Thanks for checking out the LAFPI “tag team” blog, below, handed off each week from one interesting female playwright to another.
Who are they? Click Here
Thanks for checking out the LAFPI “tag team” blog, below, handed off each week from one interesting female playwright to another.
Who are they? Click Here
In Hyde Park, the people are standing outside on the streets, sitting on the porch, parked in chairs on the sidewalks and are looking up at the skies… The skies are bejeweled with color and dazzling sparks. The sound is intensely booming the celebration of freedom.
For one evening during this period of uncertainty, we are united by awe and wonder. Couldn’t we remember to regard each person with awe, respect and wonder more often?
These days, the news reports that drivers are more aggressive on the roads and that there are higher accidents and fatalities on the road. Some people are channeling their unbridled emotions with pressure on the gas pedal or taking unnecessary risks. Today, while driving along Western south of Jefferson Boulevard, someone passed to my left, crossing onto the lane of the opposite traffic and swerved to make a right turn, crossing three lanes. Bold and stupid to say the least.
During my drive, prior to being a witness to that, I was musing about the gamut of human emotions. I thought, as an experiment, that I would start to take notes on the range of emotions I experience in a twenty-four hour period, and correlate those emotions with the thoughts that motivated the emotions. Then, as an objective scientist, I would create a bar graph of the categories of thoughts-emotions, to visualize which bars tend to be higher than others. This bar graph would be an indicator of my tendencies, and perhaps help me to manage my emotions better.
My emotions have been running high. I shared with someone that, lately, I’ve been yelling a lot at the dogs. My temperature gauge is running hot and I don’t like this trend. Upon recognizing my rising emotional temperature, I reasoned that the dogs prefer to be near me, especially with the illegal fireworks exploding during the evenings and sometimes well into the late night. Or they are looking for attention when they destroy the hose or bend the metal bars of the screen door. Big sigh.
It’s interesting to me that what inspired the idea of taking an inventory of my thoughts and feelings by logging them was leafing through a book called “Classics of the Foreign Film”, by Parker Tyler, and published in 1962. Open a page and there, bared to the eyes of the soul are images of the human condition. Every page is breaming with these images. I think this compilation is better than National Geographic. It is art made by artists about You and Me, Us and Them, Me and We, He and She. It is the relationships put into cinematographic art form by years, starting with 1919 thru 1961 from different countries (Germany, France, Italy, Poland, India, USSR, Japan and more).
I don’t quite understand how my mind made the connection of what I’ve been experiencing with my emotions to the catalogue of dramatic scenes in those pages. Like a light switch, the light turned on and I recognized that I needed to step back in my own life and see it as a movie. In doing that, I don’t identify so much as the doer but more of an experiencer of what’s happening at the moment. i.e. not to take it all so personally (in pill form). Watch the images projected on the blank screen as passing moments. The only thing permanent is the screen, me; while the experiences are ephemeral.
This, all this, that’s been making our emotions run high and low, shall pass.
by Kitty Felde
One of the last things I did before the world shut down was make a trip to NYC to see theatre. Three shows in five days! Now I wonder now whether I’ll ever step into a black box space again.
So what does that mean to us as playwrights?
In the immediate sense, productions, workshops, readings have all been postponed to 2021 or relegated to Zoom calls with imperfect internet connections and crappy audio.
But what about the long term?
Budgets have been slashed at institutional theatres as they try to survive. Grant money is disappearing or being refocused on organizations that feed and clothe and medically care for people. According to the Los Angeles Times, only a third of season ticket holders were willing to donate the cost of this season’s Center Theatre Group season tickets to help keep the Music Center alive. Just 15% of single ticket buyers willing to donate their ticket money.
When theatres open again, will audiences be willing to sit inside an enclosed space, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, likely wearing a mask for several hours? Will they even have the money to spend on it?
I think it’s time for us as theatre artists to quite literally think outside the box.
One of my favorite theatre experiences was a live reading of my play “Queen of the Water Lilies” in a Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the actors and audience under the trees on the very site where the play takes place. It’s perhaps the least-known National Park, the site of a water lily farm and home to a woman who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve what has become the last remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, D.C. Before the show, the audience could stroll around the water lily ponds, see the turtles sunning themselves and hear the frogs calling to each other. In the middle of the show, a snowy white egret flew overhead – perfect for the play where one character rages at an egret from an earlier generation. It was true theatre. With a healthy dose of sunscreen.
It was immersive theatre in the best sense of the word. We could do it again today, just spacing the audience and actors six feet apart.
