Pessimistic Hope for the Future of Theatre

by Leelee Jackson

I’m really scared I won’t be able to do what I want to do in theatre. I know it sounds crazy but I have high expectations for the impact theatre has on people as well as the shape of the future. I grew up in a Black baptists church and that was my first real experience in theatre. Rev preaching, often going off book depending on the energy (or holy ghost) of the church. The choir serving as chorus, preparing the way for the Lord to lead. It was all so dramatic when it needed to be, gentle/ wise/ joyous/holy. Just like how I feel when I watch plays. Cathartic. I loved that shit. Watching sista Yolanda shout in short dresses and high heels was my favorite part. Sometimes her booty would show a little or her bra. I always wondered what she was going through to make her shout that way. I wondered if her man left her or if her daughter didn’t come home. Like, sis had character development down and it all was displayed from the pews. It was her role and my favorite character no doubt. Staged and organic.

I don’t feel like that when I watch plays that often. And I mean, I’d be foolish to believe every play should (or even could) offer me the Black baptist experience (like the broadway musical The Color Purple for reference of it being done in mainstream). What makes this sort of gospel theatre so special to me is the call and response, the audience playing a role in the play as well. Sometimes at theatre engagements, I’m the only one laughing and showing any form of human life in the audience. I’ve been asked to keep quiet in theatre spaces from being too loud and carrying on during musical numbers as if I was in church and not in a chair that’s way too small for my ass and cost me 35+ dollars to sit in. All to pretend I’m not even there. 

I write with the church in mind (and I’m not even religious). One of my favorite memories was during a performance of my one act play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) in LA a few years back, when my partner’s grandma walked right across the stage during the show to go to the restroom. Or during another show a few years before when the producer announced my play “by Leelee Jackson,” my brother shouted from the front row “YEEEE” (which is something we say where I’m from to show love and support or to say I see you). I love that shit. I like to call it the second show, the play that happens in the audience during/around the performance. 

I keep the second show in mind when I write. I remember being young and watching the Tyler Perry Madea plays on bootleg dvd’s when we didn’t have cable (which was often). The auditorium was full of Black people watching something that was written with them in mind. Spoke to them and held their attention. Stories that concerned them. That was so special to see at 13 years old. Not that I had a clue then that I would be a playwright but this familiarity of theatre that started from the church made it resonate. My aunty went to a Tyler Perry live play once and she said that during one of the songs, “The audience drowned out the actors.” She went on to say how the experience there was different from watching the dvd’s and before I had even been to a live musical theatre experience like that, I knew she was right. That kind of spirit/energy/engagement is so special. I feel it in my plays when I’m writing them. How to engage with the audience instead of pretending they aren’t there. I live for it. And I want to participate in theatrical practices that are concerned with the audience reflecting the characters portrayed on stage. Ugh, it gets me so upset that well funded theatre with a certain caliber of “excellence” is often withheld from the characters who are reflected in the play. One time my full-length play The Shit Show had a reading in LA that I couldn’t attend because I could not afford to go (they didn’t offer me a comp). That’s wild to me.

I’m really scared I won’t be able to see what I want to see in theatre arts. I keep seeing this vision of theatre outside the white gaze. Outside of white influence/imagination/expectation. Outside of what we have had to indulge in for the sake of “fine arts” even if it had nothing to do with our mothers and fathers. I picture alternative theatrical spaces that goes out to those whose lives are reflected in the play. I know of plenty of smaller community theatre spaces committed to uplifting theatre in marginalized spaces (some who have produced my work) so I know it exists and that kind of theatre makes me so full and feel so seen. I want a future where those spaces are created and paid attention to and well funded. Spaces who keep the audience in mind as well as the characters/people who are centered in the work.

I don’t know if I’ll get to see a future where this is the dominant theatrical narrative. I’m trying now and it’s hella hard. Getting funding/attention/community support is very hard when everyone wants you to write/be like Hamilton (which I’d NEVER do). I want my plays to live on in those spaces. I want to live where every play in my community reflect me and those in the community. Less attention to the big ass theaters who aren’t assessable or concerned with the working and working poor communities. It feels like an uphill battle and I have no idea if there’s anything on the other side or just me dreaming something that ain’t real.

Grieve Rinse Repeat

by Guest Blogger Gemma Soldati

For most purists, the notion of “live-streamed,” or “on-demand,” theatre feels antithetical to the spirit of theatre. I myself have lamented the inability to look an audience in the eyes and hear them breathe. When COVID-19 struck, Amrita Dhaliwal and I were on tour with our Hollywood/Edinburgh/Melbourne Fringe show The Living Room, a comedy of grief; a two-month long tour across the US and Melbourne, Australia. As everything was cancelled and I watched our careers screech to a halt, I knew what to do. Amrita and I had built a show about it. I had to grieve. 

