All posts by Chelsea Sutton

The Ritual of Self-Destruction

by Chelsea Sutton

I’ve been having a hard time focusing my thoughts lately. When they do coalesce, they tend toward the negative. My ego has been battered and beaten in the wind. About a year and a half ago, I had a decent sense of who I was, what I wanted to do, and where I was going.

Now? I spend most days swirling in negative thoughts.

I’m very sure my friends are tired of asking how I am and what they get is a heavy sigh and a “Oh, I’m fine…” thick with the drama of someone who has just survived an island of dinosaurs.

And while negative thinking does not help one feel particularly motivated or empowered to write that next Great American Play that could not possibly be produced before 2025 at this point, positive thinking feels rather naive right now.

Look at the Goldblum and forget.

But it is not positive thinking I need. I’m realizing that before the pandemic – and actually months before that, in spring 2019 – I was doing okay because I had ritual and routine in my life.

I grew up Lutheran and did the Confirmation thing and the teaching Vacation Bible School thing and mostly hated it all, but continued to pray up until maybe my early 20s. Theater became my new church around that time – it was my ritual, my routine, the way I connected with myself. And now…?

Before the pandemic, I was struggling with finding some solid ground in this new chapter of life. But one thing I kept doing was driving to my grandmother’s house is Anaheim once a week and spending 12 hours shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. She needed the extra help, and I felt useful. Since the pandemic, she is living at my parents’ house (which was always the plan) and that routine fell away…

I didn’t stop praying because I stopped believing in God or the interconnectedness of the universe or ghosts or whatever. I’m skeptical, but I also just bought two Tarot decks and watched the whole of the new Ghost Hunters on Hulu. So, you do the math. But the ritual of praying stopped having meaning for me. Before the pandemic, going to a theater had started to wane in meaning too. Even the act of writing feels more like work than magic.

I’ve defined my life in terms of being “a writer.” My whole identity is wrapped in that. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when certain things don’t work out, when Theatre seems to have said “no thank you” to me in general, and when our industry is on a perpetual pause, AND the film industry, AND all of our terrible dirty laundry is being aired out, one has to wonder if defining oneself by THIS is such a good idea.

My routine these days is just my to do list. Endless check boxes that lead to nothing.

When all your meaning, ideas of success, and curiosity is wrapped up in things that are outside your control, where does that leave you?

We are in a period of self destruction. And rebuilding. On both macro and micro levels.

I have had these three tabs open for the last couple days in preparation of writing this blog.

Highest grossing movie this week was Jurassic Park. A movie nearly 30 years old. An indication that the Hollywood machine has halted….and that stories of self destruction are pretty damn relevant.

This week, Center Theater Group laid off half of its workforce.

The PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship, which was a life-changer for my career and, well, life, has been canceled for next year. It’s unclear if there will ever be the money and support to get it going again.

These are all twisted up together in my head. It has something to do with finding meaning and priorities and community. Something to do with a ritual of destruction. Something to do with the T-Rex in Jurassic Park actually being a hero and not the villain like we are led to believe.

Last time I was at my grandmother’s house, I found this photo (below). This, perhaps, more than anything else right now, feels like this moment to me. A world overexposed and erased. But enough of an airplane left to fly into the fog.

Life finds a way.

The FPI Files: Puppets, Prose & Pandemics

By Chelsea Sutton

In 2016, I had was a writer in the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship. It was a life changing experience for me. I had always been a fiction writer, but that Fellowship gave me tools and confidence to finally embrace that part of my career.

Of course I have this whole other “career” as a playwright too. And I have been wondering, since 2016, how I could find ways to merge the two worlds and help amplify the program and the writers involved.

So last fall I pitched an idea to Amanda Fletcher, the Emerging Voices Fellowship Manager, for a live reading night called Puppets & Prose – during which we could get puppets and puppeteers to read written work from EV alum. It would be the weirdest reading night ever, but we were both super excited about it.

And then a pandemic hit. And there would be no live in-person puppet shows for a while…

But then…why not do it online?

So in April, when all the world was shutting down, I poked and prodded at Emerging Voices writers to send me some 1-3 min written pieces. And I worked with Rogue Artists Ensemble and the LA Guild of Puppetry to put a call for puppeteers, performers and visual artists who might want to take a piece and interpret the work into a short video.

