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.
A stirring doubleheader of RADAR L.A. productions last night at LATC gave me a lot to think about, including this: I am left wondering if it was coincidence, curators’ choice, or larger cultural influences that gave Los Angeles an international theater and performance festival at which only two plays (of 14 scripted pieces, many involving female artists) were written by women; both women are Latin American; both of their plays look at generational trauma in the aftermath of defining tragedies in their countries; both temper their documentary materials with poetic license as they explore the intimately personal in the political. Whatever. I can thank the forces – occult or otherwise – that brought Mariana Villegas and Lola Arias to town.
For Villegas, in her supertitled 55-minute solo performance Se Rompen Las Olas, the disaster is the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 – evoked through video news clips – that left tens of thousands dead, discredited the government, and briefly brought together the woman who would be her mother and the man whose absence and abandonment would shake the performer’s life to the core. Villegas holds the stage with a powerfully expressive physicality as when her exuberant and uninhibited dance shifts in an instant to a vision of abuse. At one point, a recorded song asks Where did the earthquake catch you? and goes on to answer dancing with Catalina, shaking the floor so hard, the singer explains, he never noticed the quake. (Can anyone imagine a comparable song in this country citing 9/11?) In Se Rompen Las Olas, these lyrics with their upbeat tune and danceable beat offer a compelling truth of daily life and human desire going on in the midst of catastrophe while Villegas, through her body and her words reminds us that people born in the aftermath of disaster continue to feel the reverberation in their lives.
For Lola Arias, the disaster is the coup in Chile that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and led to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The supertitled script of El Año en que Nací (The Year I Was Born) is drawn from the actual lives of the 11 performers all of whom were born (or were infants) at the time of the coup and who seek to understand the roles their parents played during years of repression, violence, prison, and exile. Notably, the performers come from families all across the political spectrum from participants in the armed struggle on the left to the authoritarian paramilitary organization on the right along with those who had political preferences but tried to go along with the status quo. While the opening scenes of the play suggest the new generation’s commonalities, the picture becomes more complex and fractious (and comical) when the players are challenged to line up to show their political stance, their economic position – When it comes to poverty, does having a dirt floor at home trump going hungry? – and their social status as reflected in skin color. Simple yet inventive staging keeps the production lively with tonal shifts and surprise.
Arias, from Argentina, previously created a similar program exploring the post-dictatorship era in her own country and if you’re familiar with Latin American politics, her work shouldn’t be missed. Know nothing about Allende and Pinochet? The production still fascinates. It runs two hours without intermission without ever inducing fidgets.
Villegas and Arias made me think of another Latin American woman at the head of a company that uses documentary material – Claudia Santiago who writes, directs, and performs with Mexico City-based Espejo Mutable. Their most recent production, Náa-Gunaá, looks at the lives of indigenous migrants (including children) from the south of Mexico who are exposed to exploitation and pesticides as they harvest GMO crops in Baja California. The company would love the opportunity to share this work and explore the lives of indigenous migrants from Oaxaca in our own California fields.
And a quick shoutout to three additional RADAR L.A. offerings that have women at the helm if not in the playwright’s chair:
Franco-Austrian director Giselle Vienne chose to employ simple hand puppets to create the unnerving effect in Jerk, the story of a serial killer.
Theatre Movement Bazaar, with Tina Kronis as director and choreographer, continues its reinterpretation of Chekhov with Track 3.
Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose collaboration with Hector Aristizábal, Nightwind, has been performed in LA and in 30 other countries around the globe. Also in LA, her work has been presented by Grupo Ta’Yer at the Frida Kahlo Theater, Indie Chi Productions, Playwrights Arena, Three Roses Players, and Triumvirate Pi. She is co-author with Aristizábal of The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism, and transformation as well as several anthologized essays about Theater of the Oppressed, and she has worked with theater groups in Colombia and Bolivia. Her works of fiction include the historical novel, The Fiery Alphabet, published this month, and the short story collection, California Transit, which received the Mary McCarthy Prize. Visit www.dianelefer.weebly.com.
