Someone recently gave me a beautiful compliment after my performance in The Christians. They said, “Some day in the not so distant future, I’ll be in a nursing home and you’ll come on the TV, winning an award for acting or writing or directing, and I’ll say, ‘I worked with her once.’ And the nurse will say, ‘Yeah, yeah, eat your soup.'”
While I found the sentiment touching… deep in the pit of my stomach, something sank as I realized I no longer believed in that vision I use to play over so many times in my head. I no longer believed in my ability to actualize it, nor in its ability to fulfill or validate my existence or artistic merit. At first this realization sunk me into the pit of despair, but then, I started to find it freeing. Since making the decision not to move back to Los Angeles or New York, but stay in the mid-west and create on my terms, something has changed inside me that has impacted many aspects of my life.
I’m sure it’s not just this decision, but my years of work as an actor that’s enabled me to finally live those Meisner lessons drilled into me a decade ago at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I’m finding it easier to let go of my desire to control the beats of the scene, and instead enjoy riding the wave of moment-to-moment work. It’s honestly so liberating. I used to hate myself after every performance because I didn’t hit this beat or that beat like I wanted to or if I didn’t feel fully present the whole time. Now I understand that sometimes you’re fully immersed and sometimes you’re not–and when you’re not…well, that’s why you build up the technical skills to fake it convincingly. I’m much better at trusting my ability to fake it convincingly now and this ability to forgive myself in the moment for not being fully present is what actually enables me to find my way back “in” much sooner and stay out of my head far longer. This progress has made the work all the more enjoyable, and a whole lot less neurotic.
I lost hope in controlling the performance, and just started existing in the performance.
And this lesson is what’s happening in my life off the stage as well. I’ve lost hope in becoming a “successful” actor/writer/creator, but it’s not as dire as it seems. I’m much more focused in on the moments of each creation. I’m not holding out for some bigger payoff, because I know this is the payoff. This moment. If this is as good as it gets–this has to be enough. So, make it enough. Fill each moment to the brim. I’m not trying to control the outcome anymore, I’m just trying to be as honest and as full as I can in each process. And I believe now that that is where fulfillment and validation as an artist actually lies. Not in the amount of a paycheck or the number of views or the prestige of awards, but in the integrity of the process of the work. This has been a surprisingly hidden benefit of becoming hopeless–the gift of living in the moment, of appreciating each gift for what it is, rather than what it may one day hope to become.
Here are some moments coming up that I am really looking forward to living in:
This Monday, April 30th the second season of my webseries SEEK HELP comes out. We’re having a local screening at my favorite theatre Moxie Cinema. You’ll also be able to watch it all online here: www.SeekHelpTheWebseries.com
On Thursday, I’m going to Oklahoma to represent the short film GOOD GIRL I acted in a few years ago at a film festival. Later this summer, I’m starring in a short film by the same director.
And in August, I’ll be coming back out to LA (!!!) for the first time since I moved four years ago, to act in and help in the production of a TV pilot I co-created/co-wrote and have been developing for the last 7 years with Heather Milam.
In the meantime, I am getting back to work on a play I started writing back in 2012 that I recently rediscovered and fell in obsession with again. I look forward to developing it further, and workshopping it. Beyond that… who knows! But you better bet I’ll be mining each moment along the way.
This fall, I went back to school. After ten years of day jobs, late-night shows in black box theatres, publications of short stories in tiny journals, bad reviews and “oh-look-how-much-she-tried” reviews, and stealing office supplies and copy machine time from said day jobs (sorry, day jobs), I thought an MFA program was a real cracker jack idea. This of course meant I had to evaluate where I really am as a person and an artist – the least of which not being that I had to get the chicken pox vaccine in order to be allowed on campus because I had apparently never had it or at least it wore off at some point and we all know that chicken pox gets worse as you get older so I could have died, y’all. You know there’s got to be chicken pox hanging out with all the other diseases in those tiny light booths in LA black boxes. Died.
I also had to write my artistic statement (again). And I don’t know about you, but artistic statements / statements of interest are the worst part of any application to anything. My version of hell would be an eternity of writing new vision statements, probably while having chicken pox and listening to the sound track of the 1967 movie Guns of the Trees – an artsy, dare-I-say pretentious film I had to watch for a film studies class and which made me viscerally and irrationally angry. Welcome to grad school.
