A Successful Playwright is…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artwork by Christian Schloe

 

by Cynthia Wands

A few months ago I read a wonderful account of Sarah Ruhl accepting the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.

This was just a few weeks after the election results and I was fighting through hopelessness and fury. Not great companions – hopelessness and fury. They tend to fuel one another into that other sense:  helplessness.

But her words have stayed with me the last few weeks:

“We write to extend the light of our minds into dark hollows. We write to create and model empathy in a ragged land. We write because our minds can always be free in the face of tyranny. ”

Through this turbulent period of time in our culture, I’m challenged to find that what I’m writing is of value. My humor, my sensibility, my quirks, all seem out of sync with what is happening in our country today, this afternoon, this evening.

But, like most artists I know, I’ve always felt estranged from the mainstream culture – and so I’ll continue on this next writing project – not knowing if it really reflects this period of time we’re going through.

I did want to share one other piece of Sarah’s speech, that reflects the financial reality of today’s successful playwright:

“On the morning of the day when I heard about this award, I realized I was about to bounce a check I’d just made out to my babysitter. Walking to the bank to get her a money order, I thought, oh dear. That afternoon, on the phone, I learned of this award and wept with joy and surprise.”

Sarah Ruhl Speech

 

First Production: The Lost Years


 

 

 

 

 

from Cynthia Wands

In two weeks, I’ll be in another place. I’ll be sitting at a table, listening to the read through for the first production of my play, THE LOST YEARS.

The Contra Costa Civic Theatre is producing a premier of this work – after I’ve stamped through different venues with three staged readings, two workshops and a couple of years of rewrites, it’s really happening.

In one of those mirror like twists of fate, the director is a friend of mine from many years ago. Last year year she directed a staged reading of the play for her theater’s new works project. I saw how respectful she was of the actors during the process, and how she was able to guide nuance and intelligence into lines that didn’t quite look that way when I wrote them.

After the read through, I had to go home and get back on the path of submitting the script to theaters, and workshops, and festivals. I did feel a bit like Mama Rose yelling: Sell it! Dammit, just sell it!

But in the best dramatic fashion, late one night last year I received a phone call. And it was my director, who let me know that a scheduled play for their 2017 season had become unavailable, and could they produce my play instead.

I think I yelled YES. I might have cried, I don’t know how professional that is.  But I was tingling like I had been dusted with lightning. One of the best phone calls I have ever had.

And so, here we are months later, about to embark on this journey with the script.

The play is cast, the other theater artists have been assembled, and now we have the time to read it, and rehearse and learn from one another.  I’ll get to watch a few of the rehearsals.

I’m so grateful to have this experience. I have no idea how it will sound/play/resolve itself. It is after all, a comedy. You know what they say about comedy. (Dying is easy, comedy is hard.)

I’m feeling such a need for important plays in the world right now; about our leadership and our climate and the future of women, that to have a comedy try and tinkle out the laughs, seems a bit off for the times.

But personally, I’m also feeling the effects of compassion fatigue/outrage and I could use a dose of knowing laughter.

So I’m getting a wish to come true. I’d love to hear any advice from other women playwrights about their first production: was there anything you wish had or had not done for your first show?

Critical Mass: the weight of change

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was there, in that picture, just a few weeks ago. The Women’s March. That Saturday, I traveled to Los Angeles, where I used to work, and where I would see plays and opera and dance performances. But that was a long time ago. I didn’t know it until I got there, but I was afraid of downtown Los Angeles. I’d been away too long and I didn’t know it anymore.

But I took my cue from the people around me: I followed them out of the train, and then on to the metro and then out into Pershing Square.  There were outrageous signs, and pink pussy hats, and lots of sunglasses. And people smiling big white teethed smiles.

There were…so many people. So many women. So many races. So many helicopters and pot smoking hipsters and families who brought their small dogs on a leash.

I was, I’ll admit it, worried.

What if there’s an earthquake right now?

I tried to focus on the beauty of the crowd, the amazing women dancing and marching, the men linking arms together and chanting slogans that made you laugh.

Now would be a bad time to have an earthquake.

I could look around and see a lot of children: children in strollers, and carried in backpacks. Children with flags and signs and hats.

