Robin Byrd weighs in:
1. How did you become a playwright? What brought you to theater?
I guess I sort of evolved into one. I started telling stories at three and a three year old usually acts out a story so it’s theatrical by nature of the storyteller. I had regular story time for my two younger sisters up until I was eight. Even then I was acting out the story using spectacle and character development. Decades later, I joined a very large church and in the orientation, someone said that a way not to get swallowed up is to join one of the groups so I went to a theater group meeting. This theater group would meet every month to discuss what the annual production would be. Nothing seemed to pass the preconceived “Bishop Test”- based on biblical principles and something he – Bishop Blake – would approve of for his congregation. This discussion went on for months. Out of frustration, I suggested we write our own play. I wrote a synopsis which I didn’t know was a synopsis at the time; everyone in the group liked it and the president of the group, the late Stuart Brown, told me to write it. I would bring in pages to the meetings and we would read them and then Stuart would go back to that darn synopsis and say but I don’t see this part and I’d have to keep writing till everything in that synopsis was in the play. Everyone in the group was very helpful with pushing me to write and giving feedback. After the play was completed, we did a workshop production of it. I met Charlayne Woodard, theatre artist extraordinaire and she greeted me like I was a playwright and that is when I knew I was on this theater artist journey. (Funny the things you remember.) Thus, with “In Times Like These (Is He the One?)”, I started writing plays; by the time I wrote the book for the musical “For This Reason (A Love Story), I knew I was a playwright and I could see my voice as a writer introducing itself to me.
2. What is your favorite play of yours? Why?
My favorite play is always the one that I learn something more about craft or my voice as a playwright.
3. What is your favorite production of one of your plays? Why?
“The Day of Small Things” would be it because my family flew out to Los Angeles to see it. My father was too ill to come but he was so proud of me. There was one scene where something went wrong with the lighting queues so the actors had to improvise and walk onto the stage while the lights were up. The scene was right after a funeral. The actors walked slowly onto the stage as if in shock of the events, they had to play their “just before moment” on stage; they walked in a synchronized movement as if to an inaudible dirge. It was magical, performance art at its best, had we been able to run the play longer, I would have asked them to do it again. (Actors – got to love good ones who can commit to their character and are able to react in character without losing a beat.) Moments like these are what make Theater so alive.
4. What play by someone else has moved you the most and why?
There are a few plays for different reasons: “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee made me take craft really serious; “Body Indian” by Hanay Geiogamah made me contemplate sound as a character; “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry made me look at family dynamics; “A Star Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hole In Heaven” by Judi Ann Mason made me look at family secrets; and “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, taught me to embrace other dimensional storytelling; it’s a memory play and my whole life I’ve dealt with memory in some form. As a child the beginning of most of my sentences was “’Member when…” so when I got to high school and “The Glass Menagerie” was on the reading list, it not only reminded me of the late night PBS filmed plays I loved to watch. It felt strangely familiar. “The Glass Menagerie” bears witness to writing remembered things; it is a testament to what can be done in a play, that boundaries should be lifted like a fourth wall, if it will help to tell the story.
In my work, I deal a lot with memory, flashbacks, visions, and dreams. Writers are normally told to stay away from flashbacks, write what you know, write what you want to know, keep the story forward moving. What I know is flashbacks and pushing forward beyond them so it is inevitable that flashbacks would show up in my work. Perhaps, because I already had a good knack for remembering things, this made me susceptible to flashbacks. I don’t know. What I do know is that as a survivor of rapes (plural intentional), flashbacks ruled my life from the time I was 18 years/7 months/28 days old well into my twenties. Writing is therapy; sometimes you have to make your own closure. My way of dealing with the negative events in my life has been to channel it into my creative work. I like being able to take down the fourth wall – as it were – of the past as it intersects the present, that’s the moment of change for me, a moment of lingering inner impact where new futures can be forged in the flames. It’s like dreaming and opening a door you just walked through only to find it leads somewhere else but doing it on purpose, like throwing jacks several times to get a better layout which will give a better end result.
Tom Wingfield, “The Glass Menagerie” (at least it is my interpretation) hits this intersecting of past and present on more than one occasion; he discusses his wanderings and how un-expectantly he could see his sister beside him in memory and how he tries his best to get away from those recurring moments:
“…Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that can blow your candles out!”
In his memory she blows them out. But he doesn’t change anything. He doesn’t go back; doesn’t start again. He just stays in his hell. I found that to be so sad. He never found a way out of the perpetual maze. He didn’t know how to dream another dream. I never want to be found not able to dream again…
5. Who is your favorite playwright? Why?
I am not sure I have a favorite. I do go on binges, devouring everything I can by playwrights that catch my eye.
6. How has your writing changed over the years?
I have become more confident in my gift. I know my sound and I try to be as fearless in my plays as I am in my poetry.
7. What type of plays do you write? (Dramas, Comedies, Plays with Music, Musicals, Experimental, Avant-garde …) What draws you to it?
I mostly write dramas but I also tend to have music in my plays, it just happens and I tend to write my own music. I have always loved musicals but have only written one to date with music, in addition to the composer’s music. I wrote a 10-minute comedy on purpose once just to see if I could do it. I tend to have laughter in my plays naturally but I do want to write a full-length gut buster one day. I don’t write experimental or avant-garde plays, that’s not to say I might not try at some point. I don’t care much for the abstract in art, poetry or plays. If I can’t tell what it means, I tend to move on to something else. I do write a lot about the revealing of secrets and the journey from bondage (emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical) to freedom. I think what draws me to the subject matter is the fact that I am a survivor and I want to leave bread crumbs albeit in the form of stories for others to find. I believe my plays take me to the door in the dream over and over again and each time I change the outcome on the other side as long as I can believe what I see in my mind’s eye can come to past.
