I think it has finally happened. I think I have writer’s block.
When I started writing, I was taking classes to learn how to write, the different genres and structures. I was also reading books and articles about writing and from the beginning I read how there was no such thing as writer’s block. I always thought about writer’s block in terms of not being able to continue to write. You know, you’re half way through your story and you don’t know what happens next.
But since I finished my last play, I have written bits and pieces of ideas and thoughts, but I never thought of what I was going to write next. It usually just came to me and I sat down and wrote about it. I would write and re-write the same thing, different ways, working the story out. But right now, I’m at a loss. I finished the story, had my characters yell and scream the things people don’t dare to say out loud. I had found the perfect setting for this to happen and made the cast small enough to include all the backstory I had dreamt up. And now. Nothing. I can’t even see the next thing. Instead of writing a play, I sit trying to finish a collection of essays about the same subject, and am rehashing the same stories in different settings, trying to get a different audience to understand.
Right now I can’t imagine another play, another story I want to write. When I was writing, I was reading different blogs and books about the subject. Different viewpoints, trying to understand the story from all sides. Listening to podcasts and interviews, talking ad-nauseum with friends about their thoughts on the subject. But nothing. I can’t imagine that I am done with the subject. It still keeps me up at night, or wakes me early in the morning, usually at 3 am. But why can’t I write anything more about it? Why can’t I see it anymore and better yet, is this writer’s block?
In the articles I had read about, they said there was no such thing. It’s a figment of your imagination, you’re just not working hard enough. Even trying to write this on this blog this week has been a pain staking task. Racking my brain. What do I say? How do I say it? Who will read it? Does it matter?
But wait. A glimmer of hope. I started this post on Monday. It’s now Sunday night, my last day to post and there is a story brewing. While getting lost in distraction and procrastination this week, I found a new book to read and a different angle on my story. Actually a whole new play. Now starts the ruminating.
I would love to hear your thoughts on writer’s block, because I’m sure it is not done with me.
I’m writing a gosh-dang play again for the first time in years and finally feel like I am almost legitimate enough to be blogging for the LAFPI! I’ve spent the last two years working on my webseries SEEK HELP, and making a life-changing decision. After completing the webseries, I was contemplating my next big creative project and I landed on this play I started working on back in 2011 or so before abandoning it for other projects.
I’ve had a one-act play performed on stage, and had readings of my full length plays both in public and private workshops, but never had a full length play of mine produced or published and I would love to go on that journey, if that journey will have me. The salivating, desirable thing about a play (done right), as opposed to a film or tv show or book, is:
The Immediacy: You get immediate feedback from the audience.
The Hostage Component: The audience is trapped, hidden away from the outside world and digital world’s distractions. They are forced to confront the situation presented in front of them and to enter into an imagined circumstance that demands their engagement.
The Visceral Exchange: The audience inevitably affects the performance and the performance affects the audience. This exchange of energy can offer a magical high.
The Unpredictable Originality: No matter how rehearsed a play, great performers are always still just reacting to what they are given in the moment and great performers are always still searching for new moments and deeper truths throughout the run. So, no matter how rehearsed, every night is a slightly different show. This is an art form that evolves.
In other words, a play is a living, breathing, growing entity. If you want to explore big ideas, ethical dilemmas, flaws in humanity or culture, expand a communities view on something, I can think of no better way than to build a play. As Chelsea wrote about in the post below, nearly all plays have messages, and the best ones, the ones that actually have the ability to open minds or change perspectives or prejudices, do so in a way that is so entertaining that you don’t even notice the medicine the playwright is slipping down your throat as you watch.
