I am stretching for a story to share with you to relieve my stress over writing. Here are a few things I’ve read in the past weeks related to writing.
“Writing is easy. You just sit and stare at the blank page until the drops of blood form on your brow.” – This is a sign on the desk of the wife of another writer Philip Zaleski (“The Best American Spiritual Writing” – 2007). His analogy was writing is like praying, a kind of spiritual discipline. “A spiritual discipline is something you engage in on a regular basis, whether you feel like or not.”
Like others, I’ve struggled with the question “Why write?”. It’s not something that haunts me. Although, when I look at the heaps of journals in boxes that I’ve hauled around with me from place to place during the past 40 years, then there’s gotta be something there that draws me to write. So I look to other writers who write successfully (whatever that means) and those that do it for practice (spiritual or otherwise).
Among the first names that come to mind is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The process of creating “The Gulag Archipelago”, moved me to ask what was his compulsion to write the manuscript.
He wrote the three volumes of non-fiction about the forced labor camp system in secrecy, while under the surveillance of the KGB. Then, following that, if the Soviet government caught anyone with the possession of the manuscript then it would mean imprisonment for ‘anti-Soviet’ activities. The process of getting the work published was an enormous feat, and unfortunately resulted in the death of Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, an assistant to the writer. She was captured and tortured by the KGB to reveal the whereabouts of a copy of the typed manuscript. Shortly after her release, she was reported to have hung herself in her apartment.
“It is the artist who realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works gladly away as a small apprentice under God’s heaven.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Not sure if the “gladly” was in his mind during the creative process of “Gulag Archipelago”, but there is a joy in fulfilling one’s purpose and he was clearly aware of his purpose.
Margaret Mitchell said in an interview after writing the novel “Gone With the Wind”: “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others apparently just as able, strong, and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are those who fight their way through? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’”
This quote inspired me, because of Nebiy Mekonnen (Ethiopian poet, journalist, playwright and translator). His story was among the collection of writings in the book “The Best American Spiritual Writing”. Nebiy was the subject of the essay “Tomorrow is Another Day” authored by Carol Huang. It describes Nebiy’s experience as a prisoner during the Derg Regime’s Red Terror. During his eight year term, Nebiy translated the novel “Gone With the Wind” from English to Amharic. The novel was the sole book available in the prison. Nebiy and his cellmates shared the book by circulating the book whereby one cell mate had the book for an hour each day before passing it on to the next person in the rotation.
By Nebiy’s fourth rotation of the book, he started translating it from English to Amharic using the lining torn from empty packs of cigarettes (and he wasn’t even a smoker). His goal of translating the novel to the native language of his people garnered support from the other prisoners. Some sacrificed their hour of reading for Nebiy, so that his work could progress faster. Meanwhile the smokers passed their emptied cigarette packs to his cell so that he could scribble the translations on salvaged paper including “puzzling over phrases such as ‘fiddle-dee-dee’.” Beyond this laborious process the translated pieces of paper had to be smuggled out of jail. The bits of paper were folded and repacked into empty packs of cigarettes that were resealed. The packets were casually transported out of the jail building in the shirt pockets of men released from jail.
“Whether you have black history or a white history, history is history,” he said. “You have to look for the outcome, which was the America that emerged. The present wouldn’t have been had the Civil War not been. That was the basic thing. I really prayed that the country (Ethiopia) would reach that level. And really, if you were in prison and read that book and saw the end of it, where of destruction reconstruction come, where out of war comes peace – that is the utmost you can dream of.” – Nebiy Mekonnen from the essay “Tomorrow is Another Day”
“Why write?”, indeed in the face of the enormity of what these three writers have accomplished. It is humbling to imagine what they’ve done, but at the same time, they humbled themselves to the creative force working through them.
Staring at a blank page feels like moving a mountain. I think about it, and see that the mountain is really my ego. It’s the ego that whispers and sometimes shouts, mouthing the words “You’re not good enough”. But, there are days when something inside me, the bigger “I” surmounts the little “i”, and then… and then some beads of blood form over my brow.
Writing contains a common thread that binds us together. It is one word strung together to another word and so on and so on, and then a thought is formulated and that thought triggers an emotion. The emotion moves something within, and that something is inside all of us. And that’s what makes us human; and being conscious of this is what makes it sublimely divine. We are divinity, and we’re always aspiring to our higher selves. So this is why I write.
