Alyson Mead interviews playwright Inda Craig-Galván about questionable mothers, Carrie as a role model, and a better Scott Baio. The Playwrights’ Arena premiere of I Go Somewhere Else plays at the Atwater Village Theater through September 17th.
Sometimes facing a blank page on your laptop can be the most depressing sight on planet earth.
Nobody said playwriting was going to be easy. But the email rejections, the harsh feedback from your writing group, the statistics on the tiny number of new plays that get produced every year (and the even smaller number by female playwrights not named Lauren Gunderson) can just shut you down. Or, as I put it, take the heart out of the writing.
How do you get your mojo back?
I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Laurel Snyder whose middle grade novel “Orphan Island” is a very odd book – orphan kids on a desert island who come as toddlers and depart as teenagers to parts unknown. Needless to say, it’s not like anything else Laurel has previously written.
She says the book started as her own prescription for writers block. She was stuck in the “business” of writing and forgot about the joy. So she bought herself some toys – markers and paint and notebooks and her favorite mechanical pencil. She vowed to write the entire project in longhand and take the time to illustrate the characters. She drew islands and maps. She drew animals that didn’t exist that didn’t make it into the book. She had fun – the same fun she felt when she started writing when she was eight years old.
She promised herself that she wouldn’t show the project to anyone until it was done and if it didn’t get published, that would be okay, too. She would write a book just for herself.
Laurel got back in touch with the reason she started writing in the first place. She was writing out – putting on paper something inside of her that needed to get out in the world. In the process, she rediscovered the joy.
And of course, the book she created was so unique, it made the longlist for the National Book Award.
We’re not guaranteed such a reward of public recognition, but we can at least make the journey more enjoyable. Slow down. Buy a fabulous red gel pen with sparkles for the editing process. Find some fun stickers and reward yourself when you put down 500 words. Take yourself out for an outrageously fattening Toasted White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks when you’ve written every day for a week. Give yourself permission to watch hours of Hallmark Christmas movies. Find a way to make the writing fun again.
And share YOUR secrets with us.
You can hear the whole interview with Laurel Snyder here. You can even hear kids dissect the book on this episode.
LAFPI is pleased to be partnering with our friends at Broads’ Word Ensemble for LA Broads, a reading festival of short plays by (go figure!) LA female playwrights, directed by women. We love Broads’ Word – a group of femmes who truly walk the walk – and are looking forward to hearing stories of “perseverance, recovery, and unconventional podcasts.” We also (of course!) wanted to find out more about the writers. So we handed it over to the Broads’ Word ladies to come up with questions, and put them to the six ladies with works in the festival: Nayna Agrawa (Slut), Tiffany Cascio (Popcast & About Your Mother), Allie Costa (How I Knew Her), Aja Houston (Remembrance), Uma Incrocci (Roadside Alice) and Starina Johnson (Border Towns & All Kinds).
Broads Word Ensemble: What’s your experience been like, being an playwright (who happens to be a woman) in Los Angeles?
Nayna Agrawal: Humbling! Particularly as a chubby Asian gal with a mustache.
Tiffany Cascio: I have found the theatre scene in Los Angeles to be very welcoming. I moved here four years ago and was lucky to meet the wonderful and supportive playwrights and actors of LAFPI & PlayGround LA right away. This year I participated in Hollywood Fringe which opened my world up to even more fabulous theatre makers, including the Broads’ Word Ensemble team, so I definitely feel like I’m part of a community now. I’m incredibly inspired by them and feel very encouraged to keep writing!
Allie Costa: I’ve been a performer and a storyteller since day one. As a kid, if I wasn’t acting, singing, or dancing, I was writing, reading, or directing. The same can be said today. There’s nothing I love more than being on set or on stage. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career because there are multiple opportunities here for multi-hyphenates. I am grateful for those who have paved the way, and I try to pay it forward and hire other women every chance I get.
Aja Houston: I am blessed to be a part of a great cohort of talented, supportive grad students at USC. I love having the safe space to create fearlessly. Since being in Los Angeles, for a year now, I have had a play commissioned for a rehearsed reading at Playwright’s Arena and a short play, Floating on Credit, published by The Dionysian Literary Magazine. I am still very aware that as a Black female playwright there is a lot of work to do and I am more than up to the task!
Uma Incrocci: Although I’m an LA native, I’m new to playwriting in LA as my writing has only been produced in New York so far. I’m excited to be kicking off my Los Angeles experience with this reading!
Starina Johnson: I’ve somehow managed to surround myself with very thoughtful, supportive, and positive people in the world of Los Angeles playwrights. I think I’ve been very lucky in that regard.
Broads’ Word: In 6 words or less, what are your plays about?
Nayna: Post-abortion, practicing English to Wheel of Fortune
Tiffany: Love, loss and podcasting. And family secrets spilled.
Allie: Strangers cross paths in a graveyard.
Aja: A couple’s rituals of grief.
Uma: First woman to drive across America
Starina: For Border Towns – Living. And for All Kinds – Being true to yourself.
Broads’ Word: How did this topic come up for you and evolve into this play?
Nayna: Personal experience (sigh).
Tiffany: Popcast was my response to people labeling the dumped “crazy,” just because they can’t get over their exes. And family secrets and “choosing” your family is something I write about quite a bit; About Your Mother was me having fun with that.
