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The FPI Files: “Ageless” in a #BraveNewWorld @ Santa Monica Rep

by Carolina Xique

“We’re living in unprecedented times…”

How many times have you heard that in the last two months?

Living in the thick of Los Angeles County, one can’t deny the effects that COVID-19 has had on the LA community, especially within the arts. Before the pandemic, theaters were getting ready to launch their 2020-2021 seasons, clean their venues for incoming Hollywood Fringe productions, and hold long-awaited annual galas, festivals, and workshops. Now? Companies are relying on Zoom and other streaming platforms to continue providing artistic content to the community, including readings, webinars, and even full-blown theatrical productions – some prerecorded, some live!

Because these times are unprecedented, because we’ve never had to bring theater into a virtual space, we’re left with the questions: What is theater now? Is it changing? And what does our future look like now that this has happened?

We (virtually) sat down with Tanya White, artistic director of Santa Monica Repertory Theater, to talk about SMRT’s upcoming 2nd Annual Playreading Festival; the eerie relevance of the Festival’s predetermined theme, #BraveNewWorld; and the reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by SMRT co-founder and resident director Sarah Gurfield. The Festival, held on May 16th via StreamYard, includes a Special Kick-off Conversation on May 14th, a playwriting workshop, and pre- and post-show discussions concerning Portman’s intriguing piece.

LAFPI: Tell us a little bit about Santa Monica Rep’s mission and why it’s important to you.

Tanya White: Our mission is using theater to tell stories and also engage our community in the process, both in the creation of work and also in the discussion with the artists & production. Whatever it is that we are doing, we always have a post-show discussion.

Tanya White

We’ll be actually talking about why that mission is important at our Kick-Off Conversation next Thursday, preceding our Festival . The panel is going to discuss what theater is and why it matters. I believe that theater is kind of an essential piece of a society that allows people to step out of their own experience and look at something from somebody else’s point of view.

Of course, you have the playwright’s point of view and the director’s perspective of the piece. But what you’re also seeing is walking, talking people who are experiencing things that you can mostly identify with, even if you are different than the character. We all experience the same kinds of feelings. But it’s communal in the fact that we’re all witnessing the same thing. It’s how it’s expressed, I think, that makes us unique.

LAFPI: This is Santa Monica Rep’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival, spotlighting women artists. What has it been like transitioning from providing the event in-person to providing it online?

Tanya: Before this, we really didn’t focus on recording a live theater event. If we did, usually it’s for archival purposes, not actually to rebroadcast or stream.  People are at different levels of comfortability with technology. So that that’s been challenging.

And one of the things we were challenged with before this pandemic was getting the word out about us. We’re a really small group of people, so our capacity is limited. Our audience has largely been people who have followed us for the 10 years we’ve been in existence, which has been great. But the exciting thing is that now we have more reach. The idea that somebody can be anywhere in the world and see this is really exciting. We can say, “You don’t have to be in Santa Monica to come see us!” So having suddenly having a virtual space is great for us.

LAFPI: The theme of #BraveNewWorld was decided well-before the global pandemic. What kind of new questions do you think have arisen that are going to be a larger part of these conversations because of what’s going on right now?

Tanya:  Right now, we’re having a shared experience. We’re in the same space and time together. I mean, this is not a recording. To engage at this level, we have to be present. And so maybe the question is, “what is space” versus “what is theater?” But that’s what we’re jumping off from. So what is theater? And does this count as theater?

A question that comes up for sure is “how can we help each other?” Not just on an individual level, but also how we talk about theaters. How do we support each other? How do wesupport arts and each other? I feel there’s gonna be a lot more collaboration, a lot more people working together, because there used to be the feeling that everybody’s competing for the same audience, and the idea that that’s a finite thing. Like, if somebody comes to see a play in Santa Monica Rep, they’re not going to go see something at LA Women’s Shakespeare. So I think it is the question of how open and loving people are to helping each other? How can we cross promote? How do we how do we help each other get what we need to keep doing this work?

Maybe people will start also looking again at who our audience is. Because people do target, right? We look at who we’re reaching out to. Or if we’re selling tickets, we get in front of people who can afford to buy them. But the other day a friend of mine was saying how they’ve been to every museum in the world because they can now, virtually. I mean, access becomes a whole a whole new thing.  So now somebody who doesn’t [ordinarily] go see a play has access to theater in this way. We have a Festival ticket where you can participate in a playwriting workshop and a panel with two playwrights, or you can just register for the reading, which is free. You know, we say a suggested donation, but it’s not a ticket price.

LAFPI: What in the programming for the Festival are you most excited for audiences to take part in?

Tanya: The reading of AGELESS. I think we’re using the technology really well (God willing, it works!). I’m really excited about the about how the play translates into a virtual experience, and how we’re using the technology to tell the story. So I’m excited for everybody to log in and be part of that.

And it’s a good play. The subject matter is great and interesting, but it’s a good story. Well-told.

LAFPI: That rolls in right into my next question – Why this play right now?

Tanya: Well, we put the call out to women playwrights to send us stories of dystopia or utopia. We got several plays that we were going to do and, originally, we were set for June. Then we had to pare down and look at taking it online. We decided to do it sooner, not knowing when the stay-at-home order would be lifted, and we picked AGELESS because it had more roles for company members. We always serve our company members first.

And the theme of aging seems to be not just relevant, but especially of interest to women, as well. We’re highlighting plays written and directed by women. And again, it’s a good play. And really that’s always what it comes down to. Also, will it get some discussion going? We like to pick things that we know people want to talk about.

LAFPI: Who should attend this Festival and why?

Tanya: Anybody who’s really interested in examining what our future could look like. Such a great time to do that, when we’re all in a place where we’re reflecting. We have to. We’re alone. And we’re all aging. So I think anybody could come in and find themselves in this play because it follows characters as they age and characters as they don’t physically age, which I think is kind of an LA thing, too. The whole idea of not aging is a big deal.

So, yeah, I really think anybody anybody could enjoy the play. Maybe not young children, but I would say anyone from maybe fifteen or sixteen. But particularly, young women should come,  because the play examines so many women. So who should see it? Everybody. Right? Except toddlers. No toddlers! Don’t bring your toddlers to your Zoom.

Santa Monica Repertory Theater’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival will start with a Special Kick-Off Conversation on May 14th, and officially begin May 16th at 11am. The Festival features a virtual staged reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Sarah Gurfield.  With a $25 Festival Pass, audiences can participate in the Kick-Off and all events. The reading alone is free with a suggested donation. For more information, visit santamonicarep.org/bravenewworld.html

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories. 

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: “Poor Clare” Finds a Home at Echo Theater

by Carolina Xique

You’re driving to Los Angeles on the 101 North Freeway. For most tourists and incoming residents, this drive is the dream: seeing the famous buildings of the LA skyline, zipping under the 10 Freeway overpass, and seeing the light opening up to the concrete jungle of Downtown. With its often-sunny afternoons and the undeniable scent of affluence (or is it the smog?), a Carrie Bradshaw of 2020 could happily look forward to a very West Coast version of Sex and the City.

 Except, when you exit in Arcadia, or drive down Glendale Boulevard, or pass through Echo Park, the same disturbing scene of tent cities overwhelms sidewalks and underpasses. In the safe confines of your car, you can’t help but notice how the homelessness crisis has become synonymous with the city itself. And it feels like there’s nothing any policeman or city official is doing to stop it. So you ask yourself, What can I do?

This is the same question Clare of Assisi asks herself in Echo Theater Company’s production of Poor Clare. We see her journey from being a well-known socialite, to asking a man named Francis about how she can change her ways to be of service to the poor. LAFPI sat down with director Alana Dietze (Dry Land and The Wolves at the Echo), and playwright Chiara Atik (Bump, Women and HBO’s “Girls”) to talk about the inspiration for Poor Clare and how it relates to living in Los Angeles in 2020.

LAFPI: What did you think when you read Poor Clare and what inspired you to direct it, Alana?

