Diana Oh: I’m Not a Whore, I’m Not to Be Raped, and I’m Not a Bad Person

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Diana Oh is the creator of {my lingerie play} that culminates into an 80 minute concert-play of her original music featured on People.com, The Huffington Post, Upworthy, Marie Claire Netherlands, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Lark, and All For One. One of Refinery 29’s Top 14 LGBTQ Influencers, the first Queer Korean-American interviewed on Korean Broadcast Radio, a featured Playwright at the Lark, a Radical Diva Finalist, an Elphaba Thropp Fellow, and one of New York Theatre Now’s Person of the Year. The Wall Street Journal and Upworthy call her “bad-ass.”

In our self-care interview below, we discuss her multiplicity of artistic talents and the inspiration behind her theater work.

What did you want to be growing up?

[Laughs] I always wanted to be a performer. I was always singing in choir and acting in school plays, so it has always been a constant. But, not to level of, I’m getting out of school and auditioning. I have friends who did that and now they’re on film and television because they have worked since a very young age.

Very singularly driven.

Totally, but I wasn’t like that. I didn’t have this understanding of the business and neither did my parents.

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Were you born in the States?

Born and raised in L.A., yeah.

It’s interesting that somehow you wound up in New York, then.

As soon as I graduated from high school I knew I had to go somewhere else, you know? I went to Smith College on the East Coast, which is an all-women’s school. It was such a huge difference from everything I had experienced. All my friends in high school were boys and I just didn’t want to be in a co-ed environment.

During my time at Smith, I went to the National Theater Institute for a semester, and that was where I found writing. One of the teachers named Donna Di Novelli really took me under her wing and encouraged me. After college, I applied to the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program at NYU to follow her. That was where I learned the tools for songwriting, though I didn’t grow up thinking I would be a songwriter, ever.

Although there are individuals who just focus on one thing, I also know many multi-passionate artists like you. You have a lot of different skills you want to shine.

I do and it was a learning process to accept I wasn’t just one thing. Stephanie Ybarra calls us slashers. Actor/singer-songwriter/theater maker are the three things I slash-call myself.

From what I’ve seen, people usually became artists to rebel against their upbringing, or they were very much shepherded by their parents. Can you relate to one of these two origin stories?

I don’t think you create your own work unless it is in retaliation of something. I didn’t really understand that until this year, when I thought, “Hacking at it with auditions and things just isn’t working for me. Retaliate.” But I don’t think it is in retaliation of my parents. It is in reaction to all the wrongs with the systems at play, as a woman, a person of color, an actor, and a writer. There’s so much bullshit so I need to go to this other playground to retain my sanity. I don’t want to play in the bullshit playground.

What did it feel like playing in the bullshit playground in the past?

I’ve brought work into settings before where the majority was white people, and there was just this disconnect. When you write about identity and others haven’t had that struggle, and aren’t open to that kind of story, it can be really fucking scary. That was my experience, but thankfully, every room I’m in now, whether as a performer or theater maker, has that generosity and open-mindedness.

Did that former environment affect your quality of life?

I think so. I had certain successes and opportunities, and felt like I needed to live up to other people’s expectations. I felt the contradiction and barriers of my environment. At that age, my thoughts were, “What do I do? Who do I listen to? Do I write the white version of this story so they can be happy, or do I stay true to myself? Who am I even?” I went to therapy and took the anti-anxiety meds I needed to take to feel like a full human being.

Whenever I question the level of understanding in an environment, I start code-switching to become the needlessly polite Asian.

I feel that’s something we do when we’re young and want to please everybody. 

When did you begin exploring your sexuality and the queer politics attached to it?

It was very informed by my time at Smith College, but I didn’t see the impact until after I moved to New York. This city is the best place in the world for exploration. Once I labeled my identity for myself, I was able to come out as a queer person. I didn’t really feel like a person of color until I lived in New York for a few years. Before that, I lived a super Americanized life and didn’t actually realize I was different. Once I owned that, it was like being given a religion.

But that process took some time?

Yes, and it also took theater companies like terraNOVA Collective reaching their hand out and believing in me. I don’t think I would’ve sought out the solo show form if a theater company hadn’t encouraged me to go and do it.

What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?

