What are you working on? That’s a question every artist hears and asks themselves a lot. My answer to that question for the last 10 months has been “everything but my art.” So much so that I have overworked myself to the point of illness. I have not had the flu for over 20 years and this past week, I have been under the weather, medicating per doctor’s order for flu-like symptoms. I am so annoyed with myself. I am supposed to be practicing balance. It used to be my way of life and now I am fighting to get back there. True, I have lost a lot this year and the pressure has sent me into a work-away-the-pain-mode but it doesn’t work away the pain, not really, you’re just tired.
What am I working on? Me writing…writing something every day because writing is the best thing I’ve found for pain. I can’t believe I forgot that… even for a moment.
Death, spirits, the ghosts of memory, these are the things that turn up in my plays. I used to think that I was weird, not that weird is a negative word to me. I am peculiar and I am okay with that. In Proof by David Auburn, Catherine states while talking about her dad, “He’d attack a question from the side, from some weird angle, sneak up on it, grind away at it.” I love that sentence, it’s all we can do in our world of doing art – attack from our perspective and grind away…
I have been reading The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat. What I mean is I have read it several times 4 and a half times to be exact. I am working out the processing of my mother’s death. She left this earth in April of this year. It has been difficult to write it yet write it I have – to request to drop classes I was in at the time of her death, classes I have had to repeat and get past the point of her death in each of them. One, I made it through, weary but victorious, the other, I am still weathering. It is amazing the depth of grief. I read somewhere that grief causes forgetfulness, that and the lack of sleep… Except I know the forgetfulness of sleepless nights well and this thing – it is scary and it is a demon whose head I am chopping off with a twice dull blade. I will be rid of it. I have found comfort in the stories that Danticat shares in The Art of Death; at one point, she asks her mother, “Did you rage enough?” this in response to Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”:
“…Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” by Dylan Thomas
Similarly, before the thin veil of denial left me, before I bought the ticket and made the journey home, I spoke to my mother’s spirit, “Mommy, do not go gentle into that good night wait for me, I’m coming home…” And, I watched her fight until the end unsure of the road… She almost died 3 days before, we sat in the nursing home around her bed for hours but she would not leave. She wanted a reprise. She wanted to be bathed… Almost like a baptismal service, two young nurses, bathed my mother from head to toe in preparation for the day. She lay there knowing it would be her last bath with breath in her body, resolved to meet the day…clean…. Clean from the blood that had begun to seep from her body in clots of pain, clean from the last of things no one can carry with them into the presence of God. I took to sitting through the night with her, on guard. I did not want her to die alone. I blessed the room and sealed it (in the name of Jesus) from anything that was not like God…so she could rest in peace until that appointed time. I had asked God to let me be there and had traveled from Los Angeles on a ‘red eye’ to make sure I was there the entire month of April. I asked Him, rather demanded that He let me be there, “I want to see her when she leaves, not in a dream, like with Dad, and the others, I want to see her! I must be there, it will not be alright if I am not there. I do not want to get that call.” So, there I was by the grace of God, sitting beside my mother’s deathbed…taking notes in my spirit… and then it happened, and God let me see:
I saw her when she left, the lift off, her eyes shown like glassy circles of pure glee, the hologram of her Self barely visible but not her smile, it was wide and happy because she knew I saw…my mother, my mother – the wind of God…
I wrote and read a poem on behalf of my mother at her funeral titled, “Getting it Right” – the thing my mother had on her mind the last days of her life. I had sat by her bed every day from April 1st till she passed at the end of the month, 2 days before her 83rd birthday. She continually told me to “Pay attention Robbie, you’re going to have to write about this… We got to get this right.” How could I fail? “A mother’s song should be heard in the voices of her children”…it should never be lost to time. I found her song in the space where breath had left her and became her voice for a time… I could feel her there with me… adlibbing…
Part of getting it right is forgiving and letting things go. We all must do it…
It is difficult…these days… not because I do not know that my mother is with Christ…
“…We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with Christ.” Paul the Apostle, II Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 8
It is difficult because the moments have germinated and taken root and are sprouting trees so tall it is hard to see the sky. It is renewing and stripping but best of all, I did not lose on the moments that the last of things said to me by my mother set in stone her confidence in who I am – a Writer…
As a playwright fortunate enough to participate in the William Inge Play Lab this year, one of my favorite Master Classes was given by Constance Congdon (Tales of the Lost Formicans, Gilgamesh, Raggedy Ann and Andy and others). Connie’s been teaching playwriting at Amherst College for twenty-three years and knows her way around a writing exercise*. She graciously agreed to sit down and talk about her plays, writing for theatre and what if anything had changed for women playwrights since the production of her first play, Gilgamesh, in 1977.
AN: What was your earliest theatrical experience?
