Back in May of this year, Laura Shamas wrote a wonderful article about the unknown numbers for women playwights on HowlRound:
I’ve been checking back in the comments of this article to see if there were any updates, and yes, there were some great conversations about this issue. But then it seems, again, that the issue is dead, and will remain dead until it’s brought out again. TCG is working on a demographic survey platform called REPRESENT to create reports on gender parity at the board, staff, and artist level. And it’s not yet available.
This image haunts me: the coveted “wasp waist” of a thankfully bygone era, when some women had their lower ribs surgically removed to obtain this body shape.
I look at these women and wonder – what are they thinking? What were they saying just before this photograph was taken? I study their faces to see if I can catch what they’re feeling. Some of them look detached or numb, as if they’re just held in place by the shape of their costume. Some of them look proud, or flirty, or amused.
A couple of them seem sad to me, but maybe it’s their huge hats. (Yes, their hats. I wonder if their huge hats with the (egret? heron?) feathers, and the lace and the frippery, and all the hat pins holding them in place in their upswept hair – I wonder if the hats aren’t given them all a good sized headache.) From what I can tell of the photograph, the women are show girls, or actresses, or models – paid to wear this type of costume.
I’m researching women from this particular point in history just now, and I’m curious about this form of dress up. This is the kind of culture you live in when you agree to have your ribs removed so you can have a 15 inch waist. And then – I know women in this day and age who have had botox treatments, and liposuction and nose jobs. And these present day women aren’t actresses or models, they’re women who work in offices and attend meetings, and wear expensive watches. They get to mold and change their body shape so they feel like a more desirable part of the culture. So I have a lot to think about. Especially how our dress informs us of who we are. And were.Tweet
by Diane Grant
The ten minute play is still a relatively new phenomenon. Jon Jory of the Humana Festival of Actors Theatre of Louisville started the trend in the eighties, as a way to showcase many different plays at the festival. It made sense. The performances could address a variety of themes, could present different voices, and, if the audience didn’t like a play, it just had to wait for ten minutes to hear another one.
Now every playwright alive is trying her hand at it and there are Ten Minute Festivals all over the world.
The ten minute isn’t easy to write – often playwrights end up with a sketch or a character piece – but Mary is a whiz at it. She says, “I like the immediacy of it, although I just cottoned on to it, as you say up in Boise.” “The ten minute play is just my friend…it seems to be my place in the world.”
She thinks it is a discipline in itself and says, “You have to say what you mean very quickly,” and start the conflict right away. “You don’t have time to go, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ ‘Oh, fine,’ ‘Hey, what did you do today?’ ‘Well, let me see…’”
Even the setting has to be in the dialogue. You have to catch someone in a moment and that moment has to very important.
Happy and Gay, which was part of this year’s Hollywood Fringe, captures that moment with the first line – Straight or kinky? The play is about two church ladies in the church basement decorating for the church’s first same sex marriage. Mary was originally going to write about two mothers trying to deal with the marriage but the characters spoke to her. She said, “Oh, my God, what’s going on with these ladies?” then realized that they were stringing up crepe paper. They didn’t know how to decorate for this new thing. It wasn’t a funeral or a shower or an ordinary wedding and they are having a stressful moment.
As with Happy and Gay, one of the virtues of the ten minute is that is allows the playwright to open a window into contemporary issues, or to catch a fleeting moment.
Behold A Pale Bronco came out of the pursuit of O.J. Simpson on the 405 Freeway. Mary and a friend were watching a basketball game when the chase appeared in the corner of the screen. Before the game was over, it was in the corner and pursuit was full screen.
Mary, who had previously seen actors auditioning for the part of O.J. Simpson in a movie, was struck by our fascination with celebrity.
Then she thought about a man who was living across from the 405 and wrote about his dilemma. What if this character liked television a lot and what if he has a choice of going out on the balcony and maybe being on CNN? However, if he were on CNN, he wouldn’t be able to see himself live. He’s taping over his girlfriend’s copy of Beauty and The Beast, putting it on VHS. But that’s still not the same. He has to make this moral decision – TV, real life? TV, real life? What would be better – to look at it or look at himself looking at it?
“The Miraculous Day Quartet” was written immediately after September 11, 2001. Wordsmiths was meeting on 9/11 but the city buildings were closed that night. Mary called all the playwrights and said, “Hey, you know what? This is terrible so why don’t we all write a play about 9/11 and bring it next week?” She procrastinated until an hour or two before the meeting but knew she had to write something. Then, she said, “I had one of these moments when the universe sang to me.”
