By Kitty Felde
Years ago, my mother and I shared season subscriptions to the Mark Taper Forum. Few plays stick in my memory – “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Robber Bridegroom” come to mind.
But it wasn’t the plays that my mother loved.
As a mom of seven who lived in the suburbs that straddled LA and Orange County, my mother relished the trips to “the city” where she would put on her bohemian clothes and devote as much attention to the audience as she would to the plays. “I’ve never seen such ugly people in all my life!” she’d say.
My mom’s been gone for more than 20 years. And as I sit through too many mediocre productions, I think back on what it was that she loved about going to the theatre: the drama, the spectacle, the unpredictability of real people. She wanted to be surprised, delighted, amused, amazed. How often do we get that onstage? Is this why theatre is in danger of dying?
This year, I saw one truly amazing production. It was an import from England, the Kneehigh Theater, on tour in DC. The company took an arthouse classic, “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s film about an affair at a train station and made magic onstage. The movie was based on a one-act Noel Coward play from the 1930’s called “Still Life,” but I can’t imagine the original was anything like the Kneehigh production.
The story was simple: ordinary people stuck in middle-aged ennui who hit it off in a train station tea room. But out of that simplicity, the company invented four different ways to put trains onstage – including smoke and sound, and a marvelous toy train that circled the stage. The most dramatic was a film of a racing train, projected onto a scrim that was half the height of the stage, stretched out from wing to wing by a cast member running past, with another cast member closing down the scrim as the train chugged by.
There was levitation in the play – characters being lowered from the upper levels of the set by fellow cast members. There was music and dancing. There were puppets playing the heroine’s children.
It was the most magical theatrical experience I can remember.
It perfectly fit everything my mother loved about going to the theatre: drama, spectacle, unpredictability.
That’s what I want to create: a reason for people to come to the theatre, to be surprised, delighted, amused, and amazed.
What was the most magical, memorable night in the theatre for you?Tweet
#1. The Decision to Self-Produce or I’m Self-Producing my Play… Agh!
by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas
After more than 30 years of loving theatre, writing plays, studying the craft of playwriting and having my plays selected for readings and workshops; after years of submitting those plays to theatres large and small around the country (and England) and receiving many a glowing (albeit boilerplate) rejection; and after fellowships, labs and a couple of prizes along the way, I decided, however foolhardy, to produce my own play.
“What—why—how—?” People asked. And not just people—friends; trusted allies in the slog through life. All good questions, but ones that ultimately only served to strengthen my resolve. As to why I felt compelled to do this, the reason that comes quickest to mind was: If I chickened out, then it wasn’t clear—despite all the aforementioned time and effort and minor success that I’d had with my plays—that anyone else was going to. Oh, yeah, it could happen; and I live in hope and engage in many forms of positive thinking that it would. But in practical terms, it was looking more and more unlikely. And it became very clear that if I wanted to see a play of mine onstage before I needed a walker, I was going to have to produce it myself.
As I said, I’ve been writing plays for over 30 years and had some lucky, early success when my first play was produced and directed by Dorothy Lyman. Then life intervened. I had a child, we moved, the child had ambitions, which kept me busy and not pursuing my own goals. But now, with my son grown and off to college, I found myself starting over. In starting over, however, where exactly does one start? It’s not that I’d ever stopped writing, but I’d dropped out of the game and most of the principal participants had changed in the interim. Dorothy closed her theatre twenty years ago and moved back to New York. I didn’t have any friends with theatre companies and though I hung around a few before I jumped into this madness, no one was buyin’ what I was sellin’. So there was another reason I needed to do it myself.
Over the next few months, I’ll be writing about the journey of how I came to be brave (or silly) enough to self-produce, along with recounting the minefields, pitfalls, fears and yes joys! that have occurred along the road to getting my play on its feet in front of a (mostly) paying audience. I’ll give you the what, why, how and where, as well as all the angsty decisions about money, selecting a director, finding a co-producer (you didn’t think I was stupid or brave enough to do everything myself did you?), choosing a theatre, actors, the union, designers, publicity or lack of it, and bad reviews. My goal is not to scare anybody but to give other playwrights the confidence to produce their own work, to arm them with some information about how they might do that and the resilience to see it all through.
