Someone recently gave me a beautiful compliment after my performance in The Christians. They said, “Some day in the not so distant future, I’ll be in a nursing home and you’ll come on the TV, winning an award for acting or writing or directing, and I’ll say, ‘I worked with her once.’ And the nurse will say, ‘Yeah, yeah, eat your soup.'”
While I found the sentiment touching… deep in the pit of my stomach, something sank as I realized I no longer believed in that vision I use to play over so many times in my head. I no longer believed in my ability to actualize it, nor in its ability to fulfill or validate my existence or artistic merit. At first this realization sunk me into the pit of despair, but then, I started to find it freeing. Since making the decision not to move back to Los Angeles or New York, but stay in the mid-west and create on my terms, something has changed inside me that has impacted many aspects of my life.
I’m sure it’s not just this decision, but my years of work as an actor that’s enabled me to finally live those Meisner lessons drilled into me a decade ago at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I’m finding it easier to let go of my desire to control the beats of the scene, and instead enjoy riding the wave of moment-to-moment work. It’s honestly so liberating. I used to hate myself after every performance because I didn’t hit this beat or that beat like I wanted to or if I didn’t feel fully present the whole time. Now I understand that sometimes you’re fully immersed and sometimes you’re not–and when you’re not…well, that’s why you build up the technical skills to fake it convincingly. I’m much better at trusting my ability to fake it convincingly now and this ability to forgive myself in the moment for not being fully present is what actually enables me to find my way back “in” much sooner and stay out of my head far longer. This progress has made the work all the more enjoyable, and a whole lot less neurotic.
I lost hope in controlling the performance, and just started existing in the performance.
And this lesson is what’s happening in my life off the stage as well. I’ve lost hope in becoming a “successful” actor/writer/creator, but it’s not as dire as it seems. I’m much more focused in on the moments of each creation. I’m not holding out for some bigger payoff, because I know this is the payoff. This moment. If this is as good as it gets–this has to be enough. So, make it enough. Fill each moment to the brim. I’m not trying to control the outcome anymore, I’m just trying to be as honest and as full as I can in each process. And I believe now that that is where fulfillment and validation as an artist actually lies. Not in the amount of a paycheck or the number of views or the prestige of awards, but in the integrity of the process of the work. This has been a surprisingly hidden benefit of becoming hopeless–the gift of living in the moment, of appreciating each gift for what it is, rather than what it may one day hope to become.
Here are some moments coming up that I am really looking forward to living in:
This Monday, April 30th the second season of my webseries SEEK HELP comes out. We’re having a local screening at my favorite theatre Moxie Cinema. You’ll also be able to watch it all online here: www.SeekHelpTheWebseries.com
On Thursday, I’m going to Oklahoma to represent the short film GOOD GIRL I acted in a few years ago at a film festival. Later this summer, I’m starring in a short film by the same director.
And in August, I’ll be coming back out to LA (!!!) for the first time since I moved four years ago, to act in and help in the production of a TV pilot I co-created/co-wrote and have been developing for the last 7 years with Heather Milam.
In the meantime, I am getting back to work on a play I started writing back in 2012 that I recently rediscovered and fell in obsession with again. I look forward to developing it further, and workshopping it. Beyond that… who knows! But you better bet I’ll be mining each moment along the way.
Recently, a good friend challenged me to come up with a list of those things that made me happy.
I was vexed.
I was annoyed.
And I thought this was a stupid waste of time idea. One of those “The Artist’s Way” self help kind of indulgent crap ideas. (You can probably tell I’m going through some stressful times here. Hence the negativity.)
But I also know that when I’ve written for my characters in plays, I’ve made lists of what they loved, liked, hated, wanted, and actually, what made them happy.
Part of that research fantasy.
So here is this damn list:
Build a fire in the fireplace
Make home made ice cream
Plant two trees
Visit Huntington Gardens and have Tea in the Tea Room
Make glass art
Read the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall
Host a Pinot tasting party
Go to The Edison in downtown LA
Listen to more music
Go to the beach and watch the sunset
Feed the hummingbirds
Go back to the Sequoia forest
Go see an opera
Put together an irrigation system
Have lunch with Friends
This list was written on February 22nd.
Since February 22nd:
A good friend paid for a cord of firewood to be delivered to our house.
I’m slowly reading the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall – I don’t want it to end.
I started wearing perfume again. Including a new rose perfume from Istanbul, thanks to a friend.
I bought another hummingbird feeder, and now there are six feeders. Many hummingbirds.
We went to see the opera – “Orpeus & Eurydice” at the Dorothy Chandler. It was strange, wonderful, good, bad, compelling and produced with dream like theatricality.
We’re now putting together an irrigation system for the house, hundreds and hundreds of dollars later, after the toilet blew up and the water regulator bit the dust. I didn’t think that would make me happy and it didn’t.