Ever wanted to know what Literary Managers’ pet peeves are? Steven Epperson took up our interview request. It’s lengthy and very helpful. Please comment on any of the below. He may be open to more. All italicizing is mine for ease in reading. – CMJ
SE: First off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to ask these questions. I’ve been the Literary Manager for Impact Theatre for over 5 years, and Literary Manager for The Asylum Theatre for over 7 years, and in my time reading scripts I’ve always wanted to have an opportunity to express to playwrights how they can better submit their work. This is a great idea, and I look forward to reading your blog post.
CMJ: Are there any red flags to submissions, obvious or subtle?
SE: Yes. Misspellings/wrong word usage in the cover letter and/or synopsis. I’ve never seen a
play that was any good when those problems happen. Rambling cover letter/synopsis. Keep cover letters to one paragraph, keep synopsis to one page. Max. Less is more. No cast list = a not very good play. Every single time. Resubmitting a script that I’ve sent a rejection letter on, and sending that resubmission to the Artistic Director directly. Anything she gets, goes straight to me, and I keep records of what I’ve read and what I have/haven’t rejected. Don’t try to get around or go over the head of the person who rejected your play. Submitting a script after a playwright has received a rejection letter from me, and demonstrating attitude or anger in the cover letter for their new submission. There are two acceptable responses to a rejection notice: 1) “Thank you for considering my play.” 2) Nothing. I know that it stinks to get rejected. Be professional. Being difficult might feel good the moment a playwright hits that ‘Send’ button, but it will not do anybody any good at all in the long term.
CMJ: Please give an idea of the sorts of plays that immediately grab your attention, and how a submission package can accomplish that without bending the guidelines?
SE: I’m chuckling as I write my answer to your first question, because, for me, this is the
most difficult question to answer. Impact Theatre produces a huge variety of work: comedies, dramas, adaptations of classics, to name a few. We’ve never done a musical, but we’re not opposed to doing one either. (Over the past several years I’ve started reading several musicals and thought, “This might be the first Impact musical!” Then, I get to the end and I think, “Um. No.” …. the core writing elements (story, dialogue, character development) simply weren’t up to par. In a musical, of course there need to be good songs. However, no matter how good the songs are, if the core elements of the writing aren’t there, the script just doesn’t work theatrically. Again, neither I nor either of the theatre companies that I work with would be absolutely opposed to producing a musical. However, one has not yet been submitted to us that, in my opinion, would work.)
What grabs more attention, always, is quality writing. An interesting story with well crafted characters and compelling dialogue. I realize that sounds like a cheap answer, but that is the primary thing that I look for. I don’t look for specific genres, I don’t look for comedies over dramas or vice-versa. While we try to schedule variety, Impact wouldn’t be opposed to doing a season composed entirely of comedies or dramas. Impact Theatre produces four plays a year, one of which is an adaptation of a ‘classic’ that is adapted and directed by our Artistic Director,Melissa Hillman. So, we have three production slots open each season. What do I want to go into those three slots? The three best damn scripts we have that are available to us.
Impact Theatre only produces full-length works. It’s just too difficult to find individual one-acts that can be paired together to present a cohesive night of theatre. IF a playwright wanted to submit two one-acts that they felt would work together in a single evening, I’m more than happy to take a look. However, otherwise one-acts almost always get a pass from me. IF I like the writing well enough, in the rejection letter that I send out, (and every play that I don’t pass on does get a rejection letter), I will make a point to ask if the playwright has any full-length material that they wish to submit.
