What I Learned Writing for Toddlers

Tomorrow my first play for Very Young Audiences – A Bucket of Blessings – will close at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta after a one month sold-0ut run. The play is an adaptation of the best selling children’s book written by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal, and as a TVYA play, is meant for an audience of 0-5 year olds. A Bucket of Blessings was directed by the ridiculously brilliant Rosemary Newcott, and I developed it in the rehearsal room with Rosemary, our cast, our choreographer, designers, and of course, our multiple adorable test audiences.

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Me, top right, with our lovely cast.

It was a very intensive writing process, perhaps the most intensive theatre project I’ve done so far.

Here are the two things I want to take with me from that experience into future plays.

1. Theatre as service.

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Theatre for very young audiences is, more than anything else, 100% about the audience and only the audience. There’s no room for the artist’s ego, the artist’s special voice, for flourishes, for statements. The only thing that matters is the audience. For a TVYA writer, this comes from a point of love. How could you not love these little ones? How could you not desperately care for them, and want with all your heart for them to have a safe, enriching, adventurous time in the theatre?

Now let’s take that same sacrifice of ego and unhesitating love for the audience to our work for grown ups as well.

2. Every second counts. Every line matters.

When children are that young, and their attention spans so brief, we are aware that every second we have with them is precious. The work we did in rehearsal was the most precise, exacting writing I have ever done. We worked hard on crafting every single moment to mean something, to engage the audience, and to carry the story forward.

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Let’s be as ruthless as that with our writing for adult audiences. Even when we don’t have to be.

We must admit that playwrights are often coddled. What we lack in monetary compensation we make up for in creative control, but sometimes that can get indulgent. So the next time we’re in a room with our collaborators, let’s take our play to task, moment by moment. Is every single line crafted in the exact way required to communicate the story to the audience? Is every pause earned? Every word vitally necessary?

Seriously, what if our audience had the attention span of a toddler? Would our play still work? Have we built something captivating enough, engaging enough, to truly serve the audience that’s spending their precious time with us?

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We should be doing these things anyway, but nothing brings it into perspective like trying to keep a room full of 2 year olds inside the world of your story.

Have you seen or worked on a play for very young audiences? What did you take away from the experience?

 

Delivering cake for gender parity!

As an LAFPI blog reader, you are probably already familiar with The Kilroys, the gang of 13 Los Angeles-based playwrights and producers who, in their own words, “are done talking about gender parity and are taking action.” They make news every year when they publish The Kilroy’s List, an aggregation of the most recommended unproduced or underproduced plays by women and trans playwrights. In a way, they do this to call out any theatre that’s lagging in gender parity – simply by saying, hey, look, we did the work for you. Are you saying you can’t find great plays by women or trans writers? Produce one of these plays, to start with.

But the cool thing about The Kilroys is that they also show appreciation where it’s due. Hence the 2015 Kilroy Cake Drop for Gender Parity.

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Earlier this week Joy Meads emailed and asked if I could do The Kilroys a favor – could I deliver a chocolate cake to the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Thursday? It would be part of a nationwide celebration – thirteen theaters around the country would get delicious cake delivered to them by an ambassador playwright, to celebrate their leadership and commitment to gender parity.

As it happens, I have a special connection with the LATC myself since they co-produced my play In Love and Warcraft this season, in association with Artists at Play. I was thrilled to do it.

So along with twelve other playwrights across the country, I picked up a specially baked cake and delivered it to a theatre that means a lot to me. The lovely people at LATC, under the leadership of Jose Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernandez, are doing excellent work for under-represented communities, and they deserve cake every day! (Or whatever treat they please, this cake was DELICIOUS but I might not be able to have it every day.)

Check out all the photos from the various cake drops today by following the hashtag #parityraid and #cakedrop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

In closing I’d like to echo the request that The Kilroys have made today.

Don’t see your favorite parity-achieving theater on the list? We hope you’ll show them some love. Send a social media shout-out (or a cake!) and buy a ticket to celebrate their commitment to producing work by women and trans* writers.

Let’s get to it then. The work continues!

#QueVivaLaMujer!

#QueVivaLaMujer!

The coolest thing happening in East LA

by Madhuri Shekar

I had plans for another blog post this week, but I stumbled into something a lot of fun this weekend, and now I’m going to write about that instead. Because I want all my theatre friends in LA to know about this awesome community project going on in Boyle Heights.

