Posts tagged: play selection

The FPI Files: Nevertheless, Echo Persists in Giving Women a Voice

Damn them! Just when we’re looking the other way, yet another woman playwright is getting a premiere at The Echo Theater Company, now in residence at Atwater Village Theatre. Over the past three seasons, over 50% of The Echo’s productions have been written by women. And this time out, it’s five women at once.

Nevertheless, She Persisted is an evening of short plays by female writers that explore the treatment of women in today’s political climate.  Well. With a kick-ass title and logline like that, we thought it was about time we reach out to The Echo’s Artistic Artistic Director, Chris Fields, and playwright Mary Laws (whose Blueberry Toast premiered with the company last year, and has a piece in the evening) to see just what trouble this femme-friendly company is getting up to, now.

LA FPI: So… Which came first: the title or the plays?

 Chris Fields: The title. All the plays were commissioned expressly for this evening. The writers were simply told the title of the night. These are playwrights who we’ve worked with before in different ways and/or wanted to work with. Basically, “on our radar.” We were also aware of how different they are which we welcomed.

LA FPI: Five playwrights–Mary Laws, Charlotte Miller, Calamity West, Jacqueline Wright and Sharon Yablon. How did they each interpret the title?

Chris: We gave the playwrights the title of the evening and, of course, it was very provocative. We said that we weren’t asking for overtly political plays but to please let that phrase percolate. Subsequently, the plays are very diverse in subject, tone, and world, but do consistently reflect some aspect of today’s feminine experience. (You’ll see!)

LA FPI: Which direction did you go in writing your play, Mary?

Playwright Mary Laws

Mary Laws: I am a thirty-one year old woman, and this is the first time in my life that I have seen our country so divided.  I think if we can agree on one thing, we can agree that a lot of people are afraid: of the current administration, of the safety and security of our country, and of the dissolution of our basic human rights.  As a woman, the latter is particularly troubling.  When organizations like Planned Parenthood are attacked, our reproductive rights are threatened, and The President of the United States makes openly sexist and degrading comments about our female bodies, it’s hard not to ask yourself: who is looking out for me?  It’s a scary time, and I wrote my play, yajū, as a response to these fears.

LA FPI: Not only are the plays written by women, but four of the five have female directors. Mary and Sharon are directing their own plays, but how were the other directors chosen?

Echo Theater Company Artistic Director Chris Fields

Chris: I engaged the directors from the company I thought would best serve the plays, basically.  [Associate Artistic Director] Tara Karsian directs Charlotte’s play and Ahmed Best, Calamity’s. Teagan Rose had expressed a desire to direct and I thought this program, the play, etc. was the ideal opportunity for her to get started, and Jacquie is wonderful to work with.

Mary: I’ve long wanted to direct my own plays, but in the past when I’ve asked for this opportunity at other theaters or events, I’ve been given a simple and easy no.  The reasons have always varied, but none of them ever seemed valid to me.  When I told Chris of this desire, he was quick to invite me to direct my own play, once again demonstrating that The Echo is the kind of theater that takes risks on new artists and affords equal opportunity to those who seek it.

LA FPI:  How has it been–a room full of women, working together?

Mary: I love working with women.  I want to work with women until I die.  Women are wickedly smart and unapologetically brave and infinitely strong.  Women can do anything.

Chris: Sharon and Jacquie are old colleagues and collaborators, artists I see as very special to the Los Angeles theater community. Mary became part of our “family” last year–Sarah Ruhl sent her to us. Calamity lives in Chicago and is an old friend of Jesse Cannady, our new Producing Director, and we’ve been reading her stuff this year. Charlotte came to us a number of years ago through our connections at the Labyrinth in New York and we’ve been waiting to work with her. And she just moved out to LA.

LA FPI: We love that The Echo seems to have quite the open door policy when it comes to women playwrights! How are you fitting in, Mary?

Mary: The Echo has kept me in the business of writing new plays (which is no small feat in the land of film and television).  Not only are they excited to tell my dark and twisted stories, but they’ve done much to support the work of other incredible female writers: Sheila Callaghan, Bekah Brunstetter, Ruby Spiegel, Jessica Goldberg, and Sarah Ruhl, to name just a few.  Even more, the majority of the theater’s leadership is comprised of women, from the mainstage directors and producers to the literary manager, Alana Dietze, to the inimitable Jen Chambers who runs the Playwright’s Lab.  The Echo is not only “female friendly” but female driven… which is smart, because if you ask me, today’s most thoughtful and provocative theatermakers are women.