She was listening to KUSC when The Bells of Saint Genevieve, a baroque piece by Marin Marais, started playing. “And I heard, ‘I screwed up. I stayed in bed instead of going to work. I screwed up. The apartment wouldn’t let me out. I screwed up. My assistants screwed because they gave me the wrong time of the airplane.’
And I was suddenly writing these stories, not about the people in the building or in the plane but the ones who were late. They were late and they survived, including one of the terrorists who prayed too long that morning and did not catch the plane. That was really creepy because I found out later that there was one of the twenty who didn’t make it. So…that made it all the more chilling.”
Mary has many more ten minute plays and says that she now has a hard time writing full plays with any conviction.
However, the church ladies continue to interest her and she’s written about one of them in Dancing With Miss Liza. Perhaps there is a series of plays about Veronica and Betty or perhaps an evening of ten minute plays strung together like a pearl necklace – one of those necklaces in which pearls can be removed or added.
She’s working on it.
by Diane Grant
Mary Steelsmith, an L.A. playwright, whom many of you might know, is one of the new vice-chairs of ALAP. We met at Googie’s (recommended – you can sit for hours and the food is great) in Santa Monica to talk about her plays and playwriting career.
One of the things we talked about is where the impulse to write plays comes from. How do we start making up stories? Why do we start thinking about plots and dialogue?
Mary started early. She was a solitary child, the last of five much older siblings. Her Dad worked for the state auditor’s office in Boise, Idaho but also ran a working farm with cows, horses, and chickens. The family lived outside of town off a dirt road at the end of the main drag called Broadway Avenue, two fields away from the Broadway Drive In movie theater. Mary says, “You could actually see the screen from my bedroom window.” She couldn’t hear anything but would watch with fascination. It was her entertainment. She could see a movie five times in a row until the feature changed and become very familiar with the narrative and the characters. She says, “Snow White and The Three Stooges were dear friends of mine,” and because she couldn’t hear what they were saying, she would make up stories about them. And put herself in the story.
The storyteller and the ambition to be a playwright were born.
She left Boise in 1976, and always enterprising, adept at making something out of nothing, she came as a babysitter for people who had a time share apartment in L.A. The people she was with didn’t like L.A. and left but the new tenants let Mary stay in a little back room for the $50 a month.
She kept writing but also she says, “wanted to see if the fat girl could become an actress.” She started getting extra jobs, was on the movie lobby card for Kentucky Fried Movie (got her friends in to see it), worked with the L.A. Connection improv group, putting out the hat on Sundays at Venice Beach, worked at an answering service at night and auditioned during the day. She got into the movie, Rabbit Test, with “this kid named Billy Crystal.”
Though she continued to act, she was always looking for places to put her plays. In Dramalogue, she saw a small ad for a workshop called Wordsmiths, a group that met once a week in the vault of what once was a bank building at 6th and Spring.
The deadline for submissions was close – “like the next Tuesday,” and Mary had to write something fast!
In the mid 1980’s, she had had a dear friend with AIDS, whom she almost married. The fear of AIDS was at its height and when Mary visited his hospital room, she had to wear yellow paper overalls, a hat and a mask and gloves. After he died, she became involved with Louise Hay’s Hay Rides, a support group for people living with H.I.V. or AIDS.
Hay’s initial meetings had grown from a few people in her living room to hundreds of men in a large hall in West Hollywood. A friend took Mary there one night and there were twelve hundred people in the room.
Hay, a spiritualist, had a simple message: “You are loved.” Mary, who had no training in the health field was told to “stand there with them,” which she did. “I would put my hands on their arms and say, ‘I love you,’ and that very night I looked over at the window and was sure that for a flash I saw my friend, Mike. It was so beautiful because I was sure I was in the right place.”
She continued to be involved and when the ad for Wordsmiths in Dramalogue appeared, had spent many nights with another friend, comforting him and taking care of him. To her surprise and sadness, at his funeral, she wasn’t acknowledged.
That experience become a thirty minute play called Bedside Companion, which she wrote in one weekend. She submitted it and was accepted into Wordsmiths.
The workshop was Mary’s first playwriting class. There was nothing like that in Boise and she had learned to write from “doing it over and over and over.”
