Category: Conference

An Interview with Constance Congdon

by Anna Nicholas

As a playwright fortunate enough to participate in the William Inge Play Lab this year, one of my favorite Master Classes was given by Constance Congdon (Tales of the Lost Formicans, Gilgamesh, Raggedy Ann and Andy and others). Connie’s been teaching playwriting at Amherst College for twenty-three years and knows her way around a writing exercise*. She graciously agreed to sit down and talk about her plays, writing for theatre and what if anything had changed for women playwrights since the production of her first play, Gilgamesh, in 1977.

Constance Congdon

 

AN: What was your earliest theatrical experience?

CC: I had puppets and used to perform puppet shows over the top of my parents’ bed. Later, when I was in Junior High, I played “Mammy” in A Feudin’ Over Yonder and got a lot of laughs. Though I love actors I never wanted to be one. (Note: I saw Connie kick it in the “Improv to Page” workshop conducted by Ron West and Catherine Butterfield. Connie can act.)

 

AN: Did you study theatre in College?

CC: I was an English major and not a great student. It took me 6 years to get through. Of course it didn’t help that I kept moving and had to pay for school myself.

 

AN: So, no theatre in college. How did you find your way back to it?

CC: I had lots of jobs but the life-changer was as a mobile librarian. I discovered children’s literature and reading aloud to kids. Something was sparked and that experience served me well when I began writing plays and musicals for the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. I hadn’t known that would happen when I boarded the book mobile.

 

AN: What was your first play and first production?

CC: Gilgamesh at St. Mary’s College in Maryland where I was teaching remedial reading at the time. They gave me a first class production. Not all my plays have been so lucky.

 

AN: Tony Kushner calls you “one of the best playwrights our country, and our language, has produced.”[2] But for whatever reason, I’ve never seen or read any of your work. I’m going to rectify that now and catch up on your canon.

CC: Thank you.

 

AN: You taught at Amherst College for twenty-three years. Over the course of your career in both teaching and playmaking you must have observed some changes in how women are perceived in the theatre.

CC: Not as much as I’d like. There’s more opportunity for women and the awareness of the need to produce women’s plays has increased, but there’s still a resistance to the female voice, whatever that means. It extends to Artistic Directors and Literary Managers and sadly both men and women.

 

AN: Now that you are retiring from Amherst, what’s your game plan?

CC: At 72, I am energized to see more of my work get to the stage. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be part of Profile Theatre’s one playwright a year with a few of my plays. And I have just finished a new work called Hair of the Dog: The Foule Murder of Christopher Marlowe as Uncovered by William Shakespeare and am working on a book on playwriting with Mac Wellman and Jeff Jones.

 

AN: What advice would you give to female playwrights?

CC: My biggest piece of advice is to apply for grants; particularly state grants if they’re available. It’s usually other playwrights like me who read the plays and make the decisions, which is good. And if there are no state grants, apply for any arts grants that exist. If you want to teach, get your MFA. It’s important for the boards and administrations of most colleges and universities to know you’ve been vetted. Go to theatre festivals and network. Familiarize yourselves with different theatre departments and submit, submit, submit. I also advise not to worry about reviews. I’ve never gotten good reviews and I’ve made my peace with it.

 

AN: I loved your Master Class and the “rant” exercise *. Can I share it with the playwrights who read the LAFPI blog?

CC: Absolutely.

 

Constance Congdon’s “Rant” Exercise: As yourself or one of your characters, write a rant for a solid 10 minutes. Let the vitriol out at a person or something you hate. Don’t edit and write honestly, like you’re going to rip it up. Have someone call time at 5 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute and 30 seconds. The idea here is not to break up the “planning” that often occurs in the writer’s mind about what you’re writing. When you’re done, read it. Take a breath and then write for another 10 minutes but this time you are writing the rebuttal to your rant. You can be the person ranted against, or someone else with a strong point of view about the first rant. The third part of the exercise is to go back and forth between the original rant and the rebuttal, taking one or two lines from each and you might just find yourself with the beginnings of a scene.

 

Anna Nicholas just returned from the 2017 William Inge Play Lab, where her play, Ocotillo was chosen for development. Annanicholas.com

 

 

Report from the Colorado New Play Summit

By Kitty Felde

The delicious set for THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson. Set design by Sandra Goldmark.

This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.

As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.

Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:

STRONG WORK

It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.

MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:

THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.

