What do you do after you’ve finished writing your script?
Well, you can have friends read it, which these days can be quick and easy. Just read it on Zoom. A reading is helpful because after weeks of reading it to yourself and laughing at your own jokes, it’s time to let it out into the world to see if people think you’re as funny as you think you are. I say this, because I have found the play and fun again in writing a script.
If you’ll remember from an earlier post, I would write in a situation for my play that may have nothing to do with the story, but had to be present. That for me was a shirtless man. I’m not sure why that started, but it made for interesting storylines and justifications on why this character had to be on stage the entire time. Lately, I’ve found other things that make me giggle and may not make it into the final script, but to get me through the first draft, I need something. Which helped me get through a first draft. But when you have a reading of your play, your listeners may not understand that particular line and don’t find the joy in it that you do. For me that conversation came in the form of working with a dramaturg. I had included a line from a country song as part of dialogue and the dramaturg pointed out how it made her feel about the character and their relationships. Which was interesting because all I was hearing was the complete song with was more than cheating, which is what my dramaturg got from it. With further discussion I found a line that was even better and I imagined it being said out loud.
After the first read through of the script, the dramaturg asked questions of the actors of their understanding of the play. This was supremely helfpul because I was thinking “no one is going to get what I’m saying”, but they did. Success. As I fielded questions and comments from the actors and dramaturg, the storyline became ever more obvious to me and a few more tweeks would satisfy me.
I have one more meeting with my dramaturg, in which we’ll discuss some of the notes she took during the reading. While looking at them, I think of them from the perspective of an actor. I wonder how much of my own story am I bringing in my character decisions that actually are in no way related to the script at hand.
This first read through was also helpful as I have been having a love hate relationship with stage directions. After taking a writing class earlier this year, where the instructor made us keep our stage directions to a minimum, I was all in. Set the scene and let ‘er go. But now, I am adding some back in. Tell me, does it matter that the lines I wrote there is an argument happening, and as the actors read it, it was so tame. Do I need to add she moved aggressively towards her to make the point of a fight? and will the director care about that? will the actors see the fight coming? Do I have to add more !!!!!!!!! to emphasize the point I am trying to make?
Oh, did I mention this is just a 10-minute play. 10-minutes that I felt I really had to stretch to make happen, but after the meeting with the dramaturg I’m up to 11 pages. Woo hoo! You mean you can’t read my mind and see what I’m trying to say? That’s probably better anyway. Right?
So I am off to complete my edit so they can start rehearsal. But there’s just one thing. What’s another way to say “hill of beans” because right now I’m making up colloquialism I’m sure exist. Suggestions appreciated.
And I don’t know about you but I can’t live like that. Mind you, I have enough tomboy in me for two more lifetimes and one final incarnation, but I still have a soft fragile gooey inside that gets high off of helping post-rain snails who show up on my doorstep, taking long naps, and laughing with other people in very public spaces. I’m pretty gathery.
If you’ve witnessed recent road rage or more recent panic buy, you’ve probably concluded that we can’t afford to lose that balance. That would be devolving. And how much of the mess our natural world is currently in can be traced back to the hands of hunting gone awry?
I think right now Is about being smart. But not paranoid. I was there, vascillating this week between the two.
Tuesday can’t do it, I need to act normal.
Wednesday paranoid from WHO.
Thursday can’t do this, just wanna touch my eyes!
Friday the scene at Trader Joe’s Silverlake GEEEEEEEZ.
And today, I woke up to the grey (perfect timing this rain, eh?) lockdown feelings, thinking, “I can’t write like this. I can’t be creative, I can’t be productive, I can’t be present. What can I even say? Oh, great, I’m the guest this week, holding the mighty blog pen of LAFPI. What a waste this must be for them.”
And then, I realized, “Yup. It got me.” The other virus. The one that lowers my humorous system, tugs my love vibration to come crashing down, and dents my ability to be of service.
So I am choosing to acknowledge my fear, not of the virus, but of the powers who could create such things.
How evil hearted do you have to be to think it’s okay to release a bunch of disease all over people (during rainy weather.) Vulnerable people. Fry their insides w technology. Fill us with forced vaccine/gunk? Declare us the enemy while we go on about our lives making small, sometimes big differences but not once prioritizing harm to others. Who are these people and why do we constantly give them the keys to the most important kingdoms of our minds and our loyalty? Haven’t a handful of Extremely Sadistic Hunters messed all this up badly and bigly enough?