We can also create an intensely intimate kind of theatre, the kind that can play out inside your head.
Audio is incredibly powerful. As someone who spent way too many decades in public radio, our bread and butter was creating audio stories that would create “driveway moments” where our audience would sit in their cars until the story was over. We can do this with fiction as well, creating stories that don’t need that black box, just a good pair of headphones.
It was an exciting challenge last summer, creating THE FINA MENDOZA MYSTERIES, an audio drama that takes the audience into the bowels of the U.S. Capitol where dead Founding Fathers come to life, out to a Long Beach cemetery for a Dia de los Muertos picnic, and even to the National Zoo to see the baby tigers. In truth, we barely left my front yard.
We even found a way to tape a new episode in the middle of coronavirus with actors recording themselves on smartphones and emailing me the voice memos.
You can hear more about the project in this video we taped for the Bay Area Book Festival.
I’m not the only one thinking outside the box.
Playwright Ellen Struve has turned her front window into a stage for an extravagant shadow puppet play. She wrote the script, created the characters out of bits of paper and old Fresnel gels, and enlisted her children and husband as musicians and puppet wranglers. Lucky audiences in Omaha can stop by her front yard for a free performance.
A few years ago, Moving Arts created a series of short play performed inside cars. In a post-coronavirus era, it’s more likely that we’d drive our own cars to an outdoor space where theatre would be performed. Perhaps we would download a particular app to listen to the dialogue.
We are creative people. Perhaps this new normal will force us to truly think outside the box.
What will you create?
by Constance Strickland
I will not lie. As a Black Woman and Black Theatre Artist, I’ve born witness to institutional theatre hindering Black storytelling in Los Angeles for years. I find access to new spaces limited or financially unavailable for Black Theatre Artists to develop new work. I’ve come to discover I’m often in the crossfire of hidden prejudices. As Black Theatre Artists we’ve experienced words thrust upon us such as angry, aggressive, and loud to silence our voices. Due to this, over the past few weeks, my feelings have gone from disconcerting too perturbed. I’ve had PTSD symptoms surface I didn’t know I carried within my body.
I will not lie. I see White Theatre Artists advocate for Black Lives while never once advocating for Black Theatre Artists. I see posts linked to where and how you can support Black Lives while not advocating for Black People you actually see. I am constantly flooded with content from peers simultaneously discovering and posting quotes from Black Intellectuals and Leaders while ignoring conversations Black friends have with them weekly if not daily. I receive forwarding articles on how to support Black Theatre Artists while being a Black Theatre Artist. I see feeds filled with stands of solidarity when I have personally experienced these same figures and organizations dishonor Black agency.
We’re existing in times where it’s a detriment to the Theatre to have colleagues, who are unaware of how they’ve become co-conspirators in age-old racism. Is the sudden influx of support for Black Theatre Artists a trend that will simply fade away and be unable to sustain itself, or are White led theatre organizations actually seeking ways to finally hear the eclectic voices of Black Theatre Artists that are developing work in the midst of our theatre community and offer real support? It causes you to wonder if they actually care to support the multitude of Black Theatre Artists right in the community.
This call to action is necessary. It is an overdue embarrassment. This moment in time reveals how disconnected our theatre community is from Black Theatre Artists. We exist within the Los Angeles Theatre Community. For a long time, we’ve been here. Reaching out. Doing the work by any means necessary without real support.
I will not lie. We’ve given power to these theatre “guardians”. We’ve allowed this white patriarchal system to seep into the roots of our ancient form of storytelling and taint its sanctity. We’ve given these “guardians” the key to control who goes through the doors. They decide who receives particular resources and opportunities. Now the roots are rotten and the branches are no longer able to hold themselves up. There is no doubt that the work we are seeing is not the full-scale gage of the voices nor talent residing within our Los Angeles Theatre Community, a vibrant theatre hub where stories are being created in tiny nooks throughout the city. A city where artists do the work every day, each year without fail, and without support.
We need you to Support Black Theatre Artists right here in Los Angeles. We are out here developing new theatre. We are trying to fund new plays. We are local Theatre Artists who need support. We are independent Theatre Artists residing here in Los Angeles. We are not supported by an academic or arts institution, we are not under fiscal sponsorship, and we are not funded via a non-profit umbrella. WE self–produce new works on a high level. UPLIFT US.
I will not lie. As a Black Theatre Artist, I have reached out to White and Black academic and art institutions alike. I believed I would receive equal opportunities to present my work. To build a community in my field and grow as an artist in safe spaces.