Alana Dietze

Alana Dietze: I thought it was extraordinarily funny; that was my very first impression of it. It made me cry laughing. I was also profoundly moved by the ending, which I don’t want to say too much about. Echo always has a post-reading conversation about material, so as we were talking amongst ourselves, I found myself getting very passionate about it. So that was my first clue that maybe I wanted to direct it.

It’s an allegory for homelessness and wealth inequality in modern day using the framework of the lives of Clare of Assisi and Francis of Assisi and I thought it was such a smart way of looking at this huge problem that we have all over the world – but especially in Los Angeles – that keeps growing and feels so out of control. I thought this play profoundly captured a lot of the feelings that I’ve had about it: the anxieties, fears, shame, feeling like I want to help more, but not being able to help. I thought that was a really valuable thing to put onstage.

LAFPI: Why Los Angeles? Why now? Being that it’s set in Italy in medieval times, the story couldn’t be further away from LA in 2020.

Chiara Atik: That’s funny. I was about to say that when I wrote the first draft and started sending it out, I included two pictures to set tone, and one is of, um…

Chiara Atik

Alana: Skid Row.

Chiara: Yeah. One is of Skid Row in Los Angeles, and the other is a Renaissance portrait. I live in New York and was living there at the time [of writing the piece], but I had been spending a lot of time out here and homelessness made a very big impression on me. More so than it does in New York because homelessness in New York is ingrained in the fabric of the city; it doesn’t feel like something new, it feels like something that’s always been there. You just go about your commute and you have to put on blinders, to a certain extent, to not have your heart break at every single moment of every day.

But I’ve come to LA periodically for years and I sort of started to notice it in a way that I hadn’t. I started reading up about this problem that seems to be growing bigger and bigger. It made an impression on me: to be on the freeway and to see every overpass and underpass be covered with tents. It’s that juxtaposition of being hermetically sealed in your car while driving past all of these tent cities. So I think, in that sense, LA’s current situation of how people are grappling with it gave me an inspiration in the play. Also, you get the sense that it’s a growing problem that the characters of the play are dealing with.

LAFPI: And that’s very LA.

Alana: Yes!

Chiara: Another thing that I think is interesting in terms of New York versus LA: in New York, because you’re always walking around or on the subway, the different populations and economic levels actually have to deal with each other and interact. You’re sitting on the subway and people come up to you and you have to make the decision,  “Okay, am I going to give a dollar or pretend not to see this person”; you can’t quite escape it. But in LA, because of the car culture, there’s an extra distance. It’s something that you see and clock, but don’t have to contend with person-to-person.

Alana: Also,  there’s the way that the city seems to be dealing with the problem. I mean, “dealing with the problem,” in quotes, because it doesn’t really seem like they are. I’m not a political expert, I don’t know everything about this issue, but I lived in Echo Park for a really long time, and that was an area specifically where, as the homelessness crisis grew, huge new tent cities would pop up. I would turn a corner and there would be a whole slew of tents that weren’t there the week before. And then a week later, they’d all be gone. It felt to me like the cops were coming through and just moving people along which does nothing to ultimately solve the problem or help anyone. I guess they think they’re helping the residents? But even then, people are just going to come back. There’s nowhere for anyone to go.

LAFPI: Moving people along as a solution –  it’s that class difference, right? They’re placing importance on people who are paying to stay there, instead of those who don’t live anywhere, and telling them to take their problems somewhere else.

Alana:  And the problem is, where would they go?

LAFPI:  Following up on that, Chiara, how did you come up with the concept for Poor Clare?

Chiara: I always knew the story of St. Clare. I found myself in recent years having so many conversations with people where we’d sort of bemoan the state of the world: “Isn’t horrible about the refugee crisis, isn’t it horrible about homelessness,” and this or that. But then I would go home, turn on the TV, and forget about these things. And the ability to worry and empathize but then go home and turn that off and forget about it is such a privilege. I was thinking about the fact that I feel bad about this stuff, but I’m not, like, quitting my job and quitting my life to go out and help.

The story of St. Clare, the real girl, who really did completely change her entire life, is such a radical story. It’s certainly not something that I’m capable of – that most people aren’t capable of – but I was interested in exploring the idea of somebody who really goes so far. And I’m not suggesting that as a solution or saying it’s what we should all be doing. I think that’s why Clare is a saint and most people aren’t. But it’s that journey of someone becoming so radicalized to do something, to take action in whatever way they can… I really underestimated how many people didn’t know of her.

Alana: I didn’t know who she was when I read the play. I knew that there was a St. Francis, but I didn’t really know anything about him.

Michael Sturgis as Francis, Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson as Clare  – Photo by Darrett Sanders

LAFPI: So with this play, what do you hope that audiences learn about St. Clare of Assisi?

Chiara: That she existed. I think her story is cool and relatable. And what we know about her historically is interesting. She was 18, super rich, had a great life, and gave all of that up to take vows of poverty to try to do good in the world. I think that’s a crazy impressive story. That’s like a Kardashian doing that or something. And this is 800 years ago. A girl, definitely braver than I am right now, did that. I hope people will be interested in her story, her conviction, her action at such a young age. She was just a teenager. It’s like if Khloe was, like, “Alright, I’m giving all of this up!”

LAFPI: I still feel like if Khloe did that, for the most part, people wouldn’t initially believe her. Compared to men, I think someone like a Kardashian might be treated differently.

Chiara: I think it’s hard for women, especially young women, to be taken seriously when they decide to do something intensely. If you watch the play, Francis raises his eyebrows, but there’s less at stake for him to go find a religious order. But for her – for a girl to do what he’s doing – the stakes are a lot higher.

LAFPI: Are there any other ways differences in sex and gender function specifically in the play? I noticed in the cast that there are 2 men and the rest are women.

Alana: That was something else that I really love about the play. I wouldn’t say that it’s primarily about gender, but like Chiara said, there are different stakes for Clare than Francis as she goes on this journey, and there are really interesting moments where Francis lets her know that things will be different for her. And those moments help drive her conviction to commit to her beliefs. She has to be more convicted than he is, because it’s harder for her to do what she does.

LAFPI: How much of the play is fact? How much is fiction?

Alana: This comes back to the earlier question of why Los Angeles. The language is all modern day, and it feels like the language of Angelenos. That’s part of what attracted me to it, because I thought, “Oh, these people talk like me.” So in that respect, it’s totally fictional. I don’t know how much really is fact?

Chiara: Definitely little bits from St. Francis’s life trajectory. We knew that Clare and St. Francis knew each other and she really was inspired by him to do this thing. But we, of course, have no idea what their conversations were like or the nature of their relationship, so all of that is fiction.

LAFPI: What questions would you like audiences to be asking by the end of this play? Are there questions women should be asking?

Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson as Clare, Donna Zadeh as Beatrice – Photo by Darrett Sanders

Alana: It feels to me like it’s about highlighting and focusing in on this push-and-pull, this question about what do we do to help? Can we help? Is there such a thing as help? What do you do when you become aware of your own privilege? I feel this juxtaposition of a desire to be moral, to be good, to help other people, to do something worthwhile and meaningful… in contrast with the fact that what Clare does may or may not help anyone. But it’s the thing she must do. To me that’s what’s most interesting and relatable about the play. I hope that the play will help people think about that question for themselves and maybe make a choice.

Chiara: In terms of women specifically, Clare, throughout the play, drastically alters her appearance and goes from caring very much about how she looks to forsaking that along with her wealth and status. That’s something I admire in her character. I almost can’t imagine caring about something so much that I would be, like, “Fuck what I look like.”

LAFPI: And now we live in this world where everything is appearance-based, whether online or in-person. Doing what Clare did is like someone completely going off the radar. Which you don’t see a lot of anymore.

Chiara: Yeah, and I’m not saying that it’s necessary to do in the modern world. But on the other hand, you see her judged for what she looks like throughout the play. It’s interesting to see what it means to her to, like you said, go off the radar: “I’m not giving you this anymore. I’m not presenting like this anymore.”

LAFPI: Which leaves us with the question of whether anyone has a solution for the seemingly-uncontrollable homelessness crisis right now.

