Goodbye Theatre?

by Kitty Felde

I haven’t been inside a theatre for two years. And I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable enough to return. Does this mean the death of live theatre? Does it mean the end of playwriting? At least for me.

It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself. Why spend my life writing something that no one will see?

Oh, sure. There are alternatives to a black box theatre experience. I myself have written a play that should be performed in a National Park. And I’ve written audio dramas for the Fina Mendoza Mysteries podcast series – plays that are performed inside your head. Others have created plays for Zoom and Instagram and YouTube.

Culture Clash turned its epic drama Chavez Ravine into a video project. Antaeus Theatre Company asked its playwrights to write audio plays about Los Angeles neighborhoods. They were turned into a podcast called The Zip Code Plays. Ellen Struve, a most creative playwright in Nebraska, wrote and produced what she calls Picture Window Puppet Theatre, a shadow play performed from her living room window for all of her Omaha neighbors.

The pandemic has indeed forced us to be creative. But it’s also challenged us to think about theatre itself. What’s the point? How important is it for us to gather together to share an experience? Is theatre just an elitist exercise?

I wanted to be an actor from my earliest days of watching television as a child. I spent most of high school backstage, either performing or running the sound board. I changed majors from Social Ecology to Theatre after one week of college, braving the censure of my mother who always wanted me to be a lawyer. (She surprised me by telling me to go for it!)

I spent my 20’s living on $40 a week plus board at a melodrama company near Pismo Beach, driving to commercial auditions where occasionally I’d get hired to extoll the virtues of peanut butter or play the rear end of a horse, performing plays and improv in tiny theatres where the performers usually outnumbered the patrons. I co-founded a theatre, Theatre of NOTE, where I served as Managing Director for more than half a decade. I rejoiced when I earned my Equity card and performed at South Coast Rep. I wrote dozens of plays, some published and performed around the world. One was even performed in the nude.

But that feels like another lifetime. I was another person.

A few years ago, Stanford political science professor Frank Fukuyama wrote that we had come to the end of history. Have we come to the end of theatre?

Of course, Fukuyama was wrong. A lot of history has happened since 1995. And since theatre has been around since human beings started telling stories around the fire, it’s unlikely the end of theatre.

But for me, for now, that shared experience of sitting together for an evening of theatre is over. And so is writing for that mythical place that filled so much of my life.

I’ll still write stories. Books and podcast dramas and who knows what next. But at least for now, and for the foreseeable future, my life in the theatre has come to an end.

Farewell, theatre.

This Grief Will Be of Use

There was a time when we ignored the cries, silenced the pain, and continued. 

There was a time when the collective would gather together and mourn before they could continue. 

There was a time when stillness answered stale questions and healed old wounds.

There was a time when birthing a child was an honor held in high favor by the entire community. 

There was a time when mothers could lay their heads upon a pillow without fear. Instead…

They now pray for the spirits of their children as they lie in the dark fighting for the light. 

There was a time when we didn’t learn to live with grief – a time when grief wasn’t a disorder but a vessel. 

There was a time when we didn’t speak from grief. A time when we didn’t practice grief.

There was a time when grief wasn’t a gateway to joy.

There was a time when the house didn’t hold our sorrows. Instead… it overflowed with love, laughter, and dreams. 

There was a time when we remembered we could fly. 

As we enter this new season may we individually and collectively make room to heal our bodies, our spirits, our minds for the future depends on a healthy society that moves not in fear but with hope.

Strange List of Writer Phobias

as completely made up by Chelsea Sutton but also like….not really made up?

agnoiaphobia n. the fear that everyone else knows how to do this but you, that there was a day in your writing education (whatever that might look like) where they laid out the fundamentals of a writing life, helped your peers define that elusive “practice” always asked about in residency apps, ran them through how to cleverly answer the question “what are you working on right now” without sounding like a rambling idiot, how to keep moving forward without feeling like you’re standing still, and no one shared this knowledge with you and are, in fact, laughing at you right now; from the Greek word ágnoia meaning ignorance.

