Waiting for Permission

by Chelsea Sutton

I can remember almost every moment when someone has made me feel small and stupid for writing what I want to write.

These moments live rent free in my head, every time I sit down to the blank page.

At a writing workshop, a faculty person told me I was “putting on” a “quirky” sensibility, play-acting a quirky writer who writes quirky things, and that I would never succeed with this act.

Men have told me that things my female characters want don’t matter or the “stakes aren’t high enough” because the characters are unmarried and/or without children.

I’ve been told that a black comedy about criminals was good but that I was just play-acting at being a wannabe Martin McDonagh (this play was a finalist for the O’Neill).

Men have told me that my female characters are not “likable” particularly when they are not performing femininity in the way they expect it to look.

Men have asked me to think about what my plays are “about” without even trying to identify themes that are very obviously there (usually plays with all female casts).

I won’t even go into how many times people have looked down on genre (non realism) work.

I’ve heard the words “too weird” or “too experimental” or “too much (fill in the blank)” so often that every time I write I stop and doubt myself — checking myself in case I’m trying to be weird even when I don’t think the things I make are that weird. I would never call anything I do “experimental.” All I try to do is write what I’m interested in.

Everyone reading this has had an experience similar to these, or far far worse.

I’ve been thinking about these things because I recently finished a new play and had a reading at The Road as part of the Under Construction SlamFest. The play was about villains, female villains specifically, and not the Disney villains, but the ones who rip your life apart day-in-day-out. I’ve always wanted to go as far as McDonagh or Shepard or any other celebrated male writer who writes brutality and violence and ugliness mixed with humor. But there’s something inside me (possibly probably influenced by any version of the experiences above) that has stopped me from going as harsh or brutal as I could.

I’ve written violence before. My plays are dark as shit usually. But something about this play made me nervous. Every voice that has ever told me I’m just play-acting, every voice that told me women don’t act like this or don’t write like this, that women have to be likable, every voice that said they don’t like “experimental” work (does anyone even understand what that means?) — those voices surrounded this play in an intense and specific way. I could only really get pages out when I was under an extreme deadline (pages for writers group, pages for rehearsal, etc.) A deadline was the only thing that could silence the voices long enough so I could actually just WRITE IT. Because when I could write it, I could finally see it, without all the judgement.

And at the first rehearsal for the play, after we’d read it and were having a lovely chat about it, I asked the actors and director (a room full of women) if I could go further. Could I make it darker? More violent? Could I make the body count clear and HIGH by the end?

And everyone in the room said a resounding YES in unison.

And so I did.

Is the play perfect? Is it going far enough yet? Is it really truly itself yet? No. But that rewrite I did pushed it closer to its boundary. Because they said yes.

I will never forget the feeling of a room full of women giving me permission. I’m trying to reframe the negative voices as funny stories — silly interludes on the way to seeing the permission that was already mine. And yours, too.

The FPI Files: Beatrice Casagrán and the Jam-Packed Femme Season at Ophelia’s Jump

by Carolina Pilar Xique

Whoever is still saying that “Theatre is Dead” in 2024 needs to come have a serious talk with me – because theatre is and always has been alive and well, and the reason for such lives solely within the determination of theatre-makers like Beatrice Casagrán.

Producing Artistic Director of Ophelia’s Jump Productions (OJP), Beatrice Casagrán dives headfirst into 2024 with a whopping 7-show season that is “guaranteed to entertain with compelling stories and educate current and new generations of theatre lovers.” And I am certain 2024’s season will do just that – their theatrical programming range is outstanding, from musical, to historical, to traditional straight plays and reimagined classics. As a theatrical artist who is also living, working and producing in Los Angeles, I am deeply inspired by Beatrice’s commitment not only to the theatre, but to the people who make the theatre with Ophelia’s Jump possible.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to speak with Beatrice to talk about the upcoming production of Musical of Musicals, the wonders of adaptational storytelling, and the stellar lineup for OJP’s new season.

Carolina Xique: I’m sure top of mind for you is Musical of Musicals – it’s not only a massive undertaking because it’s a musical, but then it splits off into five different musicals. So I would love to hear about what that process has been like.

Beatrice Casagrán

Beatrice Casagrán: Before COVID, would do a small musical every two or three years because we have such a small space. During COVID, we lost one of the two theatres in the area that focused on just musicals. So I felt that to serve the community, we really needed to answer what they were asking for. So Musical of Musicals is our first offering this year. It’s also kind of tough because [while] musicals are super popular with patrons, they’re expensive – even a four-person musical like this one. But they also bring in new people who think that they don’t like plays. <laugh> When they come in and see the caliber of work that we do, we tend to see those people come back; they realize, “This is great!”

So that’s the reason that we chose Musical of Musicals for the opening show of the year. We tend to put up stuff that is newer and raises questions and we leave the mid-century musical style to others who do it very well. But this show pokes fun at that and lets everybody have a good time, so I’m really enjoying it.

It’s also a musical in which the book was written by a female [Joanne Bogart], so it met one of our criteria: that we mostly do works by women.

Carolina: Without giving away too much, what can audiences expect to see in Musical of Musicals?

