The FPI Files: Women’s Stories at EST/LA, One Act at a Time

Is it just us, or has Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles been getting their femme on, lately? Including last year’s hit production of member playwright Karen Rizzo’s “Mutual Philanthropy,” Ann Talman’s “Woody’s Order!” earlier this year, and works presented through the company’s development programs, we’ve heard a lot of female voices coming from EST/LA’s space at Atwater Village. Now the 2017 One Act Festival is currently playing, with 50% of the works written by women. Time to chat with one of EST/LA’s Co-Artistic Directors, actor/producer Liz Ross, and Carole Real, playwright and former Co-Artistic Director.

Liz Ross

LA FPI: Needless to say, we’re big fans of gender parity. How did the plays for this Fest come to you?

Liz Ross:  All the submissions came from playwrights associated with our company either through the Playwrights Unit, NeWest Playwrights (which is our writers group for playwrights under the age of 30), and writer company members.

Our membership and writing groups are all pretty equally male and female voices.  I think we are around 50/50, to be honest. And we’re particularly proud this year that each play has been developed here through our programs such as Sunday Best, our monthly reading series;  Winterfest, our annual members project series; LAFest, our Los Angeles voices festival; Launchpad, a staged reading series; and True Story, our monthly storytelling evening.

LA FPI: Do you see differences in the stories women playwrights are telling, vs. male playwrights? Or differences in how they’re telling them?

Carole Real

Carole Real: I have all kinds of theories, but they are just theories and it’s never wise to paint with a broad brush. For instance, in my observation, the play with the twist ending tends to be written by a male playwright. But I bet our readers could come up more than one example of a twist ending play that was written by a female playwright.

One thing I think is objectively true is that women playwrights tend to have more female characters and more female protagonists in their plays than male playwrights. In addition, the female characters women write tend to have their own goals and aren’t just in the play to “help” other (male) characters or serve as plot points. And I think women playwrights tend to write female-female interactions that women audience members experience as truthful and moving.

Liz:  I’m finding that things seem to be shifting.  I think in the past women wrote more of the relationship stories, but now there seems to be a shift in this generationally.  Many of the younger playwrights are crossing those gender norms and exploring more plays about identity issues from both male and female voices.

And then there’s a play like “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff” by Carole Real [included in Program B of the Festival].  This play explores how our global economy can unknowingly make us complicit in the abuse of factory workers over even a small purchase, like toys with our favorite cartoon characters on them.

LA FPI: So let’s talk about the Festival selections, starting with your play, Carole. Why are you telling this story?

Stella Kim and Sharon Freedman in Carole Real’s “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff,” directed by Chuma Gault. Photo by Youthana Yuos.

Carole:  I became aware that foreign factories routinely break labor laws and violate safety codes of the countries where they are located — their own country’s laws — during the recession when I worked in a temp job for a large entertainment conglomerate. The job entailed reading foreign factory audits eight hours a day, five days a week. It was profoundly depressing and I became convinced that if people understood how these factories operate, they would feel differently about the global economy and understand that by turning a blind eye, we are complicit in the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It later dawned on me that I could dramatize the subject by creating a theatrical world where a factory auditor in China could “talk” to the temp worker in the US.

I absolutely love that the play has mostly women characters and that they attempt to work together to protect the most vulnerable of them! I know that in China, many factories are staffed mostly with teenaged girls, because they are hardworking and obedient, so factory safety and fair labor laws there is really and truly a women’s issue, and this is probably true in many other countries as well.

And I would be remiss not to give director Chuma Gault huge credit for the artistic success of this production. Chuma really saw the play as being about how women are penalized by being strong and smart in the office environment. This wasn’t something I was focussed on — that just seemed like “how it is” — but he picked up on that and made sure it was part of the story. Thank you, Chuma!

Liz: All three plays in Program B explore questions of conscience — from “Provenance” by Ian Patrick Williams to “Writing to Mrs. Otts” by Tom Stringer to Carole’s play, each play in this program asks us to consider what we’re willing to speak up about or against.

