Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing Mountain - A Blog Post by Playwright/Composer Min Kahng

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon opens February 22
When I was asked to adapt Where the Mountain Meets the Moon into a stage musical, my initial thought was: “This is impossible.” Grace Lin’s book is intricate and poetic, with multiple stories intertwining. In codex form, this makes for an exciting reading experience. I found myself flipping back and forth throughout the book to remember certain characters or stories, and being delighted when I stumbled upon a new connection or revelation. Unfortunately, during a theatre performance, an audience member can’t flip through the scenes to remind themselves of previous occurrences. This problem of form initially seemed like a Herculean task – how can I even come close to the beautiful vignette-like structure of Lin’s work?

Then I realized that I was neglecting something fairly obvious. There is a through-line story in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and a very strong one. The character of Minli is going on a journey to change her family’s fortune. Though she meets a colorful array of characters along the way, each with their own stories, it is Minli who we follow and root for. There is also a secondary through-line which balances Minli’s incredible journey – the story of her parents. I started to see that focusing in on these two threads (rather than trying to highlight every story found in the book) would help keep a live audience engaged. This centered my writing, and it also became a benchmark for deciding which stories to include in our production. With each moment in the book, I’d ask “Does it directly serve the central story arcs of Minli and her parents?” If it does, then include it. If not, then let it go.

Of course, there was some major adjusting done along the way. Some plot points that seemed crucial turned out to be secondary. Others that seemed miniscule, ended up being key to help the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the story (Thank goodness for workshops with audience feedback!). And there were some moments in the book that needed to be altered in order to help with the flow of the musical.

Throughout the development process, I had very constructive meetings with director Mina Morita and dramaturg Oona Hatton. We became a “story team,” bouncing ideas off each other, trying new things, mulling over what the overall style and feel of the show would be. This gathering of strong-minded creative-types could have become a crucible of conflicts and disagreements, but I am amazed and quite proud of how the three of us discussed, listened to and experimented with ideas in a respectful (and often times jovial) environment. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: A Musical Adaptation is all the stronger, and I am a better writer because of these collaborators.

Now, halfway through Tech Week, I am even more amazed at the dedication that the cast, designers and creative team are bringing to the work. Actors, musicians, choreography, costumes, sets, props, sound and lights are all breathing life into the story. It is a quiet kind of joy to see something you’ve written being treated respectfully and taken seriously by other artists. I am thankful to be surrounded by folks who are so good at what they do. I am also thankful for the support my writing has received from Bay Area Children’s Theatre. I now think my initial statement about writing Mountain was correct, but with an added clause: “This is impossible without the help of others.” How appropriate, since this is also one of the key lessons Minli learns on her journey.


Min Kahng is a playwright/composer living in the Bay Area. His previous works include Tales of Olympus: A Greek Myth Musical and The Song of the Nightingale. Kahng is also the Marketing Coordinator and a Youth Education Program Instructor for Bay Area Children's Theatre.