One of the last things I did before the world shut down was make a trip to NYC to see theatre. Three shows in five days! Now I wonder now whether I’ll ever step into a black box space again.
So what does that mean to us as playwrights?
In the immediate sense, productions, workshops, readings have all been postponed to 2021 or relegated to Zoom calls with imperfect internet connections and crappy audio.
But what about the long term?
Budgets have been slashed at institutional theatres as they try to survive. Grant money is disappearing or being refocused on organizations that feed and clothe and medically care for people. According to the Los Angeles Times, only a third of season ticket holders were willing to donate the cost of this season’s Center Theatre Group season tickets to help keep the Music Center alive. Just 15% of single ticket buyers willing to donate their ticket money.
When theatres open again, will audiences be willing to sit inside an enclosed space, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, likely wearing a mask for several hours? Will they even have the money to spend on it?
I think it’s time for us as theatre artists to quite literally think outside the box.
One of my favorite theatre experiences was a live reading of my play “Queen of the Water Lilies” in a Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the actors and audience under the trees on the very site where the play takes place. It’s perhaps the least-known National Park, the site of a water lily farm and home to a woman who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve what has become the last remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, D.C. Before the show, the audience could stroll around the water lily ponds, see the turtles sunning themselves and hear the frogs calling to each other. In the middle of the show, a snowy white egret flew overhead – perfect for the play where one character rages at an egret from an earlier generation. It was true theatre. With a healthy dose of sunscreen.
It was immersive theatre in the best sense of the word. We could do it again today, just spacing the audience and actors six feet apart.
We can also create an intensely intimate kind of theatre, the kind that can play out inside your head.
Audio is incredibly powerful. As someone who spent way too many decades in public radio, our bread and butter was creating audio stories that would create “driveway moments” where our audience would sit in their cars until the story was over. We can do this with fiction as well, creating stories that don’t need that black box, just a good pair of headphones.
It was an exciting challenge last summer, creating THE FINA MENDOZA MYSTERIES, an audio drama that takes the audience into the bowels of the U.S. Capitol where dead Founding Fathers come to life, out to a Long Beach cemetery for a Dia de los Muertos picnic, and even to the National Zoo to see the baby tigers. In truth, we barely left my front yard.
We even found a way to tape a new episode in the middle of coronavirus with actors recording themselves on smartphones and emailing me the voice memos.
You can hear more about the project in this video we taped for the Bay Area Book Festival.
I’m not the only one thinking outside the box.
Playwright Ellen Struve has turned her front window into a stage for an extravagant shadow puppet play. She wrote the script, created the characters out of bits of paper and old Fresnel gels, and enlisted her children and husband as musicians and puppet wranglers. Lucky audiences in Omaha can stop by her front yard for a free performance.
A few years ago, Moving Arts created a series of short play performed inside cars. In a post-coronavirus era, it’s more likely that we’d drive our own cars to an outdoor space where theatre would be performed. Perhaps we would download a particular app to listen to the dialogue.
We are creative people. Perhaps this new normal will force us to truly think outside the box.
I love a black box space. It’s such a magic place where anything can happen. But I have family members who’ve never stepped inside a 99 seat theatre. They likely never will. Neither will dozens of “non-pro” friends who love me and support me but can’t imagine why they’d drive to a dicey part of town and sit in uncomfortable seats that are way too close to the actors.
My last few theatrical ventures have taken me far away from black boxes. One play – QUENTIN – was a commission to write a one-person show about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt that would be performed as a tour of the neighborhood around the White House. The premise is that a tour group is waiting for its guide to show up. Quentin, on his way to Walter Reed for a physical exam before he joins the flying corps in World War I, is hoping for a reunion with his childhood pals known as the White House Gang. The gang never shows up, but Quentin offers to take the tourists around and shares his life in the White House. QUENTIN is still running every weekend in Washington, DC.
Another commission, QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES, began its life as a ten minute play with your usual staged readings inside a black box. It’s the story of a Helen Shaw Fowler who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to save her water lily farm and in the process, preserved the only remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, DC. As I continued to do research at Kenilworth National Park & Aquatic Gardens, the rangers became the biggest fans for the play and invited me to stage a reading on the very site where Helen’s house used to sit. Grants appeared from both coasts. DC’s Environment director offered to introduce the play and give an update on the health of the Anacostia River. On Earth Day last year, 99 people came to hear a play in the very setting where the story took place. It was the very definition of an “authentic” experience.
