WE'RE KICKING OFF AANHPI HERITAGE MONTH WITH A CONVERSATION BETWEEN JERRY RAPIER AND BRANDAN NGO
Brandan Ngo is an actor and writer who graduated from the University of Utah with a BA in Film & Media Arts. He has been writing and performing for the stage and the camera since 2017, and is currently back at the University of Utah studying ecology and conservation. His short play "Where Are You From?" was read by Plan-B at the Edward Lewis Theatre Festival in 2020 and his short play "Stranded" was commissioned by Plan-B for the national Play at Home initiative at the onset of the pandemic and is included in the Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection at the Library of Congress. "Stranded" received its world premiere as Plan-B's portion of ROSE EXPOSED: WE JUST DON'T KNOW in 2021.
Brandan is a member of the Theatre Artists of Color Writing Workshop at Plan-B Theatre. Each quarterly meeting in centered around the reading of a new play. A little over a year ago, Brandan asked to have THE CASE OF THE MISSING DOG read. By the end of that reading it was clear to Artistic Director Jerry Rapier that it should be an episode of RADIO HOUR. Jerry recently chatted with Brandan about playwriting, talking dogs, and NPR.
Jerry Rapier: What made you want to pursue playwriting?
Brandan Ngo: Writing always came naturally to me, as far into childhood as I can remember. During my career in the arts, including years of acting, I've found writing is the thing that I've got a real instinct for, and over the years I've leaned more and more into it. My experience as an actor actually proved invaluable for my writing, allowing me to see the dialogue from an actor's perspective. These days, my love for writing and my empathy for acting have proved to be valuable tools in creative expression and playwriting, and I enjoy putting things on paper that I know actors and audiences will enjoy.
Jerry: What was appealing to you about the Theatre Artists of Color Writing Workshop?
Brandan: At the onset of the 2020 pandemic, I decided I was not good at writing anything but nonsense. And in a world full of stresses and uncertainties and injustices, the only sanity I could find was amusing myself with my nonsense.
So I took this idea, an extremely incompetent gumshoe who stumbles upon lukewarm success, and ran with it, with the trust that usually something of substance is born from these stupid eggs of mine.
Jerry: What appeals to you about the noir style you've deployed? Is it a favorite of yours or something that applies specifically to this piece?
Brandan: What was fun about this project was that it was a purely dialogue- and sound-driven narrative: I'm used to writing for the screen or for the stage, where I could tell the story with creative blocking or imaginative framing or visual gags. For this, my first radio play, I knew I would have to rely on pure dialogue-driven storytelling. Every plot point, every joke, every moment of character building relied entirely on dialogue. It was an exciting challenge and I soon discovered this was my favorite kind of dialogue in media: indulgent, extremely drawn-out monologues where, for no particular reason, characters divulge to each other way too much information about their thoughts and intentions.
Jerry: What about the dialogue?
Brandan: I have always loved the hammy 1920s trans-atlantic American dialogue. It sounds to me equal parts elegant and corny, characters waxing poetic about their inner thoughts and emotions, unable to keep it down because their love and hatred are bursting at the seams. So I indulged and I wrote and wrote and wrote, and this radio play is what became of it.
Jerry: What's your favorite thing about the way each of the actors use their voices: Doug, Isabella, and Jay?
Brandan: I would say the best thing about writing is when you've finished a story, you wipe your hands of it and place it in the hands of your actors. Then you get to see all the magnificent creative things they add to the story, and the imaginative takes they have of the characters. If you have really talented actors, the story becomes even more enriched, and the story no longer is just a venture of a single creative mind but of many. When Doug, Isabella, and Jay read through the play for the first time, it was like seeing a brand new story teeming with brand new life. They are so funny and versatile, and they tuned into my sense of humor perfectly. Their voices are colorful and vibrant, with distinct choices made for each ridiculous character I'd written for them. I couldn't be prouder of what they're creating!
Jerry: Which sound effect are you most excited about and why?
Brandan: I'm excited most for the music we're going to use for the backdrop of this 1920s detective noir story. I love the smoky, hardboiled musical vibe that usually accompanies stories like this, and hearing such music in the context of this silly story makes me giddy.
Jerry: Why does the play feature a talking dog?
Brandan: This play features speaking parts for a dog because I want to hear actors make dog noises. Was this worth my time, and will it be worth anyone else's? That's for listeners and god and Hollywood to decide (could someone get me Christopher Nolan's fax number?).
Jerry: This is funny in several ways - what about an NPR personality instead?
Brandan: I don't understand the question, and it's likely because I'm not actually a professional.
Jerry: Since you are known more as an actor (thus far!), what is it like to shift gears from acting to writing for the stage, and then to shift from writing for the stage to radio?
Brandan: I'm lucky that my path led me to this point! Acting ended up informing my playwriting, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of dialogue on the stage informed my writing choices for radio. I've now written for film, stage, and radio, and each benefit differently from different writing styles. I've found that writing for radio really helped me practice getting things like action, visuals, staging, and exposition across via dialogue.
Jerry: How do you feel about your first full production as a playwright being a radio play? What was your first thought when I asked you if we could produce it as part of Radio Hour?
Brandan: When asked if I wanted this play to be a part of RADIO HOUR, I thought "Really? This one?" But I'm excited for my first steps in professional radio! Every single feat I accomplish in my career always feels like a fluke, and I'm sure all of us can relate to some form of imposter syndrome. I always approach every gig or accomplishment with as much humility, gratitude, and healthy detachment as I can, enjoying the ride while it lasts and learning as much as possible. At the very least, I had a fantastic time writing this story, and I've decided, after consulting with my therapist, that that is a win in and of itself.