“…during the Q&A session after the reading…that my mother was moved enough to then share a personal story with a group of friends and strangers…was truly a profound afternoon of theater for me.”
about the play WATER CLOSET
The playwright E.h. Bennett has died. Erica Harriet Bennett passed away after a long illness on May 4, 2019. She was a LA FPI blogger since 2010 – from the very start of our blog. Her very first blog was full of spunk. She was brave so brave…in her work and in her life. Her first blog post, 1.PHISHING (2008) introduced us to her frank, unapologetic, sharing. She gave us a week, non-stop of her thoughts on injustices in theater. I liked her right off. She scared me a bit but she also made me laugh – genuinely. I admired her attitude. She was sweet and brilliant and full of words and worlds she wanted to share. Erica’s last blog entitled YOU is simply, elegantly profound ….as was she. She stopped blogging because she had to be about her writing, her time was running out and she knew it. Erica was prolific; she accomplished so much in the time she had left with us. She is missed dearly but she is also still here… in her work. I hear her voice as I read her work and I feel her presence. This is Erica’s week to blog.
You can read all of E.h. Bennett’s blogs at http://lafpi.com/author/ehbennett/.
Amongst dating, career, passions, failure and menstrual cycles, what woman can say her life is perfect all the time? It’s always more interesting and truthful to see women on film, stage and television having the same messy moments that we experience in real life. Shyam Bhatt took it upon herself to create a role for herself that’s this kind of woman in her first play, a solo show, “Treya’s Last Dance.”
“Treya’s Last Dance” premiered in Los Angeles at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, then traveled to New York and London. Now back in LA at the Hudson Guild Theatre, opening September 18, the play explores LGBTQ+ issues, feminism, and discrimination as Treya navigates through her dating life, her passion for dance and her family’s struggles. We were glad to get the chance to talk to Shyam about her – and Treya’s – journey before opening night.
LAFPI: I have to say, Shyam, that Treya’s Last Dance was a perfect blend of the humorous and tragic experiences that come with grief. How did this story come to you?
Shyam Bhatt: It’s totally fictional. Treya is a character who gets to be a little bit awful and awkward and prone to emotional outbursts in the worst, funniest and most heartbreaking ways. She gets to be a strong, full woman on stage. That was the sort of character I wanted to play and the character I wasn’t seeing written for people like me. And, in writing her, she just happened to have this event in her life that was pulling her through the play. That’s pretty much how it came about.
LAFPI: After reading the play, I’m most excited to see how the hilarity and the grief come together in your performance. Was it difficult to find a way to co-mingle the two in your writing process?
Shyam: I’ve always been one to try to see the humorous parts in life. These days, it’s so important to always maintain face in front of everyone, like you always have to have an amazing façade. And life will always get in the way of that. Life will always make sure that you have something spill on your white shirt before your interview or you’ll trip and rip your dress before you meet a date or something like that. I find that funny and great and part of the joy of being a human being: nothing is perfect.
So to co-mingle the grief and the humor wasn’t that difficult in the writing. What I’m finding now in the rehearsal process is that it’s much more difficult to move between those two as a performer fluidly, without creating a jarring effect. That’s an interesting thing that we’re finding now, my director and me.
LAFPI: What has it been like working with Poonam Basu as director?
Shyam: It’s been fantastic, really fantastic. I had worked with Tiffany Nichole Greene as director for the premiere of this play and it has changed quite a bit since then. Poonam is bringing a really new, fresh perspective to the whole thing. She is an actress/director and she’s got a fantastic insight into both how it feels to perform and how it looks to the audience. She’s pulling out threads that weren’t obvious to me and making them really heightened on stage. And she’s been really instrumental in the question you just asked, in how to bring together the grief and the humor.
LAFPI: Do you feel like she elevates your vision, to make it a great experience for you as a performer and make sense to the audience?
Shyam: Yeah, she’s got this bigger-picture perspective and she sees the play as a whole – making sure that we hit those beats, and refining it into a really nice theatrical production, in essence. It’s just very joyful to see the way that she shapes it. You’ll see, you’ll see when you come.
LAFPI: Has she changed your view of the piece?
Shyam: She’s emphasizing things I would not have chosen to emphasize and that is creating a different mood than I had anticipated, one very beautiful in slightly different ways. But very good ways! It’s a very lovely process to be involved with Poonam because the way that she works is very involved and extremely supportive.
LAFPI: One of the themes I felt was most prevalent in your play was societal pressure – not just affecting Treya’s love life, but also her brother’s sexuality. What made you decide to integrate the story of her brother’s passing with struggles in her dating life?
Shyam: Treya is a figurehead for all the stupid things that women go through. The ridiculousness of dating highlights the dark, horrible thing that Treya is going through at home; and the stark, terrible tragedy at home highlights the utter frivolity and silliness that happens in dating. And the fun of dating, actually. The two can’t be without each other; you can’t have sadness without happiness and vice versa.
