I’ve just finished reading the book “Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home” by Toko-pa Turner, and it’s a wonderful examination of attachment and identity. She’s an interesting writer, and really includes the reader in her journey to find her place in the world.
Belonging is such a loaded word for me right now, as I’m
looking at characters who suffer from hoarding, or from a detachment in
belonging to family.
I’m examining issues of belonging to friendships, memories, blogs, exile, debts, illness, cats, theatre companies, journeys, writing groups and teams.
I’m particularly interested right now in the sense of
belonging to a house, witnessing a sense of our personal history there, and the
attachment we feel when we find it as our “home”.
I found this quote from Toko-pa’s book just as I was thinking of the imprint of the place of home:
“It’s said that after arriving in a new place, we will have replaced the entirety of the water in our bodies with that of the local watershed in just a few days. Though these adaptations happen at a biological level, we are vastly unconscious of the implications a place has on our psyche. Just as humans carry an energetic signature, so too do geographies. However, like fish swimming in water, we are rarely aware of what energy a place holds until we leave it, or return to it after time away.”
I’m writing a play about hoarding. Ghosts. A truly evil
woman who might have been in my family history. Trees. Slaves that were bought
and sold by the Quaker families in Upstate New York. And the gravitational
weight of objects that define our place of belonging.
Yesterday I said goodbye to almost one hundred friends.
Enemies. Reminders. Nags. Planets that rotate around the center of my memories.
I gave myself the project of cleaning out my closets, where
I keep all my clothes from the last several years. Okay, the last dozen years. Okay, okay. The
last two or three decades. I tend to keep all my clothes. This includes the
denim jacket with the studded rhinestones, the embroidered black pants from
Chinatown in Manhattan, the fuzzy sweater that is the size of a refrigerator.
They’ve all been living in my closet. Taking up space.
Reminding me that I don’t use them, but they have a claim on the real estate in
our small house with the small closets.
When I started researching the pathology of hoarding, I was
horrified by the awful consequences of this difficult behavior. I know I’m not
a hoarder, I don’t have the space.
But I do tend to keep all my clothes. I’ve bought clothes in
thrift stores, online, at Nordstroms, Macys, designer outlets. Even though my
size has changed a lot in the last few years: cancer, chemo, hip replacement, plantar
fasciitis, getting older, gaining weight, getting less agile. I don’t fit into
most of these clothes anymore. So, I thought this was a simple challenge: get
rid of the clothes that I haven’t worn in a year. Or two. Or Five.
I had a kind of conversation with every item as I held it up
to review its life span and value.
Hello darling. The Evan Picon suit, silk and wool, with
beautiful trim. Last worn in 1992. I love you. But I can’t keep looking at you
if you’re not going to get out of the closet.
Baby: My vintage hippie denim jeans with the wonderful
patches all over them. Purchased in some thrift store in Hollywood. A size 8.
(My friends will know that I have not been a size 8 in a long time.) I
loved looking at these. That was the basis of our relationship.
An azure blue silk Henri Bendel tunic, tiny jewel like
buttons for trim. Worn once. Loved the idea of it. It didn’t love me as much.
So many jackets and blouses and pants and skirts. I’d
forgotten about most of these. We didn’t have much to say to one another.
White Victorian linen shirtwaists, high collared blouses.
Gorgeous. Not useful in my current lifetime. Maybe if I was going to do another
play on Emily Dickinson.
The black jet tulle dress I wore on the night we went to the
theatre in the West End in London and met Judi Dench backstage. We had
champagne in her dressing room. I have a picture of that night and that dress.
So I’ll keep the image and not the dress. I’ll always have London.
And so it went. I had to rally my flagging spirits and cart
all the bags of clothes out of the house before I could change my mind. I
really didn’t think it would be this difficult to let go of my stash, my
collection, my hoard, of clothing.
Women writers aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions and neither is Wendy Graf in her play Exit Wounds, one of two recipients of the Moss & Kitty Carlisle Hart New Play Initiative Silver Medallion, playing through December 16 at GTC Burbank. So LAFPI decided to ask Wendy some questions of our own.
LAFPI: What inspired you to write this play from this perspective?
Wendy Graf: I became interested in what happens to the families and love ones of evil people and/or people who commit evil acts. I started watching a number of documentaries like Hitler’s Children. Then there was, of course, another mass shooting and that story opportunity kind of clicked in my head. I wondered what if anything was the effect on the shooter’s loved ones and families and if that effect bled out to future generations. I also felt it was a vehicle for me to vent my anger and frustration and desperation about the ongoing lack of gun control in this country, even in the face of every day tragic massacres.
LAFPI: We love when women writers tackle current social issues from a woman’s perspective. How do you view gun violence as a feminist issue?