I wrote this little angry comedy last month. Not typical for someone who has been consumed by the rage of a woman done wrong for over four years. And yet, there it is. In the space of two weeks, I wrote a 60-page script almost up to the deadline.
It, too, was spurred by rage, but this time of the “I’ll show them” variety. And, you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, despite the negative inspiration. For rather than slogging through forced language and style and all of the other rules I set for myself as a playwright, I simply let the grieving old woman inside me loose. I fell in love writing the male character. I wrote the son I never bore, and wish I had. And, I wrote a female character to the voice in my head of a tremendous actress I know.
In reflection, I think what I did was successfully open up the myopic vision I had of myself as a playwright and may have found my voice.Tweet
I haven’t finished reading a book for pleasure in a long, long time, and I admit to losing grammar and vocabulary. Of course, I research point-of-need requests, whether they be a new play or work-related, and am up on current events and my professional literature.
I always feel a sense of victory when I find relevant “stuff” and make new connections to material. But somehow, I fell out of love with reading. Could be part bad eyesight and lack of attention span, and with that I realize I have become a judgmental audience, whether it be at the theatre or reading a new piece of literature.
Even so, I jumped in wholeheartedly with the playwright/director whose new work I witnessed last weekend. Two amazing performances and a challenging text; I was there for all of it, hooked. I lost myself in it, through the amazing and redundant parts. And then, towards the end, the playwright/director wrote several speeches and had the actor wag her finger at the audience in judgment. And, I overreacted by getting angry.
I am educated, interested in the world around me, and as a playwright, study people and their behavior. It was clear to me why the character in last weekend’s play behaved the way she did, but to be judged by a playwright as being too ignorant to know made me wonder, who exactly is our audience today? I know… My friends and family, and the actors’ friends and family attend my events. But, does the general public? And are they ignorant? No, I don’t think so.
I fell in love with books when I remembered my grade school teachers reading Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, Mrs. Fisby and the Rats of NIMH to us after lunch. I’ve decided to initiate a Storytime program at work, reading literature to students who might want to take a break from studying during finals. (Apparently, there is a study that shows that the brain releases Dopamine and the listener experiences pleasure when being read to, and is positively motivated.) But, what can I do to bring in a busy, over-stimulated, stressed-out audience to see my plays? I’ve decided it’s by entertaining them.
A convergence of events led me to write the first draft of a comedy last month. Ironically, and for the first time, one of my plays is getting tons of immediate attention. While entertaining doesn’t necessarily equal funny, I realized, I do need to stop judging my audience and start loving them. I need to remember the audience, and more importantly, remember they come first.Tweet
I’m just going to go ahead and make a grumpy sounding statement here that might make some of you shake your head, but then I’m going to explain why I feel this way, and maybe some of you will agree with me on this:
I think the Film, Television, and music industries have neutered community talent.
How? Well, by placing a few really-well-paid stars in the sky (stars whose light shine all over the world at all hours of the day/night), it’s altered our ability to perceive, appreciate, and develop local talent.
Let me back up.
Before entertainment was mass-marketed to every corner of the globe, local artists were oftentimes average and hard-working people who made theatre or wrote poems or played the piano on the side. I’m sure a lot of those people dreamed about what it would be like to be able to quit their full time jobs and take their talents on the road – and many an early artist did just that. But their measure for talent was a local one. They were the “Best in town” or the “Best on their block” and they weren’t comparing themselves to a few celebrities living glamorous lifestyles far, far away…
Nowadays, however, pre-packaged entertainment is piped in and available everywhere. Talent shows are held in which the judges mimic Simon Cowell and compare competitors to people like Adelle, even though the competitors are 35 year-old SAHMs who’ve never had a singing lesson in their life.
And theatre audiences are shrinking because why go see your Aunt Sally in a community theatre production of Streetcar when you can see Interstellar on the IMAX in 3-D?