And we burned some incense.
I didn’t think that “things” could make me happy right now.
But on the other side of this damn list, I gave myself the assignment of finding something that I look at, every day, that makes me happy.
Cat paws, chocolate cake, hummingbirds, morning dew on grass, homemade soup, a full moon.
I’m seeing it more as “character development”, than an “artist’s date”. And that seems to be real progress for me.
It’s worth a plane ticket to Denver once a year to see what other playwrights are writing and thinking. This was my third (or is it fourth?) year I’ve attended the Colorado New Play Summit – a chance to see seven new plays in three days. For invited playwrights it’s an opportunity for them to workshop their pieces for a week with professional actors, directors and dramaturgs, plus get feedback from a live audience. For the uninvited, it’s a chance to talk to other playwrights, to have lunch with literary managers, and to experience COLD weather without strapping on the skis. I particularly enjoy attending because the Colorado New Play Summit makes the uninvited playwrights feel as welcome as those whose works are being put onstage. It’s also like a crash course in playwriting. I always come away with half a dozen new writing tips.
Here’s my overview of what I saw and what I heard:
It was a good year at the New Play Summit. Every one of the new plays was full of promise. Every one of them was unfinished and flawed in some way. Every one of them was exciting and stimulating.
And every one of them taught me something about playwriting.
Here’s what I learned:
Decide what to leave out
“Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue” by Kemp Powers is a tough piece about how racism in America affects a pair of biracial twins (one light skinned, the other dark.) The inciting incident of the play takes place the day that the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The question for a playwright is: how much of the gruesome details do you include onstage? Is the audience old enough to have experienced it for themselves? Powers withholds specifics until almost the last scene. And then he lays them on with graphic delight.
Is it more powerful this way? I know that I’m a writer who could stand to go a bit more for the jugular. But I also wonder whether the graphic details about the Challenger disaster overshadowed the larger questions Powers wants to address.
Several plays used the phrase, “did you know…?” or “do you remember…?” It seemed like a lazy way to take care of exposition. I’m going to scour my plays for this lazy playwright way of sharing information with the audience.
Take theatrical chances
In the play “Mama Metallica,” playwright Sigrid Gilmer puts herself front and center, working out her grief at losing her mother to Parkinsons. Sounds dreary, right?
It’s hysterical. Our main character is a playwright and both Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill drop by to chat. The band Metallica also makes an appearance and plays a few numbers. The play is weird and wonderful and funny and touching. It’s truly theatrical. I only wish I’d thought of it. At least now, I’ll ask myself: have I missed an opportunity to make magic onstage?
Let your protagonist be the star
Two years ago, I saw a reading of José Cruz González’ “American Mariachi.” The reading was more of an ensemble piece. It sported a very large cast of women – something every high school drama teacher in Los Angeles would snap up in a heartbeat.
The full production in Denver focused on a single mother/daughter and father/daughter relationship. The story was easier to follow with a single protagonist and one main conflict. It was as though you could commit to the play because you only had to give your heart to one person onstage.
In the play “Celia, A Slave,” playwright Barbara Seyda took the trial transcript of a young woman hanged for killing her master and turned it into a poetic series of monologues. The language was beautiful, though we heard little from Celia herself. Instead, a cast of thousands told her story. Does a large cast make a play more powerful? Would an audience be more willing to give its heart to Celia if we had more of an opportunity to hear from her?
The power of music
Sigrid Gilmer had Metallica onstage. José Cruz González had an entire mariachi band! The music was both powerful and exciting. Plus, the musicians became our guide as the play weaved in and out of time and space. And how can an audience not be satisfied when they get a play and a mariachi band for one ticket?
Of course, music can work against you, too. Matthew Lopez’ play “Zoey’s Perfect Wedding” is one of those wedding-gone-wrong stories set in a crummy hotel with an awful DJ playing all the worst hits you can imagine. The groans from the audience were audible. And very funny.
Do you have to like everybody onstage?
One of my own favorite plays features a main character everybody loves to hate. It’s my orphan play that’s had lots of readings and no premiere. Most of the criticism for “Western & 96th” is directed at the ex-cop-turned-politico Mike Marcott. Me? I love the guy. I can’t understand why my audience doesn’t love him as much as I do. Is that the reason nobody wants to produce the play?
I thought about that watching David Jacobi’s “The Couches” – a piece inspired by the “affluenza” trial. It’s a wonderfully written play, but it’s not pleasant spending 90 minutes with the two main characters. They were horrible human beings. Horrible. I’ll be happy if I never have to spend another moment in their presence. (But I’ll bet Netflix snaps it up as their next series!)
Contrast that with Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” – a tale about basketball and Tiananmen Square. I dare you not to fall in love with every one of the characters in her play. I saw a reading of it at last year’s New Play Summit. The minute her characters came onstage, it was like seeing old friends. You actually missed them!
