I started out as an actor. For ten years, I’d drive the freeways of Los Angeles for auditions for commercials and sitcoms, spending my evenings onstage in tiny theatres all over town. When I hit my 30’s, the jobs for women started drying up and I put my heart into the writing.
Now, decades later, I’m back on stage – again, driving all over town to perform on small stages, this time in Washington, DC instead of Los Angeles. It’s great fun. But I’m finding I’m learning more about the writing from the other side of the footlights.
As playwrights, nothing helps like hearing our words out loud – whether it’s a group of friends, happy with many bottles of wine and beer, who read a new draft in the living room; or onstage, standing behind music stands, before a small audience for a staged reading. Hearing those words spoken out loud is a completely different experience than staring at them on a laptop screen.
But now that I’m memorizing someone else’s lines, standing on stage, exposing my inner actor to the world, I’m finding new lessons in playwriting. I’m in a new play by a fine writer, D.W. Gregory called “Salvation Road” – the tale of a college kid trying to rescue his sister from a cult. I play the hip Catholic nun Sister Jean – part mentor, part nudge, battling her bishop and “that vow of obedience thing.”
Here’s what I’m learning about playwriting from the experience:
1 – Specific lines that are hard to memorize are usually because the actor can’t find a connection between what happens directly before the line and what happens after.
I watch this happen in rehearsal over and over again. There’s always one line that every actor stumbles over every time. Why? The logic of the lines is clear to the writer, but not to the actor.
Note to my playwright self: watch for these lines, rewrite to make the connections clear. Actors aren’t sitting with you at the computer, following your logic.
2 – Watch out for repetition.
My Skype playwriting pal Ellen Struve always says we writers say things three times – just in case the audience isn’t listening. True.
In rehearsal, there are certain words or phrases that are used repeatedly – toxic and hypocrite come to mind. They are perfectly fine words for a playwright to use – strong and clear words. But an actor’s brain scrambles them and the lines are often transposed from one scene to the next.
Note to my playwright self: look at repetition, but don’t let lazy actors be the reason you change them if that’s the word you need.
And yes, an audience sometimes does need to hear something three times.
3 – Actors hate stage directions. And punctuation. Especially punctuation.
I know as a writer, I want my lines to be performed the way that I hear them in my head. How do you communicate that to an actor? Sentence structure and punctuation can help.
As an actor, this is driving me crazy! My phrasing of a thought doesn’t want to come to a halt at the period in a particular sentence. I want to let this character speak the way she wants to speak! But I’m an actor, not a writer and it’s my job to bring the script to life the way the writer wants it. Sigh.
Note to my playwriting self: Trust your actors to bring meaning to your words.
4 – Acting is more difficult than writing.
I don’t really believe this. Writing, staring at that blank screen, battling all the demons that scream at you inside your head that you have no talent, nothing to say, and your play will never get produced anyway – that’s hard. Coming up with believable characters and scenes and a satisfying ending? That’s even harder.
But acting is hard work, too. I forgot how difficult memorization can be! And standing up in front of an audience is nerve wracking! I had my first Equity audition in decades and went up on my lines! I hadn’t been that nervous in forever. And there’s that baring one’s soul business. It’s easier to do it while typing than saying it out loud.
Note to playwriting self: when the writing is tough, remind yourself that nobody’s watching you fail in real time. It’s just you and the machine. The audience – and the critics – are a million miles away.
5 – It’s still all about that time in the rehearsal room.
It’s always been my favorite part of theatre. Yes, I love the opening night applause, overhearing the chatter at intermission, getting flowers when my husband remembers to get them. But the real joy in theatre – both as an actor AND as a playwright – is the work in that rehearsal room. “An effemeral art” as Cash Peters described it – here today and gone at the end of the evening. But what magic happens in that room! That’s the joy of the theatre.
Note to playwriting self: find more opportunities to BE in that rehearsal room. Get back in the regular habit of sending out plays. Self-produce. Find other writers who need a reading. Volunteer to read for them.
Note to acting self: see above.
“Salvation Road” opens Saturday, July 11 at the Capitol Fringe Festival in Washington, DC.
Myself and four other female playwrights have a 55-minute show, 5 SIRENS: Beware of Rocks! One show of five 10-minute plays, about miscommunication and the longing for connection. We all felt, when we met months ago and decided to work together, that this theme could apply to our different pieces. Yet when I’ve turned to my usual group of friends and loyal ticket buyers, some people’s response to buying tickets has been withdrawn, almost muted or terse. Is it the month of June? That they’ll have to drive to Hollywood and brave the crazy parking nightmare that is the Fringe? Is it that they aren’t sure they want to see something I’ve warned them is for those over the age of 18 (language, adult themes)?