TWO WORD TITLES:

Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.

POLITICAL PLAYS

I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.

The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)

The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.

Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)

TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.

There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.

WHERE ARE THE LADIES?

Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)

Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.

PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE

I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.

CHANGE IN THE AIR

The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.

PS

In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.

Dramatists Guild National Conference: #writechange – Celebrating Stephen Schwartz

by Robin Byrd

If you weren’t there, you missed a PARTY!  You missed a SHOW!  Other than all us playwrights, here is who was there celebrating Stephen Schwartz in song and song and words and music and song, did I say song?  And not just any song but songs by Stephen Schwartz, oh and Stephen, himself, sat down at the piano and took us for a spin!  Can you tell I am still excited about it?  Michael Kerker was there moderating and if you have ever gone to the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshops held around the country, you know how much fun it is to have Michael and Stephen in the same room.  Brent Barrett and Susan Egan performed – you have not heard a musical till you’ve heard it done right, in character, full of life, exquisitely executed.  Songwriting/musical writing collaborators, Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner performed — stop playing!  Them some bad boys.  Their presentation should be a musical!   John Boswell served as musical director/accompanist; he did not miss a beat.  I just wanted to know how he knew all those songs – the repertoire was seamless.  Thank you ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and Dramatists Guild for letting us all enjoy this evening extraordinaire.

Stephen Schwartz, Michael Kerker, DG

Pictured L to R backstage after the concert: ASCAP’s Michael A. Kerker; Winnie Holzman (librettist, Wicked); Lisa Kron (TONY award winning lyricist and librettist of Fun Home); Stephen Schwartz; Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (composer/lyricist of Broadway’s First Date)

Picture from ASCAP page “Honoring Stephen Schwartz at the DG Conference” http://www.ascap.com/playback/2015/07/faces-and-place/musical-theatre/stephen-schwartz-dg.aspx

Stephen Schwartz is one of the most generous, down-to-earth persons, I have met.  He shares his talent on so many levels, all the time; Stephen Schwartz is a national treasure.  I have learned so much about the spark of creativity and how to mine for gold from just sitting in on his talks.  As a person and as an artist, he deserves every accolade and I am so happy that we can celebrate his musical genius and let him know how much we love him…

Dramatists Guild National Conference: #writechange – Writing Wrongs

by Robin Byrd

Writing Wrongs – Part 1 (Teaching Playwriting to Underserved Communities, Overview)

Panelists:

Sia Amma Celebrating the clitoris / Sia Amma, Liberian native, uses humor and drama to educate about female genital mutilation

Ruby Berryman Englewood Boys: A Play on Portraiture

Cheryl Coons Storycatchers Theatre

“In this new national Dramatists Guild (DG) initiative, artists share ways they’ve given voice to others who would most benefit from self-expression. They’ve worked with victims of genital mutilation, adults in prison, incarcerated and court-involved youth, respectively. They’ll share how this work has been life-changing for everyone involved.” This is the description of the Writing Wrongs session one from the conference program book.

The men, the women, the children…

There were black and white pictures placed in the seats; not all of the seats but a few here and there. During her talk on her performance piece created in a prison, Ruby Berryman’s strategically placed portraits of inmates helped to create moments of intrigue for the audience. Impact: the visual portraits along with the description of how the project came to be and how it worked put us in the shoes of the inmates, if ever so briefly. As writers, we know what triggers story and to hear Ruby discuss how she was able to pull stories out of – non-writers /new to writing – men who before she gave them a place to create had never told their stories, was inspiring. At the end of her talk she had the audience bring the portraits to the front of the room and display them. Impact: we became the exhibit. Imagine an inmate with newly formed skills to tell his story, realizing his words could have…impact.

Sia Amma is a comedienne; her talk was peppered with jokes and laughter. Her subject matter was in no way funny beyond her comedic timing and hilarious take on how to make the most horrible thing speak-able. To utter it, to say it out loud, to hear it hit the air, female genital mutilation must be stopped! Impact: every person in the room was acutely aware of the atrocity of cutting off any part of the clitoris and/or vulva. It is unimaginable… We are changed forever…

Poet Nikky Finney has a poem titled “The Clitoris” from her book HEAD OFF & SPLIT “…New studies show the shy curl to be longer than the penis, but like Africa, the continent, it is never drawn to size…” the poem starts at 5:48.