I don’t think it’s necessary to fall in love with all the characters in a play. But it’s sure a lot more fun when you do!
Hope you’ll consider joining me next February in Denver for the next Colorado New Play Summit!
Americans live in a very goal-orientated culture. Every ad slaps us, shinning a light on our inadequate ability to be the best versions of ourselves and lays out each product as the solution. Every school works towards hitting testing quotas. Every life is valued against the milestones hit; those with career success, with a house and car, with a spouse and kids, with a 401k and dental insurance, with an instagram following…those are the ones we are taught to chase, to envy, to emulate.
We know money can’t buy happiness. We know that “successful” people can be depressed, struggle with mental health, loneliness, and feelings of worthlessness. It doesn’t stop us from chasing that ideal, however, as if it were the end-all goal. Sure, money can’t buy happiness, we justify ourselves in our pursuit, but it can make the daily struggles a little easier. Sure. Absolutely. But how many of us recognize when we we’ve reached an income where we can meet our needs and just stop chasing the next level up in money or recognition? No one. We all always want a little more.
We all always want a little more.
Is there anything wrong with that? Don’t goals help you to grow? Don’t they challenge you to constantly be improving? Without goals…then, what? If you stop progressing, isn’t that stagnation death?
Last month I went on the first real vacation of my adult life at 31 years old. The first vacation that wasn’t to visit family or friends or audition or scout a city to move to…I mean, technically it was “work” related, as I was attending a film festival for my webseries Seek Help, but that was really just the excuse to explore Montreal. I’ve wanted to go to Canada for a long time, and this was a great impetus. The festival just took up part of one day, but the other four days my significant gay bff, creative collaborator, and #notacouple friend Johnny and I just explored. We had no itinerary. We just woke up each day, strapped on our shoes, and started walking.
I was anxious prior to leaving. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t fully understand “vacations.” haha What a weirdo! My favorite things in life have been creating. My apartment is filled with tools I bounce between every day making new things. I didn’t know what I would do without those–I couldn’t imagine being entertained and invested in wandering around. I mean, doesn’t every city have the same basic types of things? Cafes, museums, parks, restaurants, etc. So, what? I figured I would probably get bored and get some work done while there…some medical blogging, some Seek Help season two editing.
I didn’t though. I did no work at all. Johnny and I woke up early each morning, strapped on our shoes, and started walking. Sometimes it was snowing and our faces went numb from the Canadian cold. We ducked into a dozen cafes, ate so many delicious meals–meals free from TV sets, meals that were about the meals, and the company, and respite from the cold. We walked through Old Montreal on cobble stone streets with horse-drawn carriages. We went to the Notre Dame Basilica Church. We rode a huge Ferris wheel and saw the whole city from above. We watched “The Shape of Water” in French. We went to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art and lost track of time and space. We went on a tinder date. We held platonic hands to keep from slipping on ice. We propositioned a squirrel for a finger-to-nose kiss and got one. We ate poutine for the first time. We rode on a huge, light-up, musical teeter-totter. We navigated the metro. We talked and we tuned-out in our own internal spaces when we needed to decompress. And I was present and invested and entertained and content the whole time. A chronic migraine sufferer, I didn’t have to take my migraine medication once the whole time there. I had energy and happiness and relaxed muscles.
What I felt, I guess, was the joy of being present in the moment with no agenda. What I felt was living life like a radical improvisation where there is no script, and there are no goals, just a vague sense of having fun, saying “yes,” and staying present with my partner. While I did that I began to wonder why I ever wanted anything more than that…why I ever began to believe that I needed so much more to…what? Be happy? Be worthwhile? Be successful? What does that even mean? At one point, when discussing the future, Johnny was talking about an idea he had but then negated it’s merit saying that it was an idea that he could see living out because it would make him feel safe and happy, but wouldn’t be particularly risky or challenging. And it struck me–I said, “What’s so bad about being safe and happy? Do you know how hard those are to come by?”
“What’s so bad about being safe and happy? Do you know how hard those are to come by?”
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying not to challenge yourself. But there are many ways to challenge yourself, to grow, and learn new things and I think that’s always important to do. But I think there is this unspoken pressure in America that if you don’t chase the success of the wildest incarnations of your dreams that you are somehow always a failure. And we cling to that suggested failure as a means to beat ourselves up with, to compare ourselves enviously against others, but are we missing out on the greater values of life by putting this idea in people’s heads? This constant push to go bigger, be better, make more money, be more well-known, gain followers…ultimately, it’s an empty facade without enjoying each moment, presently, with those around you. Where is the push to just be present? To get off our phones and stop hustling our own image like we’re all running PR firms for our lives and see the world that’s actually happening around us?
