All posts by Kitty Felde

Teaching to Learn

by Kitty Felde

A week or so ago, I was honored to be invited back for a second year to serve as dramaturg to a group of playwrights in Lincoln, Nebraska. And as usual, I learned more about my own shortcomings as a writer. It’s always easier to see the problems in someone else’s play. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy attending new play conferences, like the annual gathering at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “If only they’d tackle this” or “fix that” I say to myself, knowing full well I should be saying that to myself.

Here are the two big take-aways from my Nebraska seminar. I should tape them to my wall:

– Theatre is about present action, what happens NOW onstage, not about working out past trauma. Certainly the past informs the present. But if the biggest event in your play happened twenty years ago and all we get to do is hear about it, we, the audience will feel like we didn’t get our money’s worth.

– Every monologue must operate as its own mini-play. What does the character want? Why is she/he telling this story? What do they want to get out of the person they are telling it to? What challenge or problem is the character working out in that monologue? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Again, is it just about the past? Is it just exposition? Make it necessary to the play as a whole.

These two points were a particular challenge to my class of hopeful playwrights. They are also challenging me.

I got a commission to write a one-man show that will serve as a tour for the neighborhood around the White House. A company here in DC commissioned three playwrights to build one-hour shows around a historic character who lived or worked in the White House. My character is Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore.

There are challenges I’ve never had to worry about in previous plays: when will the Secret Service arbitrarily shut down the tour route? Do you need to build in bathroom breaks? How much walking can an audience take before it tunes out and thinks of nothing more than the next bench?

But I’ve also had those two big challenges to tackle: how do you make present a story that is mostly (by design) intended to inform about the past? And how do you do this with a 50 page monologue?

My own solution for QUENTIN was to set the play on the day he came to DC for his Army Air Corps physical – the one where he memorized the eye chart to hide his poor eyesight. It was to be a reunion with his “White House Gang” – the neighborhood kids he hung out with during the years his father was president. The gang doesn’t show up, but he encounters a group of tourists…whose tour guide has also stood them up. Quentin offers to take then around, sharing his own stories of life in the White House andQuentin_Roosevelt_in_Uniform_1917 bits of Washington lore. But he’s also having an internal struggle about coming to terms with enlisting, not disappointing his father, the very real possibility of death, and the excitement about his secret engagement to Flora Whitney.

We’ll see if it works. The show is in rehearsal right now. If you’re in DC this summer, you can join a tour – er, performance – and see for yourself.

The Theatre of the State of the Union Address

by Kitty Felde

Talk about great set design!
Talk about great set design!

I’ve been thinking a lot about spectacle.

Aristotle included spectacle – or opsis – as one of the requirements of tragedy. Of course, his description of tragedy includes the physical elements of theatre: the set, the costumes, music and sound effects, and the physical and vocal performance of actors. (It should be noted that Aristotle lists “spectacle” last, believing that a truly good tragedy doesn’t require a stage experience; he believed that a tragedy can create a catharsis in a reader – even from the written page.)

I think of spectacle in terms of a high wire act at the circus, fireworks over the Washington Monument, a three year old throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. Leslie Kan at the University of Chicago says, “much of the spectacle’s appeal (or repugnance) derives from its visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the viewer.” In other words, made you look.

Last night, I covered the State of the Union address for public radio. It was my seventh SOTU, and I found myself looking at it analytically, as though I was an anthropologist. Or a theatre historian. The event was full of spectacle.

There is no more monumental setting in Washington. The U.S. Capitol is an architectural marvel that never fails to fill me with awe whenever I walk on those marble floors or look up at a magnificent chandelier or the miles of murals and friezes on the walls.

