WHY: One of the ten Fringe Scholarship winners (awarded to shows that expand and diversify the Fringe community), charismatic comic Sofie Khan grew up with a Mexican Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father in a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican Chicago neighborhood. Such a multi-culti stew makes for a deliciously funny and poignant solo show.
Sofie’s warm, relaxed, upbeat stage presence immediately invites the audience into her world. I love her positive motto: “If you judge a book by its cover, you miss out on the story.” And Sofie tells her story very well, relating the many instances where her “cover” has indeed been judged—by cashiers, TSA agents, White House staff (to name a few). Her story is both unique yet highly relatable as our country becomes even more of a melting pot and we’re all “mixed” in some way (mine is a strict Catholic mom and Atheist dad, which was difficult in its own way.)
Sofie reads our minds by answering such questions as: Does she identify more with her ‘Mexi’ side or her ‘Stani’ side? Has she been a victim of a hate crime? What holidays does she celebrate? All these questions and many more are answered along with her imparting sincere wisdom about all of us being part of the World Community, and wanting to create a “safe space and understanding for all…especially for LGBTQ and Muslim individuals”. (To that end, Sofie has partnered with the Naz & Matt Foundation which tackles “homophobia triggered by religion to help parents accept their children”. Brava.)
Though Sofie is “charismatic AF” (to quote the kids today), a compelling performance and a well-told tale is often not enough to make a solo show riveting. It must be theatrical as well. Otherwise, I could just listen to “The Moth” on the radio. I love seeing solo shows at the Fringe and how they run the gamut from basic stand-up to the use of multi-media, props, and other elements to amp up the show. Tightly directed by solo show dynamo Jessica Lynne Johnson, MexiStani! makes use of projections, audience participation, impersonations, and Sofie even performs a rap song. All of the elements add up to a theatrical and highly entertaining show. So entertaining that the serious themes slipped right by my brain and straight into my heart and had me thinking about them days later.
One final note: Sofie is offering a free 90- minute Fringe workshop with the right-to- the-point title: “Getting to Your Authentic Happy Self When You Feel Like Shit”. It’s at the Asylum Underground Theater, June 10 at am. Maybe I’ll see you there!
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.
You guys. Martin Shkreli is not just abhorrent. He’s also completely weird. After pulling a volunteer from the audience and handing them a list of questions to ask her, Sarah Rosenberg swaggers and smirks her way through half an hour of bravado, threats, and claims of artistic genius, straight from the mouth of the worst dude of our time. I laughed, I made disbelieving faces that I probably couldn’t recreate if I tried, and I had a great time. This show has all the pleasure of sharing a really nutty article, except that the article is happening right in front of you.
In almost every moment of My Mañana Comes, the audience is watching labor happen. Set in a restaurant kitchen, the mostly-naturalistic play follows four busboys over a period of a months as they work, make chitchat, confide in each other, and do the math of how to keep getting by, over and over again. While the play is absolutely political—it’s pretty much impossible to watch people working almost nonstop for an hour and a half without feeling strongly that they should be paid fairly for their damn labor—strong writing, sharp direction, and four A+ performances keep it feeling theatrical rather than polemical. It’s a pleasure to watch for the craft involved and also a real punch in the heart.
For those of you who may not know, the two-month long Women’s Voices Theater Festival in the Washington D.C. area has officially begun. Over fifty of the region’s professional theaters (including Baltimore and northern Virginia) are producing over fifty world premiere plays written by over fifty female playwrights. This is an unprecedented event, and I am beyond thrilled to be one of the female playwrights to have my world premiere of Technicolor Life produced at participating theater REP Stage (which is producing an all-female season by the way). I also had the good fortune of being able to attend the invitation-only kickoff gala on the evening of Tuesday, September 8th at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. You can read about the seven originating theaters here, but I first want to give a huge, heartfelt shout-out to the festival’s producers, Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf. Without these two rock stars, this monumental event would not be possible.
