by Desireé York
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble created their ongoing four-part Cycle of Violence Commission Series to examine the role violence plays in our world through stories addressing sex-trafficking, honor-killings, criminal justice reform and immigration. From a Journey Out article about the Series, Lower Depth Theatre was quoted as saying that “One of the greatest ways to encourage empathy and cultivate understanding is through the power of perspective.”
Providing these perspectives thus far in the Series are playwrights Tira Palmquist, T. Tara Turk-Haynes, and Diana Burbano. As the first commissioned writer, Tira Palmquist took a hard look at the violence of sex-trafficking in her play entitled Safe Harbor, which received a production at the end of 2019. T. Tara Turk-Haynes’ play The Muhammad Sisters Were Here was presented virtually in 2020 as the second commission of the Series, exploring the topic of honor killings. And most recently, Lower Depth Theatre announced Diana Burbano as the next writer of the Series, commissioned to address criminal justice and prison reform.
Lower Depth Theatre Artistic Director Gregg T. Daniel shared that, “Over the years, our company has developed close relationships with many writers, actors, directors, designers, etc. Naturally when we decided to create the Series we began looking at those writers we had a pre-existing relationship with. But the most essential factor in commissioning a playwright is the consideration of the issue we’re attempting to create a play around. Once we’ve identified the issue, we think of which playwright’s work might best amplify it.”
And as it turned out, it was the work of three women that best amplified these critical issues.
As advocates for women+ and BIPOC artists, LAFPI couldn’t miss the opportunity to spotlight and learn more about this bold Series raising consciousness for social change, by talking to the women playwrights tackling these challenging topics.
LAFPI: What compelled you to be part of this Series and why were you drawn to write about this specific issue?
Tira Palmquist: I was asked by Jason Delane Lee and Yvonne Huff Lee (Lower Depth Artistic Associates), and the invitation alone was an important reason to get involved. It’s not just that they asked me, or not just that I was flattered (though I was); I was inspired by the way they described the Series, how they saw Lower Depth’s role as an organization drawing attention to important issues and bringing attention to problems that call out for our collective empathy and collective action.
These were all incredibly important issues, but there was really only one issue that I thought I could be equipped to deal with, emotionally or artistically. At the time they approached me, I was teaching playwriting to high school students, and I had written plays featuring younger people and “at-risk” youth. It seemed that this was simply a good fit for me.
T. Tara Turk-Haynes: I love the artists at LDTE individually so coming together for this project was a no brainer for me. The opportunity to tackle such difficult world issues is a dream for a writer and they were so thoughtful about what was passionate for each of them. I had aways been reading about honor killings and really twisted around in my brain what kinds of things we, as global citizens, understand and connect to directly. I wanted to break down the idea of an issue that happens “over there” – over there is closer than we think. And these issues have different faces depending on the communities.
This was hard – this piece. It was something I took on that didn’t necessarily link to my direct background and I wanted to really honor those cultures represented in the piece. As a Black woman from Detroit (where there is a large Middle Eastern population) who became an adult in New York (which has a very large Muslim population with varied ethnic and sect backgrounds) I wanted those people I have come in contact with, those who I call family, to know that I see them and I will always work to amplify those voices not often heard.
Diana Burbano: When Gregg T. Daniel asked me to be a part of this Series and explained what the commission was for, I felt very intrigued. But to be honest it also made me very nervous. I think [criminal justice and prison reform] is such an important and under discussed topic and I really wanted to tackle it, but I also want to be very, very aware and open to what it actually means when you’re talking about it. I think it’s a huge responsibility, especially right now in this moment in this country. I’m very honored to be asked to write this and I hope I can do it justice!
LAFPI: What was your process like working on this commission with Lower Depth? How much freedom did you feel you had? And if you’ve ever been commissioned before, how did this differ?
Diana: I have a few commissions, actually, that I’m working on at the moment. They’re all very different, I think what unites them is it they are all written with a certain component in mind and some of them give me more freedom than others. For example I’m writing a science play that is very specifically about COVID-19. And I have another one where the topic is Latinx in Marin County, and could be about ANYTHING. The WAY I write it is up to me, but I do have cast size constraints as well as scenic and technical.
It’s always daunting to write a play! And to be asked to write a piece for such powerful performers, yes, it’s a little bit terrifying! I want to honor the depth of the artist’s previous work. I’m coming into this company as a guest and I feel like I have to really get to know my hosts. On the other side, I’ve been given a topic, I’ve been given a lot of support, I have quite a lot of time, and I’ve already been put in touch with a musical composer and other people who can give me the information I need, so I feel very well taken care of.