Cheryl Coons works with the children; her Storycatchers Theatre teaches them a new way to navigate the world. She discussed her program with court-involved and at-risk youth and her process of getting the youth to open up and to participate in the program. Her program has received national recognition for its track record with this program. Impact: we remember the children. We imagine the change.

The theme for the 2015 National Conference was Writing the Changing World or the abbreviated form #writechange. The top of the handout for this session and the workshop session asks for playwrights to share their projects with the Dramatists Guild in an effort to connect and share information with other playwrights doing the same sort of thing. This session was also a call to action.

Impact: we see theater as a great resource to effect change in the environment, lives, and life choices of our communities; we simply must re-imagine the uses of the stage.

Starting or participate in a Writing Wrongs program, please contact Faye Sholiton fsholiton@dramatistsguild.com with a description of your project and some of the challenges you’re facing.  Please tell about your project(s) and link us to your website.  In that way, we can share your information with teaching artists embarking on similar projects.  The Dramatists Guild hopes to offer a Writing Wrongs idea exchange on the Dramatists Guild website in the near future.

Writing Wrongs – Part 2 (Teaching Playwriting to Underserved Communities, Workshop)

Panelists:

Suze Allen 3 Girls Theatre

Melissa Denton The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company

Francesca Piantadosi From Prisoners to Playwrights: Why youth at MacLaren are learning to write plays

“This session features practical techniques to work with reluctant and often traumatized writers. Coaches will take you through initial trust-building steps, using group and individual exercises. An introduction to what it takes to open hearts and minds – and the potential for small triumphs along the way.” This is the description of the Writing Wrongs session two from the conference program book.

The playwrights (Suze Allen, Melissa Denton, and Francesca Piantadosi) in this session were a great follow-up for the previous session. Once you have a call to action, what do you do next? These playwrights answered those questions.  Each gave pointers on how to interact with the group participants.

 

The sessions were hosted by Larry Dean Harris, our Southern California Regional Representative.

 

Dramatists Guild National Conference: #writechange – Presenting at the Conference

by Robin Byrd

July 16, 2015 at the National Dramatists Guild Conference.  We were exhausted and exhilarated and ready for the rest of the week.   Our workshop presentation Using the Senses: Character and Story Creation cover sheet and bios  went really well.  I don’t know about the other ladies but the content of some of the sessions, I attended, had me spinning.  Such profound insight and resolve to do the best work and create the best art – just to be in the room with these artists was inspiring.

Robin Byrd, Laurel Wetzork, and Debbie Bolsky sitting in on the opening presentation after our workshop "Using the Senses: Character and Story Creation" at the Dramatists Guild Conference: Writing the Changing World, #writechange.

Robin Byrd, Laurel Wetzork, and Debbie Bolsky sitting in on the opening presentation after our workshop “Using the Senses: Character and Story Creation” at the Dramatists Guild Conference: Writing the Changing World, #writechange.

Some of my favorite sessions were The Global Impact of Diversity on our Stages with panelists: Lydia R. Diamond, Rehana Lew Mirza, Mike Lew and moderated by Christine Toy Johnson and The DG Fund Presents: Beyond Emerging: The Stages of a Writer’s Life with panelists: Lydia Diamond, Christine Toy Johnson, Mike Lew and moderated by Seth Cotterman.   Will talk about those later.

Speaking of the Dramatists Guild Fund, they gave away free T-shirts in exchange for a bit of encouragement sharing.  I got a T-shirt with “Always try to do more than you know you can.” – a saying by Edward Albee that can be found in his interview in The Legacy Project: Volume 1.  After writing our saying down on a sticky, it was placed on the DG Fund Encouragement Wall. (#KeepWriting)  Totally awesome!  My saying is “Always be writing…”

 

 

Dramatists Guild National Conference: #writechange – The Count

Writing the Changing World — The Count

by Robin Byrd

Last night at the Lilly Awards, the Dramatists Guild gave a presentation on The Count (a national survey showing which theaters are producing the work of women and which are not).  Marsha Norman, Julia Jordan, Lisa Kron, and Rebecca Stump went over the data and spoke on why parity matters.

Seasons used for the study were 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14; the Count is an ongoing annual project which means the data will be tracked and reported for each season going forward.  The national percentage of productions for the past three seasons for women playwrights is 22.18%.  The project is managed by Julia Jordan of the Lilly Awards and Rebecca Stump of the Dramatists Guild.