Wendy: I view gun violence as an EVERYONE issue. As a mother I suppose I view it through a feminist lens, for when I see all those children and families affected I do relate to it as a mother and as a writer, putting myself in their shoes. But please let’s not make it only a feminist issue. If we do that I’m afraid that, sadly, it will be diminished in the eyes of the gun lobby and supporters, for whom it is already so diminished and dismissed. Attention must be paid!
LAFPI: How do you see the nature/nurture debate playing a role in your play?
Wendy: One of the things I was also interested in exploring in this play was the notion of viewing a family member through a lens of another family member. Is this legitimate, do they actually see these qualities in another family member or are they projecting these qualities onto them? In the case of Exit Wounds, does the father actually see the qualities of the troubled brother in his son or is he projecting in hopes of early identification? Does the past dictate the future? These are the questions I love exploring!
LAFPI: What message would you want victims of mass shootings to receive from this play?
Wendy: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry we could not do enough to stop this madness, but we will keep trying in every way possible.
LAFPI: The woman character of this play shares certain rules to live by which were passed down to her from her father. Do you think there are still universal rules which have molded the current culture of American society and what rules do you live by?
Wendy: I think there are definitely rules that have molded the current culture of America, but the trouble is we are not in sync anymore in America about what those rules are. We no longer agree what universal rules are molding us and which we are adhering to. It’s like my character in the play says “Guns are a Rorsharch test, Danny. Or like one of those drawings that you see one thing when you look at it one way and then you turn it, look at it from another angle, and you see something else.” Sadly I’m afraid we have come to a point in America where the “universal rules” are like that. We seem to be seeing different things completely. I feel like my universal rules are moral and based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, as we all are created equal, but the other side feels those are their universal truths, yet they see things completely differently. We have hit a very tragic time in America when we don’t all see our universal, fundamental truths as being the same.
LAFPI: What would you like audiences to take away from this play?
Wendy: I don’t presume to offer answers, only questions. I have no agenda for what I want the audience to take away, other than to see the truth of human behavior and something of their own humanity. To see something of themselves reflected in the characters and, without necessarily condoning or accepting them, to somehow understand their actions. I leave it up to the audience to answer the questions. I hope it will start conversations about why, and maybe if we can talk about why and try to understand, change will become possible. Maybe we can move toward seeing our fundamental, universal truths closer to being the same.
LAFPI: Is there anything else you would like to share with your fellow artists of LAFPI?
Wendy: Keep on writing. Keep on questioning. Keep on asking “what if”?
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.
This is may be a trick. I’ve been tricking myself all summer long into thinking I had to accomplish a certain amount of writing work in order to call this arbitrary three months a success.
I usually don’t put so much pressure on summer specifically (on myself, yes, all the time) but this is the first summer I’ve had “off” since undergrad. This is the summer between my first and last year of grad school – a summer where my freelance work, my writing life, and my general mental health was all up in the air. So my list of projects to “finish” grew and grew.
What does this have to do with endings?
As I playwright, I feel like I’ve generally got a knack for endings and for striking images at the beginning. It’s, of course, the middle part that gets muddy.
I love writing endings. I usually know exactly where I want things to go, or at least the emotional weight or the image that a play needs to land on. It might end up shifting around, but when I start something, that ending is already a glimmering oracle on the horizon.
So this is why my summer got messed up. I had a beautiful ending planned: finish this play, rewrite that one, write that screenplay, finish that novel, write this short screenplay, finish the short story collection…I have ALL summer, so what’s wrong with that ending?
The problem is really that it is a false ending. That summer and your writing life doesn’t follow a three act structure and sometimes you have to build self-care time into things (which is not interesting to watch) and you have to put in the hard work and the starts and stops and frustrations. You have to really factor in how much TIME all this stuff takes. None of which is fodder for dramatic entertainment. But all of which is life.
My summer started when the production of my play Wood Boy Dog Fish ended on June 24.
Then I slept for a couple weeks. I felt lost. The constant panic in my chest had gone and it had been replaced with dread.
Then I went to the Sewanee Conference in Tennessee for two weeks as a Playwright Fellow. Met some amazing people I hope will continue to be friends throughout our careers. Then I drove around for five days by myself and experienced the weirdness of Tennessee.
Panicked that I hadn’t finished my long list of writing.
And now, as I’m writing this, I am waiting at LAX to fly to France – surprise! Not something I had planned on. A twist ending. A short puppet play of mine is a finalist for the UNIMA call for young writers, and they invited the finalists to come to Charleville-Mézières, France for a paper theatre workshop, a reading, and the award ceremony. So I said…sure. Let’s go.