Beatrice: It centers five little musicals all around the quintessential, back-to-silent-film early theatre plot of, “the landlord wants the rent and the ingenue cannot pay the rent.” <laugh> The same plot follows the five different little musicals in the style of five different masters in the field, so it’s the Rogers and Hammerstein team, Jerry Herman, Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Kander and Ebb. We have a great time just really embracing all the kind of archetypes and tropes of each one of those. It’s very clever the way it’s written. And it’s just funny. I think it’s been described as a valentine to theatre.

Cast of “Musical of Musicals” – photo by Sej Gangula

Carolina: I wanted to talk about the rest of the season. I’m kind of a Shakespeare-head myself. I was taking a peek at La Tempestad which was particularly interesting to me because I’m half-Mexican, half-Cuban.

Beatrice: Represent, girl! Yeah. I’m so excited. Yay. This is a project that I have thought about for years. This year we were able to get a couple of grants, and I had enough downtime that I was able to connect with other artists and make these friendships with more Latino artists and musicians.

 So I now have the wherewithal to do the collaboration that’s needed for that kind of project, and I am super excited. I’m working with a wonderful actor singer who is helping me with translations. And we are going to be doing all original adaptations and maybe some original music as well.

It just seems like The Tempest is perfect, right? There’s so much magical realism in across Latino cultures. But in Cuba… the Yoruba influence and Santeria is really going to be a good fit with The Tempest. We’ll be able to really delve into it and have a wonderful time sharing that part of our culture. I want to make sure that the team that we put together is fully diverse and has all the representation of the richness of what makes up our Cuban culture, and Caribbean Latino culture, and to pay respect and to pay attention to making sure that the story is told correctly.

“La Tempestad” will be part of OJP’s annual Midsummer Shakespeare Festival at the Sontag Greek Theatre, Pomona College

Carolina: It’s not an easy culture or history to explore, so I just want to convey thanks for bringing our stories to light. And some of the season’s stories – like La Tempestad or CJ, An Aspanglish Play by Mercedes Floresislas – are reimaginings of stories many of us already know. For these reimaginings, what seems to be the thread that brings them all together for you?

Beatrice: I’m a fan of history. My undergraduate degree is in political studies. So much of what’s going on in the world today is these hideously false, hurtful, dangerous narratives. I think theatre has an incredibly important role in reaching people who are being sucked into this, and telling stories that people might not otherwise have access to or think that they want to see. So taking these different stories and showing them through a female-centric, Latino focus is important to me. They’re universal stories.

I’m kind of old school in that way. I have always been drawn to stories that are about humanity. And a lot of us are losing the idea that human beings are human beings;  we’re not different in our basic yearnings and desires. CJ is a work that I’ve been trying to do for years. It is basically an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but it’s a human story, and I think it’s even more amazing to be able to tell it from this lens. I love Mexican culture, it has so enriched my life. The richness of the mythology is inspiring. We’re going to have a lot of instruments that are native to Mexican indigenous cultures to be able to make that connection.

Carolina: The ensemble of folks who are directing and writing these pieces is amazing. I would love to hear how you think their perspectives will influence these shows.

Beatrice: Sheila Malone, who is a company member and is directing [Lauren Gunderson’s] Revolutionists, is also a queer leader. She is one of the original members of Dykes on Bikes; she is an expert on lesbian bike culture and she’s a brilliant projection designer and lighting designer and has been a co-artistic director at her own theatre. She’s going to be super nuanced and and I love the energy that she brings to it. So it’s great for me to be able to produce and see another director bring their vision. I also love Lauren’s work!

Caitlin [Lopez, Beatrice’s daughter who is directing Knight of the Burning Pestle] and I founded the Shakespeare Festival in Claremont 10 years ago now. She is hugely into Shakespeare and and Elizabethan theatre, through a queer lens. She also has a very strong background in improvisation, so this version has a lot of audience participation. And we’re running it as a master class, the whole production. We are going to be casting about half the cast with local college students  who will be paired with mentor professional artists in their areas of interest, and they will be getting other ancillary classes, seminars, workshops and other opportunities.

Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos [playwright of Second Death of a Mad Wife] is amazing. We’ve done two of her plays; this one is really interesting, too. I’m staging it in a way that I think is gonna be really fun because it’s gonna be somewhat immersive. Twelve Ophelias by Caridad Svich [directed by Elina de Santos] is amazing, too. I reached out to her and she’s like, “Oh yeah, do the show!” <laugh> She intervened with her licensing to make sure we got [rights], which was great.

Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos’ “The Hall of Final Ruin” (OJP 2022 Season) – photo by Caitlin Lopez

Carolina: What excites you most about this season? And what has been the most challenging?

Beatrice: I feel like for the last four years we had to kind of hunker down and, in some ways, make decisions to do things that were not necessarily what I see as core mission. Because we just were struggling like everybody else. I actually, like a lot of other artists, had this existential crisis where I found myself asking, “Is art even important? Does anybody care anymore? People are dying. And what is it that art brings to this? Who cares?” But art is what kept me going. And we were able to program for free and I think we kept other people going. It’s part of mental health, it’s part of community wellbeing.

