by Robin Byrd
“Trying to teach my hands to do what I hear in my head” John Hartford, fiddler
Every year I try to work on a new play or writing project and part of that entails finding different ways to tell the story. I have all these stories in my head that I want to tell and at times I feel like John Hartford, that I must teach myself a new way into the story before I can get what’s in my head out. The last few years, I have noticed that even when I hear “first words,” I must still wait until the structure is revealed to me as well. At other times, I must prevent myself from overriding what seems to be outside the realm of textbook playwriting – more theatrical than normal for me.
David Henry Hwang states in his author’s note in M. BUTTERFLY, “Before I can begin writing, I must ‘break the back of the story,’ and find some angle which compels me to set pen to paper.’
Compelling angles are very important to giving a story a fair chance to have a life on stage.
Each play is different. Each time we write, we must find a way to get words on the page worthy of living out loud on the stage – always new, always the same but different, always the best journey to take to “The End.” And then, we start all over again trying to get more stories out of our heads…
by Robin Byrd
I was having a meal with a playwright friend who I invited to read my newest 10-minute play. After reading the piece, she asked me if I ever thought of writing something a little less specialized (I am paraphrasing because I only remember the jest of the conversation which usually happens to me when things hit my core like a grenade launcher. How well do you remember in those times? Memory can be selective…but I digress.). She went on to say that because it was about women’s issues, it probably won’t ever be done. I was slightly taken aback as the words seeped in. But then, I know my friend, so I looked closely at her body language and she was off into thought; it was as though, she was wondering aloud about her own work – that when finished it might also be considered “specialized” and un-producible.
“It is not specialized,” I say, “it is universal because it has happened to others. The work might not get done because I am a woman no matter what I write so I might as well write about women’s issues because maybe…just maybe, someone will be brave enough to want to tackle it. And, the stories need to be told regardless.”
“I relate to part of it but not all of it even though it may be true.”
“You don’t have to relate to all of it, no one hardly relates to all of a story – a piece is fine…”
Then I thought to myself, you have been having this conversation all week with yourself. Write what you need to write, find a way to get it out there… Shoved a fry in my mouth, food was not particularly good but I really love being around this friend, she makes me think and try harder. She’s pretty profound… And, I had been thinking — more than week actually, about the kinds of things that I write, and how each story steps up to the plate when they are ready to start swinging the bat and not one second before. And how what I write absolutely affects when and where I enter… I write down my story ideas, list them in close proximity so I can get back to them easily, go back to add notes from time to time and I try to listen really hard to what characters start talking to me because I am not one to write before I hear first words… Sometimes it’s all smoke and no flames but when the flames start, I write. It’s the decade benders that seem to be coming up to bat now. I had concluded that these stories have been fixin’ to talk for too long for me to get in the way with stipulations on what they can talk about…besides birthin’ babies is hard work… I also concluded that I was not going to have that conversation with myself again. I write what I write and am loving the new octaves…
I was reading that sometimes when searching for female ancestors, one should try Insane Asylums because there was a time when wives and daughters were “put away” for not being obedient enough. Emily Mann wrote a play titled “Mrs. Packard” about just this sort of thing, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard was put away by her husband the Reverend Theophilus Packard in 1860. (https://mccarter.org/Education/mrs-packard/html/index.html)
Women have been sterilized (see compulsory sterilization, forced sterilization, Eugenics Movement) if deemed “weak” or “undesirable” or “feeble-minded” along with men deemed the same. Carrie Buck was sterilized at 17 after giving birth to an illegitimate child – a child sired by a family member of her foster parents who raped her. Carrie was in foster care because her mother had been committed to an asylum probably for having an illegitimate child. (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Buck_Carrie_Elizabeth_1906-1983).
We have to tell our stories. They all count.
“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete; they make one story become the only story…The consequence of a single story is this – it robes people of dignity…” Chimamanda Adichie
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks about “The danger of a single story” at TED Talks https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story .