Theatre in non-traditional spaces is certainly nothing new. Theatricum Botanicum has been performing in its Topanga Canyon garden for 45 years. TAMARA took over the Hollywood American Legion Hall in 1981 for a sold-out run. Theatre 40 has invited audiences to experience THE MANOR in the historic Greystone Mansion for nearly two decades. This past fall, Rogue Artists Ensemble was in residence at Plummer Park for SENOR PLUMMER’S FINAL FIESTA. The audience for SENOR PLUMMER was young, hip, and thought it was beyond cool to see theatre in its unnatural habitat.
My goal for 2019: to find more non-traditional homes for my work. Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I get to be a tourist again and rediscover places that might lend themselves to an afternoon or evening of theatre. That includes the place between your ears: audio drama.
My first book WELCOME TO WASHINGTON, FINA MENDOZA comes out in late February. It’s a mystery for kids set on Capitol Hill. After the book tour, I want to turn the story into a mini-series podcast. No black box required. I’ll keep you posted.
The travel gods smiled on me this fall, and I’ve been able to catch several new plays that are part of the historic D.C. Women’s Voices Festival, currently running in our nation’s capital. The Festival’s mission, according to their website, is one that I love and support: “To highlight the scope of new plays being written by women, and the range of professional theater being produced in the nation’s capital,” as part of “the largest collaboration of theater companies working simultaneously to produce original works by female writers in history.”
About fifty-two world premieres of female-authored plays and musicals are being produced by 48 D.C. area theaters, a mix of large and small companies (Equity and non-Equity); the launch party was on September 8, and the last show closes on Nov. 22, 2015.
With a budget of over $500,000, co-produced by Nan Barnett (Executive Director of the New Play Network) and Jojo Ruf (Managing Director of The Global Lab at Georgetown University and Executive & Creative Director of The Welders), the Festival was modeled on the 2007 “Shakespeare in Washington” celebration that lasted for six months across the city. Over a two-year period, 7 D.C. area theaters created the Women’s Voices Festival: Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Make no mistake about it: the Festival is both a boost to women playwrights and a way to draw attention to the scope of D.C. theaters – a win/win.
I am unable to see even 1/10th of the shows being offered, so I don’t consider myself an expert about the Festival in any way – just a lucky pop-in attendee. Here are some of my informal impressions, with quotes from some of the amazing artists involved in the Festival.
1) WITCHES VANISH by Claudia Barnett
The first play I got to see in the Festival was Witches Vanish by Claudia Barnett, directed by Deborah Randall at Venus Theatre. LA FPI’s own Jennie Webb put Barnett’s play on my radar, and I’m so glad she did. I’ve had a longstanding mythological interest in The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and this play features the archetypal trio as a metaphoric theatrical entity who witness (or sometimes cause?) women vanishing, in real life and in literature. As playwright, Barnett asks from a political, historical and sociological perspective: “Why do women vanish?” With elements of puppetry, dance and fascinating vignettes, Barnett’s script interweaves scenes about “lost” women; it runs 90 minutes without an intermission. I admired the theme and originality of Barnett’s play and Randall’s inventive direction. I admired the all-female cast.
Witches Vanish closed in late September, and I asked Barnett for her thoughts about her play and the Festival: “Witches Vanish gives voices to women who’ve disappeared throughout time—both by telling their (fictionalized) stories and by explicitly naming them in a series of chants between scenes. Given the common theme, it fit the Festival perfectly.”
Barnett described what it was like to be there as a playwright: “The sense of community was amazing, even for an out-of-town playwright who was only in Maryland for four days. One reason was Lorraine Treanor, who introduced the playwrights to each other with her series of interviews, which she distributed to us daily with cheerful emails. (The interviews are posted on the DC Theatre Scene website.) Another reason was the American Theatre photo shoot, where many of us met. I remember the moment when we were all nervously posed on the staircase at the Arena Stage and were told this shot would be the cover of the October issue. First I felt shock, then acceptance, then delight. It’s a tremendous honor to be part of that group.”
Claudia Barnett is the author of No. 731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn, or Emily Dickinson’s Sister: A Play in Two Acts, published in October by Carnegie Mellon University Press.
2) CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood
The next play I saw related to the Festival was Chimerica by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. Although it was not an official part of it, it was scheduled to “coincide” with the Festival. This is Chimerica’s U.S. premiere. I‘ve wanted to see this play since I’d first heard about its 2013 run in London (and its subsequent wins for Best Play for both The Evening Standard and the Oliver Awards). The title refers to the domination of the U.S. and China in modern geopolitics, covering a span of twenty years. A photographer’s iconic photo taken in Tiananmen Square becomes a catalyst for a mystery that spans generations and cultures. The two-act play, masterfully directed by David Muse, at the Studio Theatre, is ambitious, powerful and quite moving. It was over three hours long but seemed to fly by. Kirkwood’s approach was cinematic in style and epic in scope: I find myself still reflecting about her characters and images more than a month after seeing it. (For more on Studio Theatre’s production of Chimerica, click here.)
3) IRONBOUND by Martyna Majok
Ironbound by Martyna Majok, directed by Daniella Topol, at Round House Theatre was the next show I caught in the Festival. Majok, who was born in Poland, is an award-winning playwright on the rise (New Play Network Smith Prize, David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize, 2015-2016 PONY Award, among others). Majok was inspired to tell the story of Darja, a Polish immigrant who works as a caretaker and factory-laborer, because “poor women” are misrepresented in our theatres; in the video linked below, Majok comments: “I wanted to see my own story on stage.” Ironbound is a 90-minute tour-de-force that takes place mostly at an urban bus stop; it has a cast of four. A huge “X” image in the industrial set by James Kronzer marks the spot; it embodies the protagonist’s economic and emotional quagmire, suggesting a steel cage. The protagonist Darja (beautifully played by Alexandra Henrikson) holds the stage the entire show, and we learn in real time and flashbacks about the key points of her life and relationships in the U.S., from 1992 – 2006. Without giving too much of the plot away, I felt especially lucky that I got to see Ironbound with my mother. It’s ultimately about the bond between mother and son, and the meaning of love.
Ironbound will open next in New York in March 2016, co-produced by The Women’s Project and Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, again directed by the talented Topol. (For a brief interview with Majok about Ironbound, scroll through this page.)
4) INHERITANCE CANYON by Liz Maestri
I’ve followed playwright Liz Maestri for years on Twitter, and was thrilled to have a chance to see her new play Inheritance Canyon as part of the Festival, directed by Lise Bruneau, produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company. Maestri is based in D.C. Her most recent projects include the site-specific piece LAZE MAJESTY with Field Trip Theatre, and she was a 2015 O’Neill Playwriting Theatre Conference finalist.
Inheritance Canyon is a zany and thought-provoking look at a scientific experiment and the meaning of life. It takes place in a canyon near a desert, and involves three friends: Shell (Esther Williamson), Sal (Teresa Castracane) and Gary (James Flanagan). They witness a mysterious explosion, and then are put under medical surveillance, a sort of limbo-quarantine, for the rest of the play. This work was commissioned by Taffety Punk and is related to a previous Maestri play, Owl Moon (the program notes describe Inheritance Canyon as an “un-prequel”). I didn’t see Owl Moon, but I did catch that the owl is a major symbol/prop in Inheritance Canyon, and is connected to “doubling.” The play, in two acts, runs about two hours, with intermission.
And speaking of intermission, the character switch that happens (during it?) between the first Shell and the other Shell (Gwen Gastorf) was theatrically fun at the top of Act Two. One of the meta-themes in Maestri’s play was “performance” in modern life: if we “perform” a function, does that mean we become it, Maestri asks? Gary, one of the doomed trio, repeatedly states his longtime dream to be a performer, and rehearses songs, wearing a wig, as he impersonates Olivia Newton-John in anticipation of an audition that never comes. Shell wants to pretend to be a scientist, and in the end, a Camera Kid/Intern comes along to document the “reality” of it all.
I asked Maestri for her thoughts on attending the Festival, as well as being featured in it: “The Women’s Voices Festival has been a powerful and formidable ride so far. I’m very much inspired by all the new and exciting work I’m seeing, the energy around the Festival itself, and the remarkable efforts of Nan Barnett and Jojo Ruf realized. I’m still processing it all–the past few months have been such a whirlwind of new experiences, hard work, and straight-talk about the industry’s commitment to parity. The Festival is churning things up, causing trouble, changing lives, starting conversations, and catapulting new art into the world. I’m proud to be part of it.”
5) QUEENS GIRL IN THE WORLD by Caleen Sinnette Jennings
Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings has two plays in the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival. Jennings’ one-person play Queens Girl in the World, directed by Eleanor Holdridge and produced by Theater J, is the last show that I saw.