Here’s how my day went:
I arrived early in Washington D.C. with my director and co-AD of REP Stage, Joseph Ritsch. He had some meetings, which meant I had most of the day to myself. I decided to check out the collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts since I knew that I’d be schmoozing and cocktailing later that night. I thought I’d spend about an hour there, but I wound up spending nearly three. Their all-female permanent collection is simply mind-blowing, as some of their paintings go as far back as the Middle Ages when women were not allowed professional training in the arts. Rather, a female artist was seen as a curiosity (why oh why would a woman want to create art?!). And if she did get any training, she received it from male relatives. These are female artists I have never heard of—Lavinia Fontana, Louise Moillon, Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster—and their paintings are absolutely stunning. As I moved from the Seventeenth Century to the Eighteenth to the Nineteenth, absorbing breathtaking landscapes and Vermeer-like portraits, I became angry. Strike that. I became really f’ing pissed. Women were still mostly excluded from professional training, and if they were accepted into an institution, they couldn’t study the naked human form until the end of the Nineteenth Century. Because of this patriarchal fear and ignorance, we—the collective human we—have been denied our female Renoirs, van Goghs, Picassos and so on. Because these female artists were denied their fair share of the art “real estate,” we have been denied paintings and sculptures that could have transformed individual lives and influenced cultures. Which brings me to…
Female playwrights’ fair share of the American theatre real estate.
Since the birth of American theatre in the 1750s, white male playwrights have successfully dominated the stage and won prestigious prizes with their white male (mostly straight) stories. This is fact. The more a culture sees and experiences a particular kind of story, the more it is considered the standard. This could be deemed as theory, but let’s get real here, this is fact. But I want to be clear. I’m not bashing the white male experience—so many plays that have moved and inspired me have been written by white males. (Our Town and Death of a Salesman kill me every time I read them.) BUT the result of white male stories taking up all the prime real estate for the last 260 or so years is that all other types of American voices and stories have been marginalized. The only way for parity to be gained is to give the marginalized voices center stage for as long as it takes for them to no longer be marginalized. This is where the Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes into play. ALL of the theatre real estate is going to be given to female playwrights for the next two months. Which means our stories will be the standard. Yes, it’s for two months in the D.C. area, but the festival is getting national attention and there is great power in this.
As I left the National Museum of Women in the Arts and made my way back to the hotel, I kept thinking about this power and all the future possibilities it holds. One possibility is that the festival will be insanely successful and cause a ripple effect where twenty cities hold their own women’s voices theater festival over the next few years. This would then inspire ALL theaters to make the conscious effort to share the prime real estate in their upcoming seasons. But my dream? My dream is that ALL theaters will actually want to do this and there will no longer be a need for a women’s voices theater festival. I’m not sure if this dream will happen in my lifetime, but I know as sure as I’m typing this blog, I will proactively work toward making parity happen.
But back to the gala…
The night started with all the playwrights, artistic directors and other VIPs opening up the gala’s program and seeing Michelle Obama’s welcome letter. Alas, Ms. Obama, the festival’s Honorary Chair, couldn’t attend, but she was certainly there in spirit as you can see from my photo below.
Next, NPR’s Susan Stamberg interviewed the Tony Award-winning force of nature that is Lisa Kron. In case you missed it, you can watch it at Howlround TV. (Please note: You absolutely should watch this interview.)
Here are three of Lisa Kron’s gems from the interview:
“Unless you believe men are better writers than women, there’s an inherent bias. This isn’t a feeling women have. The numbers are there.”
“Women playwrights have the same authority to write about the world the way male playwrights have authority to write about the world. But we see the world from a different vantage point.”
“The definition of parity is that there will be as many bad plays by women as great plays…that women will produce great plays in the same proportion as everyone else.”
That last one really made me think. Because it’s the truth. As much as I hope for this to not be the case, there will be less than successful plays at the festival. But as Lisa stated, true parity means women should have the same opportunity to fail as well as to succeed.
After the interview, we all made our way into the main space of the museum where the rest of gala attendees were festively drinking champagne and eating creme brulee. They were waiting to celebrate us, our plays, and this revolutionary collective achievement to highlight female playwrights. I was filled with pure exuberance as it finally hit me. This festival is actually going to happen and history is about to be made! So I grabbed a glass of bubbly and celebrated with this fabulous group of women and men until last call…
And I would like to think that the spirits of the female artists in this museum—the ones who were denied to fully express their creative selves all those years ago—were celebrating with us, too.
I’ve produced over 10 productions that feature short plays written and directed by women. So, I was intrigued by 5 Sirens: Beware of Rocks and excited to learn more about the 5 playwrights (all women) who joined forces to produce this show.
Graduates of the USC Master of Professional Writing Program, the 5 Sirens are: Sarah Dzida (Don’t Panic), Autumn McAlpin (Ten Years Left), Kiera Nowacki (Spock at Bat), Caron Tate (Whatever Works) and Laurel Wetzork (Out of Here). They realized that by pooling their resources and sharing in the production responsibilities they had the skills to tackle everything from advertising and publicity to fundraising (check out their super-successful Indiegogo campaign) and contracts on their own.