LAFPI: It makes the funny moments hilarious and the tragic moments heartbreaking.
Shyam: And that’s one thing that Poonam is being extremely helpful with. As I said, it’s difficult to move between those two. And it’s really difficult, I think, as an audience member to give yourself permission to laugh at bits that come straight after something horrible. What she’s doing is managing those parts and the performance so the two punch each other up.
LAFPI: This play comments on the cultural differences between immigrants and the children of immigrants, as well as repressed sexuality due to Indian cultural pressures. What about Indian culture makes diverse sexuality so taboo, and what perspective shifts does this play suggest?
Shyam: Treya is Indian and British, but I think it’s a universal issue that crosses cultures. When people immigrate and have children in new countries, there’s a weird generational difference in understanding each other between the parents and the children – they’ve grown up, in essence, in different cultures, separated not only by time, but by space and culture and everything else.
Within traditional Indian culture, sexuality is not talked about and diverse sexualities are simply not thought to exist. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that not talking about them or allowing them to exist makes things extremely difficult for everyone involved.
I also wanted to highlight the fact that it’s not everyone who’s like this; it’s a community feeling. My own personal suspicion is that it comes from fear. Change is scary and change in a new country is really scary because you want to keep your inner circle close around you and have everything be the same as how it was. And that’s human nature, I think. But we’re moving into new – hopefully more accepting – diverse world. So these things can, should and will change. I hope.
LAFPI: I noticed specifically that Treya’s parents were supportive, and recognized that I’m not used to having diverse sexuality presented onstage with supportive parents. I really commend you on that
Shyam: Thank you. It’s so lovely to see shows where you have supportive parents because they exist, right? You always get the parents vilified and I thought, “I have a really nice set of parents.” I wouldn’t want to write a play where I even hint that we don’t have a nice relationship.
LAFPI: We see Treya’s grief process through a series of memories and adventures that remind her of her brother’s passing. How do you think that grief process fits into the new age of online communication and dating, which can be a little more alienating?
Shyam: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know, but I will say that I feel very inspired by a play called The Nether by the American playwright Jennifer Haley. The play is set in the future and also in the Dark Net of the future. It questions what we become when the lines become blurrier between real life and simulated life.
I think in terms of grief and all human emotion, we are entering this superbly fascinating arena where we need to deal with these emotions by ourselves, and there’s also this open arena [online] where people can talk with each other and share those emotions. I find it interesting and a little but scary that, often, when you get people to talk about an emotion, the emotion may be heightened and become something else.
We’re already seeing that online [in discussion forums], you get people with a complaint and they build each other up until the complaint becomes huge. And yeah, a problem shared in a problem halved, and all of that, but also, maybe sometimes a problem shared is a problem squared.
LAFPI: I noticed when reading the script that there are many intentional pauses and breaks. For you, what makes these important to Treya’s character?
Shyam: That’s the other thing that was on my mind while I was writing: Both “Scrubs” and “Ally McBeal” have women who have these daydreams constantly, daydreams that just carry on while they’re living their lives. Everybody has daydreams, everyone just goes off in their own world when they’re trying to listen to something. And I wanted Treya to have that experience in some way.
As for the pauses, who has a completely wrinkle-free life? Everyone pauses, everyone is waiting, watching, wondering what’s going to happen next, not sure of the next step. We all have to take a breath sometimes. And that’s built in to show that Treya is a real, full-fledged human being who doesn’t always know – actually, pretty rarely knows – exactly what to say. And even then, often puts her foot in her mouth.
LAFPI: She seems a lot less polished than a lot of women are portrayed on screen or on stage.
Shyam: Yes, I wanted her to be the opposite of polished. She is supposed to be not perfect. Imperfect. And have quite a raw feeling to her.
LAFPI: So in an imperfect world, is is there anything you want the audience to know before they see Treya’s Last Dance?
Shyam: It’s been a really awesome journey writing this and performing this in a variety of places and they should come in with their minds open and enjoy themselves. Enjoy the play in the spirit with which it was written: one of joy.
“Treya’s Last Dance,” written and performed by Shyam Bhatt and directed by Poonam Basu, runs Wednesdays at 8 p.m., September 18 through October 23 at the Hudson Guild Theatre For information and tickets visit at www.onstage411.com or (323) 965-9996.
by Desireé York
Until I’m actually sitting in the audience and watching it with my own eyes, I don’t think I will truly believe that my play, THE PUPPETEER, is receiving a professional production this January! I can remember when it took its first steps as a short play in college six years ago. Since then it’s been expanded, transformed, torn apart, pasted back together and now, it’s finally all grown up, standing on its own and ready to begin a new journey.