Costume design may seem tame most of the time in Congress, but on the night of the SOTU, the brightest jackets come out of the closets for the lady lawmakers: reds, purples, a neon orange sherbet, turquoise – anything that might catch the eye of the cameras or the President as he makes his long walk down the center aisle, shaking hands every step of the way. Supreme Court justices also parade in, looking like they’re going to a graduation ceremony in their ceremonial black robes. The First Lady reminds the audience that she is the leading lady, wearing a fluorescent banana yellow dress and false eyelashes that can be seen a mile away. She’s also the only woman allowed to bare her arms in that House Chamber. And she does.

There’s the sound effect of House Speaker Paul Ryan, tapping his oversized mallet to announce the impending entrance of the President to the House floor.

The President’s performance was relaxed, almost a little too casual at times, as he paused for the expected applause or laughter from the Democratic side of the House and ignored the folks seated on their hands on the GOP side. (He had a tough act to follow. The last time all of Congress gathered to hear a speaker was this summer when Pope Francis was in town. His performance so-moved John Boehner that he turned in his gavel as Speaker.)
What will I remember of that speech, that evening, after I move from Washington? Not much.

Think back to your strongest memories of an evening in the theatre. What was the show? I’ll bet it was some element of spectacle that imprinted that performance in your memory.

For me, it was a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Henry V” with Kevin Kline as the (then) young monarch. It was a hot, humid evening performance that was interrupted frequently by rain. The show would stop, and everyone would run for cover. When it was over, lackies would descend upon the stage to mop up with what looked like old tee shirts and the show would continue. When it came time for the St. Crispin speech –

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The skies opened up again, accompanied by fierce winds, lightening, thunder, and sheets of rain. Kline lifted his head, raised his fist to the heavens and dared the elements to defeat him. Talk about spectacle!

It was Kline’s physical and vocal performance, the sound effects and lighting show provided by nature, that transported all of us sitting on our soaking wet picnic blankets in Central Park to that battleground.

So many playwrights are again turning to spectacle in their plays.

Lucas Hnath takes us to a Sunday service in a modern mega-church. Church and theatre have long borrowed from each other in all the elements of spectacle – from architecture to music to monologues, er, sermons. And with theatre’s reputation as a place filled with refugees from religion, a safe, theatrical trip to a place many hadn’t stepped inside of for years gave audiences the theatricality without the guilt.

Rajiv Joseph takes us to one of the most spectacular pieces of architecture in the world – the Taj Mahal – in his “Guards at the Taj.” He’s not content to rely on someone else’s theatrical spectacle for his play. He adds his own with a most bloody scene of cutting off limbs and cleaning up blood.

Lauren Yee calls upon ghosts to create the spectacle in her play “The Tiger Among Us.” Charise Castro Smith also goes the monster route in “Feathers and Teeth.” She creates a flesh-eating monster in a saucepan. And Matthew Lopez takes us to a Florida drag show in “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Talk about use of costumes and music.

I know budgets are small. And as playwrights, we have to mindful of cast size, stage space, and other practicalities if we want our work to get produced.

But we can dream, can’t we? Why not create something larger than life? A play that makes a set designer’s mouth water, that leaves an audience saying “wow”, that creates a memory of a theatrical spectacle as fresh today as it was that hot and stormy evening in Central Park with Shakespeare.

The Most Organized Writer in America

by Kitty Felde

No, it’s not me.

I’m of the messy desk set, the folks who find that filing something away means I’ll never think of it again, or even more likely, won’t be able to find it again. I like everything I need to deal with spread out in front of me, where I can touch it and move it around, and feel the satisfaction of tossing it in the trash.

Last night, I heard a talk by writer Mindy Klasky. She writes a little of everything – romance, baseball, middle grade novels, and “how to get organized” strategies for writers. She’s a former attorney who was used to billing by the hour and a former librarian, one of the most organized professions in the world.

Mindy is a great believer in spread sheets. Now, I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my play submissions and responses. But Mindy takes it half a dozen steps further. She uses spread sheets, not just for tracking her submissions and publication schedules, but also for keeping her metadata information organized – everything from an up-to-date bio to reviews to key words for Google searches. She uses them to create a business plan. And most interesting to me, she uses them to create a strategic plan for writing.