LA FPI: Okay, Chris. Are you afraid of getting a rep for staging, god forbid, “women’s plays?” 

Chris: Any institution or person who ghetto-izes plays by women is dumb. I revere and cherish talent, no matter who or how it comes.

Nevertheless, She Persisted —An evening of five world-premiere short plays by female writers that explore the treatment of women in today’s political climate, plays from August 24 – September 4.
yajū, written and directed by Mary Laws
Sherry and Vince, written by Charlotte Miller, directed by Tara Karsian
At Dawn, written by Calamity West, directed by Ahmed Best
Violet, written by Jacqueline Wright, directed by Teagan Rose
Do You See, written and directed  by Sharon Yablon

For information and tickets, visit www.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.

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

Creating an Awesome Festival Line-up

By Tiffany Antone

Female-Playwrights-ONSTAGE-cropI got started in theatre as an actress.  I loved being on stage, but I hated auditioning because that very necessary internal confidence that keeps a persom from being a neurotic mess was rarely in full bloom for me.  Instead, I’d pretend I felt confident at auditions and then quietly go home where I could pick apart every choice I’d made and obsess in peace.

Then I directed my first show, which meant I was casting a show for the first time, and in so doing, I had a revelation: for the first time, I understood just how much time I had wasted locked in actor anxiety about things I had very little control over.  After that experience, I auditioned with a lot more boldness, confidence, and less personal worth on the line.  It was freeing.

I woke up this morning reflecting on this, because we at Little Black Dress INK recently announced our ONSTAGE Finalists and I thought it might be interesting to know how I came to narrow down what was a very awesome list of 36 plays to just 15.

First, it’s important to know that we use a peer review process to select our initial semi-finalists, so all of our participating playwrights are responsible for determining the first cut. After that, I consider peer-review scores and Partner Producer nominations along with the points I’m outlining below to create what I hope will be an awesome and successful line-up.

So, in the interest of helping alleviate some writerly anxieties, I’d like to talk today about what I’ve learned—as a playwright—in the five years I’ve been producing new plays:

  1. First, proofing your work is important, but a typo here or there won’t sink the ship!  I can’t believe how many playwrights send in work that just looks like a hot mess.  If you don’t take my time as a reader seriously, why should I take your play seriously?  Make your plays easy to read – format it in a way that is friendly to the eye and go over it for typos and grammar!  BUT, that said, if a play is truly unusual, gripping, or awesome, I’m much more likely to excuse a few formatting hiccups.  That’s just the way it is.  I would never not-produce a piece that I loved just because there were a few misspelled words.  On the other hand, most of the time, the work that is the most compelling is usually also in top readable shape.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t just select the “very best” pieces.  If I’m creating a festival line-up, I’ve got to build a satisfying one – and that means a mix of genres and topics and tones… I may have nine FABULOUS dramas, but if I produce an entire evening of dramas, my audience is going to be exhausted.  The same holds true if I have multiple pieces that tackle the same subject: even if they’re fantastic, I’m only going to put one of those in the line-up because including too many similar pieces in one night can feel redundant.
  3. I like to use monologues in my fest, so I do.  Monologues have been a really nice addition to our festivals – they are perfect curtain pieces that keep the audience engaged while we set the stage for the next piece.  So, when I select my final line-up, monologues are something I put a lot of energy into.  The other  fabulous discovery I’ve made as a producer is how incorporating short scenelets (a 10-minute play comprised of several mini-scenes) into our fest between plays can provide a delightful through line in what is usually a fractured event. This is just my own preference – and other producers will have theirs.  The reason I mention it is that if I’m selecting 5 monologues to help cover set changes, I might not be able to include that 9th totally awesome play in the line-up.
  4. “Best” is relative.  This one is a no-brainer, but I still mention it because I think even though we all know it, it helps to be reminded once in a while.  Personally, I like plays that feel like they can only live on the stage.  I like plays that challenge or delight me, plays that feel fresh and unique and unlike anything I’ve seen or read before… But what’s the common thread in all that?  Me, myself, and I.   What’s “fresh” to me isn’t guaranteed to feel fresh to she/he/you – so it’s an unpredictable factor that a playwright can’t control and shouldn’t fret over.  What I like about our peer-review process is that it identifies a broad spectrum of work that is outstanding – not just from my own personal perspective, but from a variety of eyes – but as I winnow that list down to the final selection, my perspective comes back to fore.  You could take our same group of 2015 semi-finalists and create a multitude of awesome festival line-ups, each uniquely reflective of what different producers were looking for… and there’s just nothing a writer can do to change that.  Which is why the best thing a writer can do is write work they believe in, send that work out in the best shape they can get it into, and repeat.  Meanwhile, we’ll be here sifting through the incredible amount of awesome work, trying our best to create a line-up that we feel best matches our mission, our audience, and—sometimes—our own personal aesthetic.

