Ming Peiffer: Not A “Usual Girl”
The award-winning writer Ming Peiffer forges works for stage and screen that deconstruct her own observations and experiences of life today. Sometimes that means embracing an unhappy ending.
Ming Peiffer is an award-winning writer for stage and screen. She is the first Asian American playwright to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award.
Peiffer grew up in Columbus, OH, the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant. After studying poetry at the New School, she earned a BA in Mandarin and theater at Colgate University, with additional training at Shanghai Theatre Academy and Stella Adler School of Acting. Her early plays explored relationships in the internet age. She wrote Pornography for the People (2012) while living in Shanghai and i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it (2014) while pursuing an MFA in playwriting at Columbia University.
Her breakthrough work, USUAL GIRLS (2018), about a young woman’s fraught sexual evolution, enjoyed a sold-out Off-Broadway run and received three Drama Desk nominations and a New York Times Critics’ Pick, among other accolades. Her virtual work Finish the Fight, about women’s right to vote, was streamed on nytimes.com in 2020.
She is an adjunct professor of film at Columbia and a supervising producer for Amazon studios.
First a poet, then an actor, now a writer for both stage and screen, Ming Peiffer is turning personal tumult into provocative, award-winning drama. Her 2018 off-Broadway hit, Usual Girls, made her the first female Asian-American playwright ever to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award. But being mixed race is, for Peiffer, both a blessing and a curse.
Ming Peiffer: It’s this weird thing where you’re simultaneously allowed to be in all these spaces because you’re not, they can’t quite put you anywhere, but because they can’t quite put you anywhere, you also don’t belong anywhere.
Peiffer: So amongst white people, I’m Asian, amongst Asian people, I’m white.
Peiffer grew up in 1990’s Columbus, Ohio with a Taiwanese mother and a white father. Her dad was an unsuccessful poet who struggled with addiction and regularly subjected the family to emotional and physical abuse. Peiffer’s mother, on the other hand, was a positive influence. She fled poverty in Taiwan to make a very successful career for herself as an executive in the fashion world. An ambitious woman, yes, but not, as Peiffer recalls, a stereotypical helicopter mom.
Peiffer: My mom came here with just one suitcase and, like, 300 bucks, you know? But she never, it was never in the, like, “You need to play violin or blah, blah, blah.” I think she was more just, “I want you to succeed because this is the whole reason I did this, was so you could kind of do this as a jumping-off point.” But I never felt, I think I more put on the pressure to myself because, because I know what my mom went through, so I always felt the pressure was self-imposed, was I have to live up to her legacy and build upon.
Now 32, Ming Peiffer has already started building an impressive body of work. In 2012, while living in Shanghai, she wrote Pornography For The People, a play set in China about four individuals acting out their fantasies on the internet. Her 2014 play, I Wrote On Your Wall And Now I Regret It, continued her exploration of human relations in cyberspace. Then, in 2018, she turned inward, mining her own life for her breakthrough off-Broadway hit, Usual Girls. It followed a group of ethnically-diverse, uninhibited young girls as they navigate a late-twentieth-century culture that, on one hand, punishes them for being sexually curious, and on the other, tacitly condones their sexual predators.
The curtain closes on a solitary weeping figure, processing her traumas. No happy endings here, then.
Peiffer: I wanted people to feel angry. I wanted them to feel this needs to stop. I wanted them to feel motivated to go out in the world and point out these things and say, “No, that’s wrong!” Because, to all of a sudden put this sheen over it, this glaze and act like, “Oh, now that we’re all telling our stories, everything’s gonna be hunky-dory.” I just felt was, one, not true. Two, possibly dangerous. Three, was not even, that’s not how I felt, you know, and, and I thought a lot about my responsibility as a storyteller. Am I supposed to, you know, take care of the audience? Am I supposed to do that work for them? And I went back to, sort of, the original motivation behind the piece, which is that I’m angry, this piece is angry, and I don’t feel like I should have to apologize for that.
Speaking out about identity, as well as sexual experiences, both healthy and otherwise, is important to Ming Peiffer, and it’s keeping her busy. Among a handful of other film and television commitments underway, she’s working on a no-holds-barred coming-of-age television series for the FX Network. It’s drawn from life and what she calls her incredibly mixed household. The complicated, often troubled place that laid the foundation for her success.
Peiffer: I think because my upbringing was so tumultuous, and I survived it, I sort of felt like, you know, things are already. Like, how much worse can they get? And so that’s why I never was afraid of moving to New York, not knowing what was going to come with it. You know, going and living in Shanghai, not knowing what was going to come of it. Maybe even in some sick way, I’m like, I like that. I like not knowing what’s going to happen. Having an alcoholic parent that’s constantly, you know, you never know, is it a good mood? Bad mood? Gonna hit me? Gonna not? I think, in maybe some weird way—
AJC: No, I absolutely think you’re right. You seek out uncertainty, and in the process, you make phenomenal discoveries.
Peiffer: Yeah, yeah, and so, and I, I guess for me, I’m like, you know, the only way to grow, I think, is to kind of put yourself outside of your comfort zone, and I did that.
And Ming Peiffer continues to push the boundaries of her comfort zones, bringing us along with her to explore often uncharted, sometimes uncomfortable places, and come out better for the journey.