Playwright Deepak Kumar relished O'Neill conference
Of the roughly 1,300 dramatists who applied to the 2022 National Playwrights Conference at Waterford's Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, there are probably a few sufficiently confident that they actually figured they had a great shot to land one of the six coveted openings.
Deepak Kumar was not one of them.
Nonetheless, the 27-year-old from the South Bay area of San Francisco is seated at a picnic table behind the O'Neill on a recent overcast weekday morning faintly speckled by rain. He's pondering the reality that, on Friday and Saturday, a team of actors, renowned director Chay Yew and various stage creative teams members — all professionals — will help stage readings of Kumar's play "House of India."
The conference, under the direction of artistic director Wendy C. Goldberg, takes place over several weeks in June and July. Each week, a different play is workshopped, rehearsed and then presented. "House of India" will be the fifth play produced for this session. The last play, Max Yu's "Nightwatch," will take the stage July 13 and 14.
Already produced this year were "The Apiary" by Kate Douglas, "5" by JuCoby Johnson, "Kate Suspended" by Neena Beber and "Big Black Sunhats" by Mallory Jane Weiss.
"If I'm real about it, I'm still shocked that I'm here," Kumar says. Indeed, while the tall, thin, bespectacled playwright is for the most part thoughtful and witty in conversation. Speaking rapidly in self-assured fashion, he's also given to bursts of laughter in an amazed, self-deprecating, "pinch me if this is really happening" fashion.
And why not? The annual conference, back to full strength after COVID, is one of the most prestigious playwriting workshops in the country. Since it began in 1964, the center's developmental process has seen many of its alumni achieve major success including works by August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, Jeremy O. Harris, Halley Feiffer, Jennifer Halley, Adam Bock and more.
"I applied in a Hail Mary sense," Kumar says, "because I knew the odds were really long. Plus, I'd sent 'House of India' in soft submission to a lot of other (competitions) and didn't get into any of those. So I wasn't expecting much."
Menu as metaphor
"House of India" is about a family of Indian immigrants who own and operate the struggling titular restaurant in a rundown suburban strip mall. A young Thai entrepreneur approaches the family matriarch with a pitch to make the restaurant relevant and successful through a fresh blend of hybrid cuisines — at the expense of the traditional menu that represents the family's history and way of life.
The solution, at least to some folks in the play, is, Kumar says, "to take this Indian stuff and put it away. Turn this store into Chipotle and all of a sudden customers will start to show up."
He pauses, then elaborates on the play's metaphoric core. "As a South Asian-American writer, I'm interested in exploring the issue that we as immigrants might have to abandon aspects of our own culture. The central question becomes what is home and how do we find home?" Kumar says. "You've come to this place where there's constant pressure to morph into something that fits a much broader palette." He laughs. "Or palate, in this case. But, how do you do this and survive? That's the central question."
Kumar was born in India but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was young. After brief stops in New Hampshire and Vermont, they settled in a lower- to middle-class suburb south of Detroit called Farmington Hills. After graduating as a computer science major from the University of Michigan — "Go Blue!" he says — Kumar headed west to Stanford and graduate school.
Is this all there is?
"I studied computer science because it was the prudent financial thing to do," he says. "That's still my day job; I'm a researcher at Stanford." He grins and shrugs. "A year into grad school, I said, 'Is this all there is to life?'"
Part of that frustration doubtlessly arose from the fact that he'd been intensely interested in theater since his teens, competing in dramatic competitions called Forensics in high school. At Michigan, he sang in an a cappella group and participated in Multiple projects — where small teams take a musical or play and make a 15-minute cut of the work.
"I was very focused on the acting at first. It was a lot of fun," Kumar says. "But it was too hard. I did an audition in college and the student director said, 'Yeah, but can you do it a little less like Indiana Jones?'" Kumar breaks into a happy expression. (I said to the director) "I think I should just leave."
Gradually, he realized that it was writing he'd been interested in all along. He'd started random stories in childhood, then began writing an epic adventure novel in the fifth grade.
"It made no sense, but it was an action story about this kid and his best friend on some quest," Kumar remembers. "It's locked up, where it should be, in my parents' home in Michigan. I looked at it five or six years ago and thought, 'No one should ever see this.' Maybe I'll go back in five more years and say, 'Is this still bad?' By then, maybe I'll realize there was something good there."
