Upon Bruno’s sudden and unexpected accidental death on his Yamaha, the world changed in varying degrees. Like a Google Map I am faced with re-centering my life. It’s not our life as a married couple, but my singular life.
My mom gives me a well meaning advice this morning. Remove his clothes from the drawers to make room for yours. I bit my lip and clamped off the Mt. Vesuvius inside of me. If you have an opinion just keep it to yourself I wanted to scream.
People say, “He’d want you to be happy. You have to move on.” My intellect gets it but my heart doesn’t. Better to keep your opinions for later because right now I only need your presence and not your judgments. Be one of my dogs and just sit with me. It’s times like this when there are no words.
As a writer I write to make sense of what’s happening. I want to write but I can’t. My heart is lead and every limb and joint is heavy too. I want him to linger. I want his scent to stay. I cut off the string from the lemon tree where he hung the wasp trap. I save the knot because no one will ever tie a knot like Bruno… the way he would truss a bird before it goes into the oven to feed the lonely hearts and the empty bellies.
There are no words to put order in the midst of chaos. I move like an automaton to survive. Yes I’ve got that. I can’t let the wall of dignity crack lest ‘I lose it.’ Maybe this is why people offer structures to align myself to: “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?” Please don’t ask me this question in a phone call in between errands. It hurts my feelings.
Words create order. A skilled writer and/or speaker can put disorder into order. A meteorologist can enlighten what’s happening in a hurricane. The eye of the storm is the calm surrounded by the vortex of violent forces that destroy what we believed as permanent. No matter how hard I tidy up, sweep the floor, dust the picture frames and put clean laundry in its proper place entropy will rule. It’s a matter of time. How long can I keep up this face of composure like Humpty Dumpty sitting on the wall?
The natural laws of the universe is held in place by a tension… Life is a delicate balance shadowed by that moment of “Time is up. Let’s go. Leave all else behind. You won’t be needing it. You’re a light traveller. You are light.”
On January 15, 2018, Bruno Hervé Commereuc was killed by a hit and run driver at the corner of 54th Street and Arlington in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles Police Department is asking for information to help in apprehending the driver of the grey Nissan 370Z (updated vehicle description from the flyer, below) who is still at large.
Hot jelly and biscuits, is there a lot to talk about!
A fewweeksmonths longish time ago, when the LAFPI crew asked if I’d like to get back on the blogging bandwagon, I said “Hell, yes!” because I was feeling productive and all kinds of mouthy with super important sh*t to say. But now my week is here, and it’s almost too much because Little Black Dress INK’s final ONSTAGE lineup from 2017 has a reading on Jan 15, and then a bunch of this year’s ONSTAGE semi-finalists have readings all over the place on Jan 21 as part of International Women’s Voices Day, (oh, I run Little Black Dress INK), plus the Spring semester starts on Weds, and I have a letter of rec to write, revisions to do, and a toddler to keep track of…
So I don’t have time to write the deep, thoughtful, life-changing post I intended to. If I could, though, I would probably have some witty/deep things to say about the following:
The Golden Globes
Were they feminist enough? Too feminist (is that even a thing??) Will Oprah be our new president? Was that woman from 50 Shades of Grey giving Angelina Jolie side-eye during Jennifer Aniston’s speech? I mean, I don’t have cable, but the news coverage is enough to make me want to stuff cotton in my ears and unplug the router for good.
What’s that you say? You don’t believe me? You’re saying that if I haven’t stuffed cotton in my ears and unplugged the router after the monstrous orange shit-show of a year we just wrapped, that I must be engaging in a healthy hyperbolic outburst and nothing more?
You’re probably right.
I’m trying it out. Anyone else write for that site? I like some of the writers a lot… Maybe, if I write some truly epic stuff there, I’ll get more traffic on Medium than I do on my personal blog… sh*t, I don’t have a personal blog anymore? Why not? Oh yeah, because I don’t have time…
Heeeyyyyyy, do you think, MAYBE, that I might have a problem with over-committing myself to things? I mean, could I possible suffer from (faux gasp) Artistic FOMO?
(Yes. The answer is yes, yes I do.)