Chiara: The play definitely doesn’t.

LAFPI: But it’s good to have the wheels turning!

Previews for “Poor Clare” at Echo Theater Company begin March 11th; the play opens March 14th and runs through April 20th. Ticket and information at echotheatercompany.com.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: Kate McAll’s “Frankenstein” at LA Theatre Works Breathes Life Into Mary Shelley’s Timeless Words

By Chelsea Sutton

Frankenstein is having a moment.

If you trace the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adaptations just in the last 100 years or so, it is easy to see that the classic story never quite went out of style. It is beyond trend. It is the origin story of our collective unconscious.  

LA Theatre Works is bringing its own voice to the cannon this month with its upcoming radio drama production of Frankenstein, adapted by former BBC producer Kate McAll. The audio format allows McAll and LA Theatre Works to get back to the language of the book itself, and offer a version of the story that strips away the visual influences of television and film that have created the pop culture ideas of what we assume Frankenstein to be. 

“I like to get to the heart of the original material,” says McAll about her approach to adapting work for the radio. “My adaptation uses Mary’s structure and language. If she saw it – or heard it – she would recognize it.”

McAll, like myself and like many people who consume pop culture, didn’t read the book until she dove into the work of the adaptation, and so her cultural touchstones were mainly based in the movies. When she began talks with LA Theatre Works to do this adaptation, she thought this might be a great opportunity to try something new – last year she adapted A Room With A View which had a lot of comedy in it and made people laugh. This was a moment to do something scary. But when she read it, she completely changed her mind about it. 

“I found it to be about something else altogether,” says McAll. “My version of it was not going to be like the classic scary monster thing. Because that’s not what I found in the book.” 

Kate McAll

What did she find in it? Not the same horror box in which we tend to place the Frankenstein of pop culture. “There are horror moments in it but they are not at all like the movies…The book is surprisingly poetic,” says McAll. “It is very powerfully about loss.  It is really about seeing Frankenstein descend into the deepest, most scary depression and obsession after the loss of his mother. As for the Creature, his loss  – of a parent of any kind –  was the greatest of all.”

That’s the heart of what the story is about for McAll. Grief. And that’s what keeps it so fresh and timeless. It’s this very personal story about grieving, about fighting against death, about abandonment (which grief often feels like), and how different characters deal with this process – for better or for worse.

McAll has been personally coping with grief over the last two years, “so it was quite strange to come to this and find that’s what Frankenstein is about. It’s got immense emotional maturity given that Mary was only 19 years old when she wrote it.”

Connecting the storytelling style in the book to the genre of radio drama has been the structural exploration of this adaptation. “I’ve just let the storytellers tell their stories….in its purest form. I haven’t imposed anything on it, ” says McAll. 

The process of adapting Frankenstein and leaning into this kind of oral storytelling tradition reminded McAll of a memory she’d forgotten, a pure enchantment with storytelling before she was old enough to think about a career at the BBC – or any career at all: “It made me think of when I was little…there was a show on the radio called Listen with Mother…My mother was pregnant with my younger sister, so I must have been four. We’d lie down on the floor and I’d curl into her tummy, and we’d drift off together, listening. It was lovely to have that memory back.”

Based in the UK, McAll has come out to the US every year for the last 20 years. Perhaps fittingly for the theme of her current adaptation, the first project she pitched for production in the U.S., a possible adaptation of the book The Blood of Strangers, began with a phone call asking for advice with the actor Martin Jarvis on September 11…2001.  The news was only just breaking and she pointed out to Martin, who was in LA at the time and just waking up, that there seemed to be something happening in New York. 

And so grief seems to follow us.

Frankenstein feels very relevant for the times we live in.  Many of us are dealing with a kind of political grief. It’s a state of shock,” says McAll. “Grief for how you believed the world was. And as you get older and the losses become more likely, this kind of story just makes you think about it all.”

Stacy Keach stars as the Creature in LA Theatre Works upcoming “Frankenstein” – Photo by Brian Cahn

McAll is a freelance producer, director and writer working mainly for BBC Radio 4, which produces new radio dramas daily. While radio dramas mostly died out in the U.S. with the introduction of television, that didn’t happen in the UK. “Radio stayed. It’s always been strong,” says McAll. “In radio, the most important thing is to keep people listening. There are a million ways they can stop and switch off. You might have 30 seconds when they’ll concentrate. You’ve really got to capture them from the start and hold onto them.”

McAll didn’t always know that her place was in radio drama. “I came from a very working class background where nobody was educated past the age of 16.  I remember one day at school, then I was about 9, the teacher said we were going to create a radio drama complete with sound effects – coconut shells for horses hooves and everything…I remember being very fired up at being introduced to this world of imagination. It was different from books. That stayed with me for a long time.” 

McAll was the first to go to university in her family. “After I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or could be. I sort of reverted to being this child of a working class family. I couldn’t imagine having a profession.  I just didn’t have a template for it in my head.”

She started with a “very very boring job” working as a secretary for the head of engineering at the BBC, but realized Radio 4 was just across the car park. “I smoked at the time, and a lot of the radio producers smoked, so they were the first people I met – in the smoking area! It was as if a light went on. It was so thrilling and exciting,” says McAll. “I managed to find where I was meant to be, figured out how it worked, applied for jobs since I was already in the door, and worked my way up from secretary to a producer in just over a year.”

With her 30 year career in radio documentary and drama, McAll knows the importance of voice actors, and the LA Theatre Works production of Frankenstein is pulling no punches with Stacy Keach in the role of “The Creature” and Adhir Kalyan (Arrested Development) playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “If anybody can tell you a story, Stacy can,” says McAll. Radio acting takes an abundance of talent: “You’ve got to keep people absolutely enchanted with what you’re saying.” 

Actors Mike McShane (Whose Line Is It Anyway), LA Theatre Works favorite Darren Richardson, Seamus Dever and Cerris Morgan-Moyer round out the cast;  LA Theatre Works associate artistic director Anna Lyse Erikson directs. “Actors who do comedy are really great at drama because they have the timing,” says McAll. “They know exactly how something should be. If you can do comedy, you can do anything.”

Cerris Morgan Moyer – Photo by Matt Petit

Watching live foley, amazing actors, and listening to a classic tale in an LA Theatre Works show is more than enough for a great evening at the theatre, but it is the heart of the story that will stay with anyone listening – the purity of how Mary Shelley describes and explores the idea of birth and death and our own grieving for both moments. “How the Creature describes what it was like for him to come into being is so beautiful and thoughtful,” says McAll. “And if you’re coming to this with the movies in your head, it is so unexpected.”

McAll writes in her introduction to the play how the original novel was birthed from the most primitive and important rituals of human experience – telling stories around a fire to ward off the darkness. “There have been many adaptations of this tale, and it’s a daunting task to present another, but what I have wanted to keep in mind is that this was originally a story told in a single voice, from a young girl’s imagination; that it was born of a waking dream, and recounted in a creaky old mansion, on a dark, cold, rainy, candle lit night.”   

Frankenstein runs Friday February 28 – March 1, presented by LA Theatre Works at the James Bridges Theater UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive Los Angeles, CA 90095. Call 310-827-0889 or visit www.latw.org for information and reservations.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: Antaeus Introduces LA to Two Brand New Classsics

Luisina Quarleri & Denise Blasor in “The Abuelas”; photo by Jenny Graham

As theater-makers, we gotta love the classics.  And in all honesty, it’s often the artists with a background in Shakespeare, Shaw, Hellman, etc. that bring that extra something to the table when working on any play. But as playwrights, how much do we love that Antaeus, a theater in town known for its kick-ass classical productions, is shifting gears and producing new plays that they’re putting out there as “future classics?” A lot!

Oh. And add to that that these two works are by LA female playwrights, nurtured by Antaeus’ in-house Playwrights Lab, and directed by women. YES!

So we couldn’t pass  up the chance to talk to Stephanie Alison Walker and Jennifer Maisel, friends and colleagues whose plays “The Abuelas” and “Eight Nights” are sharing the Antaeus stage. 

