Multi-Hyphenate: A Conversation with Emily Gardner Xu Hall
“Everything I write is always dealing very intensely with some cross section
where race and gender are very upsettingly hitting each other.” -- Emily Gardner Xu Hall, May 21 2020
In mid-May, I sat down with Emily Gardner Xu Hall (she/her), a Lilly Award and Jonathan Larson Grant-winning playwright, composer, and actor. Emily is the compassionate mind behind Cherry Orchard and Mei Do, two new musicals that center the full humanity of previously underappreciated identities. We talked intersectional feminist reimaginings, multi-hyphenate life, and birds in the Super Foodtown, Aisle 16. -Stephanie Everett
Stephanie: Hi! Where are you right now? Are you in New York?
Emily: Yeah, I live in Harlem!
Do you go to the Super Foodtown on 145th?
So you know about the birds in Aisle 16?
There's literally a family of birds who live there! And this is pre pandemic… I feel like maybe, you know, there's a nest up there. I can hear them chirping. It’s right above the cranberry juice.
...this went on for a hot sec, so let’s fast forward to the real reason you’re here...
Steph: Thank you for taking our survey [on the shortcomings of the musical theater industry for women, trans, and gender non-conforming writers] a while back.
Emily: It was awesome. It was nice to be asked.
Of course! I remember you’d mentioned a lack of access to invitation-only opportunities as a huge barrier to entry. Let’s talk about it.
You know, the question of access has been very interesting because I've done very well for myself in a very short amount of time. And part of the reason that I've done relatively well is that a lot of smaller places have championed me really hard. And what I realize is that I don’t have family connections, [and] I don't have a number of channels that are often necessary/required for the traditional way up for - let’s just say - women. I deliberately went into this field knowing that I would be a female composer in a field of very few female composers (let alone female composers of color…). And then being a lyricist, I am also trying to bring my message. What I intend to do is everything: book, music, lyrics.
That's so real. And I know that you're also an actor, a musician, and a designer, which is amazing and so necessary in the world today, and you've played many of those instruments onstage in shows. Do you think actor-musicians are the future of the industry?
Oh gosh… it feels like it cycles in waves. But I think that having actor musicians [is] an interesting dramaturgical question, because it requires a way of justifying why [the characters] are musical. The thing that I think I don't love about the way that actor-musicians get treated overall is that sometimes I'm in a position where I've been hired as an actor, but because they know how many skills I have, they'll be like, "then you're gonna play something." And it's like, “What? Why? That's a third job that you're not paying me for.” And I want to use all my skills as an actor and I want to help and pitch in… but then sometimes I'm like, 'Why would my character pick up a guitar now? I love when there are actor musicians and excellent dramaturgy, so it makes total sense and everyone is paid appropriately.
And trying to convince people that actors are important is impossible. It's a thing I'm experiencing - a multi-hyphenate life. As a writer, I'm not going to compromise on my beliefs that actors need to be ethically respected. They need to be heard in the creative team, in talking to the people who are making it. They're full people who are using a different part of themselves, and they require respect.
I love that... In terms of writing, do you feel like the instruments you’ve played as an actor-musician factor into how you compose music? Is it more helpful?
Yeah, definitely. I think that the main thing is that I hear everything in parts always now. Even if I'm writing a piano arrangement, I'm usually hearing all the other instruments first. I think that's helpful, but playing lots of instruments is also just fun. As long as I can be expressive, I'm happy. But it certainly does help, because now I've done so many shows where I've accompanied myself on piano, accompanied myself on guitar, and I just bought an accordion.
A great addition to the family. I'm staring at her now.
Oh, wow. I can see the love... She's gorgeous.
Oh, my goodness. Cool, huh? As an actor, I've had to take on whatever the hell race they decide I am, and then whatever the accent. But I embrace the challenge, and I feel exactly the same with music. It's literally the same. You walk into it and you're like, “What kind of song is it? What kind of style is it? How do I have to change my voice? What instrument do I have to play? I'll play it.” So basically I've just been lucky that my partner will let me store my instruments in the house.
We stan the support! We are here for it. Can we talk about Cherry Orchard for a bit?
