Category: LAFPI

An Interview with Constance Congdon

by Anna Nicholas

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

Constance Congdon

 

AN: What was your earliest theatrical experience?

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

 

AN: Did you study theatre in College?

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

 

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

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

 

AN: What was your first play and first production?

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

 

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

CC: Thank you.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

AN: What advice would you give to female playwrights?

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

 

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

CC: Absolutely.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Finding Your Fringe

By Anna Nicholas

In late January, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to see a short play of mine debut at Fertile Ground (http://fertilegroundpdx.org), what Portlandia calls its theatrical fringe festival. Fringe festivals exist in most major cities these days and provide writers, directors and performers of all types, a way to get their work seen. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a pipeline to production, it’s time to consider being on the fringe.

I am a bi-city kind of woman these days, with work in Los Angeles and in Portland, and thus I qualify to submit (Fertile Ground, unlike some fringe festivals, only accepts submissions from those with local ties). Since many Angelenos have ties elsewhere, you too may find yourself with the ability to submit work to fringe festivals outside of LA as well.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival (https://www.edfringe.com ) is the great mother of theatre festivals. Her origins are humble and date to the 1940s when three London based theatre companies ventured north to Scotland to put on works “on the fringe” of the official Edinburgh International Festival. The “fringe” at the time referred to both geography and subject matter. Since then, Edinburgh has steadily grown to become what a recent edition of The Dramatist magazine intimated was such a huge festival, with so many offerings that it had become overwhelming for both participant and audience member. One woman interviewed said it would be impossible without a cocktail.

Edinburgh’s success has also spawned similar festivals around the world, which are, thankfully, of more manageable size, including Fertile Ground, which began in 2009, and the Hollywood Fringe, (http://www.hollywoodfringe.org) which debuted in 2010 with 130 shows. In 2016, that number swelled to 296, while this year’s Portland fringe was just behind that with 295 works presented.  Both festivals are unjuried; meaning  if your show meets the specs (not too hard) and you pay your fees, you’re in!

Unlike Fertile Ground, anyone anywhere can submit to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, though it still attracts a predominantly SoCal contingent of artists (there is a deep pack of talent here, after all).  But if you want to try your luck elsewhere, similar fests happen annually in San Diego, Tucson, DC, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta,  Chicago, Providence, NYC, Cincinnati, and the list continues to grow.  I’m an advocate of not waiting around for someone to discover your work, put a team together for a fringe festival. And by the way, submissions for Hollywood Fringe 2017 are now open.

 

 

Anna Nicholas is a published novelist (The Muffia Series, Homegrown: The Terror Within), produced playwright (Buddha Belly, Petting Zoo Story, Villa Thrilla, Theatre in the Dark, Incunabula) and actress. More info at: annanicholas.com

 

Report from the Colorado New Play Summit

By Kitty Felde

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

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

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

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

STRONG WORK

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

MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:

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

TWO WORD TITLES:

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

POLITICAL PLAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE ARE THE LADIES?

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

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

PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE

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

CHANGE IN THE AIR

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

PS

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

New on the LA FPI Podcast: “What She Said” – Alyson Mead with Susan Rubin

 

Alyson Mead speaks with playwright Susan Rubin about life, love, mythology and the devil in her play Liana and Ben, currently playing at Circle X Theatre

Listen In!

 



What conversations do you want to have? Send your suggestions for compelling female playwrights or theater artists working on LA stages to Alyson Mead at lafpi.podcast@gmail.com, then listen to “What She Said.”

Click Here for More LA FPI Podcasts

First Production: The Lost Years


 

 

 

 

 

from Cynthia Wands

In two weeks, I’ll be in another place. I’ll be sitting at a table, listening to the read through for the first production of my play, THE LOST YEARS.

The Contra Costa Civic Theatre is producing a premier of this work – after I’ve stamped through different venues with three staged readings, two workshops and a couple of years of rewrites, it’s really happening.

In one of those mirror like twists of fate, the director is a friend of mine from many years ago. Last year year she directed a staged reading of the play for her theater’s new works project. I saw how respectful she was of the actors during the process, and how she was able to guide nuance and intelligence into lines that didn’t quite look that way when I wrote them.

After the read through, I had to go home and get back on the path of submitting the script to theaters, and workshops, and festivals. I did feel a bit like Mama Rose yelling: Sell it! Dammit, just sell it!

But in the best dramatic fashion, late one night last year I received a phone call. And it was my director, who let me know that a scheduled play for their 2017 season had become unavailable, and could they produce my play instead.