Do you see where I’m going with this? Our local enthusiasm and gusto for local artists is in direct competition with the incredibly alluring and pre-approved “Celebrity”, and that puts us in a super awkward position as artists.
And none of this is new ground – the Arts are very much aware of the fight for audiences in today’s mass-market, but I’m not talking about audiences here… I’m talking about us. And I can’t help but wonder what more we can do on an individual level as artists to strengthen and celebrate the arts on smaller, more local scales.
What can we do to help nurture local talent, just as your local chamber of commerce supports local businesses?
So I’ll just ask: When is the last time you went to a show at your local community theatre and didn’t spend the drive home comparing it to professional shows you’ve seen? When’s the last time you sat in a room full of part-time writers who write with unbridled (and probably untrained) passions and celebrated them without comparing their work or their intentions to that of the “professionals”?
For some of you, the answer will be “Last week, cranky-pants!” but for some of you, I bet the answer is “Ummmmmm…. let me think….” because as artists and writers who are pursuing our dream, I think it’s only natural that some of us get so caught up in the path we are pursuing that we: A – forget that “passion” and “profession” shouldn’t necessarily be judged side-by-side, and B – that in remembering to celebrate the small, joyful, local moments of artistry, we are doubling down on the meaning of art as a form of self-expression, rather than as an act of commerce.
So what does this have to do with being a female playwright?
Well, I think it comes down to staying connected with your community, even as you write in pursuit of NY, Chicago, or LA. We can’t expect audiences to demand theaters perform our work if we’re not out there supporting them right back! Also, I don’t live in NY, Chicago, or LA, so if I make those target cities my sole focus and don’t engage with the community in which I actually live, aren’t I being grossly self-obsessed and foolhardy?
So I attend community theatre, I go to college shows, I attend youth scholarship events when I can, and I work at staying connected to the arts scene back home that has supported me so very, very much – because I believe in them too!
And perhaps this is a long, twisting post about tired topics, but I do hope that it creates within you a reflective “How can I get more involved with local artists?” because as artists ourselves, we need to continue to challenge ourselves to learn and grow, while also giving back and engaging with the very communities we hope to someday entertain and challenge with our written work.
Because art is not only art when called so by a critic, right? Art can be found anywhere and comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. And the accessibility of it is every bit as important as those de rigour moments of small audience “brilliance” some artists achieve. Just look at this video of a musician who has figured out how to turn a carrot into a clarinet. Watch it all the way through – that’s art, people! It’s amazing – and it’s not a super expensive, hard to come by instrument he’s playing, it’s a mother f***ing carrot! Talk about local… he doesn’t have to go farther than his local grocery store to create music. He’s engaged in creating unique and accessible opportunities, and in so doing he’s created some genuine theatre magic!
And that’s something to celebrate.
Have you read this post about women and submissions on Donna Hoke’s blog yet? It’s super interesting. In it, she talks about how women statistically submit fewer plays than men do, and so how in the world can we hope to achieve gender parity when we’re not even kicking out as many plays as they are? She posits a few ideas as to why we’re not submitting as much work as men, one of which might be that we’re simply not writing as many plays as they are (while admitting she’s not quoting scientific data on the subject) and I think that she’s probably on point with some of it.
Because her thoughts echo thoughts that I’ve been personally mulling over (and freaking out about) the past few months – and it all comes down to a very self-judgmental “Why haven’t I been writing as much as I know I should be/want to/need to if I’m going to reach my goal of becoming a real-live playwriting SUPERSTAR (hahahaha) sometime soon?!”
I mean, I’ve got time. I’ve got actual time in my schedule to write right now, and instead of being a hyper-productive story machine, I’ve been dragging my feet, occasionally circling the creative drain, and beating myself up about it every step of the way.