CC: I had puppets and used to perform puppet shows over the top of my parents’ bed. Later, when I was in Junior High, I played “Mammy” in A Feudin’ Over Yonder and got a lot of laughs. Though I love actors I never wanted to be one. (Note: I saw Connie kick it in the “Improv to Page” workshop conducted by Ron West and Catherine Butterfield. Connie can act.)
AN: Did you study theatre in College?
CC: I was an English major and not a great student. It took me 6 years to get through. Of course it didn’t help that I kept moving and had to pay for school myself.
AN: So, no theatre in college. How did you find your way back to it?
CC: I had lots of jobs but the life-changer was as a mobile librarian. I discovered children’s literature and reading aloud to kids. Something was sparked and that experience served me well when I began writing plays and musicals for the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. I hadn’t known that would happen when I boarded the book mobile.
AN: What was your first play and first production?
CC:Gilgamesh at St. Mary’s College in Maryland where I was teaching remedial reading at the time. They gave me a first class production. Not all my plays have been so lucky.
AN: Tony Kushner calls you “one of the best playwrights our country, and our language, has produced.” But for whatever reason, I’ve never seen or read any of your work. I’m going to rectify that now and catch up on your canon.
CC: Thank you.
AN: You taught at Amherst College for twenty-three years. Over the course of your career in both teaching and playmaking you must have observed some changes in how women are perceived in the theatre.
CC: Not as much as I’d like. There’s more opportunity for women and the awareness of the need to produce women’s plays has increased, but there’s still a resistance to the female voice, whatever that means. It extends to Artistic Directors and Literary Managers and sadly both men and women.
AN: Now that you are retiring from Amherst, what’s your game plan?
CC: At 72, I am energized to see more of my work get to the stage. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be part of Profile Theatre’s one playwright a year with a few of my plays. And I have just finished a new work called Hair of the Dog: The Foule Murder of Christopher Marlowe as Uncovered by William Shakespeare and am working on a book on playwriting with Mac Wellman and Jeff Jones.
AN: What advice would you give to female playwrights?
CC: My biggest piece of advice is to apply for grants; particularly state grants if they’re available. It’s usually other playwrights like me who read the plays and make the decisions, which is good. And if there are no state grants, apply for any arts grants that exist. If you want to teach, get your MFA. It’s important for the boards and administrations of most colleges and universities to know you’ve been vetted. Go to theatre festivals and network. Familiarize yourselves with different theatre departments and submit, submit, submit. I also advise not to worry about reviews. I’ve never gotten good reviews and I’ve made my peace with it.
AN: I loved your Master Class and the “rant” exercise *. Can I share it with the playwrights who read the LAFPI blog?
Constance Congdon’s “Rant” Exercise: As yourself or one of your characters, write a rant for a solid 10 minutes. Let the vitriol out at a person or something you hate. Don’t edit and write honestly, like you’re going to rip it up. Have someone call time at 5 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute and 30 seconds. The idea here is not to break up the “planning” that often occurs in the writer’s mind about what you’re writing. When you’re done, read it. Take a breath and then write for another 10 minutes but this time you are writing the rebuttal to your rant. You can be the person ranted against, or someone else with a strong point of view about the first rant. The third part of the exercise is to go back and forth between the original rant and the rebuttal, taking one or two lines from each and you might just find yourself with the beginnings of a scene.
Anna Nicholas just returned from the 2017 William Inge Play Lab, where her play, Ocotillo was chosen for development. Annanicholas.com
“Trying to teach my hands to do what I hear in my head” John Hartford, fiddler
Every year I try to work on a new play or writing project and part of that entails finding different ways to tell the story. I have all these stories in my head that I want to tell and at times I feel like John Hartford, that I must teach myself a new way into the story before I can get what’s in my head out. The last few years, I have noticed that even when I hear “first words,” I must still wait until the structure is revealed to me as well. At other times, I must prevent myself from overriding what seems to be outside the realm of textbook playwriting – more theatrical than normal for me.
David Henry Hwang states in his author’s note in M. BUTTERFLY, “Before I can begin writing, I must ‘break the back of the story,’ and find some angle which compels me to set pen to paper.’
Compelling angles are very important to giving a story a fair chance to have a life on stage.
Each play is different. Each time we write, we must find a way to get words on the page worthy of living out loud on the stage – always new, always the same but different, always the best journey to take to “The End.” And then, we start all over again trying to get more stories out of our heads…
I was having a meal with a playwright friend who I invited to read my newest 10-minute play. After reading the piece, she asked me if I ever thought of writing something a little less specialized (I am paraphrasing because I only remember the jest of the conversation which usually happens to me when things hit my core like a grenade launcher. How well do you remember in those times? Memory can be selective…but I digress.). She went on to say that because it was about women’s issues, it probably won’t ever be done. I was slightly taken aback as the words seeped in. But then, I know my friend, so I looked closely at her body language and she was off into thought; it was as though, she was wondering aloud about her own work – that when finished it might also be considered “specialized” and un-producible.