Paper mache puppets of the Corn People from the legend of Popol Voh

Paper mache puppets of the Corn People from the legend of Popol Voh

I’ve lived in Boyle Heights for 5 years, and I absolutely love it. It’s a warm, friendly, welcoming neighborhood full of family-run businesses and amazing street art. For at least a year now, I’ve been aware of ‘The Shop’, a new community engagement program that the Center Theatre Group has been running in Boyle Heights, where through workshops, classes and events every weekend, local residents are invited to participate in art and theatre making. My friend Jesus Reyes, Creative Artistic Director of East LA Rep and CTG Program Manager, facilitates and leads the team managing this wonderful initiative. I’ve seen his pictures and updates on Facebook for months now, but due to travels and a crazy schedule, I never actually was able to go. Until now!

Workshop participants

Workshop participants

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The space at Self Help Graphics

Yesterday morning, I was taking a walk and happened to see that CTG had set up their ‘Shop’ at Self-Help Graphics on 1st street. Excited, I stopped in to say hi to Jesus, and found out that they were going to be making masks and puppets – MASKS AND PUPPETS – all day! The stars aligned. My afternoon was free. I stopped by with my roommate for the afternoon session and got to dive right in.

The initial character concepts as drawings

The initial character concepts as drawings

A clay mould ready for paper mache!

A clay mould ready for paper mache

Examples of the final product!

Examples of the final product!

So the program that’s happening right now is the ‘Community as Creators’ project. Over the course of several weekends this summer and fall, Boyle Heights residents gather to collectively create and shape a show that will be a retelling of the Mayan legend of Popul Vuh. The show will go up in October at Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, and Grand Park in Downtown LA. These community workshop participants help create the characters, props, music, and may also eventually act in the show, depending on where their interests lie. When I stepped in this weekend, the process was already several weeks underway. So what I got to do was help paper-mache the giant masks that will be used on stage!

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Jesus Reyes surveys the cardboard models of the characters

Jesus with an eagle and a toucan

Jesus with an eagle and a toucan

I can’t tell you how much fun it was to lose myself completely in this crafts project after weeks and weeks of sitting at my desk writing. I got to know my neighbors in the best, most organic way, as I shared tables with people from all over East LA (I even got to know my roommate better!). The energy was fantastic, and lots of families showed up to spend the whole day in this fun artistic activity. I did the afternoon session of Saturday, and the morning session of Sunday, and managed to get all the way through paper-mache-ing a giant human mask!

At the end of Day 1 with our paper mache man!

Me, at the end of Day 1 with our paper mache man!

Major props to Teatro Campesino who are producing this project, and Beth Peterson, the puppet artist who guided all the workshop participants through the process of creating these beautiful, vivid masks.

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The workspace

LAFPI readers – I highly recommend checking this out next weekend in Boyle Heights. The paper mache process will still be underway (it will actually be the final weekend of the mask workshop). It’s a rewarding, relaxing, even therapeutic way to spend a day, collectively creating something that will be part of a beautiful theatrical presentation, truly representing the heart and spirit of Los Angeles.

Here’s the blurb with more info! Or tweet me at @madplays with any questions on the experience.

Center Theatre Group
Free Puppet and Mask Making Workshops!
Discover the artista in you! Come and help us create puppets and masks for the upcoming El Teatro Campesino production of the Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven based on the Mayan creation myth. Master Puppet Maker la Beth Peterson brings her special talent to Boyle Heights and needs gente to help her build giant puppets, wood people and animal masks that will be part of the show. Come on, show off your talent, join us!

All workshops are free and will be held at Self-Help Graphics and Arts on Saturdays and Sundays. There are two opportunities each day to jump in:

10am–1pm: Mask work
2pm–5pm: Puppet work

Dates: 7/11, 7/12, 7/18, 7/19, 7/25, 7/26, 8/1, 8/2

Self-Help Graphics and Arts 1300 E. First St., LA 90033

• Bilingual in Spanish/English • Open to all levels of experience • Open to all ages • All materials will be provided • Snacks & beverages provided.

To reserve a spot or for more information please contact: Jesús Reyes, Community Partnerships Manager 213.972.8028 or jreyes@CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

 

Don’t Ask Me About My Writing Ritual

by Madhuri Shekar

(I’ve decided that my LAFPI blogging week will be nothing but clickbait headlines. Tomorrow – This Procrastinating Playwright Opened her Final Draft Document and You Will Never Believe What Happened Next.)

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be on a playwriting panel, alongside extremely esteemed company, highly distinguished writers with established careers (basically, I was way outclassed here.) It was titled “The Playwrights’ Voice.” What was most interesting to me was that it was a very romantic title for what turned out to be a rather unromantic (but wonderfully fascinating, much needed) conversation. What inspires a playwright’s voice? It depends – it changes from play to play, as it should. What impedes a playwright’s voice the most? Lack of time, money and resources. Prosaic details that I was so happy we were talking about, because mere survival is so intrinsically tied into the ability to write.