This play stars the virtuoso performer Dawn Ursula as the young Jacqueline Marie Butler (“Jackie”), during her tween to teenage years–until the mid-1960’s–in Queens. Ursula plays every character in the piece, including her worldly “best friend” Persephone Wilson, Jackie’s parents, young male suitors, the grandfather of a friend who molests her, her teachers, her mixed race middle school friend Doug, Persephone’s mother, and more. Jackie must constantly navigate dual worlds: neighborhood street life versus her stricter home rules as the daughter of a doctor; Queens versus Manhattan, as one of four black students in a progressive Greenwich Village school; leaving childhood/entering adulthood.
Queens Girls in the World depicts in two acts (with the act break serving as a tone shift marker when the script turns from “fun” to “serious”) what it was like for a studious, bright African-American girl to grow up in the Civil Rights era, and to live through its violent days: the 1963 death of Medgar Evers, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She memorizes the names of the four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair. Jackie gets to meet Malcolm X one night, and then, soon after, mourns his death. By the end of the play, Jackie’s parents are so fed up with life in America that they move to Nigeria. The beautiful star-field projected at the end of the show, as they sail away, serves to highlight Jackie’s poignant continuing search for her identity. Everything about the production is top-notch, and the super-talented Dawn Ursula is unforgettable.
One thing I’ve been tracking is the number of excellent female directors working in the Festival. It’s been inspiring to see so many female-helmed productions. I asked Eleanor Holdridge, a director in great demand and the head of the MFA Directing Program at Catholic University, about directing in the Festival: “It has been so thrilling to direct not one but two World Premieres by Caleen Sinnette Jennings in the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival. Just opened her Queens Girl in the World at Theatre J, a semi-autobiographical piece in which the wonderful work of Dawn Ursula evokes a girl coming of age in a very turbulent time. A really remarkable process.”
Holdridge continued: “On October 8, I will embark on rehearsals for Caleen’s Darius and Twig, a TYA show at the Kennedy Center, based on Walter Dean Myers’ stunning young adult novel about two kids growing up in Harlem whose friendship and resilience take them through very difficult times. The current draft gets beautifully at the difficulty and joy of growing up in rough circumstances. And somewhere in the middle of it all, on October 19th, I will direct a reading of a new play by Sarah Gancher at Mosaic Theatre, The Place We Built, about the lives of young people striving for voices and a place of their own in Hungary. It’s a thrilling bi-product of the festival that so many women directors are being brought along for the ride. For my female directing and playwriting students, I find the season a wonderful inspiration for what enriching strength that women theatre artists can bring to the art form in America.”
6) MORE, PLEASE:
I wish I could see many other shows in this Festival, which runs until late November; it is such a rich, thrilling expansive endeavor. I tweeted an inquiry several days ago, to ask if the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival might become an annual event. (Fingers crossed?) They responded: “Great question. At this point it’s still too soon to say. We’ll keep you posted on any updates.” In Holly L. Derr’s recent Howl Round post about the Festival, Nan Barnett mentions plans for a post-Festival handbook that could be used as a guide by other cities to mount their own versions of this kind of festival. Yes, please!
Martha Richards, Founder and Executive Director of Women Arts, attended the first October industry weekend of the Women’s Voices Festival, and was part of a Gender Parity panel on October 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Richards notes the Festival’s significance: “I think that history will recognize the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as a turning point for women in theater. Gender parity activists have been looking for ways to reach our goal of 50/50 by 2020, and large-scale festivals like this provide a perfect mechanism to push our numbers up quickly. So many women in theatre are fed up with the inequality in our field, and I predict that the Washington role model will inspire them to create similar festivals all over the world.”
7) 2.0 THOUGHTS, TO IMPROVE?
While there are some who feel that the concept of a “Woman’s Festival” is patronizing in and of itself (e.g., shouldn’t “women playwrights” just be considered “playwrights,” after all?), I applaud these innovative producers and theatre-makers in D.C. for taking positive action, and for bringing attention to female writers and the thriving theatre community in our nation’s capital.