I made some shit up of course (can I say “shit” on the blog? I just did.) I got into school, but I was on the waitlist first so let’s not get too puffed up about it or the quality of my statement. I’m very good at almost-winning things. Lesson: I’m never anyone’s first choice but I’m making a career out of profiting off of other people’s passed up opportunities.
My statement is fine. But in my first quarter I really started to understand the different paths we are all on – and knowing where you are and not caring where someone thinks you should be. That’s the key to a real eduction (inside and outside the classroom) and probably a great vision/artistic/interest statement.
[Full disclosure: I’m actually in the MFA program for fiction. After being waitlisted for playwriting programs twice, I said a big “screw you guys, I’ll figure it out on my own” to the Theatre Gods, and that’s what I did. My fiction needed some love and attention. It always blows my mind how theatre and literature generally know so very little about each other – the communities really should overlap more. But that’s another blog.]
I’m learning to become a new kind of student. It’s grad school. It’s a terminal degree. Grades alone are not going to get me where I want to be. Any other straight-A students out there? This is a big shift in mentality. I am learning how to approach each class now with the mindset of growing as an artist and a person. I’m not here for perfect grades. I’m here to write. I’m tired of trying to figure out what someone else wants me to say – because, news flash, I’ll never get it right. So lets get back to what is true. And I think this mentality can be applied to any opportunity we are applying to that requires us to articulate how and why and who.
On That Note – Optional Themes For Your Next Artistic Statement:
I am awesome. Give me money so I can do more awesome.
I see multicultural and radical race theory interwoven with the histrionic classical diegesis…(Doesn’t have to make sense as long as it sounds smart.)
I’m going to change the world.
The world will never change.
I’m trying to be better.
Sometimes it takes a long time to know what you’re trying to say.
I want my world to be radical and political and shattering but sometimes that means it’s a quiet story about a quiet person on a quiet but special day.
Marches are great, but I want to write about what happens once it is over.
I almost died from almost getting chicken pox and now I understand this fleeting life we have and I just don’t have time to try to feed into what you think a playwright should be doing or thinking.
Hot jelly and biscuits, is there a lot to talk about!
A fewweeksmonths longish time ago, when the LAFPI crew asked if I’d like to get back on the blogging bandwagon, I said “Hell, yes!” because I was feeling productive and all kinds of mouthy with super important sh*t to say. But now my week is here, and it’s almost too much because Little Black Dress INK’s final ONSTAGE lineup from 2017 has a reading on Jan 15, and then a bunch of this year’s ONSTAGE semi-finalists have readings all over the place on Jan 21 as part of International Women’s Voices Day, (oh, I run Little Black Dress INK), plus the Spring semester starts on Weds, and I have a letter of rec to write, revisions to do, and a toddler to keep track of…
So I don’t have time to write the deep, thoughtful, life-changing post I intended to. If I could, though, I would probably have some witty/deep things to say about the following:
The Golden Globes
Were they feminist enough? Too feminist (is that even a thing??) Will Oprah be our new president? Was that woman from 50 Shades of Grey giving Angelina Jolie side-eye during Jennifer Aniston’s speech? I mean, I don’t have cable, but the news coverage is enough to make me want to stuff cotton in my ears and unplug the router for good.
What’s that you say? You don’t believe me? You’re saying that if I haven’t stuffed cotton in my ears and unplugged the router after the monstrous orange shit-show of a year we just wrapped, that I must be engaging in a healthy hyperbolic outburst and nothing more?
You’re probably right.
I’m trying it out. Anyone else write for that site? I like some of the writers a lot… Maybe, if I write some truly epic stuff there, I’ll get more traffic on Medium than I do on my personal blog… sh*t, I don’t have a personal blog anymore? Why not? Oh yeah, because I don’t have time…
Heeeyyyyyy, do you think, MAYBE, that I might have a problem with over-committing myself to things? I mean, could I possible suffer from (faux gasp) Artistic FOMO?
(Yes. The answer is yes, yes I do.)