The hard and frustrating work of playwriting is trying to turn those big ideas into genuinely good and captivating entertainment…usually while sitting alone in your apartment late at night. The fun and exciting part of playwriting is getting a group of people together to work on the play, to communally birth a piece of art in a collaborative form. The latter being the part that is currently motivating me through the former. I see pieces of the play in my head; I want to see it outside my head. I want to discuss this topic in depth with others. And there, really, I think is the root of why I write. I want to bring people together. I love structured hangs but hate unstructured parties. I want to have deep conversations, not small talk. I want to feel, think, be challenged and examine myself and others and the world. I want to know I am not alone, and I want to understand that which is different from me in a visceral way. I don’t think I am unique in that–I think many writers write because we want to bring people close to us, to invite them over, not just for a cocktail, but to go all the damn way down…down to the colon! I wanna see your shit–the stuff you’re proud of, the stuff you are ashamed of, I wanna see how you navigate big decisions and deal with life’s pain, I wanna feel your laughter, your joy, see how you love, understand a new slice of life better–I wanna experience it all and I want everyone else to experience it to, because I think that’s the most efficient way to build empathy and understanding, and thereby mend differences and cultivate a peaceful respect for each other.
I love theatre. Deeply. I respect it for the power it has and am captivated by it’s magic. I am excited for a more diverse theatre landscape. There are so many stories we haven’t told, haven’t experienced. We think we’ve seen it all sometimes, but there are so many points of view that have not yet been given the opportunity of a stage and an audience. I am excited for more plays by and about women, people of various ethnic backgrounds, from different countries and cultures, of different ages, of all different gender and sexual identities, of various experiences, to create new works set in and about our time. I think now more than ever we could collectively benefit from unplugging and coming together in a dark room to pass the baton and tell each other who we are and what it means.
Wish me luck (ie. motivation, stamina, intelligence, clarity, artistry, articulation, and courage) as I continue on my journey to prove I belong on the LAFPI roster–I mean, to finish this play and work to get it on it’s feet.
I like to call myself an accidental writer. I didn’t start out wanting to write plays, blog postsr essays, but I always wrote. I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, but I, up until recently, had a 3-inch binder full of hand written things on different sizes paper with different incarnations of my handwriting. It wasn’t like a scrapbook, more of a reminder of what I used to do for fun. A collection of angsty teen poems that now make me laugh and smile as the memories of those people come flooding back. This collection is now housed on my hard as I scanned it all to make moving easier and lighter and instead of a binder I now have a collection of tiny notebooks that I bought on sale at Vromans. I couldn’t pass up the crying tiger.
These notebooks are littered with with half started ideas, and notes from books and websites I have read all in the hopes of finishing something. I bought four of them in the hopes they would fill quickly with new musings as my hopes to write daily. Years later I’m finally on my 4th notebook. It has taken me a long time to get here. I went through book one the other day and wondered who this author was? I must have copied “that” from somewhere, I think as I read it. Who is this person? Then as I read on, I find the sarcastic humour and inside jokes that I tell and I am reminded that yes, Jennifer you have some moments and why aren’t you sharing this with the world. What is stopping you? I also realize that I have to quit thinking of things as accidents. Writing has obviously always been a part of me, as witnessed in the binder and notebook collection. I hesitate to call myself a writer because nothing has ever felt finished. It’s a wonder I finish blog posts. Or maybe I don’t even finish those, come to think of it…Because there is always more to the story that I start writing about and then get caught up in my thoughts and hems and haws and never quite feel complete. I am getting better. I think. Instead of one hapless page of notes, I now try and complete a thought before I stop writing. Maybe I am subconsciously wanting to engage the reader? Wanting to talk about the world around us in a non-threatening way, and in this digital age it is so much easier to hide behind the anonymity of the internet. To hide behind an avatar or a picture of you from 5 years ago. To feel warm and safe when the trolls come out to play. Maybe that’s why I don’t finish anything? Because my fear of the discussions I want to have are outweighed by the fear of someone actually reading my stuff…
Yet here I am getting ready to hit “post” on this mishmosh of thoughts.
I’ve escaped to the bedroom while a quartet of hardworking young men pack my lamps and my pictures and drag more than a dozen bins of fabric out into the hallway of my high rise. It’s moving day here in Washington. After nearly a decade, living within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol, my husband and I are finally returning to Los Angeles.
It seemed like a good time to look back at my D.C. years as a playwright.