Before I made the decision to stay in Springfield, MO (rather than return to LA) and focus on just making what I want, when I want, rather than chase the praise, validation, money, and reputation of others…I felt constant pressure. I felt I was always behind–since I was a small child! I’ve felt I’ve been failing in my goals for success. I’ve let go of that now. I’ve started focusing on the moment, each day, on recognizing the joys of where I am at, of investing in my community and creating as solely the necessary means of communication and expression that it is for me–rather than sweat the pressure of always working to turn my art into money. Don’t get me wrong, I think that is an admirable trait, honestly. It’s just not in my repertoire–it drains and depresses me. And that’s okay. We’re all calibrated differently! I’m just realizing that I would rather spend my days achieving the happiness of simply expressing my expression as I choose to express it, rather than putting all my life’s worth and value in the pressure of achieving some monetary, American version of “success” or trying to create art that pleases others.
I still have goals–but I don’t think about them in that way anymore. There are the things I have to get done for work-jobs and the things I have to get done to get my artistic-work finished. There are things I want to do, like learn languages, that I do in the spare, awkward minutes between parking my car and going into some place. There are things that are good for me to do that I do when I have enough time, like work out. There are things like playing a bigger role in helping to make my community a safer, more positive place that I prioritize now (I’m in the last week of my training to become a CASA, aka Court Appointed Special Advocate for children going through Foster Care). I also prioritize going deeper with friends, and allowing myself to carve out time to actively adventure…but these are all things I want to do. They don’t require lists with micro-goals, they happen because I want them to and so I do them. And old goals I felt pressured to do, like constantly be pimping the business side of my artistic pursuits, I’ve let fall away. Whatever opportunities come, great–but I’m divorcing my art of the American focus of “success”–I create because I’m a creator and if you get it, want it, great–I want it to always be accessible to you. If not, it’s all the same. I’m glad my little world is small and manageable–that I can create without the pressure of pleasing others, that I can make enough money to live from day jobs that I don’t loathe, and that I’m not burning myself out taking art jobs that make me hate the art I love. I just wanna wake up each day and put my shoes on and go, play, explore…and try to stay present and open to wherever the day and this life takes me.
It’s a whole new world and way of approaching life for me…and it’s exhilarating.
“And it shall be called The Struggle-Bottrell.”
One last thing. While Johnny and I were in Montreal, while I did feel great 99% of the trip, there was one evening where my spirits dipped to that place we artists know too well…in the gutters of self-loathing and despair. It was our first night there, the night before the festival. I had just showed Johnny several episodes of season two of Seek Help, which I’ve been feverishly editing. Soon I began my ritual beating up of myself over every imperfection. As Johnny and I sat over our fancy ramen dinner, it was agreed that “There should be a word that describes being both proud of the amount of work you’ve put into something, and being embarrassed or ashamed of the final product not living up to your vision” to which Johnny suddenly proclaimed, “And it shall be called The Struggle-Bottrell.” My sole purpose in telling you this is that I would love, love, love if my legacy on earth was to contribute my name to this description. So, please, if you’re ever in need of a word for this feeling, feel free to use this to describe your own Struggle-Bottrell.
In our current political climate, we need theatre more than ever. Theatre can reflect the challenges of our current reality or it can invite audiences to escape it.
Let’s hear from artists who seem to find a way to do both, like playwright Adrienne Dawes and director Rosie Glen-Lambert, in Denim Doves produced by Sacred Fools, just extended through February 23, 2018 at the Broadwater Mainstage.
LA FPI: What inspired this piece?
Adrienne Dawes: Denim Doves began as a devised piece with Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX. We started building the play around the summer of 2013, around the time of the Wendy Davis filibuster. It was a gross sort of spectator sport to watch Democratic senators try for nearly 13 hours to block a bill that would have implemented some of the most stringent abortion restrictions in the country. My friends and I felt so incredibly angry… We poured all those feelings, all that “fiery feminist rage,” into creating a new piece.
We knew we couldn’t just scream at an audience for 75 minutes, so very early in the process, we played within comedic structures. How could we sneak very serious conversations into very silly premises? Dick jokes became the sort of “Trojan Horse” into talking about intersectional feminism, fluid identities and an oppressive government that considers female bodies as a commodity. We drew inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Suzette Haden Elgin’s novel “Native Tongue” (specifically for her use of the feminist language Laadan), YouTube videos of hand bell choirs, and finger tutting choreography.
LA FPI: Rosie, what attracted you to directing this play?
Rosie Glen-Lambert: I am always on the hunt to direct work that gives a voice to women, queer folk, non-binary folk, people of color and anyone who feels like their “type” isn’t typically represented in casting ads.
But beyond providing a platform to diverse performers, I have a particular attraction to plays that allow anyone besides white men to be “the funny one.” I believe wholeheartedly in the power of comedy. I think it’s a great way to unpack an issue that is challenging or to permeate a hard, un-listening exterior.