frausphobia n. the fear that you may never write another good and/or acceptable play (short story/novel/screenplay) again because you are a damn fraud and have been coasting on luck this whole time; from the Latin word fraus meaning a delusion, a fraud.

miseratiophobia n. the fear that everyone knows you’re actually not very good but collectively decide to humor you, to throw you a bone every once in a while like the stray dog that you are, because it can’t hurt, they decide, because she tries so hard, just look at her little hands, typing away, how adorable; from the Latin word miseratio meaning pity, compassion.

telosphobia n. the fear that you don’t know what success is as a writer, or at least what it looks like for you, that you have wanted to be a writer for (however long), but the more you learn about this life, the more you run the numbers of possible (productions, publications, staffing) and all the money that comes out of it (very little) the more it all seems impossible, even very silly, to think that being a “writer” is all you can be, that being a writer is actually being a Hyphenate (writer-teacher, writer-accountant, writer-marketer), which is fine, you guess, but will you be happy if you write your little plays that no one sees as you work at the Bed Bath & Beyond (beloved by staff and customers alike) or do you really need to get that Oscar to feel worthy, you greedy writer, you?; from the Greek word telos meaning end, purpose or goal.

anyparxiasphobia n. the fear that when you get that Oscar it won’t be enough either, that nothing is really enough, that life is not long enough, and also too long, and this desire for more is simultaneously your greed and also your complete infatuation with Life and those in it, and so you hold onto everything and probably cry a little every day, and maybe that holds you back, but you also know that whatever you might feel getting an Oscar will pale in comparison to how you felt as your grandmother read the little story you wrote in crayon about the Easter bunny and smiled and scooped you some ice cream, because damnit she’s not here to hear your acceptance speech so, like, what does it even matter anyway?; from the Greek word anyparxía meaning nothingness.

kenophobia n. the fear that you won’t become who you thought you’d become in time to share that with your (parents, aunts, other important people) before they are gone, before you can say do you see – i made good choices, before you can say see – i’m okay, before you no longer have anyone watching your life from afar and its just you, making yourself happy, which is totally and utterly not possible; from the Greek prefix keno meaning empty.

anonymosphobia n. the fear that you don’t know who you’re trying to become or want to become and you might just stay the person you are right now and, frankly, you’re not sure how you feel about that; from the Greek word anónymos meaning nameless.

hamartiaphobia n. the fear that your one chance or shot was handed to you already in a moment that perhaps you can or cannot pinpoint, but that you didn’t take it or it was taken from you, and now that chance is gone forever, never to return; from the Greek word hamartia meaning to miss the mark, most often used in reference to tragedy.

vetulaphobia n. the fear that you’re already too old to do this; from the Latin word vetula meaning old woman.

nigomaephobia n. the fear that you have nothing to say, actually, and the simple act of even thinking about writing is taking up space for more worthy voices; from the Greek word pnigomai meaning choke.

penthosphobia n. the fear that this is actually what being a writer is, and now you have to deal with it; from the Greek word penthos meaning grief or lamentation, also the name of the ancient Greek God, who was late and got the cold leftovers.

The Balance Scale…

by Robin Byrd

Fifty years from now, what will literature say about us?  Will it be a balanced story?  

I am hoping that the travailing in the spirit that I have been doing will break something up.  I don’t have it in me to compromise on what stories want to come out of me.  I am learning to not subconsciously self-edit.

An Even Chance

This pandemic has changed me; I have an even lesser tolerance for inauthenticity in any way.  It’s been a battle and a journey to learn where and how grief has touched my work – changing it forever; instead of trying to muzzle it, I’ve learned to embrace it.  There is a sound to loss, an indelible mark, an imprint, a key, as it were, that opens one up to hidden jewels.  Regaining the parts of myself so covered in stones, it took this pandemic to unearth them.  I have literally found snippets of writing while going through a box under a box under a box. This snippet of writing is exactly what is needed in a play, “Sweet Lorraine’s Bag of Water,” that I’ve decided to revisit.  I remembered writing it and it was on my mind.  I was annoyed that it was lost to me, finding it by chance was delightful.  I wrote it while attending a theater conference some years ago.  It will be nice to get back to attending in-person conferences one day, they are a great source of inspiration.  There is nothing like being around a large group of theater artists.