Read about other women storytellers at Amazing Women Rock, http://amazingwomenrock.com/7-inspirational-storytellers-who-have-captivated-audiences-worldwide
by Robin Byrd
I almost died having the baby. Feet. Breached. Early. Late. Viable. I almost died… I was alone and scared to push. She weighed 8 pages when born. Serious little thing. Made such a fuss to get here – weeks of labor pain, decades in the womb. She made me read to her and talk to her. She requested Nikky Finney’s poem The Afterbirth, 1931; she said you’re trying not to say it. Say it! And Dael Orlandersmith, she said, look at her – good – does she look like she messes around with plays? Tell it! And Charlayne Woodard, do you remember the expression on her face when you mentioned me…remember how even now that look makes you cross your fear…Write it! Straight – no chaser…
She seemed to gain strength there at the end – the baby – even though she almost aborted when Mr. Albee passed, screaming and flipping herself feet first so she could push better, wanted to be standing soon after her toes hit air. You been digging the same well since you met him, time you hit water – it’s a gusher. She pushed and leaned and pushed and leaned… All that leaning on my rib cage made me ill but when she was born, I understood why the labor pains were so great.
She had talked nonstop that last month, and I wrote till I couldn’t write no more then she plopped out, feet first and stood before me, naked and unafraid. She was beautiful, covered in afterbirth, and I am not just saying that because she’s mine…it’s true…she’s been aching to be born…and she wears herself well…
Ever birth a play like that? Hard to write but it won’t let you water it down, won’t let you go till you write it? Because…you have to write it, even if it is a piece at a time. Some plays are just meant to be… Only you can write yours so —
Do your art. You never know how it’s going to shake out or who it will inspire or who it will help survive the storms of life…. In hindsight, I realize that I gravitated to Albee because he distracted me in a the middle of a traumatic time in my life and made me think of better days…and possibilities… The women — Nikky, Dael, Charlayne — they make me want to fly….
“I hope that in the year ahead the art you create makes our country a better place. We need you.” Katherine James, playwright, actor
For the past few years, LA FPI has been very much into matchmaking: introducing female playwrights to female directors with an eye on future collaborations. So when East West Players (EWP) invited us to be their Community Partner for the West Coast Premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, directed by Deena Selenow, we immediately said, “Hell yes!” And took the opportunity to ask this exciting creative team a few questions.
LA FPI: What brought the two of you together, initially?
Leah Nanako Winkler: Last summer, I was fortunate enough to work with Artists at Play (AAP), an amazing LA-based theatre company that did a developmental workshop of my play, Two Mile Hollow. They immediately suggested working with Deena because they were confident she’d nail the humor of the piece while maintaining the seriousness of the issues regarding race—and even more so, class—that lurks beneath the surface of the play. I didn’t think twice when they suggested her because: A) I trust everything AAP says since they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met; and B) I’ve only heard great things about Deena. I’ve admired her from afar as a fellow mixed-race theater artist.
Deena Selenow: I knew some of the AAP folks from around town, so when they invited me to direct the reading I—of course—said yes. Then I read the script and fell in love. Leah’s writing is so blunt and funny and nuanced and moving. She shifts tone like an acrobat, and it’s so clear that she has fun while she writes. Leah, Julia Cho (AAP producer), and I had a great collaboration leading up to Two Mile Hollow.
LA FPI: Were you familiar with East West Players before this production?
Leah: I’ve known about, admired, and wanted to work with EWP for quite some time. I’ve been immersed and singularly focused in the past decade doing plays in NYC, but it wasn’t until last year that my dream came true and Kentucky was fully produced Off-Broadway. I kind of thought—well, what now? What will happen to me when this is over? So imagine my surprise when EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai called me to tell me Kentucky was going to be included in East West Players’ 51st Anniversary season. I feel so empowered as a Japanese American artist working with a diverse creative team. I definitely feel like I’ve won the lottery.
Deena: Snehal Desai and I met through the TCG SPARK Leadership Program, which is a branch of Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. At that time, he was the Artistic Associate and Literary Manager at EWP (he’s made quite a climb in a short amount of time!). SPARK is a cohort of ten, so we all became close very quickly. Snehal and I are the only two based in LA, so we see each other quite a bit. I think I had seen one show at EWP when I was in grad school, and now I see pretty much everything they do. EWP is a vital American theater, and Snehal is an incredible leader. I’ve loved getting to know Snehal in this creative capacity. Tim Dang has left EWP in good hands.
