Marilyn MacCrakin is an award winning playwright and photographer. In 2011, Marilyn’s play, “The Family Tree” was a finalist in the “New Voices Playwriting Contest” for Images Theatre in Sacramento, CA. In 2009, her play, “Dressing Matilda” was produced by the Grand Players in Omaha, NE and went on to win “Best New Play” from the Omaha Arts Council. In 2006, her short play, “Photo Sensitive” was produced at the MET’s Playwright’s Intensive in Kansas City, MO in conjunction with Arthur Kopit. In 2000 her play, “In The Time It Takes To Breathe” won Edward Albee’s Yukon Pacific New Playwriting Award. Several of her plays have been presented at Edward Albee’s Great Plains Theatre Conference and the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. Her other plays include: “The Brethren,” “Baptista,” and “The Sound of Hope.” Marilyn’s photo, “Blackbird’s Singing” won an Award of Merit at the 2013 California Fine Arts Competition and in 2011, two of her photos, “A Cat in Mykonos” and “Island at Emerald Bay” won Merit Awards, also for the California State Fair Fine Arts Competition.
I met Marilyn MacCrakin at the very first Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Nebraska in 2006. It was the very first playwright’s conference that I had ever attended. Attending the conference from 2006 – 2008, we ran into each other each year and have kept in touch encouraging each other and reading each other’s work. On one of my check in emails, Marilyn mentioned giving up on writing – not something I could understand because she is an excellent storyteller. I have admired the way she went into a whole other art form and excels in it… Hoping to get her to change her mind or at least explain why she felt not writing plays anymore was a way to go, I decided to interview her for LA FPI. Maybe if she had to answer questions about that decision she’d rethink it. God forbid that gender parity should play a role in her decision but I wondered how many female writers give up, need extended breaks to rejuvenate themselves, how many reinvent themselves…basically, how do you keep doing art when you seem to be hitting wall after wall after wall?
Robin Byrd: Where are you from? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Marilyn MacCrakin: I was born and raised in Sacramento, CA. I was a theatre arts major at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA and I thought I was going to be an actress so I stayed in the Los Angeles area for a while. When that didn’t work out, I moved to Nome, Alaska to work as a DJ in radio. I also became involved with the Nome Arts Council, establishing a Community Theatre there. I lived in Nome for six years, producing and writing plays for a “live theatre starved” audience. In a town of approx. 4,000 people – we sold out every night. The people would bring their entire families – they would dress up and almost act like they were in “church” – very respectful of the arts. It was very rewarding, if it wasn’t for the darkness and the cold weather, I might still be there.
RB: How did you become a playwright? What brought you to theater?
MM: I studied acting and theatre in high school and as I said, I had aspirations of becoming an actress so I majored in Theatre in College. After college, I joined a writing group; I thought I would write novels. In the writing group, we all read from our work out loud and one of my fellow writers said, “I like your story, but you know, most of your book is dialogue.” The light bulb turned on. Of course, I started writing plays immediately and had my actor friends read them all. I thought plays were “just dialogue.” Even though I had acted in many plays, I soon realized I really didn’t know “how to write” a play so I went back to school at California State University, Sacramento to study playwriting.
RB: What is your favorite play of yours? Why?
MM: My favorite play that I have written is “Baptista” – a play I wrote about John the Baptist. I studied everything that was written about John the Baptist because I wanted to make John into a “real” person — a living, breathing, locust-eating zealot who could have been living it up in the temple as a priest (he was in the priestly line and they were treated like “rock stars” in that time) Instead, he retreated to the desert to listen to the voice of God so that he could prepare to take on the most corrupt political party of his time and turn their thinking upside down! I found John to be a revolutionary man. It could be said that he was “up-staged” by Christ (yes, I know this was exactly the plan – and John prepared the way). But therefore, I believe John doesn’t receive enough credit. I’m very proud of the play because it is based on truth yet I’ve weaved my imagination (based on historical writings) into some of the gaps. (Plays are fiction, right?) In any case, it continues to be unproduced because it seems to be too religious for a secular audience and too controversial for a “spiritual” audience.
RB: What is your favorite production of one of your plays? Why?