In future iterations, one always hopes for improvements. Here are a couple of areas to consider:
a) Inclusion – Playwrights of Color. In the October 2015 article entitled “Women’s Work” by Suzy Adams in American Theatre, Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith regrets that the number of writers of color in this Festival is less than 10 percent: “When we talk about diverse voices, it always has to include race, and I think that’s one thing for me that’s a weakness of this particular festival” (p. 47). That’s an important factor that should be addressed in a future festival incarnation or iteration.
b) Coverage Disparity? It’s so hard to get press for the arts these days, so we’re all grateful for the theatre reviews that are published. But as is standard in reviewing festivals these days, the practice of combining critiques of several shows within the same review seems to infer “competition” among the shows (a “see this, skip this” consumerist tack, sometimes even at the headline level). Also, some plays in the Festival received their own stand-alone reviews, while others didn’t. I don’t know what the remedy to it is from a press perspective, but I’m sure some of the theaters noticed levels of disparity in the coverage. Surely the playwrights noticed, too.
8) LOS ANGELES? EVERY CITY IN THE U.S? AND BEYOND?
Could this festival be replicated/produced/curated in another city? Yes! How about it, L.A.? Why not try to organize a multi-month festival involving fifty (or more) L.A. theaters that’ll produce shows by female playwrights at the same time? Let’s consider this, SoCal theatre-makers. It’s a great way to promote the high talent level of our theaters, large and small, as well as promote the high level of female playwrights who reside and work here.
And beyond L.A., I hope the D.C. Women’s Voices Festival launches a worldwide movement: Women’s Voices Everywhere! Maybe if enough female-focused festivals occur, it will eventually be “normal” to include a 50/50 ratio of female playwrights in all regular seasons on the world’s stages. A playwright can dream, can’t she?
When I was getting ready to move back to Missouri last October, I remember crying to my Mom about how I was scared that this financially forced hiatus would be a huge backtrack in my struggling career as an actor/writer/filmmaker. My Mom tried to comfort me by telling me I could do community theatre. I scoffed and later laughed about the possibility to my professional theatre friends. I couldn’t imagine going back to small-town community theatre after working with people who’s whole lives were the theatre. I was being a through and through theatre snob.
Four months after moving back, I auditioned for play at a local community theatre. The show was Love, Loss, And What I Wore by Nora and Delia Ephron put on by the Springfield Contemporary Theatre – which is a terrific theatre that puts on satisfyingly well-rounded seasons and had just moved into its new home, one that would make many of LA’s 99 Seat Theaters jealous. I would say the day I found out I was cast in the show, my snob immediately began to shrink. After the first week of rehearsals, it was all but disappeared, and by opening weekend, I had fallen in love with the show and my cast and the whole experience. For one, because I got to be an actress again- JUST an actress. I wasn’t a producer/social media/photographer/videographer/editor/actress, I wasn’t expected to bring in a certain amount of audience, I wasn’t expected to do anything but be the best actress I could be and it was utterly liberating. I got to fall in love with the experience and challenge myself and experiment and PLAY. The play, if you are unfamiliar, is kind of a Vagina Monologue type of show, if you substitute vagina’s with clothes. It tells the stories of several women and the things they experienced in their lives. While I had a blast with my more comedic pieces and playing with accents, mannerisms and facial expressions; my favorite scene was the one I played closest to myself. The character’s name was even Amanda, my birth name, and she is talking about her wedding day. On the other side of the stage my cast mate, Adie, playing a butch lesbian, talks about her wedding. As the scene goes on, you start to realize they are talking about the same wedding and we turn to each other to say our vows and kiss. This scene performed in Los Angeles or New York City does not have the same type of impact it does performing it in the Bible belt for a white haired, post-church matinee. There were nights where the audience mostly awwwed with wet eyes as Adie’s Mother asks “Why did they have to do this?” and Amanda’s Mother answers “To honor their relationship.” There were also nights were you could feel disgust and eye averting, and those nights felt the most important.
This same theatre company is putting up The Normal Heart this season- 25 years after it was first produced here in 1989, where there were protests enough to get National Coverage and one of the actor’s houses was burnt down. It’s this kind of passion and bravery that has me excited about doing more theatre here- audiences here need it more than they do in Los Angeles and New York. To identify with characters in a play when you are stuck in a dark theatre and realize you are more like them than you could ever have known in the light of day, is one of the magical, transformative powers of theatre.
What’s more, my second theatre audition here was for Tent Theare’s 2014 Summer Season. Tent Theatre is a Summer Tradition held outside on the Missouri State University campus with seating capacity in the 300’s. They present two musicals and a comedy playing in repertory for six weeks with a specially selected company of students and guest artists. Notable Tent Theatre performers include John Goodman and Kathleen Turner. And I was cast in You Can’t Take It With You, which will be my first Equity Show! For the month of June, I’ll get to leave my cubicle prison and be a full-time, paid actor and I couldn’t be happier or more impatient for June to get here!