Because sometimes twists just show themselves and you end up following that path you didn’t see until it was right there.
When I fly back on September 25, my second year of grad school will start two days later and my summer will officially be over. This summer “play” (re:my life) began in bed sleeping off the hangover of the past 9 months, and staring at fire flies in southern humidity. It will end in Paris. It doesn’t actually make any sense. This play would be ripped apart in workshop.
But its a false ending. Because nothing is over. The summer is just three months. And things happen in the time they happen, and when you force a something (a play, a life) to work in a way it is just not capable of working, you’ll get stuck, staring at the page. And crying. And eating too much cheese.
I intend to eat quite a bit of cheese in France.
And as far as endings go, even false ones – that’s not too bad.
Well, its Friday, and I’ve just completely slacked on blogging during my guest week! In order to make amends, I offer you a series of unique photos from Unsplash as writing prompts. What worlds do these photos inspire in you? Photo by Aeviel Cabral on UnsplashPhoto by Jimmy Fermin on Unsplash
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Here’s the thing. We all want our plays to mean something. In political times like these (or, if we’re being real, at just about any political time ever), the writer stands at the precipice of a canyon of noise and anger and disruption. And we think – how can I possibly make a blip in this mess?
As both a marketing person and a playwright, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people about why a play is “relevant” – and more than that, why theatre is “relevant” – and why they should spend this amount of money and this amount of time buying into a false reality and be moved in some way, to be challenged or questioned.
It is exhausting.
In our struggle to be “relevant” (a word I might actually despise right now) – we playwrights sometimes produce “message” plays – plays that tend to hit on a topical conversation (gay marriage, terrorism, gun control, abortion) but not only hit on it, hit it right on the damn nose. There’s usually a moment when the playwright-thinly-veiled-as-a-character has a speech that describes why their view on the topic is the correct one. We all have one of these plays because the topic is important to us, because we are trying to be heard above the noise, because goddamnit, art can mean something.
The problem with message plays is that they tend to preach to the choir. My opinion is not going to be changed because you deliver a monologue in my direction. Chances are, if I’m in the audience of your message play, I already agree with you. It’s the algorithm. It is everywhere.
But, I will question my point of view if you give me characters I can relate to and love, a situation that is relatable or complicated and tense, and a slice of humanity that perhaps I had never considered before. Show me the grey area I’ve been ignoring. I might not change my opinion, but perhaps now I can see through the clutter and the postulating, all the way to the person on the other side.
Theatre has to work harder, to be more than a Facebook or Twitter argument. Give me a message, but dip it in character and setting and poetry and beauty and darkness and comedy first. Coat it on thick, pull all the threads together, and make me swallow it with a smile on my face or ugly tears in my eyes. And I will digest that message over the next day or week or months or years – I will feel it there, even if the words don’t come right away.
I don’t want a thesis statement. I don’t want to be able to describe in a sentence what your play was about after I’ve walked out. Make me feel it, show me what its about. Audiences are smarter than you think. Make them work. Even when they are being entertained, put them to work. This is not a passive art. It is not a passive life. We cannot be passive.
Here’s the thing. There are plenty of people out there who say that art is irrelevant (and plenty of those people are in power right now), or that they don’t take meaning from art and that art is not there to mean something. But art always means something, even if you don’t realize what it is telling you. We consume stories and art constantly, even if we never step foot in a theatre.
So I suppose all plays are message plays. But it is how we choose to frame it that makes the difference. Take your message and frame it in different ways. See what life it takes on.
We cannot measure our worth as writers based on the number of minds that are changed after two hours of the theatre. Minds are far too stubborn. Instead, we should challenge ourselves to let our hearts explode onto the page and the stage, and hope somehow, somewhere, a shard of the heart lodges into another person, and you are intrinsically linked for the rest of your lives.
The world is changed by marches and strikes and wars and protests and hitting the pavement, but also by one shard of one heart in one stranger.
Here’s the thing. It is exhausting. It is indescribably messy.
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?
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?
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
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.
This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.
As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.
Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:
It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.
MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:
THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.
TWO WORD TITLES:
Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.
I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.
The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)
The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.
Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)
TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.
There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.
WHERE ARE THE LADIES?
Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)
Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.
PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE
I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.
CHANGE IN THE AIR
The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.
You guys. Martin Shkreli is not just abhorrent. He’s also completely weird. After pulling a volunteer from the audience and handing them a list of questions to ask her, Sarah Rosenberg swaggers and smirks her way through half an hour of bravado, threats, and claims of artistic genius, straight from the mouth of the worst dude of our time. I laughed, I made disbelieving faces that I probably couldn’t recreate if I tried, and I had a great time. This show has all the pleasure of sharing a really nutty article, except that the article is happening right in front of you.