Coming back from a brief and fast walk with my dog, my cheeks are burning from the nip of the cold rain. I love the contrasts of sensations. Each step, I recount the moments of stepping on slippery rocks and roots along the trail by Lynn Creek in North Vancouver. My dog, sniffing the carpet of dripping moss under a Cypress tree lingers, and lingers. And now my mind lingers too. My heart is heavy, my steps are light. I accept, finally, that I can never go back home.
The home I had was a memory that lived in my heart. And I recognize that if I continue to yearn and ache for the past then I will continue to bear the weight of loss and longing. So how do I cure myself of this malaise?
Many of us are self-isolating in our homes waiting for this tide of pandemic to pass. It is April 7th, 2020, and in a few days Easter will be celebrated quite differently from previous times; and also the beginning of Passover will be a new experience. These religious milestones are periods of deep reflection and reverence for events that uplifted the mentality and the hearts of people living the Christian and Jewish traditions. The rituals of these “Holy Days” conflate the past, present and the future. The past is the remembrance, the present is the practice, and the future is the hope.
And there seems to be an answer to what I just thought and put down on this page. The past is the remembrance, the present is the practice, and the future is the hope.
The practice can be anything. It could be walking, writing, or anything done with mindfulness. Today, I am remembering to be present to what’s happening now. It can seem so overwhelming to consider the “what if’s” of the future not yet here. There are so many permutations that can come out of this present moment. And the wisdom I’ve read and sometimes remember to do is to be aware of my intention of the moment. My intention(s) will produce the outcome just like a simple or compound math equation that has two parts on either side of the equal sign.
So I practice awareness of the feelings and the thoughts that come in flurry, like the raindrops slashing across my eyes, cheeks, nose and lips. My warm breath condensing to the temperature drop beyond, and I pause to weep for a moment only, then walk on, calm, assured that hope is just beyond the next step, the next breath.
Easier said than practiced, but this is what practice is all about. It is showing up to the page, to the mat, to my feet on the ground, to the listening with an open heart. An open heart that accepts all foibles and doubts without judgment. Once in awhile, I can easily open up the trinket box of memories and wish for things to be what they once were. The scent of a perfume or the colors of a bloom, a snippet of a conversation, a dream – all these can pull me back, but I mustn’t linger lest I lose track of the moment now.
The way of life as I knew it before the lockdowns, a domino effect in towns and cities across the world, will never be the same. Neither you nor I can go back to that way anymore. It’s odd to “feel dirty” after grocery shopping, as I dispose of masks and gloves and anything that might be contaminated into the garbage and the washing machine. Grocery shopping of the past was a treat, filling the basket with favorite things and believing these things will always be there.
So savor the moments, the flavors, the scents, the observations, because it’ll be over soon enough.
Home is where my heart is, to be present and to be aware of the gift of this time.
I have to keep asking my husband which day of the week it is. When was the last time I went to a movie or a restaurant? February? We seem to measure time now by how fast our hair is growing with no hope of getting it cut properly. It’s a time we’ve been calling “the hiatus.” As opposed to “the busy time” that is our usual lives.
The husband is a writer, too and has been pounding away at his laptop, trying to finish the book proposal. I wish I was that productive.
I know I’m not the only one.
My writing group met online last week. More than an hour was spent “checking in” and most of the writers needed that human contact more than they needed their plays critiqued. Some reported real-life concerns: pre-existing health conditions, lost jobs, school-age children they suddenly were being asked to home school. Others struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a writerly pressure to produce “something important” during this hiatus.
Intellectually, as writers we realize that this is a rare moment in history that should be captured, turned into art, preserved for future generations. But does anyone think an audience will want to go see a coronavirus play next year? (The answer is maybe, if it’s a really good one.)
Me? I know I don’t have the next “Love in the Time of Cholera” in me.
So what do we do? I have a few suggestions.
Find a way to be helpful to others. o Shop for an elderly neighbor. o Call or text that friend who lives alone. o Send an advance to the cleaning lady, hair stylist, or anyone else you know who could use the cash.