Allie: The idea for this script came to me while I was watching the television show Rectify. There was a scene in which the main character visited a graveyard, and I thought, What if someone had been at the grave when he arrived? And the rest is history.
Aja: I wrote this play four years ago because I needed healing from the trauma of the killings of so many black boys like Trayvon Martin. I wanted to assert their humanity, their souls, their right to love, their right to live, and to be more than a body to be discarded like refuse.
Uma: At the Smithsonian, I noticed this small plaque about Alice Huyler Ramsey – the first woman to drive across the USA. There was this amazing photo of her and the other women who made the trip in 1909, in an open car on a dusty road in their dresses and flowered hats. I quickly became fascinated with her and her story.
Starina: Border Towns was a concept I’d had for awhile, but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. It was a short play notice that made me realize the best way to put the idea on the page.
The story the doctor tells at the end is 100% true; I actually said that to one of the resident doctor’s when my mother was dying and made him cry. I still feel really bad about that. I don’t think anyone likes making people cry, but I like to think that conversation with me gave him a different perspective on the concept of treating patients.
All Kinds actually started out as a short film that I thought would have more impact as a play. I like to think of terrible situations then try to figure out what could possibly make that situation worse. For me this is the worst case scenario for these characters.
Broads’ Word: Do you have any upcoming productions or news to share? And if LA theatermakers want to reach out about your plays, where would they find more information about you?
Nayna: I just had a reading (on October 8th) at the Bootleg Theater of Catcall, a full length play. For more, visit Naynaagrawal.com.
Aja: I have adevelopmental production at The Inkwell Theatre of my play Journey to Alice, in February 2018. My website is www.ajahouston.net.
Uma: I organize a monthly reading series of new plays and screenplays at For Actors By Actors, an acting school in Hollywood. We are always looking for new scripts to read and would love to hear from LA writers. My screenplay Kris & Noelle (a holiday movie about how Santa and Mrs. Claus first met) will be performed on December 10th. Visit umaincrocci.com.
Broads’ Word Ensemble’s Executive Director Tara Donovan produces LA Broads; the plays are directed by Elkin Antoniou, Lesley Asistio, June Carryl, Gloria Iseli, Rachel Manheimer & Rasika Mathur. Performances are Saturday, October 14th at 8:00 pm and Sunday, October 15th at 2:00 pm at the Flight Theater at The Complex Stages in Hollywood. For tix and info visit www.BroadsWordEnsemble.com.
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.
When we heard that LA’s Fierce Backbone, home of some amazing women playwrights, was collaborating with the femme-friendly Drive Theatre on a new production, our ears perked up. And after learning the project was Amy Tofte’s murder mystery on a mission to Mars, WOMEN OF 4G, we felt we had to find out a bit more about what went on behind the scenes before this collaboration blasted off.
LA FPI: Love that a female writer is venturing into what’s often thought of as a male territory – space, the final frontier. What draws you to science fiction?
AMY TOFTE: I’ve always been into Star Wars and read tons of sci-fi. Even my plays/stories that aren’t sci-fi usually have an element of the fantastical or the famous “what if” being asked. I think I’m drawn to it because classic sci-fi is often related to allegory and challenging ideology. I’ve read somewhere that all sci-fi examines religion. I’d go further and say it questions what we know now by offering up an alternative of what could be. I was also raised and educated on truly magical theater experiences and I’m inspired to create moments that will be fun for an audience to experience together. I love seeing the impossible staged when I go to the theater.
LA FPI: Tell us a bit about the role the Bechdel Test played in the creation of this work, which has all an female cast.
AMY: I think The Bechdel Test is important to all story telling and I think every writer should think about it. Novels, films, plays…it doesn’t matter. It’s important because I think we are brain-damaged as a society. All of us. It’s not just a divide that puts men on one side and women on the other. When you don’t have a society that represents true equality, the dominant (which is currently white male) becomes the default. It’s a real problem in stories and scripts. You’ll see a character described as “African-American” or “Chinese”…but then everyone else is given personality traits because the default is white.
I give a lot of feedback on scripts and you still see really good writers who are very much about empowering women but their story somehow doesn’t give their female characters all the things a “default character” might get: the women in the stories will be denied making decisions and choices, denied making mistakes and having moments to learn, driving the action. I say we’re brain-damaged because that’s ingrained in us as children. I’m not saying anything new here. That’s why diversity is important in story-telling. If we don’t see women playing super heroes or leaders in our stories, we don’t expect them in our lives.
I’m also pissed off. I’m pissed off about the election. I’m tired of knowing that women are over 50% of the population and we still write less than a third of all produced plays and have so few reps in congress or as CEO’s of major corporations. It’s ridiculous we’re still even talking in these terms. But the best thing I know to do with that anger is to write a play with all women. And make them all complicated, interesting characters who get to kick a little ass when they feel like it.
LA FPI: Let’s talk about Fierce Backbone, a development lab that seems to be very supportive of women’s voices onstage.
AMY: Fierce has been the single most important artistic home I’ve ever had. The focus is on development and we produce when we have the resources and a script we want to produce. We’re now in our 10th year! Fierce has consistently boasted over 50% female playwrights in our Writers Unit. So it’s easy to also say the majority of our productions, workshop productions and readings have featured female playwrights. We’re very proud of that. I also have so much respect and gratitude for our actors. They are an incredible resource.
