WHY: In this diversity scholarship winning show, Indian-American actress, improviser, and rapper Rasika (pronounced “Ross-ika”) takes us on her artist’s journey in Hollywood as she struggles with ADHD as well as finding relief in her diagnosis. This is a powerhouse one lady show where Rasika explodes with energy and commitment (until she gets distracted) but then dropping back in for sheer moments of brilliance. Anyone dealing with feelings of ineptitude in a town where everyone is working for their big break will find this show resounding. Also, for any fringers wanting to support females of color, YOU CANNOT MISS THIS SHOW.
For the past few years, LA FPI has been very much into matchmaking: introducing female playwrights to female directors with an eye on future collaborations. So when East West Players (EWP) invited us to be their Community Partner for the West Coast Premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, directed by Deena Selenow, we immediately said, “Hell yes!” And took the opportunity to ask this exciting creative team a few questions.
LA FPI: What brought the two of you together, initially?
Leah Nanako Winkler: Last summer, I was fortunate enough to work with Artists at Play (AAP), an amazing LA-based theatre company that did a developmental workshop of my play, Two Mile Hollow. They immediately suggested working with Deena because they were confident she’d nail the humor of the piece while maintaining the seriousness of the issues regarding race—and even more so, class—that lurks beneath the surface of the play. I didn’t think twice when they suggested her because: A) I trust everything AAP says since they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met; and B) I’ve only heard great things about Deena. I’ve admired her from afar as a fellow mixed-race theater artist.
Deena Selenow: I knew some of the AAP folks from around town, so when they invited me to direct the reading I—of course—said yes. Then I read the script and fell in love. Leah’s writing is so blunt and funny and nuanced and moving. She shifts tone like an acrobat, and it’s so clear that she has fun while she writes. Leah, Julia Cho (AAP producer), and I had a great collaboration leading up to Two Mile Hollow.
LA FPI: Were you familiar with East West Players before this production?
Leah: I’ve known about, admired, and wanted to work with EWP for quite some time. I’ve been immersed and singularly focused in the past decade doing plays in NYC, but it wasn’t until last year that my dream came true and Kentucky was fully produced Off-Broadway. I kind of thought—well, what now? What will happen to me when this is over? So imagine my surprise when EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai called me to tell me Kentucky was going to be included in East West Players’ 51st Anniversary season. I feel so empowered as a Japanese American artist working with a diverse creative team. I definitely feel like I’ve won the lottery.
Deena: Snehal Desai and I met through the TCG SPARK Leadership Program, which is a branch of Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. At that time, he was the Artistic Associate and Literary Manager at EWP (he’s made quite a climb in a short amount of time!). SPARK is a cohort of ten, so we all became close very quickly. Snehal and I are the only two based in LA, so we see each other quite a bit. I think I had seen one show at EWP when I was in grad school, and now I see pretty much everything they do. EWP is a vital American theater, and Snehal is an incredible leader. I’ve loved getting to know Snehal in this creative capacity. Tim Dang has left EWP in good hands.
LA FPI:Leah–what was it about Deena that gave you confidence in her? And Deena–what was it about Leah’s play that spoke to you?
Leah: Deena and I both want the same thing: for the play to be the best it can be. With her, I know that nothing is about ego but for the greater good of the piece. Even in our disagreements or points of confusion, we’re both straightforward and come to a conclusion without any passive aggressive weirdness, which is huge as playwright/director relationships can get complicated in that way fast.
Deena: Leah’s work in general is so very honest and the characters speak their minds. She writes realities in which people don’t self-censor and say what they mean. It’s hilarious and uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. Particular to Kentucky is remembering that moment in your life when you realized you can never go home again. That home moves, and the idea of home changes as you grow up and evolve. Family is complicated, and Leah doesn’t shy away from that.
LA FPI:When did it hit you that you two were a good fit, collaborating on Kentucky?
Leah: I think we had an initial phone call that was supposed to be an hour that turned into four. Our personalities definitely vibe, which is an important foundation. But we both worked actively together on a new nine-person adaptation [the NY production had a cast of 16] and figured out the doubling schemes together. I really felt connected in those moments.