The group would sit around a table after fighting for the good chairs, “that didn’t bend back,” and read each other’s plays out loud. Listening to playwrights reading her work was painful and instructive. When an actor sees a mistake in a line, he or she fixes it, “playwrights don’t know any better.” She heard rhythm, the sound of her dialogue, the movement of story. And she learned to rewrite.
The Wordsmiths moderator, the experienced and published fellow playwright Silas Jones, didn’t mince words and would say, “Oh, this is crap. I hate this play. Your play is not a play.” “Did I rewrite something? Oh, yeah.”
Wordsmiths has disbanded but Mary’s plays have gone on to many productions and awards. Her The Old Man and The Seed won first place in the Hewlett Packard 10 minute play contest and took her to Singapore where it was produced. Her full length, Isaac I Am, won the Helford Prize and was produced by Jacksonville University in Florida and in 2012 she was a delegate to the 9th International Women Playwrights Conference in Stockholm.
by Kitty Felde
This past weekend was DC’s annual “Page to Stage” Festival. It’s a tremendous gift from the Kennedy Center to local playwrights. Every Labor Day weekend, the Kennedy Center opens up rehearsal rooms, the Millennium Stages, donor event rooms, every nook and cranny on every floor, to staged readings of plays by local writers. Imagine the Music Center turning us loose for an entire weekend!
This year also included a special seminar for writers given by Michael Bigelow Dixon, formerly the literary manager and associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Dixon wants us to stop thinking about conventional reality and play.
Reading hundreds of plays for the Humana Festival, he says none of the current batch included anything other than realistic plays – kitchen sink dramas, domestic conflicts, even those that got away from home and hearth and tackled international issues were still written in conventional, realistic fashion.
He wants us to dream and has written a book to spark our imaginations about making theatre THEATRICAL.
Why? Not just to get our plays noticed, but to attract a modern audience.
But how do you do this? Do we throw out everything we know about writing plays and reinvent the wheel? Not necessarily. Dixon has a few suggestions:
- - Interruption: the “reality” of the stage play is interrupted by “real” life. How many audiences paid big bucks to see “Spiderman” for the play itself? More were there to see if a real-life event like an accident might happen. Is there a way to bring reality into our artificial worlds?
- - Give the audience a choice: call it a gimmick, but from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to Alan Ayckbourn’s “Intimate Exchanges,” plays that let the audience choose its own ending are very popular. Is there a way to invite the audience to participate in the creation of your play?
- - Anthropomorphize a character: put a talking animal on stage. Or a lot of them. Hint: there were WAY too many dog characters in our workshop.
- - Interdisciplinary approach: try rewriting your play as a radio play – what do you have to eliminate? What do you have to add to make the audience understand what’s going on? Then rewrite it as a graphic novel. Then go back to the original script to add SOME of the elements.
- - Ekphrastic drama – or what I call “dancing about architecture” – include other art forms in your work
- - Distort time and space – ala Jose Rivera’s “Cloud Tectonics”
- - Recontextualization – tell your story from someone else’s point of view. Think “Amadeus” and Salieri’s version of Mozart
Just a few thoughts to shake up your “realistic” world.
The book: “Breaking from Realism: A Map/Quest for the Next Generation” by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Jon Jory
I read Moss Hart’s Act One (more than once). I absorbed Hart’s memoir into the fabric of my being, not unlike how I learned to drive, knowing just the right amount of pressure I needed to apply to allow for the tension in my brakes. Point is, I learned to have expectations; playwright expectations. These expectations have led me, over the last seven years that I’ve seen my plays read or produced in Southern California, to many a raw moment. Consequently, I’m learning to just be grateful. I’ve discovered that changing my nervous, expectant, perhaps entitled, behavior to appreciation has made for happier interpersonal communications between others and me, which has led to happier results.
A review of Bender is coming out tonight. And, I am giddy with excitement, waiting for the notice, expectant and afraid, at the same time wishing I was in New York at Elaine’s in 1955 waiting for the Times to come out in print. Isn’t that odd; to write something, purposefully, for human consumption, and then be afraid of being poorly judged?
I wrote a song about a shoe. Not a good song. But a fun song. About a shoe I saw laying by the side of the road… Have you ever wondered how something got to where it is? Where did that thing come from and how did it get there? I think that I like to write plays because I’m curious to know how all the pieces of our lives fit together.Tweet
Ruby: You make me feel like I’m nothing but the pimply-faced girl sitting in the corner at my own debutante ball.