At the 2015 Victory Gardens Ignition Festival. L to R: Isaac Gomez, A. Zell Williams, Basil Kreimendahl, Madhuri Shekar, Josê Rivera

At the 2015 Victory Gardens Ignition Festival. L to R: Isaac Gomez, A. Zell Williams, Basil Kreimendahl, Madhuri Shekar, Josê Rivera

At the end of this discussion, we ended with a question from a young playwright in the crowd. She asked us if we could share our writing rituals, if there was anything special we did in our process to get us in the mood. What did we need in the room? We were quiet for a second, and then I said, “Deadlines.” There were a few chuckles, then the other writers went on to give lovely, kind, thoughtful answers about the kind of music they listened to, how they liked their room and writing space, whether they wrote in coffee shops, how long each play took. I sat there feeling a little embarrassed for how snotty I’d been – even though it was totally true. The only thing I need to write is a reason to write, and for me, that’s a deadline, a guarantee that my work would be read.

But also, I was feeling a little sensitive because I have a problem with this question. We just love reading about the rituals of writers, about renting a cabin in the woods vs writing in public, about the latest scriptwriting software and internet-blocking tools, the hidden inspirations of working on a typewriter or writing longhand on legal pads, those “this is how I work” posts on Lifehacker, but all of that does not help us in the least. I mean, it helps if you’re looking to procrastinate, but there are better ways to procrastinate. The only thing that matters is what helps you finish a goal ­– whatever helps you finish that damn play. And that’s something everyone figures out on their own. In their own time.

And now, I’m going to cheat and just paste one of my favorite insights into creative writing rituals from the brilliant Seth Godin. This is an excerpt from his interview on Copyblogger (which I highly recommend reading or listening to in its entirety.)

Brian: (Laughs) So give us some insight into where the ideas come from, what’s your editorial process. Do you kind of wing it, or is it more planned out where you want to take people over time?

Seth: Well, I think it’s very important that I don’t answer that question …

Brian: Oh! …

Seth: … and the reason is … I mean, I’m happy to answer it for you when we’re not talking on the air …

Brian: Okay.

Seth: … but the reason I don’t want to answer it in person is, there is this feeling that if you ate the same breakfast cereal as Stephen King, you’d be able to write the way Stephen King writes. And the breakfast cereal has nothing to do with the writing. And the habits that I have developed are extremely idiosyncratic and totally irrelevant.

Everybody who is a fabulous writer, and I’ve met hundreds of them, does it differently. So there’s no correlation between how someone does it and what they make, and what we do is, because of our fear, Steve Pressfield would call it “The Resistance” to confronting the page — sometimes we spend a lot of time making sure we’ve got the same laptop as this guy, and the same writing setup as this guy, and the same process as this guy. And it’s all stalling.

And what I would rather say to the Copyblogger reader is, write. Just write.

And put it in front of people. And if you don’t put it in front of people, it doesn’t count. And if you get in the habit of putting something in front of people every single day, even if it’s only ten people by e-mail, your writing will shift, and you will adopt the voice you’re meant to have.

But everything you do that stands in the way of you writing — you know, going and buying a 12-pack of Black Wing pencils — is foolish, because you’re just stalling.

Lately I feel like I’m on a mission to communicate to the rest of the world that what we do isn’t magical, abstract, ineffable or romantic – not entirely anyway! Not most of the time. It’s a constant process of trial and error, relentless analysis and refinement, and the proactive challenging of one’s own ideas and assumptions, as you try and craft a story that is emotionally authentic, intellectually rigorous and structurally cohesive. More on that tomorrow, as I return with my next clickbaity headline – The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received.

On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part 2.

Carrying on from Part I
There’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that creative people may be predisposed to have depression or depressive tendencies.
I have a theory about this – I don’t necessarily think we’re all predisposed. But I think the actual, repeated practice of creating and sharing our art can make our emotions go haywire.
In two ways –
    1. The Process: The same instinct that makes us good writers – the ability to self-edit, to sift, to weed out the bad ideas from the good, in short, to critique – is what can also make writing so painful. Because as we write, our inner editor is chomping on the bit to tell us how this draft is terrible, how this idea is pointless, how no one will ever want to do this, how it’s a waste of our time and (let’s take this to the logical end) how we’re a fraud and will never write anything good ever again. We all hear this nasty voice in our head from time to time – the trick of course, is to rein it in, to allow just the right amount of self-critique into our process, perfectly calibrated to the needs of that particular draft.But wow, that’s a really hard thing to ask of ourselves, isn’t it? And in addition, the madness inside our heads isn’t caused by anything we could call “real”. We’re miserable because we can’t figure out the solutions to problems that we made up for characters and situations that don’t exist. It’s hella weird.

