When research for your play becomes personal

This is what research looks like…

by Cynthia Wands

I’m writing a play about hoarding. Ghosts. A truly evil woman who might have been in my family history. Trees. Slaves that were bought and sold by the Quaker families in Upstate New York. And the gravitational weight of objects that define our place of belonging.

Yesterday I said goodbye to almost one hundred friends. Enemies. Reminders. Nags. Planets that rotate around the center of my memories.

I gave myself the project of cleaning out my closets, where I keep all my clothes from the last several years.  Okay, the last dozen years. Okay, okay. The last two or three decades. I tend to keep all my clothes. This includes the denim jacket with the studded rhinestones, the embroidered black pants from Chinatown in Manhattan, the fuzzy sweater that is the size of a refrigerator.

They’ve all been living in my closet. Taking up space. Reminding me that I don’t use them, but they have a claim on the real estate in our small house with the small closets.

When I started researching the pathology of hoarding, I was horrified by the awful consequences of this difficult behavior. I know I’m not a hoarder, I don’t have the space.

But I do tend to keep all my clothes. I’ve bought clothes in thrift stores, online, at Nordstroms, Macys, designer outlets. Even though my size has changed a lot in the last few years: cancer, chemo, hip replacement, plantar fasciitis, getting older, gaining weight, getting less agile. I don’t fit into most of these clothes anymore. So, I thought this was a simple challenge: get rid of the clothes that I haven’t worn in a year. Or two. Or Five.

I had a kind of conversation with every item as I held it up to review its life span and value.

Hello darling. The Evan Picon suit, silk and wool, with beautiful trim. Last worn in 1992. I love you. But I can’t keep looking at you if you’re not going to get out of the closet.

Baby: My vintage hippie denim jeans with the wonderful patches all over them. Purchased in some thrift store in Hollywood.  A size 8.  (My friends will know that I have not been a size 8 in a long time.) I loved looking at these. That was the basis of our relationship.

An azure blue silk Henri Bendel tunic, tiny jewel like buttons for trim. Worn once. Loved the idea of it. It didn’t love me as much.

So many jackets and blouses and pants and skirts. I’d forgotten about most of these. We didn’t have much to say to one another.

White Victorian linen shirtwaists, high collared blouses. Gorgeous. Not useful in my current lifetime. Maybe if I was going to do another play on Emily Dickinson.

The black jet tulle dress I wore on the night we went to the theatre in the West End in London and met Judi Dench backstage. We had champagne in her dressing room. I have a picture of that night and that dress. So I’ll keep the image and not the dress. I’ll always have London.

And so it went. I had to rally my flagging spirits and cart all the bags of clothes out of the house before I could change my mind. I really didn’t think it would be this difficult to let go of my stash, my collection, my hoard, of clothing.

It was.

Optional Line Readings

I love these alternate line readings.

by Cynthia Wands

I’m including this amusing graphic of “Reading Between the Lines”, as a warning that the “provocative” ( – irritating) story I’m about to tell, could be seen as something written “in the tradition of” (- shamelessly derivative) as multiple points of view. Like every story. Like every play.

In November I was invited to the opening night of “THE HARD PROBLEM”, by Tom Stoppard at Lincoln Center.  (I know how posh that sounds – I loved writing it.) When I was a young actor I performed in a couple of Tom Stoppard plays and I’ve always delighted in his witty characters, the mental gymnastics, the world of words in his writing.

My sister was taking me to this opening night performance, and we went out to an early dinner, (yes, she got us a table at Joe Allen’s). Someone I love very much was in the cast, and like a lot of writers, I tend to live vicariously through the lives of others, this was a peak experience. Flowers for opening night. Joe Allen’s. My sister. Lincoln Center. A star performer I have always championed doing incredible work in the show.

That’s the top line of this story.

Other threads in the story: I’ve been in and been to dozens of opening nights in my lifetime. This one was intense. This Lincoln Center opening night had celebrities (Rosemary Harris – who I have always loved as an actress – sat in front of us), a new play for New York, a famous playwright, a glamorous setting. You could feel that live wire electricity in the audience.