Deena: I love working with Leah. I love how vulnerable she lets herself be in her writing and in the rehearsal room, and it encourages me to let my walls down as well. We worked really closely during pre-production. We took our time, imagined different scenarios, and listened to each other. Leah trusts me, and I can feel it, which gives me confidence. She gives me room to experiment but also doesn’t hesitate to speak up and tell me when I’m off the mark, which I also appreciate.
LA FPI: Kentucky’s director for its Off-Broadway Premiere, Morgan Gould, was a woman, as well. What are your thoughts about what a woman director brings to a female playwright’s work?
Leah: While I know of and work with male directors that bust their ass on a daily basis and deserve every career success that they get, I know that female directors have to work twice as hard to be respected. As “emerging” playwrights, we’re sometimes told to “level up” to a director who’s more famous, and that’s often an older white dude. I think while this tactic is meant to “protect” the young playwright in many ways, it really screws over young female directors that often develop the script for years only to be fired when the show gets picked up.
Kentucky is a huge undertaking with multiple characters, 17 locations, three songs, and complex relationships that need to be dug into with precision, sympathy, and understanding. It takes a BEAST to direct this play. And both Morgan and Deena are BEASTS. It’s incredible and inspiring to watch strong women take total command of a room. They get shit done with the strength of ten thousand men.
Deena: Any time you work with someone who is “like” you in some way or another, there are certain nuances that don’t need discussion and are just inherently there. I work with a lot of women playwrights, but with men as well (albeit not as frequently). Differences are just as important as similarities. There are inequities in every inch of our society, so I work with people who share my core values, and we lift each other up.
LA FPI:As women artists, telling a woman’s story, how has your experience been with East West Players–a company that embraces diversity and is presenting a femme-centered season?
Leah: I think “white girl” and “diversity” are often conflated, and I love that EWP is championing women of color. In addition, nobody is the “only one” here, and it’s a gift to be working with not only a cast, creative team, and crew that are diverse, but also producers, board members, and staff as well. I’ve never had that happen to me.
EWP lets us do our work while acting like it’s the most normal thing in the world. By doing that, they universalize our experiences. And you know what? Good. Because our stories ARE universal. We’ve been told that white is normal for so long, and it’s just not true. I love EWP because they acknowledge this naturally in their mission, but it’s still fun and it’s a safe space.
Deena: I’m thrilled that EWP chose to program a women-centered season. They really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to equity and inclusion. We all need to be allies to one another. EWP has a platform for visibility, and they are using it.
LA FPI: As theater artists, how important to you is forming ongoing relationships vs. finding the right person/project?
Leah: I’m still learning about this. I directed my own work for six years and just started working with other directors in the last four. I like working with a lot of different people just to test the waters, and get to know as many people as possible. I love collaborating and finding long term relationships with various people on projects that work for each partnership. Which for Deena and I, ended up being Kentucky.
Dena: Relationships are everything. Theater is a collaborative sport and finding your teammates is key. I’m so glad that Leah and I have found each other. I’m excited for our relationship to grow and to continue. I’ve been really lucky in my collaborations. The dynamic changes with each group of people and each project, and that’s part of the fun.
LA FPI: In seven words or less, what’s your advice to women artists about getting the most out of the collaborative process?
Leah: Communicate. Be assertive. Don’t forget the joy. (Or LADIES, DON’T BRING SNACKS OUT OF OBLIGATION.)
Deena: Listen. Trust your gut. Make a mess.
Kentucky plays through December 11, 2016 at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater.Click Here for information and to purchase tickets.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
Writing is usually a solitary event and sometimes I forget about the rest of the world. This week I was reminded of why, after terrible procrastination, I write. I left my cave of solitude, to be surrounded by creative people breathing life into the characters and stories of playwrights. A show closing, Inner Circle Theatre’s “The Doll” by Miro Gavran, and a show opening, Native Voices at the Autry’s “Off the Rails” by Randy Reinholz. As the show starts, I sit in the back of the theater listening as the audiences laugh or “ooo’d and ahh’d”. After the show, I watch as people discuss the show they’ve just seen. It is Sunday night and I am reflecting on why I need to continue writing.
