Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for the show?
ML: It’s a semi-autobiographical show. Kit and I met in Boston a really long time ago when we both performed at a monthly Queer Asian cabaret where we became friends. One day he asked me to go on tour with him and I said “I’m in my early 20s, I don’t have all that much going on, sure!” and so we went on two tours (in 2008 and 2009) where we performed as “Good Asian Drivers”. It was sort of the beginning of social media “stardom” and we had a pretty big following. And then some things happened (some of which made its way into the show) and we broke up as a band and were actually like mortal enemies for two years. But during that time Kit was actually processing that by writing a lot of poems, and when we became friends again, he brought them to me and I was like “What are these? These are terrible!”
KY: Hey! [Laughter] Okay yes so I wrote this shitty collection of poems and I brought them to Melissa and said “I think this should be a musical, what do you think?” because I knew she’d written a musical before.
ML: Yeah, I usually never want to write a new musical, so it’s kind of funny that we ended up here.
KY: As a job.
ML: Whenever I do it, it’s always like birthing a child and then I think “I never want to do this again”. But even when we weren’t friends, Kit, I wanted to write something about our experience too. I think it just came together that we both wanted to process this through art.
KY: Like when we were more mature. [Laughs]
ML: That was in 2013, so this show is 7 years in the making.
How much of an effort did you make to differentiate yourselves from the main characters?
ML: Originally, it was much closer to us, but we found that can actually be really constricting and when we remove ourselves from the characters they can become more interesting and have more flaws and we can dig deeper into things that ring true for us but are also theatrical. For example, I think Dash has a lot of flaws (many of which have to do with toxic masculinity) but it would be unfair to say Kit had all of those flaws. [Laughter] But I think because we have that distance we can say more about the world.
KY: You know what’s so funny to hear about that? Melissa has described the first five years of this show’s journey as essentially one long journal entry about that time via a musical. And then we spent all this time removing ourselves a little bit and incorporating people that we met on the road. But as we spend more time developing INTERSTATE on the stage, I feel like we’ve been coming back closer and closer to real life. We definitely fictionalize a lot of the plot points, but as we made the first couple of drafts we were trying to put in a lot of emotional distance, and now that I’ve processed that experience I feel like I’m able to get closer to that story and what it was like to be on the road and have tension with a friend, what it was like to have pressure of how we’re gonna make a living.
ML: Yeah, once we were able to move some of the plot elements to be further away from real life, we’ve been able to get closer to the heart of the emotion of the show, which is what makes this show powerful for other people as well.
The relationships between Dash and Adrian about their parents seem really rooted in the challenges of the young Asian American experience. Can you speak to the importance of including the band’s parents in the show?
ML: It was important for us to see a glimpse of how they were raised, the people that influenced them at home, and how that caused a ripple effect to how they behave on tour. Like for Adrian, [you might ask] why is she so ambitious, what does she have to prove? And then you see it is her mom who is the person always saying she’s going to fail and that’s the thing that drives her to really prove her wrong. With the dad character, it was important for us to show an accepting Asian parent. And obviously with the dad teaching what he’s learned from society to his son about being a man and just perpetuating that sort of idea of masculinity.
KY: We come from really communal communities, our families are really important to us. And I think a lot of time for Queer Asian Americans coming out doesn’t always mean breaking out on your own and being individualistic and rejecting your family. A lot of times folks in Asian American communities may never come out because it’s more important to maintain their home life and their identity in that particular arena. There are issues around wanting your family to be a part of your journey, even if it’s going to be a slow process. I definitely felt that no matter how hard it was going to be I wanted to have my family be a part of my queer and trans journey. In my view, it’s part of my responsibility to be in conversation with my family regardless of what it’s about. Being queer and trans is one thing, but being an artist was a whole other thing…even leaving home for college. It’s important for me to always talk to my family and my parents. Melissa and I started out in Queer Asian organizing and time and time again a lot of folks in our community do not want to reject our families and our parents just because we’re sharing a new part of ourselves. I think that’s a very Western narrative. It’s not bad, it’s just different.
ML: And to add to that, the role that the parents play is really important in the exploration. One of the themes of the show is transphobia and homophobia and what that looks like depending on context and “who has it harder”. And that’s part of what we want to explore, like, Adrian gets a record deal because the music industry is transphobic but then at home her queerness is rejected by her mother whereas Dash’s dad is totally accepting. And then in terms of them going out on the road, Dash gets all these solo opportunities to perform for trans groups. And that’s something that just adds an interesting dynamic; the parent’s reaction to their kids.
KY: Yeah, and this is part of the story we’re interested in addressing. Oppression doesn’t really work like that; you can’t have a cis lesbian woman and a trans man go at each other about who has it harder. Oppression is such a web and it’s so individual and it has to do with familial, cultural, even world history. And that’s something that’s so important for us to explore with this show. The characters are all individuals, but they’re in this pressure cooker to be representatives of their communities.
Has the changing political landscape changed the show?
ML: Through the years I’ve noticed more trans representation. I think we would still be fighting for this piece no matter what, but we wanted it to be set in 2008 because so many things that happened were so specific to that time period. We really were one of the only queer Asians that were out there talking about transness and queerness and being Asian. Now there’s a lot more of it, but it’s important to set it in that time period so people can understand the context now.
KY: People keep saying that this show is so timely, but 2008 was over a decade ago and we’ve been doing this work all that time. The world is always changing, but we’ll always be making this art regardless of how the tide turns. I have found that people are more open to hearing our story now, and particularly exploring a trans world, but I have found that there is still a really sensational and tokenized lens of what it means to be trans. We really struggled with the fact that we’re still in a moment where people need trans people to be heroes (or sheroes) and to be really exceptional. Our characters are so far from exceptional, especially Dash who has so many issues. When we were first making this musical we would think “shit, if we have a trans character who’s not a perfect person or even a terrible human sometimes what does that say about our community?” But now I think the best thing we can do is to write fully realized characters. Our characters just need to be full people in a full world, and I want to assume that the audience can meet us where we’re at. We’re writing for now, we’re writing for the future, we’re writing to rewrite history.