When it comes to playwriting, I’m pretty confident. I’m pretty good at character and dialogue, though my plotting could use a lot of work. And I know the basics about how to format a draft that is acceptable for submission.
But I’ve learned a hard lesson of late: I don’t remember a thing from 5th grade grammar class.
Apparently it didn’t matter in my career as playwright and radio journalist. Nobody really cares where you put your commas. There are no quotation marks. You never have to worry about tense in radio reporting: live spots are always in present tense; radio features are told in past tense. Plays on the other hand always take place in the “now” – even when we’re having onstage flashbacks to past events.
Why this trip down grammatical worry lane? I have my first “prose” book coming out in late February and correcting the galleys has made me realize that as a writer, I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
The book is a middle grade novel, “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” It’s the tale of the ten year old daughter of a congressman who solves the mystery of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill to save her family from “cat”astrophe.
The publisher, Black Rose Writing, is a small indie house out of Texas that pretty much requires you to be your own editor. That means it’s my job to identify all the grammar mistakes. And there are many.
I never realized what a messy writer I am – throwing dashes and commas into the same sentences and (what do you call these things that I usually use as smiley faces in texts?) I had to look up whether to capitalize the first word in a quote and whether the period goes before or after the quotation mark. I’m pretty good with apostrophes, but what about phrases like “kids book?”
I slip back and forth through tenses without considering the poor reader. Even re-reading this blog post is sending shudders through my heart.
I have half a dozen writing manuals on my desk. And I use a “bible” – a text by a writer that I admire. I flip through the pages to see how she solved a particular grammar issue.
I’m lucky to be married to a guy who has even more writing books on his shelves than I have on mine. (I was going to write “than I do” but was unsure of the grammatical correctness…) I can walk down the hall to query him about various rules. But even he was stumped from time to time.
It’s enough to make you want to give up writing.
On the other hand, how many times are we given the opportunity to learn something new? Something hard. Something useful.
I like the idea of switching back and forth between writing for the stage and writing books for kids. I want to feel as confident about the latter as I do (sometimes) about the former. I want to be a writer!
But I am still looking for the perfect grammatical writing book. Any suggestions?
Buckle in, readers! This post’s soundtrack is LET’S GET RADICAL by Gogol Bordello.
*DISCLAIMER: There is a prominently placed F bomb at the start of this song.*
Did you know the LAFPI is almost 10 years old? Crazy, right? On the one hand, it feels like it’s been much longer than that, and on the other is the old adage “Where has the time gone?”
I’m sure there will be much room for discussing what has changed in the ten years since LAFPI started instigating its parity-focused programming, so I’m not going to try to do that here. BUT, I mention this upcoming anniversary as a precursor to the following question:
And I don’t just mean for the LAFPI, but for female playwrights and theatremakers everywhere. What are we doing/going to continue to do to make an impact not only for ourselves, but for each other?
This is a question I ask myself a lot—and I’m sure, if I were a more selfish writer, my own playwriting career would be a little more… distinguished. But I believe I have a responsibility as an artist to not only to make art that makes me happy/fulfilled, but to put my skills as an artist to work in support of a making this world better.
And yes, I know there are a lot of men out there doing great and important things, but this is the LAFPI, so I’m going to focus on the women. I’ve been hugely impressed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of theatremakers who have been joining our producing efforts through Protest Plays Project are women. I’m hardly alone in making this observation when it comes to some of the contemporary socially engaged theatre initiatives of late.
In Chantal Bilodeau’s article, “Why do Women Climate More Than Men?” she notes that the majority of theatremakers involved in supporting the theatrical work she organizes in climate change, are women. And theatremaker Claudia Alick recently noted in a roundtable discussion I participated in for HowlRound that the majority of organizers applying theatre and art to gun control issues were female.
Its obvious that female theatremakers are engaging in political and socially active theatre in impressive numbers, and no wonder: there are so many problems facing the world, and our nation, right now that it can feel hard to focus on anything else.
I’d love to hear what YOU are scheming up/working on/dreaming about taking action on. I’ll even start you off with my own #TheatreAction wish list!
A nation-wide outreach designed to teach people how to talk to one another again. Seriously, why isn’t this already a thing?! We have lost the ability to engage in political discussion without dissolving into partisan mud-slinging and it is tearing us apart! This project could create collaborative opportunities for theatre makers, psychologists, community organizers, and mediators to develop effective non-partisan programming.
An expanded engagement with plays written by playwrights working from a community perspective. Why aren’t theatres reading more works about their own communities alongside plays about communities in different parts of the nation? I’ve tried to make some progress on this front with my Heal the Divide/Heal the Divide on Campus projects, but I don’t own a theatre and I don’t have the ear of that many Artistic Directors. If we all made a concerted effort however…
I am currently trying to get theatres to put #TheatreActionVOTE! Plays into their theatres. These pieces are written to be performed pre-show (they’re only 1-3 minutes long!) and are non-partisan and available royalty free. It’s harder then you’d think it is to get a theatre to join this effort- even when the message is as non-controversial as “Please Vote!”
Why aren’t more theatres collaborating with local non-profits in their communities? There is such an incredible opportunity not only to increase their community outreach/effectivenss (aka, demonstrate their commitment to non-profit community-centered work) but also to just expand their audiences.
