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Writing the Male Gaze

An interview with playwright Anna Moench

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel, Geffen Playhouse Manager of New Play Development

Set in a hotel room on a mission trip to Thailand, Man of God explores fluctuating power dynamics as four young women grapple with the dangers of the outside world and with each other. In the first week of rehearsals, I had a chance to chat with playwright Anna Moench about this pressure cooker of a play that manages to be fantastical and funny along the way.

Rachel Wiegardt-Egel: What was your original inspiration for the piece?

Anna Moench: I wanted to write something about the moment girls come to realize that the male gaze exists, and has been watching them for longer than they realized. I’d been thinking about the subject for a while, but wasn’t quite sure what the specific setting or situation would be. Then, a friend in the Korean American Christian community here in LA told me about a college mission group going on a trip and discovering their leader put a camera in their bathroom. While the play is not based on that story, the premise was certainly inspired by it. I always want to be clear that this is not the true story of what happened. I don’t know anything about the real people involved, or the details of their experience, so I am not trying to speak for them.

In that light, I made the characters high school kids, rather than college kids. I went to an all-girls high school, and as a result I’m really fond of and familiar with the way girls figure out the world together. There’s a freedom, a boldness, a way in which girls take up so much space when they’re together that is amazing and fun. Then there’s a contracting when a man is in the room and a sort of shrinking that can happen, especially in fraught situations.

So the inspiration of this play was a coalescing of my own lived experience, the experiences of friends of mine who have suffered various levels of sexual abuse and assault and harassment, and the true story that was the jumping off point. The hidden camera is such a great metaphor for the male gaze, and its discovery is the perfect metaphor for that time in childhood when you realize, “Oh wait, I’m being seen as a sexual being before I’m ready.”

RW: Did the #MeToo era coming into the national consciousness impact the way you ended up writing the play?

AM: I actually wrote this play before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and before the #MeToo movement exploded into the national consciousness, but the subject matter of the play didn’t change based on the #MeToo movement. If anything, I just had to be sure that the girls in the play were aware of the #MeToo movement existing, which they weren’t in my early drafts. In the play’s current iteration, all of the girls are familiar with the buzzwords, but they don’t have a huge depth of understanding of feminism. When they’re trying to figure out the world and the rules and what they should expect for themselves, they need more information than they have access to, and they’re kind of at a loss. So they reach for the same buzzwords we all reach for when we’re trying to talk about these things.

RW: The play also seems very much in conversation with the ongoing dialogue about digital privacy and violation. What made you want to explore the ways that this specifically affects teenage girls?

AM: I truly cannot imagine coming of age in the time of Instagram and TikTok and all that. I feel simultaneously fortunate that I grew up without that pressure but also filled with dread because now I have kids who are growing up with all of that stuff around. I have no idea how to equip them for it. There is a level of being on display, being watched, that high school kids today are more aware of than when I was in high school. And at that age, even without technology, there is a sense of always being watched by other people. I certainly felt that. You feel awkward in your body; you feel insecure about all kinds of things; you’re pretty narcissistic, so you’re sure that everyone else is thinking about you all the time. Social media only serves to enhance that existing feeling.

One thing that I’m not sure everyone is aware of is that there is a huge problem right now, especially in South Korea, of hidden cameras in toilets in public bathrooms. It’s such a problem that cities in South Korea are employing tens of thousands of public employees whose entire job is to go into public restrooms and sweep them for hidden cameras. There’s a whole online porn industry of videos taken of women using the bathroom without their consent. It’s so creepy. When I read about that epidemic, it was again after I had written the play and again I thought, “Wow, this play is onto something.”

RW: What was the development process like for this play?

AM: I wrote the play while I was in grad school and I sent it to Jesca Prudencio, who ended up being the director at East West Players. We had always wanted to work together, and she really responded to Man of God. She had spent a year doing the Julie Taymor directing fellowship, spending many months working on a project about sex workers in Thailand, so she was very familiar with the setting of this play. When Snehal [Desai, the Artistic Director at East West Players] asked her what she was interested in, she sent him this play and that’s how it found its way to East West. Some of my plays have had needed a long development process, but this play hasn’t changed a ton since its first iteration. Certainly I have changed things, expanded things, but this was one of those plays that came out really fast and really strong. I knew the characters, I knew the world, I knew the problem, and it was just about keeping up with the play as I wrote it. I love when it goes that way.

RW: I’d love to hear more about the play’s relationship to religion and how you approached writing these characters to whom faith is so important.

AM: I have written these characters very specifically as Korean American Christian kids from Southern California, in part because of the story that inspired the play, and in part from elements of my own experience. I grew up in a progressive protestant Christian household and congregation and I went to a more conservative Catholic high school (during those high school years I was getting a lot of religion between school, home, and Sundays). But this upbringing wasn’t scarring or difficult for me. I found it to be a supportive community, and I still think that elements of the Christian faith are very positive. Even though I’m not very religious as an adult, I have a familiarity with organized religion, and Christianity in particular. I’ve written a couple plays that take place in Christian communities—but to be honest, I don’t see these plays as being “about” Christianity. I have no interest in writing about whether God exists, or whether Christianity is good or bad. My plays are about gender roles, structural injustice, coming of age, love, growth, fear—universal things that all people deal with. But there’s something theatrical about the way that religion allows people to grapple publicly with the things we’re all grappling with privately. In some ways, religion is very inflexible in how it tells you to handle difficult situations. But people are infinitely flexible. And I find it fascinating to watch characters go through contortions to fit themselves into the rigid container their religion gives them… or the moment when they strike out on their own to find a way forward.

Man of God

MAR 3 - APR 12, 2020
Written by Anna Moench
Directed by Maggie Burrows

During a mission trip to Thailand, four girls discover that their pastor has hidden a camera in their hotel bathroom. Their communal rage and disillusionment fuel increasingly violent revenge fantasies amidst the no-holds-barred neon bubblegum sex-tourism mecca of Bangkok. Man of God is a funny feminist thriller about that moment when girls realize the male gaze has been watching all along—and decide they’re definitely gonna do something about it.


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