Q&A: Playwright Greg Lam on his new play 'Last Ship to Proxima Centauri'
By Cristee Cook
Dallas’ Kitchen Dog Theater is a longstanding, risk-taking company who advocates for and produces new works. For their 30th season they are presenting new works by playwrights of color. This week, their season continues with the world premiere of Last Ship to Proxima Centauri by Greg Lam. Due to the pandemic, the theater is offering the play as a filmed theatrical event, available for viewing on a personal device. Kitchen Dog Theater Co-Artistic Director Tina Parker is directing.
In Last Ship to Proxima Centauri, a spaceship full of Americans departs Seattle, centuries after most of the world’s population has already relocated. When they arrive, they are met with a planet full of people of color who aren’t that happy to see them. Kitchen Dog audiences might remember the play, which was given a staged reading in the theater’s 2020 New Works Festival.
I had the opportunity to speak with playwright Greg Lam about what inspired the play, how the process of staged readings informed the play, and the common themes in his writing.
To begin, what inspired you to tell this story?
I started writing the play during the immigration crisis, with people detained – and obviously, that’s still going on. And I just wanted to imagine Americans put in a situation where they’re refugees, and they assume rights and they assume they'll be treated fairly - just an inversion of all that.
I noticed in your bio you have several different avenues through which you create, including board game design. How did you end up as a professional playwright?
I’ve always liked playwriting ever since theater class in High School. If not my main focus, but it's always been something I've done over the years. And just in this past three or four years, I've really sort of figured out how to talk to more theaters, enter more contests, and establish connections with people who produce new work. Things like National New Play Exchange have really helped, and just more structures in place that let you talk to theaters across the country.
Last Ship to Proxima Centauri received staged readings at several theatres before this collaboration with Kitchen Dog. How did the staged readings inform or change the play?
It's a gradual process of exposing it to different casts, audiences, and different directors, and just taking something from every one of them. This play features different languages. And trying to figure out what is the right amount of it that you can give to the audience and they'll still be with you? So, part of it is hearing stuff in a different language – do you have it all in there? Do you have some sort of universal translation? Do you have subtitles? You know, what are you trying to do? Because it's very specific things I'm trying to do with language to a primarily English-speaking audience.
When I looked at some of your work on the National New Play Network, I noticed that not only do you experiment with plays and structure, but that science and technology are common themes. Why did you choose the genre of science fiction for this story?
Well, it’s something I like. I like science fiction. But I'm not trying to write about the exact energy drive that it would take to get a spaceship from here to Proxima Centauri. That’s a metaphor. This play is science fiction, but it is talking about the way we're living now. And just in general, science fiction has always been a great way to talk about the issues of the day, by putting it in a context that people are more willing to accept. We can imagine the results of our actions now in a safe way. Kitchen Dog assembled a Dialect Team for this play because the play includes several foreign languages. How do the different languages fit into the story for an English-speaking audience?
Well, I'm actually monolingual. I only really speak English. I had to have all the Chinese that's spoken in the play translated. So, I know what it's like to be sitting at a table and having people around you speak Chinese. And you think maybe they're talking about you. You think you're gonna understand some things, or the gist of it. But you don’t. So when people in authority are just speaking Chinese to each other and you don't really understand it, that's a very frightening feeling. And I wanted to use that feeling in the play.
Has changing the format of the play from a live stage performance to a filmed theatrical performance changed the play at all, and how has it been collaborating remotely?
It's a play about a spaceship, but it's only the bridge of the spaceship. We only see that one double room. And so it can be performed in a small, tiny theater. And, you know, it translates into only having to film in this one small set. So it was always claustrophobic even though it's about space and, you know, the pandemic itself didn't really change anything about the play. It’s just how it's been designed and that works well in a pandemic situation. I think everyone's going to be proud of it, and it will be entertaining and thought-provoking. And it's always great to see the physicality. This is the first time I've seen people in costumes, moving around a set, how things come across physically -- you don’t get that in the staged readings. I'm just incredibly excited that a theater is taking a chance on my play and that they actually built a spaceship because I wrote it. I'd say it's going pretty well.
Last Ship to Proxima Centauri by Greg Lam will be presented as a filmed theatrical event, available for streaming on a personal device beginning Friday, March 5 through March 21, 2021. Directed by KDT Co-Artistic Director Tina Parker. The Dialect Team includes KDT Co-Artistic Director Christopher Carlos (Spanish), KDT Artistic Company Members Heidi Shen and Mike Wang (Mandarin), and Kayodè Soyemi (Yoruba).
For tickets and more information, please call the Kitchen Dog Theater box office at
214-953-1055 or buy online at kitchendogtheater.org.