No, Arena Stage did not invite me to participate in their Playwrights Arena playwriting group or commission me for one of their Power Plays. No, Studio Theatre didn’t fall in love with my work. Nor did Olney or Signature or Synetic. In many ways, I felt like I’d arrived in DC about ten years too late. Like the rest of D.C., the theatre scene is very much a relationship game. And those relationships had been formed long before I got here.
But I did find other opportunities. And so could you.
Several D.C. theatres give a nod to local playwrights by selecting new ten minute plays that thematically relate to their mainstage production. My short L.A. riots play got an airing at the Jewish themed Theater J. A development group The Inkwell offers rehearsal space at Wooley Mammoth, actors, a dramaturg, and a director to work on 20 minutes of a full length play. I met my favorite D.C. director Linda Lombardi through this experience. (She was directing one of the other plays.) Another group Theater Alliance hosts what it calls the Hothouse New Play Development Series. It offers a commission, a week of rehearsal, and terrific actors for a one-night staged reading of new full-length work. My full-length L.A. Riots play WESTERN & 96th got an airing there.
That same theatre teamed up with California’s National Center for New Plays at Stanford and Planet Earth Arts to commission playwrights for an evening of ten minute work about the Anacostia River watershed. The plays got a second performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. My new ten minute play KENILWORTH – the story of a woman who fought the government to preserve her water lily farm – was read at that festival. And then the story grew and grew into a full length.
Unlike Los Angeles, where big corporations moved out years ago and took their arts money with them, the D.C. government sets aside a huge amount per capita for arts grants. A grant from the D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission and Planet Earth Arts made it possible to produce a staged reading of what is now called QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES on Earth Day this spring. The cool part is that it was done in a National Park on the footprint of the house where the heroine lived most of her life, surrounded by the water lily ponds she loved.
The D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission also has an annual award for playwriting. I’ve come in second two times for D.C.’s Larry Neal Award. (First place comes with a nice check. Second place comes with a glass of wine and some cheese at the reception.)
Another commission came my way courtesy of the artistic director of one of the very fine children’s theatres here in D.C. The commission wasn’t for Adventure Theatre. It was to create a one-person show for an organization called Pickle Pea Walks to be performed every weekend on the grounds around the White House for all those tourists who didn’t get their security clearance. My play QUENTIN is about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt on the night before he reports for duty in World War I. He’s hoping to reunite with his pals from the years when he lived in the White House. They don’t show up, so instead he takes tourists down memory lane to help him say goodbye to D.C. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Quentin Roosevelt’s death (his plane shot down by German fliers in World War I) and rangers from Sagamore Hill (the Roosevelt home) are coming to D.C. to see the production this July.
D.C. is also home to the fabulous summer Capital Fringe Festival. As an audience member, I’ve seen an opera based on the War of 1812, a 45 minute version of “Moby Dick,” and more political plays than even Washington could imagine. My own entry was a production of ALICE: an evening with the tart-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Alice was famous for her bon mots (“If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.”) and lived most of her life here in Washington. The show played to sold-out houses and was named critic’s pick by The Washington Post.
There are also odd opportunities for playwrights in this town. I was once asked to write a play in 40 minutes based on an audience suggestion. The wonderful artistic director at MetroStage – the first person in D.C. to fall in love with anything I’ve written – invited me to take over her theatre on a Monday night for a public reading of my controversial play with a character in blackface THE LUCKIEST GIRL. I was challenged to write a one minute play for a festival at Roundhouse Theatre – one of dozens being performed for one night only. I knew I wanted mine to stand out, so I wrote a naked play METAL DETECTOR. It was great fun to see the sign warning of “brief nudity” in the box office window.
I also served four years as a judge for Washington’s version of the Tony’s – the Helen Hayes Awards. This meant free tickets to some of the best – and some of the worst – evenings of theatre in America. (I’ve learned to ask: “will blood be spilled on the audience?”)
Finding community has been the most difficult part of living in D.C. Everyone is busy, busy, busy. I was lucky enough to find a writing group – Playwrights Gymnasium – and a terrific crew of writers. Unfortunately, the group has been on haitus the past several years. We’re all too busy. And frankly, all that business has left me lonesome here in D.C.
So I’m coming home.