Use your writing gifts. Be creative.
o Write a short play for a friend’s child. o Invite actor friends to a Zoom reading of one of your plays – or a play by your favorite writer. o All the world’s a stage: is there one in your living room? My writing pal Ellen Struve is writing and producing puppet plays from her front window for the neighborhood kids. o Perform Instagram or Facebook live reading of your best monologue.
Feed your creative soul.
o Think of the haitus as the solo “play date” that Julia Cameron prescribes in “The Artist’s Way.” Do something fun that’s NOT writing. Bake, paint, garden, work on a jigsaw puzzle. Play. Love to sing? Check out the Facebook Group “Quarantine Sing-a-long.” Every day they take a vote on the song everyone will be singing. o Binge that TV show you’ve always wanted to write for. Take notes if you want. (I can’t get enough of “Crash Landing on You,” a Korean romcom with the best plotting I’ve seen in a series.)
o Interview the people in your house. Story Corps has a free app you can download or just use the voice memo app on your smartphone. I interviewed my grandmother decades ago, but not my mother who died early. I will always regret that. o Write letters. If your handwriting is semi-legible, handwrite them. A friend from grammar school has been writing to me from Washington state every week. It’s so much better than a phone call. o Count your blessings. A friend in the mid-west has been posting her “Gratitude List” on Facebook every day, listing everything from pictures of spring flowers to discovering a jar of Trader Joe’s Thai Curry Simmer Sauce in the back of her pantry. We truly are blessed in ways that are easy to ignore during the “busy time.”
And so I close by being grateful for this writing community. Thank you.
“Theatre has a role, a noble role, in energizing and mobilizing humanity to lift itself from its descent into the abyss. It can uplift the stage, the performance space, into something sacred. In South Asia, the artist’s touch with reverence the floor of the stage before stepping onto it, an ancient tradition when the spiritual and the cultural were intertwined. It is time to regain that symbiotic relationship between the artist and the audience, the past and the future.”
~Shahid Nadeem in honor of Madeeha Gauhar
After weeks inside the house, the days started to blend together and I found myself replaying how I got to the work. Why do I do the work? What is the weight of the work while the world is on pause? Although presenting to an audience is usually the goal, the work is still very much alive even with no clear date of when theatres and performance venues can reopen. I feel is the very reason the theatre lives even more now with a newfound worth.
I imagine a new American Theatre with a wide vision that embraces new ways of merging the talent that lives within a city. How do we present work to an audience and who gets to be in the positions that uplift new voices? It seems there is no better time than now to answer these questions of how we can collectively merge the independent theatre artist, freelance theatre artists, and union and nonunion theatre artists. What barriers need to be pushed aside so that we can all come together to give voice to the times in which we exist?
Michael, an old friend from High School times, asked me the other day how I was doing during this time of quarantine. The first real question, where I knew my answer mattered to the person, and so I took my time in thought before I responded to him, now it has become my mantra:
“I’m adjusting. I’m luckier than most and that feels bad inside – I cried a bit for so many communities and I just hope this was the best way.
The rest I feel is relief in a way – that residency feeling, that opportunity that many of us never get as artists to focus on the work, where one can do the work wholeheartedly, absorb stillness and manifest old and new ideas. Yet I know that comes from a place of privilege and that hurts and frees me.
Yet, I feel much will grow from this – nature and humans and so I’m positive + excited and a wee bit scared for what’s to come but I know doing the work has always been the guiding light.”
Shadid Nadeem’s World Theatre Day speech filled me energy for I knew what he said to be true. For I, too, honor the space in which I will perform, channeling those who walked the space before, my ancestors and to give thanks to all who enter it. Theatre is sacred. Theatre is a ritual. Theatre is healing. It is why we must continue to fight for an eclectic variety of voices leading the way to the Great White Way, for they exist in the smallest of theatre houses, community theatre houses or that hole in the wall theatre space that is constantly doing great work but has no large audiences; these theatres exist in cities all throughout the U.S. There is no better time than now to see how to widen the scope, expand the reach and not lose a generation of artists to a lack of support and opportunities. The future of American Theatre depends upon a new way of seeing. As we know, not everyone will be taken into the future. There will be some artists who will be a part of the history of theatre and many others will be forgotten. What can we do in the present to ensure as many voices as possible are heard and remembered?