Program A had 5 plays that all explored relationships.  They ranged from Karen Rizzo’s “Darkest Place” which explored loss and crisis to Deborah Pearl’s short piece “Can You Hear Me Now” about miscommunication in the cell phone era.  Mary Portser’s “So Lovely Here on Earth” was a sweet piece about a woman trying to volunteer for a Mars Mission when her interviewer realizes that she’s just trying to escape her own misery here on Earth by “committing suicide by space.” Each of these plays, while being very different from each other and taking entirely different approaches, had a similar thread exploring our desperate need to be understood. I do think that women writers tend to invest in the search for understanding each other. Women write characters who watch and observe each other.

Program C has 4 wonderful pieces starting with “Things That Matter” a musical by Elin Hampton and Gerald Sternbach, “How Do I Get Get to Carnegie Hall” by Nick Ullett and directed by his wife Jenny O’Hara.  Then “My Jesus Year” a heartfelt piece by Tony Foster, and finishing with Katherine Cortez’ “Between Friends” which is about a many years old friendship between two older women who discover that they still harbor secrets from each other after all these years. Katherine is just coming off of a successful Fringe production of her play, “In The Valley of the Shadow” with Rogue Machine.  It’s a powerful piece that she developed with the Playwrights Unit and we had a reading in Winterfest.

LA FPI:  So it’s not just us! Seems like there are a lot of powerful women artists working as part of EST/LA?

Carole: Yes! And I’d like to thank Liz Ross for the work she’s currently doing as one of the three Artistic Directors, and the work she has done in the past for EST/LA as an actress, producer and creative director. I’d also like to give a shout out to the other strong women who have made our company run, including Jenny O’Hara, Board President, Gates McFadden, Laura Salvato, Risa Bramon Garcia and Deb Stricklin (all former Artistic Directors), Heather Robinson who currently heads the Members Committee and all the other women who make EST/LA go. Without them, we’re nothing!

Liz: We have increased the diversity of voices within our membership and playwrights groups and this past year and actually have a very long history of producing women playwrights. Right now, we have so many projects in development that we can’t possibly produce them all so our focus is to serve their process; we’ve become a major incubator of plays, so to speak. We’re very conscious of including women’s voices equally to men’s and we do have a wonderfully strong and vocal community of women within our organization so I expect we will continue that way for a long time to come.

EST/LA’s 2017 One Act Festival continues through July 16 at the Atwater Village Theatre complex. For more information visit www.estlosangeles.org or call (818) 839-1197. Reserve tickets at brownpapertickets.com.

 

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

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Confessions of an Arab Woman

by Chris Farah

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Nagham Wehbe

WHAT: Confessions of an Arab Woman

WHERE: Complex Theatres

WHY: In “Confessions of an Arab Woman”, Joumana Haddad’s radical feminist book is brought to life as the Arab female identity breaks free from the shackles of a sexist, patriarchal culture. The result is a sort of choreopoem enacted by a cast embodying Jourmana’s thoughts and memories. Joumana is a no holds-barred fearless and liberated warrior and if the thought of such a woman being Arab is confusing to you, get yourself to the Complex quick. Y’alla!

HOW: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4403

 

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Blamed

by Terry Holzman

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Callie Prendiville

WHAT: Blamed: An Established Fiction

WHERE: studio/stage

WHY: One of ten Fringe Scholarship winners (awarded to shows that expand and diversify the Fringe community) “Blamed” combines text with original music, dance, poetry, and puppetry to examine the role of women throughout history, mythology, and literature who are blamed for the ills of society. “Blamed” cleverly uses many different theatrical conventions to tell its stories and the result is a multi-cultural tapestry of short tales. “Blamed” was also awarded Best Drama at the 2015 San Diego Fringe.

Upon entering the small studio/stage space, the performers (13 women and a live folk music band) are already on stage. It reminded me of the Broadway show “Once” which also starts with the performers (who are also the musicians) already on stage, giving the audience a little pre-show entertainment. I liked how “Blamed” makes use of every possible inch of the small space. Choreographer Annie Lavin expertly blocks the performers movements because any errors in this fast-paced, movement-focused show could have caused quite an onstage traffic jam, but everything flows beautifully.