This is the first season in which I’m doing what I want as an artist, what I think is important as an artist and what is important as a social-justice-minded organization. I am putting women and gender-marginalized people at the center of things. I am fully invested in hiring young people from local community colleges who are emerging artists, most of whom are Latino and of varying genders, who don’t have opportunities and who are learning. It’s an insane season. It’s insane – it’s seven productions!

The challenges? During the push for AB5, I was one of the leaders in the theatre community in California who said, “We have to stop fighting AB5. We need people need to get paid. We need to ask the government and people in the state to understand that our work is worth something and to fund.” But that hasn’t really happened. It happened during COVID and now the funding is all drying up. And so we are running at a huge deficit for every single production.

I’m going under the only way that I know how right now, which is full steam ahead and working my butt off to try to get grants and to spread the word, to reach out to patrons and say, “We have to have the help if you want us to keep going!” So part of the reason we have a season like this is we have a small crew and part of my personal commitment is I want to keep these folks employed. I need to give them hours because they need to live. I’m making a huge effort to try and make sure that I consistently have a number of hours for folks so that they don’t have to make huge changes in their lives all the time to try and make ends meet.


Carmel Dean’s “Well-Behaved Women” (OJP 2023 Season) – photo by Ophelia’s Jump

Carolina: If you could pick a classic tale to retell from your own lens, whether it’s your own story or somebody else’s story, which would it be and why?

Beatrice: Well, that’s kind of what I’ve done with La Tempestad. I was born in Cuba, but my parents left when I was just a baby. “My Cubans,” as I call them, are dying off, right? My dad’s 86, my aunts, and my mom are already gone. And like you say, it’s the history of this island; this little nation is so replete with stories that are important. So that’s really what’s in my mind right now.

I’ve retold Hamlet and used portfolio and other original writings to highlight Ophelia’s arc, which is how our theatre got our name. I made Laertes a lesbian character who was a suffragist and kind of looked at the female arcs in that play, and the different outcomes. A young woman who’s basically had her agency stripped [away] by the female in power and all the males in her life and finally takes agency in her last act, which is to kill herself. And then juxtaposed that with Laertes who was off traveling because they were not living the traditional female role. I’m constantly looking at projects like this and will continue to do so, I hope, through my career, ’cause that’s what really gets me going. <laugh>. Yeah, Shakespeare retellings through feminist lenses is really something I love to do.

“Musical of Musicals” runs through February 18th. For more information about “Musical of Musicals,” “La Tempestad,” and the many, many more wonderful productions that Ophelia’s Jump will be producing this year, you can find more information at opheliasjump.org. For information on how you can support or make a donation, please visit opheliasjump.org/ways-to-support

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Adrift

by Cynthia Wands

The program of ADRIFT A WAYWARD MEDIEVAL FOLLY by Happenstance Theater at Theater 59 in December 2023. It wouldn’t be the Middle Ages without a hellmouth, demons, and angels.

This past December I traveled to New York to spend the holiday with family, see some theatre, and pause the grief that I’m living in. I had a wonderful visit, was enveloped in love and care with my family, saw some marvelous plays, and the grief came along as an uninvited companion.

Grief doesn’t take kindly to holidays.

Actually, let me rewrite that ~ grief becomes an especially noisy companion at holidays. It has a running dialogue of every new experience: commenting on how it feels/knows/judges anything new or unexpected. Grief talks.

It was especially evident when my sister took me to see an unknown play called ADRIFT at Theater 59 produced by the Happenstance Theater. I wasn’t at all familiar with this theater group and their mission for the show was intriguing. Take a look:

The audience was packed, and brought back the memories of performing in small theaters, the intimacy of seeing/feeling/breathing together (especially in days of Covid). You could feel the buzz as people took off their coats, crowded together in their seats, and the music and lights changed.

It was magical. I love being surprised – and there were some epic surprises in this production. Based on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, we watched vignettes on death, The Oracle Who Answers Your Questions, and regeneration. The puppets, the mime work of the artists onstage, and the design elements were wonderful. Portions of it reminded me of the tableau vivant entertainments of the 19th century; some of it reminded me of the Renaissance Fairs of San Francisco back in the 1980’s, and some of it was just uniquely its own. More of a pastiche of skits than a script, the dialogue was sparse, but the imagery was inspired.

There were moments in the production that portrayed death or loss that were hard to experience (that voice of grief reminded me), but several weeks later, I’m still remembering the effects of this show and its artistry.

It was a wonderful visit to see this version of black box theater, and to be part of an audience again.

Theater 59 in New York City

Setting, my favorite character

by Ayesha Siddiqui

Lately I’ve been steeping in the details of setting. The shocking cold of a marble floor even in the height of summer, the joy of lightning bugs on their first flight of the season as the sticky humidity holds you up and the sun departs, the sound of a call to prayer, the song of cicadas in the morning dew. Give me the plays and the fiction where the setting is alive. Characters find themselves being pulled along in ways they don’t even realize by mother nature or guided by the house they’re in. Give me tiny apartments and big sprawling spans of memories. Give me snowstorms and shaking your boots out when you finally get inside, trying to solve your own existence in a room with a leaking roof, marshes and office break rooms. Setting is so alive, buzzing before a character ever enters the room and sets the plot in motion. As my own writing has shifted more towards the world of sci-fi and occasionally the absurd, the idea of creating settings that can quickly transport the reader to the world we’re now inhabiting with little information matters a great deal. Do my characters know where they are? Do I (let’s be honest…sometimes I don’t)?