MM: My play, (really the first play I ever wrote), “The Sound of Hope” which was produced in Nome, Alaska. It just “worked.” It was a play based on a series of monologs which weaved into a story about the brave women of Alaska — about their experiences which had been recounted to me while I lived there. A white missionary woman who was raped in a remote Native village, a Native woman who struggled with alcoholism who sobered up after giving birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome – a young Native school teacher whose grandmother had been born on a dogsled in the middle of a blizzard. They were all strong survivors. The play just told their stories – no judgment, no easy “solutions.” I just remember watching the audience as the play was performed – they were fully engaged. It was very rewarding to me.
RB: Do you have a favorite playwright? What about them inspires you and how?
MM: I would say my favorite play is “Last Train to Nibroc” by Arlene Hutton. I saw this play at B Street Theatre in Sacramento, CA. I was enthralled by its pure simplicity, the humor and the unabashed hopefulness that “love conquers all.” I was so inspired, I went home straight away and wrote a complete play in two days. It was a two character play about love. That is where the similarity to Arlene’s wonderful play ended as my play was awful but I wrote it, just the same.
I also admire Edward Albee, Theresa Rebeck, August Wilson, Mercedes Ruhl, Horton Foote, Tom Stoppard and did I say Theresa Rebeck? And the amazing Robin Byrd of course!
RB: You are very kind. Now if that could just catch on. What would you consider the hardest part of being a playwright? How do you feel about the theater community?
MM: I would say the hardest thing about being a playwright would be the fact that most of the time you’re “writing in a vacuum.” It’s hard to find playwriting communities that will “workshop” your work. It seems that most theatres these days are looking for “production” ready plays. I understand that theatre is a business. But I have found that even for a “play reading” series at a theatre or conference– they seem to want the play to be “already perfect.” I can’t seem to find places that want you to submit “almost ready” plays that can be read and critiqued by an audience. With a little tweaking – a lot of my plays could be production ready.
RB: You have mentioned that you don’t really write anymore. What would you say has put a damper or hindrance on your writing? You’ve been produced. You’ve won awards. Knowing your work personally, I can’t imagine you not ever writing another play. I feel your voice as a writer is needed. Is this a break to rejuvenate or have you really given up on your craft? Will you ever come back to playwriting?
MM: I would hope this is just a break from playwriting. In the last couple of years, I have continued to write, continued to submit my plays and although I am very thick-skinned by now, I was amazed by the non-response to my work. There wasn’t any criticism, there weren’t any questions, there was NO RESPONSE. I can take, “I hated it.” Or I would love to hear, “I loved it.” I can sift through the comments of how they think I should re-write it. But NOTHING, I cannot take.
RB: You are also a photographer. What is it about photography that draws you in? Do you think it is a form of storytelling?
MM: Photography is a form of storytelling to me. I was on a trip to Greece several years back, and I had purchased a new Nikon camera. I saw a black cat in Mykonos, (there are many cats in Mykonos) against one of the white stone walls there, so I took the photo. Only later, did I realize that it told a story of a curious cat captured in a perfectly composed picture. Someone said I should enter it into the CA Fine Art Competition at the CA State Fair, so on a lark, I submitted it and it won a Merit Award. I thought it was beginners luck! Since then I have won two other merits awards and now I realize that it’s very difficult to be accepted into this juried competition!
RB: What else do you do to keep your creative juices running? What type of art do you create now other than playwriting and photography? Where do your passions lie?
MM: I have an Etsy shop for my photography and vintage art items. Etsy has a “treasury” component that I find very creatively fulfilling. Basically you find 16 items that you like and put them together into a 16 “frame” work of art. They can be color coordinated or some even tell a story. Of course, I love the story kind. Plus, I find it “promotes” my photography shop and also promotes other artists who I love to support and in turn, most of them reciprocate and include my photos in their treasuries — so it’s a win, win.
I find myself sort of addicted to making story treasuries. It’s a challenge to find Etsy items that match your story. I did one called “Film Noir” – I found a seller who was selling vintage film reels and a bracelet that looked like a piece of film – vintage fashion posters etc. The final effect is like a work of art in itself.