That strategic plan starts with setting her writing goals for the year. In other words, how many books, essays, short stories, etc. does she plan to write this year? And then she uses her spreadsheets to set out a 12 month schedule with specific page goals that must be met each week.

How productive is she? She averages 400,000 words a year – 5,000 words a day! Last year, she wrote nine 40,000 page novels in nine months. Yet, she only writes three days a week – Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays are left for the business of writing, running errands, and having lunch with friends. She takes the weekends off – unless she didn’t meet her page goals for the week.

I’m not Mindy Klasky. I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love with spread sheets. And I certainly don’t have the stamina to write 5,000 words a day. But I like the idea of setting goals.

Playwright Jose Rivera advises those of us who toil in the theatre to write one new full-length play a year. Every year.

I think I can do that. No, wait. I know I can do that.

So here is my plan: tomorrow I get on an airplane and will have five-plus hours of flight time when I can think. I’m going to think hard about my schedule, about committing to regular writing time, about setting page goals and play goals and sticking to them. I may not open a spread sheet to map out my writing plans for 2016, but I will write them down.

How about you? Do you map out your writing life? What works best? What organizational tools do you use?

5 Things Learned from the Other Side of the Footlights

by Kitty Felde

I started out as an actor. For ten years, I’d drive the freeways of Los Angeles for auditions for commercials and sitcoms, spending my evenings onstage in tiny theatres all over town. When I hit my 30’s, the jobs for women started drying up and I put my heart into the writing.

Now, decades later, I’m back on stage – again, driving all over town to perform on small stages, this time in Washington, DC instead of Los Angeles. It’s great fun. But I’m finding I’m learning more about the writing from the other side of the footlights.

As playwrights, nothing helps like hearing our words out loud – whether it’s a group of friends, happy with many bottles of wine and beer, who read a new draft in the living room; or onstage, standing behind music stands, before a small audience for a staged reading. Hearing those words spoken out loud is a completely different experience than staring at them on a laptop screen.

But now that I’m memorizing someone else’s lines, standing on stage, exposing my inner actor to the world, I’m finding new lessons in playwriting. I’m in a new play by a fine writer, D.W. Gregory called “Salvation Road” – the tale of a college kid trying to rescue his sister from a cult. I play the hip Catholic nun Sister Jean – part mentor, part nudge, battling her bishop and “that vow of obedience thing.”

Here’s what I’m learning about playwriting from the experience:

1 – Specific lines that are hard to memorize are usually because the actor can’t find a connection between what happens directly before the line and what happens after.

I watch this happen in rehearsal over and over again. There’s always one line that every actor stumbles over every time. Why? The logic of the lines is clear to the writer, but not to the actor.

Note to my playwright self: watch for these lines, rewrite to make the connections clear. Actors aren’t sitting with you at the computer, following your logic.

2 – Watch out for repetition.

My Skype playwriting pal Ellen Struve always says we writers say things three times – just in case the audience isn’t listening. True.

In rehearsal, there are certain words or phrases that are used repeatedly – toxic and hypocrite come to mind. They are perfectly fine words for a playwright to use – strong and clear words. But an actor’s brain scrambles them and the lines are often transposed from one scene to the next.

Note to my playwright self: look at repetition, but don’t let lazy actors be the reason you change them if that’s the word you need.

And yes, an audience sometimes does need to hear something three times.

3 – Actors hate stage directions. And punctuation. Especially punctuation.

I know as a writer, I want my lines to be performed the way that I hear them in my head. How do you communicate that to an actor? Sentence structure and punctuation can help.

As an actor, this is driving me crazy! My phrasing of a thought doesn’t want to come to a halt at the period in a particular sentence. I want to let this character speak the way she wants to speak! But I’m an actor, not a writer and it’s my job to bring the script to life the way the writer wants it. Sigh.

Note to my playwriting self: Trust your actors to bring meaning to your words.

4 – Acting is more difficult than writing.