Amrita Dhaliwal & Gemma Soldati in “The Living Room” – photo by Kevin Krieg

I skipped the denial phase and went straight to anger at Delta Airlines for not issuing refunds initially. It wasn’t long until the depression set in. I laid in bed for days checking the New York Times latest COVID-19 stats, paralyzed by the graphs.  It was around this time I started to see the writing on the wall and accepted that it was over. There would be no shows, no rehearsals, no collective catharsis or effervescence. Theatre was dead. 

But what to do with the dead? Bury it? Burn it? I did both. All summer I stood in soil that held my performative impulses down below the seeds I planted. I lit candles that illuminated a new room in my mind, one that showed me my passion wasn’t dead, just my practice. So, I searched for new practices. I found Batik and began sewing like a mad woman. I drew pictures with an untrained hand. And made shadow puppets. I hunted down music with unprocessed sounds and distant voices. 

Eventually the bargaining stage of my grief came in the form of the new solo show I was hoping to premiere at the (ultimately cancelled) 2020 Edinburgh Fringe. In the fall, an Artistic Director of a theatre in New Hampshire (where I’m currently based) approached me. She wanted to commission me to create a new live show during the pandemic. It felt like a clandestine operation. Like grave diggers in the night, we raised the dead with patience and focus. And thus my latest show came to be. But, there was a COVID caveat. It had to also be live-streamed. I shuddered. It was like performing my show from outer space – like Mike TeaVee in Willy Wonka floating above his parents as a million little signals. Ultimately, I accepted the offer. The 12-person max audience of masked faces was a wonderful sight, but the real gift came from the ether. Friends from Australia writing to say they woke up early to watch. Godchildren in Santa Cruz talking to my character on the screen. They couldn’t see me sweat, but they could see the signs of life.

Now the Edinburgh Fringe, among many, are adding digital elements to their festivities. I will be featured in this new virtual reality. And while I am dismayed that I cannot be present for my show The Adventures of Sleepyhead, I feel that I’ve sent an ambassador to represent me – much in the way a painter must feel when their work is viewed without them at the gallery. Digital audiences will undoubtedly have a different experience of my work and I will too, but just like a person listening to a conversation from another room, curiosity is piqued and for me that is enough.

Gemma Soldati in “The Adventures of Sleepyhead”

When people say, “theatre is dead” they fail to acknowledge the natural cycle of death and rebirth. And to those of us who are worried that this move to embrace digital shows will threaten the life of live theatre, rest assured knowing that it is in our biology to come together, to sing, dance, talk, emote, touch, reenact and play. No human invention will ever replace that. 

Gemma Soldati is an American performing artist. Her focus is clown inspired work developed in front of live audiences.

Read more about Gemma and her work at gemmasoldati.com.

On Writerly Advice

by Alison Minami

For the longest time, my favorite question during author Q&A panels went something like this: “Can you tell me about your writing process?” or “What is your writing practice?” or “How do you revise your work?” I was always hoping to glean some magic truth, a golden nugget that would suddenly motivate me to be generative, skillful and efficient all at the same time. I would think to myself, these writers have done something I haven’t yet accomplished, they must know something I don’t. 

I am still interested in the answers to these questions, but I have now come to realize–it seems so basic and cliché that I’m embarrassed to confess it here–that one should not hold onto advice, call it wisdom if you like, for longer than its expiration date. What resonates today may not work for tomorrow. And further, two seemingly opposite ideas can both be true at the same time.

Here’s an example: When I heard Cheryl Strayed say she didn’t write everyday, I felt relieved, giving myself a pass for not being a daily writer. She instead created opportunities, funded by organizations or with her own money, to hole up somewhere and write in chunks of time. A while back I took her advice and booked a three night stay in Santa Barbara to finish a draft of a script. Driving back to Los Angeles, I felt euphoric from the marathon writing, and I wondered why I hadn’t done such a thing before. Well, there’s a good reason why. I’m a parent with a parent schedule, and it’s hard to justify the cost of a hotel when you don’t plan on going out and you have a designated workspace in your own apartment. However, there was something psychologically motivating when I went away. I powered through in a way that I never seemed to be able to at my desk, even when I had the allotted time to get the writing done. Cheryl’s advice, it turned out, was sound. But let’s be honest, that was over six months ago. I’m not going to do that every month; I can’t afford it. Then what of all the time in between self-made “writing retreats”? While Cheryl allowed me to be gentler toward myself and to create space for the creative work, I know a younger version of myself might’ve interpreted that positive experience as proof positive that  “I can only write in hotels on long weekends.” I still take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to write everyday to call yourself a writer. But I also see value in cultivating the discipline to write everyday or establishing a writing routine. It’s not anything I’ve ever achieved, but I still strive toward that practice. 