And there it is – my ten cents on festival selection.  I hope it’s of interest and of help to you, my fellow writers!

 

Same Shoe, Different Foot

I’ve been reading a lot of plays lately – some current, most not – and I’m starting to see double, hate Neil Simon, and long for a new reading list…

You see, I’m part of the play selection committee at our community theater, and we’ve had a number of plays submitted for consideration in the 2012-13 season.  It’s an interesting position to be in, as the community I’m currently a part of isn’t likely to take to something like Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch (although I love it), Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (does it get more visually poetic than that?) or even Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (though it is under consideration with a bevy of voiced hesitancies – hesitancies even though it won the Olivier and Tony and makes me pee my pants with writerly joy!  Ack!)

So instead I’m re-reading The Rainmaker, A Shayna Maidel, and meeting Harvey and other plays I might not normally pick up (like Don’t Dress for Dinner, which is pee-your-pants funny!) And each of these plays, while interesting or moving in their own right, have been pretty outside my “cup of tea” as a reader, and as a writer…

So I have to step out of the “What does Tiffany like” comfort zone and into the “What would this community like” (not-as-comfortable) zone.  It’s a super strange position to occupy, but I’ve found that (while frustrating at times) being forced to shift one’s artistic POV like this can be enlightening, educational, and overall good for the writer’s soul…

Because it forces you to thing commercially.

It forces you to think about the community you’re living in/hoping to work in.

It forces you to think like anything but a writer.

Which then makes you turn around and look at your own work with a clearer eye to what a theatre might need/want vs. what your little muse thinks is pretty.

When’s the last time you can say you looked at your own work like that?  Don’t we usually sit down with some characters/a story idea/whatever form your genesis usually tends to be, and a heart full of blood-pumping enthusiasm with very little thought of what a theatre needs?

I’d like to think that all the producing and committee-sitting I’ve done this past year is going to help me ask that question next time the story romance hits me…  not so I can bury my idea in the “Nobody gives a shit” box (maybe I’ll write about that tomorrow) but so that as I cook and scheme and start to work, I can think more realistically about how to develop my idea to be produceable…

After all, I’m not writing for my drawer, am I?

~Tiffany

 

 

On the road again

I’m looking forward to Tuesday.  That’s when I’m stepping on a plane to Rhode Island where yet another college is producing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth.”  I’m looking forward to the talkback session with the students.  They always ask the hard questions.

I’ve been very fortunate with this particular play to find exactly the right audience.  It premiered at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, where it won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition.  But it’s not exactly the most commercial thing I’ve ever written.  As my pal who runs MetroStage in Alexandria puts it, “it’s hard to sell tickets to a show about slaughtering Bosnians at Srebrenica.” 

But it’s exactly the right play for colleges, a place where young people spend hours debating moral questions.  The play is the true story of Drazen Erdemovic, a Bosnian Croat who ended up fighting for all three sides during the Yugoslav war.  He says he never killed anybody until his unit was sent to a farm outside of Srebrenica where they were instructed to kill busloads of men.  He said he didn’t want to shoot, but was told if he felt so sorry for the victims he could stand up there with them and be shot himself.  And then his compadres would go back to his village and shoot his wife and child. 

It’s a story with characters around the age of college students, a story that happened in most of these students’ lifetime.  The play has a big cast (at least 9, as many as 30) with lots of good female roles.  Perfect for college productions.

And it’s had those college productions in Detroit, Pretoria, Costa Mesa, New Jersey, and now Rhode Island.  (It even had one high school production last year in England!)  “A Patch of Earth” was even published by the University of Wisconsin Press. 

I don’t write all this to brag on myself, but to remind myself that not everything I write is destined for the Taper.  Or the Geffen.  Or the Pasadena Playhouse.  That doesn’t mean the script doesn’t have value.  In fact, it might affect more lives by being the perfect script for colleges.  Or for community theatres.  Or for young audiences. 