I’m nervous about rejoining the L.A. theatre community. It’s likely that many of the literary managers reading scripts today were still in high school when I was last living in Los Angeles. Most of the artistic directors I know have retired. Or died. It will be like starting all over again. Just like it was ten years ago when I moved to Washington. But Southern California is home for me. I’m looking forward to re-introducing myself.
There’s a system to these things. You sit in a room alone and create something. Let’s call it a “play.” If you’re lucky or have some friends who will hang out with you for some free pie, you get actors to read that “play” either in your living room or in a little black box theatre or a rehearsal room downtown. If you’re super lucky, maybe you get a “workshop” of the “play” where people walk around and maybe hold props or something. And then, if the theatre gods are smiling upon you, you get that premiere.
Most of the time, we’re stuck in a revolving door of readings and rewrites, with no premieres in sight. And if the premiere does happen, it feels as if everything is riding on that one production. One false step, and that’s the end of that.
The point of course is that a second production is often a unicorn. This is why the National New Play Network and Block Party and all that are so sought after. When the unicorn comes around, it is a gift for the art-making.
I’m in the middle of rehearsals for a show I wrote with Rogue Artists Ensemble, Wood Boy Dog Fish – a dark reimagining of the Pinocchio story first produced in 2015. As a playwright, this first production was unique and full of struggles. Though the company had been working on versions of the show for many years, the time from when they brought me on as the playwright and when we started rehearsals was about nine months. It was a very short gestation period in playwright years. The premiere was already looming. The “play” and I were never alone together. We skipped that entire step.
Rehearsals were lots of new pages (so many pages), rewrites in the room, changes to whole plot lines and concepts. I was tweaking up until opening week. And still. While we overcame a lot of obstacles in the way of the show, and created something to be proud of, it always felt like there were things we had to ignore or let go of because there wasn’t time. Because we were CREATING. When you’re giving birth, you’re not worrying about the name of the kid or whether they are going to like Spiderman or My Little Pony. You’re just hoping it enters the world alright and you both survive.
So now it’s round two. Wood Boy is rising from the ashes for a new production at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank. Since 2015, I’ve rewritten almost every page of the script with the exception of maybe one or two pages in Act Two. We cut songs and added new ones (writing songs with composer Adrien Prevost is a joy.) Puppets and masks and costumes and props and sets are being reimagined, upgraded, polished. Dances are being tweaked and perfected and laser-tight on the storytelling. And we’re doing it with less rehearsal time, less prep time, even MORE obstacles, all of it. But there’s no longer a question of WHAT story we’re trying to tell, which is what premieres are so often about. Now we’re focused on HOW we want to tell it, and HOW to improve and deepen our choices from 2015. The choices, I think, are smarter now, more specific, more grounded in the heart of the play.
This path to a second premiere was not a traditional one, nor was the play’s birth, but I am learning how vital it is to the life of any new play. It’s all about the details now. It no longer needs me or any of us to figure out how to breathe. It’s ready to get out there and LIVE. I hope more theatres are willing to take chances on new plays – and if they don’t land right away, I hope they get a second shot. Don’t we all deserve one?
Rogue Artists Ensemble’s Wood Boy Dog Fish is being presented at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank, May 12 – June 24. Info and tickets here!
This fall, I went back to school. After ten years of day jobs, late-night shows in black box theatres, publications of short stories in tiny journals, bad reviews and “oh-look-how-much-she-tried” reviews, and stealing office supplies and copy machine time from said day jobs (sorry, day jobs), I thought an MFA program was a real cracker jack idea. This of course meant I had to evaluate where I really am as a person and an artist – the least of which not being that I had to get the chicken pox vaccine in order to be allowed on campus because I had apparently never had it or at least it wore off at some point and we all know that chicken pox gets worse as you get older so I could have died, y’all. You know there’s got to be chicken pox hanging out with all the other diseases in those tiny light booths in LA black boxes. Died.
I also had to write my artistic statement (again). And I don’t know about you, but artistic statements / statements of interest are the worst part of any application to anything. My version of hell would be an eternity of writing new vision statements, probably while having chicken pox and listening to the sound track of the 1967 movie Guns of the Trees – an artsy, dare-I-say pretentious film I had to watch for a film studies class and which made me viscerally and irrationally angry. Welcome to grad school.