After a successful reading of my first solo show, “There is no I in NDN“, I was done. My story finally written and performed, I could put it to bed. But then I was asked to perform it. I said yes, without a second thought. It wasn’t until I was polishing up the piece, that fear once again began to set in. As an actor you take the words in front of you and give them life. But as the playwright, I know where these words come from. They may not be the full version of the story, but as I write, the whims and fancy that fill my characters lives may have some truth to them. And this frightens me. How will it be received? Will people get “it”? Will they get me?
I say all this as I am trying to complete a second half to my solo show. To delve further into the mind of an off-reservation Indian and her continued struggle with identity. I am bringing back a character that I had to cut from part one. His name is Pooley. When I first began writing his voice, he was to be my bad guy, spouting all the ugly, negative things that are wrong with the world. But then as he spoke to my main character, I found the truth in his story, their shared story and all the ugly things I imagined him saying melted away. He sits on his well worn stool at the end of the bar, his back to wall, his eyes on the door. As he sips his tall glass of whiskey, he narrates tales of the life he left behind. The dark pinched leather door creaks open, and as sunlight pours in, the regulars at the bar shield their eyes. Pooley jokes with the bartender he knows all too well. This is his home now.
It’s not a traditional story, there are no headdresses and ceremonies. He could be anyone, he just happens to be native. Working with Native Voices, I am reassured of why the story is important. The lack of stories that speak to an entire population, inspires me to continue.
Playwright David Henry Hwang had a few more things to say about the craft of writing when he dropped by a revival of his play “Yellow Face” in Washington DC this weekend.
He says it’s his practice to write the first act as a comedy, which allows the audience to more fully embrace the more difficult, serious topics of act two. Ah, the old “give the kid dessert first” technique I used to employ as a babysitter.
He also poked fun at one of his own less-than-successful plays, even presenting a snippet on stage that could make your teeth hurt. Would I be brave enough to publicly expose my own writing foibles night after night? When I write a lousy play, I want it to disappear.
And for a play that debates race appropriate casting, the play itself demands the director and producer make hard decisions about which actors of which races are appropriate for playing the characters in “Yellow Face.” Can a non-Asian play the mother of Henry Hwang? What does it say to the audience if he’s not? The multi-cultural casting was fun, but it was even more fun to hear the producer Ari Roth and David Henry Hwang talk about the hard choices. It was a debate the audience also joined in on. What a wonderful idea to find a way for the audience to see the political questions of a play at work in front of them, forcing them to ponder the same questions!
Tomorrow, I fly to Denver for the Colorado New Play Summit. Stay tuned for updates from the Mile High City on a new Matthew Lopez play and more!
Theatre J here in Washington DC just revived the 2007 comedy “Yellow Face” and I was lucky enough to hear David Henry Hwang talk about his writing process. Hwang is about to open a big off-Broadway show – “Kung Fu.”
As you know, Hwang makes himself a character in “Yellow Face” – a technique he says was inspired in part by all the times he’s been asked to play himself in small, indie films. Why not try it in a play?
I can’t quite imagine writing Kitty Felde as a character, but it’s something to chew on.
He says he knew two things when he sat down to write the play: he wanted to start it with the controversy that enveloped the Broadway opening of “Miss Saigon” where Cameron Mackintosh cast Jonathan Pryce as the Asian Engineer. Hwang was outspoken on the issue and became embroiled in the debate over colorblind casting. He also knew he wanted to end with a “New York Times” article suggesting his banker father had broken the law. How those two events were connected, he wasn’t sure when he sat down to write the play.
Whether he successfully connected the dots is for you to decide, but what a terrific way to attack a play!
He also knew that the emotional spine in the middle of the comedy and political commentary was his relationship with his father. The humanity shone in those scenes.
Again, a good lesson to learn: what’s the emotional spine in our plays?
An evening of theatre and a playwriting class for one ticket! Quite a deal!
Something about my previous post stuck with me this week… I couldn’t quite put a pin in it until today. At the end of the piece, I mentioned “I can’t presume to tell a woman of color about her own life anymore than a WoC should be telling a transgender white woman about hers.”
It stirred the question, “Where do transgender playwrights fall in this fight for gender parity?”