Over the years I have reached out and applied for my work to be shown at numerous theatres, galleries, museums, and other artistic institutions in Los Angeles. In response, I was once told that space was only reserved for artists who were alumni of Cal-Arts. Another space responded by quoting me a price that was simply too high for an independent artist to afford. At other times, my applications are simply ignored, and my emails left unanswered. What I find even more concerning is that when my work is presented or shown at these institutions it’s through the association of white artists where my black body and talent were presented and credited under their name. Yet, when I apply I am not given the same opportunities.
I will not lie. Black Theatre Artists are not given the opportunity to be varied. Black Theatre Artists must be allowed, encouraged, and supported in making every type of work. Not only work that assists a “guardians” concept of what a Black Theatre Artist is and can be. For there is no limit to what one can manifest when they are not shackled and being marginalized. Black Theatre Artists are not widely included in our theatre community. We often are left with no choice but to fight from not getting stuck under the gaze of these white “guardians” who block the entryway to a wider audience. If you Support local Black and Brown Theatre Artists it raises the bar for our city. It raises the bar of the Theatre.
We need affordable, safe spaces to develop new work. Spaces that are not just catered to academic alumni or well-supported artists – Where can we go? What will we do? How will theatre as an art form progress in Los Angeles?
White people, it would behoove you to ask yourself, how many times have you reached out to a Black Theatre Artist to say, “Hey there’s an opportunity I know about, here’s a contact, here’s some help?!”
I will not lie. It is not only white men, there too sit white women in positions of power. They sit quietly. They take no action to lean in and they rarely push open the door for a Black Women in Theatre. There are White women producing theatre, running theatre spaces, while also playing into the tokenism card, in which repeated Black Theatre Artists have access to varied spaces and funding without giving opportunities to new Black Theatre Artists. If we continue to allow these “guardians” to hold the key to theatrical spaces then we are not allowing our art to move forward. This stalls the new American Theatre from truly emerging itself.
The Black Theatre Artist is Experimental.
The Black Theatre Artist is Avant-Garde.
The Black Theatre Artist is Tradtional Theatre.
The Black Theatre Artist has a New Voice.
The Black Theatre Artist has Many Faces.
The Black Theatre Artist is an Academic Artist.
The Black Theatre Artist is the Institutional Artist.
The Black Theatre Artist is not a Supported Artist.
“Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life
has been spent battling these wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others
that I had these rights in common with other women, which are now demanded.”
~Frances Ellen Watkins Harper | 1866
*A Note to BIPOC Artists: We need to build together. We need to merge our skills together. We need to not be the only person in the room if we don’t have to be. We need to answer emails from one another. We need to continue to reach out to one another. If we don’t look out for each other then who will?
Back in the olden days, when people gathered together in musty lecture halls to discuss the “literary” canon, I was a TA for a large literature class whose professor loved to include novels involving navel-gazing male protagonists. I was in charge of roughly a quarter of the 130 eager undergraduates, many of whom were aspiring writers themselves.
In my sections, I made it very clear that these students were under no obligation to LIKE any of these 10 books we were reading and that, in fact, I HATED some of them as well. Just because a professor is telling you it’s good does NOT mean you have to agree, I said. But agree or not, you better be able to tell me why you feel that way.
See, it’s my philosophy that you can learn just as much about writing from reading a book you hate as you can from reading one you love. Maybe even more so.
I had to teach Greg Jackson’s book of short stories Prodigals both times I covered this literature class. To spare you the details, most of the stories in the book are about terrible privileged people doing terrible privileged things. But of course, one could argue that most stories are about terrible people. In my house, we don’t say: hey, do you want to watch Avenue 5 tonight? We say: hey, do you want to watch Shitty People in Space tonight?
I do not enjoy Prodigals. Though there are a few sentences I wish I had written.
So Fall 2018 rolls around and we get to Prodigals week. One of my students does not like the book. Why, I asked. He doesn’t agree with the morality of the book – how the characters behaved and treated each other. Doesn’t writing about that behavior condone it? he asked. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the author to expose bad behavior or offer positive role models and morality?
I mean, what a fucking good question.
Let’s get real: no one really likes Aesop’s fables. Not all the time. We don’t want Breaking Bad to wrap up its series finale with: the moral of the story, kids, is don’t become a meth dealer in New Mexico!
But I’d argue that an author has an obligation to read the damn room, to have a larger understanding of the context in which the writing is presented and read, to understand that nothing exists in a vacuum, and to do their due diligence.
Don’t ask me how we got there, but we compared two television shows to explore this line of thinking: Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick) and one that was in development at the time – Confederate, supposedly going to be penned by the Game of Thrones guys, who, you know, never caused an issue (eye roll).
Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Allies lose WWII and Germany and Japan occupy the United States. Confederate is an alternate history in early development at HBO in which the South won the Civil War – so slavery was still a thing in its universe (this was going to be helmed by WHITE MEN, as a reminder.)
At first, the students didn’t see the difference. Two wars, two alternate histories, so what? I am not a history expert nor well-versed in either of these shows, I said. BUT…
Let’s look at the context and the general narratives surrounding both wars, I said. In this country we have oversimplified the WWII narrative to be about good vs. evil. Sure, you could quibble about this or that, but The Good Guys won. So we take that context with us when watching the show. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that the correct people won that war, except maybe Neo-Nazis and aluminum foil-wearing conspiracy theorists, but do you really want them on your side?
No thanks, they said.
Now the Civil War. That’s another thing. We seem to have an ongoing debate in this country surrounding what that war was about (slavery). Many people argue that it was about state’s rights (it was slavery). Many states in the South still have statues of Confederate war heroes (slave owners) and fly the Confederate flag (you know, about slavery).* There are still people in this country who are not convinced that slavery is a bad idea. WE DO NOT HAVE AN AGREED UPON NARRATIVE SURROUNDING RACISM IN THIS COUNTRY. And that carries with us as we watch the show. Would you agree?
Oh shit, yeah, they said.
So back to morality and responsibility. You’re writing a show like Confederate. If you’re going to write a good story, then you’re going to have fleshed out characters, right? That means the slaves and the slave owners will have nuances and good qualities and tragic flaws and we will FEEL for them. And they will exist in a complicated world. And maybe there will be an Emmy-contending monologue in act 4 of the pilot that offers a damn good argument for slavery.
Sounding worrisome? Or at the very least…delicate? In need of a deft hand?
What is the danger of offering up an empathetic slave owner in a society in which we still have not achieved true equity, have not done the work required to actually deal with these sins in a way that uplifts, creates anti-racist policies, and gathers the country into a narrative we agree on?
Especially if that story is offered to us by people who cannot and DO NOT CARE TO understand racism in the way that the Black actors, Black crew members, and Black viewers would understand it. We’ve all seen Game of Thrones. What do YOU think would happen?
Light bulbs flipped on all over the room. These kids had so much to say.
I might be wrong and obtuse about all of this, I said. And please, question me. Question me, question your own thoughts and biases too. Maybe Confederate could be done really well. But look at who is telling the story and why. Who is invited into the room and who is not.
You cannot control how everyone is going to read your writing. It’s simply not possible. But I believe that our responsibility as writers is to first ask ourselves the hard questions about our characters, our narratives, and the larger world in which they will be interacting.
It’s our job to ask the hard questions even when we don’t know the answers. ESPECIALLY when we don’t know the answers. And to confront our own biases and blindness. To show shitty people doing terrible things and sometimes even BE shitty people doing terrible things, but to learn from those stories, to let the stories maybe, somehow, help us build a world that is better than this one.
But that still doesn’t make Prodigals any good.
P.S. Here are my favorite books from that class (both written by Black authors.) Read them. I’m available for discussion at my office hours posted in the syllabus.
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Also, Lindsey Ellis’ video essay about Mel Brooks and the Ethics of Satire is required watching.
*Fucking hooray to all the statues and confederate flags being burned and removed.
by: Constance Strickland
Here we are. Existing in a new time. Living in a world that is no longer able to sustain itself on old pains.
I know I’ve been asking myself how am I making way for BIPOC Artists? What am I doing to be sure that I’m including, reaching out and making way so that a variety of stories for the American Theatre exist? I ask white artists to take time to see if you are truly hearing and how are you leaning in, pushing open doors, and connecting + including BIPOC into safe theatre spaces where they can develop and flourish.
I also challenge BIPOC to ask themselves, what am I doing to not be the only one in the room. Am I helping + contributing to new BIPOC voices being included in the American theatre canon? How are we preventing tokenism in the theatre?
I’m excited! We are in a new awakening. How will we all move into the future to build our Los Angeles theatre community into an interconnected haven?