T. Tara: How much freedom did you feel you had? So much freedom! They were so gracious and patient – especially since this all happened for me PRIOR to the pandemic. I mean we started this project and then a global catastrophe happened. Their expectations in my opinion were minimal. I like transparency a lot and they were more than thoughtful about communicating the few they had.
I was a Van Lier Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop many years ago and the major difference was probably that there were a group of four of us writers at NYTW that wrote new plays over the course of a year. And then 9/11 hit. I’m starting to notice a pattern of resiliency for myself. LOL.
Tira: Working with the Lower Depth company (and their guest artists) was amazing. First, I had a remarkable amount of freedom to write the play I wanted to write. In fact, the only provision was that I wrote roles for their company. Early in the process, I suggested (and they agreed) that we have regular check-ins and readings of drafts. Without those regular check-ins, I think I would have wallowed in the depths (heh, sorry) of the project without feeling like I had any useful conversation with the company. Their willingness to engage with that process freed me to, you know, have a process, which meant that we were all more invested in the final product, all on the same team, all working on the same play.
I’ve worked on other commission projects, and the best projects all have this same kind of regular conversation.
LAFPI: Did knowing that the play you’re commissioned to write was going to be part of a Series affect your approach to writing it?
Diana: Yes, you to start to think of your play as part of a family. And that somehow it needs to belong in the group. That doesn’t mean it has to be exactly like the other pieces but maybe I should be in conversation with them. I really want to delve into the other works and see if maybe I can add callbacks or commentary just as touches to acknowledge that.
Tira: No, not really. The artistic leadership at Lower Depth never presented me with any expectations about how my play would be in conversation with the other plays in the Series, and so that was a remarkable weight off my shoulders!
LAFPI: This question is for T. Tara. Being that your piece was to be presented virtually, what challenges did this present, if any?
T. Tara: I think anything virtual or digital can be challenging. We haven’t fully explored the amount of energy performance and art requires to exert and then to have it go to a screen rather than a person is a new challenge. I think I can speak for most people who say that theatre is really great live and it is preferred. But we make due and we get creative and our informal reading was so great to hear all of the way through with an original song by Maritri, and all of the amazing talents poured into that new black box called Zoom.
LAFPI: What message do you hope audiences will come away with from not only your play, but the Series as a whole?
Tira: I really hope that people will have their eyes opened by Safe Harbor. I’m sure there are a lot of people who have some knowledge (or maybe think they know a lot) about sex trafficking, but maybe this play will have them look at the world in a slightly different way. Maybe they’ll look at the lives of young girls differently, or maybe they’ll value these lives differently. The whole Series is about expanding the audience’s empathy for difficult topics, and then expanding their ability to have difficult conversations. Solutions will follow, eventually, ideally – but those solutions won’t surface until more people are willing to discuss issues that are complex, thorny, distressing.
Diana: I think I’m going to approach this a little abstract, a little mythological, with music. It’s such a serious topic and I feel like it needs to be tackled maybe as a modern myth. It’s just such a huge problem and I think I should be expansive in my thinking about it. As part of the Series I think it’s about keeping the conversation open, flowing and inspiring people to learn more and to get involved in reform efforts.
T. Tara: Well I hope my play provides a perspective on understanding how closely connected we all are as a global group. Sometimes we bypass stories in the media because we have no connection to them we think – racism, honor killings, misogyny, homophobia, ageism…we have to get better about caring about things when they happen and not when they happen to us. To me the whole Series is about that. Awareness isn’t just about educating you but making you understand you are connected to things larger than your own understanding. You can get involved in so many ways and one important way is to care and seek to understand things outside of what you imagine your day to day to be.
For more information about the Cycle of Violence Series visit: www.lower-depth.com/cycle-of-violence.
Diana Burbano, a Colombian immigrant, is a playwright, an Equity actor, and a teaching artist at South Coast Repertory and Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble. Diana’s play Ghosts of Bogota, won the Nu Voices festival at Actors Theatre of Charlotte in 2019 where it will be produced in 2022. Ghosts was commissioned and debuted at Alter Theater in the Bay Area in Feb 2020. Sapience, a Playground-SF 2020 Winner, was featured at Latinx Theatre Festival, San Diego Rep 2020. Fabulous Monsters, a Kilroys selection, was to premiere at Playwrights Arena in 2020 (postponed). She was in Center Theatre Group’s 2018-19 Writers Workshop cohort and is in the Geffen’s Writers Lab in 20-21. She has worked on projects with South Coast Repertory, Artists Repertory Theatre, Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble and Center Theatre Group and Livermore Shakespeare Festival. Diana recently played Amalia in Jose Cruz Gonzales’ American Mariachi at South Coast Repertory and Arizona Theatre Company, and Marisela in La Ruta at Artists Repertory. You can also see her as Viv the Punk in the cult musical Isle of Lesbos. She is the current Dramatists Guild Rep for Southern California.