I love my son. He is the apple of my eye, the sugar on my cornflakes, the laughter in my ears… but he’s also the little tyrant screaming at me to escort him to the washing machine twelve times a day, where he will sit for interminably long periods of time flipping the dials around in abject pleasure, waiting for my eyes to gloss over with boredom so that he can QUICKPUSHTHESTARTBUTTON! before I catch his hand with mine and remind him that he is not yet allowed to do the laundry on his own, and can we please go back to the living toy room now so that mommy can sit on the couch and check her Facebook for a hot second?
New Year’s Resolutions
Are for chumps. And perfectionists. And people with stronger will-power than I possess. So be nice to yourself, even if you’ve already failed at whatever ridiculous demands you put on yourself last week. I signed up for Red Theater’s playwriting challenge last November and didn’t even make it past the first day. The FIRST DAY. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and tell your expectations to take a hike.
I’m not too busy to tell you you should check out one of our ONSTAGE readings! If you’re in Los Angeles on Jan 15, make sure you swing by the Zephyr Theatre for the final reading of our 2017 Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival: Hot Mess.
And if you’re in Los Angeles (or Bemidji,MN; or Columbus, OH; or Magnolia, AR; or Milwaukee, WI; or Prescott, AZ) on Jan 21st, check out one of our Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival: Volume Control readings! They’re sure to be a hoot/make you feel the deep feels (and all that other cathartic magic that theatre does) PLUS you’ll be supporting International Women’s Voices Day, which is all kinds of awesome! Here’s a LINK for more info.
Tune in later this week for more words/sentences composed by me (along with—hopefully—some deeper thoughts)
Witnessing the Light, artwork by Cynthia Wands, 2018
Just recently, (and I mean just in the last few weeks), I began to feel hopeful about the changes in store for this year.
I started listening to the NPR news on the radio on my drive home from work, after swearing off from it last year.
After a year long quarantine (Eric has been going through a tough chemotherapy schedule), we started going out in the world again. We’ve seen two movies, and went for a long hike. It felt like waking up in daylight after being in the dark last year.
I’m seeing women reach for political office, and stand up with persistence and courage to change our leadership.
And reading the messages about the #MeToo movement, and the illumination of how women have been treated, gives me hope that the world will be seen through different eyes. (“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I don’t know who said that it – but I love that idea.) I can see that audiences and directors and theaters will be changing in the way women are portrayed, and directed and who the leaders are.
So I have to be hopeful. I know that history and health issues can change in a moment, but I’m reaching out in my world to belong to more of the present moment.
(It took me several hours to come up with that last sentence, I kept changing it, so I can see there will be some balancing to be done with that assignment…)
I’m making a plan to see more plays, more readings, more artwork, more friends this year.
I hope this next year finds new adventures for all of you, and I look forward to seeing your work, and watching this year unfold.
This is the word that I have lived with and tried to honor over the past few months. The word has become an ode of sorts as my theatre company’s new piece Medea: A Soliloquy or the Death of Medea has undergone a workshop.
Theatre Roscius is me. Although I am lucky to have a loving partner whose consistent help is often needed – for as we know in the theatre the work is continuous, at times overwhelming, when trying to do so much alone, no matter how satisfying or beyond worth the work is.
Entering my first workshop, the process has been a gift as well as a huge adjustment for an independent theatre artist who produces work not so easily defined, who has no artistic home. Nor are there consistent sponsors, donors or a team with whom I work with on a daily basis. Nor is my theatre company a nonprofit… so I’ve learned to do the work my way by any means necessary. Which has its faults while allowing room for magic to manifest in an organic fashion that lacks structure.
Yet the workshop process requires order, roles, structure… all that do not necessarily come together when you are playing all the roles. I have gotten used to writing, producing, directing along with acting in my work. When the work takes a toll on the self it does not allow your best work to shine through. One can also miss what makes theatre so beautiful: The collaboration, the merging and discovery of ideas.
So I have practiced during this workshop giving the work away in order to let it fly. It has not been easy. I have had to ask myself if I am trusting enough? Am I giving pieces of myself, money, giving time, taking time and not trusting the ensemble and director fully? Will I allow the director’s vision to flourish? Can I allow the piece to develop beyond my images? It has not been easy for me to answer these questions.