Staying in and need something to read? Want to keep pushing gender parity in theater while theaters are closed? Please participate in #52playsbywomen. It was started on Twitter in 2016, inspired by Women in Film’s #52filmsbywomen. Since then, over 2,000 plays by women (defined as woman, womxn, woman+) playwrights have been discussed at the hashtag on Twitter. (Note: this is for Twitter only – not on FB or IG).
Last year, 524 women playwrights were mentioned, and 668 female-authored plays were listed at the hashtag. In 2020, the initiative is facilitated by Vivian Brown (@ve_brown) through June; Dr. Jennifer Goff (@ProfGoff) will take over from July through December. We’re trying to highlight even MORE plays by women this year. And there are two new facilitators already signed on for 2021.
The rules for #52playsbywomen initiative are easy! Basically, it’s just see/hear/read a play (of any length) written by a woman once a week, and post a tweet with a title and playwright’s name. Repeat for a year. But, in truth, you can post as frequently or infrequently as you’d like; if you have a slow week for posting, you can catch back up the week after, etc. You can start at any time, any date. Some participants use their tweets to display a photo of a playbill or book cover; others use the space to write a mini-blogpost. The idea is that if you go to #52playsbywomen, you can learn about lots of plays. This contributes to social media buzz about plays by women.
So where can we find plays online to read during this time of social distancing? There are some good sources for classical plays by women in the public domain. For contemporary plays, there’s always the New Play Exchange! The Los Angeles Public Library has an accessible e-collection. Here are some suggestions to get started:
It’s the usual setup for a scene (these days): two friends are on a Skype hangout on a Saturday morning. One friend proposes to the other this question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?
It’s a question that I think about a lot, especially when it comes to things. The stuff we collect, pin up on our bulletin boards, pack into scrapbooks. I’ve spent that last year systematically going through my grandmother’s stuff and (with her) deciding what should stay and what should go. All these things that were once so important being packed away, sold for pennies, sent to the dump.
I just spent this Pandemic Sunday cleaning through my desk, reorganizing my space for increased at-home work, and doing a similar exercise. My apartment has a grandma feel to it – there are lots of things around (though I like to think that I have arranged them in more of an “artistic” way than a “ohmygodtheclutteryouhoarder” way). I tend to hold onto notes and photos, gather small items or images from my travels, buy books I have no time to read. I like having things around me that remind me of beautiful times, of people I love, of the person I hope I’m becoming. And I often think of the day I die – someone coming into my space and seeing the same things and seeing mostly junk, wondering why I would hold on to these things. I imagine all of these precious items being thrown into the dump.
And certainly the meaning of some things change. I just tossed away some letters from grad school that already gave me what I needed (but the emotion attached to them a year ago – can you imagine!) My grandmother and I threw out a lot of things she gathered on her travels (who knew porcelain plates used to be the BIG thing in souvenirs?) And now, those things are just in the way, signifying nothing.
What’s that Macbeth quote? “It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
But I often hold onto things because I don’t trust my memory. I want to be reminded – I need my memory backed up to a hard drive of sorts. Journals can do this, I suppose, but even as a writer I started to feel how little a simple journal could hold.
And in some way, the work we do as writers is reaching for that – the holding on to some Beauty or Truth or Whatever and preserving it and preserving ourselves in some way too. We all want to create something that matters.
But it is debilitating and useless for that to be the goal. It is too big, too nonspecific to be helpful.
So, back to the scene on Skype. Back to the question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?
If the moment we’re in now tells us anything it’s that our choices have ripple effects. How we choose to conduct our lives affects others. Our world has taught us to be so focused on individual success, to place us in constant competition, we forget that we do, ultimately, matter to each other.
Are we all going to be Superman and single-handedly save New York? No. And why would you want that? Sounds exhausting. I’d much rather be the Guardians of the Galaxy, fighting alongside friends, for better or worse.
So does any of it matter? Yes and no.
Yes because the work we do, what we put out into the world – you don’t know who its going to change, affect, transform, inspire, scare, motivate.
No because each individual thing is just part of your longer story. When we read or watch stories and fall in love with characters – remember that we tend to not judge characters so much on their failures, but on what they choose to do in the collective whole.
It is all equally meaningless and meaningful, beautiful and two feet away from the dump.
But I think that’s why it is all meaningful. Because it can all be taken away so quickly and become so meaningless.