LAFPI: These new plays are a bit of a departure for Antaeus! How does it feel being the first new plays coming through the company’s Playwrights Lab chosen for production?

Stephanie Alison Walker: I keep pinching myself. I was at the very first meeting of the Antaeus Playwrights Lab back in 2013; it was to be a place to come together and exercise our craft. Back then it was made pretty clear that Antaeus wouldn’t produce plays that came out of Lab because that wasn’t their mission. But the idea of “future classics” struck a chord, I guess. To have a theater like Antaeus producing new work is such a win for playwrights. I love the trust it shows in lab. I love that I get to share this with my friend whose play I love so much. I’m so proud.

playwright Jennifer Maisel; photo by Christopher Bonwell

Jennifer Maisel: I’m so moved Antaeus chose our plays as their first to go on this adventure with. Of course, having a play produced by a theatre I’ve loved and respected for so long is just a playwright’s dream, but this is even more dreamy because Stephanie and I have been working on these plays somewhat in parallel, and have been supporting each other through their development processes as playwrights, peers and friends. She’s a playwright whose work I adore and it’s a thrill to journey this road together.

LAFPI: These plays were both developed by Antaeus, but where did each of your plays begin? What’s the journey to production been like for each of you? 

Jennifer:  After the last election I – like many other writers and an artists – felt blocked.  The world had changed so much, I felt an imperative to think differently about what I was going to write next. I had been thinking about how I had never seen a Chanukah play and I loved the idea of eight scenes over eight nights but had thought it would be eight nights spanning the same holiday and family.  But then I started to think about how spaces hold memory and family and are characters in and of themselves and thought that these nights of Chanukah should be over the span of a life.  I still didn’t know my way in, however.  Then in January of 2017 someone started tweeting the manifest of the St. Louis – each tweet talked about a person or a family who got sent back – who survived, who did not. I started digging deep in research and found that the articles about the “Jewish Refugee Problem” in the 30s seemed to be the same articles we were reading right now – only now it was the “Muslim Refugee Problem”.   It spurred me into thinking about the circles of history and also thinking about a question I had long had – about how people move on from such great trauma to live their lives and the great bravery and resilience it takes to do that.  The inauguration came towards the end of January, and the next day, the Muslim ban – and I started writing the play that day.

After writing the first draft of Eights Nights in the 2017 Playwrights Union challenge [to write a new play in the month of February], I brought in scenes of it to Lab. That feedback was invaluable. I had an in-house workshop at Playmakers in North Carolina and  I went to the Berkshire Playwrights Lab where I did a five day workshop of it.  [Director] Emily Chase and I did two more readings in LA with Antaeus  and one with Moving Arts and I also had workshops at Bay Street Theatre on Long Island in their Title Wave series and at the Gulf Shore New Play Festival, so I had the good fortune to work on the play with several different directors and casts and audiences and get different feedback on each one.

playwright Stephanie Alison Walker

Stephanie: I saw a reading of Eight Nights in the library at Antaeus  and sobbed through pretty much the whole thing. It’s such a beautiful work and so powerful and truly reached my soul. I’m incredibly honored to share this with Jennifer and her gorgeous play.

I wrote the first draft of The Abuelas in 2016 during the month of February as part of the Playwrights Union’s challenge. While writing it, I was bringing pages into Playwrights Lab to hear them out loud.  I was very fortunate that the Ashland New Plays Festival selected it last year and that Teatro Vista in Chicago had already agreed to produce it. So, my director from Chicago – Ricardo Gutierrez – came with me to Ashland and we had the opportunity to begin our collaboration in Ashland in advance of the World Premiere in Chicago in February at Victory Gardens, produced by Teatro Vista. I did a lot of rewriting during that process so once we started rehearsals at Antaeus in August, the play was pretty set. I mostly was focusing on cutting and fine-tuning for this production.

LAFPI: Each of your plays deals with pretty huge issues through a very personal lens. Can you talk a bit more about what’s at the heart of your play and what drew you to it?

Stephanie: In 2015, I wrote my play The Madres, a play set in 1978 in Buenos Aires during the military dictatorship. I was drawn to the subject matter because I grew up with an Argentine stepmom, have Argentine family and spent a lot of time during my childhood in Argentina. After college, I was living and working in Buenos Aires and I began to learn more about what happened during the dictatorship. Friends shared jaw-dropping stories with me that I had never before heard. One friend was doing a documentary on the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and I went with her to march with them one Thursday. When I came back to the States, I was shocked that no one here really knew about what happened in Argentina during that period. Over the years I would read and watch everything I could find about the Disappeared. It took me a long time, but I eventually found my way to write about it once I was a mother myself.

After the first reading of The Madres, I realized that I wasn’t done and that I would write The Abuelas. I set it 37 years later, because this is an ongoing story. It’s not in the past. It’s present and very real. So many years after the dictatorship, lives are still being torn apart. I was wanting to explore this very emotional and difficult question of identity and what happens when you find out you’ve been lied to your entire life? For every nieto (grandchild) discovered, it’s a different experience and process. Some absolutely do not want to know the truth about their identity. It takes some people many years to confront it. It’s a very difficult, complex, emotional and painful process. That’s what drew me to this story. These “children” (also referred to as the “living disappeared”) are now in their early forties. They have lived entire lives with one identity. And to discover now that their real parents were in fact disappeared… it’s unfathomable.

For anyone wanting to learn more about Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and their work to restore the identities of their missing grandchildren, here is their website: abuelas.org.ar.

Jennifer: I feel – on many levels – that Eight Nights  is the play that I’ve been researching my whole life.  I found as I was writing it that there were elements of history I knew, even though I couldn’t pinpoint how I knew them or where I first learned of them. So I wrote and then researched more to verify and fill out what I had written.

This play reflects my fascination with how we treat other humans who we perceive as being unlike ourselves in this (and other) countries –  the refugee, someone of a different religious belief or ethnicity, someone with a different upbringing or background.  How we need to embrace the unfamiliar rather than marginalize it or dismiss it and how our traumas may differ greatly and we must respect that,  but if we share them with each other, perhaps healing together could make all of us strengthen ourselves against hate.

I also want to say a few words about a specific project that’s been going on with Eight Nights. In the wake of the Tree of Life Shooting last year in Pittsburgh, where the shooter called out the temple’s position on supporting refugees, producer Rachel Leventhal came to me. [As a benefit for HAIS], “8 Nights of Eight Nights” is readings and panel discussions in eight different cities over the course of this year, including Denver, NY, DC, Stowe, Chicago, San Francisco, Davis and (upcoming) San Diego and Seattle.  Using my play for social change is hugely gratifying.  It’s been an amazing experience.

LAFPI: Your plays are very different in style and specific subject matter, but what similarities have you discovered?

Stephanie:  I love this question. I keep saying that yes, our plays are very different, but they are both about murderous dictatorships and the long, devastating and far-reaching repercussions. They speak to each other thematically, for sure. I don’t think there is any order one should see them. But, yes: See both! I think both Jennifer and I are telling these stories because we both feel that they are important so that the lessons are not forgotten. As they say in Argentina: Nunca Más.

Jennifer: The plays both deal with the legacy of inherited trauma and they do complement each other beautifully. It’s also an expression Jews have used about the Holocaust:  Never Again.

Stephanie: And of course, not only are both plays written and directed by women, both plays feature very strong roles for women. Complex women. From a strong female point of view. I love this. I celebrate this. And I’m grateful for this!

“Eight Nights” actors Karen Malina White, Tessa Auberjonois & Arye Gross; photo by Jenny Graham

LAFPI:  Yes, we’re VERY pleased to see female directors on board. How have you worked collaboratively with your directors and other artists during this process?