I was sitting next to my sister on one side, and a very elegant gentleman on my other side. I had a brief, theatrical conversation with him. (He reminded me of Colonel Pickering in “MY FAIR LADY”; very cultured, articulate, and handsome. Perfect casting.)

Another thread: I was feeling very protective about my sister that night; she had recently sprained her ankle and was walking with a cane. She fearlessly walked into the theatre. I was on high alert watching out for her; something I have to try and hide from her as she hates to be fussed over by me like that.

The connecting thread: when we entered the theatre, we saw that a young man in the seat next to us had his large suitcases wedged in our row. We hesitated – this seemed odd. But there were no ushers to be found to sort this out, so we had to climb over his suitcases to get to our seats. We eventually were able to sit down, and we waited for the play to begin. We were in high spirits, and I suppose, rather nervous.

I love opening nights: the whispers in the lobby, the ebb and flow as the audience comes in, the scuttle of the ushers up and down the stairs. I know what it feels like to be backstage waiting in the wings before the lights come up. Nowadays I see myself in the audience as a kind of satellite receiver, boosting the transmissions being beamed across the theatre.

But on this night…

Yes, on this night, I had my first case of sudden and severe gastric distress.  It started as soon as we sat down in the theatre and I started reading the program for the play. Like the first scary music in a horror film, I heard this growling sound. And then more noises, like a garbage disposal chewing up your forks from a dinner party. But then I realized that these thumping noises were coming from me. I’d never heard these sounds before. And then this wrenching bolt of intestinal pain shot through me. It was a spontaneous gastrointestinal nightmare.

(Thinking back on the dinner at Joe Allen’s: it was a simple supper of chicken and vegetables. And a glass of champagne. And then a cup of coffee. And I seem to remember that we split a dessert of some kind. It all seemed like an innocent menu at the time. Was it the chicken? The coffee? It couldn’t possibly be the dessert, could it, the one I can’t remember?)

But back at the play: an announcement was made that all cell phones should be turned off, the house lights changed, and the play started. I seemed to be okay. I focused on the words from the actors. I used mindful meditation breathing. The play was unfolding into twists and turns, I thought I was good.

But during the play, the young man sitting next to my sister, the man with the big suitcases, pulled out his cell phone, turned it on, and started to watch a soccer game. On his phone, during the play. The sound was off, but the flickering light from the phone lit up the entire row. You could see the audience members turn around as they tried to gesture to him to turn it off. He ignored them.

The people next to him asked him to turn off his phone. He shrugged his shoulders. They left to find an usher. They returned, without an usher. He continued to watch his soccer game on his phone. After a moment, my sister turned to him and in a sotto voce tone like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (after the fall), she told him to turn off his phone.


He turned off his phone.

The audience’s attention returned to the play. It was a Rubik’s cube of ideas, characters, and intentions. I’m still thinking about it two months later. At one point there is a revelation of betrayal in the play, underplayed so quietly, you might not be sure you heard it.

There was a moment of quiet in the audience.

And then it started up again. My growling noises. It sounded like the rumbling sounds coming from a brass cannon in a far away civil war. Or: It sounded like a huge garbage truck digesting a weeks worth of garbage. Or: I was the only person who could hear it and I was mistakenly afraid that others were bothered by it.

I’m not sure which version is correct, but I tried to look unfazed and focused on the play.

And while I tried to make it look like it wasn’t me making that noise, inside, I was trying to scold my digestive system into silence.

Knock it off! You’re as bad as the guy with phone watching the soccer game! Stop that! I mean, cut it out!

I wrestled with the idea of getting up, climbing over my sister and the man with iPhone and the large suitcases, scrabbling over the other audience members, and taking my borborygmus with me. (I found out later that what I experienced has the scientific name borborygmus, which is related to the 16th-century French word borborygme, itself from Latin, ultimately from Ancient Greek. It sounds better than the other available diagnostic titles: bubble gut, bowel sound, or stomach rumble.)

But then. The play ended. The applause and the ovations were over. And as we left, my sister turned to the young man and in a low voice, gave him such a warning that I don’t think he’ll show up with his iPhone and soccer games in an audience again.

We made our way to the opening night party, and eventually my digestive system quieted down. Or it might have been that the music and the noise from the party was so loud that no one could hear me and my personal rumblings. I guess it all depends on what line reading you choose.