I do feel that some of our shows will challenge some people. But the people who expect a Disney ending shouldn’t be surprised, as they supposedly know my work and the work of the other writers. Maybe they’re tired of the dark themes I tend to explore. Yet, should I write for a particular audience? Make a happy ending to please someone else? Stupid questions, I know. Of course we shouldn’t write to please others, unless we’re hired to do so (or are writing for a specific audience — more on this later).
As playwrights and writers, I feel that it is often our job to explore hidden, subconscious, and sometimes emotionally laden subjects. Whether the writing comes out as comedy, drama, or a dreamscape, is up to the writer. People have said about my piece for the Fringe, “Well, that changes tone.” But life, to me, does change tone, and isn’t one note. Laughter often goes with tears, and without laughter, life would be unbearable. Theater, to me, can change lives in a way that movies, films, and books don’t. It is experienced right now, the plays themselves can make people think or argue or question preconceived ideas, and the emotions that come up can heal.
About writing for a specific audience, my play LEVELS was written for an audience consisting of abused women. It wasn’t my intent as a writer to entertain or make happy endings. I wanted to share my own healing at the hands (fists?) of abuse, and show that it was possible to find hope, healing, and love. After the performances of the play, women came up to me afterwards and repeated the same phrases: “I thought I was alone, that I was the only one who experienced this abuse.” “I’m not alone, or a freak, am I?” “Thank you, I thought I was the only one who reacted this way.” They were moved to contemplate the possibly of healing, of a shared experience, of a future that might be filled with hope, by a very uncomfortable theater piece.
So if those particular friends respond again with terse replies, I know now what I’ll say. Our job as playwrights is to write what we see and explore uncomfortable truths, and by bringing our writing to light in a performance, perhaps facilitate healing. “Be brave,” I’ll say. “And be willing to explore what theater, and the hearts of so many playwrights, have to offer. You might be surprised, moved, and unexpectedly changed.”
So where is our audience? I do know, even if a theater is bare except for one person, that one person may experience a life-changing event when watching what we write. They may see the possibility for hope. And they may also just laugh. So keep writing those plays, and sharing your vision. You never know who it will touch. And heal.
Saturday’s LA FPI SWAN Day Action Fest was packed!
The City Garage Theatre is a lovely space.
Each reading was fantastic. The talent in the room was magnetic -even the micro-reads which are done with minimal if any read-throughs prior to reading them in front of the audience were exciting! Such FUN.
Thank you to everyone who made this event a success – you rock!
Speaking of unexpected sources of inspiration or, if you will, gifts that don’t fit into (figurative) boxes, it occurred to me, how swell and gift-like an extraordinary play is – the kind with the capacity to shed light, to transform, to expand our world, along with our individual and collective understanding of it. The kind that reminds one she isn’t alone in said world. A play that acts as a soul companion of sorts for one who’s experienced it, for subsequent days and years to come. I think of “thank you” notes I might have written over the course of a lifetime to Carol Bolt for ONE NIGHT STAND, Wallace Shawn for A THOUGHT IN THREE PARTS (and, really, everything else), Gertrude Stein for WHAT HAPPENED, Rochelle Owens for FUTZ, Harold Pinter for OLD TIMES.
It’s quite a rosy way of looking at what we do, I’d say, writing as an act of giving—if only to one person, a single “willing and prepared hearer,” to borrow from Robert Louis Stevenson. And it isn’t so naïve. After all, it’s often been said there’s an audience for everything, for every creative offering. As we look and click around, glimpsing comments on various YouTube videos, there is often the suggestion that this postulate is true.
I do wonder what sorts of gifts we’ve all been working on this holiday season, who will be their most affected recipients. And how to best go about finding those recipients. Another post, I suppose.
Years ago, my mother and I shared season subscriptions to the Mark Taper Forum. Few plays stick in my memory – “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Robber Bridegroom” come to mind.
But it wasn’t the plays that my mother loved.
As a mom of seven who lived in the suburbs that straddled LA and Orange County, my mother relished the trips to “the city” where she would put on her bohemian clothes and devote as much attention to the audience as she would to the plays. “I’ve never seen such ugly people in all my life!” she’d say.