My favorite thing about writing is performing what I’ve written. [Laughs] Also, when you are bit by it and can’t turn it off. I love that manic emotion and it unlocks an endless, scary, secretive place. I love the adrenaline rush that writing gives me, and that also ties into performance. It goes back to that place of only answering to me.

My least favorite thing is post-writing and feeling like, “I have something so fucking awesome, and if only the powers that be would open the gate.” It’s the rejection. You’ve worked so hard to build something, and then you have to deal with the system. 

What are some things you do for self-care?

I love taking in other art forms and artwork. I love going to music shows and jewelry stores and weird performance art stuff. I can’t create on empty and these things fill my well. I have an amazing support system. I have the best friends who believe in what we’re building. They make all the difference and come to everything. At the very least, if I decide to make what I want to make, I know I can count on the 10 people to be there, and I will be there for them. My friend Eden Marryshow and I were talking on the train once and he said, “It just takes one person to believe in your dreams for you to make it happen.” That’s what we all need and I believe I have that.

I believe in reflexology. [Laughs] I play. There’s a book by Dr. Stewart Brown called “Play.” It is my Bible. He talks about how when we don’t play, we lose sight of the things that make us happy. We lose our purpose and passion. Aren’t we all just working to play and playing to work? As soon as it’s out of balance, we’re sad. When I do creative work, the room has to be playful. It doesn’t mean the work is easy, but if we’re not laughing, something is wrong.

I also love listening to podcasts.

Do you have a favorite?

I love “The Chalene Show.” She’s a self-help coach/personal trainer who’s totally dedicated to selling products at QVC. Her coping mechanisms are the best. If you’re open to that kind of information, then it’ll help.

Besides managing rejection, what other things are you working on as far as self-care?

I wish I could motivate myself to work out more. It’s gotten to a point where I’d sit in rehearsal and think, “Why can’t I get my shit together and go fucking sweat?!” Oh, but dancing is another self-care thing. I need to go dancing bi-weekly. It’s so freeing and it’s my favorite activity.

Club dancing or, like, line dancing? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Straight up sober club dancing. I’m allergic to alcohol so I don’t have that to fall back on.

Your work deals heavily with identity politics, like “My Lingerie Play” and the Catcalling Sucks campaign. Where does your inspiration come from?

“My Lingerie Play” came about because I read an article about a woman going through her lingerie collection. She took pictures of all her lingerie and was like, “I wore this for this guy and then I found out he was cheating on me.” She just went through her entire lingerie collection, and I thought that was an amazing idea for a solo show. Instead of stories, it would be songs about the people that I wore my lingerie for. I wanted to stand on stage and present to the audience a fully fleshed out female human being who also has sex. I’m not a whore, I’m not a slut, I’m not to be raped, and I’m not a bad person. I also happen to be Asian, so how do we go beyond exoticizing that image?

As I was writing it, I realized all the people who would come to the show are people who already knew this. This is such a global problem and I’m trying to fix it by going into a room and saying, “Hey, this is a problem.” [Laughs] My roommate found this soapbox outside of our apartment and asked if I wanted this. The next day I thought, “I’m going to stand on this soapbox, wear my favorite lingerie, write messages on paper bags, and stand in Times Square!”

Were you nervous?

I was so nervous! I asked my girlfriend at the time, “Can you please join me because I’m fucking scared?!” I remember this moment where I thought, “This is going to ruin my career and I can’t do this.” My ex reminded me I needed to do this if only for myself. As soon as I took my clothes off, it felt like I was jumping into a pool. Then I gave myself the assignment of doing 10 installations. “I’m going to make them up and call this ‘Underground,’ because I don’t know what this project is yet. I don’t have to answer to anybody and if people ask I’ll just say, ‘You’ll see.'” It was so liberating to answer to this artistic instinct, and if people were interested in it, they could come with me. It just grew from there. My friends are so fucking awesome and so brave.

Was Catcalling Sucks derived from “My Lingerie Play?”

It was a section in the initial solo show I wrote. I was inspired by this moment where I was followed home by a car full of men in Brooklyn, and it was just like, “I’ve had it.” Installation number nine of {my lingerie play] assesses this exact moment.

Do performing and songwriting feel like they come from different creative spaces?