 

  • The Production: So as playwrights, we deeply care about our audiences. We write a play as a gift to be shared – not just with our collaborators, but with living, breathing human beings who gather in a room together, who’ve plonked down money and found babysitters and driven out and given up their evening to spend with our stories. So we really care about them.In speaking just for myself, the audience is always top of my mind, from the first draft through to opening night. Yes, it’s important that I’m happy, that my artistic team is happy, but by god, I really want the audience to be happy. I want them to have such a good time in the theatre. The fact that I care so much is one of my strengths, and it shows in my writing.

    But once the production is up and running, I can’t turn this off. So when the reviews are out, I’m setting myself up to be a complete emotional mess. Sarah Ruhl recently said, so easily, that she doesn’t read anything written about herself. Lauren Gunderson has said she only reads the good reviews. I wish I could pick either lane. But no – I can’t turn off that instinct to care about what people think, even at the stage where I have no power to change anything, even if I wanted to. That’s not healthy.

 

So basically, my theory is that both the inside of playwriting (the process), and the outside of it (collaboration and reception) are fraught with triggers. And ironically, the further I progress in my career, the more frequently I face these triggers, and with higher stakes each time.
  • The more I learn about playwriting, the more plays I write and see, the harsher my inner-critic gets, because now I know better, and I know what I’m up against.
  • Commissions are the best, but they bring out my inner-critic in full force, because now there’s that additional, awful fear of letting someone down.
  • The more production opportunities I get, the more reviews I’ll get, and the more people will have things to say about my work. Google will be my nemesis forever.
I know that I should hopefully arrive at a sort of equilibrium at some point. As I mature as a writer, I’ll be able to tamper that inner voice. The more I recognize my process, my patterns, the less I’ll freak out when I think something isn’t going well. And maybe one day I’ll achieve Sarah Ruhl levels of poise where I exist in a transcendent bubble of perfection (I love Sarah Ruhl, this is me being totally straight with you. Also, she’s never gonna read this.)
But until then, I would love to hear from LAFPI readers on how you manage these issues, and what tricks you have to get around these emotional speed bumps, these exhausting obstacles as we all try to navigate a happy, balanced, and productive life in the theatre.

On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part 1.

Hello, LAFPI readers! I hope you all had a lovely weekend.

For my first post this week, I wanted to talk about writers and depression (isn’t that an auspicious beginning.) Mostly because I had read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing op-ed in The Guardian about her journey with depression, and it’s been rattling around in my head for several weeks now.

So I had no idea about the kerfuffle that ensued after I had read that piece – apparently it was published without Adichie’s permission, which is just awful on so many levels, and was retracted from the website. However, she did then give this wonderful interview to the blog Olisa.tv, about the article and its ramifications, and I would highly recommend reading it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Source: Olisa.tv

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Source: Olisa.tv

The thing that I’ve been trying to figure out about her article was actually my own reaction to it. It was the question that popped up – why is she depressed? To put it far more crudely – what does she have to be depressed about? Adichie is one of our greatest living writers, beloved around the world, achieving incredible success in a field that’s notoriously hard to break into, especially for women of color.

I also had a similar reaction when I read this piece in the New Yorker a few years ago – about therapy for working (and often consistently working, i.e. successful) screenwriters. What do they have to complain about?

It’s a terrible attitude, and one that I turn on myself too. I thankfully do not suffer from clinical depression or similar chronic health conditions, but I do get sad sometimes. When I am sad, I feel absolutely powerless. The same question surfaces – what do you have to complain about? – but even as I intellectually understand what it means, engaging with the question does nothing to affect my mood. If anything, it makes me feel worse. Most of the time these bouts last for a few days at most, and then I’m fine. But last month, my ‘bout’ lasted three weeks, and it was awful. It also came at a time when I was on vacation, in my parents’ home in India, with all my needs taken care of and all my wants attended to by my loving family. The incongruity of my feelings with my actual situation was almost too much to bear.

I’m back in a good place now, but what those weeks gave me was (hopefully) a permanent shifting of my perspective, a good dose of empathy. Being sad is scary. It’s lonely. Most of the time, it’s beyond our control. The absolute wrong thing to do is to question the validity of someone’s experiences because you think they shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. How ridiculous!

Upon looking back, I have found that my sadness bouts are usually intimately tied to my writing process, and to the struggles of crafting a career as a playwright. I think a lot of readers of this blog may feel or have felt the same way. For my next post, I’ll be writing more about the unique challenges of controlling our emotions, when paradoxically, our lives as playwrights require us to be open, receptive and porous to the world and everything that it throws at us.

In the meantime, be sure to read the Adichie interview! She’s amazing. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments – it’s a tricky subject and I’m always open to learning more and understanding these issues in a better way.

[Continued in Part 2.]

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