“It is not specialized,” I say, “it is universal because it has happened to others. The work might not get done because I am a woman no matter what I write so I might as well write about women’s issues because maybe…just maybe, someone will be brave enough to want to tackle it. And, the stories need to be told regardless.”
“I relate to part of it but not all of it even though it may be true.”
“You don’t have to relate to all of it, no one hardly relates to all of a story – a piece is fine…”
Then I thought to myself, you have been having this conversation all week with yourself. Write what you need to write, find a way to get it out there… Shoved a fry in my mouth, food was not particularly good but I really love being around this friend, she makes me think and try harder. She’s pretty profound… And, I had been thinking — more than week actually, about the kinds of things that I write, and how each story steps up to the plate when they are ready to start swinging the bat and not one second before. And how what I write absolutely affects when and where I enter… I write down my story ideas, list them in close proximity so I can get back to them easily, go back to add notes from time to time and I try to listen really hard to what characters start talking to me because I am not one to write before I hear first words… Sometimes it’s all smoke and no flames but when the flames start, I write. It’s the decade benders that seem to be coming up to bat now. I had concluded that these stories have been fixin’ to talk for too long for me to get in the way with stipulations on what they can talk about…besides birthin’ babies is hard work… I also concluded that I was not going to have that conversation with myself again. I write what I write and am loving the new octaves…
I was reading that sometimes when searching for female ancestors, one should try Insane Asylums because there was a time when wives and daughters were “put away” for not being obedient enough. Emily Mann wrote a play titled “Mrs. Packard” about just this sort of thing, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard was put away by her husband the Reverend Theophilus Packard in 1860. (https://mccarter.org/Education/mrs-packard/html/index.html)
“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete; they make one story become the only story…The consequence of a single story is this – it robes people of dignity…” Chimamanda Adichie
I almost died having the baby. Feet. Breached. Early. Late. Viable. I almost died… I was alone and scared to push. She weighed 8 pages when born. Serious little thing. Made such a fuss to get here – weeks of labor pain, decades in the womb. She made me read to her and talk to her. She requested Nikky Finney’s poem The Afterbirth, 1931; she said you’re trying not to say it. Say it! And Dael Orlandersmith, she said, look at her – good – does she look like she messes around with plays? Tell it! And Charlayne Woodard, do you remember the expression on her face when you mentioned me…remember how even now that look makes you cross your fear…Write it! Straight – no chaser…
She seemed to gain strength there at the end – the baby – even though she almost aborted when Mr. Albee passed, screaming and flipping herself feet first so she could push better, wanted to be standing soon after her toes hit air. You been digging the same well since you met him, time you hit water – it’s a gusher. She pushed and leaned and pushed and leaned… All that leaning on my rib cage made me ill but when she was born, I understood why the labor pains were so great.
She had talked nonstop that last month, and I wrote till I couldn’t write no more then she plopped out, feet first and stood before me, naked and unafraid. She was beautiful, covered in afterbirth, and I am not just saying that because she’s mine…it’s true…she’s been aching to be born…and she wears herself well…
Ever birth a play like that? Hard to write but it won’t let you water it down, won’t let you go till you write it? Because…you have to write it, even if it is a piece at a time. Some plays are just meant to be… Only you can write yours so —
Do your art. You never know how it’s going to shake out or who it will inspire or who it will help survive the storms of life…. In hindsight, I realize that I gravitated to Albee because he distracted me in a the middle of a traumatic time in my life and made me think of better days…and possibilities… The women — Nikky, Dael, Charlayne — they make me want to fly….
“I hope that in the year ahead the art you create makes our country a better place. We need you.” Katherine James, playwright, actor
I’ve been evangelizing about this show since it opened over the weekend. (It’s been touring, so it got a late start here and I really, really want more people to see it.) Writer and actor L. Nicol Cabe plays two women in a post-second-civil-war America: a representative of the new Christian government and the adult daughter of a resistance leader. Both characters are well-drawn—the play is sympathetic to each without being uncritical—and when their stories finally intersect, there is serious emotional payoff. (Warning: you will feel feelings.) The world-building is one of the show’s biggest strengths, and I loved learning about the new America through the little details each woman mentions. Think smart, dystopian sci fi in the tradition of Margaret Atwood. Cabe’s performance is sharp, energetic, and seriously, she nails two character arcs in an hour, that is ridiculous.
WHERE: Asylum @ Studio C (Mainstage) 6448 Santa Monica Blvd
WHY: A beautiful one-woman show combining spoken word, music, history, feminism and Dominican Republic culture, playwright and performer Ortega weaves the narratives of her grandmother and herself to portray the life and struggles of revolutionary women.