When NBA, NHL, Disneyland, Hollywood Productions, and other huge organizations in arts, sports & entertainment began to shut down Wednesday…I could feel the seriousness — of course, we worry about our individual ability to pay the bills, but the bigger suggestions were to “flatten the curve” of an easily-spread, often deadly nuisance, as a collective, and I was all for that. All for that. Like, wow, we can all actually get on the same page about something. We passed those ideas on to our own yoga studios, school and class communities, small events, clubs and show outings — mostly met with shock, heavy hearts and initial resistance. What’s the big deal? People are panicking… but everyday more of a tipping point to comprehend the urgency of containment. I mean, how can I not be upset about some of the most biggest, baddest, most conscious and beautiful gatherings that have touched my life having to PAUSE if not STOP ENTIRELY?
So. Now what? I’ve literally admitted I’m powerless over all of this. Where is my power? I need some of my power back. What can I do?
There’s two viruses at play here.
The physical one, which is about being cautious and clean. I can keep sensible regarding that virus. Do all the things, the no face-touching, no going-outing, constant hand-washing things.
And the second one, which is designed to attack our mental and emotional state. I can keep monitoring how I’m allowing myself to be run by fear and negativity and collective panic.
So after waking up to media media social media, and articles, and government actions and lots of different points of view, I felt the itch to just go out, get shit done, and live.
I needed to breathe and let go. How? Because sometimes our anxiety can’t just be breathed away, right? I’m sensitive. I understand. I got you.
I look around. (like the Calm app says)
I see the beautiful Tibetan bowl gifted to me last night from my friend, Jodi. (Get present to my immediate environment)
I play it. (Sound healing)
I light incense. (Magical smells)
I make the bed. (Routine) (Touching soft, cozy blankets)
Put on my hat that says “hat” (Nobody ever laughs at that)
Go outside. Breathe. Pick oranges off the tree. (Vitamin D, Vitamin C)
Drive to a DIFFERENT Trader Joe’s for my Indian frozens dammit, and take the scenic route. (Calm preparation)
Play either beautiful music by Tycho that brings my cells and DNA back to the best times of my life – or grounds me back to that young, innocent person that I was growing up in Houston, TX with my sister during our school years, Erasure on loop (Remember who you are)
I overzealously wave to other drivers as I pass them. With this simple act, my sense of humanity returns. In an attempt to be sane, I look totally insane. I feel like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker dancing on the stairs after he…well, y’know. Except what I’d brutally murdered were my thoughts of paranoia and other-ness! (Reaching out)
Choose to not text back a few people because I don’t wanna talk about IT, just wanna keep my vibe high (Shielding/Protection)
After doing all these things, this article began to write itself. My thoughts relaxed as I thought about you, receiving on the other end. I realized I could use the power of words today to comfort, relate and entertain. I started to feel like me again. And the cashier AND bagger guys at Awesome, Plentiful Trader Joe’s actually acknowledged and loved HAT!
I’m gonna leave you with the best viral links I’ve seen this week that have helped me to turn the corner on my self-care. Leave your favorite ones in the comments below. We are all aching in some way, and we need to stockpile the good vibes, and safely feel one another. You’re not alone, sweet friend.
And finally, as a former step-mom and current nanny, tutor and favorite Auntie, to the parents who are stressing about what to do with your kids this week? You can tell me to shove it, but YOU DO have the exclusive privilege and an unprecedented opportunity of being on the frontlines of teaching this next generation how to not become self-absorbed assholes who balk everytime they don’t get their way or think something is being taken from them, lest they grow up to pursue a career in revenge against the entire human race. What a great week to gather ye little ones and teach them how to sit w themselves and meditate. With you. That way I don’t have to teach them when they’re 21 and they walk into my drug rehab because they never learned how to sit with themselves and their never-ending thoughts and desires. What a wonderful time to interrupt the nonsense and say, “hey this is important. I want you to come over here and sit with me because there’s bigger things going on right now than you not getting that toy” and “It’s okay to be scared, I’m scared too, let’s be scared together” and teach them there are people, places and things in the world we cannot always control but we can sure control how we react and respond.
Thanks for letting me write in this community-focused, virtual gathering space of like-minded, wonderfully artistic souls.
I’ll be over here gathering up my oranges and shiitake noodles with sprinkled bee pollen and cumin for flavor because I’m going to get reeeeallly creative with all these random foods, teaching a few healthy people yoga and deep breathing for anxiety, making myself laugh, and Trusting that I’m being taken care of.