The show begins as the women tear pages out of a book, referencing the stories that are about to be told. Laughing at what they are reading, they know the truth about these “blamed” women and know what’s written in books is fiction. Seven stories are dramatized, including the story of Eve, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, and Little Red Riding Hood. One performer reads or tells the origin story of a well-known woman/girl who was wrongfully accused, victimized, stigmatized, or BLAMED by society as other ensemble members act, dance, sing, or use shadow puppets to illustrate the story. Slowly the audience understands how women have been marginalized throughout history and into present day. As the tag line states: “These aren’t your mother’s fairy tales.”

Some stories are told through folk/fairy tales, shadow puppetry (my favorite part), songs and, especially, dance. There is quite a bit of dancing and unfortunately there is really not enough room to truly dance, but the company does the best it can with the limited space and all the various theatrical elements merge into a cohesive work.

Most members of the ensemble get their chance to shine including playwright Callie Prendiville who is also a member of the ensemble. In an interview she states that she “fell in love with theater after discovering it was the synthesis of things” she cared about. What she cares about in “Blamed” is debunking the myth that dominant women should be feared. “I want people to question the deeper message of our storytelling, to reconsider their assumptions.” I certainly did.

“Blamed” is one of only eleven entries in the “Dance and Physical Theater” division in this year’s Fringe. I don’t usually see these kinds of shows but was glad “Blamed” made it onto my “dance card.” Hope it makes it onto yours.

HOW: http://hff17.org/4539

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Hello Again!

by Terry Holzman

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Linden Waddell

WHAT: Hello Again! The Songs of Allan Sherman

WHERE: Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre

WHY: You don’t need to know who Allan Sherman was or recognize his Grammy-award winning comic novelty hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp)” to wholeheartedly enjoy this cabaret-style show. The day I saw the show the audience ran the gamut from pre-teens to senior citizens and—from the roaring laughter—I sensed that the entire audience was entertained. Linden Waddell is marvelous as she interprets a handful of Sherman’s 250 song parodies, tells some of his story, and beautifully pays homage to a comedy legend who paved the way for singer-songwriters like “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Linden Waddell shares the stage with her musical director, arranger and accompanist Marjorie Poe, and the show was directed by Janet Miller. All three extremely talented women are show-biz vets and the quality of the show reveals and revels in their gifts. Linden’s delivers the songs with humor as well as great feeling for her muse. She has a great voice and stage presence and knows how to use funny props. She and Marjorie Poe do a song together that had me in stitches.

Though I am old enough to know “Hello Muddah,” I knew nothing about the man who wrote that song. Sherman was an American comedy writer and tv producer and created his hilarious parodies to entertain friends at parties. Songs like “Chopped Liver” (to the tune of “Moon River”) “There’s Nothing Like a Lox” (“There’s Nothing Like a Dame”), “Your Mother is Here to Stay” (“Our Love is Here to Stay”), and “Smog Gets in Your Eyes” ( “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) were some of my favorites.

Sherman’s friends convinced him to record an album, which he did (though the record producers did not want to pay royalties on show tunes so they asked Sherman to look in the public domain for songs to parody) and that’s how his first album “My Son, the Folk Singer” (1962) came about and went on to become the fast-selling album up to that time.

Beloved by politicians to movie stars (JFK and Sinatra gave his albums as gifts), Sherman performed at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall; headlined in Vegas and guest-hosted the Tonight Show. He wrote novels and even took a shot at an original musical, penning book and lyrics for “The Fig Leaves are Falling” (1969). Linden sings a moving song from that show.

This enchanting 55-minute show, crafted and performed by pros, breezes by and is a true crowd pleaser. The next show is Sunday, June 18 (Father’s Day), so bring your Fadduh…AND your Muddah!

