I think it has finally happened. I think I have writer’s block.
When I started writing, I was taking classes to learn how to write, the different genres and structures. I was also reading books and articles about writing and from the beginning I read how there was no such thing as writer’s block. I always thought about writer’s block in terms of not being able to continue to write. You know, you’re half way through your story and you don’t know what happens next.
But since I finished my last play, I have written bits and pieces of ideas and thoughts, but I never thought of what I was going to write next. It usually just came to me and I sat down and wrote about it. I would write and re-write the same thing, different ways, working the story out. But right now, I’m at a loss. I finished the story, had my characters yell and scream the things people don’t dare to say out loud. I had found the perfect setting for this to happen and made the cast small enough to include all the backstory I had dreamt up. And now. Nothing. I can’t even see the next thing. Instead of writing a play, I sit trying to finish a collection of essays about the same subject, and am rehashing the same stories in different settings, trying to get a different audience to understand.
Right now I can’t imagine another play, another story I want to write. When I was writing, I was reading different blogs and books about the subject. Different viewpoints, trying to understand the story from all sides. Listening to podcasts and interviews, talking ad-nauseum with friends about their thoughts on the subject. But nothing. I can’t imagine that I am done with the subject. It still keeps me up at night, or wakes me early in the morning, usually at 3 am. But why can’t I write anything more about it? Why can’t I see it anymore and better yet, is this writer’s block?
In the articles I had read about, they said there was no such thing. It’s a figment of your imagination, you’re just not working hard enough. Even trying to write this on this blog this week has been a pain staking task. Racking my brain. What do I say? How do I say it? Who will read it? Does it matter?
But wait. A glimmer of hope. I started this post on Monday. It’s now Sunday night, my last day to post and there is a story brewing. While getting lost in distraction and procrastination this week, I found a new book to read and a different angle on my story. Actually a whole new play. Now starts the ruminating.
I would love to hear your thoughts on writer’s block, because I’m sure it is not done with me.
It was quite the weekend of theatre for me as an audience member
I finally saw “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center. Yes, it was a road show, where the singers cheated on the high notes and the very pretty fellow who played the title role kept blending into the scenery. Oh, but the actor who played Aaron Burr made me believe the show was named after him! A fine production viewed from a fine seat on the first balcony.
It was fabulous. To quote from the aforementioned show, “Pirates” “blew us all away.”
The reason: the decision to put the audience at the heart of the action.
The experience began the minute you walked through the theatre door. Every cast member was onstage, singing not Gilbert & Sullivan, but beachy standards like “Sloop John B” and “Margaritaville.” A tiki bar was located on one side of the stage and remained open for business throughout the entire show. A batch of beachballs were flying overhead – audience members batting them at actors, musicians, and each other. I thought I was at a Dodger game.
The audience – an equal mix of senior citizens, 20-somethings, and parents with dozens of very small children – was invited to take a seat onstage.
Oh, sure, some of us fuddy duddies sat on chairs safely away from the action, but most of the audience was happy to plop down on painted wooden benches and ice chests and kiddie wading pools that filled the stage. They were instructed that whenever the action moved to the exact space where they were seated, they’d be politely tapped on the shoulder. This was their invitation to get out of the way. Fast. At times, it looked like a giant game of musical chairs as grownups and kids scrambled to find another seat.
Several members of the audience were recruited to actively participate in the play by holding up the Union Jack or the skull and crossbones of a pirates’ flag. Each was printed on giant beach towels. Parasols were handed out to young ladies who dutifully twirled them this way and that, trying to keep up with the cast member.
The smallest of kids congregated atop the lifeguard station at stage center. It was a magnet for them. Rather than making them scoot, the actors acknowledged their presence. The Pirate King and Frederic would declare that they were entirely alone – and then roll their eyes at the 3 year olds who surrounded them. The rest of the audience was delighted – when they weren’t scared half out of their wits that one of those toddlers would fall off the platform.
The evening was amazing. The energy bounced off the walls.
What a pity when those youngest of audience members discover that all theatre isn’t like this.
Which makes me ask: why not?
Playwriting can feel like such a selfish act. Yes, we have “important stories” that we believe must be shared with the world. But they are our stories. We hope they will resonate with the world in some way, and sometimes they do. (A young man told me that seeing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth” was the reason he became an attorney specializing in international law.) But usually, it’s a bunch of people sitting in the dark watching a bunch of actors pretending to be imaginary people we made up.
I’ve been thinking hard the past week about the role of the audience in theatre and what I can do as a playwright to make the theatrical experience more about US and less about ME.
I have no immediate solutions, but just asking the question is a start. So I’ll also ask it of you: is it our responsibility as playwrights to also consider the audience? How can we bring them into the theatrical experience? Do we want to? Does the audience want to? How does that change the work?