5 Sirens: Beware of Rocks features 5 10-minute plays centered around theme of miscommunication and longing for connection. What’s wonderful about the production is that the audience is treated to five distinctly different styles and approaches to the theme.
Director Laura Steinroeder had previously worked with Laurel Wetzork and came on board to direct the five plays. Wetzork says, “she was very brave to take on five different, very strong women and make this show work.” Though directed by one person, Steinroeder allows each piece to live in its own world, so that the audience can experience the progression of a debilitating disease through a rhythmic pattern in one play (Ten Years Left) and move seamlessly into the next play about the inter-species communication between intelligent and not-so-intelligent life (Out of Here).
What I find most inspiring about 5 Sirens: Beware of Rocks is that these five women, a group as diverse as can be, banded together as a community to support each other and produce their own work. Now, they are confident that they can produce a Fringe show on their own, individually. I’m certain that whatever productions they do in the future, 5 Sirens: Beware of Rocks will be an experience that proves to be both unforgettable and invaluable. Through June 27th at Theatre Asylum.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival is a fringe-purist’s dream where content is queen and storytellers work their spreadsheets to self-produce their show.
The first play I produced for Green Light Productions was for the 2003 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. It was a two-person show about the tumultuous and creative relationship between Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald called Boats Against the Current. From rehearsals in living rooms, costumes from Goodwill and one-hour techs to packed houses and standing ovations, I learned how to create magic on a shoestring budget by putting the story first.
This year there are over 20 one-woman shows in the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
At the last LAFPI meeting at Samuel French I was treated to a preview ofSnack by Megan Dolan. In the hysterically funny world of Snack, Dolan traces the roots of her smoothie addiction back to her childhood, posing the question “How do you parent yourself and your kids at the same time?” Snack runs until 6/27 at Theatre Asylum.
This weekend I saw Jennifer Bobiwash’s Indians in a Box: There’s No “I” in NDNwhere Bobiwash sets out on a journey to discover what it truly means to be a modern American Indian. Through the laughs of Bobiwash’s story, we begin to understand the many complexities of her identity and how it’s shaped her life. NDN runs until 6/17 at Lounge Theatre.
There is an electric energy during the fringe, as artists become Olympians and audiences become active participants in the creation of these raw, intimate, now-or-never productions. Check out the “one woman show” tab on the HFF site where you’ll find an amazing group of storytellers who are the true heart and soul of this year’s fringe.
I started Green Light Productions in 2003 to create new opportunities for women in theatre. As of 2008, Green Light has exclusively produced plays written and directed by women.
This year, Green Light completed The Shubert Report to examine the 349 theatres that received $16.4 million in grants last year from the nation’s largest private funder of the performing arts. We found that only 26% of the plays being produced were written by women and that 125 of those 349 theatres weren’t producing ANY plays written by women. Foundations, especially those as large as The Shubert Foundation, play a huge role in sustaining American Theatre – most of which is classified as nonprofit. Imagine the impact it’d have if they required applicants to produce seasons that had 50% female writers and directors? Imagine the impact if just one major theatre a year decided to do a season of plays by women. Just that one step…
In 2005, I took that step. Heather Jones sent me her one-act play “Last Rites” about a life-long friendship between two women. It’s a beautiful play and I walked around with Heather’s script in my bag for month thinking about how it could be produced. I had the idea to create a festival of one-act plays all written and directed by women: GLO, Green Light One-Acts. And since the first GLO in, we’ve given world premieres to 15 one-act plays with productions in Philadelphia, New York and now Los Angeles.
In GLO 2014 we introduce to the world 4 new plays written by female playwrights based in Los Angeles – Allie Costa, Jennie Webb, Julianne Homokay and myself – with directors Liz Hinlein, Jen Bloom, Ricka Fisher and Katherine James. I have met the most incredible women just working on this first Green Light show here and I am so excited to plan our next steps here in LA.
Getting here wasn’t easy. While I’ve had the absolute pleasure to work with hundreds of women who support our mission, over the years I heard a surprising amount of negative feedback – much of it from women who felt that the theatre didn’t need companies like Green Light. A female journalist actually responded to one of my press releases with “Do we really need this?”
Yes, we do. And we need YOU!
I hope that by forming new collaborations, asking lots questions, challenging those who need to be challenged and producing work by women, Green Light will continue to have a valuable impact on artists and audiences. And I hope you’ll be part of it.