It seemed like there were hundreds of people, thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people. I have never seen so many people together in one place before. The weight of all these people around me, made me feel a little panicked. My chest felt tight, and I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I was supposed to meet friends at eleven o’clock. I think I was ready to leave now, before something bad happened.

But I looked at the parents of all these children – and they didn’t seem worried about an earthquake. They were marching and struggling with water bottles and sunscreen and missing flip flops. The parents seemed to know how to handle this crowded feeling.

Now would be a bad time for a riot.

I stopped and realized, no one would bring their dog to a riot. There were lots of “Excuse me, coming through”, as folks tried wiggling around the marchers. “Sorry, I need to step in front of you here, thank you…” “Love your sign, can I take a picture of it?” “Great!”  “Will you take a picture of me with your sign?” “Look at that sign!”

Now would be a good time for you to kick those fears out of your head.

So I kept breathing, with those 750,000 people there, breathing, and I braved the March for a while longer. And listened.

After a couple of hours I found my friends and we sheltered in the shade, and watched. After a while, the noise started to sound like an enormous beehive, with the music, the sirens and laughter and the drums and shouting.

I was so grateful when we went inside the City Hall building, our friends flashing their City Hall Employee badges to the police ringing the doors.  We climbed the back stairs of the building, past the watchful eyes of more policemen. And with some of the other city staff, we were briefly allowed access in the tower, to look out across the city of Los Angeles. We watched the masses of people, and heard them roar in response to what the speakers were saying, and what they were feeling, and what needed to be heard. I will never forget that noise. Or the weight of all those people, coming together to show up, march, and be counted. I know this moment with 750,000 people will be a part of our culture going forward, part of our theater, our stories, our history. I think there will be more of these, and I intend to be there.

And before I left, I took this photograph from the tower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From another point of view…

by Cynthia Wands

Longbourn-photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve read two books recently that remind me of the days of understudies/rotating casts in a show. Those performances when suddenly someone else is saying those things that belonged to someone else.

The first book is Longbourn; a novel by Jo Baker based on the servants in the book , Pride and Prejudice. It’s very much like a look at the back stage of a fancy costume play: yes there are sparkles from the chandeliers, but it’s a life of hard labor and grubby interiors. I really appreciated this back story of the servants, who appeared only as extras in the Jane Austen story. Although not written in Austen’s style, it’s a great read of “backstage” life.

The second book, THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro, is a treasure. I’ve spent many hours trying to understand the writer William Shakespeare, (this is how I know a multitude of useless bits about the Elizabethan court, and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Shakespeare play (The Merry Wives of Windsor;), and court gossip about witchcraft and illegitimate children hiding in royal family trees). The Year of Lear reveals the time during King James when Shakespeare was writing King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare was writing under the rule of a king who was obsessed with witchcraft; King James had even published his own book on witches, Daemonologie, (a wide-ranging discussion of witchcraft, necromancy, possession, demons, were-wolves, fairies and ghosts, in the form of a Socratic dialogue). (Now there’s a play!) I vaguely knew of some of the historical events, (the Gunpowder Plot, the ongoing issues with Catholics and Parliament); but I didn’t really know of Shakespeare’s world when he was writing some of his best work.

The book is very densely written; I had to come up for air many times while reading it. But I came away with a different view of someone’s life that I thought I knew.  And that is quite a gift.  And it reminds me of the power of theater, when we can illuminate all the characters on stage, not just the leading players.

The New York Times review of THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro

 

 

A Staged Reading

by Cynthia Wands

Wands_16_Shakespeares Understanding of Madness I

 

 

 

 

 

 

In December of this past year, I was given the chance to hear my script, THE LOST YEARS, in a staged reading at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre up in the Bay Area.  The finished script had never been heard, although there had been three readings of the piece in development. And let’s just say that it had been a long time since I had heard the voices of these characters, and I was excited and anxious to be able to hear them again.  Marilyn Langbehn, who directed the reading, is the Artistic Director at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, and also works with the California Shakespeare Theater. I’ve known Marilyn for many years – and was very happy to have her helm the reading.