The mission statement of The Hypocrites is to “re-introduce communal connection into contemporary theater by embracing the desire of all people to bond with each other, especially while experiencing the same event.” The House Theatre wants to “explore connections between Community and Storytelling through a unique theatrical experience.” What’s my mission statement as a playwright?
Which brings me back to “Hamilton.”
Most of the Kennedy Center audience was as familiar with the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda as the actors onstage. Here and there, you could hear someone two seats over whisper, “teach ‘em how to say goodbye, say goodbye” or “never gonna be satisfied.” We all wanted to sing along. It was a show that did speak to us personally and we wanted to be part of it.
But we were at the Kennedy Center, not a black box theatre in rural Maryland. We knew that if we broke into song, a gray-haired, red-coated usher would find us and take us away.
Now that I’ve seen this production of “Pirates,” I’m never going to be satisfied to sit quietly in the dark.
Playwright Kitty Felde is also host of the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast. Her play about the LA Riots “Western & 96th” will be workshopped this September at DC’s Spooky Action Theater and its New Works in Action series.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Here’s the thing. We all want our plays to mean something. In political times like these (or, if we’re being real, at just about any political time ever), the writer stands at the precipice of a canyon of noise and anger and disruption. And we think – how can I possibly make a blip in this mess?
As both a marketing person and a playwright, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people about why a play is “relevant” – and more than that, why theatre is “relevant” – and why they should spend this amount of money and this amount of time buying into a false reality and be moved in some way, to be challenged or questioned.
It is exhausting.
In our struggle to be “relevant” (a word I might actually despise right now) – we playwrights sometimes produce “message” plays – plays that tend to hit on a topical conversation (gay marriage, terrorism, gun control, abortion) but not only hit on it, hit it right on the damn nose. There’s usually a moment when the playwright-thinly-veiled-as-a-character has a speech that describes why their view on the topic is the correct one. We all have one of these plays because the topic is important to us, because we are trying to be heard above the noise, because goddamnit, art can mean something.
The problem with message plays is that they tend to preach to the choir. My opinion is not going to be changed because you deliver a monologue in my direction. Chances are, if I’m in the audience of your message play, I already agree with you. It’s the algorithm. It is everywhere.
But, I will question my point of view if you give me characters I can relate to and love, a situation that is relatable or complicated and tense, and a slice of humanity that perhaps I had never considered before. Show me the grey area I’ve been ignoring. I might not change my opinion, but perhaps now I can see through the clutter and the postulating, all the way to the person on the other side.
Theatre has to work harder, to be more than a Facebook or Twitter argument. Give me a message, but dip it in character and setting and poetry and beauty and darkness and comedy first. Coat it on thick, pull all the threads together, and make me swallow it with a smile on my face or ugly tears in my eyes. And I will digest that message over the next day or week or months or years – I will feel it there, even if the words don’t come right away.
I don’t want a thesis statement. I don’t want to be able to describe in a sentence what your play was about after I’ve walked out. Make me feel it, show me what its about. Audiences are smarter than you think. Make them work. Even when they are being entertained, put them to work. This is not a passive art. It is not a passive life. We cannot be passive.
Here’s the thing. There are plenty of people out there who say that art is irrelevant (and plenty of those people are in power right now), or that they don’t take meaning from art and that art is not there to mean something. But art always means something, even if you don’t realize what it is telling you. We consume stories and art constantly, even if we never step foot in a theatre.
So I suppose all plays are message plays. But it is how we choose to frame it that makes the difference. Take your message and frame it in different ways. See what life it takes on.
We cannot measure our worth as writers based on the number of minds that are changed after two hours of the theatre. Minds are far too stubborn. Instead, we should challenge ourselves to let our hearts explode onto the page and the stage, and hope somehow, somewhere, a shard of the heart lodges into another person, and you are intrinsically linked for the rest of your lives.
The world is changed by marches and strikes and wars and protests and hitting the pavement, but also by one shard of one heart in one stranger.
Here’s the thing. It is exhausting. It is indescribably messy.
An hour ago, my toddler wouldn’t have let me sit down with my laptop.
A week ago, I wouldn’t have had time to blog ANYTHING.
A month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about Protest Plays’ new #TheatreActionVote initaitive.We can write all the socially engaging work in the world, but if our audiences aren’t registered to vote/aren’t showing up at the polls, our work/our audiences’ work is only going to reach so far. But when we shout out – and take action – together, we can create change on the macro level.
And let’s be honest—we need MACRO changes right now.
I hope you’ll join us in our effort to get audiences to the polls! Plays/monologues must be 1-3 minutes in length and non-partisan. Their goal should be to activate audiences to register/to vote. It’s that simple!