I made some shit up of course (can I say “shit” on the blog? I just did.) I got into school, but I was on the waitlist first so let’s not get too puffed up about it or the quality of my statement. I’m very good at almost-winning things. Lesson: I’m never anyone’s first choice but I’m making a career out of profiting off of other people’s passed up opportunities.
My statement is fine. But in my first quarter I really started to understand the different paths we are all on – and knowing where you are and not caring where someone thinks you should be. That’s the key to a real eduction (inside and outside the classroom) and probably a great vision/artistic/interest statement.
[Full disclosure: I’m actually in the MFA program for fiction. After being waitlisted for playwriting programs twice, I said a big “screw you guys, I’ll figure it out on my own” to the Theatre Gods, and that’s what I did. My fiction needed some love and attention. It always blows my mind how theatre and literature generally know so very little about each other – the communities really should overlap more. But that’s another blog.]
I’m learning to become a new kind of student. It’s grad school. It’s a terminal degree. Grades alone are not going to get me where I want to be. Any other straight-A students out there? This is a big shift in mentality. I am learning how to approach each class now with the mindset of growing as an artist and a person. I’m not here for perfect grades. I’m here to write. I’m tired of trying to figure out what someone else wants me to say – because, news flash, I’ll never get it right. So lets get back to what is true. And I think this mentality can be applied to any opportunity we are applying to that requires us to articulate how and why and who.
On That Note – Optional Themes For Your Next Artistic Statement:
I am awesome. Give me money so I can do more awesome.
I see multicultural and radical race theory interwoven with the histrionic classical diegesis…(Doesn’t have to make sense as long as it sounds smart.)
I’m going to change the world.
The world will never change.
I’m trying to be better.
Sometimes it takes a long time to know what you’re trying to say.
I want my world to be radical and political and shattering but sometimes that means it’s a quiet story about a quiet person on a quiet but special day.
Marches are great, but I want to write about what happens once it is over.
I almost died from almost getting chicken pox and now I understand this fleeting life we have and I just don’t have time to try to feed into what you think a playwright should be doing or thinking.
Witnessing the Light, artwork by Cynthia Wands, 2018
Just recently, (and I mean just in the last few weeks), I began to feel hopeful about the changes in store for this year.
I started listening to the NPR news on the radio on my drive home from work, after swearing off from it last year.
After a year long quarantine (Eric has been going through a tough chemotherapy schedule), we started going out in the world again. We’ve seen two movies, and went for a long hike. It felt like waking up in daylight after being in the dark last year.
I’m seeing women reach for political office, and stand up with persistence and courage to change our leadership.
And reading the messages about the #MeToo movement, and the illumination of how women have been treated, gives me hope that the world will be seen through different eyes. (“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I don’t know who said that it – but I love that idea.) I can see that audiences and directors and theaters will be changing in the way women are portrayed, and directed and who the leaders are.
So I have to be hopeful. I know that history and health issues can change in a moment, but I’m reaching out in my world to belong to more of the present moment.
(It took me several hours to come up with that last sentence, I kept changing it, so I can see there will be some balancing to be done with that assignment…)
I’m making a plan to see more plays, more readings, more artwork, more friends this year.
I hope this next year finds new adventures for all of you, and I look forward to seeing your work, and watching this year unfold.
I watched the full moon rise on New Year’s Day here in Los Angeles.
It seemed a comforting presence after a year of loss and gain, and I could feel how much I’ve changed just by seeing it again.
2017 was a year of firsts for me: First production of a play I wrote, first hip replacement, first draft of a play based on some rumored family history.
And that first production of my play changed me.
After many years of writing and workshops and reading, I finally had the opportunity for a script of mine to be produced, and it was a surreal experience. I had an incredible director, who was able to see more things in my script than I did. And I was able to travel to the theater to see the auditions, and the table read, and some rehearsals, and the final dress and the opening night. The progression was so…wondrous. I saw the young woman in the play blossom on stage into a character with humor and gumption and vulnerability. She brought things to the role that really delighted me. I was reminded about the gift and generosity of actors.