LA FPI: How did Fierce Backbone connect with Drive Theatre for this project?
AMY: Drive has been a friend of Fierce for a few years now. We’ve supported each other’s work and they did a workshop production late last year of one of our other writer’s plays (Defenders by Cailin Harrison). We’ve also shared development ideas and were always looking for projects that make sense to partner on.
I shared the first draft of 4G with Doug and Kat [Drive Theatre Artistic Director Doug Oliphant and Kat Reinbold, Curatorial Producer] in late 2015 and they got involved in the development process. That was really energizing as we had a lot of new voices joining the conversation. Like any playwright getting produced, I feel very, very lucky! And I’m particularly lucky to see this through with people who have given so much to help the script grow.
[NOTE: This is Drive Theatre’s is a longtime friend of LA FPI and WOMEN OF 4G is its seventh straight production by a female playwright!]
LA FPI: What was it like in rehearsals, with such a femme presence… and and a male director?
AMY: OMG. It’s so amazing. And so noticeable. It also felt like the cast bonded immediately. It was like a room full of passionate, unruly schoolgirls one minute and then intense intellectual conversations about life and being a woman in this post-election world. It reminded me so much of all the great female friendships I’ve had over the years, where you can bond so quickly.
During our table work we all shared stories prompted by events in the play…times we were afraid, things we have to do as women that men don’t have to think about. It was also great having Doug there as our director because he was like a reality check that men are clueless about certain things in the lives of women. It made me realize that the making of this particular play could be just as important as the story and performance. I think we’re all taking away something special. These women feel like sisters to me, like we’ve all been through something together.
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.
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.
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.” 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?
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
Alyson Mead speaks with playwright Deb Hiett about development, trusting “the soup,” and the alternate universes of game shows in her new work The Super Variety Match Bonus Round, a Rogue Machine Theatre production currently playing at the Met Theatre in Hollywood
by Laura Shamas
The Naked Expedition Theatre Project is a new theatre company in New York, co-founded by Laura Bray and Celestine Rae. Its mission is specific and significant:
“To challenge the perceptions of women and the underrepresented through the voice of theatre and to serve as an advocate for their stories…TNEP strives to inspire writers of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and gender by providing a space for them to develop and share their work. We believe that artists thrive within a community that embraces exploration and the many stages of development and process. Our goal is to provide a platform for non-traditional stories and voices that will ignite conversation, understanding and investigation into the core humanity of women and the underrepresented within the local and global community.”
I was lucky enough to be part of the first evening of their new Reading Series, held at the beautiful Theatre Lab on W. 36th on September 15, 2014. There were five short plays read, all written by women: Femme Noir by Allie Costa; God Don’t Exist For Girls in Brooklyn by Yani Perez; my play The Cumin Guard; Got a Light by Tanya Everett; and Color Blue by Alexis Roblan. The directors were: Tiffany Greene, Julio Monge, and Derrick Anthony. It was a thrilling event; the bright talent of all involved was dazzling. How terrific to see five shows in a row by talented female writers! Personally, I was amazed by the performance of my 10-minute show that evening; all kudos and credit to director Tiffany Greene, and actors Erin Cherry, Suzanne Darrell and Lori Lang! The TNEP Reading Series will continue in coming months.
The atmosphere in any theatre company is fostered by its leaders; the ambience surrounding The Naked Expedition Theatre Project was palpably positive. So I wanted to find out more about Laura Bray and Celestine Rae, and learn about their insights and future plans; I asked them a few questions via e-mail. Check out their inspiring answers, and please don’t miss the announcement of a new submission opportunity at the end.
Celestine Rae and Laura Bray, photo credit: JP Photography NYC
1) When and where did you first become involved with theater? Celestine Rae: “I was very aware of the need for self-expression at a young age. I was terribly shy as a child but ironically, I was drawn to performing. I began my life in the theater as a dancer. Dancing was a vehicle for me to not only express myself but to tell my own personal story through movement. I was always creating and seeking out new avenues for performing. I began choreographing my own dances, creating my own skits, performing in school plays and dance recitals, and directing all of the children in my neighborhood in productions of my own. I was blessed to dance and train in Philadelphia at dance studios, including the renowned Philadanco (where I also performed as an apprentice company member), under some of the dance masters of our time who were former dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Martha Graham Company. These choreographers and teachers were the storytellers I looked up to. They were my August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Shakespeare. I watched documentaries on the lives of Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavellade, and Geoffery Holder and heard them speak of the importance of telling stories that were of their culture and background. And I saw and felt the enormous impact it had on a generation of dancers who were given the platform to share a part of themselves with a world that might not have shown interest were it not for that art form. I recognized what dance and theater did for the artist and for the audience. It was, and is transformative. When I decided to focus primarily on acting, it felt like the natural progression of my career and artistry. I trained at the William Esper Studio under Terry Knickerbocker and began working in off-Broadway theater productions soon after. Continuing my patterns from childhood, I began taking interest in creating my own work and began writing and directing my own plays.”
Laura Bray: “Being in a theatre is one of my earliest memories. My dad was a classical musician with our state orchestra so I remember spending hours in a huge 1000+ seat theatre with no audience and a full orchestra playing and just loving the feeling I had there and feeling really at home and connected with it. My mum is an English teacher so I think that’s where my love affair with words and how they worked together came from. From both of those things stemmed my love of the theatre. Of live connection with an audience and of story telling. I started performing stage as an actor back in Australia when I was about 15, but I really think my love was more with the scripts and hence I left acting for writing and haven’t looked back.”