Another unique component to treasury making is that there are “teams” on Etsy who support each other. Most teams are about selling and promoting. Other teams are groups which band together by theme items or art or photography. Some teams support each other like a “support group.” One Etsy member found out that one of her favorite shop owners was going to chemotherapy and started a team to support her. She made encouraging treasuries with inspiring photos and posters etc. She named it the “BRAVE” team. Within weeks the team had grown to 75 members from all over the world, some who have shops with handmade knitted scarfs or necklaces or handmade jewelry, others are photographers like myself. Other members are care-takers of loved ones who have cancer or an illness – some are supporting parents with dementia or they themselves are going through some kind of health or mental or emotional issue. They started “Thursday Night Brave Stories” treasuries – the results are amazing! We all find that a little bit of encouragement goes a long way. I never seen anything like it.
RB:. How have you evolved over the years as an artist? Do you feel that it all comes together in some way – the creative outlets? Do you consider yourself to be somewhat of a renaissance woman?
MM: Well, I listen to my voice and I really try to be true to that inspiration. Early on, I tried to “copy” the way other playwrights write their plays. Now, I write what is true to me. I guess I must say, this “being true to my voice” has not necessarily been successful in getting my plays produced so I wonder how to balance my voice with the desire for my voice to be heard.
RB: When did you find your voice as an artist? Are you still searching for it? Where do you feel it is most clear?
MM: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I “hear voices.” (yes, I know how that sounds). But I find “characters” from my play that I’m working on. They just start talking and pretty soon I have to get up and take dictation! This happened to me very clearly for my play, “The Family Tree” — a very proper Southern woman was talking to her neighbor about the Mississippi River! It doesn’t always happen that way, but I find this to be the “magical” part of writing.
RB: How do you decide when to move to a different creative outlet or when to give one a rest? How do you know what will fulfill your need to create? Can you discuss your process?
MM: Usually, I will be writing one new play and tweaking another. And if I get stuck then I switch to photography. Photography to me is like “instant gratification.” You take a photo – you edit it – you put it on your website and you immediately (usually) get a response. And for me that response is quite often very positive so it usually gets me through the dry patches in writing.
RB: . Do you ever feel that being a female artist puts you at a disadvantage in any way?
MM: Well, I would like to say “No,” but unfortunately, that wouldn’t be true. For some reason, male playwrights still seem to get produced more often than female playwrights – I think this is slowly changing but it’s too slow. I know there are many professional theatres and conferences that include in their mission to seek out female playwrights, but then I look at the list of plays that they are producing or featuring at the conference and the majority of them are male. I don’t get that because I know other female playwrights are submitting?
RB: How do you battle the negative voice? (insecurity, second guessing)
MM: Well, usually I adapt an “I don’t care what they think” attitude. But then I re-write a play to death to try to “please the elusive someone” – the audience, my critics, my mentors – and the edited play doesn’t work, of course. I think that’s why I’m taking a break so I can quiet the negative voice and just get back to writing what flows out of my voice.
RB:. Do you have a theme that you come back to a lot in your work? How do you decide which medium to use?
MM: I think one theme that reoccurs a lot in my plays is “broken people who find healing or redemption.” I like to focus on positive things that happen in life – even when in reality many, many negative things happen before the final positive outcome.
RB: What are you working on now?
MM: A play called, “The Patina Principle.” I wrote it last year after I had to take my mother to visit an emergency room late at night. The emergency room took on a “support group” type of atmosphere that was amazing to me. People who didn’t know each other at all were bonding together about their illnesses and brokenness and then in a weird coincidence, I ran into my neighbor there who was having a panic attack from a broken relationship (i.e. a broken heart.) I didn’t know that about her and I’m her neighbor! So, I started writing this play to mirror what happened in my life because of it but it isn’t coming out right yet. So I took a break from writing it, so I can return to it with fresh eyes. The last time I tried to take a look at it – it was like it was written in a foreign language so I guess I’m not ready yet!
RB: Where can we find your work?
To find my treasury stories, click on my name on my shop and then on “Treasury Lists.”
Plays: I don’t have any of my plays online, but you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
RB: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Marilyn.
MM: Well, I must say, your questions have opened the flood gates of writing in me (at least for this blog) but I feel myself being inspired again!
RB: Take Wings.