Jennifer: Well, I’m insanely fortunate to not only be working with a female director (Emily Chase) and a female dramaturg (Paula Cizmar) but that they are two people who I have known a long time as friends, peers and collaborators.  It has made the process intimate and joyful (even in the painful writer moments of rewriting). Emily is bringing so much to the play with her director lens that I don’t even contemplate as a playwright; she’s added layers of complexity with how she directs the actors and what she envisions on the stage.  There’s a fullness that comes to the work because of her.  Paula is incisive and has an enormous gift for seeing ways to solve problems that come to light in a scene; it’s just wonderful to have another set of eyes focused solely on the text along mine but the fact that they’re Paula’s eyes is a beautiful thing for me.

Stephanie: This is my first time collaborating with director Andi Chapman. I was a huge fan of her direction on Nambi Kelley’s Native Son at Antaeus so when the Artistic Directors suggested they reach out to her, I was very excited. And even more so after meeting with her and hearing her vision for my play. Her eye for the theatrical is so brilliant. She brought all of her passion and artistry to this project and the results, in my opinion, are stunning. She assembled a powerhouse cast – including a couple of Antaean members and a three Argentine actors – who do such amazing work; it’s so complex and nuanced.

Andi also has an amazing design team who brought so much to the storytelling. I’m just sitting there like an idiot with a giant smile on my face when I watch the show. That’s not always the case. I just feel very happy with how everything has come together. Edward E. Haynes Jr. is our scenic designer and I’m a fan. Big, big fan. I literally cried when I saw his initial images of the set. I can’t wait to see what he creates for Eight Nights!

Jennifer: We’re just about to go into tech but I’m thrilled to see what the designers have been talking about.  Ed’s conception for the two sets is so brilliant.  I cannot wait to see it all put together.

Seamus Dever, Luisina Quarleri & Denise Blasor in “The Abuelas”; photo by Jenny Graham

LAPFI: And we can’t wait to congratulate Antaeus on supporting new work and producing your plays! Do you think this may be a direction the company will continue in?

 Stephanie: From my point of view, it does seem like Antaeus as a company is very excited about this new endeavor. I felt that excitement on opening night, especially.  I can’t get over it and you can’t make me. 😉

I can’t speak for the future of Antaeus, but what I can say is that I hope that The Abuelas and Eight Nights will be successful not only artistically, but also financially so that they feel emboldened to continue. There is SO MUCH EXCITING WORK coming out of the Playwrights Lab, I can only hope that some of that amazing work finds its way to the Antaeus stage in the future. They are doing another “Lab Results” Reading Festival this winter. So, keep a look-out for that.

Jennifer:  I think moving into the realm of new work is brave and I certainly hope Antaeus continues (of course, since I’m a creator of new work) – but also because I think it’s the way to expand the canon for future generations. How does a play ever become a classic? Someone has to be the first one to produce it.  And Antaeus is leaping into the fray.

“The Abuelas,” written by Stephanie Alison Walker and directed by Andi Chapman, plays October 3 – November 25 and “Eight Nights,” written by Jennifer Maisel and directed by Emily Chase, plays October 31 – December 16 at Antaeus Theatre Company. For information and tickets visit at  antaeus.org.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: Laughing and Crying Through Treya’s Last Dance

by Carolina Xique

Amongst dating, career, passions, failure and menstrual cycles, what woman can say her life is perfect all the time? It’s always more interesting and truthful to see women on film, stage and television having the same messy moments that we experience in real life. Shyam Bhatt took it upon herself to create a role for herself that’s this kind of woman in her first play, a solo show, “Treya’s Last Dance.”

“Treya’s Last Dance” premiered in Los Angeles at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, then traveled to New York and London. Now back in LA at  the Hudson Guild Theatre, opening September 18, the play explores LGBTQ+ issues, feminism, and discrimination as Treya navigates through her dating life, her passion for dance and her family’s struggles. We were glad to get the chance to talk to Shyam about her – and Treya’s –  journey before opening night. 

LAFPI:  I have to say, Shyam, that Treya’s Last Dance was a perfect blend of the humorous and tragic experiences that come with grief. How did this story come to you?

Shyam Bhatt: It’s totally fictional. Treya is a character who gets to be a little bit awful and awkward and prone to emotional outbursts in the worst, funniest and most heartbreaking ways. She gets to be a strong, full woman on stage. That was the sort of character I wanted to play and the character I wasn’t seeing written for people like me. And, in writing her, she just happened to have this event in her life that was pulling her through the play. That’s pretty much how it came about.

LAFPI: After reading the play, I’m most excited to see how the hilarity and the grief come together in your performance. Was it difficult to find a way to co-mingle the two in your writing process?

Shyam: I’ve always been one to try to see the humorous parts in life. These days, it’s so important to always maintain face in front of everyone, like you always have to have an amazing façade. And life will always get in the way of that. Life will always make sure that you have something spill on your white shirt before your interview or you’ll trip and rip your dress before you meet a date or something like that. I find that funny and great and part of the joy of being a human being: nothing is perfect.

So to co-mingle the grief and the humor wasn’t that difficult in the writing. What I’m finding now in the rehearsal process is that it’s much more difficult to move between those two as a performer fluidly, without creating a jarring effect. That’s an interesting thing that we’re finding now, my director and me.

Shyam Bhatt in “Treya’s Last Dance” – photo by Abs Parthasarathy

LAFPI: What has it been like working with Poonam Basu as director? 

Shyam: It’s been fantastic, really fantastic. I had worked with Tiffany Nichole Greene as director for the premiere of this play and it has changed quite a bit since then. Poonam is bringing a really new, fresh perspective to the whole thing.  She is an actress/director and she’s got a fantastic insight into both how it feels to perform and how it looks to the audience. She’s pulling out threads that weren’t obvious to me and making them really heightened on stage.  And she’s been really instrumental in the question you just asked, in how to bring together the grief and the humor.

LAFPI: Do you feel like she elevates your vision, to make it a great experience for you as a performer and make sense to the audience?

Shyam: Yeah, she’s got this bigger-picture perspective and she sees the play as a whole – making sure that we hit those beats, and refining it into a really nice theatrical production, in essence. It’s just very joyful to see the way that she shapes it. You’ll see, you’ll see when you come.

LAFPI: Has she changed your view of the piece? 

Shyam: She’s emphasizing things I would not have chosen to emphasize and that is creating a different mood than I had anticipated, one very beautiful in slightly different ways. But very good ways! It’s a very lovely process to be involved with Poonam because the way that she works is very involved and extremely supportive.

LAFPI:  One of the themes I felt was most prevalent in your play was societal pressure – not just affecting Treya’s love life, but also her brother’s sexuality. What made you decide to integrate the story of her brother’s passing with struggles in her dating life?

Shyam: Treya is a figurehead for all the stupid things that women go through.  The ridiculousness of dating highlights the dark, horrible thing that Treya is going through at home; and the stark, terrible tragedy at home highlights the utter frivolity and silliness that happens in dating. And the fun of dating, actually. The two can’t be without each other; you can’t have sadness without happiness and vice versa.

LAFPI: It makes the funny moments hilarious and the tragic moments heartbreaking.

Shyam: And that’s one thing that Poonam is being extremely helpful with. As I said, it’s difficult to move between those two. And it’s really difficult, I think, as an audience member to give yourself permission to laugh at bits that come straight after something horrible. What she’s doing is managing those parts and the performance so the two punch each other up.

LAFPI: This play comments on the cultural differences between immigrants and the children of immigrants, as well as repressed sexuality due to Indian cultural pressures. What about Indian culture makes diverse sexuality so taboo, and what perspective shifts does this play suggest?

Shyam: Treya is Indian and British, but I think it’s a universal issue that crosses cultures. When people immigrate and have children in new countries, there’s a weird generational difference in understanding each other between the parents and the children – they’ve grown up, in essence, in different cultures, separated not only by time, but by space and culture and everything else.

Within traditional Indian culture, sexuality is not talked about and diverse sexualities are simply not thought to exist. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that not talking about them or allowing them to exist makes things extremely difficult for everyone involved.

I also wanted to highlight the fact that it’s not everyone who’s like this; it’s a community feeling. My own personal suspicion is that it comes from fear. Change is scary and change in a new country is really scary because you want to keep your inner circle close around you and have everything be the same as how it was. And that’s human nature, I think. But we’re moving into new – hopefully more accepting – diverse world. So these things can, should and will change. I hope.