Moving on

We are 20 days in to the new year and hopefully you are keeping up with the list of goals you planned for 2019. But if you’re like me you have made abstract plans and you are 20 days behind in your daily writing practise do not lose faith. Do not fret or worry. Just move on. I know what you’re saying, “But Jenn, you don’t know what it’s like….” Please, I am all too familiar with yet another Monday re-boot. (If my plans or goals fall short, I say to myself, we’ll start a new on Monday). We have to be encouraging to ourselves, but we must also examine what is holding us back and why we cannot move forward. I started this year by making goals for one month at a time, with an overall goal for the year. Just one play. That’s it. I just want to complete one play tip to tail. It doesn’t have to be workshopped, or even read by other people, I just want to finish a full length play. Then I’ll worry later about submitting it, or having people read, but first it has to be written.

Things that will help me further my goal:

  1. Setting a deadline.
  2. Sitting down to write, no matter how bad it is. I just need a first draft right now. Writing everyday, even if it’s crap. I need to create a habit of sitting down and writing.
  3. Not getting down when I hit a stumbling block. Just keep writing.
  4. Having someone to talk to about my show. For me I don’t necessarily need feedback, I just need to say my thoughts outloud to another person instead of trying to run them in my head.
  5. Moving past resistance. This is where the gold is (or so they say, I have yet to move past it).
  6. Read more. Articles, books, short stories. Get out of my head.

I am collecting the bits and pieces of ideas I’ve had and seeing what magic I can make. Maybe an additional goal will be: Submit a play. Look for companies that host new work, my favourite, then it gives you an opportunity to re-work your show and see how people respond to.J

Did you set goals for this year? Leave a comment to share those goals. You know what they say about accountability…yeah, yeah, I know.

I wish you happy writing!
Jennifer

Jennifer

Still with me

Yup, I think I still have it since my last post, but on a much deeper level. I am not totally empty.

Writer’s Block? When I first started writing, I read a zillion articles on writing (instead of writing). I procrastinated in search of writing the perfect play, the perfect subject, the perfect setting…the perfect everything. The one article that stuck with me was touting how there is no such thing as writer’s block. While I was reading it I couldn’t imagine running out of ideas. How can you just stop writing. I have bits of pages with ideas from books, tv shows and conversation. I even find inspiring thoughts from social media workshops and conferences. My latest venture was to organize it all in the hopes of streamlining my writing. Grouping these bits of brilliance together to form something bigger.

But then it stopped.

The fountain of ideas running through my head just dried up. So I went through my notebooks and index cards in search of a reason to start writing. For further assistance I looked to “How to write a play in 90 days”. What could be better? Someone telling me how to write. I wouldn’t have to think about a thing, just let your fingers to the talking. The first four days went well, but then the holidays and all its magic happened and I stopped writing. When I returned to my 90-day notebook, the book suggests having two notebooks, one for your work, the other for your thoughts, I tried to continue at day 5, but I couldn’t. Even after re-reading the notes from the previous days, I couldn’t get back into it. So I did what anyone would do, I started something new. After a day of that I couldn’t get into that one either. Then I started to panic. Is this writer’s block? But there’s no such thing, so why is it happening to me? What else could it be? I am still struggling through a blank slate in my head. Ideas that popped like popcorn are now the unpopped kernels that don’t even warm up in the microwave and just end up being thrown away. Yes, dramatic I know. As I’m writing this, I am hoping my brain decides it want to continue writing stories.

I am once again starting on my looking at writing prompts in order to get the juices flowing. So I am setting aside 30-minutes a day to get this done. I chose 30-minutes, because that’s how long I have to keep my teeth whitening strips on, so it’s a two-fer.
With two weeks in to the new year, we’ll see how long this writing streak holds up!
What do you think about writer’s block and how do you move through it?

Happy writing!  Jennifer

Continuing the Work when the odds seem low:

Perseverance. Patience. Old virtues we’ve heard time and time again but are hard to live by in a theatre culture of produce, produce, produce. Yet it has been in going back, consistently to these virtues over the past year, that have allowed me to not get lost in the culture nor time. Instead, they have made me stay present,  focused, and open to the work existing in increments, and honoring that sometimes a good ideas take time to reveal themselves, and to fully manifest quality work you must proceed with care.