On the right track
If nothing else, Kumar's presence at the O'Neill conference is certainly an indication that his grade-school writerly instincts were on the right track. But he's worked diligently to refine his talent.
In 2017, he and Jord Liu, a close friend since high school, started working on a musical called "Baked! The Musical." After a few workshop presentations, "Baked!" was produced at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival with an all-Asian cast. Each performance was sold out and, in addition to winning numerous festival awards, the musical became the highest-grossing CMTF show of all time.
Liu, a software engineer, was similarly inspired by the theatrical arts and shared Kumar's belief that together they should, as he says, "Do something big! So we started writing a musical even though we had no idea what we were doing."
It seems to be working out.
In addition to "Baked! The Musical," which he and Liu continue to refine and submit, Kumar doubled down and became a voracious autodidact learning the craft of playwrighting. He started watching YouTube videos featuring interviews with and lectures by established playwrights and professors — which proliferated online during the pandemic shutdown.
"I sort of fell backwards into playwrighting from musical theater," he explains. "I was having a lot of fun working on 'Baked!' and we were somehow doing OK. I started thinking about writing a play and told myself, 'I can probably do this. Maybe even a little better than what I'm seeing." He shakes his head, bursting again into laughter.
"I always have these confident impulses and then I realize how incredibly hard it is. I started to get a real appreciation for how hard it is to even FINISH writing a play — never mind how good it might be. But I was hooked. And I started working and writing and watching these videos, some of which were literal university classes. I felt like I was a student sitting there with them. I kept wanting to raise my hand and ask questions."
His work has gained traction, and he's had various pieces produced at such venues as the Underscore Theatre in Chicago; the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), PACE University in New York, the Faultline Theater in San Francisco, and Shotgun Players in Berkeley, Cal.
As for the O'Neill Conference, Kumar had of course heard of it. "If you hang around playwrights for any length of time, people start talking about the places they've submitted to — and the O'Neill ALWAYS comes up. Everyone knows about the track record here, you know? It's like, they send plays to the MOON!"
Why not give it a try?
When, at the start of 2021, it was posted that the conference would return and, in September, start accepting applications for the 2022 session, Kumar felt those nine months would be sufficent to finish "House of India" — at least to an extent he could submit it. And, in addition to his day job and still fine-tuning "Baked!," he did. He sent "India" off and more or less forgot about it.
Five months later, though, he got word he was a semi-finalist — one of about 200 playwrights. He says, "I thought, 'This is fantastic! I'm good. Thanks!'"
A month and a half later, he was informed he was a finalist. "OK, stop it!" Kumar remembers thinking. "You're too kind!"
And then — yes — he was formally accepted. He reports jumping around his room with excitement and only then did he recall he had a roommate, a significant other and a family he could share the good news with.
"It was all great until panic set in," Kumar says. "It hit me the significance of it all. What am I going to do?"
What he did — and is still doing — is rewriting and, here on the O'Neill campus, meeting with other playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, directors and crew professionals who typically come from the New York theater world. The selected playwrights provide the O'Neill folks with a list of "dream" actors and directors they'd like to work with, and efforts are made to fulfill those requests.
There are meetings where such things as interiors, lighting and costumes are discussed and, one by one, each playwright prepares for the week when their work will be performed onstage.
"I've never heard 'House of India' read out loud," Kumar says wonderingly. "The playwrights all stay in the same cabin, and we're reading each other's work, and then we go through the process and ... it happens."
At the time of this conversation, Kumar has been at the O'Neill Center for about a week. He's heard wonderful stuff about the whole area, and says he'd love to experience some of it — but for now the priority is on-site.
"It's amazing. This is an amazing place to be," he says. "The staff, the food, the accommodations ... Everyone is so nice and it's obvious their priority is to help us do the best we can. And you think of the history. I remember seeing (Eugene O'Neill's) 'Moon for the Misbegotten' and THEN I saw 'Long Day's Journey Into Night.' I didn't know I saw them in reverse order, that ('Moon') was a sequel.'" He grins. "It's remarkable to think how he captured that realism of the time. And now, here we are, getting to tell our stories and be part of that tradition."
What: "House of India," a play by Deepak Kumar
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Dina Merrill Theater, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford
How much: $30
For more information: www.theoneill.org