Here’s the submission package that makes me happiest: an e-mail (Impact Theatre ONLY accepts submissions that are e-mailed.) that includes: the script (you would be surprised how many playwrights forget to attach their play) in a format that my computer can work with (Microsoft Word of PDF ONLY. I’ve been receiving a lot of submissions in Word Perfect, and my computer just doesn’t know what to do with those.), a cover letter, and, if the playwright wishes to include one, a resume. For Impact Theatre submissions, that’s pretty much all one needs. One thing that I would strongly advise is that playwrights should NOT adopt a One-Size-Fits-All philosophy. Find out from each theatre company they submit to what THAT theatre company wants in their submission packages. Some of the things that I don’t care whether they’re included or not: resumes, reviews, letters of recommendation, etc., might mean an automatic rejection from other
If you don’t mind, I’ll break down each of the elements that I mentioned above. As I said, e-mail the script in a format that most computers can work with, i. e. Microsoft Word or PDF. (PDF works on pretty much every computer, so it’s a good default choice.) Submit the ENTIRE script, unless otherwise specified to only send the first 10 pages or to only submit a dialogue sample. When I say that playwrights should include a ‘cover letter’, what I really want is for them to include a ‘cover note’. That means: keep it short. I’d say one paragraph (short paragraph) max. If a playwright thinks that they need more than one paragraph in their cover letter, they really don’t. Introduce themselves, tell me the title and any recent productions of the play. A brief (BRIEF) synopsis is fine, but, keep it brief. Playwrights should keep in mind that I’m more interested in reading their play, than I am in reading their cover letters.
CMJ: What are some immediate turn-offs in submissions? SE: I once sat down and wrote a diatribe (it had been a long week) about the different things that playwrights do that can, and do, turn me off to their work. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here are the high (low) lights:
Misspelling my name in the cover letter. This happened this past week. Now, some people will say, “Why does that matter?” It matters because if a playwright can’t be bothered to spell my name right, that demonstrates a lack of interest, and a lack of attention to detail. It may also be the sign of an attitude that Impact Theatre isn’t interested in dealing with. To be blunt, it’s the best way to make a bad first impression.
Misspellings, bad grammar, wrong word usage: yes, playwrights are writing speech, and the way people, especially Americans, speak does not always follow the rules of writing. (Cause instead of because, for example.) I understand that, and I’m not trying to be the grammar/spelling police. However, having sloppy writing mechanics is unprofessional, and I’ve never, ever, read a script where the playwright had bad writing mechanics where the story and the characters themselves were well crafted. I’m not talking about the occasional typo. I’m talking about consistent, repeated errors that a professional writer should know to not do. Bottom line, it just looks bad, and I’m going to pass on a play that looks bad.
Non-standard fonts or formatting: make your writing as easy to read as possible. If I have to struggle in any way with your play, including the style in which it is presented/ written, I’m going to pass. In addition, when you e-mail a script, don’t send each scene as a separate document. Don’t have the title page and/or the cast list as a separate document. In other words: send your script as a SINGLE attachment, please. This may sound trivial, but having to constantly stop and open a new document interferes with the flow of the story, and can be aggravating.
Submissions that don’t follow stated guidelines: Read the guidelines for submissions and follow them. One of the theatre companies that I work with periodically produces a 10-minute comedy play series. When we put out a request for submissions for this 10-minute comedy play series, the avalanche of stuff that we get that is neither 10-minute nor comedy is extremely exasperating. I’ve actually seen submissions of 50 page scripts. No matter who you are, guidelines apply to you, they apply to me, they apply to anybody submitting material for anything for which guidelines are out there.
Not including a cast list, unless it’s a one-person show: I see this all the time, and I cannot understand why playwrights would not include a cast list with their scripts. As a Literary Manager, I want to focus on the story, and not have to waste time trying to figure who all these random characters are who keep on wandering in and out of the scenes.
Unnecessary/gratuitous nudity: I’m not a prude. I have no problem with nudity. (Some of my best friends have been naked.) If there’s a reason for people to be naked in your play, that’s cool. HOWEVER, if the naked person doesn’t have anything to do with the story, don’t do it. IF it is necessary to the story, and there’s a way to stage it legally, that’s one thing. Gratuitous is entirely another, and we’re not interested.
An overabundance of stage directions: If pressed, I’d say that this is my #1 most frustrating thing. Having line after line after line after line of stage directions interrupts the flow and rhythm that I’m trying to discern from a playwright’s writing. Trying to get into a playwright’s story, trying to find out if the playwright is creating characters with individual voices, trying to see if there is something about the writing that would be compelling on a stage all get ground to a halt when I have to constantly stop reading the dialogue and read stage directions. I think that for some people, getting the action as they see it in their mind onto the paper or the computer screen is important because those writers need to have it written out in order for them to keep what’s going on organized. I understand that, and that’s fine. For writers who need that, I would strongly suggest removing those stage directions before sending their scripts out. Having massive amounts of stage directions in one’s script does nothing to help me decipher the quality of the story that the playwright is trying to tell. If no other information gets out from this blog post, I hope this does: have as few stage directions as is possible.