LA FPI: How does music play a role in this piece?
Adrienne:Denim Doves is more of a “play with music” than musical. There are specific musical moments that scratch the surface and reveal the darker, more sinister aspects of this world. Cyndi Williams is an amazing performer, playwright and lyricist who was part of the original devising team (she originated the role of First Wife). Cyndi’s writing is incredibly rich and unique. She brings a very serious, Southern Gothic quality that gives us a nice contrast to the lighter, bawdy stuff I bring. Erik Secrest composed the original score (and originated the role of First Son) that was performed by the original cast with church hand bells, the electric guitar and a drum kit that was hidden in plain sight onstage.
For the LA production, Sacred Fools collaborated with composer Ellen Warkentine to develop new music. It was wild to hear those old songs in a completely different way. I hope to find more opportunities to collaborate with female composers in the future.
LA FPI: We love supporting femme-centric projects. What has this experience been like, working with a female majority including writer, director, cast and crew?
Rosie: An unbelievable privilege. Here’s the thing: I believe wholeheartedly that gender is a construct. I believe that men can be soft and compassionate and women can be strong and authoritative. I believe that anyone, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum, has the ability to behave in any manner they choose; that how you identify or what you were assigned at birth is not the determining factor in your behavior.
With that being said, many women and femmes are socialized in such a way where they are often allowed to be softer and more empathetic, where men tend to be socialized to disconnect from emotion and consider those qualities as weak. This means that a rehearsal room that is full of women and femmes is often a room that is full of people who are willing to tap into emotion and create a space that is safe and welcoming. A room where someone can say “actually I don’t think my body is capable of doing what you are describing” and rather than a room of people rolling their eyes and a caff’d up male director yelling “just do it,” the team is able to slow down, consider this person’s perspective, and enthusiastically find a solution.
I think that we as humans are all capable of working in this manner, and I believe that by allowing women and femmes to lead by example men are changing their perspective on what a theatrical process should look like.
Adrienne: I was absent for much of the rehearsal process (I’m currently living in Tulsa, OK for a writing residency) but I can say that the rehearsal rooms and processes where I felt I made the most sense have always been led by women+ and people of color. Those are the rooms where I feel like I belong, where I feel like all my differences (all the many ways I am different) are seen as strengths. It’s a huge relief to feel safe and like my voice can be heard without having to yell over another person. In most rooms, it feels like a fight for survival, a fight to belong or to prove yourself. I prefer a room where I feel like my voice is needed and valued.
LA FPI: Amidst today’s politics, what would you like audiences to take away with them?
Rosie: The art that has come out of this past year reflects our national desire to unpack and discuss this past election, and our political climate. This desire is constant, and yet it is exhausting. People who are protected by privilege are able to, at times, disconnect from the insanity and say “I feel overwhelmed, I don’t want to be sad anymore.” And while that is a natural inclination, not everyone is able to make the choice to tap out. Those whose bodies are inherently politicized are never allowed a day off; they are never able to just not be black, or trans, or latinx, or a woman for the day. I believe that this play in particular – which begins farcically, raucously, and which, full disclosure, is just plain riddled with dick jokes – has the potential to trick someone who would never seek out something as serious as the “Handmaid’s Tale” and make them reflect on their privilege and invigorate them to recommitting themselves to a more active dedication to social change. I want people to get in their cars, drive home, kick off their shoes, and wonder if what they are doing is enough.
Adrienne: I hope we can make audiences laugh. I hope to give audiences some relief, some escape from the trash fire that is our current political climate. I also hope that even inside this extremely absurd world, audiences recognize how harmful misogyny and strict gender-based rules/expectations are for everyone. Everyone is hurt, everyone is affected. We imagine a future rebellion that mirrors past resistance movements, one that is led by people of color and trans/queer/non-binary people.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
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.
I watched the full moon rise on New Year’s Day here in Los Angeles.
It seemed a comforting presence after a year of loss and gain, and I could feel how much I’ve changed just by seeing it again.
2017 was a year of firsts for me: First production of a play I wrote, first hip replacement, first draft of a play based on some rumored family history.
And that first production of my play changed me.
After many years of writing and workshops and reading, I finally had the opportunity for a script of mine to be produced, and it was a surreal experience. I had an incredible director, who was able to see more things in my script than I did. And I was able to travel to the theater to see the auditions, and the table read, and some rehearsals, and the final dress and the opening night. The progression was so…wondrous. I saw the young woman in the play blossom on stage into a character with humor and gumption and vulnerability. She brought things to the role that really delighted me. I was reminded about the gift and generosity of actors.
I also saw the leading young man in the play bring his character to an unexpected performance: he was hilarious. I didn’t know how hilarious the character was until he showed me. A lot of this I bring to the actor’s vulnerability and charm (he doesn’t even know how charming he is – which is why is so charming). But it was also the director’s instincts to pull out this performance – she knew how to bring the subtly and outrageous behaviors together. Her vision of the characters brought them to life – and I know how lucky I am to have had her direct this script.