I would say the LA theatre snob in me has been rightly put in her place and while my finances are still struggling to recover from yet another punch in the gut tax season, at least one of my goals has come true- I’m falling in love with acting again.
In her speech upon winning the 2014 Best Actress Award for her role in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett said, among other things, the following:
“…those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women in the center, are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and in fact, they earn money.”
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!
(Guest Blogger This Week – Laura A. Shamas, LA FPI Co-Founder and National Outreach Agent)
The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, as a grassroots movement dedicated to the cause of achieving gender parity for women playwrights (and all female theatre artists), has been around for awhile now. Inspired by the advocacy efforts by women playwrights in New York, Jennie Webb and I had our first conversation about it in September 2009 over lunch at the Marmalade Café on Ventura Blvd. In November 2009, we put up a temporary website, begged Ella Martin to head a study of L.A. female playwrights’ activities in the first decade of the 21st century, and tried to figure out how to organize a community-wide outreach to the hundreds of female dramatists here (and those who love them)—not an easy feat when you consider SoCal’s 500 square miles. But we knew lots of people here cared about this issue and wanted to do something about it. We had our first official meeting in March 2010 at Theatricum Botanicum during a major storm; it seems like a metaphor, looking back. Still, many talented women and men trekked to Topanga Canyon during the torrential rain, and spoke from the heart about how and why this cause—and theatre as an art form—matters.
That initial wet chilly meeting seems like ancient history now; so much good work has happened in the past 2+ years. There’s a long list of artist-volunteers who have contributed to the LA FPI mission. Some highlights include: the creation of this website by Jennie Webb, sponsored by Katherine James; the award-winning staff of playwright-bloggers (Tiffany Antone, Erica Bennett, Nancy Beverly, Robin Byrd, Kitty Felde, Diane Grant, Jen Huszcza, Sara Israel, Cindy Marie Jenkins, Analyn Revilla, and Cynthia Wands) who are featured daily in this space, expertly managed by editor Robin Byrd; Ella Martin’s historic 2011 study results; Alyson Mead’s podcasts with inspiring women playwrights; the Women at Work Onstage page (still the only weekly list of female-authored shows in L.A.), created/maintained by Laurel Moje Wetzork; the bi-monthly e-mail blasts that include member news and submission opportunities, curated by Erica Bennett, then Helen Hill (we’re now looking for communication help!); the support from Larry Dean Harris, who wrote about us for The Dramatist—and gave us a spotlight, featuring Janice Kennedy, at a 2010 regional Dramatists Guild meeting (followed by a panel slot for us at 2011 National DG Conference); the new venture with Tactical Reads launching this week, connecting women playwrights to female directors, originated/helmed by Sabina Ptasznik; the spread of our badges on the Web and in person (a branding scheme with an important meme); an annual look at LORT seasons and stats in SoCal as related to gender parity and playwriting; the enthusiastic LA FPI support for female artists in the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011 & 2012 (lead by Cindy Marie Jenkins, Jennie Webb, Jan O’Connor, Alyson Mead, Kat Primeau, and Jessica Abrams); sharing scenes via social media in order to increase accessibility and visibility; approaching theaters to ask how we can build relationships, fostered by Debbie Bolsky and Tami Tirgrath; meet-ups to see plays by women, coordinated by Task Force leader Diane Grant; online discussions, such as the fascinating one just hosted by Cindy Marie Jenkins with guests Etta Devine and Carolyn Sharp, about applying the Bechdel Test to the stage—a streamed broadcast that may (fingers crossed!) evolve into an ongoing monthly LA FPI/TV theatre conversation; etc. We have more people following us on Twitter, domestically and worldwide, than ever before. Lots of folks “Like” us on Facebook. And it’s all been created and executed by volunteers of professional theatre artists, for free!
But has anything really changed? “Has LA FPI made any difference at all?” It’s a question I’m frequently asked and asking. When we compiled the SoCal LORT stats in May/June this year, for a while it looked as if there might be small gains of +1.5% or even +3.5%, in terms of female-authored shows for the 2012-2013 professional seasons. But then, in the end, it was pretty much the same as it ever was: still around 22% (or slightly less). Discouraging! “Is consciousness-raising effective anymore?” we wonder. Why doesn’t the excellent LA FPI blog have more commenters, at the very least?