Last week I experienced the most profound of four evenings. Four. In a row. I went from dress #2, to final dress, to opening night, to 2nd show of Bender, my new play with music. Each experience became progressively more and more fulfilling. I realize how rare these moments are, and I am extremely grateful for them…
However, as if I had some perverse need to break the winning streak, on the fifth night, I visited my high school reunion for three hours…
For four days I heard beautiful fiction. And, then, I remembered one font from whence the fiction sprang…
I’ve been told to write what I know. I don’t think I’m unique in that… Try explaining it to the folks…
Everything I write is dreadfully personal, and is at the same time, absolute fiction. For, while I didn’t have a debutante ball. Or a Bat Mitzvah. Or a Quinceañera. I did experience teenage acne, and Big dreams of getting out…
Sheriff Frank: Here’s to getting out.
Here’s to Bender for making me to forget what it feels like to be alone in a ballroom full of people.
2 more performances, August 30th and 31st. Check Women at Work Onstage for more details.Tweet
A slightly medicated post from post-surgery land…
A little over a year ago I was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, which involves an unfortunately over-active thyroid messing up all kinds of metabolic function. I didn’t have insurance at the time I was diagnosed, having let it lapse due to my near-impoverished status at the time. Once diagnosed, I was able to reinstate my insurance, but with the policy’s insanely high deductible, it did little to curb the cost of necessary tests and specialists visits.
At the time, doctors recommended I get the thyroid removed, but I couldn’t even imagine doing so because I’d have to cover the first $8,000 of any operation out of my own (empty) pocket due to my $5,000 deductible/$3,000 co-insurance policy.
So I went on anti-thyroid meds and set my sites on the ACA rollout date as a bastion of insured hope.
Last week I finally got my thyroid removed. I received excellent medical care. My deductible was only $500.
I’m an artist, and an adjunct faculty member at a community college. I am also a substitute teacher who writes for an online magazine. I produce a female playwright festival and I teach youth workshops. None of these pays very well, and not a one offers me insurance like I’m able to get through the ACA website. I work hard at all these under-paying gigs because I enjoy the work and because I believe I will one day find a full-time teaching position at a university (the power of positive thought!). In the meantime, the Affordable Care Act really changed my life in a huge way.
I’m still a little groggy as I recover from the operation, but I’m also really grateful for all the fight that went into making it possible for artists like myself to get the medical help they need.
I just wanted to share some of that gratitude here. I know I’m not the only one.
The seed I planted in my mind before leaving LA was to experience the open road to rediscover my edge. I felt I had lost it during the past few years in trying to survive living in a big city. I’m no longer surprised, but happily accept, when events endorse my faith that the universe will give you what you ask for though I may not know when or how it will manifest.
Homeward bound along the I395 we spent our last night of our vacation in Lone Pine, CA. The magnificent Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet, is a beautiful backdrop to a “small town with lots of charm”. This town has grown to become a mecca for travelers, hikers and tourists since the Mt. Whitney trail was completed in 1904. I discover that I came here as a pilgrim. There was time when I looked at a mountain and I would imagine the traverse up, studying the contours and ridges to determine a way up to the top. When we passed through Lone Pine two weeks ago, I described to Bruno my feeling of loss – why wasn’t I surveying a trail to climb up? What a strange feeling to be aware of the loss, and then accepting the loss.
I haven’t hiked very much since I moved out here. My excuse was the heat and dryness of the mountain ranges in SoCal which I was not accustomed to, compared to British Columbia, where the forest and meadows are lush and the flowing creeks spray cool mountain waters. I had allowed this joy for the wilderness wither away as I embedded myself into the living of a desert city, yet a mosaic of cultures. The tiles of faces, languages and smells from the streets are both an invitation and assault on the senses. Which one to choose?
Riding, alone with my own thoughts, and only the wind to brush my jacket and pants, and whistling in my ears, I focused on the terrain. There’s always something to be prepared for: debris, crossing deer or elk, open cattle, falling rock, weather pattern changes, looking to see if Bruno is still behind me, the curve coming up, state patrol, the unwrapping scenery of mountains, valleys, basins and rock formations. This is a beautiful country. Every turn is breathtaking. As one local in Snohomish Valley described, ‘God couldn’t have painted a better picture’. Certainly, people are more apt to look at the bikes with its zig-zag of bungee chords to tie down whatever we deemed as ‘necessary’ for the journey. That too changed on a daily basis. We made trips to the post offices every few days to send back home the simple little treasures , souvenirs and dirty clothes we had accumulated.