Impossible or difficult to manage set designs: Most small theatre companies have neither the budget, nor the space, nor the ability to reconstruct Notre Dame Cathedral.
Most small theatre companies would struggle to reconstruct your living room. Also, recently I’ve seen a number of script in which the author wants a real automobile of whatever make/model/sort onstage. Again, most small theatre companies could not get a car into their building, much less onto their performing area. I think that the biggest failing I see from a number of playwrights is that their writing makes it appear that they don’t understand other aspects of theatre, especially when it comes to sets, props and sometimes costumes.
Writing plays set in places you’ve never been to: This is less of a problem now, but a couple of years ago its seemed like everybody and their grandmother were writing plays set in a hotel or motel or trailer park in the Mojave/Arizona/New Mexico/Texas/Mexican/California/Nevada desert. I don’t know how this happened, and I don’t know why this happened. When one is not familiar with the environment they’re writing about, it shows. That being said, ENOUGH with plays being set in New York City. Feel free to set your play in the other 99% of the country.
CMJ: Does it matter to you if playwrights have a website, Facebook, Twitter presence? How much do you want to know about the playwright themselves if you’re interested in their work?
SE: Honestly, for me, it doesn’t really matter at all. If Impact Theatre decides to produce a play, then, yes, we want to know everything we can about the playwright that we’re going to be working with. Until we’re at the point where we’re ready to begin that process, and I’m being completely honest here, it just doesn’t matter all that much to us.
Along those lines, it used to bother me when playwrights didn’t have their resumes in an easily readable format. It used to, until one day I realized that a playwright’s resume wasn’t going to be the deciding factor as to whether or not Impact Theatre produced their play, or whether or not I passed their play on up the ladder. Once I realized that, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at playwright’s resumes. If a resume is included in a submission I’ll still LOOK at it, but it’s really more of a glance than anything else: “Let’s see, any names or places that I recognize? Yes? No? All right, time to read this play.”
CMJ: What is the process for choosing a season at your theaters, and is there any way that playwrights can aid you in that process?
SE: The process for choosing a season at Impact Theatre is as follows: every script that is submitted, whether sent directly to me by the playwright or not, goes to me. I read every script that comes in. My job is NOT to say, “Yes.”. My job is to say, “No.”, and I say, “No.”, a lot. If I don’t say, “No.” to a script, that script is passed on to Melissa Hillman, the Artistic Director for Impact Theatre. She reviews the scripts I send her, and she will either say, “No.”, or she will put the script to the side for consideration by the entire company. Once or twice a year, more if necessary, the company will gather to read plays out loud and discuss them. The group as a whole decides what plays are being produced each season, with the exception of the one classic that we do each year. The classics are the purview of Melissa, and she selects those herself.
In terms of the selection process described above, there’s not anything playwrights can do to influence that in and of itself. What playwrights CAN do is: be patient. Be patient because the one area where I’m lacking is in figuring out a way to communicate with playwrights when their play gets moved up the ladder instead of being rejected. I’ve tried multiple times, but I have a hard time composing a letter that says, “We like your play, but we’re NOT promising to produce it, and we might not, but we might, so . . . thanks!”, in 1-2 paragraphs. Part of the problem may be that I’m overthinking it, and that’s my issue. Anyway, be patient. If a playwright doesn’t hear back from Impact Theatre regarding their play, it’s a case of no news is not necessarily bad news.