For a long time I lamented the fact that I only seemed to have a default setting in my writing: mother nature. But this is what tugs at me in my core: the earth, the ground, the water. Sometimes nature  is lashing out with storms, or sometimes she is peaceful outdoors, or sometimes I am imagining her far into the future in a world where everything has become unbearably hot. 

Setting is one of those beautiful things in writing that lingers somehow both close and far outside ourselves. It is not an idea, or evocative of how we want to make an audience feel, it is something that looms larger than what we can truly understand. It shapes humans who grow up in it. It makes others feel like they’ll never belong. It brings out our worst (have you ever spent a summer in the Southeast without air conditioning?) and our best (have you ever watched your neighbor shovel the driveway of the elderly person next door for an entire winter?) We are so small in the grand existence of things. So much of conflict in storytelling comes from humans trying to create some sort of control over their lives in spite of the setting they’re in. And I guess that’s the great illusion: to think we have some control. So when the setting promptly arrives, whispering to you of the surroundings and the temperature on your skin, just know, it was probably around long before you were.

Any Ideas?

Where do ideas come from?

I realized after I had completed my plays, it was time to start a new one, but I was at a loss. Previous plays had begun with a project I wanted to submit to that gave me a place to start from, an idea to build on. But it wasn’t until there was no specific project to write for, did I realize I was out of ideas. Well, not necesszrily out of ideas, but no idea where to start. And that had me thinking, where do ideas come from?

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

Do you make a wish for potential story lines and ideas?

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

I never thought of how a play starts. It’s just a story after all. 

A story you feel you need to tell. A problem you need to fix. 

Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash

There are no new ideas. Just different ways to approach them. 

So what are you thinking passionately about lately? 

Jennifer

The FPI Files: Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles

A Conversation with Co-Creator and Producer Paula Cizmar on a new Environmental Justice Multimedia Theatre Project.

by Elana Luo

Paula Cizmar is an acclaimed playwright and professor of playwriting at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. Most recently, she has been co-creator and producer of Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles (SZLA), a nonfiction collaborative environmental justice project about the damaging effects of industrial pollution on South Los Angeles communities.

The idea for SZLA took root in 2019, and had an online iteration that was presented in 2021. The project is now an expansive multimedia exhibit and experience at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. A house-like set built inside the museum features rooms filled with animation and video, news shows, interviews with members of the Los Angeles community, truck-ride simulations and of course live immersive theatre performances.

I spoke to Paula about a week before opening about putting it together, and her experience as a female playwright working in the intersection between environmentalism, feminism and theatre. 

Elana Luo: This is a huge undertaking, but let’s just start at the beginning. How did Sacrifice Zone come about?

Paula Cizmar: For the past ten years, I’ve been writing plays that take an environmental justice approach.

Paula Cizmar

[As a genre,] eco-theatre was a sub-category of theatre as a whole and it consisted of plays that were written by people who viewed the connection to the earth as important. A lot of the eco-plays were about endangered species—and, of course, the most photogenic of these is the polar bear.  I love polar bears;  I love all animals. 

But my problem with relying on photogenic poster animals is that it says to people:  Climate change is off in the distance, both in terms of location and in terms of time. 

The fact of the matter is that climate change is affecting us now. I realized that we in Los Angeles need to start looking at what’s going on. Our own citizens are being affected. So I started writing plays that looked at how we, and cities, are upset by environmental justice issues.

Then, I was working on Warrior Bards, an Arts and Action Project at USC, and the Head of Arts in Action, William Warrener, knew I wrote a number of these plays; one day he said, ‘You really should do something for Arts in Action about climate change or sustainability.’  And I thought—hmm.  Why not? So I pitched a multimedia project to my friend and colleague, Michael Bodie. Our idea was to allow the community in Los Angeles to tell their own stories about the environmental issues that were affecting them. We started investigating the oil wells that are less than a mile away from us. We worked with community activists and professional actors to turn the testimony of the community into a script.

Elana: In addition to the script, there are a number of other elements including video, interactive elements, and simulations. How did you decide on the mediums of the project?

Paula: I thought a climate change piece—in order to attract an audience—would need something more than a script.  It would need some multimedia elements to engage an audience. As a filmmaker, [co-creator] Bodie has massive technological know-how and hands-on skills that I simply don’t have, plus he’s got storytelling sense—and maybe even more important, a sense of adventure.  We knew we had to do something different that would maybe not even fit into a traditional space. 

SZLA co-creator Michael Bodie with interactive designer Luke Quezada and set design assistant Zoya Naqvi (l to r)

When you go back to the history of theatre, you realize that theatre used to be performed around a campfire, and then theatre was performed on the streets. So in a way with Sacrifice Zone, we’re kind of taking theatre back to its roots. We were doing a big project that involved the community, and it would have many parts, so we needed to reach out to involve a lot of artists.  And we’re not doing it on a typical proscenium stage. We’re bringing theatre to the people. I’m staring at like, honestly, two hundred kids right now [outside the museum, where the Sacrifice Zone team is working on the installation], and they will be able to walk through this exhibit and see the stuff that we’ve created.

