Ma-Yi’s Mike Lew on his play, Teenage Dick, Shakespeare and Adaptation
Mike Lew, Ma-Yi Resident Playwright, Co-Director of Ma-yi Writers Lab and Playwright: Teenage Dick
On Adaptation and Shakespeare
In 2012 my actor friend Gregg Mozgala came at me with a crazy idea. He was starting a new company called The Apothetae – a theater that examines the disabled experience – and wanted to kick things off by commissioning me to write a new play – an adaptation of Richard III set in high school called Teenage Dick. I mean the title alone! How could I refuse?
I immediately said yes, then did no writing for a year. But I couldn’t stand the thought of that title going to somebody else so I hurried up and finished a draft. In 2013 we did the first-ever staged reading (starring Gregg and Shannon DeVido) with Ma-Yi Theater. Five years later Gregg and Shannon are now starring in the world premiere with Ma-Yi Theater at the Public.The journey had me thinking a lot about adaptation, and also about Shakespeare,
As a living playwright writing new plays, it’s hard not to envy how many “production slots” go to Shakespeare. The guy’s been dead for over 400 years but on some level we’re competing for limited resources and he is decidedly winning. This is not to throw shade at Shakespeare himself, nor at the Public (home to Shakespeare in the Park, the Shakespeare Mobile Unit, and the Public Shakespeare Initiative).
This is to say that Gregg’s proposal brought me a great deal of trepidation: why adapt Richard III as opposed to just doing another production of the original? And I think the answer to that is that if we’re to examine the disabled experience we have to both acknowledge and in some way disrupt our forebears. I’ve grown to realize Teenage Dick is part of a whole subclass of new plays that use existing works as a jumping-off point to say something entirely new, but more importantly to break up the canon and make more room for marginalized groups. I’m thinking particularly of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon (which re-appropriates Black stock characters from melodrama to redefine our contemporary understanding of Blackness), or David Adjmi’s 3C (which subverts the gay stereotypes from Three’s Company and the golden age of sitcoms), or Jiehae Park’s Peerless (which uses Macbeth’s Shakespearean ambition as a pointed critique of the stereotypes around Asian overachievement).
In these plays adaptation is a subversive act. By undermining the dominant stereotypes of a marginalized group we seek to re-center that group so that they are the tellers of their own stories.In my case Teenage Dick is meant to take the most famous disabled character of all time and challenge Shakespeare’s conception that Richard’s disability makes him inherently evil. Teenage Dick attempts to explode that old conception as well as its condescending modern-day cousin: that all disabled people are a metaphor for transcendence. (For a good year, Gregg kept sending me clip after clip of high school sports teams smugly including a disabled classmate on their team in a blatant attempt at demonstrative inclusivity.) It’s my hope that Teenage Dick takes all the drama and stakes of murderous monarchal succession and by cramming that into high school (which can also be life-or-death) we approach a contemporary resonance that a straightforward production of Richard III could never provide. But that is not the sole purpose of this adaptation. It’s also my hope that by exploding tired tropes about disability – those from Shakespeare’s time as well as our own – that this play will say something entirely new.
Ma-Yi Theater is also saying something new and radical by producing this play. By having an Asian-American theater partnering with the Public, the production itself seeks to make more room for an underserved group. And though this play isn’t thematically about Asian-American issues, in showcasing an Asian-American writer’s work alongside a strong contingent of Asian-American actors and designers, we hope to collectively challenge any preconceptions around what an Asian-American play looks like.
The world needs new narratives right now. We need new ways of seeing each other – fresh perspectives and new ways of taking each other in. So no offense to Shakespeare, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to have this particular and unique band of players making its way to the stage.