It is good to know that I am finding more balance in myself and looking forward to seeing the change it brings to my work…

Happy New Year, may it bring you joy and many opportunities to share your work.

Changing Views

By Cynthia Wands

“The Queen’s Court”, a painting by Andrea Kowch

In the past few months, I’ve found a disconnect with revisiting books I loved, movies I remembered, television shows that I thought I liked. The view seems to have changed. Whether it’s this isolation, or my own aging process, or the political and psychological climate, I’m no longer as satisfied with what I thought I liked.

It’s also true that I’m not seeing the plays, operas, dance concerts in live performances that I used to see: my window to live events has closed for the time being.

But some of the artists that I’ve enjoyed, have sparked my imagination to consider them in a new light. One of them is a painter, Andrea Kowch, who came to prominence when she was quite young; she was 17 years old (in 2003) when she started winning awards and gallery shows for her artwork.

I’ve loved her portraits of women, strangely posed, in a natural and disturbing landscapes. They seem to resonate differently with me today. Here’s a bit from her biography:

“We all share a common thread, and as active participants in an ever-changing modern world, the purpose of my work is to remind viewers of these places that we sometimes perceive no longer exist, and to recognize and honor them as a part of our history that is worth preserving.”

One of my favorites of her paintings is this one, titled “Pecking Order”:

“Pecking Order” by Andrea Kowch

Her biography contains a description of her artwork, that sounds very much like magic realism in theatre:

“Inspired by memories, inner emotions, history, and my fascination with nature and the human psyche, the stories behind my paintings stem from life’s emotions and experiences, resulting in narrative, allegorical imagery that illustrates the parallels between human experience and the mysteries of the natural world.”

When I read this, I thought, that’s a brilliant synopsis. It could stand in for a play, or an opera, or a dance performance. And that made me feel somewhat connected to someone’s path in their artwork. Nowadays, that’s a rare treasure.

Here’s a link to her gallery that shows more of her artwork:

So here’s to the magic of artwork. Changing visions. Shifting views.

“The Lightkeepers” by Andrea Kowch

Holiday Healing

by Cynthia Wands

Artwork by Catrin Welz-Stein

This quote jumped out at me this morning:

“True healing is an unglamorous process of living into the long lengths of pain. Forging forward in the darkness. Holding the tension between hoping to get well and the acceptance of what is happening. Tendering a devotion to the task of recovery, while being willing to live with the permanence of a wound; befriending it with an earnest tenacity to meet it where it lives without pushing our agenda upon it. But here’s the paradox: you must accept what is happening while also keeping the heart pulsing towards your becoming, however slow and whispering it may be.”

~ Toko-pa Turner 

I’ve been following the writings of Toko-pa Turner for a while, and I’ve always loved her essays on solitude, healing, and belonging. I’ve reread one of her most recent books a few times, and come away with new insights every time.

Healing from these past two years of isolation and and pandemic fatigue seems to be a lost path for me – I’ll have to continue this dance of protection and longing for the foreseeable future. (Insert screams of frustration here.)

This solitude is a quiet kind of punishment after a while – writing doesn’t come any easier in isolation. I find myself diverted with different kinds of projects to keep my curiosity alive. Baking cakes, fussing over the garden, pruning roses, crafting with silver-plate tea pots. All kinds of diversions to feel the creative pulse.

Today I’m going to listen to the rain (RAIN! REAL RAIN!), and light a fire in the fireplace, and try to feel the hope and healing for this next year. For all the female playwrights listening to the rain right now in Los Angeles, here’s to the recognition of all of our hopes and all of our healing for this next year.

And as an aside…

Ted already claimed the best spot by the fireplace, so I’ll have to settle in next to him.