I think I yelled YES. I might have cried, I don’t know how professional that is.  But I was tingling like I had been dusted with lightning. One of the best phone calls I have ever had.

And so, here we are months later, about to embark on this journey with the script.

The play is cast, the other theater artists have been assembled, and now we have the time to read it, and rehearse and learn from one another.  I’ll get to watch a few of the rehearsals.

I’m so grateful to have this experience. I have no idea how it will sound/play/resolve itself. It is after all, a comedy. You know what they say about comedy. (Dying is easy, comedy is hard.)

I’m feeling such a need for important plays in the world right now; about our leadership and our climate and the future of women, that to have a comedy try and tinkle out the laughs, seems a bit off for the times.

But personally, I’m also feeling the effects of compassion fatigue/outrage and I could use a dose of knowing laughter.

So I’m getting a wish to come true. I’d love to hear any advice from other women playwrights about their first production: was there anything you wish had or had not done for your first show?

The Stories In My Head…

by Robin Byrd

“Trying to teach my hands to do what I hear in my head” John Hartford, fiddler

Every year I try to work on a new play or writing project and part of that entails finding different ways to tell the story.  I have all these stories in my head that I want to tell and at times I feel like John Hartford, that I must teach myself a new way into the story before I can get what’s in my head out.  The last few years, I have noticed that even when I hear “first words,” I must still wait until the structure is revealed to me as well.  At other times, I must prevent myself from overriding what seems to be outside the realm of textbook playwriting – more theatrical than normal for me.

David Henry Hwang states in his author’s note in M. BUTTERFLY, “Before I can begin writing, I must ‘break the back of the story,’ and find some angle which compels me to set pen to paper.’

Compelling angles are very important to giving a story a fair chance to have a life on stage.

Each play is different.  Each time we write, we must find a way to get words on the page worthy of living out loud on the stage – always new, always the same but different, always the best journey to take to “The End.” And then, we start all over again trying to get more stories out of our heads…

 

Too Specialized…

by Robin Byrd

I was having a meal with a playwright friend who I invited to read my newest 10-minute play.  After reading the piece, she asked me if I ever thought of writing something a little less specialized (I am paraphrasing because I only remember the jest of the conversation which usually happens to me when things hit my core like a grenade launcher.  How well do you remember in those times?  Memory can be selective…but I digress.).  She went on to say that because it was about women’s issues, it probably won’t ever be done. I was slightly taken aback as the words seeped in.  But then, I know my friend, so I looked closely at her body language and she was off into thought; it was as though, she was wondering aloud about her own work – that when finished it might also be considered “specialized” and un-producible.

“It is not specialized,” I say, “it is universal because it has happened to others. The work might not get done because I am a woman no matter what I write so I might as well write about women’s issues because maybe…just maybe, someone will be brave enough to want to tackle it. And, the stories need to be told regardless.”

“I relate to part of it but not all of it even though it may be true.”

“You don’t have to relate to all of it, no one hardly relates to all of a story – a piece is fine…”

Then I thought to myself, you have been having this conversation all week with yourself.  Write what you need to write, find a way to get it out there…  Shoved a fry in my mouth, food was not particularly good but I really love being around this friend, she makes me think and try harder.  She’s pretty profound…  And, I had been thinking  —  more than week actually, about the kinds of things that I write, and how each story steps up to the plate when they are ready to start swinging the bat and not one second before.  And how what I write absolutely affects when and where I enter…  I write down my story ideas, list them in close proximity so I can get back to them easily, go back to add notes from time to time and I try to listen really hard to what characters start talking to me because I am not one to write before I hear first words…  Sometimes it’s all smoke and no flames but when the flames start, I write.  It’s the decade benders that seem to be coming up to bat now.  I had concluded that these stories have been fixin’ to talk for too long for me to get in the way with stipulations on what they can talk about…besides birthin’ babies is hard work… I also concluded that I was not going to have that conversation with myself again.  I write what I write and am loving the new octaves…

I was reading that sometimes when searching for female ancestors, one should try Insane Asylums because there was a time when wives and daughters were “put away” for not being obedient enough.  Emily Mann wrote a play titled “Mrs. Packard” about just this sort of thing, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard was put away by her husband the Reverend Theophilus Packard in 1860.  (https://mccarter.org/Education/mrs-packard/html/index.html)

Women have been sterilized (see compulsory sterilization, forced sterilization, Eugenics Movement) if deemed “weak” or “undesirable” or “feeble-minded” along with men deemed the same.  Carrie Buck was sterilized at 17 after giving birth to an illegitimate child – a child sired by a family member of her foster parents who raped her.  Carrie was in foster care because her mother had been committed to an asylum probably for having an illegitimate child.  (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Buck_Carrie_Elizabeth_1906-1983).

