Bonus Material

To Gender A Backpack: A Conversation About 'Isabel'


June 30, 2024

Cheeyang Ng

Born and raised in Singapore, Cheeyang Ng is an award-winning singer-songwriter who writes at the intersection of queer, Asian and immigrant stories. They have performed around the world, including Lincoln Center with Carole King and Carnegie Hall with a cappella group Vocalosity and hold an MFA from New York University and a BMus from Berklee College of Music. They are the first Singaporean to headline a concert at Joe's Pub and Millennium Stage at Kennedy Center showcasing their original music and their songs have been performed around New York, including The Duplex and Feinstein's/54 Below. Creator of podcast East Side Story and vocal group The Lunar Collective, they have won multiple vocal awards all across Asia, including Singapore, Taiwan and China. Musicals in development include EASTBOUND (2022 Village Theatre Beta Development Production, 2020 NAMT) with Khiyon Hursey, MĀYĀ (2021 NAMT, ASCAP Workshop with Stephen Schwartz and upcoming development in London, UK) with Eric Sorrels and THE PHOENIX (Johnny Mercer Writers Grove at Goodspeed, Rhinebeck Writers Retreat) with Eric Sorrels and Desdemona Chiang. Their solo musical, LEGENDARY is in development with Musical Theatre Factory and Goodspeed Musicals. Select credits include: Princess Grace Award, Eric H Weinberger Librettist Award, Larson Grant Finalist, O’Neill NMTC 3x Finalist, ASCAP Foundation Lucille & Jack Yellen Award. @cheeyangmusic

Victoria Provost

Victoria Provost (she/her) is a New York-based playwright, performer, and producer. Her plays STARRY FRIENDSHIP, I’M STILL HERE, THE FRIGHTENING DOOR, and DEAD DOG PLAY have been produced in NYC and elsewhere. The focus of her art primarily lies in the intersection of trauma theory and long-form storytelling; her writing is informed by this and by her biracial and bisexual identities. She spent the past year working in the artistic department at Playwrights Horizons, supporting new plays in their New Works Lab program, producing their inaugural New Media Lab, and serving their Artistic Advisory Council. In addition to Playwrights, Victoria has produced theatre and worked with Irish Arts Center (THE SAME, GOOD VIBRATIONS, HOW TO CATCH A STAR, A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS), the Firebird Project (R.U.R, THE SEAGULL), the Public Theater, Little Island, the TEAM Plays, and Soft Shell Productions. She is a regular contributing artist and producer with Paper Kraine, Frigid NY’s monthly show for works in development. Victoria is the author of Stringfoot, a poetry chapbook via Bottlecap Press. She is an alumna of NYU’s English and Anthropology departments. Find her on Instagram (@victoriaplaywright) and New Play Exchange.

Victoria: My name is Victoria Provost. I am one of many multi-hyphenate artists in New York City. I wear many hats, but right now, my primary job is selling books at Westsider Rare & Used Books on the Upper West Side, as well as being a playwright. Check out my plays on New Play Exchange!

Cheeyang: I'm Cheeyang and I have been in New York for about eleven years now. I am a musical theater writer and a screenwriter. Currently living a bicoastal life between New York and LA. And I am very excited to come back to 3Views after my apparently controversial KPOP on Broadway reflection, and talk about art. I think a lot of people have forgotten that critique used to be artists talking about art. It is a way of processing and understanding about how to write better. Every time I see a show, I always think about what can be applied to my writing.

Victoria: We love 3Views! The last thing I published with them is a reflective essay that I wrote about Teeth at Playwrights Horizons. I was very proud of that. Should we chat a little bit about what we saw yesterday at Isabel? What are your first impressions?

Photo Credit: Marcus Middleton

Cheeyang: As someone who's very invested in gender, as someone who is still discovering where I lie on the gender spectrum, and grappling with that every day in my work, I thought it was pretty thought provoking to present a discussion on gender in a very different way. And for people who really enjoy non-linear, experimental storytelling, I think Isabel touched on a lot of those things. How about you?

Victoria: This play was not at all what I expected. I had read the little blurb provided by NAATCO [National Asian American Theatre Company], but then it got so much weirder than the one sentence pitch, which I always love. I was really interested in how specifically it deals with being Asian, and being LGBTQ and Asian. There were several beats in it that I recognized myself and my history in, in a play that isn't about that. That always massages my brain in the right way. I also really loved the horror of it. It was in such a small, intimate space (Abron Arts Center), yet they were able to do so much with such a deceptively simple set (by dots) and lighting rig (by Barbara Samuels). I really loved that. I think that true horror theater is rarely done well and effectively, and they really succeeded.

Cheeyang: I thought the sound design (by Tei Blow) was excellent.