Though many of us encounter the same road blocks, unexpected bends and dead ends, the path to production is unique to every playwright. For me, it’s the people I’ve met along the way who offered directions not only to navigate the obstacles, but find shortcuts, enjoy the detours and explore new destinations who made all the difference. They celebrated each step of the process with me, however small.
One of my first steps came with two college professors who recognized my passion for storytelling and nurtured it by creating a safe environment to take bold risks and fail – and boy did I fail! Thankfully, around the same time, I discovered the following quote by Ira Glass:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.” (Click here for expanded quote.)
With that knowledge and the continued support of teachers, collaborators, friends and family, I persevered. But when I discovered that the heart of my work was grounded in social justice, I waivered again. I longed to advocate for women and minorities, but was afraid of misrepresentation. However, through one of the opportunities provided by my college to meet industry professionals, a serendipitous meeting occurred with a much admired African-American playwright whose work shared the same objective. When I told him my apprehension, he said, “You have to write what’s on your heart.” He challenged and inspired me to be true to my voice and fearless in my storytelling.
The next step was even more daunting: learning to self-advocate. Originally from a religiously conservative, small farm town in Pennsylvania, the idea of talking about myself was intimidating enough, let alone approaching complete strangers as an unknown writer. I knew the key was to find my tribe; a message readily preached at my university. Many of my classmates formed their own, but I remained an outsider.The most non-traditional of non-traditional students, I was over a decade older than the average freshman, recently moved to California with my husband who I had just put through college back home, and now it was my turn, after a fourteen year hiatus, to obtain not an advanced degree, but my bachelor’s… in theatre no less! Needless to say, I became the responsible older sister to everyone, but not one of the gang.
The first time I identified my tribe was when I attended an LAFPI meeting at the Samuel French Bookstore the year after my graduation. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by women of all ages who celebrated every voice and invited me to share my stories. This community of talented artists connected, advocated and emboldened me to jump headfirst into the crowd. I still get knots in my stomach at times, but take confidence in those who have blazed the trail before me.
Their steps have brought me here, so I celebrate this journey with each person who has and continues to walk it with me. I guess that’s why this next step, though a big one, feels like the start of a new adventure instead of an ending. Because I still have many more to take before filling that “gap,” but I can’t wait to travel the distance with each person I meet along the way.
Desireé York’s play, THE PUPPETEER, will receive its world premiere at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, running for ten weeks from January 9-March 15, 2020. For more information, visit: http://www.detroitreptheatre.com/thepuppeteer or www.desireeyork.com
The two OC organizations are teaming up to produce the first Page to Stage Playwrights Festival… with an all female line-up. What’s even more exciting to us is that out of almost 400 submissions from playwrights across the country, the works of five local playwrights were chosen: Synida Fontes’ “Butterfly in the Ashes,” Dagney Kerr’s “Deanna and Paul,” Emily Brauer Rogers’ “The Paper Hangers,” Kate Danley’s “Bureaucrazy” and Diana Burbano’s “Gargoyles.” So we couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to the writers about the Festival, and their plays.
LAFPI: How did you find out about and get involved with Page to Stage?
Synida Fontes: Through the LAFPI eBlast, of course!
Dagney Kerr: I saw the posting through the Playwrights Center and submitted my play. I didn’t know anyone.
Emily Brauer Rogers: I have worked with the founders of Project La Femme on other theater projects before and was excited when they announced this Festival. Page to Stage, Curtis Theatre and Project La Femme have been very welcoming and I’m always happy when there are more opportunities to celebrate female artists!
Kate Danley: Pure luck! I was just doing a search for playwriting opportunities and stumbled across it. It was like kismet or something!
Diana Burbano: I was familiar with Project La Femme and I submit to everything I’m qualified for, so it was very nice to get a hit in my own backyard.
LAFPI: Where in your play’s journey are you – and what role will this Festival play in that journey?
Synida: The very end, I hope – this baby is almost legal drinking age!
Dagney: My play has been chosen for a few readings: at AboutFace Theatre in Dublin, Ireland; The Cell Theatre, NYC; and the Road Theatre Summer Playwrights Festival in LA. It also just won the WordWave Festival in Lake Tahoe and will have a reading in September. The only reading I’ve seen is at the Road. It was lovely and a great opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t. This festival will be another opportunity with new actors, director and audience.
Emily: For The Paper Hangers, this is the first reading of the script, so I’m excited to develop it and then begin the process of where it might best fit for a production.
Kate: I wrote this play in 2017 and hosted a small reading on my own. It then proceeded to sit on a shelf for over a year. I submitted it over 117 times and no one would touch it. But suddenly in 2019, within the span of about three weeks, three different theaters asked if they could host a reading, and it was offered a World Premiere at Grande Prairie Live! in Grande Prairie, Canada. This is the final reading before that premiere, so the script that comes out of this process will be the one that is presented to the world.
