Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis Explore Entrapment and Immigration in "Stuck Elevator"

Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis (2009 Performing Arts) premiered their Creative Capital project, Stuck Elevator, at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, April 4-28. Stuck Elevator is an eclectic music-theater work based on the true story of a Chinese deliveryman in the Bronx who was trapped in an elevator for 81 hours. Sounding the alarm would open the doors to freedom, but calling for help also means calling for attention—with dire consequences for this undocumented immigrant. Suspended between the upward mobility of the American dream and a downward plunge into an empty abyss, he delves into memories of his past and into nightmares of his present predicament, all within the confines of a 4’ by 6’ by 8’ metal box.

I connected with Byron and Aaron while they were in rehearsals at A.C.T. to learn more about the development of this unique project.

Jenny Gill: I love the concept behind Stuck Elevator—using the true story of a deliveryman stuck in an elevator to tell a larger story about the difficulties of an immigrant’s experience. How did you hear about this story and how did you begin to envision a theater work around it?

Byron Au Yong: In 2005, I was a student in New York City and saw news articles about a missing deliveryman. Because several Chinese food deliverymen had been killed for the cash they carried, people assumed the worst. When they found the man, alive after 81 hours trapped in a Bronx elevator, the news reported he’d paid $60,000 to be smuggled here, had a wife and son back in Fujian Province, and rode a bicycle to work. This resonated with me because I was also in New York City with a $60,000 debt (grad school!), my grandparents left Fujian Province, and I was the same age as this deliveryman.

Aaron Jafferis: When Byron asked me about working on Stuck Elevator, I was intrigued—a deliveryman alone in an elevator seemed a great way to explore ideas of work, language and loneliness I wrestled with ever since I’d been chewed up and spit out by both Mexico City and New York City. To heighten the feeling of isolation and dislocation, we began working on the show with just one performer and one scrap metal percussionist. The further we moved from the original story, the more we incorporated bits of other people we knew and imagined—so other actors and musicians were added.

Jenny: How did Stuck Elevator develop? What did each of you bring to the collaboration?

Aaron and I started working in earnest on Stuck Elevator in 2007, when we had our first workshop presentation with one singer and one percussionist in Seattle. Getting the Creative Capital grant in 2009 helped us convince the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU to have both Aaron and me as artists-in-residence from 2009-2010. This crucial residency provided access to resources such as interviews with immigration lawyers, Fujianese restaurant workers and Asian American scholars. Through the A/P/A Institute, we were able to have readings at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Pearl Studios and Chen Dance Center. In 2010, we did 20-minute excerpts at On the Boards Northwest New Works Festival and Hand2Mouth’s Risk/Reward Festival. Since then, we’ve also had developmental workshops as part of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, Sundance Theatre Lab at Banff, Sundance Theatre Lab at White Oak and American Conservatory Theatre.

As far as what we both bring to the collaboration, I think that Aaron brings a sensitivity to language and characters. As librettist, he has had the Herculean task of writing in three languages (English, Spanish and Mandarin), even though he is fluent in two. He brings a nuanced understanding of how to write lyrics. I wrote the music.

Aaron: Byron’s music moves between the wacky and the sublime, just like our main character, Guang.

Jenny: Aside from Guāng (洸), what other characters are in the story?

Byron: There are a host of other characters, all played by the same four actors. They include people in Guang’s life, like his wife Míng (茗) and 8-year-old son, Wáng Yuè (王岳), both still living in Changle, China; Snakehead (someone who smuggles people); Marco, a Happy Dragon deliveryman from Tlaxcala, Mexico; and Guāng’s boss at Happy Dragon. And then there are other characters that emerge while Guāng is stuck in the elevator, like Fortune Cookie Monster, Bladder, Elevator Monster, and of course, General Tso.

Jenny: What challenges came up while you were working on this piece?

Aaron: Byron’s Mandarin is less than perfect, and mine is less than zero. So we got a lot of help from Byron’s father, Mike Au Yong, and from the assistant director of Stuck Elevator at A.C.T., Naya Chang.

Another challenge: Everyone wants to come up with a label for it. We started with “solo performance,” which seemed pretty innocuous, but since we started adding actors and writing some more traditional songs, we’ve been bounced between opera, hip-hop opera, music theater, musical, and who knows what else. We tried “comic-rap-scrap-metal-opera” as a sneaky way out but even that doesn’t fit quite right. We hope it will resonate with audiences in all of those genres. So we call it Stuck Elevator and hope it will appeal to anyone who’s ever been in an elevator.

Jenny: Mass appeal! Are there more specific audiences you most want to reach with this work?

Byron: My immigrant parents. And any Americans who feel trapped (by the recession, by their circumstances).

Aaron: My non-immigrant parents, and my teenage niece.

Jenny: After the world premiere at A.C.T., what’s next for Stuck Elevator?

Aaron: The world tour begins at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in my hometown of New Haven, CT, in June 2013. We’re excited about doing it there to connect the art (the show) to the ideas (New Haven’s immigrant activist community is totally happenin’). After that, we’ll hopefully tour to a mix of regional theaters, festivals and university presenters.

Stuck Elevator ran at A.C.T. in San Francisco, April 4-28, 2013, and at the International Festival of Art & Ideas in New Haven, CT, June 20-29, 2013.