Victoria: We could feel the rumbling under our seats! I also stayed for the talkback after the show about their casting process, which was really interesting because they held a nationwide search. They really wanted to find people who would best respect the diversity requirements of both the races of the characters and their gender identities. Obviously, they succeeded, because the characters all had such admirable chemistry.

Cheeyang: I thought the three actors (Sagan Chen, who plays Matt; Haruna Lee, who plays Isabel; and Ni-Ni, who plays Harriet) played really well together. The audience is made to question the gender identities of the three characters at multiple points in the show, and also asked to question their own assumptions. Even though I recognize the intention of this, I question whether it paid off–whether it needed to take the entirety of the play to discuss. I was curious as to what you thought about that.

Photo Credit: Marcus Middleton

Victoria: I walked away with more questions than answers. I don't think that that means the play didn't succeed, of course, but I think that dramaturgically, I would have been more interested in exploring a more direct closure to the threads of all the characters’ absurd transformations, and how those transformations relate to their relationships and gender identities. I'm interested in talking about the staircases.

We’re introduced to these staircases, in the woods in the world of the play, that look like the staircase you might see in the foyer of an average house. These stairs just emerge out of the trees… and they lead to nowhere. They’re just inexplicably freestanding. The staircase centerstage is in pristine condition, with ornate woodwork and carpeting. The superstition is that you’re not supposed to touch them, approach them, or even acknowledge them… lest some mysterious and unwanted fate befall you.

I was really, really excited about the lore and superstition of these staircases. That's going to sit with me for a while. I grew up in the sticks of Appalachia, and so I really love the trippy, creepy vibe of things in the woods we don't look at and we don't talk about because that'll get you some bad juju.

Cheeyang: I wonder if it’s also trying to make a statement on gender.

Victoria: It could apply to the gender identity theme of the show: if you want to ascend into your true self, that's going to come at a cost to the self that is known. So you ascend into something that is in the dark, unknowable. Or it could be about trying to escape from your home, from your family, and self-actualize.

Photo Credit: Marcus Middleton

Cheeyang: I really enjoyed how time was not linear and how our expectations were constantly being questioned. Like we're trying to find our bearings a little bit. I am of two minds with this when I write too: What is needed for clarity and what is needed for mystery? We want the audience to be in suspense, but not in so much suspense that you don't know what's happening. And at times I wondered where I was.

Victoria: When you're looking into your past and you're looking at your memory, your experience of remembering that moment becomes different than the moment itself. So, your memory then becomes a simulacrum of the actual thing that happened to you. There was a lot of that going on.

I think we should talk about how the play is titled Isabel.

Cheeyang: Yeah, when Haruna comes out at the end of the play as a park ranger looking for the missing children, and says, “You should see the ranger pulling up soon. His name is Isabel.” My assumptions were once again challenged—. My whole perception of the play is challenged.

Victoria: I think that we need to talk about the sex aspects of the play, not the sexuality aspect, but just—there were so many dildos.

Cheeyang: I counted three, varying in sizes. I wonder what they represented to each character, what each character's relationship was to them. And also, the dildos got bigger, as linear time went on.

Victoria: I appreciated how in the moment between the siblings, when they're both sitting on the air mattress, they're holding the smallest dildo, but they're talking about it in a way where it's not necessarily a sexual object. It's just an object that Harriet knows is comforting and affirming for Matt. That helped to expand symbolism of the dildos, beyond just being phallic or penetrative.

Cheeyang: I don't have any siblings, so it was lovely to see the amount of care between Matt and Harriet. I wondered if that’s what I could have had if I had a non-gender conforming sibling as well. I was also thinking about what happened to the largest dildo, between Harriet and Isabel. Isabel was using the dildo to “penetrate” Harriet’s body as a way to step into a new world. What is the significance of that dildo?

Victoria: Also the fact that a bruise on Harriet’s body was being represented as a portal to another dimension. When we were watching that scene, I thought of that Muna song line that goes “a bruise is your body trying to keep you intact.” They even spoke about that, “what is the opposite of a bruise?” Is this character's body, as they're coming into their own gender identity, their own self-actualization, is this the manifestation of that? Sex and sexuality are obviously a part of that.

Cheeyang: Is it the body trying to protect you? I don't know. I think you're a lot more well versed in looking at images and ideas and interpreting them. As someone who comes from a world that is a little bit more literal, I needed help.

Photo Credit: Marcus Middleton

Victoria: Just because this affected my view of the play very much, I want to talk a little bit about what’s going on in my life. My mother, my Asian mother, entered hospice this week. She has weeks, perhaps days to live.

Cheeyang: I’m so sorry.