HOW: http://hff17.org/4580

 

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Bravo 25

by Constance Strickland

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Eliza Gibson

WHAT: Bravo 25: Your A.I Therapist Will See You Now

WHERE: The Actors Company

WHY: I was taken by surprise. I did not expect what Eliza brought to the stage… Herself. This is rarely done in an age where big theatre, props and onstage business is the norm. What’s often considered low-budget theatre can be easily forgotten or dismissed: the bare stage and just how powerful it can be when paired with an actor willing to go beyond. This allows each audience member to soak in the naked presence of the actor. Onstage, Eliza creates multiple characters who seek “counseling” from A.I therapist Amber, and have come to rely upon these weekly group meetings. Each character comes to life, revealing pieces of individual battles. It’s a solo show that was thought-provoking, leaving us to remember that the human body, and the voice, is vehicle enough to take us on a storytelling journey of what it means to live in a world full of inconsistencies.

HOW: http://hff17.com/4323

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: 13th Grade

by Chris Farah

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Pamela Eberhardt

WHAT: 13th Grade

WHERE: Complex Theatres

WHY: A rollicking new musical chock full of 90’s references, teen hormones and punch ’em in the gut jokes, 13th grade follows the freshman class of a community college as they navigate through “like/totally/whatever/rad” love triangles. Come for the trip down memory lane, stay for the tight greek chorus harmonies of Pam, Emily and Katrina.

HOW: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4507

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Moments

by Constance Strickland

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Bernadette Armstrong

WHAT: MOMENTS

WHERE: Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre

WHY: This play quietens the mind and requires you to listen. One incident in a woman’s day takes her back to a moment that she had silenced, forced herself to ignore its happening in hopes that she would forget. Yet life does not work that easily; as we know, moments can come back to haunt us. We witness a woman needing to deal – a woman in control of her life, yet in need of releasing a haunting experience she has carried alone. A piece of theatre that gives a louder voice to an issue that is usually carried in silence, as well as not discussed socially over dinner.

HOW: http://hff17.com/4364

 

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Fair

by Terry Holzman

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Laurie Jones, Katie Jones, Mandy Stertz, Kimberly Van Ness

WHAT: FAIR

WHERE: Asylum @ Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre

WHY: In 1871, Laura D. Fair murdered her lover on a boat off the coast of San Francisco. Laura’s trial became less about the murder and more about judging her moral character. This ensemble play might have made an interesting judge-and- jury, real-life crime drama, with a message about the treatment of women in 1871, but that is not this play. FAIR, delivers the feminist message in an inventive and entertaining way… a play-within- a-play, executed in a hilarious melodramatic style (complete with fake mustaches) and delivers a powerful indictment of Laura D. Fair’s unfair treatment. 

FAIR opens with the cast onstage preparing for a performance of FAIR. One of the actors asks if she is playing “Susan Banthony” which is corrected to “Susan B. Anthony” by another cast member. Those clever first words set the tone for the play which jumps back and forth in time in a nimble yet cohesive way. I could tell immediately that this work had been developed over a period of time: the fast pace and furious blocking, the actors’ physical agility and focus, the quick blackouts and scene changes, the clever use of minimal props, and the writing—witty, provocative, assured and meaningful. It takes time for all these elements to coalesce into a well-made production.

And sure enough, the program states that The Wishbone Collective began this ensemble-devised play in the fall of 2014. They began “scraping together information about “twice-widowed, twice-divorced” Laura D. Fair—a woman so scandalous she was placed among the ranks of history and literature’s top-shelf femme fatales and yet [she has] somehow faded from memory.” Much of the dialogue is from a primary source—the recorded transcripts and letters printed in the “Official Report of the Trial of Laura D. Fair for the Murder of Alex. P. Crittenden”. There are five other sources listed in the program as well. Wishbone did their research.

There is never a question that Laura D. Fair is guilty of the murder. In this telling, Laura Fair’s guilt is almost beside the point “I did it. I don’t deny it” she states early on, and so Laura’s morality becomes the focus of the prosecution. The trial becomes a titillating media sensation and where much of the play’s hilarious social commentary unfolds.

