Playwright Christine Hoang on the Power of Genuine Inclusivity in the Arts

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What are the creative projects you’re saving for when you have more time? Do you have a novel idea in the back of your head? A nonprofit you want to start when things get less crazy at work? Are you dying to learn how to use watercolors?

Christine Hoang, founding artistic director at Color Arc Productions, has found a way to work a full-time job, get eight hours of sleep a night, and produce award-winning plays that shine a light on diverse stories and perspectives.

How does she do it? We spoke to Christine about what it takes to hang on to your creative spark no matter how busy you are and what it takes to build truly inclusive communities in the media and the arts.

Her comedy production “People of Color Christmas” has been called “a witty and aware holiday tradition” in Austin, and she’s currently developing her first musical, “Romeo and Katrina,” with musical composer Tyler Mabry.

Set during New Orleans' recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, “Romeo and Katrina” will tell the story of unlikely lovers: Romeo, a blue-collar Vietnamese-American from Westbank New Orleans, and Katrina, an upper-class "Creole boujee" from Eastbank New Orleans.

How does she do it? We spoke to Christine about what it takes to hang on to your creative spark no matter how busy you are and what it takes to build truly inclusive communities in the media and the arts.

You’re a government lawyer by day, award-winning playwright producer by night. How did you make that happen?

You just have to jump in and do it. That first leap is really scary, but then once you overcome it and you see that people dig your work, it's encouraging. And so you keep doing it. I just keep doing it to the point where I don't have time to second-guess, because that's where I can get paralyzed by self-doubt. I also have to surround myself with supportive folks who keep me going and keep me positive. Just a small group of confidants.

Like a group of other creatives?

Maybe. Or just people who are also hitting their goals. I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t share my goals (at least the infancy stages of my dreams) with just anybody because there are people who will project a lot of their own insecurities onto me, tell me that my ideas are stupid and drain my excitement to further develop a fresh idea. I call them dream killers. I just don't have time for the negativity. I want to surround myself with people who are doing it, or at least are trying to do it. It’s easy to criticize folks who are hustling, moving and creating; it’s harder to hustle, move and create. I’ll be honest — I try not to focus on the negative noise because it can be a big distraction, but sometimes I do eavesdrop on it because I’m nosey. #realtalk

What kinds of things do you like to share?

I like to set milestones; it holds me accountable. When I don't do that, it's very easy to not do it. So once I’m committed to do something I try to declare deadlines out loud. I'm more likely to follow through and accomplish those deadlines that way than if I were to keep certain things quiet. The added bonus is getting cool feedback on an idea I’m committed to doing. It provides an added responsibility — and maybe positive pressure — for me to get these stories out there because people want to hear them, and people want to participate in them and be a part of it.

You’re so productive. Are breaks an important part of your process?

Absolutely. You have to recharge.

Producing a show is intense. Rehearsing takes two months of your life. And then touring a show is like three weeks of constantly moving the dang-gum Christmas tree around new venues, and stringing up new lights and new ornaments. Production is really exhilarating, but when it’s over I need to take it easy. Part of my self-care is withdrawing and being a homebody. Snuggling with family, laundry, organizing stuff around the house, drinking more water, hitting the gym, doing some yoga, fixing healthy foods, eating a vegetable.

During my breaks I pause on writing. And, strangely, that's when the ideas start popping up again.

How do you get your ideas? Because you have lots of them.

Sometimes I can't shut it off. They just pop up. Generating ideas can be a really fun until it disturbs my sleep. Then it’s annoying.

Getting beyond the ideas and launching into writing is the hard part. With writing you have to sit your ass down and do it, and sometimes you have to push yourself through it. It's rarely this beautiful, romantic experience where you light a candle, have a glass of wine, play this lovely music and it'll just flow from your fingers. Sometimes it's just so gross and arduous and painful, but you have to just do it and put something on the page. And then maybe after you do that you can salvage a fraction of it, and that fraction is the good stuff you can build on.

Having creative ideas is one thing, but actually executing on those ideas and putting in the work to make it something, a story, some kind of art form, is really the hard part. A lot of people have ideas.

How do you decide which ideas are worth pursuing?

Sometimes I bounce things off certain people and see if it excites them. I do little mini-pitches to one or two people whose taste I trust. And if I see that they're excited about them, I'm like, "Maybe I have something." But if I see them wandering off and I can’t even hold their attention, that means it’s back to work.

I'm not just a playwright, I'm also a producer, so I have to look at it from a lot of different angles. Can I realistically afford these sets? Can I cast this many people?

So I think about all those practical things at the same time I'm allowing myself to be creative. I have a lot of things firing off at once — left brain, right brain. In the beginning my daydreams have no limits. I just let my mind wander. But I’m also a realist. I’m a scrappy startup, and I don’t have a lot of resources. I have to be a creative, but at the same time create something I can produce. So creativity mixed with pragmatism is how I get things done.

It starts with a good story, followed up with a plan I can execute. With my musical “Romeo and Katrina,” I'm like, "Who the hell is going to play Romeo?" In my head the lead is a Vietnamese guy. I don't know any Vietnamese guys who sing.

Surely we can find a Vietnamese guy who sings!