I have been working on my new play Medea: A Soliloquy or The Death of Medea for the past five years and developing the idea from the ground up for over a year now, and at times I feel there is no way this will come into fruition. Can I develop and take my work to its next level? Does the story have the ability to engage?  Is the body the best way to tell this story? How am I going to afford rehearsal space? It is within the doubts and fears that I hear an old collaborator state, “Remember the Universe hears you, speak carefully.” So I close my eyes and see the work lives. I begin to speak aloud all that I know is possible with the body, the script and I rely on the talents of my team. I push through and move only forward with the work. Let go of what does not work. Walk away from bad advice as one need not listen to negative feedback. Stay active in your mission to complete your vision, and do only what feels right to you. Hold on to that play but don’t let it linger on a table to gather dust or sit in your files folder on your computer. I was excited for 2018 because I knew there was no giving up. I am ecstatic to be existing in 2019, for the possibilities of how the work can live are endless. Let your work be seen and heard. Be your biggest fan, bet on yourself and let the work…your work, risk failing.


Outside the (Black) Box

by Kitty Felde

Lately, I’ve been thinking outside the box.

I love a black box space. It’s such a magic place where anything can happen. But I have family members who’ve never stepped inside a 99 seat theatre. They likely never will. Neither will dozens of “non-pro” friends who love me and support me but can’t imagine why they’d drive to a dicey part of town and sit in uncomfortable seats that are way too close to the actors.

My last few theatrical ventures have taken me far away from black boxes. One play – QUENTIN – was a commission to write a one-person show about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt that would be performed as a tour of the neighborhood around the White House. The premise is that a tour group is waiting for its guide to show up. Quentin, on his way to Walter Reed for a physical exam before he joins the flying corps in World War I, is hoping for a reunion with his childhood pals known as the White House Gang. The gang never shows up, but Quentin offers to take the tourists around and shares his life in the White House. QUENTIN is still running every weekend in Washington, DC.

Another commission, QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES, began its life as a ten minute play with your usual staged readings inside a black box. It’s the story of a Helen Shaw Fowler who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to save her water lily farm and in the process, preserved the only remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, DC. As I continued to do research at Kenilworth National Park & Aquatic Gardens, the rangers became the biggest fans for the play and invited me to stage a reading on the very site where Helen’s house used to sit. Grants appeared from both coasts. DC’s Environment director offered to introduce the play and give an update on the health of the Anacostia River. On Earth Day last year, 99 people came to hear a play in the very setting where the story took place. It was the very definition of an “authentic” experience.

Theatre in non-traditional spaces is certainly nothing new. Theatricum Botanicum has been performing in its Topanga Canyon garden for 45 years. TAMARA took over the Hollywood American Legion Hall in 1981 for a sold-out run. Theatre 40 has invited audiences to experience THE MANOR in the historic Greystone Mansion for nearly two decades. This past fall, Rogue Artists Ensemble was in residence at Plummer Park for SENOR PLUMMER’S FINAL FIESTA. The audience for SENOR PLUMMER was young, hip, and thought it was beyond cool to see theatre in its unnatural habitat.

My goal for 2019: to find more non-traditional homes for my work. Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I get to be a tourist again and rediscover places that might lend themselves to an afternoon or evening of theatre. That includes the place between your ears: audio drama.

My first book WELCOME TO WASHINGTON, FINA MENDOZA comes out in late February. It’s a mystery for kids set on Capitol Hill. After the book tour, I want to turn the story into a mini-series podcast. No black box required. I’ll keep you posted.

Ending and Beginning…

by Robin Byrd


A few weeks ago, I put some things on my “to do” list that I want to finish or start before the new year and took a look around at the space I am in (physical, mental, and creative). I have been here before at this crossroad but didn’t stay long enough to make tracks. This time I am already knee deep in the snow, climbing for the sake of sanity.

