Heading West with Paula Cizmar

The new Tactical Reads venture, matching female playwrights with female directors, debuts Wednesday night, 6/27 (meet-up for networking/ideas at 7 p.m., reading at 8 p.m.). Award-winning playwright Paula Cizmar will launch the series, with her  play Strawberry, directed by Sabina Ptasznik, creator of this innovative reading series.

I’ve written about Paula Cizmar previously; there’s more about her life and extensive career on her website. Cizmar wrote a Guest Post for the LA FPI blog a few weeks ago about her May 2012 visit to Turkey, as one of  the authors of the internationally-acclaimed play Seven. I corresponded with Paula recently about her newest show.

Q: So you are the first playwright in the new Tactical Reads series with Strawberry. Congratulations! What’s this new play about?

Cizmar: Strawberry is about a young botanist, Anabel, who arrives in a remote section of the California growing fields to search for a plant that is believed to be extinct—at least that’s what she says.  But ultimately the play is about something else entirely—solving the mystery of her true identity, trying to connect with a birth mother she didn’t know she had, trying to connect with the land as a living entity, rather than as a scientific specimen.  And of course, it’s about love.

Q: What inspired you to write it?

Cizmar: Wind.  Ideas of extinction.  Agriculture.  Death.  Romantic notions. California. Typical! My inspirations come from a variety of places that float around and finally somehow land and form an idea.  This play followed the same odd path.  I was up near Soledad a while back, and got out of the car in a rural area—and the wind was unbelievable.  You could barely stand up in it. Unforgiving.  And then when I drive from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo County, where I live, it is impossible not to pass field after field of tomatoes, broccoli, and most of all, strawberries.  And these fields are often full of migrant workers, covered up in layers and layers of clothing to protect them from the sun, or the wind, or the pesticides, or the prickly plants.   I just read a statistic that strawberries have now passed marijuana as the number one money-maker crop in California.  It used to be marijuana, grapes, almonds—and now strawberries are at the top.   So the strawberry fields are ubiquitous, and you’d have to be driving with your eyes closed to not notice the pickers.  They’re bent over.  So I can’t help thinking about the people who harvest our food and the conditions they work under.  And then, I get nervous about global warming, about the future of the earth, and I know that in our own lifetime certain plant and animal species have disappeared from the planet.  Right now, biologists are trying to save the Gila trout, a small fish species that is being threatened by the wildfires in New Mexico.  I heard a researcher who was part of the rescue operation on NPR and he got choked up about this stuff—and so do I.  So listening to the news and crying in the car—that’s an inspiration.  And the West.  And heading West.  And then there’s the strawberry itself, red, heart-shaped.

Q: I love that you’re using the strawberry symbolically, too.  So when did you write it?

Cizmar: I started it last year [2011] and we did a cold reading of a very early—and quite different—draft of it at USC; Luis Alfaro put the reading together and after it was over he kept saying, ‘Somehow I keep going back to the notion of how carnal it is, how carnal the need of each character is, carnal, carnal, carnal.’ He repeated this word to me often enough that it finally made an impression! And I took a look at what he was talking about and realized that I had only touched on carnality—and should let it play out.  So that sparked a new approach to the play and took me on the road to the current version—which is entirely new, and this is a brand new draft of the new version.  So—it’s really never been seen by the public before and the reading will be the first testing ground.

Q: Do you think readings are valuable to a play’s development?

Cizmar: Just submitting a play for a reading sparks a certain amount of development—as the writer, you want the script to be coherent enough, enticing enough, you want it to show potential.  And then, the luxury of talking to the director about the play, just exchanging thoughts, comments, questions, sparks more development, and then the rehearsal process itself even more.  We playwrights work so often in isolation and there seem to be fewer readings to go around these days.   But ultimately, there’s only so much a playwright can do alone.  It could be a rationalization, it could be laziness—and I try not to fall into this trap and really try hard to get my plays to be as theatrical as possible on my own—but theatre is a collaborative medium, plays are to be performed, and playwrights need to be able to commune with other artists at a certain point in the writing.  A reading removes a play from where it’s lodged inside of the writer’s head and shoves it out into the world.  If you’re faithful and true, you listen to what’s going on in the rehearsal and reading process—and with any luck, the play grows a bit more.

Q: What do you think of the new Tactical Reads series, created by Sabina Ptasznik, and its mission to pair female directors with female playwrights?

Cizmar: Sabina not only has created a program where playwrights get to be in dialogue about a script with actors and a director in the rehearsal process, as you would in most readings, but also she has taken this program one step further: The pairing of female directors and playwrights. Simple, but brilliant. This is a very far-sighted approach; it’s about putting creative teams together, developing long-term relationships that can support imagination and process. We know that the big institutional theatres support specific playwrights—mostly male—through commissions and ongoing commitments to develop and produce their work. And of course with support, a writer’s work gets better—and is more likely to be produced.  So Tactical Reads is the no-budget grassroots version of that—creating artistic partnerships, facilitating communication, and ultimately, searching for opportunities.

Join us! Strawberry by Paula Cizmar, directed by Sabina Ptasznik, with Chuma Gault, Mariel Martinez, Meredith Wheeler. 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, Atwater Crossing, 3245 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Admission: Free.

AND there’s an LA FPI Meet-up before the reading, 7 p.m. We’ll meet at the ATX Kitchen near the wine bar.  Visit atwatercrossingkitchen.com for directions and to check out their cool menu. 

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