Posts tagged: women playwrights

The FPI Files: Women’s Stories at EST/LA, One Act at a Time

Is it just us, or has Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles been getting their femme on, lately? Including last year’s hit production of member playwright Karen Rizzo’s “Mutual Philanthropy,” Ann Talman’s “Woody’s Order!” earlier this year, and works presented through the company’s development programs, we’ve heard a lot of female voices coming from EST/LA’s space at Atwater Village. Now the 2017 One Act Festival is currently playing, with 50% of the works written by women. Time to chat with one of EST/LA’s Co-Artistic Directors, actor/producer Liz Ross, and Carole Real, playwright and former Co-Artistic Director.

Liz Ross

LA FPI: Needless to say, we’re big fans of gender parity. How did the plays for this Fest come to you?

Liz Ross:  All the submissions came from playwrights associated with our company either through the Playwrights Unit, NeWest Playwrights (which is our writers group for playwrights under the age of 30), and writer company members.

Our membership and writing groups are all pretty equally male and female voices.  I think we are around 50/50, to be honest. And we’re particularly proud this year that each play has been developed here through our programs such as Sunday Best, our monthly reading series;  Winterfest, our annual members project series; LAFest, our Los Angeles voices festival; Launchpad, a staged reading series; and True Story, our monthly storytelling evening.

LA FPI: Do you see differences in the stories women playwrights are telling, vs. male playwrights? Or differences in how they’re telling them?

Carole Real

Carole Real: I have all kinds of theories, but they are just theories and it’s never wise to paint with a broad brush. For instance, in my observation, the play with the twist ending tends to be written by a male playwright. But I bet our readers could come up more than one example of a twist ending play that was written by a female playwright.

One thing I think is objectively true is that women playwrights tend to have more female characters and more female protagonists in their plays than male playwrights. In addition, the female characters women write tend to have their own goals and aren’t just in the play to “help” other (male) characters or serve as plot points. And I think women playwrights tend to write female-female interactions that women audience members experience as truthful and moving.

Liz:  I’m finding that things seem to be shifting.  I think in the past women wrote more of the relationship stories, but now there seems to be a shift in this generationally.  Many of the younger playwrights are crossing those gender norms and exploring more plays about identity issues from both male and female voices.

And then there’s a play like “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff” by Carole Real [included in Program B of the Festival].  This play explores how our global economy can unknowingly make us complicit in the abuse of factory workers over even a small purchase, like toys with our favorite cartoon characters on them.

LA FPI: So let’s talk about the Festival selections, starting with your play, Carole. Why are you telling this story?

Stella Kim and Sharon Freedman in Carole Real’s “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff,” directed by Chuma Gault. Photo by Youthana Yuos.

Carole:  I became aware that foreign factories routinely break labor laws and violate safety codes of the countries where they are located — their own country’s laws — during the recession when I worked in a temp job for a large entertainment conglomerate. The job entailed reading foreign factory audits eight hours a day, five days a week. It was profoundly depressing and I became convinced that if people understood how these factories operate, they would feel differently about the global economy and understand that by turning a blind eye, we are complicit in the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It later dawned on me that I could dramatize the subject by creating a theatrical world where a factory auditor in China could “talk” to the temp worker in the US.

I absolutely love that the play has mostly women characters and that they attempt to work together to protect the most vulnerable of them! I know that in China, many factories are staffed mostly with teenaged girls, because they are hardworking and obedient, so factory safety and fair labor laws there is really and truly a women’s issue, and this is probably true in many other countries as well.

And I would be remiss not to give director Chuma Gault huge credit for the artistic success of this production. Chuma really saw the play as being about how women are penalized by being strong and smart in the office environment. This wasn’t something I was focussed on — that just seemed like “how it is” — but he picked up on that and made sure it was part of the story. Thank you, Chuma!

Liz: All three plays in Program B explore questions of conscience — from “Provenance” by Ian Patrick Williams to “Writing to Mrs. Otts” by Tom Stringer to Carole’s play, each play in this program asks us to consider what we’re willing to speak up about or against.

Program A had 5 plays that all explored relationships.  They ranged from Karen Rizzo’s “Darkest Place” which explored loss and crisis to Deborah Pearl’s short piece “Can You Hear Me Now” about miscommunication in the cell phone era.  Mary Portser’s “So Lovely Here on Earth” was a sweet piece about a woman trying to volunteer for a Mars Mission when her interviewer realizes that she’s just trying to escape her own misery here on Earth by “committing suicide by space.” Each of these plays, while being very different from each other and taking entirely different approaches, had a similar thread exploring our desperate need to be understood. I do think that women writers tend to invest in the search for understanding each other. Women write characters who watch and observe each other.