In these moments, I have to remind myself: Statistics don’t tell the whole story—only part of it. Things have changed in this way: we are not sitting around and ignoring “the problem” any more. We were cautioned in the early days of LA FPI not to confuse “Activity” with “Progress.” Maybe not, but when you have this much ongoing work towards a goal (see above), there’s a shift of some sort—of attitude, of creativity, of focus, of opportunity, of spirit. It may take many more years before we achieve true gender parity for female theatre artists in the English-speaking theatre (or for women in the world at large). But we’re pretty sure that more Angelenos are aware of the issue and are working towards the goal of parity now. Solved? No. Better? Definitely.
Female theatre artists in New York continue to advocate for gender parity; the 2012 Lilly Awards held on June 4, 2012, at Playwrights Horizons, and the upcoming “We Are Theatre” protest on September 24, 2012, at the Cherry Lane Theater (organized by the Guerrilla Girls On Tour!, 50/50 by 2020, Occupy Broadway, and the Women’s Initiative members of the Dramatists Guild) are two timely examples.
Recent reports from the U.K. and Australia also mirror our struggles. Lyn Gardner, writing from London in The Guardian in February 2012, wonders if a universal blind submission policy is a possible remedy. A new report, “Women in Theatre,” released April 2012 by the Australian Council for the Arts, details the status of Australian women playwrights and female theatre artists. Those who authored the report found “no progress over the decade since 2001 and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership deteriorated over that time” (pps 4-5). It’s a thorough, well-crafted study, and on page 49, there’s a “cross-sectoral approach” that suggests three pathways towards improvement in the professional theatre arena:
These points really resonated with us because they align with so much of our LA FPI work thus far. And it’s reassuring to know that others in the arts, including the Australian Council, recognize that the problem of gender parity in theatre is a grave one and must be remedied.
Here’s our promise. We will continue to spread the word; we are taking stock. And of this you can be certain: we won’t give up.
What are your ideas about how to create equal opportunities for women playwrights and female theatre artists? Join us on Wednesday, June 27, 7 p.m., for our next LA FPI gathering to share ideas and network, followed by an 8 p.m. reading of Paula Cizmar’s new play Strawberry, directed by Sabina Ptasznik in the new Tactical Reads program. And please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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’m learning to play the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” on the guitar. It’s a humbling experience as I have no innate musical talent and there are a lot of pesky eighth notes scattered hither and yon throughout. But I love the song and keep at it.
This winter I sent a full-length play of mine off to three high-falutin’ workshops scattered hither and yon about the country where you-the-playwright get to work with actors and a director on your play for two solid weeks. Joy, joy, happy, happy as they used to say on Ren and Stimpy.
When I started to write this blog entry, I’d been turned down by two of them (one received 500 scripts for five slots… so the odds were a lit-tle long). Today in the mail I found out I’d been turned down by the third one (they did feel my script was of particular merit; dang, it was the workshop in Idaho with the glorious mountain scenery).
But this winter I also got to work with two wonderful actors – Hannah Crum and Mandy Dunlap – in my living room. That’s about as bare-bones as you can get when it comes to theatre. And I had a blast. We spent a few hours blocking and rehearsing an excerpt of my short play The Happy Wanderer (a.k.a. Chicago) that they were about to perform at Shorts & Briefs (see my previous blog). The actors found moments, brought it to life, we made moments better, I trimmed and rewrote a little, we had a lot of laughs, and I had a lump in my throat a few times.
One of the things I hated about working in TV was the lack of connection between the writers and the actors. Writers would hole up for hours and hours, churn out a draft… have it read ONCE by the actors around a table, and then go back into the seclusion of the writers’ room and work until the wee hours once again to churn out another draft. Coming from the theatre, I thought this seemed insane. How can you figure out if anything works unless you have the actors right in front of you as co-conspirators in the energy?
So I won’t be flying hither and yon across America. But the evening in my living room with Hannah and Mandy reminded me why I do theatre, why I love it, why I love working with actors. A simple evening, a simple gift, but a wonderful one.
p.s. Oh, yes, and yesterday I had a voicemail letting me know that The Happy Wanderer – the full one-act version – has been chosen to be part of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights’ and West Hollywood’s collaboration to celebrate Gay Pride month in June with play readings at the Celebration Theatre (June 1st, 7:30 p.m.). Joy, joy, happy, happy!