Mark Your Calendars: November 6-9, GLO 2014, 4 plays written and directed by LA women artists at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. www.greenlightproductions.org.
Be part of Green Light Productions first foray into the LA theater scene (after mixing it up in NY and Philly). Join the FB Invite here (LA FPI tix for only $10!). This femme-fest is Green Light Production’s annual event, but the company is looking for more women artists moving forward. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact email@example.com.
A stirring doubleheader of RADAR L.A. productions last night at LATC gave me a lot to think about, including this: I am left wondering if it was coincidence, curators’ choice, or larger cultural influences that gave Los Angeles an international theater and performance festival at which only two plays (of 14 scripted pieces, many involving female artists) were written by women; both women are Latin American; both of their plays look at generational trauma in the aftermath of defining tragedies in their countries; both temper their documentary materials with poetic license as they explore the intimately personal in the political. Whatever. I can thank the forces – occult or otherwise – that brought Mariana Villegas and Lola Arias to town.
For Villegas, in her supertitled 55-minute solo performance Se Rompen Las Olas, the disaster is the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 – evoked through video news clips – that left tens of thousands dead, discredited the government, and briefly brought together the woman who would be her mother and the man whose absence and abandonment would shake the performer’s life to the core. Villegas holds the stage with a powerfully expressive physicality as when her exuberant and uninhibited dance shifts in an instant to a vision of abuse. At one point, a recorded song asks Where did the earthquake catch you? and goes on to answer dancing with Catalina, shaking the floor so hard, the singer explains, he never noticed the quake. (Can anyone imagine a comparable song in this country citing 9/11?) In Se Rompen Las Olas, these lyrics with their upbeat tune and danceable beat offer a compelling truth of daily life and human desire going on in the midst of catastrophe while Villegas, through her body and her words reminds us that people born in the aftermath of disaster continue to feel the reverberation in their lives.
For Lola Arias, the disaster is the coup in Chile that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and led to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The supertitled script of El Año en que Nací (The Year I Was Born) is drawn from the actual lives of the 11 performers all of whom were born (or were infants) at the time of the coup and who seek to understand the roles their parents played during years of repression, violence, prison, and exile. Notably, the performers come from families all across the political spectrum from participants in the armed struggle on the left to the authoritarian paramilitary organization on the right along with those who had political preferences but tried to go along with the status quo. While the opening scenes of the play suggest the new generation’s commonalities, the picture becomes more complex and fractious (and comical) when the players are challenged to line up to show their political stance, their economic position – When it comes to poverty, does having a dirt floor at home trump going hungry? – and their social status as reflected in skin color. Simple yet inventive staging keeps the production lively with tonal shifts and surprise.
Arias, from Argentina, previously created a similar program exploring the post-dictatorship era in her own country and if you’re familiar with Latin American politics, her work shouldn’t be missed. Know nothing about Allende and Pinochet? The production still fascinates. It runs two hours without intermission without ever inducing fidgets.
Villegas and Arias made me think of another Latin American woman at the head of a company that uses documentary material – Claudia Santiago who writes, directs, and performs with Mexico City-based Espejo Mutable. Their most recent production, Náa-Gunaá, looks at the lives of indigenous migrants (including children) from the south of Mexico who are exposed to exploitation and pesticides as they harvest GMO crops in Baja California. The company would love the opportunity to share this work and explore the lives of indigenous migrants from Oaxaca in our own California fields.
And a quick shoutout to three additional RADAR L.A. offerings that have women at the helm if not in the playwright’s chair:
Franco-Austrian director Giselle Vienne chose to employ simple hand puppets to create the unnerving effect in Jerk, the story of a serial killer.
Theatre Movement Bazaar, with Tina Kronis as director and choreographer, continues its reinterpretation of Chekhov with Track 3.
Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose collaboration with Hector Aristizábal, Nightwind, has been performed in LA and in 30 other countries around the globe. Also in LA, her work has been presented by Grupo Ta’Yer at the Frida Kahlo Theater, Indie Chi Productions, Playwrights Arena, Three Roses Players, and Triumvirate Pi. She is co-author with Aristizábal of The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism, and transformation as well as several anthologized essays about Theater of the Oppressed, and she has worked with theater groups in Colombia and Bolivia. Her works of fiction include the historical novel, The Fiery Alphabet, published this month, and the short story collection, California Transit, which received the Mary McCarthy Prize. Visit www.dianelefer.weebly.com.