CMJ: Steven added this after I asked a follow-up question:
SE: If you don’t mind, one thing that I forgot to mention was the environments that theatre companies produce in. I think the space(s) that theatre companies stage their productions in is not often considered by playwrights when they are writing scripts. The majority of plays that I see are written for proscenium style theatres, while most small theatre companies (I don’t have statistics at hand to verify this, but Melissa Hillman, the Artistic Director for Impact has talked about this a number of times, and I take her at her word.), produce plays in some variation of ‘black box’ spaces. For example, Impact Theatre currently stages our shows in the basement of a pizza parlor. With an 8′ high ceiling. This means that no matter how hard we tried it would simply be impossible to stage a play in which having a two or more level set was required. (Unless we cast the show entirely with Ewoks, and that would bring up a whole other set of issues.) Impact has passed on at least three scripts that we really, REALLY wanted to produce, but couldn’t due to the particular restrictions of our theatre. Now, I am NOT expecting all playwrights to have, or request, floor plans or scale drawings of the the theatres they’re going to submit plays to before they begin writing. What I am suggesting is that playwrights be more open to creating plays that can be staged in ways that are more flexible than only in a proscenium theatre. Doing so give both sides what they want: it gives theatre companies more plays to select from, and it gives playwrights more potential venues in which to have their plays produced.
CMJ: Many thanks to Steven for his time, and please do comment with questions below. I’m working on some other Literary Managers and hope to give all playwrights a larger perspective on the people reading and accepting/rejecting their work.
I know you really don’t need an agent at the beginning. But suppose you’re a “mid career” playwright, you’re getting productions around the world, half a dozen a year, but still not yet enough of a name to be chosen for the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage?
It’s so frustrating to find submission restrictions from theatres that won’t even look at a few pages and a synopsis unless you’re represented by an agent. And since there’s so little money for agents representing playwrights (unless they sell that script to Hollywood) most call ill afford to take on new clients.
I had a wonderful agent back in the days when I was writing spec scripts and going out for meetings. I sold TV scripts, but we parted ways when I showed a decided lack of interest in becoming a staff writer on a bad sitcom. I wanted to freelance. But there’s just not enough money for an agency to support a freelancer.
I’m curious to know what you do. Send a query and pages and a synopsis anyway? Beg influential friends in theatre to write letters of recommendation? What works?
I like watching houses being built especially if they have basements and the ground has to be dug out. I like watching the pouring of the foundation and the laying of the cornerstones. I like watching the leveling and anchoring. I like seeing the little by little progress that eventually ends up being a finished house ready for furnishing. I like knowing what the inners look like…
The new dream house for the Home and Gardens network looks like a cabin on the outside but when you go inside, it is a completely modern house. It’s beautiful (as they always are) but I was shocked by the blatant contrast between the outside and the inside of the house. I actually gasped and not in a good way because I was thrown for a loop. But, I was totally intrigued by the contrast and beauty of the house so I could not help looking at every nook and cranny… And for that split second – at the moment of my gasp – I thought about theater, how the most effective pieces make you gasp as well. They catch you by surprise and take you to places you never thought you would go to or move you in a way you never thought would be possible. My first viewing of the house was like watching the revelation of a character whose outward appearance does not accurately depict who he/she is – “the secret”. But, looking a little closer at the inners when exposed, you suddenly know who they are and why the façade. And more exactly, why this façade in its inaccurate depiction of the character is still spot on with regards to the secret.
Secrets – they always cause some kind of friction when revealed. Quietly or out loud, privately or publicly, a secret revealed changes the atmosphere… Secrets are always enough in my book to drive a good story or build a good character. They also make for good gasping moments.
I’ve been thinking…about capturing that gasping moment somehow in my new play… So, I’m digging deep. I have started building this house – this play – from the earth out…
“A camel is a horse designed by committee” – Vogue, 1957
Mayhaps you’re all watching what is happening on The Hill… a room full of (mostly) men are sitting firm on their political high-horses, battling over what IS and IS NOT good for the American public… They’re making decisions based on what they deem “right” (OR) “left” and the rest of us restlessly sit and wait.
Anybody else find this macrocosm representational of the more mundane parts of life? Anybody ever scratch their heads at the “people in power” and wonder just “How in the hell” they became the megaphone for our “Voice”?
I’m interested in the parallels in politics between “their” and “here” – the White House to Theatre House -because it seems that I’ve been privy to a few conversations lately that make me wonder just when it was that these people lost touch with the world and began, for lack of classier language, touching only themselves.
I think it has something to do with hats.