My mom’s been gone for more than 20 years. And as I sit through too many mediocre productions, I think back on what it was that she loved about going to the theatre: the drama, the spectacle, the unpredictability of real people. She wanted to be surprised, delighted, amused, amazed. How often do we get that onstage? Is this why theatre is in danger of dying?
This year, I saw one truly amazing production. It was an import from England, the Kneehigh Theater, on tour in DC. The company took an arthouse classic, “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s film about an affair at a train station and made magic onstage. The movie was based on a one-act Noel Coward play from the 1930’s called “Still Life,” but I can’t imagine the original was anything like the Kneehigh production.
The story was simple: ordinary people stuck in middle-aged ennui who hit it off in a train station tea room. But out of that simplicity, the company invented four different ways to put trains onstage – including smoke and sound, and a marvelous toy train that circled the stage. The most dramatic was a film of a racing train, projected onto a scrim that was half the height of the stage, stretched out from wing to wing by a cast member running past, with another cast member closing down the scrim as the train chugged by.
There was levitation in the play – characters being lowered from the upper levels of the set by fellow cast members. There was music and dancing. There were puppets playing the heroine’s children.
It was the most magical theatrical experience I can remember.
It perfectly fit everything my mother loved about going to the theatre: drama, spectacle, unpredictability.
That’s what I want to create: a reason for people to come to the theatre, to be surprised, delighted, amused, and amazed.
What was the most magical, memorable night in the theatre for you?
I started Green Light Productions in 2003 to create new opportunities for women in theatre. As of 2008, Green Light has exclusively produced plays written and directed by women.
This year, Green Light completed The Shubert Report to examine the 349 theatres that received $16.4 million in grants last year from the nation’s largest private funder of the performing arts. We found that only 26% of the plays being produced were written by women and that 125 of those 349 theatres weren’t producing ANY plays written by women. Foundations, especially those as large as The Shubert Foundation, play a huge role in sustaining American Theatre – most of which is classified as nonprofit. Imagine the impact it’d have if they required applicants to produce seasons that had 50% female writers and directors? Imagine the impact if just one major theatre a year decided to do a season of plays by women. Just that one step…
In 2005, I took that step. Heather Jones sent me her one-act play “Last Rites” about a life-long friendship between two women. It’s a beautiful play and I walked around with Heather’s script in my bag for month thinking about how it could be produced. I had the idea to create a festival of one-act plays all written and directed by women: GLO, Green Light One-Acts. And since the first GLO in, we’ve given world premieres to 15 one-act plays with productions in Philadelphia, New York and now Los Angeles.
In GLO 2014 we introduce to the world 4 new plays written by female playwrights based in Los Angeles – Allie Costa, Jennie Webb, Julianne Homokay and myself – with directors Liz Hinlein, Jen Bloom, Ricka Fisher and Katherine James. I have met the most incredible women just working on this first Green Light show here and I am so excited to plan our next steps here in LA.
Getting here wasn’t easy. While I’ve had the absolute pleasure to work with hundreds of women who support our mission, over the years I heard a surprising amount of negative feedback – much of it from women who felt that the theatre didn’t need companies like Green Light. A female journalist actually responded to one of my press releases with “Do we really need this?”
Yes, we do. And we need YOU!
I hope that by forming new collaborations, asking lots questions, challenging those who need to be challenged and producing work by women, Green Light will continue to have a valuable impact on artists and audiences. And I hope you’ll be part of it.
Mark Your Calendars: November 6-9, GLO 2014, 4 plays written and directed by LA women artists at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. www.greenlightproductions.org.
Be part of Green Light Productions first foray into the LA theater scene (after mixing it up in NY and Philly). Join the FB Invite here (LA FPI tix for only $10!). This femme-fest is Green Light Production’s annual event, but the company is looking for more women artists moving forward. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2013, writer/performer Chris Farah’s show Fancy: The Southern Gothic Camp Parable debuted in the Hollywood Fringe Festival, winning a “Virgin” Award and “Best of Fringe Extension.” The good news is that Farah’s latest iteration of Fancy is back this year, opening in the 2014 Hollywood Fringe on June 8th at 3 Clubs as Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir. Since meeting Farah last year, I’ve seen her on television a lot, and as a fan, wanted to ask her some questions about her process, how she writes/performs comedy, and what it means to be a Fringe Femme. Luckily for me, she had time to respond. By the way, Farah is guest-tweeting for LA FPI starting the week of June 8, 2014.
Q: What is your background and how did you become interested in comedy?