LAFPI: I noticed specifically that Treya’s parents were supportive, and recognized that I’m not used to having diverse sexuality presented onstage with supportive parents. I really commend you on that

Shyam: Thank you. It’s so lovely to see shows where you have supportive parents because they exist, right? You always get the parents vilified and I thought, “I have a really nice set of parents.” I wouldn’t want to write a play where I even hint that we don’t have a nice relationship.

A scene from “Treya’s Last Dance” – photo by Abs Parthasarathy

LAFPI:  We see Treya’s grief process through a series of memories and adventures that remind her of her brother’s passing. How do you think that grief process fits into the new age of online communication and dating, which can be a little more alienating?

Shyam: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know, but I will say that I feel very inspired by a play called The Nether by the American playwright Jennifer Haley. The play is set in the future and also in the Dark Net of the future. It questions what we become when the lines become blurrier between real life and simulated life.

I think in terms of grief and all human emotion, we are entering this superbly fascinating arena where we need to deal with these emotions by ourselves, and there’s also this open arena [online] where people can talk with each other and share those emotions. I find it interesting and a little but scary that, often, when you get people to talk about an emotion, the emotion may be heightened and become something else.

We’re already seeing that online [in discussion forums], you get people with a complaint and they build each other up until the complaint becomes huge. And yeah, a problem shared in a problem halved, and all of that, but also, maybe sometimes a problem shared is a problem squared.

LAFPI: I noticed when reading the script that there are many intentional pauses and breaks. For you, what makes these important to Treya’s character?

Shyam: That’s the other thing that was on my mind while I was writing: Both “Scrubs” and “Ally McBeal” have women who have these daydreams constantly, daydreams that just carry on while they’re living their lives. Everybody has daydreams, everyone just goes off in their own world when they’re trying to listen to something. And I wanted Treya to have that experience in some way.

As for the pauses, who has a completely wrinkle-free life? Everyone pauses, everyone is waiting, watching, wondering what’s going to happen next, not sure of the next step. We all have to take a breath sometimes. And that’s built in to show that Treya is a real, full-fledged human being who doesn’t always know – actually, pretty rarely knows – exactly what to say. And even then, often puts her foot in her mouth.

LAFPI: She seems a lot less polished than a lot of women are portrayed on screen or on stage.

Shyam: Yes, I wanted her to be the opposite of polished. She is supposed to be not perfect. Imperfect. And have quite a raw feeling to her.

LAFPI: So in an imperfect world, is is there anything you want the audience to know before they see Treya’s Last Dance?

Shyam: It’s been a really awesome journey writing this and performing this in a variety of places and they should come in with their minds open and enjoy themselves. Enjoy the play in the spirit with which it was written: one of joy.

“Treya’s Last Dance,” written and performed by Shyam Bhatt and directed by Poonam Basu, runs Wednesdays at 8 p.m., September 18 through October 23 at the  Hudson Guild Theatre For information and tickets visit at  www.onstage411.com or (323) 965-9996.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: Femme Voices Speaking Up in the OC, Page to Stage

We love it:  Women making things happen. And we’re now adding the Curtis Theatre in the City of Brea and Project La Femme to our list of thumbs-up-theatermakers.

The two OC organizations are teaming up to produce the first Page to Stage Playwrights Festival… with an all female line-up. What’s even more exciting to us is that out of almost 400 submissions from playwrights across the country, the works of five local playwrights were chosen: Synida Fontes’ “Butterfly in the Ashes,”  Dagney Kerr’s “Deanna and Paul,” Emily Brauer Rogers’ “The Paper Hangers,” Kate Danley’s “Bureaucrazy” and Diana Burbano’s “Gargoyles.” So we couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to the writers about the Festival, and their plays.

LAFPI: How did you find out about and get involved with Page to Stage?

Synida Fontes: Through the LAFPI eBlast, of course!

Dagney Kerr: I saw the posting through the Playwrights Center and submitted my play. I didn’t know anyone.

Emily Brauer Rogers

Emily Brauer Rogers: I have worked with the founders of Project La Femme on other theater projects before and was excited when they announced this Festival. Page to Stage, Curtis Theatre and Project La Femme have been very welcoming and I’m always happy when there are more opportunities to celebrate female artists!

Kate Danley: Pure luck!  I was just doing a search for playwriting opportunities and stumbled across it.  It was like kismet or something!

Diana Burbano: I was familiar with Project La Femme and I submit to everything I’m qualified for, so it was very nice to get a hit in my own backyard.

LAFPI: Where in your play’s journey are you – and what role will this Festival play in that journey?

Synida: The very end, I hope this baby is almost legal drinking age!

Dagney Kerr

Dagney: My play has been chosen for a few readings: at AboutFace Theatre in Dublin, Ireland; The Cell Theatre, NYC;  and the Road Theatre Summer Playwrights Festival in LA.  It also just won the WordWave Festival in Lake Tahoe and will have a reading in September.  The only reading I’ve seen is at the Road.  It was lovely and a great opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t. This festival will be another opportunity with new actors, director and audience.

Emily: For The Paper Hangers, this is the first reading of the script, so I’m excited to develop it and then begin the process of where it might best fit for a production.

Kate: I wrote this play in 2017 and hosted a small reading on my own. It then proceeded to sit on a shelf for over a year. I submitted it over 117 times and no one would touch it. But suddenly in 2019, within the span of about three weeks, three different theaters asked if they could host a reading, and it was offered a World Premiere at Grande Prairie Live! in Grande Prairie, Canada.  This is the final reading before that premiere, so the script that comes out of this process will be the one that is presented to the world.

Diana: I JUST squeaked a second draft under the wire. It’s a very VERY new piece and I’m still not quite sue of the tone or style yet. I’m exploring a historical period that I’m very interested in and I want to honor the period, while distressing the constraints.

Synida Fontes

LAFPI: One of the great things about a festival environment is making connections, and finding (or re-connecting with) collaborators. Can you talk a bit about the artists who are working on your play?

Synida: I have met my director, Heather Enriquez, but I am mostly happy to stay out of it and let these artists be, and see what they create. I am hoping to watch a rehearsal with the dramaturg [William Mittler] present. But for me, it’s really Heather and the actors doing their thing while I sit tight and then show up on performance night, prepared to be amazed.

Dagney: I’ve been pretty hands off.  The director [Angela Cruz] was chosen by La Femme and the actors were chosen by my director.  She has worked with them many times in the past. All the staff at the Curtis and the other playwrights are lovely.

Emily: I’ve worked with my director, Katie Chidester, on several plays and love how she is able to visually interpret text onto the stage. The actors in my piece are all new collaborators, but they already have brought amazing ideas about the piece and their characters so I’m excited to see how the work will develop with their insight.

Kate: Rose London is my director, and she works frequently at the Long Beach Playhouse.  We met for the first time at the first organizational meeting and completely hit it off.  I think this is what makes this festival so special – this team has worked so hard to play matchmaker and connect the perfect teams.

Diana Burbano

Diana: I have a fantastic cast of Latinx actors, really brilliant people, directed by Rosa Lisbeth Navarrete. It’s my pleasure to write smart, fun, glamorous women for Latinas, who don’t often get seen that way. I think we have some BRILLIANT young actors coming out of the Latinx community (Boyle Heights, Santa Ana…) who, because they don’t conform to what is considered “normal standards,” don’t get to play roles with depth to them. I come at writing not from an academic world, but from the trenches of the acting community. I started writing for myself, but soon discovered that my passion, what I feel moved to do as a playwright, is writing for other Latinx women.

LAFPI:  You’re all female playwrights based in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. What’s your relationship with the OC theater community, and with one another?

Synida: This is my first OC-specific project as a playwright, although as an actor I just closed Water By The Spoonful in Long Beach.  I made the acquaintance of Diana Burbano when I performed her one-woman short play “Linda” (named for Lindas Ronstadt and Carter), directed by my good friend Kitty Lindsay, for LAFPI’s SWAN Day 2017. Unfortunately, no opportunities to connect in between.