Winter Solstice

by Cynthia Wands

My Winter Solstice Project: a tea pot becomes a vase for flowers

December 21, 2021, the shortest day of the year. I’m glad today is here, and will be very glad to kick 2021 out of here, another year of the pandemic. What a difficult year. It’s been exasperating, infuriating, melancholy, sad, briefly joyful, buoyant, hopeful, frustrating, with a sprinkling of hopelessness thrown in.

So here’s a book, HOPE IN THE DARK, that Rebecca Solnit wrote, a few years ago:

A book about all kinds of Hope, by Rebecca Solnit

I first found a reference to this book by an article written by Maria Popov, and I’m including it here because the entire article is really wonderful:

Solnit herself has written memorably about how we find ourselves by getting lost, and finding hope seems to necessitate a similar surrender to uncertainty. Here is a passage of hers that I find really wonderfully apt for playwrights right now:

“Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”

But to get back to hope. Hope for what we’re looking for right now. In the book “HOPE IN THE DARK”, here is an idea of hope that I especially loved.

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

A wonderful idea to consider on this shortest day of the year.

The writings of Rebecca Solnit can also be found at her website:

Essays

Writing

I have been agonizing over writing for the past week. What should I say? What am I thinking about? How will it end? And I was no further along. I realize I need to get out more and talk about writing.

A few weeks ago, while doing a check-in with some friends I was newly inspired. Not necessarily by what to write, it was more of the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. So I quickly did a search and found several classes that were starting within the next couple of days. I signed up for a 4-week class that was just to generate work, get me writing. I also signed up for several free writing prompt workshops, again, just to generate material. It was the best month of writing. I felt like I was getting further and actually accomplishing something. Then I took a day to review what I had been doing. I now had several different plays started.

But that was a month ago. Life got in the way. My daily writing of at least 10 minutes had gone by the wayside as my days were consumed with “my real job”. How do I get back to that place of creativity? You can’t have that many plays going at one time and expect them to be good. But at this point, I just wanted to finish something, anything. It wasn’t until after meeting up with a friend for drinks that I have some focus or even clarity. Instead of overthinking the work, just keep writing. It may be the worst thing ever, but you finished something and you may have even learned something. The next one and the one after that will get better.

You have to have the nerve. You need to muster up the courage or resolve to do something. Easier said than done. Confidence? Courage? To just write? I need to not overthink it. Just write. Could it be that simple?

I don’t know. I’ll let you know next time. But I do hope you are working on something!

Just keep writing!

Jennifer

Sinkholes Everywhere

By Alison Minami

I’m writing a play about a town–really a family–but also a town that is hit with a giant sinkhole. The play moves around a lot in time–pre-sinkhole and post-sinkhole. It also dives right down into the hole itself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NJixKfml4k

I went down the rabbithole of sinkholes on Youtube. Some of the sinkholes are gargantuan. We’re talking three to four hundred feet deep and sixty feet wide. Sometimes they are born out of avarice, a willful ignorance of science that puts profit above all else. Sometimes they are due to poor infrastructure and engineering or slow undetected leaks of water or sewage that collapses soluble sediment. There is evidence that floods and storms related to climate change are linked to more and more of these holes. Other internet videos include a man walking down a busy Brooklyn Street when one of his legs falls right through the cement crosswalk. A Florida man sleeps in bed when the earth opens up beneath him and swallows him whole; His body is never recovered. These holes seem futuristic and apocalyptic, but in fact they’ve been happening for a while now.

I can watch these videos on a loop. For me, it’s riveting! Sinkholes are a physical manifestation of all our demons and our fears. Why a hole? It’s like any other calamity…one day you’re here, the next you’re not. One day you know everything, and the next, you know nothing. The earth is supposed to represent the most sure and steady thing for us. What does it mean when people describe others as grounded? Or salt of the earth? And what does it mean to be at ground zero or hit rock bottom? There is so much metaphor in a giant gaping hole. I think of inconsolable grief, trauma, regret, unbearable shame, addiction, guilt, dreams deferred, dreams dead. I think of a terrifying abyss, fear of the unknown, depths of despair, Dante’s inferno, yes hell. Once you start with the metaphors (and the puns), you can’t stop. We’re all in the fucking hole in one way or another, doesn’t matter what it is for you—a divorce, a death, a freaking worldwide pandemic. We’ve all been down it; we’ve all had the choice to climb out or stay in.