Does our drive for equal representation on stage scuttle transgender authors into Male/Female categories, or do we recognize them with a third gender category, thus indicating that an ideal season would include plays by men, women, and transgender playwrights? And, if so, how would those genders break down from there? Does a truly balanced season include an exact number male/female/transgender playwrights of color/queer/disabled/et al distinctions?
I guess what I’m getting at here is that in our bid to be better represented on stage, we become but one segment of an assembly of segmented voices demanding to be heard.
What does this mean for theatres on the grand scale? Should they try to appease each and every piece of these divided masses? Could they? What would a season look like if they did?
And what does this mean for playwrights on an individual level? Is it possible to fully engage theatres en masse, or do we ultimately split time between our soap boxes and our desks, desperately self-promoting our own brand of whatever it is we’re selling whenever we’re not talking about everyone else in our “group”?
Is this just the way of things? Are we all really just choosing the battles that lie closest to us, and to hell with the rest?
And if so, how can theatres – besieged with criticisms from so many groups – be expected to satisfy everyone?
Unfortunately, the answer for theatres is they cannot.
In order to “revolutionize” their production schedule in a manner that would satisfy our collectively diverse demands, theatres would need to be indifferent (at best) about alienating their patron base. (The bigger the theatre, the more true this statement.) A regional theatre that has primarily produced classic works by white men, for instance, would face a marketing and attendance nightmare were it to do a complete 180 – because it takes time (not decades, granted, but time) to grow new audiences*.
Smart purposefully-diverse substitutions in a theatre’s season, on the other hand, can serve to satisfy a theatre’s established audience as well as bring in new audiences previously deterred by what may have been perceived as static programming. And when I say “smart” I mean searching for work that will challenge your theatre’s audience without alienating it. If your theatre is in a city with a strong Latino community, and that community isn’t frequenting your theatre, finding/producing work by Latino artists could be the first step your company takes towards diversifying your season. If your company exists in a community with a large gay/lesbian population, but that population doesn’t visit your theatre, you should be seeking out playrights who can speak to that audience over and beyond playwrights that wouldn’t. And if you’re one of those theatres producing Neil Simon after Mamet after Donald Margulies, you might be able to spice things up without mystifying your (probably) primarily white audiences just by bringing in some Sarah Ruhl or Theresa Rebeck.
Yes, adding one new voice to your season – new to your theatre and to your audience – could quite the change make.
In each instance, you are working towards a more balanced and robust season one new play at a time without moving too far beyond the circles of what you know your community will support. You are contributing to a shifting theatrical landscape that continues to diversify and grow at a pace that allows audiences and hesitant administrators to keep pace.
Yet, would such incremental season changes be enough to make us happy? If a regional theatre includes two plays by white women in their season where before they had no women at all, do we credit them as moving closer to gender parity, but berate them for ignoring playwrights of color? Or do we decide on an individual level whether or not the fact that they are producing two works by women is satisfying and encouraging “enough” to us as women playwrights that we sort of “settle” down for a bit and direct our energies elsewhere? Do we then look at other artists demanding the theatre give voice to their cause and say “Good luck!” or do we allow their fight to color our “victory” less victorious?
Which brings me back to my initial query – when we say we are asking for “gender parity”, what does that really mean? And does it supercede or walk in step with the fight for diversity on stage in total?
Do we, in aligning ourselves with the fight closest to us, become a hindrance to those walking beside us? Or can we all fight for our chosen “team” and still fight for all of us together?
It seems to me that the answers to these questions help us decide how we talk about gender parity/racial diversity/etc. with theatres and with one another, and it decides what we want to happen as a result of those discussions. If we can agree that diversity at large is the goal, then we can work to encourage theatres to adopt changes in programming that best reflect the communities surrounding them by giving voice to the artists who serve those communities. This might be a more realistic and attainable goal than asking theatres to give stage time to all of our voices at once.
So, the question becomes, is it a goal we can all work towards together?
* The topic of growing new audiences is worthy of a deeper discussion in and of itself – of which there have been many. For a fresh take and very insightful article on the topic, check out David Schultz’s Soil, Sunshine, Fresh Air, and Water on HowlRound