The response was overwhelming – so much so that each of the 17 written pieces I got had TWO artists assigned to it – resulting in 33 final micro films. It took me almost a week to figure out the pairings!

All the films still live on our website and YouTube channel – but I wanted to share with you a few pieces that ended up being very fem-tastic – the writers and artists identify as female artists, and the results are amazing…

Granted, all I ever wanted were a few weird puppets looking into the camera and reading poetry to me, so maybe I have a low bar. But I think you will enjoy.

No video is over 5 minutes – so enjoy. And if you like these, watch the rest on the Rogue Artists Ensemble website.

Written by Jessica Shoemaker
Designed & Performed by Jaime Lyn Beatty

Written by Sandra Ramirez
Designed & Performed by Audrey Densmore

Written by Claire Lin
Created & Performed by Rachael Caselli

Written by Michelle Meyers
Designed and performed by Amy Judd Lieberman

Written and read by Amanda Fletcher
Designed and performed by Léonie Zikos

Written and read by Libby Flores
Designed & Performed by Mariasole Piccininno

Written and read by Wendy Labinger
Art Direction and Sound Design by Lori Meeker

Written by Natalie Mislang Mann
Designed and performed by Sarah Kay Peters

Written by Marnie Goodfriend
Designed and performed by Gina Sandy

Written by Carolina Rivera
Designed and performed by Kelly McMahon

Written and read by Marytza Rubio
Designed by Lelia Woods

Written by Wendy Labinger
Designed & Performed by Gretchen Van Lente
Read by Serra Hirsch

Story by Chelsea Sutton
Co-Created by Cinthia Nava & Danielle Haufman

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories. 

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Writer Responsibility 101

by Chelsea Sutton

Back in the olden days, when people gathered together in musty lecture halls to discuss the “literary” canon, I was a TA for a large literature class whose professor loved to include novels involving navel-gazing male protagonists. I was in charge of roughly a quarter of the 130 eager undergraduates, many of whom were aspiring writers themselves.

In my sections, I made it very clear that these students were under no obligation to LIKE any of these 10 books we were reading and that, in fact, I HATED some of them as well. Just because a professor is telling you it’s good does NOT mean you have to agree, I said. But agree or not, you better be able to tell me why you feel that way.

See, it’s my philosophy that you can learn just as much about writing from reading a book you hate as you can from reading one you love. Maybe even more so.

I had to teach Greg Jackson’s book of short stories Prodigals both times I covered this literature class. To spare you the details, most of the stories in the book are about terrible privileged people doing terrible privileged things. But of course, one could argue that most stories are about terrible people. In my house, we don’t say: hey, do you want to watch Avenue 5 tonight? We say: hey, do you want to watch Shitty People in Space tonight?

I do not enjoy Prodigals. Though there are a few sentences I wish I had written.

So Fall 2018 rolls around and we get to Prodigals week. One of my students does not like the book. Why, I asked. He doesn’t agree with the morality of the book – how the characters behaved and treated each other. Doesn’t writing about that behavior condone it? he asked. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the author to expose bad behavior or offer positive role models and morality?

I mean, what a fucking good question.

Let’s get real: no one really likes Aesop’s fables. Not all the time. We don’t want Breaking Bad to wrap up its series finale with: the moral of the story, kids, is don’t become a meth dealer in New Mexico!

But I’d argue that an author has an obligation to read the damn room, to have a larger understanding of the context in which the writing is presented and read, to understand that nothing exists in a vacuum, and to do their due diligence.

Don’t ask me how we got there, but we compared two television shows to explore this line of thinking: Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick) and one that was in development at the time – Confederate, supposedly going to be penned by the Game of Thrones guys, who, you know, never caused an issue (eye roll).

Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Allies lose WWII and Germany and Japan occupy the United States. Confederate is an alternate history in early development at HBO in which the South won the Civil War – so slavery was still a thing in its universe (this was going to be helmed by WHITE MEN, as a reminder.)

At first, the students didn’t see the difference. Two wars, two alternate histories, so what? I am not a history expert nor well-versed in either of these shows, I said. BUT…

Let’s look at the context and the general narratives surrounding both wars, I said. In this country we have oversimplified the WWII narrative to be about good vs. evil. Sure, you could quibble about this or that, but The Good Guys won. So we take that context with us when watching the show. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that the correct people won that war, except maybe Neo-Nazis and aluminum foil-wearing conspiracy theorists, but do you really want them on your side?

