The FPI Files: Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler & Director Deena Selenow

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?

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Leah Nanako Winkler

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.

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Deena Selenow, photo by Vincent Richards.

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.

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(L-R) Jacqueline Misaye as Sophie and Jessica Jade Andres as Hiro in East West Players’ West Coast premiere of Kentucky by Leah Nanako Winkler. Photo by Michael Lamont.

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.

Kentucky plays through December 11, 2016 at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater.Click Here for information and to purchase tickets.

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.

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New on the LA FPI Podcast: “What She Said” – Alyson Mead with Deb Hiett

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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

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 LA FPI Podcasts

#FringeFemmes & #HFF16 Huzzahs

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!

Chris Farah at 2016 HFF Awards

Thanks to A Little New Music for this great shot of Chris Farah at the #HFF16 Awards!

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.)

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#FringeFemmes Check-In: Cowboy Mouth

by Constance Strickland

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF16 female playwrights, “Women on the Fringe,” by Fringe Femmes who’re behind the scenes this year. Click Here for all Check-Ins.

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WHO: Patti Smith & Sam Shepard

WHAT: Cowboy Mouth

WHERE: The New Collective

WHY:

Only three shows left. This is a rare and difficult piece for performers to embody and for that alone it should be seen. Where do we fit in when the world seems to be swallowing us alive? How do we cope with lost dreams and who do we find comfort in – despite how we were brought together?  The play will leave us with unanswered questions, as does life. Cait Mathis & Alton Ray are fearless in a work that requires deep commitment.

HOW: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3779

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#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Sexy Maus

by Constance Strickland

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF16 female playwrights, “Women on the Fringe,” by Fringe Femmes who’re behind the scenes this year. Click Here for all Check-Ins.

Fringe Femmes


WHO: Andrea Schell

WHAT: Sexy Maus

WHERE: Sacred Fools Studio

WHY:

Andrea is delicious and fearless. This one-woman show examines the self’s needs, wants and fears in a wonderfully direct manner; one finds themself laughing, understanding, and seeing Andrea a bit more clearer by the end of the play. It is not easy to be at an unplanned crossroad, yet we all know the feeling of needing to escape, searching for ourselves on a deeper level, finding ourselves then questioning it all again! Andrea gives us a fun, honest and vulnerable look at herself in a hot theatre, showing us that affordable community theatre can have just as much pizazz as a show in a big house. Go see this show, and then go have hot sex with a lover, stranger or flexible friend. Hey, we can’t all get to Europe but we can pretend!

HOW: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3612

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#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Occupation

by Constance Strickland

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF16 female playwrights, “Women on the Fringe,” by Fringe Femmes who’re behind the scenes this year. Click Here for all Check-Ins.

Fringe Femmes


WHO: Merri Biechler

WHAT: Occupation

WHERE: Asylum @ 6470

WHY:

Because war is a universal issue, a disease that trickles down and affects us all. This Utopian play allows you to hear the voices of the women who are left to deal with the aftermath of war. It is a wonderful reminder that all you really need is an empty space along with good writing to tell a powerful story. (And if you love live music, Occupation has a wonderful musician who accompanies the players onstage.)

HOW: http://hff16.org/3709

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#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: My Big Fat Blonde Musical

by  Dana Leigh Lyman

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF16 female playwrights, “Women on the Fringe,” by Fringe Femmes who’re behind the scenes this year. Click Here for all Check-Ins.

Fringe Femmes


WHO: Theresa Stroll and Bobby Glynn

WHAT: My Big Fat Blonde Musical

WHERE: Sacred Fools Theater (Black Box)

WHY:

Terry is a young woman new to Hollywood and looking to become an actress. This story is old as time in this city and yet Theresa Stroll finds a way to put a brand new face on this adventure with the addition of one important caveat: she’s a fat actress and she’s not looking to change that, she’s looking to change Hollywood. We meet an array of supporting characters, some supportive and some far from it but each leading Terry closer to a conclusion that neither she nor the audience sees coming but will leave you all grinning with joy.  This show reminds us that sometimes some out of the box thinking is what we need to make our dreams come true.  That and some equally resolved and pissed off partners in crime.

HOW: http://hff16.org/3674

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#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Being Martin Shkreli

by Kate Motzenbacker

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF16 female playwrights, “Women on the Fringe,” by Fringe Femmes who’re behind the scenes this year. Click Here for all Check-Ins.

Fringe Femmes


WHO: Sarah Rosenberg

WHAT: Being Martin Shkreli

WHERE: Ruby Theatre at The Complex

WHY:

You guys. Martin Shkreli is not just abhorrent. He’s also completely weird. After pulling a volunteer from the audience and handing them a list of questions to ask her, Sarah Rosenberg swaggers and smirks her way through half an hour of bravado, threats, and claims of artistic genius, straight from the mouth of the worst dude of our time. I laughed, I made disbelieving faces that I probably couldn’t recreate if I tried, and I had a great time. This show has all the pleasure of sharing a really nutty article, except that the article is happening right in front of you.

HOW: http://hff16.org/3840

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#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: My Mañana Comes

by Kate Motzenbacker

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF16 female playwrights, “Women on the Fringe,” by Fringe Femmes who’re behind the scenes this year. Click Here for all Check-Ins.

Fringe Femmes

 

WHO: Elizabeth Irwin

WHAT: My Mañana Comes

WHERE: @FountainTheatre

WHY:

In almost every moment of My Mañana Comes, the audience is watching labor happen. Set in a restaurant kitchen, the mostly-naturalistic play follows four busboys over a period of a months as they work, make chitchat, confide in each other, and do the math of how to keep getting by, over and over again. While the play is absolutely political—it’s pretty much impossible to watch people working almost nonstop for an hour and a half without feeling strongly that they should be paid fairly for their damn labor—strong writing, sharp direction, and four A+ performances keep it feeling theatrical rather than polemical. It’s a pleasure to watch for the craft involved and also a real punch in the heart. 

HOW: http://hff16.org/3657

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Shout out to NYC’s Works by Women…

They’re having a #ParityParty! Love this. Check out WorksbyWomen.org if you don’t know them. (Stage Source in Boston holds Parity Parties, as well, in conjunction with outings to see plays written by women.

Thanks to LA FPI Instigator Gina Young for keeping us Instagram fresh! (Are you following us?)

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