2) When and why did you decide to form your own theatre company?
“We both initially began as actors and met at The William Esper Studio in NYC. We connected as friends and fellow artists but we definitely shared a desire for more diverse portrayals of women in theater and in entertainment and the media across the board. We came up with the idea to start something… we weren’t sure what… at the beginning of last year. After many meetings and cups of coffee, we came to realize that beginning our own theater company was the direction we wanted to go. We saw a great need for this and began to build it.”
Laura: “I know for me personally, I didn’t often feel that I got to see much of our humanity on stage. I think that is a big driving force behind not only deciding to work together but also to form a company with such a specific mission. Another reason (and this is another important one to me) was to create a community. A community of like-minded artists and thinkers. Dreamers and doers. I think that surrounding ourselves with others that strive and think and challenge is hugely helpful and inspiring. This is something that we would love to achieve with TNEP.”
Celestine: “Humanity is definitely our buzz word. Our desire to show women and other underrepresented people as complex human beings as opposed to stereotypes is at the center of our work. As former actors and emerging writers, we share the desire to tell stories about women, all kinds of women from all kinds of diverse backgrounds. I believe in the cliché motto ‘If you build it, they will come’ and I wanted to move from a place of feeling reactive to proactive. I wanted to stop feeling helpless and disappointed with the limited opportunities for women and begin to empower myself (and others) by building our own platform. I’d say empowerment is another one of our buzzwords for sure.”
3) What are your future plans for The Naked Expedition Project?
“Our long term goal is for TNEP is to expand into a full functioning theater company with a diverse pool of talented, inspired & driven artists. A company that showcases the underrepresented voices so that eventually they will become REPRESENTED. We want to assist in providing opportunities for artists who are struggling to be seen. Our plans for TNEP include producing full productions that reach audiences of all backgrounds and ignite conversation, leading to education, change & unity.
We are incredibly excited about our October reading series as we feature the work of an incredible woman and playwright, Cori Thomas. We are thrilled to be hosting a reading of her play, My Secret Language of Wishes on Monday, October 13th at 7:30 pm at THEATERLAB in NYC. 357 W 36th St.”
4)What is the genesis of your company’s name? Celestine: “I really love our name! The Naked Expedition Project. It’s provocative. I’m actually really proud of our name. As an actress working in film & TV as well, many of the roles I have been auditioning for have begun to require nudity. The nudity of women on screen is so prevalent and such a complex issue for me. I’d like to believe that the female body is celebrated for its beauty on screen and in the media, however more often than not it is being objectified instead. Being naked, both physically and emotionally is such a vulnerable experience. My acting teacher (Terry Knickerbocker) used to tell us that we had to be willing to be publicly naked (emotionally)– without skin– to be an actor. That stuck with me. I think the same is true for artists of all disciplines and especially in the world of theater. Sharing your voice and art with the world is extremely vulnerable. So- there was a bit of a play on the objectification of the female body and the vulnerability of being naked in an emotional and artistic sense.”
Laura: “Our name really derived from our desire, I think. The desire to find, experience & reveal work that required us to expose & to be exposed. To be naked and truthful. And to be taken on a journey. Or not even on a journey. Something so much bigger than that. An Expedition… I think whatever kind of artist you are, you are required to be bare and naked. With yourself and with your audience. This is kind of work I want to create myself as a playwright & produce within TNEP. The name felt right when we created it.”
5) Are there any upcoming submission opportunities for women playwrights with TNEP?
“We’re excited about February 2015 and the opportunity to be inspired by the great Maya Angelou. We’re seeking submissions from playwrights that are inspired by the works and life of Ms. Angelou. This submission opportunity is open to all playwrights until December 1st, 2014. Short plays 10-15 pages maximum. All submissions can be sent to: email@example.com.”
Thanks, Celestine and Laura, for taking action and leading the way. You can subscribe to their “Spotlight Series page” to stay up to date on everything going on with TNEP via their website. You can find TNEP on Twitter – @NakedExpedition; on Facebook – The Naked Expedition Project; and on Instagram – TheNakedExpeditionProjectNYC. Donations needed: The Naked Expedition Project is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. Please visit their website for more info on how to donate to TNEP.
Final words from Celestine and Laura: “Show us some love. We’ll love you back.”
Celestine Rae, Laura Bray, TIffany Greene, Yani Perez, Alexis Roblan September 15, 2014 – Photo Credit: JP Photography NYC.
In 2013, writer/performer Chris Farah’s show Fancy: The Southern Gothic Camp Parable debuted in the Hollywood Fringe Festival, winning a “Virgin” Award and “Best of Fringe Extension.” The good news is that Farah’s latest iteration of Fancy is back this year, opening in the 2014 Hollywood Fringe on June 8th at 3 Clubs as Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir. Since meeting Farah last year, I’ve seen her on television a lot, and as a fan, wanted to ask her some questions about her process, how she writes/performs comedy, and what it means to be a Fringe Femme. Luckily for me, she had time to respond. By the way, Farah is guest-tweeting for LA FPI starting the week of June 8, 2014.