LA FPI: Leah–what was it about Deena that gave you confidence in her? And Deena–what was it about Leah’s play that spoke to you?
Leah: Deena and I both want the same thing: for the play to be the best it can be. With her, I know that nothing is about ego but for the greater good of the piece. Even in our disagreements or points of confusion, we’re both straightforward and come to a conclusion without any passive aggressive weirdness, which is huge as playwright/director relationships can get complicated in that way fast.
Deena: Leah’s work in general is so very honest and the characters speak their minds. She writes realities in which people don’t self-censor and say what they mean. It’s hilarious and uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. Particular to Kentucky is remembering that moment in your life when you realized you can never go home again. That home moves, and the idea of home changes as you grow up and evolve. Family is complicated, and Leah doesn’t shy away from that.
LA FPI: When did it hit you that you two were a good fit, collaborating on Kentucky?
Leah: I think we had an initial phone call that was supposed to be an hour that turned into four. Our personalities definitely vibe, which is an important foundation. But we both worked actively together on a new nine-person adaptation [the NY production had a cast of 16] and figured out the doubling schemes together. I really felt connected in those moments.
Deena: I love working with Leah. I love how vulnerable she lets herself be in her writing and in the rehearsal room, and it encourages me to let my walls down as well. We worked really closely during pre-production. We took our time, imagined different scenarios, and listened to each other. Leah trusts me, and I can feel it, which gives me confidence. She gives me room to experiment but also doesn’t hesitate to speak up and tell me when I’m off the mark, which I also appreciate.
LA FPI: Kentucky’s director for its Off-Broadway Premiere, Morgan Gould, was a woman, as well. What are your thoughts about what a woman director brings to a female playwright’s work?
Leah: While I know of and work with male directors that bust their ass on a daily basis and deserve every career success that they get, I know that female directors have to work twice as hard to be respected. As “emerging” playwrights, we’re sometimes told to “level up” to a director who’s more famous, and that’s often an older white dude. I think while this tactic is meant to “protect” the young playwright in many ways, it really screws over young female directors that often develop the script for years only to be fired when the show gets picked up.
Kentucky is a huge undertaking with multiple characters, 17 locations, three songs, and complex relationships that need to be dug into with precision, sympathy, and understanding. It takes a BEAST to direct this play. And both Morgan and Deena are BEASTS. It’s incredible and inspiring to watch strong women take total command of a room. They get shit done with the strength of ten thousand men.
Deena: Any time you work with someone who is “like” you in some way or another, there are certain nuances that don’t need discussion and are just inherently there. I work with a lot of women playwrights, but with men as well (albeit not as frequently). Differences are just as important as similarities. There are inequities in every inch of our society, so I work with people who share my core values, and we lift each other up.
LA FPI: As women artists, telling a woman’s story, how has your experience been with East West Players–a company that embraces diversity and is presenting a femme-centered season?
Leah: I think “white girl” and “diversity” are often conflated, and I love that EWP is championing women of color. In addition, nobody is the “only one” here, and it’s a gift to be working with not only a cast, creative team, and crew that are diverse, but also producers, board members, and staff as well. I’ve never had that happen to me.
EWP lets us do our work while acting like it’s the most normal thing in the world. By doing that, they universalize our experiences. And you know what? Good. Because our stories ARE universal. We’ve been told that white is normal for so long, and it’s just not true. I love EWP because they acknowledge this naturally in their mission, but it’s still fun and it’s a safe space.
Deena: I’m thrilled that EWP chose to program a women-centered season. They really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to equity and inclusion. We all need to be allies to one another. EWP has a platform for visibility, and they are using it.
LA FPI: As theater artists, how important to you is forming ongoing relationships vs. finding the right person/project?
Leah: I’m still learning about this. I directed my own work for six years and just started working with other directors in the last four. I like working with a lot of different people just to test the waters, and get to know as many people as possible. I love collaborating and finding long term relationships with various people on projects that work for each partnership. Which for Deena and I, ended up being Kentucky.
Dena: Relationships are everything. Theater is a collaborative sport and finding your teammates is key. I’m so glad that Leah and I have found each other. I’m excited for our relationship to grow and to continue. I’ve been really lucky in my collaborations. The dynamic changes with each group of people and each project, and that’s part of the fun.