T. Tara Turk-Haynes is a writer whose work has been featured in various stages and screens including Lower Depth Ensemble, Rogue Machine, Company of Angeles, the Hip Hop Theater Festival, the Actor’s Studio, Ensemble Studio Theater, the Schomburg, and the Kennedy Center. She is a graduate of Lang College and Sarah Lawrence, receiving the Lipkin Playwrighting Award. She has been a Cycle of Violence Fellow at Lower Depth Ensemble, Van Lier Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop, a member of Cosby Screenwriting Program, the Producers Guild Diversity Workshop, the Underwood Theatre Writers Group with Julia Cho, Rinne Groff, and Theresa Rebeck, and Company of Angels Writers Group, . Her screenplays range from shorts to full length. She won Best Screenplay at African American Women in Cinema and was an Urbanworld Screenplay Finalist. Also a producer, she has co-produced the webseries “Dinner at Lola” featuring Tracie Thoms, Yvette Nicole Brown, Bryan Fuller and Nelson Ellis among others. As a fiction writer, her shorts and novellas have been published in various publications. She was published in Signifyin Harlem, Obsidian Call & Response: Experiments in Joy, Reverie: Midwest American Literature, the international anthology “X:24,” African Voices and Stress magazine. She has finished a novel and a TV pilot on the Harlem Renaissance. She is a founding member of the producing playwrights’ collective The Temblors and a member of the 2021 Geffen Writer’s Room. Her most recent essay can be found in Tamera Winfrey Harris’ “Dear Black Girls.” She is also a VP of DEI at Leaf Group where she champions diversity, equity and inclusion.
Tira Palmquist is known for plays that merge the personal, the political and the poetic. Her most produced play, Two Degrees, premiered at the Denver Center, and was subsequently produced by Tesseract Theater in St. Louis and Prime Productions at the Guthrie (among others). Her play The Way North was a Finalist for the O’Neill, an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Kilroys List, and was featured in the 2019 Ashland New Plays Festival. Tira’s current projects include The Body’s Midnight, a play she worked on as the Travis Bogard Artist in Residence at the Tao House (Eugene O’Neill Foundation) and King Margaret, an adaptation of the Henry VI, which will have a reading at OSF in July 2021. The Way North, which was developed at the 2018 Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, was a finalist for the 2018 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, the 2018 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and the 2019 Blue Ink Playwriting Award. The Way North was also featured in the following festivals: The Festival of New American Plays (Phoenix Theater), the Human Rights New Works Festival (Red Mountain Theater), the Page-by-Page Festival (Pioneer Theater) and the Road Theater’s Summer New Works Festival. Among Tira’s commission projects are The Worth of Water (Clutch Productions’ equity showcase production in NYC in October, directed by Mélisa Annis) and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s commission Safe Harbor, a play about sex trafficking, which premiered in November 2019 in LA. Tira has also been commissioned to write new work for the UCI graduate acting students. Her play Hold Steady was workshopped at UCI in February 2019, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything was workshopped in February 2020, and in February 2021, The Last Time We Saw Madison was performed online with the more recent first-year grad actors. Her other plays include Ten Mile Lake (Serenbe Playhouse), Age of Bees (NYU Stella Adler Studio, MadLab Theatre, Tesseract), And Then They Fell (MadLab, Brimmer Street, New York Film Academy) and This Floating World. Two Degrees has been featured in numerous festivals (including the 11th Annual Denver Center New Play Summit, the New American Voices festival in the UK, the Caltech 2014 Mach 33 Festival and the 2014 Great Plains Theater Conference) and had its World Premiere in the Denver Center’s 2016/17 Season. Two Degrees was also listed in the Honorable Mention list for the 2016 Kilroys. Ten Mile Lake, which premiered in 2014 at Serenbe Playhouse just outside of Atlanta, GA, was developed and workshopped in 2012 at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, andwas a finalist for the 2015 Primus Prize. Tira has taught creative writing at the Orange County School of the Arts, at Wesleyan University and at the University of California-Irvine. She is a member of the Playwrights Union, the Antaeus Theatre’s Playwrights Lab and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. Her work as a director and dramaturg includes several seasons at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, MadLab Theatre’s Young Playwrights’ Program, Moving Arts Theatre’s MADlab series and the New Territories Playwriting Residency. More info at www.tirapalmquist.com.