Restore your energy & Self-Care for the future of American Theatre will need us all.
by Robin Byrd
the elephant – and his fat ass – is sitting on my arm, squashing my chest
his feet protruding through the walls
and he smells
like centuries of hippopotamus-shit caked in his skin
imagine elephant ass/hippopotamus shit
from where I’m lying, I can only see thick gray folds of wrinkly, wrinkly skin with gobs of hippo-shit smeared across the folds
crumbling off that ass onto me
get off me!
he slowly raises that ass up off me
the pressure lingering
got me searching for aspirin, tylenol, something
found two pills in what looked like a 2006 package
gonna have to take a chance
if I can just burp
the bubble is lodged dead center of my clavicle
feels like that ass never left my chest
In the morning I burped
It came rolling out like a
Sheila E riff
by Robin Byrd
“Dig through the wall in their sight, and carry your belongings out through it.” Ezekiel 12:5
is the unearthing unburying re-birthing of the offspring of praise
emerging from the fields covered in a red clay-like bag of waters
clenching smooth milk and honey stones – one in each hand
is the promise
clothed like john the baptist in knee-length hair
honed toward home, they go
from the dust
rising in strength, dry bones and all
seeking balm for hands raw from digging
rank from the shifting of dung rocks out of the way
while the earth is shaking around them, its heavens opening to the hope of rain
the clouds are aching to let loose of water to wash away this dust of ages
mountains are quaking to the shifting ground,
needing more than salve, needing gilead’s balm
THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD TO MAKE THE WOUNDED WHOLE
God speed to the offspring of praise, these children of promise, as it were,
may praise meet gilead in the valley of baca and make it a well
give Hebron, give grace and mercy, give renewal and sustenance and life
Oh, let praise inherit life…
by Robin Byrd
the dead are speaking
I ran into my mother’s voice; it came out of nowhere – attached to a file on my computer
hit me like a bolt of lightning
I gasped, I cried out, “Mommy!”
I was a ball of emotions
I played it over and over again, oh, how I’ve missed the sound of her voice
She’s been in my dreams for the last month
“what is he reading?” she asks, upset that death forbids her tend to it
the collage of her is everywhere
even my breasts are mommy’s breasts now, courting gravity like a first kiss, surprised yet not so impressed
my hands are starting to cook like hers, I bought a new pot so I can make her stew
been craving it for years, I am my mother’s daughter, her face is in my face
and I think she’s ready to tell her story
She’s coming to me like my characters do but she’s more forceful – like coming back to the middle of a semi-heated conversation we were just having to say one more thing
“WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS, ALL OUR SINS AND GRIEF TO BEAR, WHAT A PRIVILEGE TO CARRY, EVERYTHING TO GOD IN PRAYER…”
Her favorite song rises out of the silence in my head
yeah, she’s ready…
and then, last night, I was reading old blogs of mine because I couldn’t sleep nor could I remember me before–
and there, in the comments was Erica (Bennett) telling me she hopes I feel better – the words were audible, clear
“I hope you feel better…”
“I miss you, Erica…”
and in the background, I could hear another friend saying, ”God loves me.”
He was walking briskly towards me so full of joy…
the dead are speaking…
it’s making me shake myself like Samson and get to swinging
’cause I got things to do…
They are reminding me to redeem the time because the space between now and eternity is as far away and as close as the speed of sound…
by Robin Byrd
Is it like riding the air? movement…
I seem to have forgotten – stuck here like I am in the hardly bearable heat of these walls and the “go nowhere” doors from sun up to moon down. I tell myself that I am not going to faint or lose heart, that I am going to subdue this beast one hour at a time, one day at a time, by the Grace of God…
but I really want flight, I yearn for air… I want wings and I want wind to ride. I been looking for signs of movement, looking for a great big wind to come skip-to-my-lou all through this mess, dislodge some rivers for baptisms, root up healing herbs and toss some around for everybody to have.
I want to relax, I want to float like a leaf and land picturesquely on the grass showing off the beautiful colors of my whole self. I don’t want to apologize for nothing not for floating, landing or seeking air. If I push myself, I bet I can land far enough away from here so I can breathe new/fresh pockets of wind…bet I can land somewhere east of here, near appalachia, up where lavender lilies bloom, where rose of sharon sings…
I can’t breathe here no more in this heavy porous atmosphere, it’s dropped down way too low, to the little grassy piece of earth I live on and I just can’t breathe. I thought I was imagining it but it’s real – the air is thick; thick and sticky like a glob of peanut butter caught in the throat daring you to drink water, threatening to thicken regardless…
I need air and space and
God cracking the skies…
Oh, God, blow on us, shower us with rain and the latter rain, deliver us, heal this land…
Heal the land, Father… we humble ourselves and pray
We dream of riding the night winds again, of sleeping well and waking rested
send Your wind, help us fly
lift us up high enough to catch hold
let us mount up with wings as eagles — send the wind, Lord, send the Wind…
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31 King James Version (KJV)