8. Do you write any other literary forms? How does this affect/enhance your playwriting?
I write poetry. I got the nicest rejection letter once saying how my work was so lyrical which I think is due to my poetry background. I started out wanting to write fiction, one of my monodramas “Me, My Fiddle an’ Momma” started out as a short story. My professor at Indiana University said it was so full of dialogue it felt like a play. Some years later, I took an acting class with Ben Harney (Tony Award winner for the original Dream Girls) and he encouraged me to tweak it so I could perform it. I did. I found out more about writing drama by taking his acting class than I had in any book I read about drama. I’ve studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute in their certificate program and plan to write more screenplays.
9. Why did you become a blogger for LA FPI?
Jennie Webb, one of the co-founders of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative walked up to me at the second meeting for LA FPI and asked, “How is your life going right now?” Fine, I answered (not if you count everything that was going WRONG but I was in denial so technically, I was fine.) She smiled. “You want to be the blog editor?” Blink. Nod. “Be the blog editor. Yeah? Yeah.” Then she walked away to “herd” someone else to do something else. And I, never having written a blog article in my life, wondered loudly in my head, “What the hell, did I just commit to?” I sent copies of my first article to playwright friends on opposite sides of the continent – one in Sacramento, the other in Brooklyn – to get their opinions, because I was completely unsure of myself. I barely knew what a blog was, let along write one. But it has been the best experience and blogging helps tremendously with writing the essays sometimes asked for in submission packets.
10. What is your favorite blog posting?
I love all the different voices of the ladies who blog; they cover such timely subjects. I am not sure if I have a favorite of my own but I do feel that “Write it Scared” was very instrumental in me putting together a manuscript of poems that dealt with some scary dark places. And, just looking at my level of “going there” enabled me to become more free. In “She, Who Was Called Barren,” I wanted to experiment with creating an event depicting what it is like to survive trauma and how it can be a roller coaster of dark and light moments and what that feels like.
11. Who do you consider an influence where your writing is concerned? And, why?
I have a few influences but I would say Ezekiel, the prophet, mostly. God was always telling him to go do something theatrical to “show” the Israelites what was coming in their future. And, his language is so poetical. He used a lot of symbolism; I like to use symbolism as well and have received many a “rejection” letter commenting on how lyrical my writing is.
12. When did you find your voice as a writer? Are you still searching for it?
I found my voice a long time ago; it was recognizing that I knew my sound that came after I began calling myself a playwright. Because I started telling stories at 3 years old and oral storytelling requires one to have a way of telling, I think that helped me a lot in developing my voice. I like finding new nuances of my voice, that’s exciting to me.
13. Do you have a writing regiment? Can you discuss your process?
“Always be writing…” that is my mantra. I do a lot of internal work first so I turn over stories and moments in my spirit before any one story makes it to the page. I have to live it in some way before it will release authentically even if it’s a snippet of someone else’s story.
14. How do you decide what to write?
It is usually something that I can’t shake.
15. How important is craft to you?
Craft is very important to me. At one point, I had thought that playwriting was not for me because I was not sure how to do it on a level where I could be respectful of the craft it takes to earn the “wright” in playwright.
16. What other areas of theater do you participant in?
I studied acting and have performed one of my pieces as well as my poetry. I also have co-directed one of my plays and made costumes. The reason I came to Los Angeles in the first play was to study fashion design at Otis/Parsons (now Otis College of Design) – to specialize in costume and men’s wear – that didn’t work out so I had to do a paradigm shift which lead me to writing plays.
17. How do you feel about the theater community in Los Angeles?
As an audience member, there is something for everyone. As a playwright, I feel left out. The worst part is when I have submitted something to a theater/company and go to see new work that has elements of what I submitted in someone else’s piece. I would like to think that it’s a coincidence but when people can’t look you in the eye, you know they ciphered from your well. It makes one a little skittish, although, I must say that this has happened to me outside of Los Angeles too; I try to take it as a compliment – a rude one – but one nonetheless.
18. How do you battle the negative voice? (insecurity, second guessing)
A lot of prayer and rehearsing of positive results – a place that I go to remind myself that my gift will make room for me and bring me before great men. I have to know who I am and what my gift is and why it is. There is always a little “buyer’s remorse” but it passes; it usually only turns up in the submission process.
19. Do you have a theme that you come back to a lot in your work?
Family secrets, ghosts and surviving trauma.
20. What are you working on now?
Being more fearless – a play about Race and a book of poetry on loss.
Robin Byrd is an Indiana born playwright and poet residing in Los Angeles. Growing up in Indianapolis (sometimes referred to as the northernmost southern city), attributes to the playwright’s affinity toward southern themes and language in some of her pieces.
Her plays which include The Grass Widow’s Son, Tennessee Songbird (the place where the river bends), The Book of Years, Dream Catcher, The Day of Small Things, For This Reason, In Times Like These (Is He the One?), and, Me, My Fiddle, An’ Momma have been read and produced in Los Angeles as well as read in Nebraska, Maine, North Carolina, and recently in Washington, D.C. Robin has performed Me, My Fiddle, An’ Momma in Los Angeles; the piece was also read at the 1st Annual SWAN Day event in Portland, Maine in March of 2008. Her plays Tennessee Songbird and Dream Catcher have won “Best Concurrent Play Lab Script at the 2008 Great Plains Theatre Conference” and been selected as a semi-finalist for the 2008 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, respectively. Her poetry has been read in venues in Los Angeles and Indiana and has been published in two International Library of Poetry books.
The playwright is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., the Theatre Communications Group, the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, Native Women Writers (at the Autry), and the American Film Institute from which she holds a certificate in screenwriting. For more information on Robin please visit her website at www.ladybyrdcreations.com.
Robin acts as LA FPI Blog Editor.