Rasika Mathur is a writer and yogi. She is always living the dream.
As I said, I would take a special post to highlight the three co-producers of Breakthrough Reading Series because I believe they deserve so much recognition for what they done started, y’all!
I first met Teresa Huang through a mutual friend and prolific, talented artist and illustrator Nidhi Chanani on her visit to LA. Add to the mix another mutual friend and creatress, the marvelous workhorse Cecil Castelluci, and you know I’m sitting up to pay attention about how I could possibly hang in this magnificent mix.
Over the next few years, I’d see and hear about many of Teresa’s ventures, and what stood out was how she would generously inform her communities about networking opportunities, fellowship and scholarship deadlines, casting notices, and more writing gigs. She doesn’t keep anything to herself. She has literally cultivated her community by giving away what keeps coming back to her. This trait has blown me away and kept me watching and learning from her.
Teresa just wrapped on her second show as a staff writer. In 2020, she’ll be fielding new writing opportunities and finishing up the first draft of her sci-fi romance novel. And of course, she churns out great work in volume making BRS her own gym and playground where all are invited to partake.
When Teresa Huang announces that she is taking what’s in her brain and teaching POC how to write a pilot, you sign up. Or apply for the scholarship. Or attend the showcase. Or get one of the students drunk, make them talk and take notes. I had strong motivation to do all of the above, and in the end, was invited to act in the class’s student showcase at East West Players just this past November.
Teresa is no stranger to the lonely grind of LA and says that what’s kept her going is focusing her energy on what’s important outside of her career aspirations. She also draws upon classic wisdom from some modern-day creators:
“I live by two words – gratitude and tenacity. Tenacity gets me where I want to go and gratitude doesn’t allow me to be angry along the way.” ~ Henry Winkler “Stop complaining and just be undeniable.” ~ Sarah Silverman “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” ~ Steve Martin
This woman. This voice. This cosmic cheerleader for artists. Where do we begin? I met Karen at BRS obviously, and we quickly gravitated to each other because that is one positive energy swirl!
Karen is responsible for penning the first piece I ever saw, a rom-com called IN LIKE FLYNN, when BRS was being held at Tom Bergen’s bar in a packed back room in the summer of 2017. What I witnessed was astonishing: A dashing Asian-American actor playing lead to a gorgeous woman and nobody was batting an eye. It was the most natural thing to this room.
Karen likes and marches towards challenges, and she not only casts with actors of color in mind, she actually writes stories about POC. When she spoke to me about a few scripts she’s got in development, she came off so humble and open. For her process, she will make a point to surround herself with people of different backgrounds so that she can display historical/factual accuracy, pepper in cultural insider gems, and approach with sensitivity. Don’t we want more writers like HERR?
Karen also has a collaborative spirit. Not only was she willing to make some time to give me screenwriting notes on a script I will eventually showcase, she came onboard the crew of “What’s In Front Of You?” – seven beautiful one-acts written and directed by Joe Walsh, also a BRS alum, to bring it to the Broadwater stages, and brought me along with her! Because when Karen Herr has you in mind for something, you say YES!
Melissa is the casting powerhouse of BRS. When you come to our room, introduce yourself to her, and let her work you in to the myriad of roles to fill. One of the biggest highlights for me was when she saw me, her face lit up upon recognition from the previous month and she made her way over to hold my hand and eagerly introduce me to a writer.
She knows this part well because she is a brilliant actress herself. She got her start as a young dancer and singer in Australia, booking the starring role in a major musical against all odds. It’s always a treat for the BRS crowd when she takes a role for herself in a piece or two for the evening.
“I was offered The League which is a completely improvised show – no script at all. When I got the offer I said, ‘Who booked me? I don’t know anyone in that casting office!’ Well it turns out I had auditioned for another office and the associate girl BEHIND THE CAMERA whom I barely remembered MOVED to this new office and literally PUT ME UP FOR THIS based on THAT comedy audition. And it turned out to be a beautiful four scenes … and I got to have the last comedic beat of the episode … So it was a foundation for a new found confidence with comedy from which I went on to book Arrested Development, Shameless and Love (Netflix).”
Most recently, Melissa is starring in and producing a short film called Post Sentence produced by Teresa Huang. It was showcased at BRS and it got a fantastic response. She also recently shot an episode of ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat.
Inspired? Of course you are! If you ever have the chance to hang out with, attend an event with, learn from or jump onboard to offer your services to any of these wonderful women, do it. You will grow personally, professionally, and skip away with a sparkling pep in your step.