 And isn’t it funny, that a hole is a piercing, a wound, an intolerable emptiness? And the same word with a different spelling Whole means exactly its opposite. To heal is to make whole, to piece together the essentials is to make whole, to be complete is to make whole. What’s that fancy Brene Brown terminology of being whole-hearted? How do we live whole-heartedly in a world with sinkholes everywhere? I don’t have an answer, but I’m here for the excavation.

Meet Tamadhur Al-Aqeel

By Alison Minami

Tamadhur Al-Aqeel has been writing plays for over a decade. She started out in an acting program at Boston University, where the Dean of her theater department snickered that she’d only get stereotypical roles as a maid or a prostitute. This problem of representation followed her when she transferred to Cal Arts, and finally to Cal State Long Beach, where she settled on a major in Journalism. Like many artists of color, Tamadhur realized that writing for the stage was the best way to create better roles for women like herself.  That was the nineties, and still, change has been slow to come.

Tamadhur has been a member of the Company of Angels Playwrights’ Group for nearly a decade and now serves as one of its co-leaders, volunteering to organize and schedule logistics. The group has evolved over time, having begun as an incubator for the theater’s 10-minute short play festival. Today it is an application-only, year-long play development program, with the aim of assisting writers to complete full-length pieces that culminate in professionally staged readings. She was also recently a member of the Vagrancy Theater’s professional playwrights’ group in 2020.

Tamadhur–“rhymes with bother” she says to help people with the pronunciation–was named after her father’s favorite Egyptian poet. She speaks fondly of her Kuwaiti-born father, a trained educator and a natural with young children, and recalls one of her early memories of him telling stories, using his hands as puppet-like figures around a tambourine, the proverbial campfire or theater in the round.

As an Arab-American female artist who is also a mom of two, Tamadhur has faced her fair share of challenges. In the early days, she co-wrote and independently produced a successful play that was a feminist take on Scheherazade, the narrator of the classic Middle Eastern tale One Thousand and One Nights. The piece incorporated shadow puppetry and began Tamadhur’s training and interest in the art form. Unfortunately, she was also in an intimate relationship with her co-writer and when that didn’t work out, he attempted to discredit her contribution. “Never sleep with your writing partner” she quips. The line is funny, but not the anecdote. It reflects a common problem of the patriarchy, desiring to punish women by usurping them of their creative power and due credit.

Post 9-11, like so many Americans of Middle Eastern descent, Tamadhur experienced increased scrutiny, which naturally led to increased paranoia. Her mail would arrive opened, and the airport security checks started and have never let up. To this day, whenever she travels with her family, they must factor in the time that it will take for security to put her through the humiliating rigmarole of patting her down, grabbing her crotch and breasts, and going through her things. Even at a young age, Tamadhur’s daughters would ask, “Why is it always you mom?”  This kind of racism has naturally informed her writing.

In one of her most recent works “Traffic Report”, written expressly for the Zoom stage, a daughter and father, who is living under a “dictatorship cracking down on dissidents,” exchange Skype calls that are being surveilled. The audience is put in the seat of the spying, uncertain whether the father himself is a dissident and forcing them to consider the morality of surveillance as well as their own complicity.

Tamadhur wonders in a post-pandemic world “Who are audiences going to be?” and “How much can you ask of an audience?” These are great questions for all theaters who struggled, even before the pandemic, to fill their seats. She admits that while quarantine was terrible and Zoom plays were not ideal, the online format made it easier for her to produce her work and to participate in playwriting opportunities such as LAFPI’s Microreads.

Currently, she’s developing a puppet show “Drugs and a Magic Cow” which is a dark adaptation of the fairy tale of Old Mother Hubbard. She is also collaborating with Cold Tofu Improv Group, who will be taking the first two pages of a play she’s written expressly for their group, which they will perform and extend into a complete one-act of improvised theater. That show is virtual on November 18  https://www.youtube.com/c/ImproTheatre.