Q: What is your background and how did you become interested in comedy?
A: How do I even begin this question? Haha, I was born in the valley and raised in Orange County. I always liked to sing and grew up being obsessed with musical theatre, everything from Guys and Dolls, to Godspell, to Cabaret to Rent (especially in high school). We moved around a lot, so I started to cultivate being funny or embracing my innate ridiculousness to be popular in new environments.
In high school, I started taking theatre classes at South Coast Repertory and found a teacher there, Laurie Woolery, who was such a strong, inspirational female mentor to me that when I got into college I had the audacity to major in Theatre (I had promised my dad I was going to go into Journalism and Communications). I went to Loyola Marymount University, and got cast as a freshman in the play Portia Coughlan by Marina Carr (directed by Diane Benedict, another strong female mentor and my favorite teacher in college) as the retired prostitute aunt, Maggie May, who smoked like a chimney and limped around the stage due to her varicose veins. Still to this day, my favorite role and production of my life. The play is haunting, and dark, and beautiful, and cemented in me the reality that theatre was my life. I dreamed of graduation and going to get my MFA at NYU but alas, my dad, albeit supportive, wasn’t into paying thousands for more theatre education and when I quite easily got a commercial agent I decided to stay in LA.
I took improv classes at the Groundlings and then started taking long form improv and sketch classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre right when it opened in LA (I had wandered into the now defunct Tamarind theatre space and into the UCB opening party where I was seduced with all the people dancing, drinking and generally being full of debauchery inside a theatre, it felt VERY Dionysian). Long form improv felt like true stripped down, bare bones theatre, no director, no writer, just theater artists jumping from the backwall to create a full and succinct piece. I started doing shows there, lots of “dirty” or blue comedy, sketch shows, character bits in shows, and genre-based improv like musical theatre or Tennessee Williams, and then writing my own short musicals for a show at UCB called Quick & Funny Musicals. Through writing I really got to hone in on my comedic voice which, of course, ultimately helped me as a performer, and that voice was camp comedy. I had done a musical improv show at the Celebration Theater where I met Kurt Koehler and Efrain Schunior. Kurt would later facilitate me doing shows at the Cavern Club at the basement of Casita del Campo, the best camp and drag theatre in the town! Efrain would go on to write and let me star in his improv telenovela saga Stallions de Amor. When I started writing my one lady show Fancy, Kurt ended up being my director and Efrain my producer. And that’s where we are now!
Q: How did you develop your show Fancy and how is it different this year than last?
A: I took a class on writing a one person show at the Writer’s Pad that was taught by Julie Brister, another UCB improviser whose own one lady show Fat Parts I had seen and respected. I knew I wanted to create a piece of theatre but I didn’t want it to be a SNL audition (big characters, haphazardly strewn together), nor did I want to talk about my personal life or family, and I had seen Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel and didn’t think I was capable of that kind of character work, Godbless, so I literally had no idea what I was gonna do. Julie had asked to email her show ideas if we didn’t already have one and I, only in passing at the end of the email, mentioned Fancy. Fancy, an idea based on the fact that my mother used to sing me the song while playing the guitar and as I got older it had become my karaoke anthem. There was something about the storytelling in that song, Fancy’s strength, the melodrama and southern spirit, the fact my paternal grandmother was from a small Louisiana town, and finally the last verse where she gives it to the “hypocrites” that I connected with, and with Julie’s support wrote some monologues that would end up being in Fancy’s first show – Fancy! A Southern Gothic Camp Parable. Fancy first premiered at the Cavern Club and the next summer I brought it to the Hollywood Fringe ’13. I love performing her and was completely overwhelmed by the response people gave her. I can’t even express the delight and appreciation I have when people say they connect with her or love her. I want for her to have the accessibility of cult icons like Elvira or Dame Edna.
For this next show, Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir, I want to connect with the audience in a brand new interactive cabaret show which picks up with the Fancy we left you with at the end of the last show, strong, independent, fearless and free. She is going to share the things she has learned along the way but of course in her warm, sassy, and “innocent for a prostitute” way. Fancy is going to talk directly to the audience, answer questions, integrate social media, teach/preach, sing songs, maybe even improv a song, who knows. 🙂
Q: Where/when/how do you write? What are your inspirations? Who are your mentors? Do you mentor someone?
A: I write on my couch which is where I eat, watch TV, hang with friends, take afternoon naps, and do pretty much every other important thing in life on. I write only when necessary, so I have to “book myself” things to ultimately get me to write. I am naturally HORRIBLY LAZY, and have nightmarish self-discipline skills. I don’t have a mentor but my best friend Amy Rhodes is a writer (she has done a couple of one person shows and published plays and currently writes on Ellen) and she reads everything I write. I don’t mentor anyone for writing, but I have acted in the Young Storytellers Foundation’s Big Shows and would love to mentor school-aged kids soon. I pull inspiration from so many sources! Mae West, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Saunders, Jill Davis, Tina Fey, Rebel Wilson, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Morgan Murphy, Jackie Beat, RuPaul, & Elvira. I get inspired every time I see Angelyne riding around LA in that pink corvette, she’s like a living nomadic performance artist (though maybe I wish she did something besides sell t-shirts for 20 bucks out of her trunk, I own at least 3 shirts by the way).
Q: What do you think are the challenges and perks of being a woman in comedy in Los Angeles?