I was anxious because I was going to hear the script read out loud by actors I didn’t know (up until this point I’d been involved in the casting/rehearsal/sounds of every actor who had read the script); I was nervous because friends/actresses/kindred spirits were driving over to listen to the reading; I was also fraught that although my loving brother and his wife were coming, my partner, Eric couldn’t be there, (and he has had to live through the development of this script for some time now) and I was blue about that.  I was also back in the land of Berkeley, where I no longer live, although I had fallen in love there and performed there, it isn’t my home base any longer, and that was rather disorienting.  And I wasn’t sure what I would get out of a one night reading:  what if I hated it, or discovered that I needed to rewrite it entirely from another point of view, or – what if.  And then fortune and fate interceded, and my twin sister flew in from New York to come to the reading.  She found us a wonderful place to stay, took me out to dinner with dear friends, and jollied me along.  And, when I came down with a migraine the day before the reading, she tended to me so I could rally and manage it.  So I will say that I was given incredible support to experience the reading, and it went by in an instant.

One moment I was sitting by my friend Ellen at the theatre listening to the script being read out loud by six actors, and then we were out having a beer with some of the friends and family afterwards, and it was done.  That astonished me: that disconnect with time and place had sometimes happened to me in and after performances on stage – I didn’t know it could happen to playwrights.

It was magical to hear the laughter, and the knowing nods from the audience during the reading, and I struggled with some of the – missing bits – that some of the exchanges in the script needed.  But the play itself held up well, and I was so happy to hear those voices again. I was really heartened by some of the characters revelations that I hadn’t seen before, and was able to witness in a reading by the generosity of those that put the reading together.

So, yes.  It was absolutely worth the nerves, and the apprehension and the helplessness I felt in watching those words come to life.  In the mean time, I’ve been able to fine tune the parts of the last scene, and make some minor edits along the way.  It was a wonderful night that gave me a lot of impetus to go another step.

Wands_16_Shakespeares Understanding of Madness III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What happens when an audience member shouts “Kill the playwright” during a show….

By Cynthia Wands

This story brought back memories of doing live theatre.

Kathleen Warnock’s article from Howlround: Shouting “Kill the Playwright” in a Crowded Theatre

A relative from Baltimore_edited-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve had to improvise when drunk people walked onstage in an outdoor Shakespeare performance I was in, and I watched a fellow actor collapse onstage (I thought he really died in front of us but he survived), and I witnessed a choreographed duel get out of hand and two actors get slashed up (they got stitches), and then there was a special effects coffin that nearly killed the actor who was playing the unfortunate role of Dracula that night. And I’ve sensed annoyance and disappointment in some of the (hostile? feeble?) applause at the end of some of the shows I’ve seen/performed in. I’ve also heard audiences scream obscenities to opera singers at their curtain calls. (really – opera!  boos and yells and slurs like you wouldn’t believe!)

But I realized, I also remember a time when I performed in theatre (and this will date me) before cell phones. Before iPads. Before Apple watches. This was back in a time when the idea that audiences might bring an electronic device to a performance was, well, far-fetched and bizarre, and not real. I remember this as a time that will never happen again: Pandora’s box has been opened and we will never again not know what roaming charges are.

I haven’t read this script,(“The Flick”) nor seen the play, but I did hear from friends who saw the production (which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the 2013 Obie Award for Playwriting and was awarded the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize ). The only comment I remember about this play is that the running time was over three hours long. (I remember thinking “Three hours? That’s like a Shakespeare? Or a Chekhov? It’s really over three hours long?”)

But I do still wonder about an audience member shouting from the back of the house, (just before intermission):  “Kill the playwright!”

“Kill the playwright” ?

It sounds so theatrical, and far-fetched, and bizarre, of course, it had to happen in real life.

 

More than one person

Eye Graphic

 

From a wonderful article on story telling:

“The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.”

“The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

 

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

This article by Neil Gaiman reminds me of  a saying I heard my Irish grandfather repeat to me when I was a child:

“Do you want the truth or do you want the story?”

And you know, every time, I would much rather listen to the story.

 

 

 

 

No One Likes a Bitter Playwright

Kevin Sloan Artwork

Kevin Sloan Artwork

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HowlRound recently published their notice for a Jubilee in 2020:

“We plan to celebrate this vision with a Jubilee year in 2020, in which every theatre in the United States of America produces only works by women, people of color, artists of varied physical and cognitive ability, and/or LGBTQA artists.” (See more at: HowlRound Jubilee)

Then the comments started. Oh the comments.  Let’s just say there were lots of…objections to this idea. I won’t list them, but you can find them at the bottom of the article.