Diana: I JUST squeaked a second draft under the wire. It’s a very VERY new piece and I’m still not quite sue of the tone or style yet. I’m exploring a historical period that I’m very interested in and I want to honor the period, while distressing the constraints.
LAFPI: One of the great things about a festival environment is making connections, and finding (or re-connecting with) collaborators. Can you talk a bit about the artists who are working on your play?
Synida: I have met my director, Heather Enriquez, but I am mostly happy to stay out of it and let these artists be, and see what they create. I am hoping to watch a rehearsal with the dramaturg [William Mittler] present. But for me, it’s really Heather and the actors doing their thing while I sit tight and then show up on performance night, prepared to be amazed.
Dagney: I’ve been pretty hands off. The director [Angela Cruz] was chosen by La Femme and the actors were chosen by my director. She has worked with them many times in the past. All the staff at the Curtis and the other playwrights are lovely.
Emily: I’ve worked with my director, Katie Chidester, on several plays and love how she is able to visually interpret text onto the stage. The actors in my piece are all new collaborators, but they already have brought amazing ideas about the piece and their characters so I’m excited to see how the work will develop with their insight.
Kate: Rose London is my director, and she works frequently at the Long Beach Playhouse. We met for the first time at the first organizational meeting and completely hit it off. I think this is what makes this festival so special – this team has worked so hard to play matchmaker and connect the perfect teams.
Diana: I have a fantastic cast of Latinx actors, really brilliant people, directed by Rosa Lisbeth Navarrete. It’s my pleasure to write smart, fun, glamorous women for Latinas, who don’t often get seen that way. I think we have some BRILLIANT young actors coming out of the Latinx community (Boyle Heights, Santa Ana…) who, because they don’t conform to what is considered “normal standards,” don’t get to play roles with depth to them. I come at writing not from an academic world, but from the trenches of the acting community. I started writing for myself, but soon discovered that my passion, what I feel moved to do as a playwright, is writing for other Latinx women.
LAFPI: You’re all female playwrights based in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. What’s your relationship with the OC theater community, and with one another?
Synida: This is my first OC-specific project as a playwright, although as an actor I just closed Water By The Spoonful in Long Beach. I made the acquaintance of Diana Burbano when I performed her one-woman short play “Linda” (named for Lindas Ronstadt and Carter), directed by my good friend Kitty Lindsay, for LAFPI’s SWAN Day 2017. Unfortunately, no opportunities to connect in between.
Dagney: It’s such an honor to have your play chosen and to meet other female playwrights. I didn’t know any of the other writers and I knew nothing about the OC theater community before, so it’s been fun getting to know everyone – just like any other theatre community, we do it because we love it.
Emily: I have been active in the OC theater community since I first moved to California in 2002. Friends that worked at Hunger Artists Theatre Company welcomed me to join the company and I served as the managing director from 2006-2008. Through my work there, I’ve seen terrific shows at theaters across the County and love how many of them champion new plays. I know a few of the other writers by reputation, but am thrilled that I was able to meet them and find out more about their work. It’s great to connect with a community of other women who are telling important stories that need to be seen.
Kate: I was a performer in a fantastic show called Blake… da Musical! in Garden Grove many years ago, but other than that, my work has all been in the Los Angeles area. It is a thrill to finally get to work with the OC community! It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted, but never achieved. Everyone is completely new in my circle of friends, and I love that! How exciting to have a festival bring so many unconnected people together and suddenly open the world up to us!
Diana: Our initial meeting was a blast, and I loved being in the room with so many amazing creators. I think ours is the new wave. I want to hear these words, I feel like I’m finally able to breathe with characters, that I understand them better because they are written from something other than a male POV.
LAFPI: And last but not least, tell us about your play. In five words or less.
Synida: Mexicans, mental illness, surreal, hysterical.
Dagney: Poetic. Quirky. Romantic.
Emily: Freeing herself from society’s expectations.
Kate: Death, raisins, and funny ladies.
Diana: Love in the time of monsters.
The inaugural Page to Stage Playwrights Festival – three days of new plays by women, August 30 – September 1, 2019 – is directed by Heather Enriquez and produced by the Curtis Theatre in partnership with Project La Femme. For tix and info visit projectlafemme.com/page-to-stage
Jennie Webb asked me to write a blog post about this free workshop I’m teaching for the undocumented community at the Dream Resource Center. But I really have no time to craft an essay. Sooooo… In true solo performer form, I am interviewing myself about Undocustories: Journeys of Justice and Freedom which starts up on September 3.
What are the basics what, where, when?