Dagney:  It’s such an honor to have your play chosen and to meet other female playwrights. I didn’t know any of the other writers and  I knew nothing about the OC theater community before, so it’s been fun getting to know everyone – just like any other theatre community, we do it because we love it.

Emily: I have been active in the OC theater community since I first moved to California in 2002. Friends that worked at Hunger Artists Theatre Company welcomed me to join the company and I served as the managing director from 2006-2008. Through my work there, I’ve seen terrific shows at theaters across the County and love how many of them champion new plays. I know a few of the other writers by reputation, but am thrilled that I was able to meet them and find out more about their work. It’s great to connect with a community of other women who are telling important stories that need to be seen.

Kate Danley

Kate: I was a performer in a fantastic show called Blake… da Musical! in Garden Grove many years ago, but other than that, my work has all been in the Los Angeles area.  It is a thrill to finally get to work with the OC community!  It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted, but never achieved.  Everyone is completely new in my circle of friends, and I love that!  How exciting to have a festival bring so many unconnected people together and suddenly open the world up to us!

Diana:  Our initial meeting was a blast, and I loved being in the room with so many amazing creators. I think ours is the new wave. I want to hear these words, I feel like I’m finally able to breathe with characters, that I understand them better because they are written from something other than a male POV.

LAFPI: And last but not least, tell us about your play. In five words or less.

Synida: Mexicans, mental illness, surreal, hysterical.

Dagney: Poetic. Quirky. Romantic.

Emily: Freeing herself from society’s expectations.

Kate: Death, raisins, and funny ladies.

Diana: Love in the time of monsters.

The inaugural Page to Stage Playwrights Festival – three days of new plays by women, August 30 – September 1, 2019 – is directed by Heather Enriquez and produced by the Curtis Theatre in partnership with Project La Femme. For tix and info visit projectlafemme.com/page-to-stage

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: East West Players and Fountain Theatre Team Up for Jiehae Park’s “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo”

by Carolina Xique

It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.

With a cast that is almost entirely made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.

LAFPI: First, let us say that we’re thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles!

Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?

Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play! I was primarily a performer at the time.  There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.

Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers.  She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into.  Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.

Playwright Jiehae Park

LAFPI: What kind of research did you do when writing Hannah, Jiehae?

Jiehae: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play, but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.

LAFPI: A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

Jiehae: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.

Director Jennifer Chang

LAFPI: Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah?

Jennifer: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is almost entirely Korean and Korean American.  There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable.  It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea. I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration.  I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience.

Actors Monica Hong and Gavin Lee – Photo by Jenny Graham

LAFPI: Where does this piece fit in this new age of Asian/Asian American storytelling? How is it different?

Jiehae: I think it’s an exciting time for bold, uniquely Asian American storytelling that takes up its own space, written for audiences that include—though not exclusively—Asian Americans. Hannah is a play about the in-between-ness of a certain kind of Korean American immigrant identity, where the “homeland” can seem just as foreign as America. It’s written deliberately for a mixed audience—of Korean speakers and of non-Korean speakers—of all ethnicities. A lot of the work I’m excited about lately takes the old binaries and exposes them for what they always were—convenient fictions, with the far richer textures lying in between.

Jennifer:  I think the new age is a function of capitalism producers and production companies are recognizing that an underserved market exists and that if production companies and theaters want to keep making as much money as they have been while building and creating new audiences, the Asian and Asian American audience will have to feel represented in the storytelling.

LAFPI: Is there anything you’d like to share about the casting process?

Jennifer: Only to say that I was looking for actors who could really capture the essence of ‘Han’—which is defined as a certain melancholy that is specific to Korean culture and people. I don’t mean to say that people of other cultures can’t possess Han. A western analogy would be the sadness and longing found in Chekhov’s plays. At its core, the play is about a family and reflecting on what this family’s particular family story is and how inextricably linked it is to the culture upon whose bedrock the family’s roots lay. Everybody comes from some place and has a family story.

Actors Hahn Cho and Monica Hong – Photo by Jenny Graham

LAFPI: We’re looking forward to seeing both sides of the coin of this dynamic show: the funny and the tragic. Jennifer, how does this show find that balance and how do you design that into the show?

Jennifer:  It’s really about honoring the text and mining the emotional wells that exist because of the circumstances that the characters find themselves in. And hopefully the audience can recognize those moments and respond. Laughter and tears are universal and unconscious and bubble up because of a recognition. The company of actors and I are working on the text with an eye and ear on the specificity of the rhythm of the play and essentially choreographing to the music of that language.

LAFPI: East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?

Jiehae: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago… In the time since, I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was.  And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee [who is in the production’s cast]  that Howard Ho (Hannah‘s Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.

Jennifer: I think it’s really smart theatre-making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color.  A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.

LAFPI: And what do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

Jennifer: Garlic in their pockets.

“Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” opens August  17 at The Fountain Theatre, produced in association with East West Players. Visit www.FountainTheatre.com for reservations and more information.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: She NYC Back in LA with Cool Summer Theater Festival

It’s no surprise to any of us in who work the LA Theater scene that the City of Angels is full of major talent – artists who work on and create for the stage, NOT just film and TV. But it’s always satisfying when artists from New York agree with us! Last year, the ladies behind She NYC Arts came to the West Coast to stage their first Summer Theater Festival here under the banner of She LA Arts.

It went so well that they’re back! The 2019  She LA Summer Theater Festival  features productions (not just readings!) of full-length plays by Nakisa Aschtiani, Karen Lukesh, Allie Wittner, Ali MacLean and Tiffani Dean, July 30-Aug 4 at the Zephyr Theatre. So we figured it was about time to have a little chat with the organization’s Artistic Director, Danielle DeMatteo.

LAFPI: Can you talk a bit about how She NYC Arts began? And are the Theater Festivals in NYC and now in LA your main focus?

Danielle DeMatteo

Danielle: She NYC  was founded back in 2015 after I had some experiences in the industry as a young, female composer/ rehearsal pianist that were, to say the least, difficult. When I spoke to other early- to mid-career women writers, composers, musicians, and music directors, I found that we all had really similar experiences. It was great to know I wasn’t alone, but was also infuriating. And that made us want to actually do something to fix it.

We found that as a writer starting out in NYC, you had two options to get your work up in full for an audience: self-produce and potentially empty your savings account doing it, or sell your work to a producer who you may or may not trust (and who were usually rich older men). My colleagues and I wanted to find a way to bridge this gap by giving women a way to self-produce and retain control and agency over their own work, without having to take the huge financial risk. So we built on the idea of a festival, where the writers can share the costs associated with producing, giving everyone subsidized and free resources to get their work fully produced. We do some smaller events throughout the year (short play staged readings, concerts of songs by women composers, etc.), but the Festivals in NYC and LA are our main projects.

LAFPI: And just what was it that brought She NYC Arts out to LA?

Danielle: Our second year in NYC, 3 of our 8 shows flew from California to participate. That made it pretty clear to us that there was a need for a program like this on the West Coast, too, and that there were a ton of talented writers in the Los Angeles area who we could invest in. Our first year in LA, 2 of those 3 writers actually became a core part of our producing team to get She LA up and running.

LAFPI: Was there a learning curve setting up camp on the West Coast?

Tech for “The Legend of Bonny Anne” by Chandler Patton, 2018 She LA Summer Theater Festival

Danielle: In NYC, almost everyone in the theater community has worked on [this kind of] festival at some point (often more than once). So everyone – from writers, to directors, to the actors – fully understands how to put up a show when you have very limited tech and load-in time. In LA, we found that the shows’ teams were not always used to that – and rightfully so, because it’s totally crazy! Because of that, we’ve created more wiggle room in our schedule in LA.

LAFPI: Most new play festivals in LA feature readings or workshops. But you wanted to do more?