I see story in everything. It could be called a haunting but it’s what I live for. Unexpectantly, a coworker and I had a wonderful conversation about writing and how most everyone has at least one story in them. We talked about oral storytelling and the way it becomes theatrical if done right. ALAP (Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights) has an event called “In Our Own Voices” where the playwright must be the reader or one of the readers in 5 minutes of their work. I have participated twice and am always rejuvenated to the nth degree afterwards. This coworker is not a writer per se but stories are starting to peek out at him. I encouraged him to write them down.

I have work to do as well.


I have been torn between creating new work or tweaking old work but like reading my work aloud, creating new worlds and characters on the page is being reborn every time; it is flying high – up to meet the sun.


The end of this year finds me writing and reading and exploring new ways to hear my words out loud. How about you?

Have a happy and prosperous new year.

Demeter’s Surrender

By: Analyn Revilla

Surrender was the theme that presented itself throughout the week. Allow and accept. Let it be. Let go.

Back in October, Constance wrote a great blog on the theme of “Surrender”, and it was succinct and straight to the point.  I liked it.

My take on surrender is like a lazy windy old river.  I will meander on. 

At my last  yoga class I taught Yin Yoga.  Yin requires surrendering to the force of gravity to allow the muscle to relax so that it allows access to the deeper and denser connective-tissue.  This is different to the traditional yoga classes which use more muscle to move into the pose and to hold the pose.

Then I recall my short-lived acting life at the “Imagined Life” studio. I wasn’t very good. I had the tendency to be in my head rather than my heart and my body. The teacher tried different techniques to help me drop my judgmental-analytical mind. One assignment I had was to play a mother, “Rita”, who has a fling with her son’s best friend.  My resistance to the character was the problem. I was playing rather than being; and judging and not accepting – “That’s not me”; “I could never do that”. But once I allowed myself to fall under the spell of this woman’s imagined life, I became authentic.

Surrender also applies to my writing too. I had the best intention of writing every day of my blog week, especially as it is my last week before the start of the new year. But I was more concerned with product rather than process. I was pulling at ideas rather than letting them come to me. Forced writing is more applicable to “work” (like doing a user manual; writing software specifications; or a project proposal). Writing from the gut is organic and flowing.

This piece almost wrote itself one very late night (or early morning) and I was in a half-conscious state. The theme was inspired by the mythology of Demeter. Upon the discovery of her daughter Persephone’s disappearance, Demeter, as Mother Earth hailed drought upon the lands. The crops withered and the land was barren for a very long time. She could not be appeased, until she finally conceded to the fate of Persephone’s marriage to Hades upon Zeus’ persuasion.  Upon Demeter’s surrender the land became fruitful again. But Persephone also had to descend back to the underworld for part of each year, and when she returned to earth then the corn crop would also return.  Life needs this cycle of active and passive stages.  This is Yin and Yang.

December 15th, 2018 is the 11th month anniversary of Bruno’s fatal accident. This past year I’ve had many times of being powerless to the weight of my grief. I felt like Demeter losing my light. And when I resisted being down, I felt more incapacitated because I wasn’t being authentic to my feeling. I was resisting the feeling of the pain. It’s like lightning struck down half of a whole tree. I just wanted to get the season of winter over and done with. But it doesn’t work that way. These things take time. When I decide to surrender and let go of my idea of being “okay”, and allow myself to stay in the dark cocoon of grief till it was ready to melt away then the tears flow; and it passes.

Forgiveness is also a form of surrender to my idea of being right or being granted justice. It’s not fair that Bruno died in the hands of a hit & run driver and that I’ve been robbed of my dreams with him. It’s wrong that this person is still at large. It’s unbelievable that I had to fight to get my green card status, because the INS didn’t believe my marriage to Bruno is real. The list can go on about how life is just – just – just blankety blank-blank. But at this moment, I choose to let it go. I surrender. I can forgive, because I must otherwise I can’t move forward to let spring and summer arise and bear fragrant flowers and sweet fruits into my life. I need air. I have to breathe again.  Exhalation is surrender.