Victoria: And that's really tough because that's not the parent who has supported me in my journey through being queer, or being an artist. So I have a lot of very complicated feelings about that. That was absolutely sitting in my body as I was watching this, particularly when the two siblings are sitting on their bed talking about their bus tickets and when they're finally going to leave. And how the mother's voice is only represented as—

Cheeyang: A tiger.

Victoria: A tiger mom! A tiger growling! Yes, exactly. I thought that was really funny.

Obviously they’re siblings, but they still found each other as the family that we choose. Then they find Isabel, and then they become a part of their found family.

Cheeyang: I did crave to understand what these characters meant to each other, and I wished the stakes of what they were going through could have been presented at the start of the play. I did understand a lot more at the end. Another thing I craved was seeing the conflict play out onstage. For example, when Isabel was talking about Harriet puking up slime, I don’t know how it could’ve been physically depicted on stage, but hearing about the action took away experiencing the event for me.

Victoria: It felt like there were a lot of moments that were talked about versus moments that we saw. I do think that’s a device, an aid to preserving the senses of mystery and obfuscation. But especially at the end,I felt like I was camping out in this empty house and on the air mattress with them. But then they're ripped away from us. I craved closure.

Cheeyang: But then again, I also want to recognize that, maybe these are all the intentions of the author. They wanted us to feel that life doesn't have any closure. Putting the messiness of life and the messiness of trying to find one's self and gender onstage is for that reason.

Something that stuck out to me was when Isabel and Harriet were in the woods and Harriet asked “Where are we going now?” And Isabel said, “Home. We’re looking for home. We don’t know where it is yet.” And I think as a queer person, we think about that a lot. It's like, where do you feel like you could be yourself? Is that what we all need to do in order to be accepted by society, to become a recluse? Because I think about going into the fucking woods all the time. As someone who is trans, non-binary, I think about all of these things. And so to see it manifested onstage was very exciting.

Photo Credit: Marcus Middleton

Victoria: I appreciate how unapologetic it was about like, “this is where we're going. We're not going to hold your hand. You're confused. And it's that way on purpose.” It felt very dreamlike in those qualities.

Cheeyang: You're looking at the script, right? There are only like seven scenes. Am I right?

Victoria: Yeah, it's a short sixty-one pages.

Cheeyang: Lovely. We love a one-act.

Victoria: We do.

Cheeyang: Are there other things that stood out to you that are worth highlighting?

Victoria: I sat right in the very front row because I'm a tryhard like that, and there were a lot of very small details that really fleshed out the world of the play for me. These are design and prop choices, but like, Harriet's lockscreen was Elliot Page. And there was a Siamese cat keychain on the backpack. There were all these little things that made them feel very tender to me.

Cheeyang: We have to talk about the backpack. We have to talk about how at one point in the show Harriet turned into a backpack. Literally.

Victoria: Oh my God. That backpack broke my brain a bit. Harriet, whose pronouns are he and him, turns into a backpack. But when Harriet becomes a backpack, her backpack pronouns become she and her, and she has a new name. What was her name?

Cheeyang: Loaves.


Cheeyang: I had questions and I don't know if it's the right answer, but… inanimate objects. Do we assign them genders? We assign the Earth a gender. We assign our pets a gender. What is your take on gendering everything?

Victoria: Well, in a lot of languages, the syntax of language does the gendering for you. But at least for me, in English, it makes it more interesting and fun. Also, it's a form of personification in a way that's comforting.. It is so sweet how they care about the backpack. They make sure that she is safe and they turn her just so.

Photo Credit: Marcus Middleton

Cheeyang: And throughout the show, they mention that bad things happen if you touch the stairs, but Matt leaves Harriet the backpack, Loaves, on the stairs, and then we never come back to it.

Victoria: I got so anxious when that happened because I was like, I thought we weren't supposed to touch the staircases. That’s one of the first things we learn about the world of the play—Matt’s neighbor warns him not to touch the stairs in the woods; he says that’s what the Forest Service tells every new hire on Day One: “Keep away from the staircases.” I was already anxious because we hear Harriet tell us that Isabel touched one, then I was holding my breath watching Matt place the backpack on the staircase.

Anything you're dying to get off your chest about this play?

Cheeyang: If you are someone who's really interested in unconventional storytelling and mystery, horror stories for queer trans Asians on stage—a story that will make your mind really engaged, and leaving the theater with thoughts that you can have conversation with your friends with—I think you should go see the show.

Victoria: I think if you want to be challenged, if you don't want your hand to be held, and if you want to feel a little bit unsettled yet comforted by a cast of characters exploring who they are… and maybe even if you want to see a trans, Asian adaptation of Into the Woods. Go see Isabel.

Cheeyang: Go see Isabel.

Victoria: I love being queer and Asian.

Cheeyang: Happy Pride!


Isabel by reid tang runs through July 6 at the Abrons Arts Center.

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