LA FPI: In seven words or less, what’s your advice to women artists about getting the most out of the collaborative process?
Leah: Communicate. Be assertive. Don’t forget the joy. (Or LADIES, DON’T BRING SNACKS OUT OF OBLIGATION.)
Deena: Listen. Trust your gut. Make a mess.
Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at email@example.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.
Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LA FPI!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.Tweet
Alyson Mead speaks with playwright Deb Hiett about development, trusting “the soup,” and the alternate universes of game shows in her new work The Super Variety Match Bonus Round, a Rogue Machine Theatre production currently playing at the Met Theatre in Hollywood
What conversations do you want to have? Send your suggestions for compelling female playwrights or theater artists working on LA stages to Alyson Mead at firstname.lastname@example.org, then listen to “What She Said.”
Last week a lot of us watched in horror as Donald Trump, a misogynistic, xenophobic, and wildly ignorant human (we think…) man, was elected to be President of these United States.
I’ve been spending a lot of time since then working through all my feelings on the subject, and I’ve managed to boil all my rage, disappointment, and shock into two major thinking points: “We have to do better!” and “Fuck that guy!”
(Obviously the former is a more actionable frame of mind to be in, but I’d be lying if I said the latter thought didn’t help fuel my desire to follow through on the first)
So I’ve been doing a lot of writing… and not in the “Wow, I’m making some great art from this!” kind of writing (yet). More like, “Umm, I think I’m writing a mission statement” kind of writing, and it’s based on the following:
We need to heal our divided nation and We need to make our objections to Trump’s dangerous policies heard.
I’m working on strategies for the first, but Little Black Dress INK already had a jump start on the second – and we’d like you to you to join us!
Little Black Dress INK invites you to take action by participating in the We’re Not Playing initiative. This initiative began as a way for us to support female voices who were speaking out on important issues through their work as playwrights – and now it’s time for these voices be heard!
Theatres and theatre practitioners across the nation are invited to hold readings of these plays, royalty free, Friday, January 20, 2017 – Inauguration Day. The only caveat is that we ask any/all monies raised be donated to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and/or NRDC – organizations we believe will be integral to fighting the dangerous policies which the incoming administration intends to implement.
Little Black Dress INK will continue to post socially-conscious/politically-inspired plays between now and January for interested theaters to select from – or you can challenge your own circles of fabulous playwrights to write plays that inspire action. Let’s just do something to help process the rising tides of panic gripping the nation.
Let us make our objections loud and clear, and let us put our humanity center stage on January 20th, 2017.
We can be better. Let’s be better. Let’s invite our audiences to be better with us.
Want to get involved? Sign our pledge at www.LittleBlackDressINK.org Then start reading and selecting plays from those we’ve published, or invite other awesome female playwrights in your area to contribute work!
And if you’re a female playwright who wants to contribute short plays or monologues to the initiative, please send them, along with a photo and brief paragraph explaining what inspired you to write the piece to Submissions@LittleBlackDressINK.org – make sure your subject line reads: WE’RE NOT PLAYING SUBMISSION.
#WereNotPlaying #WritingForChange #TheaterCanHeal
And that means we are looking for some seriously fabulous female playwrights to participate!
Little Black Dress INK is thrilled to continue creating production opportunities for female playwrights through its Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Project; a short-play festival dedicated to producing peer-selected works by women. In addition to contributing to the selection of plays, participating playwrights are able to review and revise their work during semi-finalist readings, and are encouraged to blog about the process along the way.
Submissions are now being accepted from awesome female playwrights for consideration in this year’s festival! This festival utilizes a peer-review process for evaluating submissions, so please make sure to read over the following guidelines carefully before submitting.
- This year’s festival theme is Hot Mess. Playwrights are invited to submit short plays and/or monologues written on this theme. In the past we’ve also had great success with short scenelets (10-minute plays comprised of a couple of scenes, which we can sprinkle throughout the line-up)
- LBDI strongly suggests you do not submit plays or monologues longer than ten minutes. Keep in mind that in all instances, shorter truly is better. Plays running longer than ten minutes stand very little chance of making it into the festival, as we strive to produce as many playwrights as possible.