During these forty plus fast paced hours of workshop development, the script has morphed into many faces, with the dialogue and movement just beginning to mold as well as fuse into one, yet the conversation is still being had between the two. I have discovered my strengths as an actor, producer and writer. I’m quick on my feet, my body is strong, I give 110% to the space and can adapt to direction. I have also been told and found my weaknesses. As an actor I can be easily distracted, as a playwright I can be defensive and as a producer I procrastinate and can lead with fear instead of fearlessness.
Workshop is a rigorous process that has allowed the play to reveal itself in many forms that could not have manifested without the players bodies or our director’s leadership. I reached out to everyone I knew. One woman whom I had never encountered before responded to my email, met, and agreed to helm the work. I’ve learned from this gesture deeply when approaching the work inside and out.
Ultimately as playwright I’m excited, uncomfortable, and honored that our director Caitlin Hart, Artistic Director of the Vagrancy Theatre Company along with the players: Carolyn Deskin, Madison Nelson and Meredith Brown have embarked on this experiment together and that we will have a chance to share Medea with an invited audience. This opportunity to hear feedback from audience members on January 22nd after sixty-two hours of development will be quite rewarding.
As the new year approaches I will not let fear lead the work. None of us must. So let us all Go Big & Be Fearless this 2018!
The truest words I’ve heard all year have come from Patton Oswalt, quoting his late wife Michelle McNamara:
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
In his latest Stand-Up special for Netflix, Oswalt recounted that she hated the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” She would say, “It’s all chaos, it’s all random, and it’s horrifying. And if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”
Be kind. Be gentle. Be forgiving. I’ve been echoing these words to myself all year–both in regards to others and myself. Stay open. Stay vulnerable. Stay tender. I’ve been thinking about my clenched fists. The way they tighten both to keep things in, that maybe I should have let go of (like a dream being realized in a specific way), and the way they tense up in defense, when perhaps they should reach out to and for help and resolutions instead.
I came back to Missouri from LA not really by choice, and never planned to stay more than a year. Four years after coming here, I finally felt financially stable enough to start planning my return to the coast, or a coast anyway. I remembered my time in New York fondly and thought maybe I should go back there. So, I went and visited. And it didn’t feel right. So, I decided LA made the most sense. I made a lot of logical, sound arguments for it in my head, but some part of me was hesitant. I didn’t understand why. I worried that hesitation was just fear–fear of repeating my first 6 years and never progressing further. Fear of financially floundering again, of not being able to act as much as I have been here, of being away from my Mom. I didn’t want to be motivated by fear. So, I told myself: I’m moving back to LA in September. I started telling friends and family and my boss. I got boxes for packing.
Then, the possibility of making season two of my webseries Seek Help came up. I wanted to make it, and it seemed like we might be able to–so I decided to stay past September, and since I was staying past September, I auditioned for the play Good People and got cast. And since I was staying for those things, I had to renew my lease and they didn’t give me a 6 month option like I was hoping, it was 1 year or pay a lot more and do month to month. So I signed a 1 year lease. I told my boss and he said, “That’s got to be awful for you–having to defer the move 6 months longer than you wanted.” And I realized it wasn’t awful for me. It was easy.
I took some time after that to sit quietly alone with my thoughts and journal. And I had an epiphany. This was my epiphany: Acting is not EVERYTHING. I still feel blasphemous even saying that because I wouldn’t want anyone for one second to doubt how incredibly important it is to me or think that I’m saying that I’m giving up on my dreams of being a working actor. I’m not. However, life goes SO quickly. For 31 years (give or take a childhood), I’ve pursued whatever avenues I could to become a working actor on TV, Film and Theatre. I thought it would happen before I ever got to high school. It didn’t. I thought it would happen in my 20’s. It didn’t.
“It” being a regular on a TV show or consistently working on TV, Film and Theatre–the shows/films people all over the country know about and watch. Anything short of that…I never allowed to feel like “success.” I was grateful for every opportunity and job, but in my mind, I was still failing. And at 31, the thought of going back to LA and knocking on doors and getting all those “No’s” and “You’re great, but too tall”…even the thought of achieving my dream now as I always dreamed it…I just started questioning how fulfilling that would really be? I love the work, but the work is always the work no matter where you do it. I love working with people who are great at what they do and challenge me to be better. That would be great, no question. I would love to be respected and known (and paid!) as a full-time storytelling vessel. But I also know that sometimes you try and try and try and it never “works out” how you wanted or thought it would.