SZLA installation inside the Natural History Museum waiting for its final touches

I have learned throughout my career, as a woman—and then as an older woman—that basically no one is going to pay attention to me. I’ve learned that I have to do it myself. As a playwright, I never really wanted to produce, but I decided that it was necessary to step up and create opportunities. I jumped into being a theatre maker/producer, not solely a playwright, for things like Sacrifice Zone

Elana: From lighting designers to videographers to theatre actors, SZLA clearly has a huge team. How did you go about putting it together?

Paula: It was a question of, who do we think would be really good to work with, who can we afford, who needs the experience, and who is actually politically and socially interested in these issues and will work hard?

A lot of my work is about community service, and public service. I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be making any money in theatre. You can make a bare income, but you have to do other things. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that what I was doing was valuable. And so community service is just a part of my life in the arts, and I want to instill that in my students, too.

part of the SZLA team with Paula Cizmar (back, 2nd from l), director Fran de Leon (front l) and Michael Bodie (back r)

Elana: Did you get into environmentalism first, or theatre, or both at the same time?

Paula: I started off as a playwright interested in women’s rights. I wrote about violence towards women, domestic abuse, and human rights issues. And what became very, very clear to me is that climate change and environmental justice are human rights issues. So it was a natural outgrowth of interest. 

Elana: Do you see any other intersections, and I’m sure there are many, between feminism and environmentalism?

Paula: Absolutely. What feminism basically asks for is equal treatment, equal rights. And environmental justice asks for the same thing. An equal right to having clean air and water, to being able to live a healthy life, to have access to health care. So things are incredibly connected because this is all about stewardship of the earth. Not just stewardship of nature, but stewardship of human beings. 

SZLA actors Claudia Elmore and Alejandra Villanueva rehearsing behind the scenes

Elana: How about the intersection between environmentalism and theatre?

Paula: There have not really been very many plays that have been actually produced about the environment or about ecology. I find that interesting. I think that there’s a kind of diss to plays that people perceive as issue plays. I read plays about people, but they might be set against an environmental catastrophe of some kind. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an issue play. It’s a play about people. But what I’m trying to do is get my characters to address the world that we live in. 

Elana: So an issue play tries to convey a specific message or view. But you’re interested in telling a story about the issue, instead of the play just being the issue.

Paula: Exactly. Sacrifice Zone is a very issue-oriented play. In fact, it started from documentary roots, because originally we were just going to do it as documentary theatre, with some media enhancements. As we developed it, and as we started to get to know the people involved, we realized that we wanted to tell a bigger story. It’s very hard in a documentary to get people to say exactly what you want them to say, with proper dramatic build, a climax and a resolution.

So we created fictional characters based on things that our real life community activists said, and challenges and campaigns they’ve been involved in. We then created a fictional story so that our audience can get an emotional attachment to the people, care about the people, and then, we hope, care about the issue.

SZLA lead writers Eliza Kuperschmid (l) and Alessandra Viegas (r), with actor Xol Gonzalez (c)

Elana: What do you hope the audience will take away from the piece?

Paula: I want to tell stories about people. But in our contemporary world, particularly here in California, if we ignore the environmental component of people’s lives, then we’re ignoring something that’s extremely important. So do I want to say that as a documentarian, or do I want to find a way to dramatize that so that somebody can come in and say, ‘Wow, I really fell in love with that character and it was really painful for me when I saw what they were going through,’ and then we hope that translates into ‘I care about this now, and I want to do something about it.’

“Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles” opens January 13th, 2024, with performances through the 28th at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. Visit sacrifice-zone.com for more information. Reserve Free Tickets Here

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate Now!

Books I Loved in 2023 

by Leelee Jackson

Happy New Year! 

As I look back on 2023, I want to share a list of books that inspired and got me through the year. They aren’t in any particular order. 

  1. The Art and Practice of Spiritual Herbalism by Karen Rose 

I ended 2022 and started 2023 with Karen Rose The Art and Practice of Spiritual Herbalism: Transform, Heal, and Remember with the Power of Plants and Ancestral Medicine. I often refer to this book as one that saved my life. At the time, I felt really lost and uninspired. Heavy with grief, I committed to reading a page a day. It was easy to commit to one page because of all the illustrations. The way the book is written feels like my aunty or OG who cares about me is talking to me, sharing something really important. After reading this book from cover to cover, I was able to walk away with a generous amount of tools that have helped me balance my emotions and process my deep feelings throughout the year. 