I don’t really believe this. Writing, staring at that blank screen, battling all the demons that scream at you inside your head that you have no talent, nothing to say, and your play will never get produced anyway – that’s hard. Coming up with believable characters and scenes and a satisfying ending? That’s even harder.

But acting is hard work, too. I forgot how difficult memorization can be! And standing up in front of an audience is nerve wracking! I had my first Equity audition in decades and went up on my lines! I hadn’t been that nervous in forever. And there’s that baring one’s soul business. It’s easier to do it while typing than saying it out loud.

Note to playwriting self: when the writing is tough, remind yourself that nobody’s watching you fail in real time. It’s just you and the machine. The audience – and the critics – are a million miles away.

5 – It’s still all about that time in the rehearsal room.

It’s always been my favorite part of theatre. Yes, I love the opening night applause, overhearing the chatter at intermission, getting flowers when my husband remembers to get them. But the real joy in theatre – both as an actor AND as a playwright – is the work in that rehearsal room. “An effemeral art” as Cash Peters described it – here today and gone at the end of the evening. But what magic happens in that room! That’s the joy of the theatre.

Note to playwriting self: find more opportunities to BE in that rehearsal room. Get back in the regular habit of sending out plays. Self-produce. Find other writers who need a reading. Volunteer to read for them.

Note to acting self: see above.

“Salvation Road” opens Saturday, July 11 at the Capitol Fringe Festival in Washington, DC.

The Quest for Conflict

by Kitty Felde

It’s the first thing we learn about drama: conflict is the engine that drives the train. So why is it so hard for some writers (ME!) to create and intensify conflict?

The truth is, I don’t like torturing these wonderful characters I’ve created. And I don’t like conflict in real life.

It’s not that I roll over and give up. Instead, I analyze the situation, try to charm my way out of it, win the other person over to my side. I’ll even fight back when I’m mad enough.

If I look at myself as a protagonist, I AM taking action. But it’s not very interesting to an audience.

My most produced play “A Patch of Earth” was all about conflict: a 20-something kid Drazen Erdemovic who found himself in an impossible situation, forced to make an impossible choice. I didn’t create that conflict. It was handed to me on a silver platter, testimony from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It was his story, the story of a Bosnian Serb who served on all sides during the war, finding himself in a corn field outside Srebrenica, learning how to shoot large numbers of people in a short period of time. He didn’t want to do it and told his commander he wouldn’t shoot. “Then stand up with them and we’ll shoot you,” he was told. “And then we’ll go to your village and shoot your wife and young son.” The audience is put into that impossible situation, asking themselves what would THEY do? And arguing about what the just punishment would be for someone who confessed to killing “no more than 70” of the twelve hundred people killed in that cornfield, yet was the first person to tell the outside world about the massacre at Srebrenica.

But what do you do when you don’t have a civil war to create conflict?

It always comes back to the question: “what does my character want?”

If that “want” is small potatoes, nobody cares. It’s got to be important enough to the character to face all odds, go the distance, sacrifice anything, to achieve the goal. It’s got to survive the “so what?” test. If the main character doesn’t get what she wants, so what? The sun will come up tomorrow morning, babies will continue to be born, tea will still take 3-5 minutes to steep.

This is the challenge of a romantic comedy I’ve been fighting with for months. The “so what?” test. So what if Betsy doesn’t get the big story? Does she lose her job? Lose the guy? And if her “want” is so small, why should we care about her? Why should anyone pay $15 (let alone $115!) to see a show where the stakes are undefined? Why should they emotionally invest in a character who’s wants are just “meh”?

It’s time for me as a writer to become brave enough to torture my characters. Give Betsy impossible odds. Trying to overcome those odds will give her more backbone, give her action that will propel the action forward. She’ll survive. (After all, that is the rule of comedy: everyone lives happily ever after.) But make her earn that happy ending.

I suppose that’s the same message to me, the writer: make this play worth the struggle to write it and write it well so that I can earn my happy ending – otherwise known as “end of play.”