Photographed on Rainy Day at 168 St. & Figueroa, Gardena
day three hundred and twenty-six
6, december 2018
3 days of rain already
overflow gutters
garbage & fallen fronds
lantern fruits
paint grey skies
international-orange
persimmons fatten seasons bright
finger tips press
firmly, imagining ripeness
forgiving
peace
hope
love

New on the LAFPI Podcast: “What She Said” – Alyson Mead with Jami Brandli

Jami Brandli

December, 2018

Alyson Mead speaks with Jami Brandli about Greek mythology, theatrical mash-ups and manners in the time of Trump in her play Bliss: Or Emily Post is Dead!Moving Arts premiere at Atwater Village Theatre. (Her new play Sisters Three opens in LA on December 14th,  produced by Inkwell Theater at VS. Theatre.)

Listen In!

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 lafpi.podcast@gmail.com, then listen to “What She Said.”

Click Here for More LAFPI Podcasts

Whose “Approval” Matters & Why?

by Andie Bottrell

Whether you’re submitting a new play or coming out to your family–the goal is same: approval. Approve of me, validate me, recognize the work it took for me to get here, be kind, see me and hear my words in the way they were intended.

I’m dating a woman. I’m bisexual, and I’ve known and been open about it for well over a decade, but this is the first time I’ve dated a woman. Not uncharacteristic for me–it took 29 years for me enter a relationship with a man.

The play I was working on has been paused as I found there were not enough hours in the day to work two jobs, launch and run a business, be a person, and finish a play. So, in leu of playwriting anecdotes and stories, all I’ve got is my life. I hope that’s a satisfactory enough offering. I believe playwriting anecdotes can still be made (see: first paragraph). I’m nothing if not a terrific multitasker.

Approval. The word has been beating against my brain all week after having been told I did not have someone’s approval in regards to my dating women. I hadn’t asked for their approval. In fact, I’d wrongly assumed I had it, in so much as one person has any kind of right to “approve” of another’s life in these matters. It had caught me off guard and has been eating away at me–my brain launching into hypothetical arguments in a constant subconscious stream throughout the day.

As any kind of creative knows, living your life in constant search for approval is the surest way to burn out and begin to hate the very thing you love. At a certain point, you have to turn that off–that search for validation–and you have to find ways to validate yourself, to make the kind of art that you are proud of, to live the kind of life and be the kind of person that you need to be in order to have pride and peace within yourself.

If you go through life only creating art intending to please this person or theatre or that, or to live a life that this person or that approves of, all the while denying your own vision, truth, passion, and violating your own morals…well, what a waste of talent, time, and life! Let those people do the things they need to do to be authentic in their lives and art, and if you don’t understand it or think it’s weird or wrong…don’t do it, but also, maybe examine why you think that and find out more about it because we are so quick to judge things that are different to what we’ve been exposed to as “evil” or “bad” (Fun example from our local mega-church this past month: https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2018/11/12/james-river-pastor-yoga-has-demonic-roots-springfield-yogis/1897249002/) that we close down any chance for communication that could allow us to understand each other and learn how to care for one another in more helpful and healthy ways.

I’ve only recently gotten to a point in my life where I am able to be proud of who I am, to love who I am, to feel good in my skin and know that even if someone rejects me, it doesn’t change my value as a human being. I am whole and stable and fulfilled on my own, whether I am in a romantic partnership with another person or not (and whether or not those I love and trust are able to see and accept me as I am — oof, okay still working on that one).

It’s a good place to be. And I feel stable in that–even as I wrestle with that ole bugaboo of approval again. I admit, I want that approval, I try really, really hard to get approval, I have anxiety around not being accepted (who doesnt?!) but at the end of the day, I have to come back to myself. Can I lay my head on my pillow at night and be proud of my actions? That approval trumps any other, because if I can’t do that then I won’t sleep and if I don’t sleep, I won’t function, and I won’t live.

So, whether you’re struggling with feelings of inadequacy or acceptance in your writing or in your personal life–I hope this post will encourage and remind you to take a minute, take an afternoon, heck, take a lifetime (!) and pause to look within and ask yourself if you approve. If your actions are in line with your morals, if you are being authentic, if you are creating honest art, if you are proud of the human you are becoming…and, if the answer is YES, how much it really matters if others don’t agree.

Dang, I do believe I straddled that fence quite nicely, eh? I guess, in the end, playwriting and being queer really were one in the same. Wow.