A: How do I even begin this question? Haha, I was born in the valley and raised in Orange County. I always liked to sing and grew up being obsessed with musical theatre, everything from Guys and Dolls, to Godspell, to Cabaret to Rent (especially in high school). We moved around a lot, so I started to cultivate being funny or embracing my innate ridiculousness to be popular in new environments.
In high school, I started taking theatre classes at South Coast Repertory and found a teacher there, Laurie Woolery, who was such a strong, inspirational female mentor to me that when I got into college I had the audacity to major in Theatre (I had promised my dad I was going to go into Journalism and Communications). I went to Loyola Marymount University, and got cast as a freshman in the play Portia Coughlan by Marina Carr (directed by Diane Benedict, another strong female mentor and my favorite teacher in college) as the retired prostitute aunt, Maggie May, who smoked like a chimney and limped around the stage due to her varicose veins. Still to this day, my favorite role and production of my life. The play is haunting, and dark, and beautiful, and cemented in me the reality that theatre was my life. I dreamed of graduation and going to get my MFA at NYU but alas, my dad, albeit supportive, wasn’t into paying thousands for more theatre education and when I quite easily got a commercial agent I decided to stay in LA.
I took improv classes at the Groundlings and then started taking long form improv and sketch classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre right when it opened in LA (I had wandered into the now defunct Tamarind theatre space and into the UCB opening party where I was seduced with all the people dancing, drinking and generally being full of debauchery inside a theatre, it felt VERY Dionysian). Long form improv felt like true stripped down, bare bones theatre, no director, no writer, just theater artists jumping from the backwall to create a full and succinct piece. I started doing shows there, lots of “dirty” or blue comedy, sketch shows, character bits in shows, and genre-based improv like musical theatre or Tennessee Williams, and then writing my own short musicals for a show at UCB called Quick & Funny Musicals. Through writing I really got to hone in on my comedic voice which, of course, ultimately helped me as a performer, and that voice was camp comedy. I had done a musical improv show at the Celebration Theater where I met Kurt Koehler and Efrain Schunior. Kurt would later facilitate me doing shows at the Cavern Club at the basement of Casita del Campo, the best camp and drag theatre in the town! Efrain would go on to write and let me star in his improv telenovela saga Stallions de Amor. When I started writing my one lady show Fancy, Kurt ended up being my director and Efrain my producer. And that’s where we are now!
Q: How did you develop your show Fancy and how is it different this year than last?
A: I took a class on writing a one person show at the Writer’s Pad that was taught by Julie Brister, another UCB improviser whose own one lady show Fat Parts I had seen and respected. I knew I wanted to create a piece of theatre but I didn’t want it to be a SNL audition (big characters, haphazardly strewn together), nor did I want to talk about my personal life or family, and I had seen Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel and didn’t think I was capable of that kind of character work, Godbless, so I literally had no idea what I was gonna do. Julie had asked to email her show ideas if we didn’t already have one and I, only in passing at the end of the email, mentioned Fancy. Fancy, an idea based on the fact that my mother used to sing me the song while playing the guitar and as I got older it had become my karaoke anthem. There was something about the storytelling in that song, Fancy’s strength, the melodrama and southern spirit, the fact my paternal grandmother was from a small Louisiana town, and finally the last verse where she gives it to the “hypocrites” that I connected with, and with Julie’s support wrote some monologues that would end up being in Fancy’s first show – Fancy! A Southern Gothic Camp Parable. Fancy first premiered at the Cavern Club and the next summer I brought it to the Hollywood Fringe ’13. I love performing her and was completely overwhelmed by the response people gave her. I can’t even express the delight and appreciation I have when people say they connect with her or love her. I want for her to have the accessibility of cult icons like Elvira or Dame Edna.
For this next show, Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir, I want to connect with the audience in a brand new interactive cabaret show which picks up with the Fancy we left you with at the end of the last show, strong, independent, fearless and free. She is going to share the things she has learned along the way but of course in her warm, sassy, and “innocent for a prostitute” way. Fancy is going to talk directly to the audience, answer questions, integrate social media, teach/preach, sing songs, maybe even improv a song, who knows. 🙂
Q: Where/when/how do you write? What are your inspirations? Who are your mentors? Do you mentor someone?