Why go to the theatre?

By Kitty Felde

Years ago, my mother and I shared season subscriptions to the Mark Taper Forum. Few plays stick in my memory – “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Robber Bridegroom” come to mind.

But it wasn’t the plays that my mother loved.

As a mom of seven who lived in the suburbs that straddled LA and Orange County, my mother relished the trips to “the city” where she would put on her bohemian clothes and devote as much attention to the audience as she would to the plays. “I’ve never seen such ugly people in all my life!” she’d say.

My mom’s been gone for more than 20 years. And as I sit through too many mediocre productions, I think back on what it was that she loved about going to the theatre: the drama, the spectacle, the unpredictability of real people. She wanted to be surprised, delighted, amused, amazed. How often do we get that onstage? Is this why theatre is in danger of dying?

This year, I saw one truly amazing production. It was an import from England, the Kneehigh Theater, on tour in DC. The company took an arthouse classic, “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s film about an affair at a train station and made magic onstage. The movie was based on a one-act Noel Coward play from the 1930’s called “Still Life,” but I can’t imagine the original was anything like the Kneehigh production.

The story was simple: ordinary people stuck in middle-aged ennui who hit it off in a train station tea room. But out of that simplicity, the company invented four different ways to put trains onstage – including smoke and sound, and a marvelous toy train that circled the stage. The most dramatic was a film of a racing train, projected onto a scrim that was half the height of the stage, stretched out from wing to wing by a cast member running past, with another cast member closing down the scrim as the train chugged by.

There was levitation in the play – characters being lowered from the upper levels of the set by fellow cast members. There was music and dancing. There were puppets playing the heroine’s children.

It was the most magical theatrical experience I can remember.

It perfectly fit everything my mother loved about going to the theatre: drama, spectacle, unpredictability.

That’s what I want to create: a reason for people to come to the theatre, to be surprised, delighted, amused, and amazed.

What was the most magical, memorable night in the theatre for you?

Throw out the kitchen sink dramas!

by Kitty Felde

This past weekend was DC’s annual “Page to Stage” Festival. It’s a tremendous gift from the Kennedy Center to local playwrights. Every Labor Day weekend, the Kennedy Center opens up rehearsal rooms, the Millennium Stages, donor event rooms, every nook and cranny on every floor, to staged readings of plays by local writers. Imagine the Music Center turning us loose for an entire weekend!

This year also included a special seminar for writers given by Michael Bigelow Dixon, formerly the literary manager and associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Dixon wants us to stop thinking about conventional reality and play.

Reading hundreds of plays for the Humana Festival, he says none of the current batch included anything other than realistic plays – kitchen sink dramas, domestic conflicts, even those that got away from home and hearth and tackled international issues were still written in conventional, realistic fashion.

He wants us to dream and has written a book to spark our imaginations about making theatre THEATRICAL.

Why? Not just to get our plays noticed, but to attract a modern audience.

But how do you do this? Do we throw out everything we know about writing plays and reinvent the wheel? Not necessarily. Dixon has a few suggestions:

  • – Interruption: the “reality” of the stage play is interrupted by “real” life. How many audiences paid big bucks to see “Spiderman” for the play itself? More were there to see if a real-life event like an accident might happen. Is there a way to bring reality into our artificial worlds?
  • – Give the audience a choice: call it a gimmick, but from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to Alan Ayckbourn’s “Intimate Exchanges,” plays that let the audience choose its own ending are very popular. Is there a way to invite the audience to participate in the creation of your play?
  • – Anthropomorphize a character: put a talking animal on stage. Or a lot of them. Hint: there were WAY too many dog characters in our workshop.
  • – Interdisciplinary approach: try rewriting your play as a radio play – what do you have to eliminate? What do you have to add to make the audience understand what’s going on? Then rewrite it as a graphic novel. Then go back to the original script to add SOME of the elements.
  • – Ekphrastic drama – or what I call “dancing about architecture” – include other art forms in your work
  • – Distort time and space – ala Jose Rivera’s “Cloud Tectonics”
  • – Recontextualization – tell your story from someone else’s point of view. Think “Amadeus” and Salieri’s version of Mozart