I would not be the actor that I am if I wasn’t the theater maker and songwriter that I am. I would not be the theater maker and songwriter that I am if I wasn’t the actor that I am. I need all of them to feel full and complete, [but] I do think they come from different places. When you’re acting, it is a collaboration in which you are in service of someone’s vision. There are just more neuroses attached with that because acting is a neurotic process. [Laughs] “I can bring my truth to it! But is that what you want?” It’s a constant check-in.

When it’s something I’ve written, there’s an element that’s harder work, but it’s very liberating. Your channels have to be completely open and you’re the leader, in a way.

It is very consuming without institutional support. You have to work twice as hard.

But the payoff is that you’re throwing your own party. That is my space and I get to follow my inspiration.

Who are some artists that inspire you?

I saw a documentary about Kathleen Hanna and took in everything about her. She’s so amazing to me. Patti Smith is another one. Dr. Stewart Brown is a very inspiration person. Vera Balyura who created Verameat is also an independent filmmaker. I respect what she does so much; she models all her jewelry and it’s unapologetic. She likes performing by putting her face on her brand. Often, what gets in our way is our obsession with modesty, but if we can connect and understand our higher purpose, it doesn’t matter.

You seem very Zen. Do you practice something in particular?

I’m on Zoloft. [Laughs]

[Laughs] That is the most honest fucking thing I’ve heard in a long time.

It’s a very low dose, but it’s so helpful. In grad school, I would have these panic attacks when I’m overcome with pressure. Some people have anxiety and depression, and there’s support and treatment out there. It took a long time for me to say, “I have to do something about this because I’m not living to my fullest and I don’t feel like the best version of myself.”

Has the anxiety been there all along or did it become acute at a certain point?

Grad school was when I realized I didn’t have good coping mechanisms for very normal things, like a deadline. It was dealing with the high highs and low lows that made me realize it wasn’t sustainable. It was very intense, but so is life. I don’t feel like I have that gap anymore. I can peak when I need to peak and come down.

It takes time to figure out all the components we need to live the life we deserve. Zoloft is just one component.

[Laughs] Some people need medication.

And it’s not your whole identity.

Zoloft is not my identity. [Laughs]

That’ll be a show coming up. [Laughs]

Coming to you from 54 Below, “Zoloft is Not My Identity,” a piano cabaret! [Laughs]

Is there anything you wish to see change or progress in the theater world?

The theater world or film world?

Hm. Both.

I feel like theater is moving in a really exciting direction. I just saw “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” and it made me believe in theater again. I go through waves of believing and then not believing in an art form, and watching that show reminded me why we need theater. You need this live, sensory experience you cannot get in film form. I wish there were more monetary resources for theater artists. I’m just coming off of working within the classical music theater world with New World Symphony, and their resources are unbelievable.

The movie world is so fucking fucked. I paid for a ticket to see “Keanu” and went with a group of friends to go see “Mother’s Day” instead. An actor friend of mine, Chinaza Uche organized this field trip with a group of progressives to talk shit the entire time. I couldn’t believe people were there in sincereity.

They advertised it as lily white but Kate Hudson’s character is married to an Indian man, and the baby is mixed race. They must have believed they were doing something really progressive. They must’ve believed “that was what a Republican mother would say, so we can say it!” But, if you’re not going to make that Indian character a main character, if you’re not going to push him forward, then you’re just shoving us down. You’re still making white people more important than we are. This was the entire movie.

It’s especially hard when we have feelings about resource allocation, and so much money goes into Hollywood projects like these.

I stopped watching TV and film for a while for my own self-preservation. It was just making me too sad. I feel like people are often unintentionally sexist and racist when they don’t even realize it. They’re good people. They’re just racist.

When you think about the struggles you’ve had to live the life of an artist, what would you say or do for another person who’s going through the same thing?

Be awesome and get out of your way. If you’re sad, assess that shit, but you can fix your art in a holistic way. Get to loving and knowing yourself so that your art can persevere. Art is so hard to make sometimes, but it’s also easy because it’s the only option. Step away from it and enjoy your life for a day, then come back with fresh eyes when you love yourself.

The thing that’s helped me the most is locking into my identity. I own this, I know who I am, and it liberates and empowers me.

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