No thanks, they said.

Now the Civil War. That’s another thing. We seem to have an ongoing debate in this country surrounding what that war was about (slavery). Many people argue that it was about state’s rights (it was slavery). Many states in the South still have statues of Confederate war heroes (slave owners) and fly the Confederate flag (you know, about slavery).* There are still people in this country who are not convinced that slavery is a bad idea. WE DO NOT HAVE AN AGREED UPON NARRATIVE SURROUNDING RACISM IN THIS COUNTRY. And that carries with us as we watch the show. Would you agree?

Oh shit, yeah, they said.

So back to morality and responsibility. You’re writing a show like Confederate. If you’re going to write a good story, then you’re going to have fleshed out characters, right? That means the slaves and the slave owners will have nuances and good qualities and tragic flaws and we will FEEL for them. And they will exist in a complicated world. And maybe there will be an Emmy-contending monologue in act 4 of the pilot that offers a damn good argument for slavery.

Sounding worrisome? Or at the very least…delicate? In need of a deft hand?

What is the danger of offering up an empathetic slave owner in a society in which we still have not achieved true equity, have not done the work required to actually deal with these sins in a way that uplifts, creates anti-racist policies, and gathers the country into a narrative we agree on?

Especially if that story is offered to us by people who cannot and DO NOT CARE TO understand racism in the way that the Black actors, Black crew members, and Black viewers would understand it. We’ve all seen Game of Thrones. What do YOU think would happen?

Light bulbs flipped on all over the room. These kids had so much to say.

I might be wrong and obtuse about all of this, I said. And please, question me. Question me, question your own thoughts and biases too. Maybe Confederate could be done really well. But look at who is telling the story and why. Who is invited into the room and who is not.

You cannot control how everyone is going to read your writing. It’s simply not possible. But I believe that our responsibility as writers is to first ask ourselves the hard questions about our characters, our narratives, and the larger world in which they will be interacting.

It’s our job to ask the hard questions even when we don’t know the answers. ESPECIALLY when we don’t know the answers. And to confront our own biases and blindness. To show shitty people doing terrible things and sometimes even BE shitty people doing terrible things, but to learn from those stories, to let the stories maybe, somehow, help us build a world that is better than this one.

But that still doesn’t make Prodigals any good.

P.S. Here are my favorite books from that class (both written by Black authors.) Read them. I’m available for discussion at my office hours posted in the syllabus.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Also, Lindsey Ellis’ video essay about Mel Brooks and the Ethics of Satire is required watching.

*Fucking hooray to all the statues and confederate flags being burned and removed.

But does it matter?

by Chelsea Sutton

It’s the usual setup for a scene (these days): two friends are on a Skype hangout on a Saturday morning. One friend proposes to the other this question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?

It’s a question that I think about a lot, especially when it comes to things. The stuff we collect, pin up on our bulletin boards, pack into scrapbooks. I’ve spent that last year systematically going through my grandmother’s stuff and (with her) deciding what should stay and what should go. All these things that were once so important being packed away, sold for pennies, sent to the dump.

I just spent this Pandemic Sunday cleaning through my desk, reorganizing my space for increased at-home work, and doing a similar exercise. My apartment has a grandma feel to it – there are lots of things around (though I like to think that I have arranged them in more of an “artistic” way than a “ohmygodtheclutteryouhoarder” way). I tend to hold onto notes and photos, gather small items or images from my travels, buy books I have no time to read. I like having things around me that remind me of beautiful times, of people I love, of the person I hope I’m becoming. And I often think of the day I die – someone coming into my space and seeing the same things and seeing mostly junk, wondering why I would hold on to these things. I imagine all of these precious items being thrown into the dump.

My current bulletin board after a purge.

And certainly the meaning of some things change. I just tossed away some letters from grad school that already gave me what I needed (but the emotion attached to them a year ago – can you imagine!) My grandmother and I threw out a lot of things she gathered on her travels (who knew porcelain plates used to be the BIG thing in souvenirs?) And now, those things are just in the way, signifying nothing.

What’s that Macbeth quote?
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

But I often hold onto things because I don’t trust my memory. I want to be reminded – I need my memory backed up to a hard drive of sorts. Journals can do this, I suppose, but even as a writer I started to feel how little a simple journal could hold.

And in some way, the work we do as writers is reaching for that – the holding on to some Beauty or Truth or Whatever and preserving it and preserving ourselves in some way too. We all want to create something that matters.