For a decade I’ve been saying that I want to get involved with CASA (court appointed special advocate–they speak for the child going through foster care in court) and fostering/adopting. I always said, you know, someday….when/if I am ever stable enough financially and in one place long enough. Everything hinged on achieving my acting dream in this one specific way–a way that most people never do, no matter how incredibly gifted they are or how diligent their hustle. Life is an expansive tapestry of experiences–and I’ve been zeroed in on just one thing for so long, never even considering the possibility that maybe if I un-clinch my fists just a little, I could hold some other things in my hands, in my life. I could make a little room and be a part of something bigger than myself.
Maybe it’s my age, but I crave community these days…I want to build a family, a group of close friends and collaborators. I’ve long had more love to give than people in my life to give it to. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in my apartment, hogging resources I could be contributing. Forgive the length of this post–I just want you to understand that when I say that I am not moving back to LA, I am staying in Springfield, MO, that you know that it is not about fear or trepidation. It is not a giving up on my dreams–they are still very much in the forefront of my mind, still daily on my to-do’s–rather, this decision is one to expand my life in new ways that I hope positively contributes to my community, and enriches the work and stories I am able to tell.
My dream now looks a little like this: Buy a house, make it a home. Get involved as a volunteer advocate for Foster Kids and eventually foster to adopt. Continue to make my own projects and try to improve with each one–try to get my scripts sold or made and audition for projects (only the ones I really, deeply want). I hope to travel to the coasts semi-regularly. I hope for many more lunch dates with my Mom and many more collaborations with my friends and artists I look up to.
After I made this decision, I told no one…for weeks. I sat with it, waiting to see if I would change my mind again. But I pretty much knew it was the right decision when, the day after, as I was driving to a work event, I started crying…they were tears of a mixed bag of emotions: relief at no longer living a life solely in pursuit of “yes’s” that may or may not ever validate me in the way I always dreamed, sadness and acceptance of letting go of that expectation, and excitement for all the new dreams I could now dream. It’s a little corny, but for the first time in my life, I felt like a “full-grown woman.”
Life’s not working out how I thought it would…mostly, honestly, it’s been chaos. And in that chaos you have one choice that belongs to you alone and is totally in your control, and that’s how you respond to the chaos. You can project meaning onto it, you can let it disorient you, you can fight the chaos and try to control it, or you can adjust your perspective and your goals, and look for ways to grow with each new challenge and curve that gets thrown at you. You can loosen your fists and let life flow through you.
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
This weekend my friend, Lisa Murphy, who plays my wife in Seek Help was saying how “it” was going to happen for me. And I said that it didn’t matter anymore whether or not “it” did…it didn’t matter because I was already doing “it.” I don’t need anyone’s permission to live my life how I want. I’m going to act, and write, and create my whole life and that’s more than enough. Let me tell you, finally being able to say that and know it and mean it feels amazing. And what’s perhaps most incredible, is that this gift was a gift I gave myself. It was “just” a perspective change, but one that took me a couple decades and a whole lot of failed attempts at controlling the chaos to realize was always there just waiting for me to see it, claim it, and be free.
WHY: In a time when women are refusing to have their voices silenced and refuse to have their stories told for them, Tough Brown Leather is a testament to the powerful mantra: my time, my way. This solo show poetically takes us through the journey of a carefree little girl in love with football to a woman who must learn to face her past while accepting her sexual self. Tonya uses her body, football and comedy to reflect upon a pain that often quietly eats away pieces of oneself. Tonya thrives and overcomes – using her voice to heal not only herself but, without knowing, other women who’ve also faced sexual assault. An inspirational theatre ride that Tonya owns with bravura. GO!
When we heard that LA’s Fierce Backbone, home of some amazing women playwrights, was collaborating with the femme-friendly Drive Theatre on a new production, our ears perked up. And after learning the project was Amy Tofte’s murder mystery on a mission to Mars, WOMEN OF 4G, we felt we had to find out a bit more about what went on behind the scenes before this collaboration blasted off.
LA FPI: Love that a female writer is venturing into what’s often thought of as a male territory – space, the final frontier. What draws you to science fiction?