The Count has been six years in the making, Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman began the process in February 2014 with funding from the Lilly Awards and the Dramatists Guild to do a collaborative study to determine how many women playwrights are produced in the US.  The data was reviewed by Lilei Xu, a statistician and economist.

According to this study, between 2011 and 2014 74% of the productions were plays, the rest were musicals; 62% were new work,  the rest were revivals.  12% were written by writers of color, 88% were white.

City Count:

City Productions Female Writers
Portland 66 18%
Los Angeles 74 23%
Minneapolis 82 23%
Seattle 104 23%
New York 234 25%
Berkeley 63 29%
Philadelphia 84 29%
Kansas City 61 30%
Washington 104 30%
Chicago 120 36%

In August 2015, research and data collection begins for the 2014-2015 season.

It was absolutely wonderful to see the presentation at the national conference.  LA FPI was mentioned as one of the groups across the nation discussing parity.  Lisa Kron suggested in her speech that theaters should check the Kilroys List, if having problems locating plays by female playwrights.

We all laughed…

but what is not funny is the fact that we still need to have this conversation.

 

For the complete report containing more thorough data, please check the Lilly Awards (thelillyawards.org and the Dramatists Guild www.dramatistsguild.com) websites.

 

The Dramatists Guild Conference Starts This Week!

Hope to see you down in La Jolla for the Dramatists Guild Conference that kicks off on Thursday of this week!

For more information about the conference, please go to the Dramatists Guild website: http://www.dramatistsguild.com/nationalconference.aspx

San Marcos and the Conference that Can…Part IV: The Black and Latino Playwrights Conference

by Robin Byrd

 

The Texas State Black and Latino Playwrights Conference is in its 12th year.  Eugene Lee is the Artistic Director for the conference.  Mr. Lee is an established actor, director and writer.  I have admired his work as an actor for years.  A fellow LA FPIer, Laura Shamas, told me about this conference and although my play did not get in that year, 2012, it was a finalist which warranted a call from Mr. Lee.  To have someone actually get your story and be able to pick it apart and see things you didn’t know you wrote into the piece was wonderful.

I went to the conference this year because I was needing to be in the room with other artists at work.  I really wanted to see the process.  I am so thankful that I went.  I learned a lot, made some friends and shook whatever that thing was that was on me keeping me from my computer.  I am hoping this conference stays around for a very long time, its a great place to get things done.

One of the first things Eugene Lee said at the conference was that he had all male playwrights but it was not intentional.  What I found very interesting was that all three of the plays were female-centered and very good vehicles for female actresses and the honored playwright’s play was directed by a woman.  It was a very good vibe.   I believe this conference can be great and am hoping that next year, more theater artists show up like I did just to see what they are doing…

The Black and Latino Playwrights Conference was established to fill a void where the voices of Black and Latino playwrights can be heard, nurtured and celebrated.  The plays can be about whatever the playwright deems stage worthy; it’s the voice of that playwright this is most important to this conference.  It’s a place where student artists can become familiar with the other voices that make up American Theater.  In this vein, the most rewarding part of the conference is to hear those diverse voices, to see those playwrights at work at their craft, and to watch the students jump in fully committed to the scripts.  Eugene Lee has a vision for the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference that can change the way minorities are viewed in Theater; his generous nurturing of the artists is greatly appreciated.  And too, the generosity and foresight of Texas State University at San Marcos to seek out Mr. Lee to start such a conference is awesome.  Thank you, Texas State! Thank you, Eugene Lee!

Every culture, in this multicultural place we call America, deserves a seat at the table. It’s places like San Marcos and this conference that can… that make room and give sustenance to playwrights kicking against the pricks….

Associate Artistic Directors for the conference are Joe Luis Cedillo and Nadine Mozon.  Production Manager for the conference is Shannon Richey (AEA).

Black and Latino Playwrights Conference

 

Black and Latino Playwrights Conference

 

San Marcos and the Conference that Can… Part III: Ted Shine

by Robin Byrd

 

The 2014 Black and Latino Playwrights Conference (BLPC) held in San Marcos, Texas at Texas State University honored, Texas playwright, Ted Shine with a Distinguished Achievement Award.

Ted Shine and Eugene Lee, Artistic Director for Black and Latino Playwrights Conference.

Ted Shine and Eugene Lee, Artistic Director for Black and Latino Playwrights Conference.