But it is debilitating and useless for that to be the goal. It is too big, too nonspecific to be helpful.

So, back to the scene on Skype. Back to the question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?

If the moment we’re in now tells us anything it’s that our choices have ripple effects. How we choose to conduct our lives affects others. Our world has taught us to be so focused on individual success, to place us in constant competition, we forget that we do, ultimately, matter to each other.

Are we all going to be Superman and single-handedly save New York? No. And why would you want that? Sounds exhausting. I’d much rather be the Guardians of the Galaxy, fighting alongside friends, for better or worse.

Saw these guys in San Francisco before the pandemic.
Sometimes its not worth being preserved forever.

So does any of it matter? Yes and no.

Yes because the work we do, what we put out into the world – you don’t know who its going to change, affect, transform, inspire, scare, motivate.

No because each individual thing is just part of your longer story. When we read or watch stories and fall in love with characters – remember that we tend to not judge characters so much on their failures, but on what they choose to do in the collective whole.

It is all equally meaningless and meaningful, beautiful and two feet away from the dump.

But I think that’s why it is all meaningful. Because it can all be taken away so quickly and become so meaningless.

That’s why I hold onto that rock I found on the beach on the Isle of Mann, or those plastic pearls my grandmother used to wear all the time, or the Valentine my mom wrote me just a month ago.

So go make something meaningless.

Year Without A Spring

by Chelsea Sutton

1816 was a miserable year. Known as the Year Without A Summer, global temperatures decreased thanks to a large volcanic eruption, leading to failed crops and famine, and…wait for it…disease.

It was also the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.

Many of us have heard the story. A group of friends, shut in from the cold, locked away from much of civilization, haunted by their own individual fears and worries and distractions, challenge each other to a ghost story contest.

Here is what Mary writes about that challenge, which eventually led to a nightmare that eventually led to Frankenstein:

I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. 

We have officially entered our own Year Without A Spring with the COVID-19 pandemic. The sun may shine, rain may fall, the mayor of LA is THIS CLOSE to mandating hikes. The shelves may be empty but food is being delivered. It is not the desperate darkening of the Earth in the same way as 1816 – but 1816 and 2020 are kindred spirits. People are still dying. People are isolated. People are not supported by the systems we swore were solid weeks before.

There is a general chaos, a general undercurrent vibration of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes on Facebook.

There is also a lot of hope and community support. Artists coming together. Creating things. Certainly I’ve seen the story of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Ugh. As if we weren’t under enough pressure already.

And then of course here I am offering up Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during another deadly year. But I don’t offer up this story as an example of unending production. I don’t want to say, “Hey, this is our chance! Write that Great American Rona Play/Novel!” Just because we are locked in our homes does not mean what we produce must be a novel that transcends 200 years of literary history.

Instead, reread that quote from her introduction. Invention comes out of chaos. It comes out of the moment of change, of wonder, of fear. All you may accomplish right now is a lot of walking around in silence, a lot of nightmares. But that, too, is creation.

I went to a writing residency in 2017 in the month between leaving my day job and going off to grad school. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn off the world. I was in a tailspin of work and change and uncertainty. And I was at a beautiful place where I was supposed to be writing. I did, a little. But my writing to-do list was barely touched. Instead I went on walks, hikes, cried into oysters, had nightmares. I felt lonely. I was alone.

When I talked to others who had been in similar situations, I heard many a story of writers going to residencies and writing little to nothing – only taking the time to sit and breathe and try to remember what it was that was interesting or terrifying or beautiful to them….the thing that led them to writing in the first place.

So I think that’s all we can ask now. Wander around your gothic mansion/studio apartment and indulge in a little ghost story challenge. Gather around the fire and let the nightmares play and dance and then burn out. If something lingers on, maybe you got something.

The FPI Files: Kate McAll’s “Frankenstein” at LA Theatre Works Breathes Life Into Mary Shelley’s Timeless Words

By Chelsea Sutton

Frankenstein is having a moment.

If you trace the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adaptations just in the last 100 years or so, it is easy to see that the classic story never quite went out of style. It is beyond trend. It is the origin story of our collective unconscious.  

LA Theatre Works is bringing its own voice to the cannon this month with its upcoming radio drama production of Frankenstein, adapted by former BBC producer Kate McAll. The audio format allows McAll and LA Theatre Works to get back to the language of the book itself, and offer a version of the story that strips away the visual influences of television and film that have created the pop culture ideas of what we assume Frankenstein to be. 

