The show must Zoom on
UCI film scholar's original screenplay highlights the mask debate in schools
This summer, Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of East Asian studies and the founding director of the UCI Center for Critical Korean Studies, took his experiences of the pandemic to the page. A creative writer and film producer, Kim has written extensively about Korean cinema and has worked with internationally renowned directors Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong and Martin Scorsese. These experiences culminated in him writing his first play, "Pan Damn It!," which will debut as a live reading via Zoom on November 15th.
Inspired by real events, Kim’s “Pan Damn It!” traces the story of a Korean American family in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and explores the debate around wearing face coverings. To bring the play to screens across the nation, Kim partnered with Jane Page, professor of drama at UCI, and Gavin Cameron-Webb, a theater director.
Here, we discuss with Kim, Page and Cameron-Webb the screenplay and its one-time live reading event.
What was the impetus for writing this play?
Kyung Hyun Kim: The main character in the play, P Kim, experiences many symptoms of COVID-19 while being quarantined from the family. And then in the midst of this crisis, he is also embroiled in a mask debate with other parents in the school that his daughter attends. Both of these events were real experiences I lived through during the summer months of 2020 and they both triggered the writing of the screenplay.
How did you become aware of “Pan Damn It!”?
Gavin Cameron-Webb and Jane Page: Kyung is our neighbor, so the play was just a few doors down. Since the spring lockdown and throughout the summer, we had been talking about the state of the world and life inside this challenging time. The script is extremely topical and dramatized the absurd and dangerous controversy that has blown up in the U.S. over wearing masks.
During the pandemic, there has been a rise in anti-Asian sentiment. How did that affect writing the play and/or its plot?
KHK: I have always felt that racism against Asians in this country is less explicit and visible, but one that is still vitriolic and insulting. And this comes in many forms. Many of even the best scientists in this country failed to recognize the importance of face-coverings during the early stage of the pandemic because they perceived that masks were an “Asian” thing rather than a scientific response to prevent the spread. While scientists have dramatically turned around to embrace mask-wearing, there are still many skeptics who continue to view mask-wearing as an “Asian thing.”
Asian countries overall have had more success in mitigating the virus than European or American or even South American countries. Why? Not because Asians are simply better at mask-wearing but because they also follow health protocols and allow contact tracers a greater degree of authority. The irony is that instead of Americans holding these metrics from Asia as models of success, there is an overwhelming attempt to discredit them as an “Asian way” of state abuse and violation of individual rights. It carries the same kind of racist tone as “of course you are good at math because you are Asian.” It’s dismissive of the hard work and sacrifice you have to make in order to get good grades.
The screenplay centers on two main issues – mask wearing and children going back to school. Why?
KHK: Having a debate or an argument with other parents in your school is hard because you don’t want your child to be adversely affected in the playground because of something you may have blurted out in the heat of the moment. Just like any other parent, I worry about the prospect of my child being bullied at school, and you’d never want any of your actions or words in any way to become the source of your child’s pain.
So, even when I knew that some of these libertarian parents were making no sense and held no scientific truth, I would have to tone down my anger or frustration and become craftier in my response. This personal anxiety and insecurity I experienced while having a debate was not just my own, but also prevalent among parents who held similar views as me. Almost all of the Asian parents wanted mask-wearing to be mandated but found their voices to be frustratingly less heard because they were so cautious.
I wanted to create a drama that gave a platform for these rather cautious voices and subjects that creeped out during the pandemic. Children’s school was and continues to be an important litmus test and even a lab for medical science, social tolerance, and a divided political system in America during the pandemic. So, I found school to also be a perfect setting for such drama. Every element that belongs to tragedy, comedy, and even this Kafka-esque sense of the unknown were all there incubated in this actual debate on mask-wearing and school reopening.
What goes into directing a play for a Zoom audience?
GCW and JP: Kyung has conceived and written a story which in large part depends on ‘medium being the message’ – to paraphrase philosopher Marshall McLuhan. He has come up with an ingenious device; and it certainly speaks to how we communicate during these highly stressful COVID times.
That said, there are complications to working in this medium. The first being that Zoom was never designed for performance. One of the primary difficulties is that the platform does not allow for overlapping speech. It automatically emphasizes whomever is talking, which is fine for a meeting. But in a performance, it means there can be no overlapping dialogue – quick-fire conversation or confrontation is technically impossible.
There are other technical challenges to overcome as well such as: each person’s internet connection, the quality of their equipment, their camera set-up and their audio. Each actor is isolated so it’s difficult to get a rhythm to any particular scene. The actors also can’t look at each other, as if they are in the same room. To get that illusion takes a lot of working out.
The audience is also isolated; there is no collective audience and it cannot come together for laughter or tears or to create that unique feeling of live theatre – the communion that unites actors and audiences in the best and most effective productions. With Zoom, we are each in our own space experiencing the performance in private, so here it’s more like television.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the live reading?
KHK: I hope one message the audience takes away is that we need to stop listening to our friends Tweeting “conspiracy theories” on social media and instead trust our scientists who are trying to protect our health. I know this sounds simple, but it’s not that easy. It does require sacrifice for everyone because our individual freedom and privacy would have to be compromised. It starts with a mask mandate but continues with restrictions in travel and meeting friends and family, and the need to allow health officials to look at our phone records and pictures to contact trace. We have to defend the health protocols that are going to infringe on our rights.
I was always amazed that the concept of “public health” is difficult for Americans to fathom. Hopefully, after watching this play, or after this pandemic, the need to create a larger net of public health will hopefully become apparent for everyone. There is no “us-versus-them” when it comes to health. Everyone’s health—and when I say everyone, I include everyone on this planet — is just as important as yours and mine.
Tell us about the actors who will be performing the reading.
GCW and JP: The cast is a mix of professional actors, UCI students and neighborhood children. The reading has ten actors involved reading fifteen roles. There are three children from the area, four actors who are either current students or alumni of UCI’s Department of Drama, a stage manager and a technical coordinator both are also from UCI’s Department of Drama. The cast is rounded out with professional actors from L.A. and Long Beach.
Once it’s safe, can we expect a full production on stage?
GCW and JP: Time will tell.
Learn more about the play here and tune in on November 15th. The event will not be recorded.
Content warning: “Pan Damn It!” features sensitive topics, including COVID-related death."
Photo: A screenshot of the actors during a Zoom rehearsal. From let to right, top to bottom: Jane Page, Kyung Hyun Kim, Miriam Mendoza, Gavin Cameron-Webb, Nicholas Adams, Tess Lina, Nico S. Morales, Richard Jin, Anais Legras, Crystal Kim, Ariella Kvashny, Lexie Morita, Abel Garcia, and Shane Yoon.