I want a good one. I don’t want to create a token piece just to say that I have somebody. That's not really doing a service to the story or to the audience members who are going to carve out two hours of their time to see it. That's a waste of their time — just so I can prove a point? That's so self-indulgent. I need to make sure that I can cast for this. If I can’t find the talent, I start to think about how we can create the talent. There are Asian-American men out there who act, and some of them may sing karaoke, so maybe it's a matter of investing in them, perhaps in vocal lessons.

As I work though these challenges, if I see that there are enough checkboxes for me to say "this is possible," I keep going. Then I get more excited, and as my practical side fuels my creative side I build momentum to push forward.

How did you develop that mix of skills? All those things that go into producing a play — so yes, you're a good writer, right? Yes, you're a good performer, so you have some of these things. But producing the play is about budgeting, and it's about contracts, and it's about sourcing talent, and it's about pulling all these resources together. How did you learn to do that?

Because I fell into this later in life, I developed other life skills. I didn't major in theater; I minored in it. I majored in English Literature and went to law school. So I wonder if it's because I took the long way around, that I gathered skills along the way.

For instance, before I had a kid, I hosted a lot of parties in my home, and it turns out, hosting a party is a lot like producing a play. You have to invite people and get them excited to come (marketing), they have to commit and RSVP (buy the ticket), you have to budget for how much food and drink will cost (props), you decorate your house (set design), and you make it happen (showtime). When your guests arrive, you want them to have a good time. Folks who show up for you are your guests, and this is true whether they’re in your home or in the theater. You have the honor of entertaining them.

I say all the time that the biggest acting job in the theater world is not being the actor, it's being the producer — because you have to act like everything is great, you have to hide it if anything is going wrong, and keep everybody happy so they can perform their best. When things go wrong the only person who can know is yourself and the people who could help you fix it. You don't want to tell the entire cast and crew and get them in a panic. That’s an unnecessary distraction for them, and they lose faith and momentum in the project.

Also, as a lawyer, I'm used to having deadlines to produce work product. That's the nature of my work. Going into it I know there will be moments when it's not fun, but I also know that it will feel so rewarding once it's accomplished.

I feel like a sense of community is threaded in everything you do, including your approach to diversity. Talk about that a little.

Building community is critical when I produce a play. Introducing myself to people, becoming Facebook friends or exchanging information or whatever — I try to recruit organically. I can’t just can't put an audition posting up and think people are going to audition for my shit because I've got a poster. I have to show folks that I’m invested in them too. And if you show up for them by going to their shows, they might most likely show up for you. It's just basic reciprocity.

I know it's a lot of work, and not a lot of people have the bandwidth or desire to do it. People may say things like, "Oh, well we tried to find diverse talent. We put out an audition posting that said ‘All ethnicities welcome’ but we had very few people of color show up to audition."

Well, is that all you did? Did you go support his show? Did you go support her show? Did you make any additional efforts other than inserting an obligatory sentence in a posting? I mean, did you make any efforts to make folks feel like they're not going to be a token?

Did you look them in the eyeballs and say hello after going to their show, and say "I really like your work” and mean it? I think that’s the extra step we need to take to actually be supportive art patrons, and not just art-makers. Don't be so self-absorbed that you think you're the only person who counts. There's a whole community of people who count, and you've got to show up for them too if you're expecting them to show up for you.

It's about creating community. It's building relationships. Otherwise you're just doing the bare minimum and you're checking off a box to say “I did outreach, check.” That might work if you’ve got a huge reputation in the industry and everyone wants to work for you and you don’t have to work that hard to bring people in the doors. But for a startup like me, I need to invest time in people and build relationships. If I’m not engaging with the community, looking people in the eyes, thanking them for coming out to see the show or having some kind of sincere exchange like that, it's just lip service about community without really building it.

Women producers are relatively rare. How do you do it?

It can be a struggle. It's also an issue of time and capacity. My husband and I are both working parents and we don’t have grandparents nearby who can help. So we kind of created our own village. We have a small group of loving friends we trust who could be with our daughter for a few hours if we were in a pinch at work. But usually it’s my husband who picks up the slack when I’m rehearsing or performing in a show.

I'm lucky to have a super-supportive husband and a healthy child. If I had a kid who needed more resources, and more support — who had special needs, for instance — or if I had an aging mom who lived with me? I wouldn’t have a lot of time or energy for these passion projects, because being a caregiver in those situations demands a lot more.

I also think I'm in a privileged spot because I'm an attorney, and I'm older. I have a stable career, I have health insurance. I have a car. So there are a lot of things that make my life more convenient so I can do and accomplish these things.

When do you write?

Nights and weekends when it's quiet, by myself. Like after my daughter goes to bed. Or sometimes when she's still in the room and she is playing with Daddy. After we eat dinner. On my lunch break.

I have to be very efficient with my time, because I only have a little bit of it. Maybe that's another reason why I force myself to do it, because I know I don't have the luxury of extra time. When you have too much time, it can also work against you because then you're procrastinating, second-guessing your ideas, beating yourself up. Don’t get me wrong; I still second-guess, doubt and beat myself up. But there comes a point when I say “Enough of that. Let’s do it.”

Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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