The public vilification of someone who challenged society’s conventions by having many lovers and husbands is compelling. Making the trial a melodrama is a stroke of genius. The words are from actual court records but are delivered in a such a way that underscore the trial’s ridiculousness. Witnesses are called to remark on Laura’s “reputation of chastity” to which each replies some iteration of “bad” and “real bad.” She is called a “she-devil” and a “vile temptress”. The prosecutor blames the combination of “a controlling man” and the defendant’s “menstrual cycle”, stating Laura was a “victim of circumstance…and her own biology”. (That line got huge laughs.)

FAIR is a complicated tale woven into an entertaining melodramatic format. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it made me feel how unfair society still is to women in so many ways. The next person who says a woman is the way she is is because of PMS needs to read about Laura D. Fair. One more show on June 16th !!

HOW: http://hff17.org/4420

 

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: October Baby

by Terry Holzman

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Brooke Baumer

WHAT: October Baby

WHERE: studio/stage

WHY: No one is more obsessed with the month of October than Brooke Baumer. The autumn palette, pumpkin bread, and (oh-my- gawd!) Halloween cause her to squeeeeeeal in delight. Brooke’s also a fanatical planner; so when she decides she wants a second child, why not give birth during her favorite month? Things go pretty well in that direction…until they don’t. A unique (and true) solo show about motherhood and letting go of things that don’t really matter.

Working LA actress Brooke Baumer jumps right into “October Baby” (which was well-received at Solofest 2017—the largest solo theater festival on the West Coast) by telling the audience how completely obsessed she is with that tenth month of the year. She brings out her favorite mustard-colored sweater and shows slides of her Halloween costumes throughout the years, but “just” loving October is not enough for Brooke. Oh no, she strives for a much bigger prize—Brooke feels she must give birth to her second child during her favorite month. How hard could that be?

Does this obstetrical goal sound a “tad” compulsive? You have no idea! Brooke admits she fixates on controlling things so why not include her pregnancy? She plots her strategy as if it were the D-Day invasion, gets her husband on board (yes, he does play a “minor” part), and the story takes off. (I won’t go into details because the twists and turns in this unique and well-told tale are worth the surprise.)

Brooke is a passionate and sharp storyteller and has a wonderful stage presence. Comedy is Brooke’s bread-and- butter (or perhaps “comedy is her candy corn”?) and I was laughing from the start. The story flows with ease and at a good pace. She kept me on the edge of my seat because her story has more change-ups than a MLB pitcher! And after the laughs come “the feels” and by the end, I had tears in my eyes…in a good way.

Solo-show diva Jessica Lynn Johnson, directs and the show moves. I loved that Brooke showed us photos and even a bit of film footage to assist her story. She even gave out Halloween candy as we left the theater! A nice touch.

HOW: http://hff17.org/4321

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Thanksgiving

by Jennifer Ashe

Quick peeks at the work of #HFF17 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: Tiffany Cascio 

WHAT: Thanksgiving

WHERE: The Lounge Theatre

WHY: Why is it that Thanksgiving seems to bring out the best and the worst of human kind? Tiffany Cascio warns us this not-all-the-way true story is a look into her own dysfunctional family and within two minutes we know we’re in for a wild ride.

Chloe (Allison Youngberg) needs the perfect day, Needs everyone to fall in line, NEEDS her family to be normal for just this moment. But they’re being who they are and that’s messy, angry, manipulative, and all too human for Chloe who wants to protect her perfect fiancé (Gary Poux) from the truth.

Kitty Lindsay directs this strong ensemble cast through this hilarious, painful ride where the audience can see the scars left by childhood, divorce, abandonment and that no one is perfect and no one is really awful and what it means to be a family may not look like we thought it should. As Mom (Sharon Spence) copes by learning every new age path out there, Victoria (Susan Louise O’Connor) has booze and sarcasm, and Max tops them all by bringing his bestie Starr (Asia Lynn Pitts) who happens to be a stripper with a mouth like, well… a stripper. Ah, family! Still, we need it. We are forever bound to it whether we like it or not.

HOW: http://hff17.com/4549

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