You see… I’m broke. And I live IN the world. I’m not shoveling gravel, or hauling garbage… no, those blue-collar citizens might look at my liberal artistic self and roll their hard-working eyes. But I am struggling, I am walking around in the shoes of the well-traveled and hungry. And I’ve got about a dozen or so hats to juggle as a result.
Which means I can’t ever get too comfortable in just one.
I write, I teach, I tutor, I am the web-master/social media maven for my current employer – I also blog (for my own sake and as the occasional guest) and edit a LosAngeles centric webzine. I am a daughter, friend, and (yippee) girlfriend – which means I am involved in the lives of those around me and I have a stake in their happiness as well as my own. I work with students and faculty, and I do my own friggin’ laundry… I drive a beat up little Hyundai and my “grand” dreams of upgrading involve another… wait for it… Hyundai.
So, you see, I wear a lot of hats…
And I live a pretty down-to-earth existence.
But the people in “power” seem to have forgotten what it is like to live like this…
It requires compromise… it requires flexibility and ingenuity…
It requires the ability to put oneself in other’s shoes.
But instead, we get people wearing their “Control” hat (the one that shoots you the whammy if you disagree) and folded arms, standing atop their pillars of salt as though it’s all going to go their way or no way at all.
Mayhaps, and here’s the theatrical segue, the answer is to tear down and start over.
Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! WHAT?
Just hang in here with me a moment longer…
I hear a lot of chit and a lot of chat about theatre companies NOT producing enough: new work, work by women, culturally specific work, devised work, political work, etc. I hear a lot of theatre companies turn around and bemoan the lack of quality in said work, the lack of faith, and the lack of $$…
The people in charge, are dealing with budgets and spreadsheets, and trying to read the minds of their paying audiences and benefactors and otherwise worrying about keeping the “business” afloat, while the people creating the art are dealing with paying rent, trying to get produced, struggling to be relevant, and worrying about keeping their lives afloat.
What would happen if the two switched places for a while?
Probably something on par with what would happen if our Congress and Senate switched places with some “real folks” for a while: Total and complete madness, followed by a (gasp) revolution of thought and of practice.
I mean, I am talking about some good old fashioned Freaky-Friday changes in perspective here, people!
Might we not all be able to head back to our “tired, stuck-on, and stubborn” hats with a little more perception? Might we possibly come back to our “positions” (as power-player or peon) with a little more flexibility and ingenuity?
Or would it only strengthen our resolve to lock ourselves away in our tight little corners, unwilling to trust or listen to those we stand among, atop, and for?
I think, then, as I wrap this monster up, that the thing to remember is that we are all of us aspiring towards the extraordinary.
This is not an easy, or necessarily “friendly”, field. Neither is the theater industry is a snake-pit either. (Hello Hollywood!) But the journey of the creative spirit continues to ask of us an incredible balance: making art for art’s sake is one thing, commercializing it quite another.
If a theater company is interested in diverse theater, or if a theatre company generally produces plays about/by men, and if I am a white female playwright, do I keep writing the way I have, or do I write more characters of color/or/male? How do we maintain our integrity in our strides to get ahead, be we author, producer, or artistic director, while we also strive to maintain cultural “fairness”?
Or is thinking about it too much a danger of another sort?
As a literary manager, I must remember to value balance – I would not want to see a whole season of plays written by “privileged white men” anymore than I would like to see a wholeseason of just about anything else. The key is to create a balance within the designated aesthetic of any given theater company… And the theatre company itself has every right to decide what that aesthetic is.
My job as playwright then is to try to find theater companies who’s aesthetic matches my own… or even (perhaps) those theatre companies who look to be open for a feminine revolution.
The struggle then continues to be both global and internal; to engage in the community we so want to conquer, but to do so as best we, the individual theatre artist, can. We will continue to juggle our own perspectives of what makes a play “good” and what makes it “necessary” and we will continue to fight for those that stir our convictions.
Meanwhile, there will continue to be conversations among those at the top and between those on the bottom, about how in the world to manage things better…
I guess, what I’m saying is, I can’t wait to be one of those people at the “top” – where the discussion is less about surviving as it is about setting the trends.
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…
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?
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?