Program C has 4 wonderful pieces starting with “Things That Matter” a musical by Elin Hampton and Gerald Sternbach, “How Do I Get Get to Carnegie Hall” by Nick Ullett and directed by his wife Jenny O’Hara.  Then “My Jesus Year” a heartfelt piece by Tony Foster, and finishing with Katherine Cortez’ “Between Friends” which is about a many years old friendship between two older women who discover that they still harbor secrets from each other after all these years. Katherine is just coming off of a successful Fringe production of her play, “In The Valley of the Shadow” with Rogue Machine.  It’s a powerful piece that she developed with the Playwrights Unit and we had a reading in Winterfest.

LA FPI:  So it’s not just us! Seems like there are a lot of powerful women artists working as part of EST/LA?

Carole: Yes! And I’d like to thank Liz Ross for the work she’s currently doing as one of the three Artistic Directors, and the work she has done in the past for EST/LA as an actress, producer and creative director. I’d also like to give a shout out to the other strong women who have made our company run, including Jenny O’Hara, Board President, Gates McFadden, Laura Salvato, Risa Bramon Garcia and Deb Stricklin (all former Artistic Directors), Heather Robinson who currently heads the Members Committee and all the other women who make EST/LA go. Without them, we’re nothing!

Liz: We have increased the diversity of voices within our membership and playwrights groups and this past year and actually have a very long history of producing women playwrights. Right now, we have so many projects in development that we can’t possibly produce them all so our focus is to serve their process; we’ve become a major incubator of plays, so to speak. We’re very conscious of including women’s voices equally to men’s and we do have a wonderfully strong and vocal community of women within our organization so I expect we will continue that way for a long time to come.

EST/LA’s 2017 One Act Festival continues through July 16 at the Atwater Village Theatre complex. For more information visit www.estlosangeles.org or call (818) 839-1197. Reserve tickets at brownpapertickets.com.

 

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

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

RADAR L.A.: Staging the Political as Personal

By Diane Lefer

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.

image-3For 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.

arias01For 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.

Final performances of both productions are Sunday, and then they are gone. See the RADAR L.A. schedule here: http://www.redcat.org/festival/radar-la-festival-2013

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.

logo_radarla_transparent_0_0And a quick shoutout to three additional RADAR L.A. offerings that have women at the helm if not in the playwright’s chair:

Puppet designer extraordinaire Janie Geiser directs Clouded Sulphur.

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.

Guest Post: HIT AND MISS: MY OWN LITTLE STOCKHOLM SYNDROME by Mary Steelsmith

The Södra Teatern is theater complex in Stockholm, Sweden is located at the top of a steep cobblestoned street (“steep” as in the Santa Monica Pier ramp), overlooking waterways, carrying boats of all kinds. Six small theaters are spread up and down this scenic hill, connected by dozens of iron stairs. There, all nearly three hundred of us scampered or in my case, limped from readings to workshops, dashing back to the huge, old main theatre, and its red plush seats.

OKAY. I’M STOPPING RIGHT HERE.
It was my intention to fill this blog with keen and incisive impressions of the many workshops and keynote events I attended at the Women Playwrights International Conference, in Stockholm, Sweden last month. Seriously. I had my trusty steno pad, Bic AND Sharpie pens with me at all times. The one thing I forgot was how the Universe gets a hearty chuckle at all of my good intentions. As usual, the Universe had an agenda all its own.

The message: see what comes along, listen, take notes and tell these stories to as many people as possible.

HOW WE LOOK TO OTHERS
One day, I missed a keynote speech when a young playwright from Serbia took me aside. It seemed so urgent to her — this woman with eyes downcast and in a quiet voice to speak of her country of origin. She feared that I and the other Americans attending would be mad at her for atrocities “put upon Muslims.” I doubted if she was old enough to have been alive during that terrible time. Still, here was this beautiful, young, talented person, taking the guilt of a whole country onto her little shoulders. Once she saw that she wasn’t about to automatically be condemned, we created a great conversation in our new international language – that of the female dramatist. My advice to her – put it all into your next play.