Oh, my God I could talk about Cherry Orchard forever.
It's a musical you've written based on the Chekhov play. I am personally fascinated by history, particularly with fellow writers who take older works and revamp or revive or reimagine, as you say. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the value of revivals and rewrites of these older stories in a new way.
I think in terms of Cherry Orchard, there is a story of the women in the family that we haven't heard. It's always kind of a thing that I have to explain: I'm not just doing The Cherry Orchard over again. I'm actually examining some of the stories that are suggested in the subtext, and are actually in the text but don't get a lot of stage time. So, for example, a lot of people see the play, and if you were to ask them who the main character of The Cherry Orchard is, they would say "the mom." And then you would ask them, "Well, what did the mom ever say?" And they usually can't actually remember anything except her dress, which is so telling. It's so deeply obvious to me how we lack interesting, meaty, female roles that are full of trouble, and talking, and different thoughts and issues. I mean, male writers love to talk about how complicated their women are. Everybody loves to congratulate themselves on how well they've done on feminism.
My goal is to show the real passion and the blood and the emotion of these women's stories when they are the center of the story. For example, there's a housekeeper [used to help the rest of the storyline along]. Her name is Varya, and in the show, she says very, very little. No one ever gets to know her, but her situation is so unique and interesting, so I have made a couple of decisions and I have her being a serf descendant. I have her in a unique stepdaughter, mixed-blood role... a mixed-situation, mixed-status role, which, as a mixed race person, I'm always talking about our "transition people," people who are not considered “full-something” people. Who is that mixed-status, mixed-class, mixed-race, in-between girl, and how does she bear the brunt of carrying her beliefs with the little power she holds?
So that's a very, very long winded way of saying that what I'm trying to do with Cherry Orchard is tell a story that is not set in America, but it is the story of America, and of any culture that has historically disempowered women, and historically disempowered an entire population of people who were then "freed." What were they freed into? What was actually allowed? How are people actually allowed to rise? What happens when social ability has been so stunted in the first place? That's what I'm interested in... and as a result, it's extremely hard to write.
Because you can't stop at one thing. It's all interconnected.
You have to somehow find a way to be truthful, to include every nuance.
Exactly. I mean, everything I write is always dealing very intensely with some cross section where race and gender are very upsettingly hitting each other.
Cherry Orchard is a place where I'm hoping that I'll be able to get people on board because I'm adapting it to music. There's nothing that's hard to understand about music. Music just hits you, and then you're like, “Oh my god, what is happening?” But it's already hitting you. And then you have to deal with the words. I'm hoping to really touch people, and to really move people to feel. On the one hand, I really want to aspire. I want to grow. I want to be. I want to rise out of the social class that I was forced down into. And then on the other hand, I want people to be like, “This is all I know... what else is there?”
And I have also been working on this musical that I don't know how to make happen because it has an all Asian cast. It has felt a little bit like people didn't really want that, and I've been feeling weird about that. Endings, for example, is a play at New York Theatre Workshop that is acknowledged and cast because of the scenario, [and] it feels like a place like NYTW is going to respect the playwright's message, but it feels kind of like in musical theater... maybe that respect is a little more fluid? I have had some feeling of, "Is there any way we can make this a mixed group of women?" And I’m like, "Maybe... but also maybe let’s not?"
I think that casting is vital to shows. And I think when you leave it open, it always goes one way.
I need it to have a wide reach, but I also want to make sure that the message is undeniable. And the message is about the performance. It's a show called Mei Do, which is if you were to pronounce a French maid in Japanese. It's about a Japanese maid cafe where the women are willingly dressed as anime maid characters, and it's about the performance of gender and queerness, so it's necessary to see certain things in a bright light.
Period. One final question for you: if you had to describe your quarantine in three words, what would they be?
Oh! Lucky... febrile... and practice. I feel like those of us who are alive need to realize how lucky we are to be alive. And I have gone up and down so violently with how scared I am about the health of those I know. We cannot take for granted what we have. And at the same time, I think we should respect the incredible anxiety that we have to live under, like the fact that the grocery store is now dangerous. You know, beyond the birds…