Early autumn is a time of transition, and local theatre company SIS Productions is featuring that most transitional—and transformational—feeling in its next production: love.
SIS will present Dipika Guha’s play Mechanics of Love, as a continuation of the theme of love highlighted in its long-running series Sex in Seattle. “We love scripts about ideas, especially ones that explore relationships with a sense of humor,” said Kathy Hsieh, a founder and co-executive producer of SIS Productions, and an actor playing the role of Faizi in this production. “Our regular fans are excited because we haven’t done a real romantic comedy in four years, and that’s where we began.”
The enthusiasm of SIS audiences appears to be well-justified. “Love is one of the most Googled words,” Hsieh added. “It’s one of the concepts that scientists are still trying to figure out, comprehend, dissect, and make sense of. Yet it’s probably the most intangible real thing that everyone in the world feels but can’t quite explain.”
Playwright Dipika Guha says that the specifics of this play developed out of larger societal trends that she witnessed. “We lived in Russia in the late ’90s, so I had a sense of what the air feels like in a country in transition,” Guha said. “There was a sense of great risk and adventure as the old rules come apart and before new rules are articulated and codified.”
Guha believes that these kinds of times foster experimentation. “I’m interested in this ‘soft space’ or space in transition,” she said. “It seems to me that this is where the greatest creative leaps are made; a space where no possibilities are ruled out.”
Next, she began to develop the plot outline. “The container of this historical time seemed a useful way to think about some of the questions in the play about the nature of love and our desire to hold on to our ideas about it despite the flux of life,” she said. “The narrative arcs for the characters came very organically as the story began to take shape.”
Guha has come a long way since her early childhood to become a writer. “When we first moved to England, I was two years old and didn’t speak any English. For a multiplicity of reasons, uppermost of which was likely a mixture of fear and shame about making a mistake with the language, I felt afraid to speak,” she said. “But when I was six, someone put me on stage and all my fear evaporated: I was someone else. That connection between theatre and a sense of liberty has stayed with me my whole life.”
After age 20, Guha struggled with determining her future, and began to write a little bit each day. Eventually, she applied for the Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship at Harvard University, and received the opportunity to attend Harvard for nine months, during which time she wrote her first play. “That process of being entrusted with time to develop helped me figure out how to turn my longtime devotion into language and it changed my life,” she said.
Now Guha is immersed in the challenges of a career in theatre. “A lot of the ways in which plays get out in the world and produced can feel opaque, illogical and entirely out of the writer’s control,” she said. “But I started writing because I wanted to have the liberty to speak in my own voice in a form I understood and loved. This work asks that I am courageous and inventive and generous and gives me continuous opportunity to grow as a person.”
Guha also strives to share what she’s learned with others, primarily through teaching playwriting. “People who have not experimented with their creativity are sometimes astonished to learn that it’s still there,” she said. “My job is to invite people to fall in love with their own voices.”
If so, then the job of a theatre company is to invite its audiences to fall in love with the voices of all of the artists involved in the collaborative process of creating theatre. “I first met Dipika via Hedgebrook’s Women’s Playwrights Festival. I fell in love with her writing then,” said Kathy Hsieh. “She writes these magical pieces that are incredibly quirky on the surface but rich with thought-provoking layers.”
Hsieh highlights the atypical focus on Guha’s script on lesser-considered practices of love. “What’s intriguing about the script is that it explores the concept of love at its most worthy,” she said. “Not by comparing it to its darker consequences like jealousy, manipulation, revenge—but instead positing what the world might be like if love were more socialistic rather than capitalistic. If people shared love more generously. If it was free and for the benefit of all and not considered a commodity.”
Director David Hsieh (brother of Kathy) echoes her point about the play’s intrigue. “Mechanics of Love is an unusual play that seems very different from anything I’ve ever directed before,” he said. “It has been interesting working with the cast and crew my sister assembled and exploring and creating this unique mythological world of the play.”
This opportunity for creativity extends to the entire artistic team. “Because this play lives in a world between fantasy and reality the props do not have to be literal,” said prop designer Celeste Mari Williams. “I have the opportunity to think outside the box and make creative and clever choices.”
The actors agree. “My character is Francesca,” said actor Mona Leach. “The most interesting thing about her is that she lives in the moment and is in a constant state of transformation to live life to the fullest.”
Likewise, Kathy Hsieh has been challenged by her unique character, Faizi. “I’m so not like the character I play, that it’s been really hard work exploring such a different type of person while trying to keep her honest at the same time,” Hsieh said. “A lot of the rehearsal process has been a two-step process: First thinking, what would I do in this situation and then doing the exact opposite!”
Actor Josh Kenji also emphasizes how different his character, George, is within Mechanics of Love. “While Glen is off forgetting, Francesca is off flying, and Faizi is running around, George is the one who sits down and thinks about how and why things work the way they do,” Kenji said. “While he’s more an average Joe than a contemporary of Aristotle, it is his grounded logical approach that pulls George into the shifting relationships within the play.”
The SIS Production is strongly rooted in the Asian American community, drawing artistic contributions from theatre artists involved in a wide array of other projects and theatre companies, including assistant producer Roger Tang, who is involved in the National Asian American Theatre Conference and Festival.
Guha said that Mechanics of Love itself also has strong Pacific Northwest connections. “I began writing the play in Alaska when I was teaching at Perseverance Theatre and finished it in Seattle when I was in residence at One Coast Collaboration,” Guha said. “So I’m particularly excited to be able to share it with Seattle audiences.”
The SIS team is enthusiastic too. “I never thought about love as a commodity before, but the play really made me realize how much we Americans treat love that way—how possessive we are about the ones we love,” Kathy Hsieh said. “And I think it’s great that the play helps us consider other possibilities that are far more healthy and positive.”
But Hsieh emphasizes that the play isn’t prescriptive. “In Mechanics of Love, Dipika isn’t trying to explain how love works,” she said. “Rather, she’s trying to show that it can’t ever be completely comprehensible.”
Mechanics of Love runs from October 21 to November 5 at Theatre Off Jackson, at 409 Seventh Avenue South, Seattle. For more information, visit www.theatreoffjackson.org/event/1359/mechanics-of-love.