And I know that part of my problem is that I’m never JUST thinking about playwriting… When I’m dragging my feet on my written work, I’m dragging my feet on ALL of my work. When I feel creatively stumped, I feel stumped about life. I’ve been down and out and confused about just what the hell was wrong with me for months – which was of course not helping me write anything – and then it hit me:
I don’t know how to turn off the very loud, very panic-stricken part of my brain that is constantly worried about finances and health insurance and the unreliability of my fragile adjunct positions and whether or not I’m making something of myself fast enough to save myself from a life of obscure forgotten penury…
And this monumental (and very loud) worry about my own survival has been clouding the creative waters from which I work. This worry about unmet goals and far-off dreams has been pressurizing every unrealized sentence, turning them into huge ugly stones of depressing non-accomplishments that I don’t know how to move.
And once I realized this, the solution seemed clear: I needed to chill the f*** out! But how?
Maybe I need to look to some of my male contemporaries who have a (seemingly) easier time compartmentalizing tasks and worries.
Because I really think that the gents are better at turning off parts of their brains in order to focus on each thing in turn, one at a time.
What a concept.
I mean, I have always considered my ability to juggle multiple ideas/projects/and thoughts at once as one of my biggest assets, but when the juggling gets out of control, it’s no longer a strength but a very paralyzing weakness.
And I don’t think I’m the only woman out here trying to do too many things at once while mentally beating myself up at each step for not being able to give any one of those tasks my full, undivided attention. I feel guilty writing because I’m not out earning money by picking up extra paid freelancing gigs, and I feel guilty working on those paid gigs because they are doing absolutely nothing to move me further up the theatrical or academic pipeline. I worry that the things I want to do aren’t yet earning me a living, and yet I know that they’ll never ever earn a living if I don’t continue to labour away at them in the un-paid now.
But what if I put some of this obsessively negative energy to work through focus. What if I could shut up the Chicken Little part of my brain and double down on patience and faith in myself and learn to work on one thing at a time? What if I can learn how to tell my constantly-
thinking-worrying-about-3-different-things-at-once mind to let go of some of those worries for a little while, and to believe that putting down a few of my “balls” for a little while won’t bring down the entire circus.
What if I can cultivate a practice of healthy compartmentalization?
What do you think?
Hello Lady Playwrights!
What great timing to be called to the LAFPI blog just as I’ve released the Little Black Dress INK submission guidelines for our 2015 ONSTAGE Project.
Some of you may remember a lot of cross-promotion between LBDI and the LAFPI as we worked together on that very awesome SWAN Day fest last March. At the same time I was helping wrangle plays for SWAN day, I was also hot and heavy into coordinating LBDI’s semi-finalist readings, which were going up in multiple locations across the country.
Well, I’m pleased to say that the 2014 festival readings went really well, and now we are in rehearsals for the production going up in Prescott, AZ on January 2nd and 3rd.
I’m super excited and cannot wait to see these 11 plays brought to life!
And while we’re gearing up for production, I’m already laying the groundwork for our 2015 festival, which will feature 3 additional reading locations – I’m so excited!
So without further ado, let me share the 2015 ONSTAGE Project guidelines with you, and remember – Little Black Dress INK utilizes peer review to select plays, so sharing your work with us doesn’t just end when you hit “send”; instead, you get to play a crucial part in the festival’s development and final outcome. I hope you’ll consider participating, and I look forward to reading your work!
One-Act Plays by Jennie Webb, Allie Costa, Alex Dilks Pandola, and Julianne Homokay
presented by Green Light Productions
11/6 to 11/9
Thursday – Saturday, 8pm
The Miles Memorial Playhouse
1130 Lincoln Blvd
Four witty, funny, powerful one-act plays written and directed by Los Angeles-based women
Buying a House by Jennie Webb and directed by Jen Bloom
Femme Noir by Allie Costa and directed by Ricka Fisher
Juiced by Alex Dilks Pandola and directed by Liz Hinlein
Sisters Lunching by the Seaside by Julianne Homokay and directed by Katherine James
$15 general $10 students/seniors
FREE PARKING at 808 Wilshire Structure (entrance on Lincoln)
I’m adding this notice to my blog today because I saw GLO 2014 at the Miles Playhouse last night and thoroughly enjoyed the plays.
They were varied, surprising and fresh – lovely writing. (I loved Buying A House, Jennie. Nothing beats a good rant!)