Witnessing the Light, artwork by Cynthia Wands, 2018
Just recently, (and I mean just in the last few weeks), I began to feel hopeful about the changes in store for this year.
I started listening to the NPR news on the radio on my drive home from work, after swearing off from it last year.
After a year long quarantine (Eric has been going through a tough chemotherapy schedule), we started going out in the world again. We’ve seen two movies, and went for a long hike. It felt like waking up in daylight after being in the dark last year.
I’m seeing women reach for political office, and stand up with persistence and courage to change our leadership.
And reading the messages about the #MeToo movement, and the illumination of how women have been treated, gives me hope that the world will be seen through different eyes. (“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I don’t know who said that it – but I love that idea.) I can see that audiences and directors and theaters will be changing in the way women are portrayed, and directed and who the leaders are.
So I have to be hopeful. I know that history and health issues can change in a moment, but I’m reaching out in my world to belong to more of the present moment.
(It took me several hours to come up with that last sentence, I kept changing it, so I can see there will be some balancing to be done with that assignment…)
I’m making a plan to see more plays, more readings, more artwork, more friends this year.
I hope this next year finds new adventures for all of you, and I look forward to seeing your work, and watching this year unfold.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
The severance (or start) of an intimate relationship
And yet I’ve wondered if I expect too much, as a writer and as an audience member, of the increasingly ubiquitous ten-minute play, because I tend to like it ALL to happen (not necessarily the above, but events with comparable import). In earnest — rather than overt absurdity. In the same play. In ten minutes or less.
Tall order, but why not? What are the obstacles, but clear conflict, oppressive time constraints (or the proverbial ticking time bomb), and the je ne sais quoi required in order to make audiences care about the people and action at work in a compressed and short period of time.
OR is it really je ne sais quoi? Can it be mechanized, the art of making people care?
Well, since the world of politics is top of mind these days and is entirely about mechanics, for ghits and shiggles, I thought I’d compare some strategies for delivering a short stump speech designed to make people care with those that might be used effectively in the construction of an event-packed ten-minute play.
Did a bit of reading, Martha Nussbaum, Chip and Dan Heath, etc., etc. Some tactics that came up recurringly:
– Highlight current problem(s) with emphasis, clarity and precision: check
– Provide vivid details whenever possible: makes things seem real, credible; sure
– Lean more on emotion over facts: in the case of the play, less exposition, more dialogue that reveals character truths; makes characters sympathetic
– Reference the “challenge plot” when telling a story: make stakes high, obstacles ever daunting, with protagonist overcoming them in the end; eh, sure
– Reference Associations/Use a celebrity or known figure: using something people already care about; I’ve done this (presented actual public figure as lead character), have seen it done; ultimately, it largely depends on the figure – my references tend to be obscure, but in mainstream cases, some recognition, for better or worse, is likely to produce some “care” results
– Give audience ownership of what they’re hearing: can be endeavored in many ways, some interactive/immersive; interesting to chew on
– Use specific names: (“I was talking with Frank Anderson of Davenport, Iowa, recently, who lost his farm . . .” comes to mind); personalizes things, makes whole presentation familiar
Alas, as the adage is “we’re all so different,” and it’s true, I suppose, that many of us are, what makes one person care may differ largely from that which keeps the person in the seat next to her invested.
That said, perhaps we’d be stronger politicians, we ten-minute playwrights, focusing a bit on a few of these as we go about our literary way.
For those who don’t know, I am not only a playwright, but the Artistic Director (slash/Mad Woman) behind Little Black Dress INK – a female playwright producing org that produces an annual peer-reviewed short play fest. Over the years we’ve grown our fest from a small group of playwrights produced in Prescott, AZ, to a now nation-wide new play reading series with productions slated in both Prescott AND Lafayette, LA in 2016. I couldn’t be more proud of all the efforts our supporters, artist, and producers have put into this fest—and I am ecstatic that we continue to grow.
This year, we’re adding an online component to the festival—one that will allow us to produce online versions of full-length plays. It’s called the ONSTAGE: ON-AIR podcast, and our very first one is now live!
Since it’s our inaugural podcast, we chose to focus on interviews with some of our VIP artists, and included excerpts from past ONSTAGE plays. You should definitely check it out – the women we work with are all kinds of amazing! And the great thing about podcasts is that you can listen while you’re working out, driving, cooking, and pretty much anything else-ing!
For those of you who may not know, the two-month long Women’s Voices Theater Festival in the Washington D.C. area has officially begun. Over fifty of the region’s professional theaters (including Baltimore and northern Virginia) are producing over fifty world premiere plays written by over fifty female playwrights. This is an unprecedented event, and I am beyond thrilled to be one of the female playwrights to have my world premiere of Technicolor Life produced at participating theater REP Stage (which is producing an all-female season by the way). I also had the good fortune of being able to attend the invitation-only kickoff gala on the evening of Tuesday, September 8th at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. You can read about the seven originating theaters here, but I first want to give a huge, heartfelt shout-out to the festival’s producers, Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf. Without these two rock stars, this monumental event would not be possible.