“I like to get to the heart of the original material,” says McAll about her approach to adapting work for the radio. “My adaptation uses Mary’s structure and language. If she saw it – or heard it – she would recognize it.”

McAll, like myself and like many people who consume pop culture, didn’t read the book until she dove into the work of the adaptation, and so her cultural touchstones were mainly based in the movies. When she began talks with LA Theatre Works to do this adaptation, she thought this might be a great opportunity to try something new – last year she adapted A Room With A View which had a lot of comedy in it and made people laugh. This was a moment to do something scary. But when she read it, she completely changed her mind about it. 

“I found it to be about something else altogether,” says McAll. “My version of it was not going to be like the classic scary monster thing. Because that’s not what I found in the book.” 

Kate McAll

What did she find in it? Not the same horror box in which we tend to place the Frankenstein of pop culture. “There are horror moments in it but they are not at all like the movies…The book is surprisingly poetic,” says McAll. “It is very powerfully about loss.  It is really about seeing Frankenstein descend into the deepest, most scary depression and obsession after the loss of his mother. As for the Creature, his loss  – of a parent of any kind –  was the greatest of all.”

That’s the heart of what the story is about for McAll. Grief. And that’s what keeps it so fresh and timeless. It’s this very personal story about grieving, about fighting against death, about abandonment (which grief often feels like), and how different characters deal with this process – for better or for worse.

McAll has been personally coping with grief over the last two years, “so it was quite strange to come to this and find that’s what Frankenstein is about. It’s got immense emotional maturity given that Mary was only 19 years old when she wrote it.”

Connecting the storytelling style in the book to the genre of radio drama has been the structural exploration of this adaptation. “I’ve just let the storytellers tell their stories….in its purest form. I haven’t imposed anything on it, ” says McAll. 

The process of adapting Frankenstein and leaning into this kind of oral storytelling tradition reminded McAll of a memory she’d forgotten, a pure enchantment with storytelling before she was old enough to think about a career at the BBC – or any career at all: “It made me think of when I was little…there was a show on the radio called Listen with Mother…My mother was pregnant with my younger sister, so I must have been four. We’d lie down on the floor and I’d curl into her tummy, and we’d drift off together, listening. It was lovely to have that memory back.”

Based in the UK, McAll has come out to the US every year for the last 20 years. Perhaps fittingly for the theme of her current adaptation, the first project she pitched for production in the U.S., a possible adaptation of the book The Blood of Strangers, began with a phone call asking for advice with the actor Martin Jarvis on September 11…2001.  The news was only just breaking and she pointed out to Martin, who was in LA at the time and just waking up, that there seemed to be something happening in New York. 

And so grief seems to follow us.

Frankenstein feels very relevant for the times we live in.  Many of us are dealing with a kind of political grief. It’s a state of shock,” says McAll. “Grief for how you believed the world was. And as you get older and the losses become more likely, this kind of story just makes you think about it all.”

Stacy Keach stars as the Creature in LA Theatre Works upcoming “Frankenstein” – Photo by Brian Cahn

McAll is a freelance producer, director and writer working mainly for BBC Radio 4, which produces new radio dramas daily. While radio dramas mostly died out in the U.S. with the introduction of television, that didn’t happen in the UK. “Radio stayed. It’s always been strong,” says McAll. “In radio, the most important thing is to keep people listening. There are a million ways they can stop and switch off. You might have 30 seconds when they’ll concentrate. You’ve really got to capture them from the start and hold onto them.”

McAll didn’t always know that her place was in radio drama. “I came from a very working class background where nobody was educated past the age of 16.  I remember one day at school, then I was about 9, the teacher said we were going to create a radio drama complete with sound effects – coconut shells for horses hooves and everything…I remember being very fired up at being introduced to this world of imagination. It was different from books. That stayed with me for a long time.” 

McAll was the first to go to university in her family. “After I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or could be. I sort of reverted to being this child of a working class family. I couldn’t imagine having a profession.  I just didn’t have a template for it in my head.”

She started with a “very very boring job” working as a secretary for the head of engineering at the BBC, but realized Radio 4 was just across the car park. “I smoked at the time, and a lot of the radio producers smoked, so they were the first people I met – in the smoking area! It was as if a light went on. It was so thrilling and exciting,” says McAll. “I managed to find where I was meant to be, figured out how it worked, applied for jobs since I was already in the door, and worked my way up from secretary to a producer in just over a year.”

With her 30 year career in radio documentary and drama, McAll knows the importance of voice actors, and the LA Theatre Works production of Frankenstein is pulling no punches with Stacy Keach in the role of “The Creature” and Adhir Kalyan (Arrested Development) playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “If anybody can tell you a story, Stacy can,” says McAll. Radio acting takes an abundance of talent: “You’ve got to keep people absolutely enchanted with what you’re saying.” 

Actors Mike McShane (Whose Line Is It Anyway), LA Theatre Works favorite Darren Richardson, Seamus Dever and Cerris Morgan-Moyer round out the cast;  LA Theatre Works associate artistic director Anna Lyse Erikson directs. “Actors who do comedy are really great at drama because they have the timing,” says McAll. “They know exactly how something should be. If you can do comedy, you can do anything.”

Cerris Morgan Moyer – Photo by Matt Petit

Watching live foley, amazing actors, and listening to a classic tale in an LA Theatre Works show is more than enough for a great evening at the theatre, but it is the heart of the story that will stay with anyone listening – the purity of how Mary Shelley describes and explores the idea of birth and death and our own grieving for both moments. “How the Creature describes what it was like for him to come into being is so beautiful and thoughtful,” says McAll. “And if you’re coming to this with the movies in your head, it is so unexpected.”

McAll writes in her introduction to the play how the original novel was birthed from the most primitive and important rituals of human experience – telling stories around a fire to ward off the darkness. “There have been many adaptations of this tale, and it’s a daunting task to present another, but what I have wanted to keep in mind is that this was originally a story told in a single voice, from a young girl’s imagination; that it was born of a waking dream, and recounted in a creaky old mansion, on a dark, cold, rainy, candle lit night.”   

Frankenstein runs Friday February 28 – March 1, presented by LA Theatre Works at the James Bridges Theater UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive Los Angeles, CA 90095. Call 310-827-0889 or visit www.latw.org for information and reservations.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

This is me. A chonky, angry seal pillow.

by Chelsea Sutton

It’s been almost exactly six months since I graduated grad school.

I apologize right now to everyone I have interacted with during this time. I have this thing where, when someone asks how you are, I don’t like saying just “fine” or “good,” especially when that’s not true and especially if the question is sincere. I’ve also been told multiple times that not only are my characters WITHHOLDING, so am I.

So unfortunately, in the spirit of being HOLDING or whatever the hell is the opposite of WITHHOLDING, I’ve tried to articulate this feeling of post-grad uncertainty in a multitude of ways. Often this will manifest in extremes: either totally depressing or completely manic.

There have been people I’ve had long meals with who have witnessed the manic. And I’ve apologized afterwards.

I only just apologized on Friday to a new friend and director I’m working with for being so damn negative the ENTIRE length of the times we’ve hung out.

My emotions live in extremes right now, or at least extremes for me. I’m either riding high and so excited about what’s happening, or my life is an endless desert of capital S Sad and I’ve made all the wrong decisions, every time, for every thing.

Which means I’ve been spending much of my time NOT writing and instead looking at animal videos on Facebook. For a brief period over the last six months, in my desperate attempt at finding a job, I even tried to get a part time job walking dogs or taking care of kittens or cats in shelters, or even starting as an apprentice dog trainer because those seemed at least mildly meaningful comparatively when you consider my other career is writing plays no one comes to or no one wants to produce and writing stories no one wants to publish.

And then Facebook starting advertising this product to me:

The algorithm is getting scary.

Obviously, I know how the algorithm knew how many EXACT seal videos I looked at or shared over the last six months. How may seal GIFs I’ve used.

But did the algorithm read my cover letter to the animal shelter in response to their call for a “Cat Caretaker” that I wrote desperately and passionately into Indeed one night? Or the various descriptions of how my 34-years of having dogs around, of feeding dogs, of having a dog die IN MY ARMS should qualify me to be able to walk a few of them around the block for an hour for minimum wage?

Did the algorithm hear ME calling MYSELF names like fat and lazy and talentless?

Did the algorithm see my whiskey-fueled bedtime crying-myself-to-sleep routine?

Because it’s like looking in the mirror. We’re in some uncanny valley territory here where I could buy a life-size version of myself and cuddle with it (angrily) after a hot toddy.

But, in an attempt to be POSITIVE, it seems the algorithm has solved my problem for me of articulation.

What has post-grad been like, you ask?

This. This right here. This is post-grad. This is my life right now. And, I suspect, this is just being a writer, forever and ever.

I am this chonky, angry seal pillow.

The Last Cover Letter I Ever Want to Write

by Chelsea Sutton

Dear Job/Writing Opportunity I Really Want,

I was excited to see your posting for a new [insert job vaguely tangental to my dreams here] and I know I could contribute through many avenues in this position. I have over 10 years of experience working in nonprofit performing arts marketing and administration, two years working with grade school and undergraduate writing education, and am a fiction writer, playwright, and screenwriter who just graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside – so I think this background both in administration and creativity could be an asset to your company.

I have so many ideas.

I guess you want me to explain why? Oh lord, I can’t anymore.

Do you know this is the 200th cover letter I’ve written since July? Jobs, fiction submissions, playwriting submissions, more jobs. And more jobs. I just can’t anymore.

Except I have to. Okay. So. Why? Why should you hire me/give me this opportunity? Why why why…well, I’ve taught in an 8th grade classroom! I’ve taught literature to undergrad science students! I’ve directed actors! I’ve directed MALE actors! I once directed a MALE ACTOR who was ALSO a cardiologist….and I’M A WOMAN! So whatever amount of shit and ego you think you’re going to throw at me, I’ve already been through worse.

[Clearing throat] Anyway.

I’ve worked in small theatres and at universities for over 10 years in Los Angeles, creating marketing plans, branding, graphic design, social media strategy, public relations, website design and upkeep, email campaigns, and building audience for the arts. And I’m tired of it. I really am. I shouldn’t tell you that, but I’ve been having this argument for MORE THAN 10 YEARS – the “WHY should I come see this art show when I could just as easily NOT do that” argument. In the end, there’s one thing I’ve learned about marketing: the BEST way to sell a thing is word of mouth. And to get word of mouth, you have to create something that means something and excites people and that sometimes means taking risks. Which I know you don’t want to because you’re a midsized theatre/corporation/dog walking service and you just want to stick with what you know. Which is cool. Cool cool cool cool.

Sorry. Back on track.

I’ve also organized fundraising events, readings, and new play festivals, so administration, organization, and follow-through are second nature to me. Who is the person that does all the work nobody wants to? Probably me. And remember, when I say I was a “Marketing Director” or “Marketing Manager” what that really means is I did EVERYTHING a team of 10+ people normally would.  I’ve left jobs that then replaced me with 6 different people just to function somewhat normally for a while before they hire the 4 other people they need. Did I get paid as if I were a multi-headed goddess of efficiency? No. Probably I was paid like I was half a person who only needed half a room in half an apartment and ate half a burrito while I drove my half car to my second or third job.

I’m off track again. See? I am self-aware and am not afraid to correct course. I’m a self-starter!

I’ve been published! In a few journals that slowly start going defunct. But let’s not talk about that. The New Yorker once gave me a rejection letter when it clearly states on their website that they don’t have time to respond to everyone. So that’s something!

I’ve been produced! But at least one of them was self-produced and the others were with the theater company where I’m an ensemble member so I was also doing marketing and box office and merch and whatever and DEFINITELY CRIED from exhaustion at all the opening nights…And I know I shouldn’t tell you about the self-production stuff. I learned that at a writers conference last year. I was talking with some playwrights about those beautiful exchanges you can have with audience members – and I was telling my story, which began with me selling T-shirts in the lobby before the show. And the playwrights were like…”but why were YOU selling T-shirts.” And that’s when it hit me. Somehow being involved in the production as more than a writer was shameful. Self-producing doesn’t count. I guess? If that’s true then I’m really in the shit hole of my own creation.

Add that to my special skills list!

I hope you don’t look at my resume and think that, just because I seem to have a specific journey of a so-called “career,” that it doesn’t mean I can’t sell books, or walk a dog, or learn how to make a great cup of coffee, or manage your podcast content, or whatever and fucking LOVE it while doing it. But it also doesn’t mean this job is going to be my priority. Sorry to burst your bubble. But to quote Amanda Palmer, I’ve already spent too much time doing things I didn’t want to. I take pride in the work I do, which often leads to me putting the job first before the projects or people I’m passionate about. And enough of that. Will I be a good employee and do the work the best I can? You bet. Will I sign over my soul or promise you this is a career change while also continuing to write on the side and hope that this is all temporary before I’m finally free? Nope.