I thought the use of the space was very clever and was impressed by the sound and the lighting and the swift changing of the scenes. Congratulations, directors and crew! And the actors – women and men – were delightful!
The place was packed and I met two friends outside who were waiting to see if there were no shows so they could get tickets.
It is so heartening to have a group dedicated to female playwrights and I’m looking forward to their next production.Tweet
I’ve been thinking about Andie Bottrell’s excellent post about Expectations and about “how things shake out and the millions of variables that go into anything that happens in life.”
I am in about my third or fourth go round of a career, having been an actress and a director – who actually made her living onstage – a playwright – produced and published – a mother – a very happy one – a screenwriter and NOW a ticket lady in a community theater. (It’s a good theater, I’ve had a couple of productions there and do many other things, but I what I’m hired to do is run the box office.)
Here’s just one story from that journey: My husband, Kerry Feltham, a first class film maker, made a short film from a script I wrote that won us the jury prize at Cannes and a gig to write a film at a major studio. The woman producer, a wonderful woman, got us the job and my husband chose a film to rewrite from the studio vault. We wrote a script about a couple of con men and we all thought it was pretty funny.
Then, one of the million of variables that happen did. The head of the studio quit and the woman producer did as well and the people who came in passed the project on to the new guys who turned it into a major hit! Without us. End of story.
And here’s another story that still raises the hackles on the back of my neck and the one Andie made me think of. I had auditioned for a part in television. I thought I had aced it and waited breathlessly for a “Yes.” “Ah, said the producer, “that was very nice but you’re too short for a two shot.” I didn’t get any taller.
And I don’t think it ever gets any easier.
There was an article in the L.A. Times this Sunday, the 2nd. Bob Rogers, the founder and chief creative officer of BRC Imagination Arts, ran into Ray Bradbury just before he died. Mr. Bradbury pulled two pieces of paper out of his briefcase and held them up. He said, “These are rejection letters. I still get them. They arrived this week…and they are form letters.”
My husband keeps making films, I keep writing and sending out my plays, and I think the only thing that has really changed are my expectations. I’d love to have another production, a good part in a good play, but every day I really look forward to my coffee in the morning and a glass of wine at night.
I am a wonderful person, but even I have flaws. I would go so far as to call myself flawed. One of my main flaws is that I cannot deal with changed plans. I don’t like things that don’t follow my original plan, and I don’t always know how to fit things in or change them around. This is also one of my flaws as a writer.
This week, I was ready and raring to write a bunch of cool funky blog posts about ALL THE THEATRE. I was going to go see a play at some point. I was going to write a bunch of emails to people I had been meaning to contact. I had a list. And then I got sick. As I laid in bed with a 99.5º fever, surrounded by empty 1.75 L orange juice bottles and used tissues, watching my 25th episode of Gilmore Girls in a row (I wish I were exaggerating even a little bit), I started to get mad at myself for not writing all the blog posts about all the theatre and sending emails and whatever else was on that damn list.
When I write and I can’t move forward I have a trick I use. I learned this from a teacher I had in college: write your plot out as though it’s a children’s book. The thing about children’s books is that they’re written for children. Children are known to ask infinite(ly annoying) questions if things don’t make sense to them. So children’s books usually make a lot of sense. They’re very simple and straightforward. Now, not all plot is meant to be linear and flow logically from one thing to another – I love a good avant garde theatre piece as much as the next gal – but if you’re going for a linear plot structure, this trick really helps you find all the tangled bits of your story and smooth them out.
Today, my first day up and at ‘em since I got sick on Sunday night, I decided to turn my own life into a children’s story. Once I did, I was able to be less mad at myself. It’s hard to write all the blog posts about all the theatre when you’re floating in and out of fever dreams that all seem to involve Lorelai Gilmore and you can barely sit up for five minutes. We all need to step back from our stories, simplify, and be a little kinder to ourselves. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that no amount of planning can truly prevent anyone from getting sick during cold and flu season. Plays will still be playing in a week. Emails can be sent over the weekend. Blog posts can be written after fevers break.
And then we can start our lists over.Tweet