The next Breakthrough Reading Series will be held February 5, 2020 at the Broadwater (Main Stage). Tickets are being sold now. See Writer Submission details at the same link.
Rasika Mathur is a comedy actress, writer, and yoga instructor. She has tv/film and stage credits but is most proud of being able to have drinks with all these people while holding a Sprite.
I have been trying to write this blog post for the past week. I have started and stopped, trying to wrap my head around the subject. Talking to other people and reading things online has made me talk in circles to the extent I don’t know anymore.
What am I talking about? Writing
I still consider myself new to
playwriting regardless of the number of plays I have written and I overthink
everything. When you’re writing your show, you’re thinking about the characters
and who they are, how they sound, look and move in the world. At some point you
have to write the character description. You know, that page right after the
title page where you introduce the reader to your world.
The character breakdown:
Amy: Female, 30s, African-American, Grounded and stern.
But what does it mean? #InsteadOfRedface? Are the playwrights the only ones who have to be Native? Does your cast have to include Native characters as well? If it’s done in a theater class is ok to cast whomever? And is Native not enough? Do we include Indigenous people as well and is it ok for them to play Native roles? And do all the roles have to be actually be played by Native people? And how Native do they have to be? Like I just took a DNA test and I’m 5% Native, so I can play Native roles now ok?
Let me fill you in on a little secret: I haven’t been writing lately.
I’m just not into it.
I could blame the new baby (who is a precious bundle of awesomeness) because, come on, he takes up a LOT of time and he wakes up at least once a night to demand I feed him with my body (being a human is weird). But blaming him would be kind of disingenuous because I have found plenty of time to create a number of dumb and ugly doodles that I share on Instagram, so obviously that’s time I could have been putting into my craft…
I could blame my teaching load, but that wouldn’t be fair either because—although time-consuming—being a college professor gives me way more time to be creative than my old freelancing and adjuncting life did, and I managed to get a LOT of writing done then.
I could blame the world…
Actually, that’s it.
Because, well, the world is kind of a hot flaming mess right now, isn’t it? And, well, if I’m honest, I’m just not sure words are capable of putting the fire out.
I love writing plays. I love telling stories. And I think I do it pretty well (let’s not talk about how much I suck at the whole “Getting my work in front of people” part though). Almost all of my works center on messy humans dealing with the complexities of being alive today, but—even if they were getting produced on stages around the world (Dear Universe, I wouldn’t mind it!)— would they DO anything to help the world?
I don’t know.
Maybe I’m having a bit of a mid-life crises about the purpose of theatre, and about the value of toiling away at scripts intended to land a production so that I can talk to people through characters and metaphor about things I think are important.
What would happen if I just talked to people instead?
A few weeks ago I did just that.
I went to a local library board meeting at the behest of a FB post notifying us that a republican group was planning on storming the meeting to demand the library stop hosting an All Ages Drag Show. I got so fired up about it that I wrote, essentially, a spoken word piece that I then read when my name was called to speak. The issue wasn’t even up for a vote that night – it’s a popular event that already happens! – but there were a number of us there that night whose aim was to prevent the speakers of intolerance from winning the mic.
It felt great.
Not only was I able to take speaking time away from indignant and ill-informed haters that night, but I felt a sense of community amongst the rest of the drag show supporters that was incredibly uplifting.
(I should clarify here, I have been to the All Ages Drag Show and found it to be very fun, but I am not a part of that community—just a fan. The community I felt in the board room was of the kind created by a group of people standing together against intolerance.)
And this feeling of community got me thinking: Does theatre create community? I mean, outside its walls… We say it does. Hell, there are theatres all over the country who call themselves community theatres. And I believe fervently that the theatrical community to be found within those walls is a wondrous, loving, crazy, and invaluable sort—but it’s a rare thing to see a theatre create community beyond the theatremakers/volunteers who make the “product” that those theatres “sell”.
Rather, it seems like most theatres have a primarily transactional relationship with their communities: More of a “We think you’ll like this show, so please buy a ticket! And while you’re here, maybe you want to buy a season pass/some theatre merch/a season program as well?” type of relationship. Theatres offer talk-backs and talk-forwards, and try to select seasons of work that will get more people to buy more tickets… but what are they doing to build community beyond the theatremaker kind?
And aren’t most audience members tjust here to see the show, have a glass of wine, and leave anyway? Maybe they’ll talk about the show with their friends, recommend it to their co-workers, but they sure do like to bristle at the neighbor who unwraps a cough-drop mid-show. They growl at the young couple who dares to bring their children along. They glare at the student who arrives late. They chastise the women who laugh too loud…
That’s not community.