AMY TOFTE: I’ve always been into Star Wars and read tons of sci-fi. Even my plays/stories that aren’t sci-fi usually have an element of the fantastical or the famous “what if” being asked. I think I’m drawn to it because classic sci-fi is often related to allegory and challenging ideology. I’ve read somewhere that all sci-fi examines religion. I’d go further and say it questions what we know now by offering up an alternative of what could be. I was also raised and educated on truly magical theater experiences and I’m inspired to create moments that will be fun for an audience to experience together. I love seeing the impossible staged when I go to the theater.
LA FPI: Tell us a bit about the role the Bechdel Test played in the creation of this work, which has all an female cast.
AMY: I think The Bechdel Test is important to all story telling and I think every writer should think about it. Novels, films, plays…it doesn’t matter. It’s important because I think we are brain-damaged as a society. All of us. It’s not just a divide that puts men on one side and women on the other. When you don’t have a society that represents true equality, the dominant (which is currently white male) becomes the default. It’s a real problem in stories and scripts. You’ll see a character described as “African-American” or “Chinese”…but then everyone else is given personality traits because the default is white.
I give a lot of feedback on scripts and you still see really good writers who are very much about empowering women but their story somehow doesn’t give their female characters all the things a “default character” might get: the women in the stories will be denied making decisions and choices, denied making mistakes and having moments to learn, driving the action. I say we’re brain-damaged because that’s ingrained in us as children. I’m not saying anything new here. That’s why diversity is important in story-telling. If we don’t see women playing super heroes or leaders in our stories, we don’t expect them in our lives.
I’m also pissed off. I’m pissed off about the election. I’m tired of knowing that women are over 50% of the population and we still write less than a third of all produced plays and have so few reps in congress or as CEO’s of major corporations. It’s ridiculous we’re still even talking in these terms. But the best thing I know to do with that anger is to write a play with all women. And make them all complicated, interesting characters who get to kick a little ass when they feel like it.
LA FPI: Let’s talk about Fierce Backbone, a development lab that seems to be very supportive of women’s voices onstage.
AMY: Fierce has been the single most important artistic home I’ve ever had. The focus is on development and we produce when we have the resources and a script we want to produce. We’re now in our 10th year! Fierce has consistently boasted over 50% female playwrights in our Writers Unit. So it’s easy to also say the majority of our productions, workshop productions and readings have featured female playwrights. We’re very proud of that. I also have so much respect and gratitude for our actors. They are an incredible resource.
LA FPI: How did Fierce Backbone connect with Drive Theatre for this project?
AMY: Drive has been a friend of Fierce for a few years now. We’ve supported each other’s work and they did a workshop production late last year of one of our other writer’s plays (Defenders by Cailin Harrison). We’ve also shared development ideas and were always looking for projects that make sense to partner on.
I shared the first draft of 4G with Doug and Kat [Drive Theatre Artistic Director Doug Oliphant and Kat Reinbold, Curatorial Producer] in late 2015 and they got involved in the development process. That was really energizing as we had a lot of new voices joining the conversation. Like any playwright getting produced, I feel very, very lucky! And I’m particularly lucky to see this through with people who have given so much to help the script grow.
[NOTE: This is Drive Theatre’s is a longtime friend of LA FPI and WOMEN OF 4G is its seventh straight production by a female playwright!]
LA FPI: What was it like in rehearsals, with such a femme presence… and and a male director?
AMY: OMG. It’s so amazing. And so noticeable. It also felt like the cast bonded immediately. It was like a room full of passionate, unruly schoolgirls one minute and then intense intellectual conversations about life and being a woman in this post-election world. It reminded me so much of all the great female friendships I’ve had over the years, where you can bond so quickly.
During our table work we all shared stories prompted by events in the play…times we were afraid, things we have to do as women that men don’t have to think about. It was also great having Doug there as our director because he was like a reality check that men are clueless about certain things in the lives of women. It made me realize that the making of this particular play could be just as important as the story and performance. I think we’re all taking away something special. These women feel like sisters to me, like we’ve all been through something together.
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.
This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.
As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.
Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:
It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.
MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:
THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.
TWO WORD TITLES:
Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.
I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.
The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)
The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.
Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)
TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.
There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.
WHERE ARE THE LADIES?
Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)
Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.
PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE
I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.
CHANGE IN THE AIR
The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.