I didn’t expect to feel such a sense of loss after the play closed, these characters had been running around in my head for years, and then they showed up, celebrated the humor and romance of my imagination, and then they left.
I also had to cope with the focus and limelight of being the playwright, and I found that I need to shoulder that a bit better. I was overwhelmed by the positive experience, it was hard to take it all in. On closing night, the director brought me onstage, and I was able to stand onstage with the cast and the director and bask in the limelight. (Even now as I write this it doesn’t seem real, but there were photographs, so I know I didn’t make that up.)
So a dream came true last year – my work was seen and I heard an audience laugh and groan and applaud the characters.
That was a wonderful part of last year. I’m so grateful to be able to have had that experience, and it means writing the next script.
More on that later.
I’m the woman in black, with the cane and roses and the lost look on her face.
The road to creating a new play is often fraught with challenges, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and, well, lots of drama – the offstage kind that none of us wants, but theater seems to attract.
So it’s very nice to chat with Debbie Bolsky and Katherine James, a playwright and director team who seem to have found just the right mix of work and play while mounting Debbie’s Ashes to Ashes with The Athena Cats, premiering at The Odyssey Theatre December 9-January 14.
LA FPI: Ashes to Ashes is, in itself, a wild ride of a play – we follow the characters as they travel from country to country. What was the starting point for this play?
Debbie Bolsky: I’ve always said that when I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled in specific spots, so I came up with the idea of writing a romantic comedy about two people who can’t stand each other having to sprinkle their best friends’ ashes around the world.
Katherine James: My favorite thing about the path the characters take is that it is not a logical sequence on a map. In other words, if a travel agent mapped this as your journey you would assume that they were off of their meds. Rather, each country that is visited traces the journey of the heart – the steps in a relationship that test true love.
Debbie:Ashes to Ashesis a wild ride, fun and zany, but it’s also touching at times. The characters are an ex-couple, and in the play they are forced into situations where they face their biggest fears and have to depend upon the person they can’t stand the most to get them through. But they are also on the journey of discovering things they didn’t realize about each other, things they didn’t know about their deceased friends and finally things they didn’t admit about themselves.
LA FPI: And tell us a bit about where the two of you have traveled, in terms of this collaboration.
Katherine: I had the great pleasure of starting this journey with Debbie in an amazing workshop [Theatricum Botanicum Seedlings’ Dramaturgy Workshop, run by LA FPI co-founder Jennie Webb]. So as we workshopped it and rehearsed it we worked very hard on the emotional journey of the play, how it built, and how each step was a step of growth and intensity.
Debbie: Our collaborative process was phenomenal. Katherine came up with the idea of workshopping it for a week this past summer with actors (two of whom are still in the play) and that’s when the development started going at hyper speed. The actors took ownership of the characters. Collaborating with Katherine and the actors – Lena Bouton, Kevin Young and Michael Uribes – has helped me write a richer play and probably become a better writer.
Katherine: Collaboration is the name of the game for me. Also, to work with a collaborator like Debbie who is so trusting of this process is rare and welcome.
Debbie: I love working with Katherine! But for me, the biggest and most pleasant surprise is how well we all worked together – we are a team.
LA FPI: And of course we love how femme-centric this all is. The Athena Cats is a collective of Southern California female playwrights and directors; for this play you’ve got a woman playwright, director, producers…
Debbie: And a lot of the crew are female as well. A great thing about this experience is that there is very little ego involved. All of us working on this have the same goal, to bring Ashes to Ashes to the stage in the best way possible.
Katherine: I think that one of the big differences between men and women in management and leadership is that men tend to work on tasks from a top-down pyramid. Women create things in a circle with everyone in the circle having his/her say and all contributions are honored. It is amazing what a circle of big creative brains can accomplish when nurtured and encouraged to give their best to a project.
Debbie: The Athena Cats has been around for about two years now and this is our second production; in 2016 we produced Laurel Wetzork’s Blueprint for Paradise. [Laurel and Debbie are co-founders of The Athena Cats, and active LA FPI Instigators!] We also had a New Works Festival earlier in the year showcasing works written and directed by women. There are a lot of talented female writers and directors out there who are not getting an equal shot at getting their works seen. The whole idea of the Athena Cats is to get more works written and /or directed by women onto Southern California stages.
Katherine: Without The Athena Cats, I never would have been given the opportunity to direct this amazing romp. I don’t think that without LA FPI that I would have ever met Laurel and Debbie. Thank you, LA FPI, for being a cornerstone of my creative life!
LA FPI: Thank you for being part of an incredible creative team, putting women to work! To continue the love fest, let’s include the audience: When people come to see Ashes to Ashes, what do you want to share with them… and have them take away?