HOW WE LOOK TO OTHERS AND DON’T KNOW WHY
A few days later, I gave up my spot on a workshop waiting list in order to sit on a bench in the square outside the main theatre, doing an impromptu reading of my Eileen Heckart Award winning play, HAPPY AND GAY, with the wonderful Swedish actress, Ulla-Britt Norrman. She was a brilliant ‘Betty’ to my so-so ‘Veronica.’ I looked up from the script to see a small crowd had gathered around us. We even got a bit of applause. In retrospect, maybe I should have passed a hat. Afterwards, I had to explain why ‘Veronica’ was so worried about the ramifications of the first gay wedding in their church. Ulla wanted to know why there was much “gay fear” in America. The more I tried to explain gay rights in America, a realization crept into my consciousness. What’s the big deal about America’s gay rights? I have no clue.

A WALK IN THE STONE GARDEN/ROLLING HEAD SCARVES INTO TURBANS
My new friend, the beloved Lia Gladstone, made an unexpected appearance at the Columbus Hotell (yes, two “l’s), where I was staying. She had just gotten in from a long flight and needed a good walk and talk before the arrival of her charges, the young women who would perform their “Afghan Voices” presentation later in the week. Lia knew from the moment they arrived from Afghanistan, she would have to constantly be there for them, giving multiple interviews with the press and shepherd her charges to the various public events.

Since this might be her one rare, peaceful moment before the impending media storm, I suggested we take a stroll through the Katarina Churchyard, located behind the Columbus Hotell. We walked and sat on benches, listening to the church bells dutifully toll every fifteen minutes. As a family of rabbits, the graveyard’s unofficial grounds keepers, nibbled on the grave side flowers Lia and I quietly chatted about everything from our lives, writing and eventually to her work teaching drama to young girl orphans in Kabul. Lia moved me to tears as she described giving one little girl a head scarf to play with for an improv exercise. The child rolled the scarf up, making it into a turban, the symbol of masculine power in Afghanistan. Lia said she looked out over the rest of the class, watching all of the other little girls empower themselves by rolling up their head scarfs into turbans and wearing them.

CATCHING POLITICAL LIGHTNING
With my Steno pad, Bic and Sharpie in hand, I was bound and determined to take the iron stairs from the main theatre down to KGB West in order to find the director of “Isaac, I am,” my play to be presented the next day. Once again, the cosmic chuckle materialized into a downpour outside. About a hundred of us were caught in the lobby, awaiting the rain’s end when Van Badham, a fresh, fierce playwright from Australia, climbed up a couple of stairs and called for our attention. She announced the conviction of members from the Pussy Riot punk group, who had broken into a church and recorded a protest song about Putin in Russia.

Leaning on her cane (“I have a bum ankle,” she told me later), Van’s strong, clear voice delivered her message, electrifying the room. She announced an impromptu march from the theater to downtown Stockholm. The place went wild! With Van’s permission, I recorded her repeating the announcement on my little camera as she stood on the stage of the big red-plush-seated theatre. Lightning struck again! A few moments later, I sat with Van, as she gave a quiet, focused statement. She was illuminated only by a single window, which gradually brightened with the passing of the storm.

See below– these are short. Feel free to share these links.
Van’s announcement on stage:

Van’s quiet, focused statement:

I shared these links with Hettie Lynn Hurtes at KPCC/National Public Radio in Los Angeles. She passed them on to her colleagues.

MISSING THE GUERRILLA GIRLS FOR A DANCING AFGHAN VOICE
You gotta hand it to the organizers of the WPIC. Besides hosting 275 playwrights from dozens of countries, they fed us, provided those who had play presentations with excellent directors and actors, who gave our work respectful and often brilliant treatment. The cast in my Helford Prize winning “Isaac, I am” was so enthused, they honored me with requests for full copies of the play so they could find out how it ended.

Yes. The organizers did a wonderful job. The only problem? There was too much ‘wonderful.’ It was physically impossible to see absolutely everything. On Saturday night, August 18, I had to choose between attending two performances in different venues at virtually the same time; Afghan Voices or the Gueerilla Girls. Hoping to catch up with the Guerrilla Girls back in the states, I chose to support Lia Gladstone and her Afghan performers.

We were mesmerized as one young woman made the stage her own with a self-choreographed hip-hop dance, while rapping her own lyrics. While I wish I could have translated her words, in the end it didn’t matter. What transcended any language issues was her joyous defiance and courage in the face of possible dire consequences back home. Her spirit moves me to this moment.

I’m writing from this from home with the Democratic Convention livestreaming on my laptop beside me. My poor steno pad is within reach, its Bic and Sharpie waiting patiently nearby. Before the WPIC, my biggest concerns were working to get productions and hoping for good reviews.

Spending one extraordinary week with these women playwrights and performers who, every single day put it all on the line while expressing their art has given me a greater appreciation of the freedom we have always known, must protect and encourage in others.

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