And the follow up articles started appearing:

“As someone for whom the Jubilee proposal might (might) open a door or two, I read it with great interest and a gleam of hope. For those who might see a door or two temporarily closing, I heard some trepidation and some outright fury. Who will Jubilee close doors for, albeit at just some theatres for just one season? Straight white non-disabled cisgendered men. The biggest constituency on American stages today and yesterday and the day before that and many tomorrows.”

Howlround: You Don’t Have To Be An Ally But Don’t Be An Enemy

But a couple of the comments in this response really resonated with me:

“I’ve never read a call for submissions that openly stated “there will be one slot held for a female playwright, unless we just don’t feel like it this year.” But look through enough festival histories and the four-guys-one-woman pattern is a well-established thing. The mainstage is even worse. That’s the reality. When I go for an opportunity, I’m really competing for a much smaller, much more limited slice of the pie than advertised. It’s the same (and worse) for artists of color. Apparently, nobody means to do this, but it’s done. And really, don’t bother denying it. Since The Count, no one with any sense is buying that argument”

“OK, you’re still mad that Jubilee is not for you. I get it. I’m an American playwright and the American theatre has been telling me it’s not for me all my life. So throwing a tantrum is not a crazy response, but consider: when women and POCs speak up about systemic sexism and racism, we are risking our careers. We get labeled as bitches and whiners (see recent yellowface Mikado flap or any online forum on any topic in which any woman dared voice an opinion ever). Check out the nasty backlash and consider: do you want this?”

And then, my favorite comment:  “Because as much as I like a bitter drink or a bitter green, no one likes a bitter playwright.”

I saw this some of this reaction to the OSF Announcement to translate/adapt the Shakespeare plays  (OSF Facebook Page).

And I marvel that opportunities can bring out the worst in us, when we feel excluded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A One Woman Show in New York City

by Cynthia Wands

Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in THE OTHER MOZART

 

I’ve been following some of the posts here about challenges of producing/performing in solo performances, and I wanted to share the experience I had earlier this year when I went to New York and I had a chance to see “THE OTHER MOZART”, written and performed by Sylvia Milo.  This play is the story of Nannerl (yes, that is the real spelling of her name) Mozart, the sister of Amadeus – she was a prodigy, keyboard virtuoso and composer, and performed throughout Europe with her brother.  I had never heard of her, although I recall seeing her portrait in a painting with her brother and father some time ago.

It was one of the best things I have ever seen – and I’m still thinking about this play, months later.

Sylvia  performed the piece in a stunning 18-foot dress (designed by Magdalena Dabrowska from the National Theater of Poland). The original music was written for the play by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen – featured composers of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, BAM and the International Contemporary Ensemble – for the instruments Nannerl knew intimately, such as clavichords, music boxes, and bells, as well as teacups, and fans.

The performance was held in one of those New York black box performance spaces, with creaky folding chairs surrounding a rather ratty looking stage. But the vision and creative ingenuity to produce this piece really affected the audience; and I still remember the intense curiosity and focus that we felt watching this story unfold in front of us.

This interview gives some background on Sylvia’s journey to create and produce this story:  Article in The Guardian September 8,2015: The Lost Genius, the other Mozart

This show won  several awards this year, and I would encourage you to see it if you get the chance.  Here is more information on this production:  The Other Mozart website

Mozart family portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

 

 

Re-Branding McShakespeare

by Cynthia Wands

Artwork by Cynthia Wands

Artwork by Cynthia Wands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both McDonalds (French fries, Ronald McDonald, Cheeseburgers) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear) have a problem.  They’re both trying to rebrand their image to the public, and oh the noise.