  1. Fat Ham by James Ijames 

Although this play is a reimagining of Hamlet, it’s so much better to me! I was skeptical at first because of my personal disdain of Shakespere, however, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy every bit of Fat Ham. It reminded me of a Tyler Perry play versus Shakespere. I say that with a high regard of respect and admiration. I grew up on Perry’s plays in my home. However, I have no memories of my family gathering to watch Taming of the Shrew live on PBS; but we went out of our way to find Madea’s “Family Reunion” from the bootleg man. The comedy in Fat Ham was so strong, I would burst out laughing as I was reading it. By the time I got to the end, my jaw was on the floor. No spoilers but gurl…

  1. Sing a Black Girl’s Song edited by Imani Perry 

My friend told me one time “Leelee,  yo life change every week!” But for real, both Imani Perry and Ntozake Shange are women who have changed my life. This anthology of the unpublished collected writings of Shange has allowed for me to feel so seen/heard/felt in my mental health. I’m taken back by Shange’s audacity. The hyper awareness of her own mental state was profound. She’d write so clearly about matters such as anxiety, grief, trauma and depression in a way that was poetic but not romantic. Perry was able to carefully gather parts of Shange and piece them together with a lot of love and the utmost respect. I have a more well-rounded understanding of who She was as a person/artist/performer/Black woman/scholar/author because of this book. I’m grateful.  

  1. Parable of the Sower Graphic Novel written by Octavia Butler Illustrations by John Jenniggs 

Although I’ve already read the non-illustrated novel many years ago, reading the graphic novel gave me a visual and unique reading experience that I didn’t get the first time. The graphic novel offers a picture that allows for the already beautiful text to have movement and texture. I was met with a lot of fear and anxiety however. Sower takes place in a fictional Southern California city called Robledo that is somewhere Inland of the non-fictional, Los Angeles. The portrayal of familiar buildings, bridges and freeways ruined and on fire woke me up in a way I didn’t have to with the original text. My biggest takeaway was not only that “god is change” but also how essential community is to ensure real survival. 

  1. Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury 

This play has been a part of my archive for many years. And the first time I started reading it, I couldn’t get through the first few pages. At the time, I was so over the whole “let’s have a party and talk about race” plot. I was bored with the conflict that presented itself in the first few pages. Uninterested in the characters. But I picked it up again and gave it a fair-read and discovered that the first act was supposed to make me feel that way. The second act turns the  audience viewpoint backstage and we drop in on a conversation with the other half of the cast (white) who are having a conversation on what race they’d prefer to be if they weren’t  white. The play turns in on itself in this fascinating and unique way that made me interested and invested in the narrative. By the time I was near the end, I couldn’t guess what was going to happen rather than accept it. 

  1. The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

This was the most exhilarating book of poetry I’ve ever read. As it takes on beautiful pros that center the personal life of the writer, it also incorporates pleasure, play and spiritualism that makes each piece feel different from the last. The second act is a play on poems (or the poetry of play) and incorporates monologues and scenes. I call it a punk rock poetry experience that doesn’t fail to speak to the personal as loudly as it does the universal. Tempestt is a master at talking shit and backing it up; calling out the university, publishing companies as well as other poets and how they pander to the white gaze. I’m a bolder writer because of my engagement with this work of art. 

Have you read any of these books? What books are on your reading list for 2024? 

A Four Lettered Feathered Thing

It drives my mother crazy that I did not inherit her optimism. When a rough spot appears on the horizon, she will confidently declare that “Everything happens for a reason,” and I’ll reply, “Or maybe we ascribe meaning to things in order to avoid the terrifying reality that the universe is a chaotic force outside our control or comprehension.”

She ascribes this to cynicism. I call it being pragmatic. I’m not, after all, some kind of Eyore, unable to smile and forever seeing doom and gloom wherever I look. I just can’t pretend NOT to see the infinite myriad fractures in our unpredictable existence. In fact, seeing the world this way helps me feel prepared for the rough spots—I’ve got a pocket full of “Just in case” with me at all times. (And yes, some people might call this generalize anxiety disorder, but whatever.)

The point is, when you’re a perennial pragmatist, good news feels… weird. It might even try to plant a seed of hope within your fortified heart, setting off a chain reaction that leads you to some very weird places.

That’s what happened to me last month when I found out I was a finalist for one of those “Big Deal!” awards we playwrights like to chase. I got excited! I felt hopeful! And then that hope completely disrupted my carefully balanced system.

I mean, yes, hope lifts your spirits and allows you to imagine adventure and glow and warm fuzzy feelings of the extraordinary sort! But hope also allows brings a heightened awareness of how precarious and fragile having hope actually is. To know that hope can be shattered? Leaving you right where you were, but now blisteringly aware of your own life’s newly unmet potential? YIKES!

I began to worry that I would not handle the (likely) disappointment very well. That I would sink into one of my “Who the f*** am I to think I have anything worth saying to the world?” slumps, and bum everyone out around me, and just generally be, like, really really sad, for a good long while. So then I asked, “Is this good news really just bad news in disguise? Is it actually better to have hope for a few weeks, than to not have had any at all?” Hope is a four letter word, after all…

So, yeah, I was a lot of fun, lol.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the lack of an “Even better news!” email means that I’ve NOT gotten “The Big Thing” I was so tickled to be an actual contender for. And I’m… ok? I mean, I know I’ll be sad when the official TBNT email arrives, but the existential panic of “HOPE SO SCARY!” is gone. Which is a relief, because I was pretty sure I was going to be CRUSHED.

The whole experience just reminds me that getting close to a Big Deal Opportunity can be exciting and fun in and of itself. Who knows if I’ll ever be the playwright theatres are lining up to produce… at least I know someone is kicking my work up the ladder, right?