Just a few thoughts to shake up your “realistic” world.
The book: “Breaking from Realism: A Map/Quest for the Next Generation” by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Jon Jory

What I Learned from Kevin McCarthy About Being a Successful Playwright

by Kitty Felde

I should be writing about THE LIST. The Kilroys’ list of plays by female writers that have so far gone unloved. There have been multiple rants on Twitter and Facebook and I suppose I should add my voice to the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But it won’t help my plays to get added to the list.

Instead, I was distracted for most of the week by my day job. The unexpected primary loss in Virginia of Republican Eric Cantor set off a backstage campaign for his job of Majority Leader worthy of any Shakespeare play.

And then it occurred to me: what could I learn about PROMOTING my plays from this 49 year old kid from Bakersfield’s amazing rise in power?

1) Research

Kevin McCarthy loves technology. And data. He finds out – and keeps notes on – the birthdays and anniversaries of his colleagues. He sends cards, even flowers. Back in the days when he was in the state legislature, one California lawmaker’s wife called her husband to gush about the bouquet that had been delivered. He had to sheepishly admit that he hadn’t sent them: McCarthy had.
I may not be calling Jacob Maarse for a floral delivery, but I can certainly do some theatrical homework.
How much research do I do before I pop a play into the mail? What shows from earlier seasons reflect my work’s sensibilities? What’s the background of the literary manager? Artistic director? How much intelligence do I have ahead of time? Do I perform a Google search before heading off to the theatre? Since the pre-curtain speech about unwrapping candy and signing up for season tickets seem to be delivered these days by the AD or some other bigwig at the theatre, it would be helpful to at least introduce myself to them before finding my seat in the theatre.

And when I open yet another rejection email, I don’t see it as a “no.” Instead, it’s an invitation to have a conversation with that literary manager, intern, dramaturg, etc. I add the name to my data list. I send invitations to readings and postcards with a note when there’s a production. My carefully kept notes in Excel allow me to add something personal.

2) Find Out What They Want
McCarthy is famous for taking his GOP colleagues on long bike rides through Rock Creek Park, chatting them up in the House gymnasium, hosting movie nights. He finds out what issues are important in their neck of the woods and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of factoids about each member’s district. He finds out what they want and is often able to help out – in exchange for getting something he wants.

What does a theatre really want?

Certainly most regional theatres don’t want my nine actor war crimes drama. Too expensive and too depressing to sell to season subscribers. But it’s perfect for college campuses where “A Patch of Earth” has found a home. College drama teachers love it because the cast can grow or shrink according to available actors. There’s plenty of good, rich female parts. Most of the characters are the same age as college students. College kids feel they’re doing something important, telling a true story that few know about that happened in THEIR lifetime. The play has been performed from Pretoria to Sussex to Detroit and Costa Mesa. It’s what college theatre departments really want.

3) Play Nice
Kevin McCarthy’s current job is the #3 leadership position among the House GOP: Whip. It’s the same job Frank Underwood had in the first season of “House of Cards.” Kevin Spacey even tailed McCarthy on his rounds of the Capitol as research for the role.
McCarthy is just as good as Frank Underwood at working the deals behind the scenes. But he’s never going to push a reporter in front of a passing subway car to get what he wants. McCarthy’s a nice guy. People genuinely like him.

People usually like me, too. But like Frank Underwood, I have a dark side. I’m not going to get a literary manager drunk and lock him in the garage with the SUV’s motor running. But when I see lousy plays get full productions, I admit that I think about it.

But what does it get me?

I’m tired of being an angry playwright. I’ve figured out what I really want is some quite writing time in the morning and the opportunity at least once a year to be in a rehearsal room with actors and a director working on one of my plays.
I may not ever become the Majority Leader of produced plays in America. But you never know, do you?

5 Things the OJ Trial Can Teach Playwrights

by Kitty Felde

It’s anniversary time. NPR called last week, wanting me to reminisce about covering the “Trial of the Century” – the murder trial of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. I spend nine long months trapped in that 9th floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. I rarely think about it anymore. I even gave away all of my OJ memorabilia and cartoons and press passes to the Newseum.

But as I put together my notes for the interview, I started thinking about the trial as theatre. Which led me to think of theatrical lessons for playwrights from the entire experience.

So here goes:

1) The Power of Raw Emotion

The strongest memory I have from sitting in that courtroom all those months was the pure rage and anger of Fred Goldman. Hate and fury radiated from the grieving father of the murdered waiter Ron Goldman. He wanted more than justice. He wanted an eye for an eye. I have thought about him over the past two decades. I’ve actually prayed for him – not that he can ever find forgiveness, but some peace.

How often do we dare to put that raw emotion on stage? It’s not polite, it makes an audience uncomfortable, but it gets to the heart of what makes us human beings.

Shakespeare did it often. I’ll always remember Kevin Kline’s performance in “Henry V” in Central Park, interrupted several times by thunderstorms. And then during the St. Crispin speech, he just raged at the heavens as water poured down, lightening turning the night bright as day. He was as electric as the storm: pure, raw emotion on stage.

2) Structure Your Plot

The prosecution got off on the wrong foot in the Simpson case when it failed to share information with the defense about its domestic violence evidence. Judge Lance Ito punished the district attorneys’ office by requiring attorneys to hold off on presenting that evidence until the end of the trial. That meant the prosecution’s motive for the killing was missing until so late in the trial that the jurors didn’t care.

I saw a production recently that was structured very much like the Simpson trial. The action exploded at the very end of the play with no denouement. As an audience member, I felt cheated and angry.

It’s our job as playwrights to create characters that give an audience a reason to love or hate, lead them along with the promise that their time will not be wasted, and deliver on that promise.

3) Shiny, Pretty Things

I argued against covering the trial to my then-boss. “It’s all about celebrity!” I told her. She argued that the Simpson trial was about race and domestic violence. But if that’s what she wanted to cover, I told her, there were a hundred other cases in that same criminal courts building that were much more about those two topics. I lost that argument.

That trial was – I think – the beginning of our modern-day celebrity culture. In fact, the lead KCBS reporter on the trial Harvey Levin went on to launch TMZ, an entire empire of celebrity reporting. It’s a shiny, pretty thing we can’t take our eyes off of. And we can’t ignore it as playwrights.

I’m still a grump about my plays. I write about “serious” topics like war crimes and urban unrest and racial stereotypes. But for a theatre to sell tickets to any of these plays, they also need their own shiny, pretty things. It’s what gets an audience through the door.

It could be turning the set into a giant wrestling ring like “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” by Kristoffer Diaz. Or building a play around the creation of a beloved cartoon hero in Natsu Onoda Power’s “Astro Boy and the God of Comics.”

A really good title can qualify. Like “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As South West Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884-1915 “by Jackie Sibblies Drury. I love that title. I wish I’d thought of it. And I love “Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare and “Playboy of the Western World” by JM Synge.

My own best title came from an artistic director who warned me he couldn’t sell tickets to the play “Erdemovic.” “Nobody buys tickets to a play they can’t pronounce.” He renamed it after a line in my play about how much blood a patch of earth can absorb. “A Patch of Earth” has been performed around the world and has been published in a collection with a pretty good title of its own: “The Theatre of Genocide.”

4) Wardrobe

I wonder how many great suits Johnnie Cochran owned. Every day, he’d come to court in a different, fabulously tailored suit and memorable tie. Cochran’s wardrobe screamed self-confidence. No one in that courtroom could compete. Except maybe the jury, which would wear black or some other color to illustrate its mood. They even wore California Pizza Kitchen tee shirts one day.