Bring theatre to the people! I wish I could do/see more theatre in unconventional spaces, whether that theatre is entertainment for entertainment’s sake or more efficaciously-minded, the people who need theatre most (and it’s power to teach empathy/compassion) are often the people who see it the least. Price and access are very real issues, and I love the many organizations who are taking strides to improve access. I think individual theatremakers have more agency to create theatre in The People’s Spaces than they thing. You can make theatre anywhere! If you believed that, where would you make theatre next?
So there are a few ideas from me. What are YOU working on? What do you wish you were working on? Let’s talk in the comments!
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!
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.
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 know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh my goodness! Korama! That sounds like a personal problem that you and your writing partners should discuss together.” Ordinarily you would be right. I’m an adult(ish type person) who likes to handle my problems in a (mostly) adult way. Talking to my writing partners would be the adult way to handle any issues. Except that they aren’t just my writing partners – they’re your writing partners too.
“What?” you just exclaimed “I don’t have any writing partners.” Or perhaps you wondered “Why does Korama think Lewis and Clark are d-bags?” (Side note: This imaginary conversation thing is really amusing to me) The particular writing partners I’m talking about are not of the human variety, but the nagging-voice-in-the-back-of-your-head variety; I’m talking about self-doubt and insecurity.
Everyone has self-doubt and insecurity in varying degrees, but the effects are most felt by people who do creative work. You can doubt yourself when you do a spreadsheet, but at the end of the day the spreadsheet reflects facts and figures, not your thoughts and feelings.
I have a particularly hard time with these silent partners – maybe it’s because, despite the fact that I consider myself a creative person, I am most comfortable with facts and figures. I am very clear with right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. Subjectivity scares me. I start to doubt that what I am doing is good or worth anything at all, like Semele started to doubt what she previously knew to be true.
For those of you who need a refresher, Semele was one of Zeus’ many lovers (not to slut-shame him, but good god, who wasn’t one of his lovers?). Hera, jealous of her husband’s human lover (who was pregnant with Dionysus the god of theatre!), disguises herself as an old woman, befriends Semele and convinces Semele to confide in Hera/Old Human Lady that she is banging Zeus. Hera then plants seeds of doubt in Semele’s head. She asks her how she can know it’s truly Zeus if she hasn’t seen him in his godlike form. On the one hand, that’s a valid point because dudes could totally be walking around pretending to be Zeus in an effort to bed women. On the other hand, douche move on Hera’s part because she knew exactly what would happen next. Semele asked Zeus for a favor and he promised, no swore, he would do whatever it was. She asked to see him in his divine form. Zeus reluctantly agreed and obviously seeing him in his true form killed her.
The story has several morals, the strongest of which is that doubt will literally kill you.
It’s hard not to succumb to self-doubt and insecurity – they are strong opponents. What I do these days is remind myself that I’m stronger. I’m not Semele or Hera or Zeus, at least not completely. I have a little bit of all of them: Semele’s humanity, Hera’s ingenuity, Zeus’ strength. All of these things are what makes me, and my writing, special and unique.
It’s easy to get comfortable with the right/wrong, good/bad dichotomies of this world, but if everything is one thing or another it loses part of its rarity. Walt Whitman once said “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)” To allow yourself to exist in the spaces between black and white, to contradict yourself at turns, is to contain multitudinous, enormous beauty. I won’t allow doubt and insecurity to squash that, to make my work ugly with fear.
So screw you, writing partners. I’m working on my own from now on.
Yesterday evening I found a surprise when I walked into my gym’s locker room: a six year-old girl. There were other adults around who seemed to be unconcerned with her presence, so I went with it and said hello. I jokingly asked her if she was there to work out and she told me very matter-of-factly “No, I’m waiting for my Mommy.”
I like kids a lot, so I talked to her as we both waited for the class currently in session to finish. We talked about all sorts of things: birthdays (mine had recently happened and hers is today), our favorite Disney princesses, and her recent trip to Legoland. She was a very polite and talkative young girl. What struck me most about her is the fact that she was an endless font of questions. It started off with my asking my name, guessing (fairly accurately) how old I was, and when my birthday was. But then she began to ask more and more questions: Why do you wear glasses? I have an astigmatism. What’s an astigmatism? It means a part of my eye, called the cornea isn’t shaped right, so my vision is a little blurry. What should it be shaped like? It’s supposed to be round like a basketball, but mine is shaped more like a football. What’s that thing? My asthma medication. What does it taste like? Medicine. Yeah, but what flavor of medicine? And on and on.
I wasn’t bothered by her questions. Quite the opposite, actually. I enjoyed conversing with her very much and was sad when her mother came to get her (and not just because it meant that I was about to do what felt like 1,000 burpees). She was fun and engaging in a way that I find adults often aren’t when you first meet them.
When I was driving home, I realized that I could stand to be a bit more like this little girl I met in my writing. I’m not asking enough questions. Months ago, I started writing a science fiction play called The Fortinian Orbs, but I abandoned it when it started to get difficult for me to continue writing. After my conversation yesterday, I realized that it was only hard because I wasn’t asking myself enough questions; the few questions I was asking, I wouldn’t keep asking until I got the right answer. When I told her that my inhaler tasted like medicine, she kept asking until I gave her an answer she thought was acceptable. There are a hundred different ways medicine tastes and even she knew I was giving a half-assed answer.
I’m going to pick up where I left off with The Fortinian Orbs, ask myself more questions, and give myself more answers. It’s OK if some of the answers are dumb – I’ll just keep asking until I can come up with better ones. And for those of you wondering, my inhaler tastes like chemicals and water that’s been in a plastic bottle in a hot car for too long.