- Little Black Dress INK utilizes a peer review process for evaluating plays. By submitting to this fest, you agree to participate in this unique opportunity to help select plays for production.
- Once our submission window is closed, you will receive a selection of plays to read and score using the LBDI online eval form. You MUST read and submit your evaluations by the required date in order for your play to remain in consideration.
- Submitted works will be read by other participating playwrights and LBDI artistic personnel. By submitting to the festival, you agree to share your work for review in this process.
- Submission materials must be emailed to LBDI by December 10th, 2016 and should include:
- The following information in the body of your email:
- Your name
- The title of your play
- Your contact information *It is very important that you use a reliable email address as all correspondence will be done via email!
- A blind PDF of your script – do NOT include your name anywhere on the script!
- Email materials to submissions@LittleBlackDressINK.org
- The following information in the body of your email:
LBDI will be producing readings of the top scoring plays at locations nation-wide. The top eight to ten scoring plays will also move on to full production with Little Black Dress INK.
For more information, visit www.LittleBlackDressINK.org We look forward to working with you!Tweet
By Laura Shamas
There’s a new social media initiative launching for women playwrights called #52playsbywomen.
It’s modeled on Women in Film’s brilliant #52filmsbywomen campaign:
Here’s the gist of it: For one year, we’re trying to encourage a social media pledge to see a play by a woman playwright in performance weekly (readings count!) and if there are not enough performed plays available by women writers in a specific region, to encourage reading a play by a woman playwright instead that week. This should last for a year, so that each participant will have experienced #52playsbywomen.
If you’d like (optional), you can announce your pledge on social media, something like:
“I pledge to see a play by a woman playwright each week for one year to support #52playsby women. Follow my choices here.”
Here’s bit more on the easy guidelines the Call to Action:
This campaign will encourage more discussion of female playwrights and their plays in social media, and add to the buzz by raising visibility. Additionally, it can help audience members develop a regular habit of seeking plays by women as part of their choices as theater-goers.
This is an international campaign, and all are welcome to be part of it!
Self-promotion, however, is not part of the initiative. So if you have a show running, recruit members of the audience to tweet your show to the hashtag. That way, your work is discussed by others, and you’ll help theatre-goers develop a habit of seeking plays by women playwrights.Tweet
by Jennie Webb
SO! Any way you look at it, the 2016 Hollywood Fringe Festival, it was (again) a ridiculous and fabulous success. But from my (and LA FPI’s) very particular perspective, it reached a whole new level of amazing. For the first time, just over 50% of the scripted shows were by written women!
Many thanks to Chris Farah for making this announcement for us at the Awards on closing night of Fringe before handing out FPI’s Most Wanted Awards. This year, they went to a record number of venues/producers who staged at least 50% of shows written by women: Actors Company, Fountain Theatre, Lounge Theatre, Macha Theatre/Film, Rogue Machine @ MET Theatre, Sacred Fools Theater, Stephanie Fuery Studio Theatre, The Hotel Cafe: Second Stage, The New Collective, Theatre Asylum & Underground Theatre.
And while we’re talking awards, I’m also proud to note that female artists were VERY strongly represented in the list of “winners.” Hooray that on the writing front, The Inkwell Theater‘s Playwright’s Promise Award went to Vanessa Espino for Odilia (4 out of 5 nominees were women!); beyond props to Broads’ Word Ensemble for instituting a Beyond Bechdel-Wallace Award, given to Disrupted by Mary Anna King; and I can’t help but give love back to sweet, sweet new LA FPI Instigators Theresa Stroll & Bobby McGlynn, whose My Big Fat Blonde Musical took home 3 big nods including “Best of Fringe.”
As we all know, it’s impossible to catch everything on the must-see list, so it was great to get the #FringeFemmes Check-Ins (thanks ladies!). And super to learn that over 50% of the scripted shows receiving Producers’ Encore Awards are by women playwrights… which means they’ll be back for performances throughout July. Whee! Click Here for Info.
Yes, in my book, the Fringe Femmes action is pretty spectacular every June: the work by women artists, the support of colleagues, the generosity and energy and connections that continue throughout the year. You’re all part of what keeps growing and getting better & better – huge congrats and thanks to everyone at the Fringe, onstage and off, in the audience and behind the bar. (Especially that last.)