Debbie: Even though Ashes to Ashes starts out with a death, it is really about love, friendship and peace. We live in incredibly stressful times right now and I think laughter is sorely needed.
Katherine: The holiday season is a perfect time to laugh, sigh, fall in love all over again and go for a great ride. And in this dark time in our country’s history, where better to do this than in the theater?
The Athena Cats’ Ashes to Ashesby Debbie Bolsky, directed by Katherine James, opens as a visiting production at The Odyssey Theatre on December 9, 2017 and runs through January 14, 2018. For tickets and information visit www.AshesToAshesThePlay.com or call 323.960-.4443.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
The truest words I’ve heard all year have come from Patton Oswalt, quoting his late wife Michelle McNamara:
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
In his latest Stand-Up special for Netflix, Oswalt recounted that she hated the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” She would say, “It’s all chaos, it’s all random, and it’s horrifying. And if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”
Be kind. Be gentle. Be forgiving. I’ve been echoing these words to myself all year–both in regards to others and myself. Stay open. Stay vulnerable. Stay tender. I’ve been thinking about my clenched fists. The way they tighten both to keep things in, that maybe I should have let go of (like a dream being realized in a specific way), and the way they tense up in defense, when perhaps they should reach out to and for help and resolutions instead.
I came back to Missouri from LA not really by choice, and never planned to stay more than a year. Four years after coming here, I finally felt financially stable enough to start planning my return to the coast, or a coast anyway. I remembered my time in New York fondly and thought maybe I should go back there. So, I went and visited. And it didn’t feel right. So, I decided LA made the most sense. I made a lot of logical, sound arguments for it in my head, but some part of me was hesitant. I didn’t understand why. I worried that hesitation was just fear–fear of repeating my first 6 years and never progressing further. Fear of financially floundering again, of not being able to act as much as I have been here, of being away from my Mom. I didn’t want to be motivated by fear. So, I told myself: I’m moving back to LA in September. I started telling friends and family and my boss. I got boxes for packing.
Then, the possibility of making season two of my webseries Seek Help came up. I wanted to make it, and it seemed like we might be able to–so I decided to stay past September, and since I was staying past September, I auditioned for the play Good People and got cast. And since I was staying for those things, I had to renew my lease and they didn’t give me a 6 month option like I was hoping, it was 1 year or pay a lot more and do month to month. So I signed a 1 year lease. I told my boss and he said, “That’s got to be awful for you–having to defer the move 6 months longer than you wanted.” And I realized it wasn’t awful for me. It was easy.
I took some time after that to sit quietly alone with my thoughts and journal. And I had an epiphany. This was my epiphany: Acting is not EVERYTHING. I still feel blasphemous even saying that because I wouldn’t want anyone for one second to doubt how incredibly important it is to me or think that I’m saying that I’m giving up on my dreams of being a working actor. I’m not. However, life goes SO quickly. For 31 years (give or take a childhood), I’ve pursued whatever avenues I could to become a working actor on TV, Film and Theatre. I thought it would happen before I ever got to high school. It didn’t. I thought it would happen in my 20’s. It didn’t.
“It” being a regular on a TV show or consistently working on TV, Film and Theatre–the shows/films people all over the country know about and watch. Anything short of that…I never allowed to feel like “success.” I was grateful for every opportunity and job, but in my mind, I was still failing. And at 31, the thought of going back to LA and knocking on doors and getting all those “No’s” and “You’re great, but too tall”…even the thought of achieving my dream now as I always dreamed it…I just started questioning how fulfilling that would really be? I love the work, but the work is always the work no matter where you do it. I love working with people who are great at what they do and challenge me to be better. That would be great, no question. I would love to be respected and known (and paid!) as a full-time storytelling vessel. But I also know that sometimes you try and try and try and it never “works out” how you wanted or thought it would.
For a decade I’ve been saying that I want to get involved with CASA (court appointed special advocate–they speak for the child going through foster care in court) and fostering/adopting. I always said, you know, someday….when/if I am ever stable enough financially and in one place long enough. Everything hinged on achieving my acting dream in this one specific way–a way that most people never do, no matter how incredibly gifted they are or how diligent their hustle. Life is an expansive tapestry of experiences–and I’ve been zeroed in on just one thing for so long, never even considering the possibility that maybe if I un-clinch my fists just a little, I could hold some other things in my hands, in my life. I could make a little room and be a part of something bigger than myself.
Maybe it’s my age, but I crave community these days…I want to build a family, a group of close friends and collaborators. I’ve long had more love to give than people in my life to give it to. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in my apartment, hogging resources I could be contributing. Forgive the length of this post–I just want you to understand that when I say that I am not moving back to LA, I am staying in Springfield, MO, that you know that it is not about fear or trepidation. It is not a giving up on my dreams–they are still very much in the forefront of my mind, still daily on my to-do’s–rather, this decision is one to expand my life in new ways that I hope positively contributes to my community, and enriches the work and stories I am able to tell.