McDonalds recently broadcast that they are no longer using margarine, they’re now using butter.  And furthermore:  “The company announced recently that it would stop selling chickens that have been raised with antibiotics that could affect human health, and milk from cows that had been treated with growth hormones. They introduced low-calorie “artisan grilled chicken” sandwiches..”  The New York Magazine, November 2, 2015: Freedom From Fries

And then the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced it would launch a new project:  “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.”  The New York Times, October 7, 2015: Shakespeare in Modern English

The artistic director of the Festival, cited his deep interest in rewriting the plays of Shakespeare: “My interest in the question of how to best create access to these remarkable works is life-long,” OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said. “As a seventh grader, I translated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into contemporary English for my classmates to better understand it. I am delighted that the Play on! translations will give dramatists a deep personal relationship with Shakespeare’s words and that they will give artists and audiences new insights into these extraordinary plays.”  Broadway World Article, September 9, 2015: OSF to Translate Shakespeare’s Plays for Modern Audiences

And The New Yorker chimed in:  “Last week, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it had commissioned thirty-six playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. The backlash began immediately, with O.S.F. devotees posting their laments on the festival’s Facebook page. “What a revolting development!” “Is there really a need to translate English into Brain Dead American?” “Why not just rewrite Shakespeare in emoticons and text acronyms?” Beneath the opprobrium lay a shared assumption: that Shakespeare’s genius inheres not in his complicated characters or carefully orchestrated scenes or subtle ideas but in the singularity of his words. James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, used a regionally apt analogy to express this opinion: “Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 per cent I.P.A., and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.”  The New Yorker, Why we Mostly Stopped Messing with Shakespeare’s Language

Afterwards, Bill Rauch wrote an essay,  American Theatre Magazine, October 14, 2015: Bill Rauch Why We’re Translating Shakespeare, giving more insights as to the project:  “First of all, I question the dangerously elitist assumption that old language is superior and new forms of language are somehow inferior. Shakespeare brilliantly invented new words at an alarming rate, sometimes daringly mashing up language from the streets with heightened poetry. I am not the first to observe that Shakespeare would probably have been a hip-hop artist were he alive today.”

If this project needed more buy-in, Mr. Rauch also plugged the culture correctness of the casting of the players on the project.  “The Play on! project, by commissioning more than 50 percent women writers and more than 50 percent writers of color, will bring a range of diverse voices and perspectives to the works of Shakespeare…” (Will we ever get to a time in our history when this is a given, and not a promotional note?)

The comments at the end of the American Theatre Magazine article were fully of noise, fury and some enthusiasm and defensive wordsmithing.

It is rather disconcerting to hear that the Artistic Director still references his seventh grade translation of “A Midsummer’s Night” so his classmates could better understand it. I’m not sure that’s a real recommendation (unless, of course, we can find some of his seventh grade classmates and ask them to weigh in on this project.) And somehow, likening Shakespeare to a hip-hop artist makes me rather tired. Yes, or course, Shakespeare was a man of his time. I just don’t know that he would have that whole hip-hop thing down.

What I’m more interested in are the original plays that OSF is developing –  the American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a 10-year commissioning program of 37 plays that spring from moments of change in U.S. history. And yes, one of those plays, All the Way, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014.

So, in three years, OSF will have 36 new (adaptations? translations? or per Bill Rauch: “specify up?”) Shakespeare plays.  And in ten years, we’ll have 37 original plays.

I sense a culture of Hollywood’s sequel-madness in this Shakespeare adaptation / translation / mash up.  (“The Avengers: 4”; “Fast and Furious: 7”; “Mission Impossible”: 8). I did wonder what they will title the “newly adapted”, “translated” (mashed up?) Shakespeare plays.

 

So I offer you possible titles of the upcoming plays at OSF:

“Twelfth Night” now known as “11.5 Night”

“The Tempest” or “The Very Bad Storm”

and lastly:

“Two Gentleman of Verona” now appearing as “Two Millennials Try Hooking Up Without That Iambic Pentameter”

 

And after I read all this press, I found the blog Bitter Gertrude, which has some great comments at the end of her article, including a comment from the man who is subsidizing the series, (Dave Hitz).

Bitter Gertrude, October 13, 2015: The Problem with the Shakespeare Translation Controversy

And then I read this in the Bitter Gertrude blog: “OSF has no plans to stage them either, apart from the developmental readings.”

Oh. So these are developmental readings. Not scheduled stage productions. All of this press, all this angst, is about a series of developmental readings. It does seem more than much ado about nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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