And I really think, now more than ever, that we need to cultivate a greater sense of connection and community within AND without our theatrical structures.
But that’s a hard thing to do when you’re just a playwright.
Fortunately, I’m not “Just” a playwright…
I’ve been really fortunate to get hired at Iowa State University where we have dedicated our 2019-2020 season to work by female playwrights. Not only that, but we’ve hired female guest designers and directors, and we’ve created an entire symposium to look at/discuss gender equity. We’re also dedicated to gender parity in our season selection moving forward, and are participating in Jubilee next year. We’re doing the work, and we’re asking some big questions about theatre and citizen artistry along the way. I’ll talk about more about our work in my next post. But it’s an exciting place to be teaching, working, and building community.
I’ve also organized a series of initiatives through Protest Plays Project and Little Black Dress INK (I’m the crazy person behind both orgs) that address social issues. I’ll talk more about our latest project later this week. But both of these parts of my life allow me to do more than just scribble words… they help me connect and build community with other playwrights and theatremakers, and the kinds of work we are doing invites audiences to take action with us. It’s exciting.
There are more ways I’m working on taking action as an artist and a human, but I honestly don’t have enough time to write about all of it—what with the new baby and all 😉
But I encourage you to hang in there with me this week and
to think about how you can do more with your words, your voice, and your
actions, dear playwrights. I
promise I’ll ask some good questions for you to ponder.
And if you’re wondering, here’s the statement I wrote in support of the All Ages Drag Show at our very awesome library:
Fear is a powerful, and primitive, human emotion.
So is love.
Fear alerts us to the presence of danger. A safety mechanism, designed to keep us safe from peril. Fear helps us survive…
Love, a safety mechanism in itself, Gives us reasons to survive. And unlike fear, Love… Well, Love helps us to thrive.
Biochemical or Emotional, both fear and love ride our senses hard, confusing and elating us. Biochemical responses are universal. We all know
the feeling of a heart pounding, of sweat dripping, of stomachs dropping…
Is it fear?
Is it love…
How can the two look, feel, taste, so similar? Emotional responses are individual. So what you, and you, and you, and I fear, What you, and you, and you, and I love…
The pieces of this world that create our biochemical and emotional responses – Are rarely exactly the same. It is a universal truth that we are none of us guaranteed to agree. But we have built a society which allows for this difference, A democracy built on the notion that there is no ONE right way to BE. Because it is vital if any of us wishes to thrive, That we continue to allow individuals to be
A community that celebrates the individual is a community centered on love. A community that celebrates only one type of individual? The “Right” kind of individual? Well that’s not love. That’s not community. That is fear in action. That is fear in control. That is a community in crisis.
Hearts beating Sweat dripping We are all
of us here tonight sharing biochemical reactions, though the reasons are
pounds because I do not want to be party to a community where you are not free
to be you, and I am not free to be I.
deciders of WHO can BE, use religion or politics to outline what is “CORRECT”
adrenaline surges because to hear how ferociously some are willing to condemn
others creates in me a palpable fear…
A fight or flight kind of fear…
That those who want to condemn are unwilling to open their hearts to the love in this room In this community In the hearts and souls of those who have been finding and building community through an All ages drag show. Really?
I will not fly from this issue. We will not fly from the community that has been built here.
Those of you who are in the room tonight Afraid of An all ages drag show: Have you become fear junkies?
So acclimated So indoctrinated By a party that uses fear to separate and alienate and attain power through division- Do you really think that diversity in your community means you can’t continue to be you? That by allowing others to celebrate their individuality You are somehow losing out?
Let me share
with you a secret…
You are not
But by trying to take this away? An event born of incredible love and joyfulness and inclusivity? You are the takers. Aiming to create absence in the hearts and lives of others.
I’ll share another secret with you: The adrenaline you feel in pursuit of punitive action- The adrenaline you feel while attacking that which is different from yourself Is NOTHING like the adrenaline of love.
The adrenaline of putting aside warring labels, —Democrat vs. Republican, this kind of Christian vs. that kind of whatever— In order to reclaim the I, the ME, and the US in this room? The adrenaline of deciding to be a community of love And to let go of fear… Of the hate that fear sows Of the intolerance that fear grows-
That is the biochemical emotional Response Of a healthy Thriving Community. And that is what we should all be working towards
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.