It’s helpful to me as a playwright to find the one item of wardrobe that defines a character. Mike Marcott, ex-cop-turned politician, wears nothing but starched, white shirts to project that Marcott the Hero image, masking the darker side underneath. Betsy’s mother Babs first appears in her Code Pink tee shirt, leaving the audience no doubt about her political persuasion and activism. They say on a job interview, you have on opportunity to make a first impression. The same is true for our characters.

5) It’s Still A Boys Club

I spent part of my day in the courtroom, the other part writing scripts in the 12th floor media room. Radio reporters were tucked away in the corner in tiny three foot by four foot cubicles. I was one of the only radio “girls.” My gender normally didn’t matter. Until the day one of my compadres posted pictures from one of the tabloids of prosecutor Marcia Clark’s topless beach outing. It was annoying and insulting and the guys didn’t understand why. Finally, only the words “sexual harassment” were enough to have the offensive picture taken down.

It’s still a boys club in theatre. The annual number of plays produced by male and female writers remind us of that fact. It’s annoying and insulting. And on days when I look at Tony nominations or look at a season ticket brochure for a local theatre, it’s maddening. We do our own agitating – creating the Lily Awards and the LAFPI and see some progress some years in the numbers. But on those days when I open the rejection email, I find it helpful to remind myself: it’s not your talent. The things you find important to write about are not necessarily the things a person of another gender thinks are important.

If the play don’t fit, you must acquit … the guys making the decisions. At least until the retrial.

Need inspiration? Hire a playwright.

by Kitty Felde

Are you like me? If you had your life to do over again, you wish you’d gone to graduate school for playwriting? Now you have a grown up job, maybe kids, no money, no time. Oh, well.

There is an alternative: create your own Masters of Playwriting program.

No, you don’t have to join the faculty at UC Irvine. All you need to do is identify what you need as a writer and find the person or persons who can teach you.


It’s been an interesting month for me as a playwright. Last weekend, I took a Megabus trip up to Philadelphia to attend an all-day playwriting bootcamp with Paula Vogel, courtesy of the play development program at PlayPenn. Today, I’m sitting in a classroom at Catholic University in DC for an all-day intensive with Michael Hollinger. Next weekend, I’m having a table read in my living room of my LA Riots play “Time of the Troubles” directed by Linda Lombardi, the literary manager at Arena Stage – who I met at another play development program in DC known as Inkwell. Fifteen hours of playwriting instruction in a month with a price tag much cheaper than graduate school!


LA is a city full of wonderful writers. Is there one you’ve always wanted to have coffee with? Write them. Ask them. They may say yes.


LA also attracts a who’s who of wonderful writers who pass through town. Is there a talk back session after their play? Are they teaching a master class somewhere? Paula Vogel was in Philly for the opening of a new play. PlayPenn invited her to teach her bootcamp on a day when her show was in tech. Forty writers paid $200 each to spend the day soaking up Vogelisms.


What about a writer who has no immediate plans to come to LA? Put together your own master class.

My DC playwriting group Playwrights Gymnasium decided to invite Michael Hollinger (“Opus,” “A Wonderful Noise,” “Red Herring”) to come to town. We figured out a budget (his travel expenses, lodging, food, a stipend), found free space at a local college to hold a seminar (in exchange for free tuition for a pair of grad students), figured out how much other playwrights would pay for such a seminar ($99 with lunch and an early bird price of $79), advertised on a Facebook page (filled up in a week!)


There’s nothing like hearing your own work out loud to learn what works. And what doesn’t.

Staged readings are fairly cheap – particularly when you’re doing them in your own living room. Costs include printing, plus coffee and wine and nibbles. Gas money for actors is helpful. A small check is even more welcome.

You can get feedback from your troupe – or not. Or invite playwrights you trust. Or a dramaturg. Or a director. Or thank your actors and send everyone home.

I’ll let you know what I learned from my reading. And from my Masters in March.