A: The challenge is if you don’t know about comic books, sports, video games or other things comedy guys like, it can be super frustrating to be in male-dominated scenarios. That frustration can weigh on your own self-esteem as a writer and performer, and if you aren’t able to take yourself out of the situation and know your intrinsic value, it can ultimately be super depressing. Surround yourself with people that understand and appreciate you and that also WORK. Cultivating a group of ambitious and hilarious females and homosexual males that have driven me to work has been the biggest blessing in my career. The perks are once you get to a level where you know what you do and you trust you do it well, there are unforetold opportunities to share your voice. Sometimes you have to make those opportunities but so many successful females are writing and producing their own work (again: Casey Wilson & June Diane Raphael, Jessica St. Claire & Lennon Parham, obs Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham). I believe as female comedy writers, we all own a lil’ piece of each other successes (SPOILER ALERT: one of Fancy’s secrets), because it says there IS a market for female-centered comedies written by females who truly understand the feminine narrative in the modern world.
Q: What are some of your theories on comedy? (Its value, why we need it, how to do it, etc.)
A: Godbless, I think truth is always present in successful comedy. Maybe that’s why I enjoy camp, I can always wink at the audience with the “You know I’m wearing fake eyelashes and a drag wig, right? This is a show.” I also think that’s why comedy and heart plays so well together; it’s another way of showing the truth of characters or relationships being portrayed. I guess I subscribe to all the other rules of comedy: “yes and,” ” don’t ask questions,” “comedy in reversals,” “the unexpected,” “rules of three,” “funny is in the details,” and “using plosives,” but they don’t define my work. I don’t know HOW to do it per se; I think what I write is funny and I know it’s not for everyone but that at least SOME other people will think it’s funny too.
Q: Why do you like to perform in the Hollywood Fringe? And what does it feel like to be a part of it? What are your thoughts on being a Fringe Femme?
A: I love performing at HFF for so many reasons but here’s just a few:
a) because it’s my hometown and as a theatre artist, I’m gonna rep LA for life
b) it’s easy as I live here, and obs cheaper for that reason too
c) it gives me a place and sense of community
d) I love meeting new people and seeing new work
e) it has taught me to be a producer and for that alone I am eternally grateful
f) it helps give validation to Fancy whom I care so deeply for, and the insight on how to give her legs beyond her first show last year
g) forcing me to continue her shows (literally because I won the Virgin award, I couldn’t just not come back the next year) and wanting to make this next show better than the first.
It feels completely different this year than last! I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and this year people already know Fancy’s name! It feels like what i always thought going to a dream performing arts high school would feel like! Except I can stay out late. 🙂
Being a Fringe Femme is everything. The support I was granted by the LA FPI last year was immeasurable and helped shine a light on Fancy when no one knew her. For me, it validated me as a writer. I always knew when writing Fancy that I was going to give myself the subtle platform to express my views on feminism (as well as LGBTQ rights) and being a Fringe Femme and honestly reading Jennie Webb’s blog filled me with the pride that I had infused this crazy, ridiculous character with those values. We are women, and we do have to fight tooth and nail to bring ourselves from one stage in life to where we ultimately want to be. It’s hard, and there’s going to be adversaries and antagonists along the way, but if you know yourself and your power, no one can take it away from you.
Q: Any other upcoming projects to discuss?
A: I mean, what else do you want from me? Haha, joking. I have been blessed to get into talking head work on pop culture shows. I live for pop culture, reading gossip blogs are another favorite pastime to do on my couch. I am doing a lot of standup shows and am trying to get a monthly variety show happening in LA. Besides that, I’m producing a podcast and writing a pilot because, as I said, I rep LA. 🙂
Q: Are there links to any of your performances already online (TV, etc.) that we can include?
Marilyn MacCrakin is an award winning playwright and photographer. In 2011, Marilyn’s play, “The Family Tree” was a finalist in the “New Voices Playwriting Contest” for Images Theatre in Sacramento, CA. In 2009, her play, “Dressing Matilda” was produced by the Grand Players in Omaha, NE and went on to win “Best New Play” from the Omaha Arts Council. In 2006, her short play, “Photo Sensitive” was produced at the MET’s Playwright’s Intensive in Kansas City, MO in conjunction with Arthur Kopit. In 2000 her play, “In The Time It Takes To Breathe” won Edward Albee’s Yukon Pacific New Playwriting Award. Several of her plays have been presented at Edward Albee’s Great Plains Theatre Conference and the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. Her other plays include: “The Brethren,” “Baptista,” and “The Sound of Hope.” Marilyn’s photo, “Blackbird’s Singing” won an Award of Merit at the 2013 California Fine Arts Competition and in 2011, two of her photos, “A Cat in Mykonos” and “Island at Emerald Bay” won Merit Awards, also for the California State Fair Fine Arts Competition.
I met Marilyn MacCrakin at the very first Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Nebraska in 2006. It was the very first playwright’s conference that I had ever attended. Attending the conference from 2006 – 2008, we ran into each other each year and have kept in touch encouraging each other and reading each other’s work. On one of my check in emails, Marilyn mentioned giving up on writing – not something I could understand because she is an excellent storyteller. I have admired the way she went into a whole other art form and excels in it… Hoping to get her to change her mind or at least explain why she felt not writing plays anymore was a way to go, I decided to interview her for LA FPI. Maybe if she had to answer questions about that decision she’d rethink it. God forbid that gender parity should play a role in her decision but I wondered how many female writers give up, need extended breaks to rejuvenate themselves, how many reinvent themselves…basically, how do you keep doing art when you seem to be hitting wall after wall after wall?