We have to tell our stories.   They all count.

“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete; they make one story become the only story…The consequence of a single story is this – it robes people of dignity…” Chimamanda Adichie

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks about “The danger of a single story” at TED Talks  https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story .

 

Read about other women storytellers at Amazing Women Rock,  http://amazingwomenrock.com/7-inspirational-storytellers-who-have-captivated-audiences-worldwide

 

New on the LA FPI Podcast: “What She Said” – Alyson Mead with Deb Hiett

deb-heitt


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

Listen In!


 

What conversations do you want to have? Send your suggestions for compelling female playwrights or theater artists working on LA stages to Alyson Mead at lafpi.podcast@gmail.com, then listen to “What She Said.”

Click Here for More LA FPI Podcasts

Teaching to Learn

by Kitty Felde

A week or so ago, I was honored to be invited back for a second year to serve as dramaturg to a group of playwrights in Lincoln, Nebraska. And as usual, I learned more about my own shortcomings as a writer. It’s always easier to see the problems in someone else’s play. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy attending new play conferences, like the annual gathering at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “If only they’d tackle this” or “fix that” I say to myself, knowing full well I should be saying that to myself.

Here are the two big take-aways from my Nebraska seminar. I should tape them to my wall:

– Theatre is about present action, what happens NOW onstage, not about working out past trauma. Certainly the past informs the present. But if the biggest event in your play happened twenty years ago and all we get to do is hear about it, we, the audience will feel like we didn’t get our money’s worth.

– Every monologue must operate as its own mini-play. What does the character want? Why is she/he telling this story? What do they want to get out of the person they are telling it to? What challenge or problem is the character working out in that monologue? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Again, is it just about the past? Is it just exposition? Make it necessary to the play as a whole.

These two points were a particular challenge to my class of hopeful playwrights. They are also challenging me.

I got a commission to write a one-man show that will serve as a tour for the neighborhood around the White House. A company here in DC commissioned three playwrights to build one-hour shows around a historic character who lived or worked in the White House. My character is Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore.

There are challenges I’ve never had to worry about in previous plays: when will the Secret Service arbitrarily shut down the tour route? Do you need to build in bathroom breaks? How much walking can an audience take before it tunes out and thinks of nothing more than the next bench?

But I’ve also had those two big challenges to tackle: how do you make present a story that is mostly (by design) intended to inform about the past? And how do you do this with a 50 page monologue?

My own solution for QUENTIN was to set the play on the day he came to DC for his Army Air Corps physical – the one where he memorized the eye chart to hide his poor eyesight. It was to be a reunion with his “White House Gang” – the neighborhood kids he hung out with during the years his father was president. The gang doesn’t show up, but he encounters a group of tourists…whose tour guide has also stood them up. Quentin offers to take then around, sharing his own stories of life in the White House andQuentin_Roosevelt_in_Uniform_1917 bits of Washington lore. But he’s also having an internal struggle about coming to terms with enlisting, not disappointing his father, the very real possibility of death, and the excitement about his secret engagement to Flora Whitney.

We’ll see if it works. The show is in rehearsal right now. If you’re in DC this summer, you can join a tour – er, performance – and see for yourself.

www.kittyfelde.com

Stories from Anywhere…

by Robin Byrd

Listening for “First Words” – took me to a poem I started 10/26/12:

 

he got the tattoo

–so they would leave him alone

across his face

the skin once

smooth and beautiful

now marked

as he was marked

–for things no one should ever have to see

 

Today, 3/29/16, I continued:

 

he got the tattoo

across his face

–so they left him alone

the skin elsewhere

intact

not marked

–by things seen in places no one should ever have to go

 

he got the tattoo

–in a place no one should have to go

marring the skin

once smooth and beautiful

across his face

it, the self-marking of himself

–with words that say leave me alone…

 

he got the tattoo

–for things no one should have to see and places no one should have go

flung

across his face, across the smooth beautiful skin

in loud display

–leave me alone, it said, i will not take lightly to any more disruption

 

I title it “On the Occasion of Going to Jail…” and I wonder if there is a story trying to get out…

 

“First Words” :  Being a Playwright…being female…Voice…; On the Matter of Subject…

 

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