Write the play that’s calling you to be written today.  Worry about the audience it’s written for after you’re done.  Because plays that need to be written seem to find their own audiences.

When Did You Know…?

At what point did you know that you were a playwright?  When was the first time you said, “I’m a playwright” or “I write plays” and it sounded right.  Was there some other career you were headed toward; where did you detour?   Or, were you always on track?

Did you study playwriting or learn by trial and error?  When did you find out that you were good at writing plays?  Was it by osmosis or did you get an “A” on a writing assignment or some serious clapping at the end of one of your plays?  What was the play?

When did you determine your voice as a writer?  Did it catch you by surprise?  What were you writing?

When did you know that life without writing was not an option…?

Part 4 (or) In Which we Juggle…

I’ve always been a big advocate of “Competition of Self” – what I mean by this is that as I navigate the playwright’s landscape, I may see many people winning accolades that I myself covet, but I truly believe that the only course of action from such observations is to learn from these talented writers as I myself strive to top my last work with the new.  I may feel a flash of jealousy or of heartache, but I never think to myself “They won!  They beat me!”  Instead, I think to myself “DAMNIT!  (sigh) Alright… well, what can I learn from this writer so that I can do better next time?”

It’s one of the things that keep me sane.

But, in exploring this week’s train of thought, I have to ask myself who my scripts are in competition with…  It’s certainly not the brain-child of Sarah Ruhl or Martin McDonough!  While I like to think I write on par with them (don’t we all) and while I have been influenced by both, no theater in their right mind is currently weighing my playscript and one of, oh, say David Lindsay-Abaire’s, in their hands wondering “Gee, I wonder which we should go with.”   Because I’m simply not a big enough fish yet to be part of that kind of decision.  Instead, my scripts are sitting in piles with other “emerging” playwrights – those that have a few awards under their belts, but no BIG productions… yet.  We are engaged in silent battle for desk space and shelf space… We go head-to-head for literary manager’s time and interest…

Every.

Single.

Day.

We playwrights just aren’t present to witness the literary carnage.

And so, we send out scripts to various competitions, hoping that we’ll win a reading or a ribbon, or, if we’re lucky, some kind of travel or monetary prize… OR, if we’re really lucky, an airline ticket stuffed with cash all wrapped in ribbons and trade magazine announcements exclaiming our brain-child a total GENIUS…

Yeah, that happens.

But the point is, we hope we will win accolades so that we can use the 5-seconds of fame to edge out the other scripts in that “emerging” pile to the left of the Lit Manager’s elbow.  (The pile that sits depressingly close to the lip of the desk and the gaping mouth of the trashcan…)

So what happens when a theatre company run by someone like that first artistic director endeavors to fill slots according to a cross-cultural quota?    Does such thinking narrow the question from “Who’s the best playwright?” to “Who’s the best Latino playwright?  Who’s the best Woman playwright?” or “Who’s the best transgender-African -American-who-walks-with-a-limp playwright?”

And is it helpful?

I don’t know the answer… I wear enough hats to recognize that it’s overly complicated.  There have been times when, in reading a winning script, I’ve scratched my head and thought to myself “Jesus, I wish I had thought of this!”  And there have been times when I’ve looked over lists of contest winners that read like a United Nations meeting, but included plays that I had actually turned away for (what I perceived to be) poor writing.  I’ve been on both sides of the selecting and entering… and I still don’t have an answer.

Because I want to believe that the best man or woman will reach the stage.  I want to believe that if I keep growing as an artist, if I keep writing and dreaming and running this race, that my work will be recognized, produced, and applauded regardless of my gender or (lack of) ethnicity.  I want to believe that I will get there on merit…

But as a woman playwright who is all-to-aware of the numbers before her, I will also take any advantage I can get.

I will enter contests designed to honor female playwrights, and I will challenge any contest or theatre company that seems to eschew balance in (perceived) favor to male playwrights over female.  I will also look at a list like that one from the “UN” and sigh with frustration – What were the parameters of their evaluation if not totally and irritatingly PC?

Because I want it both ways.

And it all speaks to the one achingly human truth – no matter the rules or the designations, we are all of us reaching and scraping for the finish line.  It’s a business, it’s a dream, it’s a damned difficult trail.  We try to find the best shoes to get us there… sometimes they’re ugly, but if they get us there…

Well, more often than not (and no matter their “how”) we will defend those shoe’s merits to the death.