Robin Byrd: Where are you from? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Marilyn MacCrakin: I was born and raised in Sacramento, CA. I was a theatre arts major at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA and I thought I was going to be an actress so I stayed in the Los Angeles area for a while. When that didn’t work out, I moved to Nome, Alaska to work as a DJ in radio. I also became involved with the Nome Arts Council, establishing a Community Theatre there. I lived in Nome for six years, producing and writing plays for a “live theatre starved” audience. In a town of approx. 4,000 people – we sold out every night. The people would bring their entire families – they would dress up and almost act like they were in “church” – very respectful of the arts. It was very rewarding, if it wasn’t for the darkness and the cold weather, I might still be there.
RB: How did you become a playwright? What brought you to theater?
MM: I studied acting and theatre in high school and as I said, I had aspirations of becoming an actress so I majored in Theatre in College. After college, I joined a writing group; I thought I would write novels. In the writing group, we all read from our work out loud and one of my fellow writers said, “I like your story, but you know, most of your book is dialogue.” The light bulb turned on. Of course, I started writing plays immediately and had my actor friends read them all. I thought plays were “just dialogue.” Even though I had acted in many plays, I soon realized I really didn’t know “how to write” a play so I went back to school at California State University, Sacramento to study playwriting.
RB: What is your favorite play of yours? Why?
MM: My favorite play that I have written is “Baptista” – a play I wrote about John the Baptist. I studied everything that was written about John the Baptist because I wanted to make John into a “real” person — a living, breathing, locust-eating zealot who could have been living it up in the temple as a priest (he was in the priestly line and they were treated like “rock stars” in that time) Instead, he retreated to the desert to listen to the voice of God so that he could prepare to take on the most corrupt political party of his time and turn their thinking upside down! I found John to be a revolutionary man. It could be said that he was “up-staged” by Christ (yes, I know this was exactly the plan – and John prepared the way). But therefore, I believe John doesn’t receive enough credit. I’m very proud of the play because it is based on truth yet I’ve weaved my imagination (based on historical writings) into some of the gaps. (Plays are fiction, right?) In any case, it continues to be unproduced because it seems to be too religious for a secular audience and too controversial for a “spiritual” audience.
RB: What is your favorite production of one of your plays? Why?
MM: My play, (really the first play I ever wrote), “The Sound of Hope” which was produced in Nome, Alaska. It just “worked.” It was a play based on a series of monologs which weaved into a story about the brave women of Alaska — about their experiences which had been recounted to me while I lived there. A white missionary woman who was raped in a remote Native village, a Native woman who struggled with alcoholism who sobered up after giving birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome – a young Native school teacher whose grandmother had been born on a dogsled in the middle of a blizzard. They were all strong survivors. The play just told their stories – no judgment, no easy “solutions.” I just remember watching the audience as the play was performed – they were fully engaged. It was very rewarding to me.
RB: Do you have a favorite playwright? What about them inspires you and how?
MM: I would say my favorite play is “Last Train to Nibroc” by Arlene Hutton. I saw this play at B Street Theatre in Sacramento, CA. I was enthralled by its pure simplicity, the humor and the unabashed hopefulness that “love conquers all.” I was so inspired, I went home straight away and wrote a complete play in two days. It was a two character play about love. That is where the similarity to Arlene’s wonderful play ended as my play was awful but I wrote it, just the same.
I also admire Edward Albee, Theresa Rebeck, August Wilson, Mercedes Ruhl, Horton Foote, Tom Stoppard and did I say Theresa Rebeck? And the amazing Robin Byrd of course!
RB: You are very kind. Now if that could just catch on. What would you consider the hardest part of being a playwright? How do you feel about the theater community?
MM: I would say the hardest thing about being a playwright would be the fact that most of the time you’re “writing in a vacuum.” It’s hard to find playwriting communities that will “workshop” your work. It seems that most theatres these days are looking for “production” ready plays. I understand that theatre is a business. But I have found that even for a “play reading” series at a theatre or conference– they seem to want the play to be “already perfect.” I can’t seem to find places that want you to submit “almost ready” plays that can be read and critiqued by an audience. With a little tweaking – a lot of my plays could be production ready.
RB: You have mentioned that you don’t really write anymore. What would you say has put a damper or hindrance on your writing? You’ve been produced. You’ve won awards. Knowing your work personally, I can’t imagine you not ever writing another play. I feel your voice as a writer is needed. Is this a break to rejuvenate or have you really given up on your craft? Will you ever come back to playwriting?
MM: I would hope this is just a break from playwriting. In the last couple of years, I have continued to write, continued to submit my plays and although I am very thick-skinned by now, I was amazed by the non-response to my work. There wasn’t any criticism, there weren’t any questions, there was NO RESPONSE. I can take, “I hated it.” Or I would love to hear, “I loved it.” I can sift through the comments of how they think I should re-write it. But NOTHING, I cannot take.
RB: You are also a photographer. What is it about photography that draws you in? Do you think it is a form of storytelling?