Spoken like a true pragmatist.

By Tiffany Antone

The Buckle Sisters

By Alison Minami

Playwright and dramaturg Alice Tuan changed her writing practice during the pandemic. She vowed to herself that beginning on November 1, 2021 she would not succumb to the social media and internet doom-scrolling that so many of us are accustomed to first thing in the morning and would instead, begin the day–and the writing–“with a fresh mind.” She describes that morning vividly—how difficult it was to get out of the bed, how forceful the lure of reaching for the phone, the visualization of the writing table, so close yet so far away. All I have to do is get to the chair and sit in it, she told herself. It took her nearly thirty minutes to get out of bed, but she did it. And the next day again, and the next, until she built the musculature for a new habit. It was the beginning of a new way of writing and being for Alice. Influenced by her Buddhist meditation practice, she wanted her writing to be informed by “deep listening” rather than being “flashy and loud.” Early in her playwriting career, her works demanded attention, both in their content and form. But in this new practice, Alice strived for egolessness. She also began writing by hand in tiny letters on the backs of scripts she’d helped usher into the world through her dramaturgy—another way of slowing herself down and not screaming at the page, waiting instead for what was emerging from within rather than manipulating ideas from the external chaos of the world.

It was through this practice that her new play The Buckle Sisters was written. A fictionalized story inspired by Alice’s relationship with her own sister, the play centers around Bea and Bar, two sisters who could not be more opposite in personality or temperament. Of the pair, Bea is the free spirit, a starving artist who never has the approval of her Chinese mother, while Bar is an ordered and perfectionist mother and wife, working hard to tend to the needs of everyone in her nuclear family. But this is not a sibling rivalry play at all. Rather it is a play about sisterly and familial bonds that endure and even strengthen in spite of–or because of–the oppositional energies that engage in a continual push-and-pull, yin and yang dance of interpretations and negotiations amidst family secrets, legacies, and re-constructed memories.

I had the great pleasure of experiencing The Buckle Sisters first as a reader in a private Zoom read, and secondly, as an audience member for a professionally staged reading at Boston Court Theatre in conjunction with East West Players directed by Rebecca Wear. As a reader, I was excited by the language and the wordplay; there is so much happening with language—the double meanings, the symbolism, the puns, the sounds—that an audience member might miss how deliberate and poignant each layer of meaning is crafted. Beginning with the play’s title, to buckle, Alice points out, means to collapse, but it is also a mechanism in which to keep people safe, as in, buckle up. Add to that, Bea’s favorite singer Jeff Buckley and Bar’s middle school impersonation of William F. Buckley, and the dialectical nature of relationships reveals itself as both significant and imperative to a family’s survival.

This sort of subtle and nuanced symbolism is embedded in both the process and the product. Thematically the play touches upon capitalism and the paltryarchy (as Bea calls it). The text itself is written entirely in lower case letters, and it is in part, a way to fight the Capitalism with a capital C. While an audience member might not ever know this about the text, I can’t help but believe that the process impacts the product, which is to say, this measure of resisting traditional form compelled the words to look different and then subsequently be different. Bea and her sometimes love interest, Pierre Nous, discuss the voraciousness and the boring, limited scope of capitalism. This is mirrored in their dog chase cat games or in Bea’s job as a sushi plate—indeed, there is something capitalistic to a predatory chase or to the commodification of the body as it relates to hunger. When Pierre says to Bea “You are obviously not a capitalist”, Bea declares, “I’m not a capitulist.” In a sense, the play itself refuses to capitulate to expectation, and it is precisely that resistance that makes it so delightful, which is the only way to describe the audience experience.

The live in-person reading revealed just how humorously all the wordplay and banter translated. I found myself laughing from start to finish. I laughed when Bjorn, Bar’s half-Swedish, half-Chinese son became seemingly possessed by spirits; When Sven, Bar’s husband, tried to assert his parenting style so as not to raise a child who is too soft, too indulged, or too uncouth as other Americans; When Ma, the sisters’ mother, forgot Bea’s birthday and felt zero remorse for it; When Sven and Bar fought over a cotton-top tamarin taxidermy as home decor. For me, the characters were so well drawn out that I was simply watching them in their elements interacting with each other. Ask me what happens in the play, meaning, what is the plot? and I don’t think I could definitively answer. So much happens, but none of it is tied to a driving plotline. Instead, it is an amalgamation of conflicting desires, feelings of being misunderstood or not seen, endeavors to help or heal, between people who know and care for each other so intimately while being themselves, flaws and all. Yet and still, by play’s end, I felt full and satisfied. I could feel a transformation for both sisters as they came together, closer and freer than when we began.

This satisfaction has everything to do with what Alice has coined the Last Third Dramaturgy, in which the playwright can utilize the last third of the play to “take a moment to think about the world you want to live in.” It is an opportunity for the playwright to consider “What is the best possible outcome for these characters?” and too, for the audience to consider how the play may impact their own visions of a better world. At play’s end, Bar and Bea are on a mountaintop doing just this, amidst the external pressures on their lives, envisioning their best outcome and celebrating their bond as sisters.