Because that goal, that gold, that rising above the tides to be seen, heard, my GOD, produced?  Doesn’t it seem built on a lot of hard spilt blood and tears all the same?  Isn’t it the mountain we look down on, and not our feet, even as we focus our eyes on the next looming peak?

(Tomorrow: Part 5 (or) Some and Summation )

Part 3, or The Angry White Woman…

Fast forward 6 years to yet another literary job, wherein I’m actually the person in charge this time – Yes, I reported to an artistic director, but this time I was running the literary department, which consisted of… oh…  wait a minute, it was just me again.

Hmmm, maybe “being in charge” was really just a nice way of dressing up an otherwise low paying pile of responsibility 🙂

In any case, I was a woman on a mission!

This theatre company was also dedicated to Los Angeles writers, but specifically plays by, for, and about culturally diverse peoples.  This time it was written into the mission statement, I had a very clear understanding of what they wanted and I loved the energy and the people responsible for this theatre.

I read a ton of beautiful plays (and not-so beautiful, of course) in my time there; all written by playwrights with something to say and with dreams of being heard.  I learned a great deal about the art of the submission, I also learned a little bit more about those who submit…  Particularly in the case of my first nasty email; a vociferous letter written to me by a white female playwright who had read over our submission guidelines and found them lacking.

Among it’s many blistering accusations, the following stood out as the writer’s main beef with me and the theater: “How nice of you to support female playwrights of color… what a shame the rest of us are left out in the cold.”

I sat in shock for a good 10 minutes after I read the thing, wondering how in the world I would respond…   Wasn’t it the theatre company’s prerogative to decide what its mission would be? And had they really denied “white women” a slot in its mission anyway?  In their drive to represent diversity in LA, surely women as a whole were included as an under-represented people… or were we?

I wrote back to this woman in the kindest words possible “Thank you for your interest in our company, and for sharing your heartfelt opinions.  While I, a female playwright as well, hear your frustrations, I encourage you to seek out more opportunities for women playwrights on the web, as there are quite a few…”

What else could I say?  I certainly wasn’t going to ask her for her script- she had been ridiculously spiteful.  She had also signed her email anonymously as “an angry female playwright” or something like that, perhaps forgetting in the heat of the moment that her name would be clear as day in the “from” field of the email. (Note to all:  if you’re going to send an anonymous email, make sure it is, indeed, anonymous.)

In any case, it was an awkward exchange, but one I remembered well… And one that begged the question – Is polarity healthy?  Are the limited support resources that exist fractured and specific for greater purpose?  In creating our own sort of theatrical “Affirmative Action”, are we creating better theater?  And is this system breeding resentment among the very playwrights it is designed to help?

(Tomorrow – Part 4, or, In Which we Juggle…)

Asking the Tough Questions…

I’m going to dedicate this week’s blog to a sensitive subject – and I do so in the interest of stirring a discussion.  I don’t propose to have developed a hard and callused opinion on the matter, but I do, as a writer and literary manager, find myself asking these questions on occasion.

I think we all must.

A few weeks ago a submission announcement went around the web, which included a call to female playwrights and my personal email address.

Woof!

While I worked to furiously track down the source of this submission call and staunch the flow of scripts steadily flooding my inbox, I also fielded submission after submission.  Most of my responses were a polite “Sorry for the confusion, but here’s our official submission language and the correct email address to submit to”, but a few I could tell right off the bat weren’t for us.  One in particular was written in Spanish, and I wrote a very polite letter telling the playwright that we didn’t do foreign language plays, but also included a list of theatre companies who might.  She responded with a terse “So much for your mission of working with LA female playwrights, then, huh?”

Whoa.  Hold your horses, lady!

What had just happened?

She went on to say that to claim our theatre company was interested in LA was a joke, that LA wasn’t just “White.”

Now, if she had done any research at all, she would know that our company is comprised of many different shades of people, and that yes, while we do have a large Caucasian population, we certainly don’t only do plays by/for/or about them.

But facts are rarely an issue to those who have been hit by a nerve… This woman was angry not just at me, but at all the other literary managers or contest readers, or agents, who had (for one reason or another) not responded favorably to her material.

She was frustrated that her work further marginalized her from “Female Playwright” to “Female Foreign Language Playwright”

It threw me back into a familiar and sensitive loop…

~Tiffany

(Tomorrow: Part 2, or, Rewind!)

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