An Interview with Constance Congdon

by Anna Nicholas

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.

Constance Congdon

 

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.”[2] 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?

CC: Absolutely.

 

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

 

 

The Stories In My Head…

by Robin Byrd

“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…

 

Too Specialized…

by Robin Byrd

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)

Women have been sterilized (see compulsory sterilization, forced sterilization, Eugenics Movement) if deemed “weak” or “undesirable” or “feeble-minded” along with men deemed the same.  Carrie Buck was sterilized at 17 after giving birth to an illegitimate child – a child sired by a family member of her foster parents who raped her.  Carrie was in foster care because her mother had been committed to an asylum probably for having an illegitimate child.  (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Buck_Carrie_Elizabeth_1906-1983).

We have to tell our stories.   They all count.

“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

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks about “The danger of a single story” at TED Talks  https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story .

 

Read about other women storytellers at Amazing Women Rock,  http://amazingwomenrock.com/7-inspirational-storytellers-who-have-captivated-audiences-worldwide

 

About the Baby…

by Robin Byrd

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

 

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Lolita, Daisy, Ophelia: A Love Story

by Chris Farah

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: Leah Artenian, Sophia Brackenridge, Savannah Gilmore

WHAT: Lolita, Daisy, Ophelia: A Love Story

WHERE: Ruby Theatre at The Complex

WHY:

We know these characters only from the viewpoint of the lead male character in their stories but now we get to hear their dreams, wants, and desires from their own lips.

HOW: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3362

Lolita Daisy Ophelia A Love Story

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Infinite Expectation of the Dawn

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: L. Nicol Cabe

WHAT: Infinite Expectation of the Dawn

WHERE: Actors Company

WHY:

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.

HOW: http://hff16.org/3245

Infinite Expectation of the Dawn

#FringeFemmes Check-Ins: Las García

by Chris Farah

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: Gabriela Ortega 

WHAT: Las García

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.

HOW: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3451

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Stories from Anywhere…

by Robin Byrd

Listening for “First Words” – took me to a poem I started 10/26/12:

 

he got the tattoo

–so they would leave him alone

across his face

the skin once

smooth and beautiful

now marked

as he was marked

–for things no one should ever have to see

 

Today, 3/29/16, I continued:

 

he got the tattoo

across his face

–so they left him alone

the skin elsewhere

intact

not marked

–by things seen in places no one should ever have to go

 

he got the tattoo

–in a place no one should have to go

marring the skin

once smooth and beautiful

across his face

it, the self-marking of himself

–with words that say leave me alone…

 

he got the tattoo

–for things no one should have to see and places no one should have go

flung

across his face, across the smooth beautiful skin

in loud display

–leave me alone, it said, i will not take lightly to any more disruption

 

I title it “On the Occasion of Going to Jail…” and I wonder if there is a story trying to get out…

 

“First Words” :  Being a Playwright…being female…Voice…; On the Matter of Subject…

 

The Voices that Grow Within Us…

by Robin Byrd

I have mentioned this before but lately, it been getting more pronounced.  Ever had someone tell you that they don’t mind if you talk to yourself but will have a problem if you answer?  That is when – at that moment — I have to say that I do in fact, answer myself but “only when I’m writing…”  They usually catch me answering anyway… What writer do you know who can carry on conversations with the characters and not “appear” to be talking and answering their own self?  I get the best inflections when I hear:

(Off stage whisper) the voices

(SOUND: loud clearing of a throat) THE VOICES!

Yeah, them.  Only profession I know where you can actually have more than one personality speaking out of your mouth almost simultaneously and not be labeled a “Schizophrenic” – or rather, be committed…to an institution.  Whole worlds going on in your head and you ain’t crazy, just a writing somebody.  J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, were friends – both of them had some really strange and fascinating worlds in their heads.  Octavia Butler’s Kindred blew me away especially the part where (spoiler alert) the arm got stuck in the wall — read it.

I can always tell when I need to sit down and write, the talking gets a bit much.  Stories busting at the seams need to be fitted for the page; they get tired of walking around in bloomers and say so.  If I stuck to a regimen, I would have it down to a minutes but I like to write wherever…, whenever…  I break up the wildness with little structured writing windows from time to time, letting the voices put on formal wear and heels or formal wear and combat boots.  Fehlge Burt is wearing combat boots — literally — and she’s ready to speak.  I have no idea when and where she enters but am looking forward to hashing it out…  I looking forward to hearing her voice that has been growing down inside of me for a few decades and I am hoping she does not slack on her words….

 

Tell A Good One…

by Robin Byrd

There is a place for all of us – writers… on the page, on the stage, on film…  We may not get into the venues we want to get into but there is a place for our stories.  Don’t give up.  Don’t settle for not writing your stories down or telling them out loud… record them somewhere – the library of congress, your website…

I think of this because of the book “Sounder”, the author’s note in the beginning admits that an old black man told him this story – an old black man that was his teacher and was sometimes allowed to pray in the white church from the balcony – a sign of the times.  The author couldn’t even remember the old man’s name but he remembered the story.   William H. Armstrong recounted the story of Sounder omitting all the names of all people in the book, the only name given was Sounder’s.  The old black man was probably the boy all grown up.  The lack of names gives the story a very poignant universal air now I can’t forget the story.

I am about to read Tennessee William’s first play, A Candle to the Sun.  Why?  He can tell a good story.  I’m working on Suzan-Lori Park’s Father Comes Home from the Wars Parts 1,2 & 3.  Why?  She can tell a good story, too.  They do it so well…this thing called writing… so well, it makes me try harder…  Makes it a little bit easier for me to just do the thing and let come what may…as long as I telling a good story and doing my best to tell it well… someone somewhere will read it.

I finally finished a play I’ve been mulling over for about five years, Fiddler’s Bridge.  Felt good to get it out and even better to see my evolution as a writer  — not so much that I am different but I know my craft better and it’s easier to just do the thing…  Now all I have to do is stop putting Fiddle, Fiddlin’ or Fiddler in the title…but then again, titles have to fit the piece.  I imagine after I have completed more of my 80 plus projects there will be an evolution to the handling of subject matter that can be seen.  Or not…  All I need to do is keep telling good stories…  How about you?  Told any good ones lately?

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