UndocuStories: Journeys of Justice and Freedom is a twelve-week theater workshop facilitated by myself, Kristina Wong, with guest artists Yosimar Reyes and Kat Evasco! We engage in powerful conversations regarding issues impacting the undocumented immigrant community and transform those stories into an original theater piece for the public. Participants will learn skills in comedy writing, Theater of the Oppressed, movement, and performance. We meet once a week, Tuesdays from September 3- November 19. And our final show for the public is November 19. It’s all free! All meetings happen 6-8pm at the Dream Resource Center at the UCLA Labor Center in MacArthur Park. 675 Park View St. Sign up here.
The workshop is open to all! No prior experience with performance is necessary. Free dinner will be served at every workshop!
FREE workshop with free dinner? How the hell is such an amazing workshop free?
It’s supported by a generous Artist-in-Residence grant from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. The Dream Resource Center is our host venue and supports this project with staff support, outreach, food and helping with the curriculum.
You aren’t undocumented. Why are you teaching a workshop for the undocumented community, Kristina?
That’s right. I’m not undocumented but I am very conscious of my privilege in facilitating this space. I am a third generation Chinese American, and I have personally witnessed in my own family how much shame and secrecy there can be in immigrant communities. There’s always been a lot of misinformation about what rights immigrants have and that misinformation has been used to suppress immigrant communities from speaking out and advocating for themselves. I’ve seen how much fear there is to report injustice because of the fear of deportation or arrest. I’m also super sick about what’s happening to undocumented immigrant communities and especially to migrants being detained at our Southern border. Like many people, I want to change the conversation around immigration because the current narrative is literally being used to justify the heinous torture of immigrants. This workshop will hold space for folks to learn about these issues and also explore them in theater.
Is this workshop just for undocumented immigrants?
It’s meant specifically to serve folks who are undocumented but is open to everyone! Last year when I facilitated the workshop, we had participants who were undocumented, DACA recipients, permanent residents, folks who were part of mixed status families and allies. The workshop will specifically center the experiences of undocumented immigrants. Last year, our allies were really great about stepping up to support the storytelling of our undocumented participants and de-centering themselves when necessary to keep the focus of storytelling on the experiences of undocumented participants.
What happens at this workshop?
We meet once a week for twelve weeks. Every week we learn about a topic that specifically affects the undocumented community. These issues include things like “Know your Rights,” healthcare in undocumented communities and unaccompanied minors crossing the border. That information will come from Dream Resource Center staff or a guest speaker. Then we play theater games and exercises and we create some performance work incorporating the information we just learned.
The topic seems too depressing. What kind of work will we be making? Skits? Drama? Public Service Announcements?
The workshops are a mix of improv and sketch writing in this workshop. I also have training in Theater of the Oppressed, movement and writing autobiographical work. Our guest teaching artists are themselves undocumented and will teach poetry and personal narrative. I don’t dictate what the final show will look like, but I am responsible for guiding us there. Last year’s show was a combination of comedy sketches, poetry, movement work, first person testimonials and a cover of Vanilla’s Ice Ice Baby called “Abolish Ice Ice Baby.”
Is it ok if I’ve never performed before? What if I’m terrified of being in public?
This workshop is completely for folks who’ve never performed before and just want to learn. I find that folks who have no experience but the willingness to try new things are the most compelling performers. But also, seasoned performers and writers can join us. Come as you are and take what you will.
If someone is not “out” about being undocumented, is it safe for them to join?
Yes. Just let us know if you don’t want your name published on materials or if there are limits as to what you want to share with the group or publicly. We establish community rules at the top of each meeting so that everyone is on the same page about how to work together.
UndocuStories: Journeys of Justice and Freedom is held September 3 – November 19. Click Here for info and to sign up.
Kristina Wong is a performance artist, comedian, writer, and elected representative of
Koreatown. She facilitated previous Artist-in-Residence projects at the UCLA Labor Center, Los Angeles Community Action Network, and the Bus Riders Union. Her solo shows and plays have been presented across the US and internationally. Center Theatre Group honored her as the 2019 Sherwood Award recipient for her exceptional contribution to the Los Angeles theatre landscape and her work as an innovative and adventurous artist. www.kristinawong.com
It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.
With a cast that is almost entirely made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.
LAFPI: First, let us say that we’re thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles!
Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?
Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play! I was primarily a performer at the time. There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.
Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers. She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into. Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.
LAFPI: What kind of research did you do when writing Hannah, Jiehae?
Jiehae: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play, but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.
LAFPI: A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
Jiehae: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.
LAFPI: Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah?
Jennifer: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is almost entirely Korean and Korean American. There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable. It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea. I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration. I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience.
LAFPI: Where does this piece fit in this new age of Asian/Asian American storytelling? How is it different?
Jiehae: I think it’s an exciting time for bold, uniquely Asian American storytelling that takes up its own space, written for audiences that include—though not exclusively—Asian Americans. Hannah is a play about the in-between-ness of a certain kind of Korean American immigrant identity, where the “homeland” can seem just as foreign as America. It’s written deliberately for a mixed audience—of Korean speakers and of non-Korean speakers—of all ethnicities. A lot of the work I’m excited about lately takes the old binaries and exposes them for what they always were—convenient fictions, with the far richer textures lying in between.