I look forward to seeing this play again in full production. To me, it is a distinctly Asian American play as well as a political play (my words, not the playwright’s) without attempting polemic or faux edginess. I learned something about playwriting—how process informs content—from watching the growth and evolution of this piece. Experiencing the play and talking with Alice got me excited to jump back into my own playwriting. As a dramaturg (or a play doula as some have called her), Alice is always wearing the hat of teacher, mentor, and advocate. Reflecting on her own journey of development with the Buckle Sisters, Alice says “If you keep at it, it will pay you back, not in rent, but maybe in unbridled joy.” So there you go playwrights. Carry on!

Newsletters

by Kitty Felde

If you’ve attended as many book marketing webinars as I have, you’ve heard the same advice: you need a newsletter.

The reason is simple: if the rest of social media goes the way of Twitter, er, X, you need a way to stay in touch with your theatre contacts, publishers, and fans in a format that you can control.
So as a veteran of writing hundreds of newsletters, here’s a few thoughts.

WHAT SHOULD I PUT IN A NEWSLETTER?

I’ve always thought of newsletters as a bit self-indulgent. Who would want to read anything about my life, my thoughts on climate change or politics, or pictures of my cat? And then I remembered that my husband and I have put out a Christmas newsletter for more than a decade that does just that. I apologize to my friends and family and tell them they can just toss it in the trash or ask me to take them off the mailing list. On the contrary, they say, they look forward to this annual missive. Go figure.

The truth is that we long for personal connections – even those that show up in a newsletter once and a while. Your contacts want to know more about YOU, the writer yourself. You don’t have to disclose utterly personal information. Instead, address the questions most people ask: Why do you write? How do you write? What are you working on? What does your desk look like? Who’s your favorite playwright? Why?

OTHER IDEAS

Readers and theatre goers and fans also like a peek behind the curtain. How do you cast a play? Do the actors hired for your work look like the ones you imagined when you were creating them? Who’s your favorite director? Why? What was the best (and worst) production of any of your work? (Leave out specific identification of the offending theatre…it’s a small town.) Write about an amazing production of someone else’s play or recount a memory of a play you saw years and years ago that still sticks with you. Ask your readers to tell you about their favorite production of any play and put that in a future newsletter. Ask them which play they wish someone would write. Put together a survey. In other words, get your fans to interact with you, otherwise known as that horrid word “engagement.”

Ask yourself what your newsletter subscribers NEED. A calendar of upcoming shows you think they’d enjoy? A monologue or scene that got cut from one of your plays? A really wonderful – or really awful – review of a previous production of one of your plays? Information about upcoming productions or publications or interviews?

MY NEWSLETTERS

Currently, I write two professional newsletters with a combined 4,000 subscribers. I began writing them in 2015.

For my Book Club for Kids podcast, I didn’t want the newsletter to be about ME. I wanted to give subscribers something that was useful. I knew that my audience of teachers, parents, and librarians needed help getting reluctant readers to pick up a book. So every month, I send a reading tip from a librarian or an education specialist. The newsletter also includes promotional material: information about the latest episode, an invitation to check out my other podcast The Fina Mendoza Mysteries, and an invitation to contact me if they want to bring the podcast to their school.

For my Fina Mendoza Mysteries civics series, I write a Facts Behind the Fiction newsletter where I expand on some Congressional fact mentioned in the books or podcast. The newsletter also includes links to research material, as well as links to the audio and to bookstores where the audience can buy the book.

Then I REPURPOSE the newsletter content in a blog on my website. And if I’m a good girl, I post links to it on social. That way, I get a three for one hit on my written material.

HOW OFTEN DO I SEND A NEWSLETTER?

It’s up to you. But once a month or every six months is plenty. Unless your audience asks for more.

HOW TO BUILD A MAILING LIST

Start with your friends, family, professional colleagues, and anyone else who might be interested in your work. Or in you. Include a signup link on your website. Include it in social posts from time to time. Do a “newsletter swap” – you write a post that a fellow playwright sends to her mailing list and she writes one for your newsletter. Include that signup link! Hopefully, her fans will sign up for your newsletter and become your fans as well. You’ll be surprised at how fast your audience grows.

MAILCHIMP, MAILERLITE, CONSTANT CONTACT, ETC.

Don’t send mass email blasts from your Gmail account. You will be punished. Instead, start with a free subscription from one of the usual suspects. I’ve used both Mailchimp and MailerLite and they’re easy, pretty much drag and drop. One warning: there’s a success tax. If your mailing list goes over a set threshold, you’ll have to pay for hosting.

STILL UNCERTAIN?

Subscribe to a few OTHER writer’s mailing lists. You can always unsubscribe. See what they are writing about, how they are providing value to the reader.

Newsletters are purely optional for writers, but as a control freak myself, they are an important part of my professional presence in the world.

Kitty

PS: You can subscribe to the Book Club for Kids podcast here. Or the Fina Mendoza Mysteries podcast here.

Kitty Felde is the author of numerous plays and the Fina Mendoza Mysteries series of books and podcasts, designed to introduce civics to elementary school readers. Her novella Losing is Democratic: How to Talk to Kids About January 6th will be released by Chesapeake Press this month.