I love my son. He is the apple of my eye, the sugar on my cornflakes, the laughter in my ears… but he’s also the little tyrant screaming at me to escort him to the washing machine twelve times a day, where he will sit for interminably long periods of time flipping the dials around in abject pleasure, waiting for my eyes to gloss over with boredom so that he can QUICKPUSHTHESTARTBUTTON! before I catch his hand with mine and remind him that he is not yet allowed to do the laundry on his own, and can we please go back to the living toy room now so that mommy can sit on the couch and check her Facebook for a hot second?
New Year’s Resolutions
Are for chumps. And perfectionists. And people with stronger will-power than I possess. So be nice to yourself, even if you’ve already failed at whatever ridiculous demands you put on yourself last week. I signed up for Red Theater’s playwriting challenge last November and didn’t even make it past the first day. The FIRST DAY. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and tell your expectations to take a hike.
I’m not too busy to tell you you should check out one of our ONSTAGE readings! If you’re in Los Angeles on Jan 15, make sure you swing by the Zephyr Theatre for the final reading of our 2017 Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival: Hot Mess.
And if you’re in Los Angeles (or Bemidji,MN; or Columbus, OH; or Magnolia, AR; or Milwaukee, WI; or Prescott, AZ) on Jan 21st, check out one of our Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival: Volume Control readings! They’re sure to be a hoot/make you feel the deep feels (and all that other cathartic magic that theatre does) PLUS you’ll be supporting International Women’s Voices Day, which is all kinds of awesome! Here’s a LINK for more info.
Tune in later this week for more words/sentences composed by me (along with—hopefully—some deeper thoughts)
These days, I produce a podcast called the Book Club for Kids. A trio of middle graders discuss a novel, there’s an interview with the author and a reading from the book by a “celebrity.”
Last month, I blew it. I was a no-show at a scheduled taping. More than a dozen young readers were waiting for me that Sunday afternoon and I stood them up.
I could use the excuse that I was jet lagged, arriving after midnight the night before from a cross-country flight. Or I could plead that Sundays I take a tech Sabbath, not looking at my phone – and its calendar – at all. But excuses didn’t make any difference to the dozen or so disappointed young readers awaiting their chance at podcast stardom…and their angry parents who’d driven for miles to get their kids to the bookstore for the taping.
It was then that it became very clear that I needed to get organized.
I’m not the only one – particularly at this time of year. You can’t even go in to the Home Depot without stumbling over a display of 2018 calendars for sale. At Fed Ex, pickings were slim among the display of pretty, fat calendar books with floral motifs. Even my husband gets into the act every December, watching the mailbox for the one thing on which he spends an absurd amount of money: the new filler for his portable paper calendar book.
Then I stumbled across Bullet Journals. There’s an enormous cult following for “BuJo” as the aficionados call them. Invented by a digital designer named Ryder Carroll, Bullet Journals seem to have captured the imagination.
The basic idea is simple: a blankish book and a variety of colored pens and perhaps a ruler are all it takes. I say blankish because “BuJos” prefer blank pages with dots that they can use as grid makers to create weekly or monthly pages full of “things to do” lists and food diaries and weather reports and words of the day.
Things get more extravagant after that.
Some “BuJos” fight on social media about page thickness and the bleed level of pens. They proudly show off their collection of highlighter pens. (Who knew there was a gray highlighter pen?) There’s a debate about whether stickers are appropriate. I counted eight different groups on Facebook devoted to Bullet Journals, including the Minimalist Bullet Journal group that still seems overly complicated to me. Pinterest, as you can imagine, has hundreds of pictures of Bullet Journals.
Buzz Feed has an article to tell you what your style of Bullet Journaling says about you. I realized my style says I am not a Bullet Journaling kind of girl. I can’t draw. I never scrapbooked in my life. And why would I spend hours drawing in the dates of a 2018 calendar when I can get a perfectly good one at any store in America?
I think the BuJo serves the same purpose for visual people as my Morning Pages do for a word person like me. Julia Cameron’s classic “Artist’s Way” assignment has always helped me untangle my disorganized brain. Sitting down first thing in the morning to scribble away for three pages in a cheap composition book – part diary, part writing ideas, mostly things to do lists – grounds me and helps me sort out what’s important in my life and what to let go. Obviously it wasn’t enough to keep me from missing an important appointment.