Danielle: At She NYC and She LA, our mission is founded on supporting the writers, who are often the first to start work and the last to get paid. When we started in NYC, we had the same situation: There were lots of programs focused on providing staged readings, workshops, or concerts, but no programs that let specifically women writers see their work put up in full. As a writer myself, I know that’s a vital part of the writing process – to see how your scenes work next to each other when you have to do a set change in the middle, or to see how your music works when choreography is added to it.

Carol Weiss conducting her musical “The Door to America,” in rehearsal for the 2018 She LA Festival

We want to provide a platform for writers to be able to take that step in full productions – which we define simply as the cast being off-book – but we encourage our writers to do whatever level of production quality they feel will best help them where they’re at in their writing process. If that means you want to do your show black-box style with just a few chairs and blocks, great! If you feel you really need to see your show done in full period costumes with a 5-piece band, we support that, too.

LAFPI: Each year, you have an open submission call  for scripts. What has been your experience with the plays and artists who have participated in the She LA Festivals?

Danielle: We are so floored by the level of talent in LA. I won’t name names, but my two favorite shows that we’ve ever done on either coast were She LA shows. I think what’s also refreshing about LA is that our artists out here tend to have a lot of fun with their experience. In New York (again, because folks are really used to the festival lifestyle out there), it can sometimes feel like it’s all business. Which is very important! But in LA, our participants are more likely to have lots of fun WHILE doing their business. They’re also great at self-promotion and social media on the West Coast.

LAFPI: What kind of experience and support can female playwrights who participate in a She LA Festival look forward to? 

Danielle: Basically, [for a participation fee] She LA provides all of the technical/logistical things, so the writers can focus on the creative parts of bringing their show to life. The writers provide, and have full control over, their cast, creative team, set design, and costume design. She LA provides the theater space, all of the equipment that goes inside of it (from big things like lights and curtains, to small thinks like spike tape), insurance, and the staff to run their shows.

We provide an amazing Production Manager who runs all tech and performances, as well as her Associate; a Lighting Designer who programs the lights for every show (at the direction of the show’s creative team); front-of-house staff to manage all things that happen in the lobby, including ticketing and printing programs; and a marketing team that helps each creative team promote their own show, as well as making a video ad for each show which we pay to run on social media and other digital outlets. My favorite part of the program, too, is that we provide a Show Mentor to each production. This person is a She LA staff member who is there to guide the writers and their teams through the process, offer advice, help out whenever an extra pair of hands is needed, and make sure they’re prepared and ready to go for their tech and performances.

LAFPI: She LA (and She NYC!) Festivals seem look like they’re very much a team effort. How do you manage to keep a cohesive team together working on either end of the country? 

She LA 2018 Staff

Danielle: “Team effort” is almost an understatement! Pretty much everyone on our team works another day job in the entertainment industry, and we handle She NYC and She LA on the side. On the one hand, that means we’re all crazy busy, with an all-hands-on-deck mentality as we get close to Festival time. On the other hand, it means we all have active contacts in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry, so we can involve some great industry contacts in our program to get our writers’ work in front of them.

For Emily Rellis (the She LA Executive Producer) and I, it’s been a fun ride to build a team in LA. It can be challenging that Emily and I are not on the ground in LA, but they’ve been awesome with being available on the phone, and even FaceTiming us in to a walkthrough of the theater.

LAFPI: Now that the 2nd She LA Summer Theater Festival is around the corner, what are you most looking forward to?

Danielle: This year, I’m very excited that we have one show coming in from Philadelphia (Between the Colored Lines and Other Black Girl Tales, by playwright and poet Tiffani Dean). They actually were a part of the 2018 She NYC Festival, and now are flying out to LA for their West Coast premiere! That’s our first time doing a show on both coasts, and we can’t wait to see how it goes.

That being said, we’re so excited to see all of the shows! We’ve been reading the scripts on paper and talking to the writers via email for so long (we first read their scripts last November!), so finally getting to see them up on their feet is thrilling.

LAFPI: Anything else you want to talk about or share?

Danielle: Thanks to LAFPI for all that you do and all your support! We hope to see you all at The Zephyr Theater. And if anyone wants to get involved with She LA, we’d love to hear from you! Reach us at info@shenycarts.org, and there’s more information about all of our programs at www.SheLAArts.org.

For Tickets and Info about the 2019 She LA Summer Theater Festival, presenting 5 new full-length plays by women writers and composers July 30-August 4, visit www.SheLAArts.org/she-la.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: “Mama Metal” is Ready to Make Some Noise

by Desireé York

Sigrid Gilmer

Sigrid Gilmer’s “Mama Metal” packs an emotional punch.  A testimonial to a life turned upside down, Sigrid takes us on a raw, unapologetic journey full of vulnerable heartbreak, stabbing humor and cold metal fury.   “Mama Metal,” presented by IAMA Theatre Company, runs May 23-June 23 at Atwater Village Theatre.  LAFPI was fortunate enough to speak with this hard rock writer before opening night.

LAFPI:  How did your partnership with IAMA ignite and can you share  this play’s development process?

Sigrid: I wrote “Mama Metal” in 2017, when I was a member of the Humanitas’ PlayLA Writer’s Group. About six of us would meet monthly for a year to write on a new play.  At the end of the process we were paired with a local theatre and I had the good fortune to team up with IAMA Theatre Company. Then I began my magnificent collaboration with director Deena Selenow and she staged a beautiful reading at Open Space Cafe on Fairfax. 

LAFPI:  Why did you choose to tell this intimately personal story now? 

Sigrid: Five years ago my step-father died suddenly and my mom was diagnosed with Lewy-Body Dementia/Parkinson’s. I went from being a struggling – albeit carefree – artist, to being my mother’s primary caregiver.  “Mama Metal” was written four years into that journey. The process of watching my mother decline, called anticipatory grief – thank you therapy – was disorienting. My emotions were constantly shifting – sadness, rage, confusion, guilt. Memories were assaultive and relentless. Everything was surreal, overwhelming and terribly funny. What makes you laugh will make you cry, right? That openness, when we laugh or cry feels like the same emotional neighborhood and I was living in that raw, emotionally naked terrane. I wrote the play to navigate, sort and understand that landscape.

LAFPI:  Why heavy metal?  How were you introduced to it and how does/did this style of music speak to you? 

Sigrid: I like metal for its naked aggression, rhythm and rage: that’s what I feel like on the inside. I think my attraction to metal started when I was about 7 or 8.  I had a babysitter who constantly played rock – Journey, ELO, Styx, the Eagles, The Stones, The Beatles, Queen, Kiss, etc.  From there it was just a slippery slope to Metallica, Sabbath, and Maiden.  I like any music that rages against the machine.  Metal also has a strong theatrical element; it is over the top, deeply orchestral and complicated.  Different melodies and rhythms running throughout them all coalescing into this magnificent tapestry of sound.

LAFPI:  What advice do you have for your fellow women playwrights, advocating for their voices to be heard onstage?

Sigrid: Write plays. Then write more. Send your work everywhere. Say yes to gigs. Get your plays up, by any means necessary. Self-produce. Find your artistic tribe. Write and write and write. Develop your own voice and view of the world until it screams. Until it is undeniable. Nurture your desires and idiosyncrasies. Create your own space. Write. Write. Write.

Cast members Chris Gardner, Jamie Wollrab, Lee Sherman, Courtney Sauls, Graham Sibley, Rodney To. Photo by Jeff Lorch

For tickets and more info about “Mama Metal,” visit iamatheatre.com

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

New on the LAFPI Podcast: “What She Said” – Alyson Mead with Jami Brandli

Jami Brandli

December, 2018

Alyson Mead speaks with Jami Brandli about Greek mythology, theatrical mash-ups and manners in the time of Trump in her play Bliss: Or Emily Post is Dead!Moving Arts premiere at Atwater Village Theatre. (Her new play Sisters Three opens in LA on December 14th,  produced by Inkwell Theater at VS. Theatre.)

Listen In!

What conversations do you want to have? Send your suggestions for compelling female playwrights or theater artists working on LA stages to Alyson Mead at lafpi.podcast@gmail.com, then listen to “What She Said.”

Click Here for More LAFPI Podcasts