Jennifer: I think the new age is a function of capitalism producers and production companies are recognizing that an underserved market exists and that if production companies and theaters want to keep making as much money as they have been while building and creating new audiences, the Asian and Asian American audience will have to feel represented in the storytelling.
LAFPI: Is there anything you’d like to share about the casting process?
Jennifer: Only to say that I was looking for actors who could really capture the essence of ‘Han’—which is defined as a certain melancholy that is specific to Korean culture and people. I don’t mean to say that people of other cultures can’t possess Han. A western analogy would be the sadness and longing found in Chekhov’s plays. At its core, the play is about a family and reflecting on what this family’s particular family story is and how inextricably linked it is to the culture upon whose bedrock the family’s roots lay. Everybody comes from some place and has a family story.
LAFPI: We’re looking forward to seeing both sides of the coin of this dynamic show: the funny and the tragic. Jennifer, how does this show find that balance and how do you design that into the show?
Jennifer: It’s really about honoring the text and mining the emotional wells that exist because of the circumstances that the characters find themselves in. And hopefully the audience can recognize those moments and respond. Laughter and tears are universal and unconscious and bubble up because of a recognition. The company of actors and I are working on the text with an eye and ear on the specificity of the rhythm of the play and essentially choreographing to the music of that language.
LAFPI: East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?
Jiehae: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago… In the time since, I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was. And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee [who is in the production’s cast] that Howard Ho (Hannah‘s Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.
Jennifer: I think it’s really smart theatre-making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color. A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.
LAFPI: And what do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
Jennifer: Garlic in their pockets.
“Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” opens August 17 at The Fountain Theatre, produced in association with East West Players. Visit www.FountainTheatre.com for reservations and more information.
It’s no surprise to any of us in who work the LA Theater scene that the City of Angels is full of major talent – artists who work on and create for the stage, NOT just film and TV. But it’s always satisfying when artists from New York agree with us! Last year, the ladies behind She NYC Arts came to the West Coast to stage their first Summer Theater Festival here under the banner of She LA Arts.
It went so well that they’re back! The 2019 She LA Summer Theater Festival features productions (not just readings!) of full-length plays by Nakisa Aschtiani, Karen Lukesh, Allie Wittner, Ali MacLean and Tiffani Dean, July 30-Aug 4 at the Zephyr Theatre. So we figured it was about time to have a little chat with the organization’s Artistic Director, Danielle DeMatteo.
LAFPI: Can you talk a bit about how She NYC Arts began? And are the Theater Festivals in NYC and now in LA your main focus?
Danielle: She NYC was founded back in 2015 after I had some experiences in the industry as a young, female composer/ rehearsal pianist that were, to say the least, difficult. When I spoke to other early- to mid-career women writers, composers, musicians, and music directors, I found that we all had really similar experiences. It was great to know I wasn’t alone, but was also infuriating. And that made us want to actually do something to fix it.
We found that as a writer starting out in NYC, you had two options to get your work up in full for an audience: self-produce and potentially empty your savings account doing it, or sell your work to a producer who you may or may not trust (and who were usually rich older men). My colleagues and I wanted to find a way to bridge this gap by giving women a way to self-produce and retain control and agency over their own work, without having to take the huge financial risk. So we built on the idea of a festival, where the writers can share the costs associated with producing, giving everyone subsidized and free resources to get their work fully produced. We do some smaller events throughout the year (short play staged readings, concerts of songs by women composers, etc.), but the Festivals in NYC and LA are our main projects.
LAFPI: And just what was it that brought She NYC Arts out to LA?
Danielle: Our second year in NYC, 3 of our 8 shows flew from California to participate. That made it pretty clear to us that there was a need for a program like this on the West Coast, too, and that there were a ton of talented writers in the Los Angeles area who we could invest in. Our first year in LA, 2 of those 3 writers actually became a core part of our producing team to get She LA up and running.
LAFPI: Was there a learning curve setting up camp on the West Coast?
Danielle: In NYC, almost everyone in the theater community has worked on [this kind of] festival at some point (often more than once). So everyone – from writers, to directors, to the actors – fully understands how to put up a show when you have very limited tech and load-in time. In LA, we found that the shows’ teams were not always used to that – and rightfully so, because it’s totally crazy! Because of that, we’ve created more wiggle room in our schedule in LA.
LAFPI: Most new play festivals in LA feature readings or workshops. But you wanted to do more?
Danielle: At She NYC and She LA, our mission is founded on supporting the writers, who are often the first to start work and the last to get paid. When we started in NYC, we had the same situation: There were lots of programs focused on providing staged readings, workshops, or concerts, but no programs that let specifically women writers see their work put up in full. As a writer myself, I know that’s a vital part of the writing process – to see how your scenes work next to each other when you have to do a set change in the middle, or to see how your music works when choreography is added to it.