So I bought a nice, light paper calendar that fits in my handbag. I’ve started marking it up with travel plans and podcast tapings. More important, I vowed to look at it every day. Even on my tech Sabbath.
What about you? How do you keep organized? Please share your secret!
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.
Death, spirits, the ghosts of memory, these are the things that turn up in my plays. I used to think that I was weird, not that weird is a negative word to me. I am peculiar and I am okay with that. In Proof by David Auburn, Catherine states while talking about her dad, “He’d attack a question from the side, from some weird angle, sneak up on it, grind away at it.” I love that sentence, it’s all we can do in our world of doing art – attack from our perspective and grind away…
I have been reading The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat. What I mean is I have read it several times 4 and a half times to be exact. I am working out the processing of my mother’s death. She left this earth in April of this year. It has been difficult to write it yet write it I have – to request to drop classes I was in at the time of her death, classes I have had to repeat and get past the point of her death in each of them. One, I made it through, weary but victorious, the other, I am still weathering. It is amazing the depth of grief. I read somewhere that grief causes forgetfulness, that and the lack of sleep… Except I know the forgetfulness of sleepless nights well and this thing – it is scary and it is a demon whose head I am chopping off with a twice dull blade. I will be rid of it. I have found comfort in the stories that Danticat shares in The Art of Death; at one point, she asks her mother, “Did you rage enough?” this in response to Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”:
“…Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” by Dylan Thomas
Similarly, before the thin veil of denial left me, before I bought the ticket and made the journey home, I spoke to my mother’s spirit, “Mommy, do not go gentle into that good night wait for me, I’m coming home…” And, I watched her fight until the end unsure of the road… She almost died 3 days before, we sat in the nursing home around her bed for hours but she would not leave. She wanted a reprise. She wanted to be bathed… Almost like a baptismal service, two young nurses, bathed my mother from head to toe in preparation for the day. She lay there knowing it would be her last bath with breath in her body, resolved to meet the day…clean…. Clean from the blood that had begun to seep from her body in clots of pain, clean from the last of things no one can carry with them into the presence of God. I took to sitting through the night with her, on guard. I did not want her to die alone. I blessed the room and sealed it (in the name of Jesus) from anything that was not like God…so she could rest in peace until that appointed time. I had asked God to let me be there and had traveled from Los Angeles on a ‘red eye’ to make sure I was there the entire month of April. I asked Him, rather demanded that He let me be there, “I want to see her when she leaves, not in a dream, like with Dad, and the others, I want to see her! I must be there, it will not be alright if I am not there. I do not want to get that call.” So, there I was by the grace of God, sitting beside my mother’s deathbed…taking notes in my spirit… and then it happened, and God let me see:
I saw her when she left, the lift off, her eyes shown like glassy circles of pure glee, the hologram of her Self barely visible but not her smile, it was wide and happy because she knew I saw…my mother, my mother – the wind of God…
I wrote and read a poem on behalf of my mother at her funeral titled, “Getting it Right” – the thing my mother had on her mind the last days of her life. I had sat by her bed every day from April 1st till she passed at the end of the month, 2 days before her 83rd birthday. She continually told me to “Pay attention Robbie, you’re going to have to write about this… We got to get this right.” How could I fail? “A mother’s song should be heard in the voices of her children”…it should never be lost to time. I found her song in the space where breath had left her and became her voice for a time… I could feel her there with me… adlibbing…
Part of getting it right is forgiving and letting things go. We all must do it…
It is difficult…these days… not because I do not know that my mother is with Christ…
“…We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with Christ.” Paul the Apostle, II Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 8
It is difficult because the moments have germinated and taken root and are sprouting trees so tall it is hard to see the sky. It is renewing and stripping but best of all, I did not lose on the moments that the last of things said to me by my mother set in stone her confidence in who I am – a Writer…
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.
Amanda Conlon takes us on a hilarious musical journey into the hell known as online dating. She is surrounded by supportive women, a judgmental mother, a loving gay roommate and the worst of humanity that only the internet could put together. The music is familiar but the lyrics are all hers. You know where she’s going as the first bar begins but that makes it all the funnier. Today, meeting a potential partner through natural interaction seems a thing of the past as she sings literally about not touching another human being. I laughed out loud as did the woman next to me till she cried “This is my life right now!”
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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.