Dr. Shine is in his eighties now. He preferred ground travel to flying in for the conference; he preferred to let the younger theater artists sit on the panel discussion about “Swimming Up Mainstream” as an artist of color. However, being the hungry little children we were in that room, we begged a little.  No we were not to proud to beg and we were so blessed with his wisdom even if from his seat in the audience. I don’t normally gravitate to people but I really liked talking to Dr. Shine.  He shared a lot of information about perseverance and learning the craft of writing plays.  He was so humble.

“Contribution” by Ted Shine is a play about the Civil Rights movement – the sit-ins to be exact. It is one of three one-acts in a collection titled “Contributions” which includes the plays: Platoon, Shoes and, Contribution. First presented in 1969 by the Negro Ensemble Company, Contribution is a brave piece of literature. Written as a three character female –centered play, Contribution is set in the early 1960s in a small southern town.  It was poignant, it was funny and it was a little sad…

The director Nadine Mozon took a very interesting approach to staging the piece; “she enhanced it,” as Dr. Shine said.  Mozon’s enhancement involved adding a citizens ensemble to give a visual effect to moments of description in the play. None of the authors words were changed.  At that time, I had not read the play and turned to the playwright after the reading, “was that in the play?” “No, but I wish I’d written it that way.” Dr. Shine really appreciated that staging of his play.  Earlier I had asked Dr. Shine how he felt about directors and the way they approached his work. He said that there were directors that he could trust with his work and could just leave them alone and they would always enhance the work but he had found out that there were some who weren’t so trustworthy. A playwright needs someone who understands their play and can elevate rather than diminish the piece. I asked him if he felt Ms. Mozon was one of those directors he could trust and he nodded, “yes” with a smile.

I have to agree.  She lit that stage up with her vision and the actors were on point!   Johnique Mitchell as Mrs. Love* was hilarious and amazing; George James gave a good performance as Eugene; the timbre of his voice worked well to give the words a certain undercurrent to the thought of being a black man during that time but being considered a boy – the absurdity of it, the pain of it… Katy played by Kia Malone held the right amount of fear-bred inactivity to give a full view of the times. The ensemble members: Matthew Drake Shrader, Morgan Macinnes, Taylor Joree Scorse, Ava L’Amoreaux, Vincent Hooper, Kelsey Buckley, and Chas Harvey were all the way LIVE! The sheriff! Stole every moment he was animated…The doctor/store owner, the angry mob, the pantomime of the young men at the counter, these visuals made for very lively storytelling.   Even the stage directions were read excellently.  I loved the surprise in this reading which was more like a production.

 

Director Nadine Mozon, also Associate Artistic Director for the conference (standing far left), Johnique Mitchell (standing fourth from left), George James (standing in white shirt), Eugene Lee, Artistic Director of the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference (standing far right), Kia Malone (in yellow sweater far right), and honored playwright Ted Shine (seated) The ensemble members: Matthew Drake Shrader, Morgan Macinnes, Taylor Joree Scorse, Ava L’Amoreaux, Vincent Hooper, Kelsey Buckley, and Chas Harvey and stage crew.

Director Nadine Mozon, also Associate Artistic Director for the conference (standing far left), Johnique Mitchell (standing fourth from left), George James (standing in white shirt), Eugene Lee, Artistic Director of the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference (standing far right), Kia Malone (in yellow sweater far right), and honored playwright Ted Shine (seated). Stage manager: Tommie Jackson III. Stage directions read by Sloane Teagle and Tony Hinderman. The ensemble members: Matthew Drake Shrader, Morgan Macinnes, Taylor Joree Scorse, Ava L’Amoreaux, Vincent Hooper, Kelsey Buckley, and Chas Harvey and stage crew.


 

Ted Shine and a family member after the reading of his play, "Contribution".

Ted Shine and a family member after the reading of his play, “Contribution”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*(Mrs. Love was played by Claudia McNeil in 1970 (the original Lena Younger from Raisin in the Sun)

 

San Marcos and the Conference that Can… Part II: Harrison David Rivers

“NINA! …NINA! … NINA! … NINA!”  Retha from “sweet” by Harrison David Rivers

 

by Robin Byrd

The Playwright.  How do you repeat the same line four times in a row and make the room move? First you have to have a character that can say it in context without losing authenticity and second, this character has to be written by a playwright who knows how to evoke earthquakes/eyes in a storm/imagery that speaks volumes/…into a still room… with nothing save words and the voices that speak them; Harrison David Rivers is such a playwright.