We want to provide a platform for writers to be able to take that step in full productions – which we define simply as the cast being off-book – but we encourage our writers to do whatever level of production quality they feel will best help them where they’re at in their writing process. If that means you want to do your show black-box style with just a few chairs and blocks, great! If you feel you really need to see your show done in full period costumes with a 5-piece band, we support that, too.
LAFPI: Each year, you have an open submission call for scripts. What has been your experience with the plays and artists who have participated in the She LA Festivals?
Danielle: We are so floored by the level of talent in LA. I won’t name names, but my two favorite shows that we’ve ever done on either coast were She LA shows. I think what’s also refreshing about LA is that our artists out here tend to have a lot of fun with their experience. In New York (again, because folks are really used to the festival lifestyle out there), it can sometimes feel like it’s all business. Which is very important! But in LA, our participants are more likely to have lots of fun WHILE doing their business. They’re also great at self-promotion and social media on the West Coast.
LAFPI: What kind of experience and support can female playwrights who participate in a She LA Festival look forward to?
Danielle: Basically, [for a participation fee] She LA provides all of the technical/logistical things, so the writers can focus on the creative parts of bringing their show to life. The writers provide, and have full control over, their cast, creative team, set design, and costume design. She LA provides the theater space, all of the equipment that goes inside of it (from big things like lights and curtains, to small thinks like spike tape), insurance, and the staff to run their shows.
We provide an amazing Production Manager who runs all tech and performances, as well as her Associate; a Lighting Designer who programs the lights for every show (at the direction of the show’s creative team); front-of-house staff to manage all things that happen in the lobby, including ticketing and printing programs; and a marketing team that helps each creative team promote their own show, as well as making a video ad for each show which we pay to run on social media and other digital outlets. My favorite part of the program, too, is that we provide a Show Mentor to each production. This person is a She LA staff member who is there to guide the writers and their teams through the process, offer advice, help out whenever an extra pair of hands is needed, and make sure they’re prepared and ready to go for their tech and performances.
LAFPI: She LA (and She NYC!) Festivals seem look like they’re very much a team effort. How do you manage to keep a cohesive team together working on either end of the country?
Danielle: “Team effort” is almost an understatement! Pretty much everyone on our team works another day job in the entertainment industry, and we handle She NYC and She LA on the side. On the one hand, that means we’re all crazy busy, with an all-hands-on-deck mentality as we get close to Festival time. On the other hand, it means we all have active contacts in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry, so we can involve some great industry contacts in our program to get our writers’ work in front of them.
For Emily Rellis (the She LA Executive Producer) and I, it’s been a fun ride to build a team in LA. It can be challenging that Emily and I are not on the ground in LA, but they’ve been awesome with being available on the phone, and even FaceTiming us in to a walkthrough of the theater.
LAFPI: Now that the 2nd She LA Summer Theater Festival is around the corner, what are you most looking forward to?
Danielle: This year, I’m very excited that we have one show coming in from Philadelphia (Between the Colored Lines and Other Black Girl Tales, by playwright and poet Tiffani Dean). They actually were a part of the 2018 She NYC Festival, and now are flying out to LA for their West Coast premiere! That’s our first time doing a show on both coasts, and we can’t wait to see how it goes.
That being said, we’re so excited to see all of the shows! We’ve been reading the scripts on paper and talking to the writers via email for so long (we first read their scripts last November!), so finally getting to see them up on their feet is thrilling.
LAFPI: Anything else you want to talk about or share?
Danielle: Thanks to LAFPI for all that you do and all your support! We hope to see you all at The Zephyr Theater. And if anyone wants to get involved with She LA, we’d love to hear from you! Reach us at email@example.com, and there’s more information about all of our programs at www.SheLAArts.org.
For Tickets and Info about the 2019 She LA Summer Theater Festival, presenting 5 new full-length plays by women writers and composers July 30-August 4, visit www.SheLAArts.org/she-la.
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire in the main prayer hall and murdered six people. Soon after, I received a frantic call from my younger brother telling me that he was unable to reach our parents. My parents are members of that temple and every Sunday, like millions of their fellow Americans, they go to a place of worship and bow their heads in prayer.
For an hour that felt like an eternity, we were unable to reach them. My younger brother had arrived at the scene – a place that was once filled with calm and solace now reeling with chaos and sadness sectioned off by yellow police tape. I was in LA with my young daughter, feeling completely helpless and preparing myself for the worst. Then finally the phone rang; it was my mother telling me that they had gone to a different temple that morning and she and my father were safe. This would not be the reality for my uncle and several family friends who were shot and killed in the shooting.