The daily grind of the road didn’t wear me out, except for a fresh fatigue from the intake of conversations, scenery and preparing for the next day. I tried to meditate on ‘the edge’. How did ‘Stella Got Her Groove Back’? (I never saw the movie, but the title was apt for my situation.) How will I relearn to look at a mountain and have that joyful curiousity to climb it to the peak? It took miles and miles of riding alone and just letting things happen. Without expectations we chewed up the miles between LA and Hayden, and back down to LA again, doing a loop that closed again at Lone Pine. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened – not by design – but simply accepting what was present at the moment, and making choices and adjustments as needed.
The choice between forging ahead into unknown territory or staying one extra day to fix the bike; the choice to decline the offer of a shelter overnight from a stranger because of the rain and lateness of the day; the choice to accept a round of beer at the saloon from a traveler who cared to ask, ‘Where are you guys from?’. Regardless of the choices made, I see now that there is not a right or wrong. It’s a matter of accepting the results of the choices made. I’ve always pondered the quote from Miles Davis:
If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if its’s good or bad.
– Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)
We rounded back to Lone Pine because we had determined we didn’t want to take the I5. I’ve traveled along this path many times before, and I had never seen the Sierra Nevada, so it seemed to be the natural choice to make. The first night into California we stopped at Susanville. The motel owner welcomed us with the ‘biker special’ at $50 for a simple and clean room stocked with a fridge and a microwave. By this time, we had learned to make nutritious and delicious meals using simple ingredients and cooking in the microwave. I was still masturbating my brain to figure out how to get my groove back, but I was fully absorbed in fullness of traveling and the ripening of the end of a trip. I had seen a lot of faces of the desert with its terrains and living and non-living habitats, such as the family living in Middlegate, Nevada running on a diesel generator and the beginnings of a solar energy. Certainly these inhabitants of the desert are pushing to maintain a type of life on the edge.
Black Rock Solar is solarizing one of our country’s historic roadhouses. It’s Middlegate Station, on the loneliest road in America – Highway 50 in Nevada.
If you’ve stopped in whilst bumping around in the desert, you were probably glad for the cold drink or ice cream sandwich to wash the dust from your lips. But cold in the Nevada desert doesn’t come cheap. Off the municipal electric grid and powered 24/7 by a diesel generator, Middlegate’s future is in doubt after years of rising fuel costs.
Middlegate’s owners – Fredda and Russ Stevenson – and Black Rock Solar have secured a State Office of Energy loan and are working to secure more funding for a larger array to keep Middlegate Station viable with the power of the sun.
The story above is the beginning of yet another blog I’d like to write about, as it is a story in itself. But it watered the seed of my initial inquiry about getting the edge back. One of the crew members, a bold and wise young woman, told me that you never really lose the edge because you always have the edge. It didn’t dawn upon me till today that it’s like the knife that loses its sharpness. A knife will always have an edge, but how it is used and maintained defines the kind of edge it has. Using its metal against ceramic or breaking open a coconut shell with the wrong type of knife will chip or dull the edge.
A journey is the process of letting the inner wisdom spring forth, and giving that joyful creation the environment it needs to self-acutalize. A journey into the desert just as prophets and gurus have practiced emptying oneself to transform was what I had been doing. I had an intention but I didn’t have the ‘know-how’, and was left without a choice but to accept – accept what I had become, and then re-orient myself to move towards where I want to be. There will be a re-learning to develop better habits to replace others which I have decided I need to out-grow. Like a river that meanders around the bends and creating oxbows as it matures, there is a wholeness in both edges of a knife. I’ve pierced sharply up a terrain and I’ve also shredded down loose scree from the top, and tumbled on my hands and knees; and bounded back up with a richer perspective.
My pilgrimage to Mount Whitney has just begun. I left Lone Pine yesterday with a map and couple of books about ascending Mt. Whitney, along with tips from a local guide in the adventure store. I feel the butterflies dancing in my belly and the perspiration on my palms thinking about the possibilities. I could try to hike in the winter geared in cramp ons and ice picks. That would be my first time, but it is a possibility that the guide described to me. Staying on the edge has many possibilities.