That’s why I hold onto that rock I found on the beach on the Isle of Mann, or those plastic pearls my grandmother used to wear all the time, or the Valentine my mom wrote me just a month ago.
1816 was a miserable year. Known as the Year Without A Summer, global temperatures decreased thanks to a large volcanic eruption, leading to failed crops and famine, and…wait for it…disease.
It was also the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.
Many of us have heard the story. A group of friends, shut in from the cold, locked away from much of civilization, haunted by their own individual fears and worries and distractions, challenge each other to a ghost story contest.
Here is what Mary writes about that challenge, which eventually led to a nightmare that eventually led to Frankenstein:
I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.
We have officially entered our own Year Without A Spring with the COVID-19 pandemic. The sun may shine, rain may fall, the mayor of LA is THIS CLOSE to mandating hikes. The shelves may be empty but food is being delivered. It is not the desperate darkening of the Earth in the same way as 1816 – but 1816 and 2020 are kindred spirits. People are still dying. People are isolated. People are not supported by the systems we swore were solid weeks before.
There is a general chaos, a general undercurrent vibration of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes on Facebook.
There is also a lot of hope and community support. Artists coming together. Creating things. Certainly I’ve seen the story of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Ugh. As if we weren’t under enough pressure already.
And then of course here I am offering up Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during another deadly year. But I don’t offer up this story as an example of unending production. I don’t want to say, “Hey, this is our chance! Write that Great American Rona Play/Novel!” Just because we are locked in our homes does not mean what we produce must be a novel that transcends 200 years of literary history.
Instead, reread that quote from her introduction. Invention comes out of chaos. It comes out of the moment of change, of wonder, of fear. All you may accomplish right now is a lot of walking around in silence, a lot of nightmares. But that, too, is creation.
I went to a writing residency in 2017 in the month between leaving my day job and going off to grad school. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn off the world. I was in a tailspin of work and change and uncertainty. And I was at a beautiful place where I was supposed to be writing. I did, a little. But my writing to-do list was barely touched. Instead I went on walks, hikes, cried into oysters, had nightmares. I felt lonely. I was alone.
When I talked to others who had been in similar situations, I heard many a story of writers going to residencies and writing little to nothing – only taking the time to sit and breathe and try to remember what it was that was interesting or terrifying or beautiful to them….the thing that led them to writing in the first place.
So I think that’s all we can ask now. Wander around your gothic mansion/studio apartment and indulge in a little ghost story challenge. Gather around the fire and let the nightmares play and dance and then burn out. If something lingers on, maybe you got something.
“These are new books
we just got,” I hear my five-year-old tell his friend in the pantry, otherwise
known as my office. “My Mommy has a story she wrote in there. It’s about losing
things. I helped her with it.”
My heart beat faster.
For weeks I’d been telling him about this anthology and the story I wrote for
it. He sat doing puzzles next to me while I drafted it, did bedtime with his
Dad for a week while I finished it, and “helped” me set up marketing emails and
social posts for the week that it was published.
Hearing him tell his
friend about this, my first story published in a physical book, took me by
surprise. He’s proud of me, I thought. He feels ownership of it, because of the
time that he gave me to work and the ways I was able to involve him in my
Thinking back, I’ve included him since the day I started working again, three weeks after he was born. It wasn’t a traditional 9-5 job. I ran a small team of reviewers for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and part of our job was to pitch our services to the artists and publish micro interviews on their shows. I attended a workshop for the theater artists with my three-week-old baby in a Moby wrap, also learning how to navigate a bathroom decidedly not designed to change a diaper. When it came to my turn to speak, he was nursing, so I just stood and pitched this review site to over fifty people while my son happily drank milk from inside his wrap. Some people realized what was happening and cheered me on, but many didn’t notice and just thought I was wearing some elaborate infinity scarf.
I’ve continued to
work from home as a writer and arts communicator. It isn’t always as easy as
that first day, but I have found some interesting ways to involve my children
and make it work as a work-at-home-parent, which is my motto. I hope you can apply a
few of these hacks to your writing life!
Clearly designate work time from non-work time. I go into this in more detail on my blog, but you can use clocks and timers to your advantage. Count down to the time that you will work, prepare snacks beforehand, and set a timer so they can see exactly how long it will take. Then the important part: that timer goes off and you immediately give your patient children a good tickle or cuddle! The instant connection helps them understand that it is family time once again.