I also saw the leading young man in the play bring his character to an unexpected performance: he was hilarious. I didn’t know how hilarious the character was until he showed me. A lot of this I bring to the actor’s vulnerability and charm (he doesn’t even know how charming he is – which is why is so charming). But it was also the director’s instincts to pull out this performance – she knew how to bring the subtly and outrageous behaviors together. Her vision of the characters brought them to life – and I know how lucky I am to have had her direct this script.
I didn’t expect to feel such a sense of loss after the play closed, these characters had been running around in my head for years, and then they showed up, celebrated the humor and romance of my imagination, and then they left.
I also had to cope with the focus and limelight of being the playwright, and I found that I need to shoulder that a bit better. I was overwhelmed by the positive experience, it was hard to take it all in. On closing night, the director brought me onstage, and I was able to stand onstage with the cast and the director and bask in the limelight. (Even now as I write this it doesn’t seem real, but there were photographs, so I know I didn’t make that up.)
So a dream came true last year – my work was seen and I heard an audience laugh and groan and applaud the characters.
That was a wonderful part of last year. I’m so grateful to be able to have had that experience, and it means writing the next script.
More on that later.
I’m the woman in black, with the cane and roses and the lost look on her face.
This is the word that I have lived with and tried to honor over the past few months. The word has become an ode of sorts as my theatre company’s new piece Medea: A Soliloquy or the Death of Medea has undergone a workshop.
Theatre Roscius is me. Although I am lucky to have a loving partner whose consistent help is often needed – for as we know in the theatre the work is continuous, at times overwhelming, when trying to do so much alone, no matter how satisfying or beyond worth the work is.
Entering my first workshop, the process has been a gift as well as a huge adjustment for an independent theatre artist who produces work not so easily defined, who has no artistic home. Nor are there consistent sponsors, donors or a team with whom I work with on a daily basis. Nor is my theatre company a nonprofit… so I’ve learned to do the work my way by any means necessary. Which has its faults while allowing room for magic to manifest in an organic fashion that lacks structure.
Yet the workshop process requires order, roles, structure… all that do not necessarily come together when you are playing all the roles. I have gotten used to writing, producing, directing along with acting in my work. When the work takes a toll on the self it does not allow your best work to shine through. One can also miss what makes theatre so beautiful: The collaboration, the merging and discovery of ideas.
So I have practiced during this workshop giving the work away in order to let it fly. It has not been easy. I have had to ask myself if I am trusting enough? Am I giving pieces of myself, money, giving time, taking time and not trusting the ensemble and director fully? Will I allow the director’s vision to flourish? Can I allow the piece to develop beyond my images? It has not been easy for me to answer these questions.
During these forty plus fast paced hours of workshop development, the script has morphed into many faces, with the dialogue and movement just beginning to mold as well as fuse into one, yet the conversation is still being had between the two. I have discovered my strengths as an actor, producer and writer. I’m quick on my feet, my body is strong, I give 110% to the space and can adapt to direction. I have also been told and found my weaknesses. As an actor I can be easily distracted, as a playwright I can be defensive and as a producer I procrastinate and can lead with fear instead of fearlessness.
Workshop is a rigorous process that has allowed the play to reveal itself in many forms that could not have manifested without the players bodies or our director’s leadership. I reached out to everyone I knew. One woman whom I had never encountered before responded to my email, met, and agreed to helm the work. I’ve learned from this gesture deeply when approaching the work inside and out.
Ultimately as playwright I’m excited, uncomfortable, and honored that our director Caitlin Hart, Artistic Director of the Vagrancy Theatre Company along with the players: Carolyn Deskin, Madison Nelson and Meredith Brown have embarked on this experiment together and that we will have a chance to share Medea with an invited audience. This opportunity to hear feedback from audience members on January 22nd after sixty-two hours of development will be quite rewarding.
As the new year approaches I will not let fear lead the work. None of us must. So let us all Go Big & Be Fearless this 2018!
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.