going to be on for like 12 hours. Whatever.
For more information on East West Players' production of Mysterious Skin, go to the official website here.