Harrison started his week explaining to the actors that the women don’t use “periods” and that the actors are to step over “dashes.” Mild mannered but firm, he came to work…

Playwright Harrison David Rivers with actors and director for his play, “sweet”; all eyes on him.  Director David Mendizábal in white hat, Dramaturg Jeremy White (next to Mendizábal).  Picture by Joe Luis Cedillo, Associate Artistic Director.

Playwright Harrison David Rivers with actors and director for his play, “sweet”; all eyes on him. Director David Mendizábal in white hat, Dramaturg Jeremy White (next to Mendizábal). Picture by Joe Luis Cedillo, Associate Artistic Director.

The Play. “sweet” by Harrison David Rivers was read at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference.  Harrison brought his director,  David Mendizábal, with him and it was very clear that the process of working on the play was greatly enhanced by the way the playwright and director flowed together. Ana Uzule as Retha (pronounced “REE tha”) and Dionna Jenkins as Nina (pronounced “NEE Na”) found the voices and rhythm of their characters from the moment they opened their mouths. Playing off the strong characters of Retha and Nina, George played by Johnny Brantley III also gave a good first read – his first words made you see George right away. I was very moved by the female -centered story. “sweet” is full of emotion, forbidden fruit, and brokenness yet hope and belief that the spirit can and will prevail in the face of any obstacle.  Harrison and Mendizábal both described the play as being about longing, desire and restraint. The play was described in ethereal terms; I found that interesting and different. As the week went on, I could see exactly what this meant. Making the intangible tangible is as much a part of the story of “sweet” as it is the way the play is written.

The imagery of “sweet” is like incense floating heaven-ward with each word. Retha’s handling of laundry creates a visual so strong; the mere mention of laundry conjures up Retha. I wondered what the title meant up until the performance, I had tried unsuccessfully to figure it out then “end of play” was read and I felt that I had just had the sweetest experience of any play I have ever seen. Sweet is the essence that lingers in the room as the characters exist; sweet is the experience that stays with you once the story has been told.

Being around the table.  There was an extra actress in the room from day one, Tiffany, she participated in discussing what the script meant and how the characters appeared to be and she seemed to love just being around the table with the others sharing the moments. On the third day of rehearsals, Harrison stated that he had been contemplating another facet to the play which would add another character or two. So, now, Tiffany was added to the lineup to read. Dramaturg Jeremy White had pulled information for the playwright off the internet including some sound bites/footage about outer space travel. I am not sure if Jeremy was asked to do it or just saw the need to get some data for the playwright to look over; Harrison seemed really pleased and humbled by it. The group did a roundtable read of the extra pages and Harrison said something to the affect of “I’ll decide what I am going to use but it will be somewhere along these lines.” I thought it was risky but it was his play to do with as he chose – it was either going to work or turn his lovely play into a hot mess. Just my thought. Said a little prayer for him and left for the night.

The Actors.  On the third day of rehearsals, I witnessed actress Dionna Jenkins settled completely into her Nina-ness. It was subtle and it was awe-inspiring to see and hear the extra layers of her character come through the lines. She no longer looked like Dionna reading the lines; she looked like Nina sitting at the table having conversations with Retha and George. I could feel the pull – the more Nina, the more new places the other characters were pushed to explore… It started a domino effect. I wanted to ask Dionna what she felt as she was letting go, how she got from one dimension to the next to the next to multidimensional and what the moment felt like to her when she became Nina. You see Nina had a big part to play in the success of the four consecutive, “Nina’s” too. If Dionna doesn’t bring Nina to the stage in a strong enough force, the meaning behind the words would be lost. Like Retha’s laundry, it is Nina’s name that conjures her up.

Nina…Nina; you moved in with the rest of your baggage and planted your feet firmly on the ground.  Third day of rehearsals.  Around the table: Director David Mendizábal (facing the actors), Playwright Harrison David Rivers (next to Mendizábal), student stage manager , Dionna Jenkins, Ana Uzule, Johnny Brantley III, Tiffany, Wesley Johnson and Tia Watson

Nina…Nina; you moved in with the rest of your baggage and planted your feet firmly on the ground. Third day of rehearsals. Around the table: Director David Mendizábal (facing the actors), Playwright Harrison David Rivers (next to Mendizábal), student stage manager , Dionna Jenkins, Ana Uzule, Johnny Brantley III, Tiffany, Wesley Johnson and Tia Watson Picture by Joe Luis Cedillo https://www.facebook.com/joe.l.cedillo.3/