My dream now looks a little like this: Buy a house, make it a home. Get involved as a volunteer advocate for Foster Kids and eventually foster to adopt. Continue to make my own projects and try to improve with each one–try to get my scripts sold or made and audition for projects (only the ones I really, deeply want). I hope to travel to the coasts semi-regularly. I hope for many more lunch dates with my Mom and many more collaborations with my friends and artists I look up to.
After I made this decision, I told no one…for weeks. I sat with it, waiting to see if I would change my mind again. But I pretty much knew it was the right decision when, the day after, as I was driving to a work event, I started crying…they were tears of a mixed bag of emotions: relief at no longer living a life solely in pursuit of “yes’s” that may or may not ever validate me in the way I always dreamed, sadness and acceptance of letting go of that expectation, and excitement for all the new dreams I could now dream. It’s a little corny, but for the first time in my life, I felt like a “full-grown woman.”
Life’s not working out how I thought it would…mostly, honestly, it’s been chaos. And in that chaos you have one choice that belongs to you alone and is totally in your control, and that’s how you respond to the chaos. You can project meaning onto it, you can let it disorient you, you can fight the chaos and try to control it, or you can adjust your perspective and your goals, and look for ways to grow with each new challenge and curve that gets thrown at you. You can loosen your fists and let life flow through you.
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
This weekend my friend, Lisa Murphy, who plays my wife in Seek Help was saying how “it” was going to happen for me. And I said that it didn’t matter anymore whether or not “it” did…it didn’t matter because I was already doing “it.” I don’t need anyone’s permission to live my life how I want. I’m going to act, and write, and create my whole life and that’s more than enough. Let me tell you, finally being able to say that and know it and mean it feels amazing. And what’s perhaps most incredible, is that this gift was a gift I gave myself. It was “just” a perspective change, but one that took me a couple decades and a whole lot of failed attempts at controlling the chaos to realize was always there just waiting for me to see it, claim it, and be free.
Possession has been on my mind for the last year. Possession of the spirit, of the body, and possession of one’s own art. How to possess a thing, and how to let it go.
Since last fall, I’ve been working with fellow playwright Lisa Dring to write an immersive, site-specific show with Rogue Artists Ensemble—Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, an adaptation of ancient Japanese ghost stories set in an old warehouse.
This was not our intention. The project came to us sideways, yet naturally. Like we were meant to work on it together.
Kaidan is a project that has long been brewing in the bowels of Rogue Artists Ensemble and East West Players—the idea itself was never ours, though the words, the shape, the adaptation of the stories themselves certainly were born of our brains. You can blame a lot of it on us.
But true possession of the work, so to speak, was already in question from the beginning. We were asked to take this on. The ownership of the stories were transferred to us, were lent to us, but it has never been ours alone, which has its own kind of freedom.
All stories are borrowed, lent, and passed along, in one way or another.
As the project progressed, we began to focus our main story on a single woman, Kana Mori—a woman who is very much possessed literally by a spirit and emotionally by a dark past. Kana’s journey—in which she loses control, fights for possession of her own will, struggles to center herself in an ever-changing landscape—began to mirror our own experience as writers. Not only were we in deep collaboration with a creative group of designers and actors with their own points of view about what the show should be, but we were coming to terms with the role of the audience in the piece. This is, first and foremost, an immersive theatre experience—meaning the audience is part of the story. They are active in what is going on, which makes Kaidan the audience’s play as well. Our possession over the play was schizophrenic on its best days.
We labored over every word, every beat (just ask our lead actresses, who may have memorized nothing short of 20 versions of their monologues), every transfer of information. We threaded the connective tissue lightly, then sharply, then hit the audience over the head with it, then lightly again. We argued for days about two or three words in the ending scene.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
In the end, we had to let it go. All shows always end up belonging to the actors after opening night, and to the audience. But here, with Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, this is even more pronounced. The actors and audiences are actively engaging with it every night. No one person has the same experience. Some retain the words we sculpted, others are focused on the mask design, others are wondering how long they are going to sit in the dark and if a ghost is sneaking up behind them. Others will remember the moment they had candy with a monk, and nothing else.
I stand outside the warehouse at the box office. I welcome guests, fret about tickets and audience numbers (we can only fit 12 people per performance). I can’t even hear what is going on inside. But that’s okay. It is no longer mine.
In the end, with all art, we cannot fully possess what we create if we are going to share it with others. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice, or something to fight for, or are free from blame when something isn’t perfect.
But sometimes it is better to swallow the idea of full possession. Lisa and I wrote something that is a piece of us—but now it belongs to you. We’re just ghosts in the warehouse.