Create their own work to do along with you. They got into a big maze phase, so when I had a deadline, we made a challenge. Who can finish more mazes correctly in thirty minutes? A bonus tip here is to get the dry erase puzzle books for very busy work weeks on a budget. When I really needed to write and they really needed my attention, I folded construction paper in half and encouraged them to draw their own stories. Once they drew on every page of their book, I would write the words with or for them. That gave me twenty more minutes to write that day!
Answer their questions, satisfy their curiosity, and they’ll happily give you time. One day, I sat down to write content for a website. My five-year-old son crawled inside my hoodie (a sure sign he needs connection) and asked what I was doing. Then he asked: “What’s a website?” Then he wanted to make his own. By taking twenty minutes to connect, show him how to write a short story and put it into a website, he was thoroughly satisfied and drew pictures beside me for the rest of the hour I set aside for work. He may never touch that website again, but it’s there for him.
Involve them in research. I write a lot of marketing copy for live shows. When appropriate, I show my kids the video clips or pictures and talk to them about the shows while I take notes. Another example is that I’m writing a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. While researching how long it would really take to travel from Wittenberg to Denmark, we made it a mini geography and math lesson. We watched the first scene of Hamlet together from five different film versions and talked about which “ghost stories” were scariest and why. Then they wanted to make their own ghosts and I pulled out construction paper, glue and cotton balls. That activity gave me an extra thirty minutes after we researched together.
Spend time at the beginning of your work-time to explain what you are doing and why you need that time. Involve them in your long-term goals. We go to the library and bookstore a lot, so one day I was trying to tell my three-year-old why it was important to focus without answering his deep questions about Bob the Builder. “What do you see when we go to the library and the bookstore? What are on the shelves?”
“That’s what I’m writing right now. And if I get the time to work on my
book, then one day we will walk into the library, and the bookstore, and see
your Mommy’s books on the shelf. You can point to them, and say that you Mommy
wrote that book. Won’t that be cool?”
“Wow, Mommy. Yeah!”
That will be cool. And he’ll feel like he helped, that it’s as much of
his success as mine.
Cindy Marie Jenkins is currently a write-at-home mom in
Beijing for [NDA Redacted]. Cindy’s editorials and articles have been published
at The Mary Sue, StarTrek.com, Theatre
Communications Guild, The Clyde Fitch Report, The Mom Forum, No Proscenium,
Dwarf+Giant (a blog of The Last Bookstore), Better Lemons, Theatre @ Boston Court, and more. You can find more
website, Patreon, Facebook and Twitter.
You’re driving to Los Angeles on the 101 North Freeway. For most tourists and incoming residents, this drive is the dream: seeing the famous buildings of the LA skyline, zipping under the 10 Freeway overpass, and seeing the light opening up to the concrete jungle of Downtown. With its often-sunny afternoons and the undeniable scent of affluence (or is it the smog?), a Carrie Bradshaw of 2020 could happily look forward to a very West Coast version of Sex and the City.
Except, when you exit in Arcadia, or drive down Glendale Boulevard, or pass through Echo Park, the same disturbing scene of tent cities overwhelms sidewalks and underpasses. In the safe confines of your car, you can’t help but notice how the homelessness crisis has become synonymous with the city itself. And it feels like there’s nothing any policeman or city official is doing to stop it. So you ask yourself, What can I do?
This is the same question Clare of Assisi asks herself in Echo Theater Company’s production of Poor Clare. We see her journey from being a well-known socialite, to asking a man named Francis about how she can change her ways to be of service to the poor. LAFPI sat down with director Alana Dietze (Dry Land and The Wolves at the Echo), and playwright Chiara Atik (Bump, Women and HBO’s “Girls”) to talk about the inspiration for Poor Clare and how it relates to living in Los Angeles in 2020.
LAFPI: What did you think when you read Poor Clare and what inspired you to direct it, Alana?
Alana Dietze: I thought it was extraordinarily funny; that was my very first impression of it. It made me cry laughing. I was also profoundly moved by the ending, which I don’t want to say too much about. Echo always has a post-reading conversation about material, so as we were talking amongst ourselves, I found myself getting very passionate about it. So that was my first clue that maybe I wanted to direct it.