Here’s how my day went:
I arrived early in Washington D.C. with my director and co-AD of REP Stage, Joseph Ritsch. He had some meetings, which meant I had most of the day to myself. I decided to check out the collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts since I knew that I’d be schmoozing and cocktailing later that night. I thought I’d spend about an hour there, but I wound up spending nearly three. Their all-female permanent collection is simply mind-blowing, as some of their paintings go as far back as the Middle Ages when women were not allowed professional training in the arts. Rather, a female artist was seen as a curiosity (why oh why would a woman want to create art?!). And if she did get any training, she received it from male relatives. These are female artists I have never heard of—Lavinia Fontana, Louise Moillon, Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster—and their paintings are absolutely stunning. As I moved from the Seventeenth Century to the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth, absorbing breathtaking landscapes and Vermeer-like portraits, I became angry. Strike that. I became really f’ing pissed. Women were still mostly excluded from professional training, and if they were accepted into an institution, they couldn’t study the naked human form until the end of the Nineteenth Century. Because of this patriarchal fear and ignorance, we—the collective human we—have been denied our female Renoirs, van Goghs, Picassos and so on. Because these female artists were denied their fair share of the art “real estate,” we have been denied paintings and sculptures that could have transformed individual lives and influenced cultures. Which brings me to…
Female playwrights’ fair share of the American theatre real estate.
Since the birth of American theatre in the 1750s, white male playwrights have successfully dominated the stage and won prestigious prizes with their white male (mostly straight) stories. This is fact. The more a culture sees and experiences a particular kind of story, the more it is considered the standard. This could be deemed as theory, but let’s get real here, this is fact. But I want to be clear. I’m not bashing the white male experience—so many plays that have moved and inspired me have been written by white males. (Our Town and Death of a Salesman kill me every time I read them.) BUT the result of white male stories taking up all the prime real estate for the last 260 or so years is that all other types of American voices and stories have been marginalized. The only way for parity to be gained is to give the marginalized voices center stage for as long as it takes for them to no longer be marginalized. This is where the Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes into play. ALL of the theatre real estate is going to be given to female playwrights for the next two months. Which means our stories will be the standard. Yes, it’s for two months in the D.C. area, but the festival is getting national attention and there is great power in this.
As I left the National Museum of Women in the Arts and made my way back to the hotel, I kept thinking about this power and all the future possibilities it holds. One possibility is that the festival will be insanely successful and cause a ripple effect where twenty cities hold their own women’s voices theater festival over the next few years. This would then inspire ALL theaters to make the conscious effort to share the prime real estate in their upcoming seasons. But my dream? My dream is that ALL theaters will actually want to do this and there will no longer be a need for a women’s voices theater festival. I’m not sure if this dream will happen in my lifetime, but I know as sure as I’m typing this blog, I will proactively work toward making parity happen.
But back to the gala…
The night started with all the playwrights, artistic directors and other VIPs opening up the gala’s program and seeing Michelle Obama’s welcome letter. Alas, Ms. Obama, the festival’s Honorary Chair, couldn’t attend, but she was certainly there in spirit as you can see from my photo below.
Next, NPR’s Susan Stamberg interviewed the Tony Award-winning force of nature that is Lisa Kron. In case you missed it, you can watch it at Howlround TV. (Please note: You absolutely should watch this interview.)
Here are three of Lisa Kron’s gems from the interview:
“Unless you believe men are better writers than women, there’s an inherent bias. This isn’t a feeling women have. The numbers are there.”
“Women playwrights have the same authority to write about the world the way male playwrights have authority to write about the world. But we see the world from a different vantage point.”
“The definition of parity is that there will be as many bad plays by women as great plays…that women will produce great plays in the same proportion as everyone else.”
That last one really made me think. Because it’s the truth. As much as I hope for this to not be the case, there will be less than successful plays at the festival. But as Lisa stated, true parity means women should have the same opportunity to fail as well as to succeed.
After the interview, we all made our way into the main space of the museum where the rest of gala attendees were festively drinking champagne and eating creme brulee. They were waiting to celebrate us, our plays, and this revolutionary collective achievement to highlight female playwrights. I was filled with pure exuberance as it finally hit me. This festival is actually going to happen and history is about to be made! So I grabbed a glass of bubbly and celebrated with this fabulous group of women and men until last call…
And I would like to think that the spirits of the female artists in this museum—the ones who were denied to fully express their creative selves all those years ago—were celebrating with us, too.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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: