Tag Archives: Paula Cizmar

An Interview with CCTA/LA Playwright and Producer, Paula Cizmar

by Zury Margarita Ruiz

Paula Cizmar is an award-winning multi-genre writer, associate professor of theatre practice in dramatic writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, CCTA/LA producer and my former professor. I LOVE HER!

Paula Cizmar <3

As she powers through the week, continuing to organize and promote Climate Change Theatre Los Angeles: At the Intersection and its sister event,  How To Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event: A Workshop with Chantal Bilodeau, I sat down with her to discuss her involvement with Climate Change Theatre Action and how its inspired the development of the aforementioned two-day Visions & Voices events.

Can you talk to me about Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA)?

Climate Change Theatre Action is a grassroots event that happens every two years and it always coincides with the UN’s International Conference on Climate Change, which this year is in Santiago, Chile.

Chantal Bilodeau

Chantal Bilodeau, a native of Canada who was writing climate change plays, wrote a beautiful play called SILA and in the process of doing that, set up a kind of grassroots list of playwrights who were also writing climate change plays. In maintaining that list,  she realized there were a lot of writers doing this work and that a climate change theater action would be a really good thing to do. And so, what she does every two years is commission 50 playwrights to write very short plays that are then made available to anyone who wants to do them, free of charge. The playwrights represent 20 different countries and their own different languages—some of the ones that aren’t in English have been translated and others aren’t. Anybody who wants to do a Climate Change Theatre Action can just sign up and do one. If you go on the website I think you’ll see that they are being performed in 20 different countries and almost all 50 states. People can do a major production and turn it into a fancy theater event or they can do readings in their classrooms. It’s very grassroots.

How did you become involved?

In 2017, I got invited to go to Pomona College to talk about one of my plays, THE CHISERA, which is about climate change and I worked with Giovanni Ortega (CCTA/LA: AT THE INTERSECTION director, 2019) there. He also brought on Chantal as a guest speaker so I connected with them. Then I went to an Earth Matters On Stage conference, which is a conference of theater people who do climate change work, and forged more of a relationship with Chantal.

I also did a Climate Change Theatre Action event with my graduate seminar in eco-theater (2017). We just performed the plays in our classroom and then we took them outside and performed them on campus.

This year, for the 2019 Climate Change Theater Action, Chantal asked me to be one of the playwrights that were commissioned to write a play, but I also decided that I wanted to do something that was a lot more elaborate, so I applied for a Visions & Voices grant and got the funding.

And what is that elaborate undertaking? 😉

We’re doing a two-day climate change event. This coming Friday’s event (HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE EVENT, 11/8 at 3pm) is on campus. I would love for people to attend this first event because this one has the CCTA plays from around the globe. Of the 50 plays that were commissioned, six of those are being performed.

The really cool thing is I put the word out to some of my colleagues and asked if they thought there were any students who might want to direct these and two wonderful young undergraduates, Elizabeth Schuetzle and Jessica Doherty, stepped up and are directing three plays each. They’re also working with their friend, music composer and fellow student Cyrus Leland, whose created music for this student-driven event.

After the performances, Chantal will speak about how to create your own climate change—or any kind—of social justice event because these things don’t require money, they just require commitment and time.

Awesome. I think Chantal will be a great resource for anyone interested in creating social justice theater.

Absolutely. And, I think this is something all playwrights, and everybody, should step up and do at least once—create some kind of grassroots action to make the world a better place. If you sit around and wait for someone else to do it, they’re not going to. It’s important for us as playwrights to not sit around and wait. I understand the impulse, because playwrights like to be left alone. We like to be alone in our rooms, and we tend to be passive but every once in a while we have to come out of the cave and not be passive.

I’m in my cave now.

After this, I’m going into the cave.

Let me reel it back in—What is the second event? 🙂

The Saturday (CLIMATE CHANGE THEATRE ACTION LA: AT THE INTERSECTION, 11/9 at 2pm) event is all Los Angeles playwrights and what that one addresses is not just climate change around the globe but specific issues that affect Los Angeles directly. The climate change issues in Los Angeles are very different from say the issues in the Pacific Northwest or the issues in India or Costa Rica. I wanted to pay attention to that because I think a lot of times people don’t think climate change is an urban problem but its actually really important to urban areas and its particularly important to neighborhoods of color and people who come from low-income neighborhoods because they don’t have the political clout to fight.

I consulted with some people from the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences) about what the chief LA climate change issues were and they enumerated air quality, incompatible land-use, unfair distribution of water, the feast or famine problem of water in LA, and drilling , fracking and the storage of liquid natural gas. And added to that is our unique geography.  

Definitely! With this past week’s fires, I keep thinking about one of the pieces in particular.

Yes. It’s really interesting. Julie Taiwo Oni wrote a piece (ROOMIES) about the fires. Interestingly enough, when she turned that one in back in June I was glad someone took that (issue) on but didn’t think it was particularly relevant, and then last week happened. Suddenly, Julie’s is the most relevant of all of them. Not that they aren’t all relevant, they’re all interconnected.

Can you talk to me about the event’s subtitle, AT THE INTERSECTION?

One of my major issues is that people tend to think of climate change as a white middle class issue, and they also think of it as something that is distant in time. The fact of the matter is that environmental catastrophe affects low-income people more than it affects anyone else because they don’t have the means to buy their way out of it. It also affects people with very little political clout because they don’t have the means to influence their way out of it. I’m interested in intersectionality, hence, AT THE INTERSECTION, which is kind of a play on words. It’s not just that LA is a city of freeways, streets and lots of intersections, but I see this as “at the intersection” of art and science, and also at the intersection of many other cultural and identity movements. I think climate change is a feminist issue, I think it’s a racial issue… it’s definitely a status and economic issue. So that’s where the At the Intersection comes from.

It occurred to me that if I really wanted to see these works, I had to do it. I was probably the only person that was going to.

So, I know you primarily as a playwright, but here you’re taking on the role of producer. How did that come about?

Being a female playwright in America is kind of thankless. There are few opportunities. And being an older female playwright makes it even worse. And also the idea of trying to interest a theater in plays about important social justice issues or environmental justice—they honestly just don’t care. They may pay lip service to it, but we don’t see them producing these plays. It occurred to me that if I really wanted to see these works, I had to do it. I was probably the only person that was going to. I tried to interest other people in doing it and got no response, so I had to step in. I’ve produced with Visions and Voices before, on campus, but usually on a smaller scale. This one has been really challenging. Of course, Gio (Ortega), Simon Chau (production stage manager) and the people at the museum have been really helpful.

Yes. The Natural History Museum! How did they get involved? Did you reach out to them?

I did. I thought “you know, we could do this on-campus”, but then I thought, “Who else is doing this kind of work?” And what’s really wonderful about the Natural History Museum is that they take the city of Los Angeles and its diversity very seriously, and by diversity I don’t just mean in terms of population but also the diversity of its interests and topics. So climate change is one of the things that they actually have programs about. I figured that if I could get them to partner with us, then we would have a really interesting performance space.

And we do! We’ll be at the Hall of Mammals.

Yes, it’s going to be in front of, you know, those dioramas of the mountain goats… North American mammals.

*I do a happy dance on the inside and think about selfies with said mountain goats*

So yeah, I brought it to them, and lo and behold, they said yes. The really cool thing about this event is that it’s free to the public. That also means that if you make a reservation for the event, you get in free to the museum. You literally could spend the day at the museum and see all the really cool things that they’re doing there. They’re not just a museum of dinosaurs, they’re a museum of the natural history of Los Angeles, which is fascinating.

Meme by Moi with image from Getty images Plus

They’re actually trying to pay attention to what this city really is and where it grew from. They also have a climate change program now that they’re starting to develop. I’m very happy that we’re partnering with them.

How were the writers and production team selected?

A lot of the writers on this list were already writing about climate change, so I didn’t have to go out of my way and try to find LA writers that I was going to force into this topic. These are already people who are concerned about this and are writing about it. It’s interesting to me that there are a lot of women doing it. I also wanted to make sure that I had young and old represented, and I wanted to hit the culture of Los Angeles, so we have—Latinx writers, Asian American writers, black writers, white writers, and mixed race writers. I’m trying to re-create the community of Los Angeles via the playwright’s voices. 

Gio (Ortega) has been interested in climate change—its one of the topics that he takes on. He’s into social justice theater too. And that’s really what this is, social justice theater. Gio is the director in town that I know for whom this work matters. He’s traveled and done research on this work, leads a program at Pomona College’s theater department that also does a climate change theatre action in Pomona. He was a natural person to choose. 

I’ve worked with Simon Chau and Alex Rehberger (Production and stage management) in the past. They’re both USC grads. And Howard Ho is our go-to sound guy. That’s the team.

Talk to me about the short, original works that have been created for this event. What can we expect?

We have plays about children being affected by the toxic waste in their neighborhoods. Plays about gentrification. Plays about the Los Angeles River—the rehabilitation of it and the pollution in it. Plays about low-income people who have pumpjacks in their neighborhoods. Plays about trees and how LA needs to be more proactive about planting them because not only do they create shade, thereby lowering the temperature of the city, but they also help clean the air. We have plays about all of these topics, including incompatible land use, which you would think “How the hell would you write about that?”

Yes! But also, it wasn’t t only a matter of how to approach these topic that I found challenging, but the short format too. These pieces are each roughly 3-4 minutes long. So even though I wrote a play, it also felt like I was writing narrative poetry.

That’s really wonderful. Almost everyone addressed them poetically. And in fact, a couple of people have actually written spoken-word. We have this really wonderful mix of plays that are scenes, and some that are either wonderful comedic monologues or spoken-word kind of chats. It’s all really neat.

There’s also a micro opera.

That just happens to be mine. I work with this wonderful composer, Guang Yang—we have a full-length opera we’re working on—and I thought “we like to work together”,  so I asked her if she wanted to do a piece for this and she said yes. We took on the impossible topic of incompatible land-use. Ours is about a little girl whose school is under a freeway—because we don’t have zoning to protect kids, schools and playgrounds from being near a landfill or toxic waste or freeways. So the little girl comes home from school and tells her mother that she learned there’s a hole in the sky and her mother doesn’t want to hear about it. She doesn’t want to hear the bad news. So the little girl spins a fanciful tale of a Chinese goddess who’ll fix the hole in the sky, which helps the mother come around. It’s really neat. It’s a very experimental opera. The full length opera that Guang and I wrote has ten-singers, is orchestrated for an orchestra… but this little short opera is just one instrument—a keyboard—and some percussion sounds on a computer.

(Note: Paula’s full-length opera is being done in Pittsburg next summer!)

Can you talk a little about the theme guide created for this event?

My graduate students from my first year 574A (Dramatic Writing Across Media) class stepped up to create this. One of the media I’d pointed out to them is multiplatform media—creating theme guides and websites that have hyperlinks embedded in them so that people could go and see a video and get more resources. What they did was create theme guides for this entire event that has articles about environmental justice, the issues in LA, and organizations that you can support and join to help make change. It’s a really wonderful, colorful, beautifully printed guide that will be about 5-6 pages long and will include the program.

I could keep doing it (CCTA/LA) but then I’m the one that keeps learning these things and its time for somebody else to step up and learn about not only how to do this but also about the issues.

Is CCTA/LA something you’re hoping to continue to do every two years?

I would love for that to happen and I would love to be the guide and the advisor, but I would let somebody step up and take over. I think that’s one of the important things about being a playwright in America and that is that you don’t sit around and wait. And I also feel as if I could keep doing it but then I’m the one that keeps learning these things and its time for somebody else to step up and learn about not only how to do this but also about the issues. The best way to learn about them is to be directly involved. 

Final question—what excites you the most about the CCTA/LA: At the Intersection event?

What excites me the most, and I hope this happens, is that regular visitors to the museum, who are strolling through the galleries with their kids, drop in and see something happening. My dream is that we see little families seeing that there’s a theater event going on and that they stop and take it in so that they are, as a family, not only introduced to theater, but also introduced to the issues. I think its great that people are making reservations, I love that, but I also would love for all the casual passerby’s get drawn into it because I think it will be fun.

Thank you, Paula!

You’re very welcome.

Don’t forget to check out the CCTA /LA events!

References:

Paula Cizmar

http://paulacizmar.net/

Climate Change Theatre Action

http://www.climatechangetheatreaction.com/

Chantal Bilodeau

https://www.cbilodeau.com/

Earth Matters On Stage

https://www.earthmattersonstage.com/

Visions and Voices

visionsandvoices.usc.edu

How To Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event: A Workshop with Chantal Bilodeau

http://visionsandvoices.usc.edu/eventdetails/?event_id=30354568958120

Climate Change Theatre Action LA: At the Intersection

https://nhm.org/calendar/climate-change-theatre-action-la-intersection

Program for Environmental and Regional Equity

https://dornsife.usc.edu/pere

Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 – The Claremont Colleges

http://www.climatechangetheatreaction.com/event/climate-change-theatre-action-2019-the-claremont-colleges/2019-11-12/

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

https://nhm.org/

Giovanni Ortega

https://giovanniortega.com/

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.

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Heading West with Paula Cizmar

The new Tactical Reads venture, matching female playwrights with female directors, debuts Wednesday night, 6/27 (meet-up for networking/ideas at 7 p.m., reading at 8 p.m.). Award-winning playwright Paula Cizmar will launch the series, with her  play Strawberry, directed by Sabina Ptasznik, creator of this innovative reading series.

I’ve written about Paula Cizmar previously; there’s more about her life and extensive career on her website. Cizmar wrote a Guest Post for the LA FPI blog a few weeks ago about her May 2012 visit to Turkey, as one of  the authors of the internationally-acclaimed play Seven. I corresponded with Paula recently about her newest show.

Q: So you are the first playwright in the new Tactical Reads series with Strawberry. Congratulations! What’s this new play about?

Cizmar: Strawberry is about a young botanist, Anabel, who arrives in a remote section of the California growing fields to search for a plant that is believed to be extinct—at least that’s what she says.  But ultimately the play is about something else entirely—solving the mystery of her true identity, trying to connect with a birth mother she didn’t know she had, trying to connect with the land as a living entity, rather than as a scientific specimen.  And of course, it’s about love.

Q: What inspired you to write it?

Cizmar: Wind.  Ideas of extinction.  Agriculture.  Death.  Romantic notions. California. Typical! My inspirations come from a variety of places that float around and finally somehow land and form an idea.  This play followed the same odd path.  I was up near Soledad a while back, and got out of the car in a rural area—and the wind was unbelievable.  You could barely stand up in it. Unforgiving.  And then when I drive from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo County, where I live, it is impossible not to pass field after field of tomatoes, broccoli, and most of all, strawberries.  And these fields are often full of migrant workers, covered up in layers and layers of clothing to protect them from the sun, or the wind, or the pesticides, or the prickly plants.   I just read a statistic that strawberries have now passed marijuana as the number one money-maker crop in California.  It used to be marijuana, grapes, almonds—and now strawberries are at the top.   So the strawberry fields are ubiquitous, and you’d have to be driving with your eyes closed to not notice the pickers.  They’re bent over.  So I can’t help thinking about the people who harvest our food and the conditions they work under.  And then, I get nervous about global warming, about the future of the earth, and I know that in our own lifetime certain plant and animal species have disappeared from the planet.  Right now, biologists are trying to save the Gila trout, a small fish species that is being threatened by the wildfires in New Mexico.  I heard a researcher who was part of the rescue operation on NPR and he got choked up about this stuff—and so do I.  So listening to the news and crying in the car—that’s an inspiration.  And the West.  And heading West.  And then there’s the strawberry itself, red, heart-shaped.

Q: I love that you’re using the strawberry symbolically, too.  So when did you write it?

Cizmar: I started it last year [2011] and we did a cold reading of a very early—and quite different—draft of it at USC; Luis Alfaro put the reading together and after it was over he kept saying, ‘Somehow I keep going back to the notion of how carnal it is, how carnal the need of each character is, carnal, carnal, carnal.’ He repeated this word to me often enough that it finally made an impression! And I took a look at what he was talking about and realized that I had only touched on carnality—and should let it play out.  So that sparked a new approach to the play and took me on the road to the current version—which is entirely new, and this is a brand new draft of the new version.  So—it’s really never been seen by the public before and the reading will be the first testing ground.

Q: Do you think readings are valuable to a play’s development?

Cizmar: Just submitting a play for a reading sparks a certain amount of development—as the writer, you want the script to be coherent enough, enticing enough, you want it to show potential.  And then, the luxury of talking to the director about the play, just exchanging thoughts, comments, questions, sparks more development, and then the rehearsal process itself even more.  We playwrights work so often in isolation and there seem to be fewer readings to go around these days.   But ultimately, there’s only so much a playwright can do alone.  It could be a rationalization, it could be laziness—and I try not to fall into this trap and really try hard to get my plays to be as theatrical as possible on my own—but theatre is a collaborative medium, plays are to be performed, and playwrights need to be able to commune with other artists at a certain point in the writing.  A reading removes a play from where it’s lodged inside of the writer’s head and shoves it out into the world.  If you’re faithful and true, you listen to what’s going on in the rehearsal and reading process—and with any luck, the play grows a bit more.

Q: What do you think of the new Tactical Reads series, created by Sabina Ptasznik, and its mission to pair female directors with female playwrights?

Cizmar: Sabina not only has created a program where playwrights get to be in dialogue about a script with actors and a director in the rehearsal process, as you would in most readings, but also she has taken this program one step further: The pairing of female directors and playwrights. Simple, but brilliant. This is a very far-sighted approach; it’s about putting creative teams together, developing long-term relationships that can support imagination and process. We know that the big institutional theatres support specific playwrights—mostly male—through commissions and ongoing commitments to develop and produce their work. And of course with support, a writer’s work gets better—and is more likely to be produced.  So Tactical Reads is the no-budget grassroots version of that—creating artistic partnerships, facilitating communication, and ultimately, searching for opportunities.

Join us! Strawberry by Paula Cizmar, directed by Sabina Ptasznik, with Chuma Gault, Mariel Martinez, Meredith Wheeler. 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, Atwater Crossing, 3245 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Admission: Free.

AND there’s an LA FPI Meet-up before the reading, 7 p.m. We’ll meet at the ATX Kitchen near the wine bar.  Visit atwatercrossingkitchen.com for directions and to check out their cool menu. 

Guest Post: Women’s Work by Paula Cizmar

At dawn, only hours after I arrived in Istanbul, the muezzin at the mosque across the street from my hotel began chanting the call to prayer:  Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar, Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah… It was loud.  Loud beyond belief.  An ancient song amplified by modern technology and audible, I’m sure, all the way across the Bosphorus.

Out on the streets later, I was fascinated by the pace, the crowds, the lively culture.  And curious about how in one ten-foot space there could be women in miniskirts and women in full burkas—not just the hijab, but the burka that is all enveloping, all black, with just a tiny slitted opening for the eyes.

I was in Istanbul not just as a tourist, but also for work.  SEVEN (or YEDI in Turkish), the documentary play I wrote with six amazing women writers—Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Susan Yankowitz, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, and Anna Deavere Smith—had been selected for the 18th Istanbul International Theatre Festival, and the Swedish Consulate had invited us to attend.

Sweden and Turkey?  Could any two places seem more opposite?

Four of us made the journey—Carol, Susan, Ruth, and I.  When we arrived, we were instantly caught up in a swirl of activities related to the performance; the Swedish director and Turkish producer and their crews were all articulate, creative, committed, active artists who believe in the intersection of arts and politics.   SEVEN excited them; it tells stories about women who aren’t passive or victims.   It’s documentary theatre, told in the words of female activists who work to stop human rights abuses—including government corruption and violence against women.    The stories are real—and I think that’s why the play affects people so deeply.

When we had lunch with the Swedish Consul General, Torkel Stiernlof, the mystery of the Swedish/Turkish connection became clear.  He told us that Turkey wants to enter the EU, and that Sweden is performing its role as friend to Turkey to help out in this cause.  Though Turkey has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and is qualified for EU membership financially, Turkey’s human rights record is a whole other story.  Before the country is acceptable to the European Union, it’s going to have to address those issues, among them being violations of women’s rights—not just denial of basic freedoms, but also spousal murders and abuse at the hands of fundamentalist family members.   SEVEN/YEDI is helping in that goal, because the Swedes believe in using the arts and humanities to create awareness, start discussion, influence the culture.  Hence our presence at the theatre festival.  (Sigh…oh that we valued the arts more in the U.S., or at least, that non-artists recognized the value.  Oh that we wouldn’t have to constantly defend the importance of what we do, or feel as if it is an afterthought or trivial.)

Later, I was part of a panel composed of American, Swedish, and Turkish women talking about the value of telling women’s stories—because they don’t always get told with truth. What a thrill to be part of this interchange of ideas.  Smart, reasonable, calm, creative-thinking women talking about drama in the most modern and ancient sense of the word in a city where so many cultures, past and present, East and West, come together.   The play, too, in a venerable old theatre, with a full house, kept the buzz and the discussion going.

This is the dialogue we all crave as women in the theatre.   I’m happy that SEVEN has been a catalyst for so much hopeful discussion.  With any luck, it will open someone’s mind, set somebody free, even inspire new plays that will go again out into the world and make more ripples.

I am so proud that I am doing women’s work.

 

 

WHAT IF…..?

Performing Arts High School

What if theatre weren’t seen as a luxury but as central to the fabric of our country?

The Theatre Communications Conference is asking this question and more from June the 16th through the 18th at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Biltmore; and the Central L.A. High School #9, for the Visual and Performing Arts.

LAStageAlliance is sponsoring the conference, which is also celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of TCG. The national organization for the American theatre, their website says, was founded in 1961 with a grant from the Ford Foundation to foster communication among professional, community and university theatres, and now has nearly 700 member theatres and affiliate organizations and more than 12,000 individuals nationwide.

There are 1,084 attendees signed up – playwrights, artists and members of theatres from all over the country – and the TCG has teamed with Radar L.A which will be presenting its plays at the same time, including Moving Arts’ Car Plays, L.A., and a CalArts’ adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s play, Brewsie and Willie.

Here are some of the other questions the conference is asking:

What if artists and other theatre leaders talked regularly and openly about art and aesthetics?

What if theatre institutions and their boards committed to hiring more people of color in leadership positions?

What if a group of billionaires created a “Giving Pledge” initiative for theatre?

What if the US became more embedded in wars around the globe – what would become the role of theatre and artists?

What if there were a new audience engagement model as powerful as the subscription model?

What if theatres and artists could commit to each other for multiple years?

What if we could solidify new business models that would truly lead to the sustainability of our theatres?

Here’s one I wish it was asking. What if more artistic directors were committed to producing plays by women?

However, women and the LAFPI are represented. Hooray! Instigator Laura Shamas, and Paula Cizmar are asking “What if…Social Activism Could Inspire New Models of Theatre?” on Thursday, June 16th at the Biltmore Hotel from 2:30 to 4:00, and instigator Dee Jae Cox is moderating a panel called “What if Women Ruled The World?” on Saturday, June 18th at the Central L.A. High School from 11 to 12:30.

I can’t attend the conference but am part of the National Playwrights Slam on the 19th from 9 pm on at the Biltmore Tiffany Room and will report back. I’ve bought a pair of sandals and may break down and buy a new outfit as well. (Maybe, maybe not. I’m a rotten shopper.)

I know that one rarely makes contacts at any conference that lead on to fame and fortune. (I went to one a while back that was called Reinventing the Future. I’m still reinventing and thank God the future is always a day away.) But the panels sound interesting and may lead to some positive changes, and the explosion of the L.A. Theatre surrounding the conference is exciting.

I imagine that a great schmoozefest will be the heart of the affair. And that sounds like fun. With one thousand and eighty four people there, everyone is bound to meet a few simpatico persons, exchange some good ideas, and have a few laughs.