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Piano Woman

A surprising call from the past inspired Julia Cho to write her new play, The Piano Teacher.

Julia Cho
Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory
"Sometimes the most potent seeds for plays are not the big dramatic events," says Julia Cho. "They're these really tiny things. The smaller seeds often lend themselves to the imagination better." Such was the case with the playwright's most recent work, The Piano Teacher, which will receive its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, starting on March 11.

"When I was in my early 20s, I got a phone call from one of my old piano teachers," says Cho. "It was very surprising to me, because the lessons were such a long time ago. She was just calling to see how I was doing, but at the time, it seemed odd. I didn't know what to say, and I remember there was a slight feeling of discomfort through the conversation. As time has gone on, I have the memory of that phone call, and it's so clear to me why she called. It seems so human to reach out and want to speak to your former students to see what kind of effect you had on them. And I felt sad, because my realization and understanding was coming so many years too late."

In Cho's three-character play, a piano teacher named Mrs. K. contacts former students, trying to discover the reason that they eventually stopped coming for their lessons. However, the answers to this seemingly simple mystery are not at all what she expected. "I was doing a lot of reading and watching movies, and there were so many things coming out about Rwanda, genocide, and these really terrible world events," says Cho. "In a really inexplicable way, this memory of my piano teacher got combined with those and the initial seed for the play transformed into something very different."

Over the last few years, Cho's playwriting career has taken off, with several of her plays receiving productions at major theaters around the country. The Architecture of Loss was presented by New York Theater Workshop in 2004. The following year, BFE was co-produced by the Long Wharf Theatre and Playwrights Horizons. In 2006, fellow playwright Chay Yew helmed two world premieres by Cho: The Winchester House at L.A.'s Theatre at Boston Court and Durango, which played both the Long Wharf and New York's Public Theater.

None of this might have happened if Cho hadn't been influenced by another of her teachers, the playwright Constance Congdon. "Until she arrived at Amherst, I don't think there was a playwriting course, so if she had not been there, I don't know if I would have found my way into playwriting," says Cho. "She was so supportive very early on, and changed my life profoundly."

The Piano Teacher was commissioned by South Coast Rep, and was initially featured as a workshop reading last year as part of the theater's Pacific Playwrights Festival. That reading led to Cho's nomination for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, which is given annually to a female playwright working in the English language. Director Kate Whoriskey and lead actress Linda Gehringer, both of whom were part of the workshop, are repeating their duties for this production. (Kevin Carroll and Toi Perkins complete the cast.)

"Linda brings a really deep, personal connection to the play," says Cho. "Her grandmother was a piano teacher and her brother is one now. There are so many things about the music and that world that she just understands on a very intuitive level. As for Kate, it's been wonderful to have this conversation about the play which has continued for almost a year now. She knows it so well that we can talk about it on a very deep level. She's very sharp, and it's been great just to have somebody that smart to bounce ideas off of."

Cho knows she's fortunate that the play has gotten a full-scale production already. "The Piano Teacher's process was shockingly fast," she says. "Most plays take between two to four years from the time they're written to the time they're produced. In a funny way, it actually benefited me that I was slow to get productions at the beginning, because then I was writing more. Now I'm kind of caught up [with all my plays having been produced] and I can re-focus on just writing again."

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