The Art of Collaboration: Introducing Mike Lew & Moritz von Stuelpnagel

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Huntington Director of New Work Lisa Timmel interviews playwright Mike Lew and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel about Tiger Style!, a new American comedy about the contradictions of identity.

Lisa Timmel: The three of us go way back, but how did you guys actually first meet?

Mike Lew: Probably in your office at Playwrights Horizons. That was the likeliest location.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel: Mike and I were directing interns together at Playwrights Horizons. But we also had a love of new plays and dramaturgy and therefore seemed to gravitate to your office and to the lively conversation that seemed to be spewing forth around every cubicle wall.

ML: I had been a literary intern before being a directing resident so I was thinking, “Oh, I’m lost, I’m gonna go back to the place that I know.”

MVS: Like when you get lost in the mall! That’s what they tell you to do — or maybe it’s stay put — I’m not sure, but I’m glad it worked out because that’s where I found you. Because I feel like my job as a director is to support the writer as much as anything else and because the literary office is the hub for that, it seemed to me the most valuable place to be.

ML: We met there and then we both were in the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab but we didn’t actually start working together as writer and director until I was in Youngblood at Ensemble Studio Theater [EST]. That dates back to 2005-2006, so that’s how long we’ve been working together.

LT : Moritz, do you remember the first play of Mike’s you directed?

MVS: Yes, it was a ten-minute play called The Roosevelt Cousins Thoroughly Sauced which is about a young FDR and Eleanor grappling with the life changes of polio, and written in classic absurdist Mike style. It did really well at EST and went on to win a Samuel French short play competition. And since then we have done I don’t know how many projects together ...

ML: I’ve lost count. You’ve become the premier interpreter of my work!

MVS: It feels really good to be in a collaborative relationship with someone I’m also close friends with. I think we have a great shorthand that doesn’t require excess courtesy to manage each other’s egos. We can really dig in without needing to be polite with each other about the work. It creates an energy in the room that I don’t always feel I have in some of my other productions. When Mike and I collaborate, something sparks.

ML: Really early when I started theatre, I remember seeing a panel with Daniel Sullivan and Donald Margulies talking about their longstanding collaboration, and I was really skeptical of it. I don’t know why. I think it’s the nature of being a young artist and being skeptical of anything that’s become established. I guess it felt like, seeing that relationship, there was a complacency built into it. What I’m finding now is that a good, longstanding relationship is not born of complacency but of mutual challenge. So not only is there a shorthand, but I think that we continue to push each other and rely on each other in new ways. The most recent show that we worked on together was a workshop production of Teenage Dick during which my son was born, so I had to physically leave that process. Moritz was giving me impressions from the performances and making suggestions. I had to trust that he understood my vision for the piece enough that he could tell me about my own script without me necessarily being there. When I came back to catch the final couple of shows it was really as if I hadn’t been gone. I had this play ripped out of my prying grip, and yet I found that I could trust him with that. That was a huge lesson: when you work with people you really trust and are really good, you don’t have to be the boot on the neck of the play the whole time.

Tiger Style Production photos

LT : Tell me a little bit about the origins and development of Tiger Style!

ML: I started this play in my last year at Juilliard. It remains a very personal work that wrestles with my upbringing, my cultural upbringing, and increasingly the push-pull of not just what it means that I’m Asian American in the US, but also how outside perceptions affect being Asian American in the US. What started as a very personal exploration is now a more political exploration about, “What is our place as Asian Americans in this country?” Moritz read the first draft of the play, and our first crack at it was in the Huntington’s Breaking Ground reading series.

LT : Much of the comedy in Tiger Style! trades lovingly on generational differences and it’s told from the point of view of the children. Now that you are a parent yourself, do you feel differently?

ML: Growing up, I always knew my parents were pretty strict compared to other parents, and even though I went along with it, I often found myself, if not outwardly resentful, at the very least I was very agitated. But with this play I actually tried to be sympathetic towards my parents and really think about where they were coming from. This play is also trying to provide a counter-narrative to prevailing stereotypes about “Asian tiger parenting” – this completely racist notion that Asian families only care about achievement and don’t even love each other. Now that I’m a parent myself, I actually called up my dad and apologized for thinking that parenting was so easy, and this was only upon having an infant who can’t even talk back to me yet! (My dad was actually very gracious about all this and said that it’s not about who was right or wrong, but about trying to do the best for your kids.)

LT : Even though it’s a comedy, Tiger Style! is similar to many classic American dramas. Like Awake and Sing!, The Glass Menagerie, Fences, and Curse of the Starving Class, it tells a story of young people trapped by and/or breaking with their origins. Moritz, how does this heritage inform your direction?

MVS: You’re right. The play, like many American plays, asks what ingredients our heritage provides in the makeup of who we are. But I think our heroes, brother and sister Albert and Jennifer – who are really more a pair of hapless, foolhardy anti-heroes — fall into the trap of letting labels reduce their understanding of themselves. As two Asian Americans, they feel they’re on the receiving end of racial judgment, and that fills them with an indignation and possibly even self-loathing. So they buck that perception by leaning into a fully American stereotype, and when that fails, a fully Chinese stereotype. The fact that they are really putting on an act is incredibly fun, comedically. They get to be raucously politically incorrect.

LT : The Huntington production of Tiger Style! is the second time the two of you will be mounting this play together. How is it to return to a project almost a year later?

ML: It’s interesting, not every writer-director relationship survives through multiple productions of the same play, whether it’s because the opportunity never arises or because they choose not to work together again. For this production specifically, we are revamping a lot from the world premiere at the Alliance Theatre. In sort of play-testing the play with that audience we discovered things in the directing concept and the script and how the audience received it. We realized there were things that could be clarified. I think that in a lot of relationships you might just say, “Well, let’s just kind of do it again. Let’s preserve the thing that we had from the last one.” But both of us have been working really hard at it from reconceiving the design to going scene by scene and thinking about my intentions as opposed to how the audience was receiving it. We’ve really been working hard for this new production. I think that sort of speaks to our shared work ethic.

LT : How does it feel to be bringing the show to Boston?

MVS: Well, as you know, I went to Boston University so for me to come back to the Huntington to direct a show there feels, to me sentimentally, like a real benchmark of success in my career. To be in Boston, to spend time with the wonderful community and the restaurants, there’s a lot I’m looking forward to.

ML: I’ve been hearing about plays that originated at the Huntington throughout my writing career, and so it’s become a huge goal to have a play go there, especially one that I’m actively working on. I think that it’s really brave in the theatre to be producing plays that are either world premieres or that, like our show, are not known commodities already. Not every theatre that does new plays takes that risk. So, I’m really excited to be in a theatre that is giving this play a shot. I know that your audience is really savvy about the kind of political and cultural commentary that I’m doing. Just from the reading that we did I felt like I was really being understood. I know that it’s going to push me to do my best work. To know that there’s an audience that gets what I’m wrestling with, which is not always a given.

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