The mispronunciation of Nina: Johnny seemed to be searching up till the end for a way to not mispronounce “Nina” pronounced “Nee-na”. It was only in one place where this occurred. He was thoroughly frustrated about it but he continued to work on it and around it; it seemed every time he got there “Nye-na” would come out. The day of the reading, the way Johnny Brantley III reconciled the pronunciation of her name was as full of all the frustration and ambiguity the spelling of the name brings with it, what he went through to figure out why at that spot he could not seem to get the right pronunciation to come out, what “George” his character was feeling at the moment and what Nina, the character was evoking out of George at that point in the story. I will say the end result was nothing short of brilliant! He twisted that name the same why Nina was twisting George and the audience felt it and knew they felt it. Bravo, Johnny! This is not to say the rest of his performance was not stellar but to say that as I watched all the actors go from a magnificent cold read of the script to dissecting the nuances, what separates out the actors with potential and fire to be great is how they listen to their characters, the words, the moments coupled with the director’s vision for the piece and how they use their craft to make it work. Sometimes, making it work involves some painful stretching…

Homework for Ana Uzule on Thursday night was to find ways to say Nina up to four times with meaning behind it (my interpretation of the assignment). The actress admitted to not having a reference point. Harrison told her to play around with it but not to say more than four as there were only two on the page. She looked bewildered; Harrison and David gave her input on what to pull from, a few others in the room shared but ultimately, Harrison required the actress to rise to the occasion. Was she up to it? I believed she was but it would require some stretching. Harrison believed she was capable, otherwise, he would not have matter-of-factly told her to do it. Night of the reading, she brought the house down; I had chills, pushed back tears and when I looked over at Ted Shine who was sitting next to me. We were both overcome in awe of these young actors who made “sweet” so sweet (pun intended).

Not to leave out Tiffany who sat in character the entire play, only animating to do her radio spots about the moon landing in 1969. Yes, Harrison’s interjection worked! Tiffany was so focused that even the way she sat – motionless – brought a certain fortitude to the play. Her portrayal of the journalist was era specific and profound. I remember those days and she took me back.

Even the stage directions were read well and kept the feel of the play active. Wesley Johnson and Tia Watson did a very good job in that area.

The Director.  David Mendizábal was as enthusiastic about “sweet” as the playwright. His excellent direction brought things out of the young actors that I am sure they will use for the rest of their live. “sweet” took wings and soared. The thing about really good direction is that it does not take away from the piece but brings more out of it – the essence – of the piece… It was so smooth, I had that sit back moment – you know, the moment where you don’t want to leave because you need to savor something? In this case, it was the sweet, oh, so sweet aroma of  Harrison David Rivers play “sweet”.

This play is a must see. Audiences will enjoy it!

The Honored Guest.  I was sitting next to playwright Ted Shine during the performance of the reading and we both agreed that the actors and the play were excellent. Ted Shine, is the Texas playwright honored at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference 2014; he has been writing plays since the 1950s and after the reading, he wanted to speak to each of the actors about their performance.  He was really blown away at theire talent.  What a treat – another moment that lasts a lifetime.  So, one by one, they came to speak to him…

Ted Shine and Ana Uzule

Ted Shine and Ana Uzule

Ted Shine and Dionna Jenkins

Ted Shine and Dionna Jenkins

Johnny Brantley III

Johnny Brantley III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ted Shine and Tiffany

Ted Shine and Tiffany

 

 

 

 

 

Actors: Ana Uzule (foreground) “Retha” and Dionna Jenkins “Nina”.

Actors: Ana Uzule (foreground) “Retha” and Dionna Jenkins “Nina”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“sweet” cast and crew after reading.  Dramaturg Jeremy White (second from left back row). Actors: Dionna Jenkins (second from left, front row), Ana Uzule, Wesley Johnson (behind Ana), Johnny Brantley III, Tiffany, Harrison David Rivers, and David Mendizábal (second from right).

“sweet” cast and crew after reading. Dramaturg Jeremy White (second from left back row). Actors: Dionna Jenkins (second from left, front row), Ana Uzule, Wesley Johnson (behind Ana), Johnny Brantley III, Tiffany, Harrison David Rivers, and David Mendizábal (second from right).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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