I found myself in a deep state of depression, feeling a mixture of anger and sadness. Having something horrific hit so close to home put me in a constant state of worry over my parents. I picked up my pen and began to write as a release, and as a result, my one woman show RAG HEAD An American Story was born.
Set in a small American town and inspired by actual events, RAG HEAD explores hate, hope and American identity. I portray seven inextricably linked characters whose lives are forever changed by one hateful act. All the characters in the play are inspired my family and friends. It’s a deeply personal piece, about how ignorance can be deadly.
I will be performing the show at the The Complex Hollywood on Saturday July 27th. This performance will be filmed and proceeds will go toward taking my show on the road in hopes to educate and foster understanding about the Sikh community.
And on Aug 3 & 4 I will be performing the show at the Broadway Theatre in Milwaukee to support the Interfaith Conference of greater Wisconsin and to honor the seven-year remembrance of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple tragedy.
With your support, you could help raise awareness and become an ally to the Sikh American community. According to the Sikh Coalition there are roughly 500,000 American Sikhs; many of which have been subjected to xenophobic harassment or violence. Sadly over 70% of Americans do not know who Sikhs are or what their faith entails. This is a story that must be shared and with your presence we can spread our message of unity.
Thank you again for your support, I hope to see you at the show.
RAG HEAD An American Story plays in Hollywood Saturday July 27th at 7pm – Tickets tiny.cc/RAGHEAD
SUNDEEP MORRISON is a Punjabi Sikh writer, actress, director, author and activist. A graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy NY, her work focuses on social justice, cultural friction, inter-ethnic family dynamics and feminism. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.
I started writing Apple Season [Moving Arts‘ production opens July 13] about ten years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles. I was invited to write a ten-minute play on, as I recall, the theme of “backyard fruit.” As sometimes happens with a writing prompt, something unlocked inside of me when I put pen to paper. A story about legacies of violence and how to escape them. A story about family and friends, and memory and monsters. All set in an apple orchard in my home state of Oregon, on a farm much like the one where I grew up.
I think it was a darker ten-minute play than the folks at Botanicum Seedlings had in mind, but that was the play their prompt inspired. And those characters continued to clamor for more story, well after our readings there in Topanga Canyon.
Funny how things work.
It seems very right to be here now, telling this particular story. For lots of reasons.
This is a play about coming home. And in every possible way, that’s what I’ve done. I live back on my family farm in Oregon, now, just like one of the characters in the play. I’m back in Los Angeles for this production, working with the theater company I first called home.
One of the reasons is that this is a story with a woman at the center of it. From politics to soccer, there is a rising understanding that women belong at the center of stories.
This is a story that grapples with domestic violence and violence against women. And there is also a rising understanding that the truth of those types of violence, so long suppressed, must come out. We are going to bring them out. Because as much as speaking hurts, silence hurts us more.
This is a story about agency. There are so many things happening right now that make us feel powerless. And overwhelmed. And afraid. But even when our actions are small, they can change the world. One small step at a time.
I’m grateful to my friend, director, and long time collaborator Darin Anthony and my friend, producer, and long time collaborator Cece Tio for bringing Apple Season to Moving Arts. I absolutely adore my cast — Liza Fernandez as Lissie Fogerty, Justin Huen as her brother, Roger Fogerty, and Rob Nagle as Billy Rizzell. Our designers are working magic, over at the Atwater Village Theater, building us an apple orchard full of memories and ghosts.
I hope that you’ll join us for the show!
Moving Arts’ “Apple Season” runs July 13 – August 5 at Atwater Village Theatre, part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. For Tix & Info visit www.MovingArts.org or call (323) 472-5646.
E. M. LEWIS is an award-winning playwright, teacher, and opera librettist. Her work has been produced around the world, and is published by Samuel French. Plays include: Magellanica, Apple Season (currently having a National New Play Network rolling world premiere at New Jersey Rep, Riverside Theater, and Moving Arts), How the Light Gets In (which will have its world premiere at Boston Court Pasadena this fall), The Gun Show, Song of Extinction, Heads, Infinite Black Suitcase, Goodbye Ruby Tuesday, Reading to Vegetables, True Story, and You Can See All the Stars (a Kennedy Center commission). Awards include: the Steinberg Award and Primus Prize from the American Theater Critics Association, the Ted Schmitt Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a playwriting fellowship from NJ State Arts Commission, the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship in Drama, and the Edgerton Award. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant, a new opera that Lewis is creating with composer Evan Meier, commissioned by American Lyric Theater, had a piano vocal workshop in New York City in March. Town Hall, an opera Lewis created with composer Theo Popov, was produced at Willamette University in March as well. Lewis is currently working on a big new political play called The Great Divide. She is a proud member of LineStorm Playwrights and the Dramatists Guild, and lives on her family’s farm in Oregon.