It’s an allegory for homelessness and wealth inequality in modern day using the framework of the lives of Clare of Assisi and Francis of Assisi and I thought it was such a smart way of looking at this huge problem that we have all over the world – but especially in Los Angeles – that keeps growing and feels so out of control. I thought this play profoundly captured a lot of the feelings that I’ve had about it: the anxieties, fears, shame, feeling like I want to help more, but not being able to help. I thought that was a really valuable thing to put onstage.
LAFPI: Why Los Angeles? Why now? Being that it’s set in Italy in medieval times, the story couldn’t be further away from LA in 2020.
Chiara Atik: That’s funny. I was about to say that when I wrote the first draft and started sending it out, I included two pictures to set tone, and one is of, um…
Alana: Skid Row.
Chiara: Yeah. One is of Skid Row in Los Angeles, and the other is a Renaissance portrait. I live in New York and was living there at the time [of writing the piece], but I had been spending a lot of time out here and homelessness made a very big impression on me. More so than it does in New York because homelessness in New York is ingrained in the fabric of the city; it doesn’t feel like something new, it feels like something that’s always been there. You just go about your commute and you have to put on blinders, to a certain extent, to not have your heart break at every single moment of every day.
But I’ve come to LA periodically for years and I sort of started to notice it in a way that I hadn’t. I started reading up about this problem that seems to be growing bigger and bigger. It made an impression on me: to be on the freeway and to see every overpass and underpass be covered with tents. It’s that juxtaposition of being hermetically sealed in your car while driving past all of these tent cities. So I think, in that sense, LA’s current situation of how people are grappling with it gave me an inspiration in the play. Also, you get the sense that it’s a growing problem that the characters of the play are dealing with.
LAFPI: And that’s very LA.
Chiara: Another thing that I think is interesting in terms of New York versus LA: in New York, because you’re always walking around or on the subway, the different populations and economic levels actually have to deal with each other and interact. You’re sitting on the subway and people come up to you and you have to make the decision, “Okay, am I going to give a dollar or pretend not to see this person”; you can’t quite escape it. But in LA, because of the car culture, there’s an extra distance. It’s something that you see and clock, but don’t have to contend with person-to-person.
Alana: Also, there’s the way that the city seems to be dealing with the problem. I mean, “dealing with the problem,” in quotes, because it doesn’t really seem like they are. I’m not a political expert, I don’t know everything about this issue, but I lived in Echo Park for a really long time, and that was an area specifically where, as the homelessness crisis grew, huge new tent cities would pop up. I would turn a corner and there would be a whole slew of tents that weren’t there the week before. And then a week later, they’d all be gone. It felt to me like the cops were coming through and just moving people along which does nothing to ultimately solve the problem or help anyone. I guess they think they’re helping the residents? But even then, people are just going to come back. There’s nowhere for anyone to go.
LAFPI: Moving people along as a solution – it’s that class difference, right? They’re placing importance on people who are paying to stay there, instead of those who don’t live anywhere, and telling them to take their problems somewhere else.
Alana: And the problem is, where would they go?
LAFPI: Following up on that, Chiara, how did you come up with the concept for Poor Clare?
Chiara: I always knew the story of St. Clare. I found myself in recent years having so many conversations with people where we’d sort of bemoan the state of the world: “Isn’t horrible about the refugee crisis, isn’t it horrible about homelessness,” and this or that. But then I would go home, turn on the TV, and forget about these things. And the ability to worry and empathize but then go home and turn that off and forget about it is such a privilege. I was thinking about the fact that I feel bad about this stuff, but I’m not, like, quitting my job and quitting my life to go out and help.
The story of St. Clare, the real girl, who really did completely change her entire life, is such a radical story. It’s certainly not something that I’m capable of – that most people aren’t capable of – but I was interested in exploring the idea of somebody who really goes so far. And I’m not suggesting that as a solution or saying it’s what we should all be doing. I think that’s why Clare is a saint and most people aren’t. But it’s that journey of someone becoming so radicalized to do something, to take action in whatever way they can… I really underestimated how many people didn’t know of her.
Alana: I didn’t know who she was when I read the play. I knew that there was a St. Francis, but I didn’t really know anything about him.
LAFPI: So with this play, what do you hope that audiences learn about St. Clare of Assisi?
