Monstress from Page to Stage: An Interview with Playwrights Sean San José and Philip Kan Gotanda, and Author Lysley Tenorio

By Michael Paller

The tales that populate Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio, are as diverse as they are quirky, alternatively—and sometimes simultaneously—hilarious and heartbreaking. Artistic Director Carey Perloff read these unique short stories and knew that somehow, she had to help these vibrant short stories about Filipino American life find their way to the stage.

A.C.T. reached out to some of our favorite artists and offered them the opportunity to select one of Tenorio’s stories to adapt for the stage. One of these artists was Philip Kan Gotanda, who chose to adapt Tenorio’s story, “Save the I-Hotel,” which he has renamed Remember the I-Hotel. Sean San José chose to adapt the title story from Tenorio’s collection (he renamed it Presenting . . . the Monstress!). We sat down with Tenorio, Gotanda, and San José to talk about writing, Filipinos, and the never-ending chase for the ever-elusive American dream.  

From left: Philip Kan Gotanda, Lysley Tenorio, Sean San Jose.
Photo by Ryan Montgomery.

Philip and Sean, rather than asking you to adapt a specific story, Carey gave you the book and asked you to choose one you wanted to work on. Philip, you chose “Save the I-Hotel”. Why?

Philip Kan Gotanda I immediately responded to these two older Filipino-American gentlemen. I grew up in Stockton in the ’50s and ’60s with many Filipino-Americans as neighbors. Manilatown and Japanesetown were kind of right next to each other. The older Filipino-American men, the manongs, held kind of a special place in my imagination.

And Sean, you chose the title story of the collection, “Monstress.” Why was that?

Sean San José It’s the first story in the book, and I was so taken by the whole collection, but that first piece really imprinted itself on me. It’s emblematic, too, of what the collection does: it’s a beautiful mixture of the personal, the fantastic, the cultural and political all in one—but really through the eyes of the personal. And the fact that Lysley made it so fun . . . I think it was irresistible in that way.

Lysley, you’ve said that your stories are emotionally and chronologically autobiographical. What’s it been like to see these two stories, “Monstress” and “Save the I-Hotel,” transformed into a very different medium with different demands?

Lysley Tenorio I didn’t feel possessive about them. I thought, “Okay, this is source material, do with it what you will. Hopefully you’ll keep the plot, you’ll keep the characters,” but how they’d be envisioned for the stage I knew was out of my hands. I think that’s been part of the thrill.

In the last staged reading I saw [in April], there was material that Philip added that I had tried incorporating into the story when I was writing, but I just couldn’t figure out a way. For example, the references to Speedy Dado, the boxer. Speedy Dado was actually mentioned in an earlier draft. Whatever Philip’s been adding feels like it belongs, so it’s been cool to see the ways that we’re in sync. It’s remarkable, those things that feel so integral and authentic to the story that he’s actually brought in himself.

Relatively late in the writing process, Sean decided to change the American setting. In the short story, it’s set just outside Hollywood; in his adaptation, it’s outside San Francisco. How did you feel about that, Lysley?

Lysley Tenorio I was fine with it. Maybe I should be a little more adamant about certain things [laughter], but I thought it was for the purpose of storytelling, and for creating a cohesiveness for the whole show. In a way, it serves the story even better because now Gaz is not a Hollywood loser—he’s not even in L.A. He’s not even in Southern California. He’s right outside San Francisco. What hope [as a filmmaker] does he possibly have? He’s misled Checkers and Reva even more in Sean’s version, so I’m fine with it. I really am. There’s a Filipino population up here too, and there’s a Filipino population down there as well, so it makes sense.

I’m happy to see these changes and additions and innovations. Of course I hoped the adaptations would stay true to the stories, but I was more interested to see a transformation, a metamorphosis.

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