A: I write on my couch which is where I eat, watch TV, hang with friends, take afternoon naps, and do pretty much every other important thing in life on. I write only when necessary, so I have to “book myself” things to ultimately get me to write. I am naturally HORRIBLY LAZY, and have nightmarish self-discipline skills. I don’t have a mentor but my best friend Amy Rhodes is a writer (she has done a couple of one person shows and published plays and currently writes on Ellen) and she reads everything I write. I don’t mentor anyone for writing, but I have acted in the Young Storytellers Foundation’s Big Shows and would love to mentor school-aged kids soon. I pull inspiration from so many sources! Mae West, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Saunders, Jill Davis, Tina Fey, Rebel Wilson, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Morgan Murphy, Jackie Beat, RuPaul, & Elvira. I get inspired every time I see Angelyne riding around LA in that pink corvette, she’s like a living nomadic performance artist (though maybe I wish she did something besides sell t-shirts for 20 bucks out of her trunk, I own at least 3 shirts by the way).
Q: What do you think are the challenges and perks of being a woman in comedy in Los Angeles?
A: The challenge is if you don’t know about comic books, sports, video games or other things comedy guys like, it can be super frustrating to be in male-dominated scenarios. That frustration can weigh on your own self-esteem as a writer and performer, and if you aren’t able to take yourself out of the situation and know your intrinsic value, it can ultimately be super depressing. Surround yourself with people that understand and appreciate you and that also WORK. Cultivating a group of ambitious and hilarious females and homosexual males that have driven me to work has been the biggest blessing in my career. The perks are once you get to a level where you know what you do and you trust you do it well, there are unforetold opportunities to share your voice. Sometimes you have to make those opportunities but so many successful females are writing and producing their own work (again: Casey Wilson & June Diane Raphael, Jessica St. Claire & Lennon Parham, obs Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham). I believe as female comedy writers, we all own a lil’ piece of each other successes (SPOILER ALERT: one of Fancy’s secrets), because it says there IS a market for female-centered comedies written by females who truly understand the feminine narrative in the modern world.
Q: What are some of your theories on comedy? (Its value, why we need it, how to do it, etc.)
A: Godbless, I think truth is always present in successful comedy. Maybe that’s why I enjoy camp, I can always wink at the audience with the “You know I’m wearing fake eyelashes and a drag wig, right? This is a show.” I also think that’s why comedy and heart plays so well together; it’s another way of showing the truth of characters or relationships being portrayed. I guess I subscribe to all the other rules of comedy: “yes and,” ” don’t ask questions,” “comedy in reversals,” “the unexpected,” “rules of three,” “funny is in the details,” and “using plosives,” but they don’t define my work. I don’t know HOW to do it per se; I think what I write is funny and I know it’s not for everyone but that at least SOME other people will think it’s funny too.
Q: Why do you like to perform in the Hollywood Fringe? And what does it feel like to be a part of it? What are your thoughts on being a Fringe Femme?
A: I love performing at HFF for so many reasons but here’s just a few:
a) because it’s my hometown and as a theatre artist, I’m gonna rep LA for life
b) it’s easy as I live here, and obs cheaper for that reason too
c) it gives me a place and sense of community
d) I love meeting new people and seeing new work
e) it has taught me to be a producer and for that alone I am eternally grateful
f) it helps give validation to Fancy whom I care so deeply for, and the insight on how to give her legs beyond her first show last year
g) forcing me to continue her shows (literally because I won the Virgin award, I couldn’t just not come back the next year) and wanting to make this next show better than the first.
It feels completely different this year than last! I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and this year people already know Fancy’s name! It feels like what i always thought going to a dream performing arts high school would feel like! Except I can stay out late. 🙂
Being a Fringe Femme is everything. The support I was granted by the LA FPI last year was immeasurable and helped shine a light on Fancy when no one knew her. For me, it validated me as a writer. I always knew when writing Fancy that I was going to give myself the subtle platform to express my views on feminism (as well as LGBTQ rights) and being a Fringe Femme and honestly reading Jennie Webb’s blog filled me with the pride that I had infused this crazy, ridiculous character with those values. We are women, and we do have to fight tooth and nail to bring ourselves from one stage in life to where we ultimately want to be. It’s hard, and there’s going to be adversaries and antagonists along the way, but if you know yourself and your power, no one can take it away from you.
Q: Any other upcoming projects to discuss?
A: I mean, what else do you want from me? Haha, joking. I have been blessed to get into talking head work on pop culture shows. I live for pop culture, reading gossip blogs are another favorite pastime to do on my couch. I am doing a lot of standup shows and am trying to get a monthly variety show happening in LA. Besides that, I’m producing a podcast and writing a pilot because, as I said, I rep LA. 🙂
Q: Are there links to any of your performances already online (TV, etc.) that we can include?