Chiara: That she existed. I think her story is cool and relatable. And what we know about her historically is interesting. She was 18, super rich, had a great life, and gave all of that up to take vows of poverty to try to do good in the world. I think that’s a crazy impressive story. That’s like a Kardashian doing that or something. And this is 800 years ago. A girl, definitely braver than I am right now, did that. I hope people will be interested in her story, her conviction, her action at such a young age. She was just a teenager. It’s like if Khloe was, like, “Alright, I’m giving all of this up!”
LAFPI: I still feel like if Khloe did that, for the most part, people wouldn’t initially believe her. Compared to men, I think someone like a Kardashian might be treated differently.
Chiara: I think it’s hard for women, especially young women, to be taken seriously when they decide to do something intensely. If you watch the play, Francis raises his eyebrows, but there’s less at stake for him to go find a religious order. But for her – for a girl to do what he’s doing – the stakes are a lot higher.
LAFPI: Are there any other ways differences in sex and gender function specifically in the play? I noticed in the cast that there are 2 men and the rest are women.
Alana: That was something else that I really love about the play. I wouldn’t say that it’s primarily about gender, but like Chiara said, there are different stakes for Clare than Francis as she goes on this journey, and there are really interesting moments where Francis lets her know that things will be different for her. And those moments help drive her conviction to commit to her beliefs. She has to be more convicted than he is, because it’s harder for her to do what she does.
LAFPI: How much of the play is fact? How much is fiction?
Alana: This comes back to the earlier question of why Los Angeles. The language is all modern day, and it feels like the language of Angelenos. That’s part of what attracted me to it, because I thought, “Oh, these people talk like me.” So in that respect, it’s totally fictional. I don’t know how much really is fact?
Chiara: Definitely little bits from St. Francis’s life trajectory. We knew that Clare and St. Francis knew each other and she really was inspired by him to do this thing. But we, of course, have no idea what their conversations were like or the nature of their relationship, so all of that is fiction.
LAFPI: What questions would you like audiences to be asking by the end of this play? Are there questions women should be asking?
Alana: It feels to me like it’s about highlighting and focusing in on this push-and-pull, this question about what do we do to help? Can we help? Is there such a thing as help? What do you do when you become aware of your own privilege? I feel this juxtaposition of a desire to be moral, to be good, to help other people, to do something worthwhile and meaningful… in contrast with the fact that what Clare does may or may not help anyone. But it’s the thing she must do. To me that’s what’s most interesting and relatable about the play. I hope that the play will help people think about that question for themselves and maybe make a choice.
Chiara: In terms of women specifically, Clare, throughout the play, drastically alters her appearance and goes from caring very much about how she looks to forsaking that along with her wealth and status. That’s something I admire in her character. I almost can’t imagine caring about something so much that I would be, like, “Fuck what I look like.”
LAFPI: And now we live in this world where everything is appearance-based, whether online or in-person. Doing what Clare did is like someone completely going off the radar. Which you don’t see a lot of anymore.
Chiara: Yeah, and I’m not saying that it’s necessary to do in the modern world. But on the other hand, you see her judged for what she looks like throughout the play. It’s interesting to see what it means to her to, like you said, go off the radar: “I’m not giving you this anymore. I’m not presenting like this anymore.”
LAFPI: Which leaves us with the question of whether anyone has a solution for the seemingly-uncontrollable homelessness crisis right now.
Chiara: The play definitely doesn’t.
LAFPI: But it’s good to have the wheels turning!
Previews for Poor Clare at Echo Theater Company begin March 11th; the play opens March 14th and runs through April 20th. Ticket and information at echotheatercompany.com.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
The hardest thing about writing is that you must write to get better at it. One must invest time. There is no substitution for doing the work. One must actively make time to write. One must put words down on the page.
Spoken Word drills are great for getting the blood flowing, bring a tape recorder into the mix and all the brilliant impromptu lines are not lost. I have been running drills all week. I just haven’t worked out the conscious effort to record myself yet.
Verbal writing is a real thing… I use it mostly when writing poems but sometimes it just happens when I am writing other things. The more stuff going on in my world, the more I tend to blurt out snippets and tidbits.
The odd thing about that is my whole being seems to be calling me to steal away to do the work. Steal away to write…steal away, the words are calling…
peace is calling
and that is the oddest thing about writing, it brings me peace in the midst of my storms…