MM: Photography is a form of storytelling to me. I was on a trip to Greece several years back, and I had purchased a new Nikon camera. I saw a black cat in Mykonos, (there are many cats in Mykonos) against one of the white stone walls there, so I took the photo. Only later, did I realize that it told a story of a curious cat captured in a perfectly composed picture. Someone said I should enter it into the CA Fine Art Competition at the CA State Fair, so on a lark, I submitted it and it won a Merit Award. I thought it was beginners luck! Since then I have won two other merits awards and now I realize that it’s very difficult to be accepted into this juried competition!
RB: What else do you do to keep your creative juices running? What type of art do you create now other than playwriting and photography? Where do your passions lie?
MM: I have an Etsy shop for my photography and vintage art items. Etsy has a “treasury” component that I find very creatively fulfilling. Basically you find 16 items that you like and put them together into a 16 “frame” work of art. They can be color coordinated or some even tell a story. Of course, I love the story kind. Plus, I find it “promotes” my photography shop and also promotes other artists who I love to support and in turn, most of them reciprocate and include my photos in their treasuries — so it’s a win, win.
I find myself sort of addicted to making story treasuries. It’s a challenge to find Etsy items that match your story. I did one called “Film Noir” – I found a seller who was selling vintage film reels and a bracelet that looked like a piece of film – vintage fashion posters etc. The final effect is like a work of art in itself.
Another unique component to treasury making is that there are “teams” on Etsy who support each other. Most teams are about selling and promoting. Other teams are groups which band together by theme items or art or photography. Some teams support each other like a “support group.” One Etsy member found out that one of her favorite shop owners was going to chemotherapy and started a team to support her. She made encouraging treasuries with inspiring photos and posters etc. She named it the “BRAVE” team. Within weeks the team had grown to 75 members from all over the world, some who have shops with handmade knitted scarfs or necklaces or handmade jewelry, others are photographers like myself. Other members are care-takers of loved ones who have cancer or an illness – some are supporting parents with dementia or they themselves are going through some kind of health or mental or emotional issue. They started “Thursday Night Brave Stories” treasuries – the results are amazing! We all find that a little bit of encouragement goes a long way. I never seen anything like it.
RB:. How have you evolved over the years as an artist? Do you feel that it all comes together in some way – the creative outlets? Do you consider yourself to be somewhat of a renaissance woman?
MM: Well, I listen to my voice and I really try to be true to that inspiration. Early on, I tried to “copy” the way other playwrights write their plays. Now, I write what is true to me. I guess I must say, this “being true to my voice” has not necessarily been successful in getting my plays produced so I wonder how to balance my voice with the desire for my voice to be heard.
RB: When did you find your voice as an artist? Are you still searching for it? Where do you feel it is most clear?
MM: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I “hear voices.” (yes, I know how that sounds). But I find “characters” from my play that I’m working on. They just start talking and pretty soon I have to get up and take dictation! This happened to me very clearly for my play, “The Family Tree” — a very proper Southern woman was talking to her neighbor about the Mississippi River! It doesn’t always happen that way, but I find this to be the “magical” part of writing.
RB: How do you decide when to move to a different creative outlet or when to give one a rest? How do you know what will fulfill your need to create? Can you discuss your process?
MM: Usually, I will be writing one new play and tweaking another. And if I get stuck then I switch to photography. Photography to me is like “instant gratification.” You take a photo – you edit it – you put it on your website and you immediately (usually) get a response. And for me that response is quite often very positive so it usually gets me through the dry patches in writing.
RB: . Do you ever feel that being a female artist puts you at a disadvantage in any way?
MM: Well, I would like to say “No,” but unfortunately, that wouldn’t be true. For some reason, male playwrights still seem to get produced more often than female playwrights – I think this is slowly changing but it’s too slow. I know there are many professional theatres and conferences that include in their mission to seek out female playwrights, but then I look at the list of plays that they are producing or featuring at the conference and the majority of them are male. I don’t get that because I know other female playwrights are submitting?
RB: How do you battle the negative voice? (insecurity, second guessing)
MM: Well, usually I adapt an “I don’t care what they think” attitude. But then I re-write a play to death to try to “please the elusive someone” – the audience, my critics, my mentors – and the edited play doesn’t work, of course. I think that’s why I’m taking a break so I can quiet the negative voice and just get back to writing what flows out of my voice.
RB:. Do you have a theme that you come back to a lot in your work? How do you decide which medium to use?
MM: I think one theme that reoccurs a lot in my plays is “broken people who find healing or redemption.” I like to focus on positive things that happen in life – even when in reality many, many negative things happen before the final positive outcome.
RB: What are you working on now?
MM: A play called, “The Patina Principle.” I wrote it last year after I had to take my mother to visit an emergency room late at night. The emergency room took on a “support group” type of atmosphere that was amazing to me. People who didn’t know each other at all were bonding together about their illnesses and brokenness and then in a weird coincidence, I ran into my neighbor there who was having a panic attack from a broken relationship (i.e. a broken heart.) I didn’t know that about her and I’m her neighbor! So, I started writing this play to mirror what happened in my life because of it but it isn’t coming out right yet. So I took a break from writing it, so I can return to it with fresh eyes. The last time I tried to take a look at it – it was like it was written in a foreign language so I guess I’m not ready yet!