I’m tired of feeling over-qualified and under-qualified at the same time, all the time.

So interview me and string me along for months. Send me a rejection. Ghost me. Whatever. I’ve got other cover letters to write.

I would love the opportunity to talk with you more about this position. In the meantime, I’m going to try to forget that I sent this to you, because the moment I start really wanting something and throw that energy at it, is the moment I don’t get it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best,
Chelsea

On Theme Parks + Story

By Chelsea Sutton

As a Southern California kid, theme parks have been a part of my identity, for better or worse. Most kids, no matter where you lived, probably got a chance to go to their local carnival, or their local amusement park or one of the thousands of odd ball parks across the U.S., or even made it to Disneyland on a family trip if they were lucky.

So I say theme parks have been part of my identity not as a way to say I’m unique in this, because I’m not. But as a way to think about how someone can absorb not only story but the structure and artifice of story in different ways. There’s a beautiful thing that happens, when you accept the construct of a fake world built on taking your money. And you believe in it anyway. And hard.

You can hear the Disneyland fireworks from my grandmother’s backyard. Back when it was affordable, my mother would take me out of school for mid-week, rainy-day Disneyland trips with our annual passes. My mother was cast as Snow White (though opted to take a job in nursing instead). The place was part of my routine. Being immersed in story was my routine.

Amusement parks are fun and all, but it is theme-parks that have my heart – the ones that tell a story with its immersion, rides, and games, giving the illusion that you are in this world and are part of the story. You are an adventurer, a pirate, a space traveler, a princess. You are part of the story being told. I was never one for thrills for thrill’s sake. I want a thrill because it is part of a story. Don’t just let me drop from a high peak. Tell me why I had to jump and what I have to do to land.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios, Hollywood

I recently went to Universal Studios Hollywood – which has become a part of my routine as well during this part of my life, as I live about ten minutes away and almost every theatre person I know has worked there, is working there, or is trying to work there. At 33, I’m cynical as hell – I look at the throngs of people with their giant Simpsons donuts and plushies, their Jurassic Park uniforms, their Harry Potter robes and wands and wonder at how silly we all look, dressed up in our respective fantasies. Are we wasting our days? I don’t care how punk rock you are, you are decidedly less badass when you wear your Ravenclaw robes and wait in line for a 2 minute ride on a Hippogriff.

But then I remember – who wants to be a badass anyway, if it means not being able to dream?

I spent considerable time during my day at the park dreaming up what the themed land would look like if I could create the seaside town from one of my plays. In my fiction class last week, I made my students walk around for ten minutes as their characters, experiencing the drab creative writing building through the eyes of someone (or something) else. As writers we spend so much time in our heads, that the physicality of something can sometimes be the key we need to unlock the connection we so desperately want.

Theme parks are crowded, hot, and annoying. They are overpriced, often disappointing, and I know enough from my friends who have worked behind the scenes and from watching endless hours of the Defunctland YouTube channel that the politics and economics behind many of the choices are infuriating, to say the least.

But nothing beats being able to walk through the physical landscape of your chosen fantasy and imagine what your story might be in this place. The best thing I did the last time I visited Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter land of Universal was a fifteen minute conversation with a shop worker at Ollivanders Wand Shop about who I am and what I hope to be in order to fit me with the proper wand. Yes it was $52 and I did not buy it. But I will, dear reader, I will eventually.

Because I’m a sucker.

I watched the new projection/light show in Hogsmeade (twice) – The Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle – and couldn’t help letting my mind wander to the darkness we all fight every day, the real evil stuff we have to combat that is not cloaked in black robes or maniacal laughter. Does a light show fight any of that? Hell no. Does it sorta help me imagine a better, more courageous version of myself that would fight a dark wizard and maybe actual real bad stuff in the world? Yes, a bit. Does it make me wish I was that person and give me something to work for? I think so.

When the shop worker at Ollivanders asked what my favorite subject would have been if I went to Hogwarts, I answered Defense Against the Dark Arts almost immediately. I had never thought about it before that moment, but I knew it instinctively.

And I feel like that is what most of us are doing, in one way or another, as we write. It is a constant training in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Looking for hope wherever we can find it.