Here’s another example that is less about the writing process and more about the steps to publication or production. In other words, putting yourself out there. Once I read a very compelling argument against paid writing contests. I can’t remember if it was an article, blogpost, or comments section rant, but the author made salient points. We were writers, already strapped for cash, being asked to submit our work to an applicant pool so large and/or nebulous that acceptance was as likely as winning the lottery. For some reason, this author’s screed made sense to me. It was undoubtedly validating a growing sense of resentment at having to go through so much vulnerability and rejection. I don’t blame myself for adopting this stance, I only wish I hadn’t held on to it for so long. Only recently have I started submitting myself to contests, publications, and development opportunities, and it has cost me a lot of money. I have had very slim success–but slim is obviously better than none. 

I am guilty of holding good advice to my chest as if it were my cuddle blanket. I am quick to adopt ideas that alleviate my insecurities or justify my inactions. Often, the advice is revelatory and genuinely useful. Often it has an arresting shimmer when it comes out of the mouth of someone I respect, someone whose work I admire. They must have the answer, they must know THE WAY, I think to myself. But when someone tells you THE WAY to accomplish a goal, it’s important to remember that there are many ways. The fact is that every writer is different and, more importantly, every writer evolves. A writer’s process for one project may be completely different for another. Sometimes you have to throw spaghetti at a wall and see what sticks; other times it is wise to hunker down and focus on the one project eating at your brain and haunting your dreams. It’s smart to look to others for advice, especially those who are doing what you want to do, but re-assessing how that advice aligns with your current philosophies and practices and listening to your own creative pulse is just as important.

The Whole Kit & Kaboodle

by Analyn Revilla

In the heat of the afternoon I cleaned the chicken coop and its surrounding grounds – it is one of the methods to keep down the fly population, and it is a labor of love.  The chickens did their thing as I did mine.  Occasionally I’ll see a chase when a rooster haunts after his favorite gal.  Sometimes all of the roosters will gang up on one hen.  I haven’t gotten used to this behavior, and instinctively I want to interfere, but refrain from it.  I really don’t understand their chicken-logic.  I think it’s a territorial thing when the dominant rooster will not accept being cuckold by a lesser chicken in the order of chickendom.  

This afternoon, “Henri” was the energetic one and reigned terror in the roost.  I always watch my back when I’m working in the garden.  In the past, he’s attempted attacking me with his dance and jumps that aim his talons at me.  I meet him straight on.  If I back down then I’m sunk forever.  Despite my bravado, it still scares the heck out of me.  Lucky for me, I have an ally in “Number One” (that is his real name), the main rooster who keeps order in his domain.  He’s smart enough to know not to bite the hands that feed him. “Number One” will peck and chase away “Henri” as soon as he sniffs “Henri’s” evil thoughts.   But, even with “Number One” nearby, I still keep something at hand to fend off “Henri” should he have it in his cuckoo-brain to go-for-it.

As I raked and raked the ground while keeping an eye out for “Henri”, I wondered how pleasant it would be without him around.  I’ve threatened him numerous times that he would make a tasty pot of Coq-au-vin if he keeps up with his nasty behavior.   After 3 years of living in the near-terror of having this nasty rooster around, today I finally asked myself more than once if it would be nicer without him around.  

The action of raking and raking, then dumping the manure mixed with dirt into the garbage can, and sweating in my farmer’s uniform of coat and boots under the blistering sun, I started to melt. 

“Wouldn’t it be nice?” I pondered.  “Wouldn’t it?”  

I questioned my own thoughts.  The little urban farm looked cleaner as I moved from one side of it to the other.  My thoughts became less clouded as my body drenched in sweat was refreshingly fatigued.  As I gathered my garden tools and walked out of the little farm I felt less inclined  to be rid of “Henri”.  I came to the conclusion that without characters like “Henri” life would be less interesting, if not only less hazardous. Another day, and again, “Henri” and I have come to a truce.  I went inside, peeled off my wet clothes and showered away the dirt and salty sweat.

Without the “Henris” and “Number Ones” vying for the top roost and the best girls, then my chickens would just be hollow zombies.  There wouldn’t be that tension and heat that sizzles the mystery of what it is that we do.

life, funny little life.

by Analyn Revilla

We share the universal phenomena of life, love and death and everything in between.  As human beings we move and travel in linear time in our mind and in the cycles of the season with our senses. 

We pass our minutes, days, weeks, months, years and decades like the spokes of a wheel marking the miles and miles of the journey with selfies, postcards and worries. 

We cry tears of joy or sorrow. We burst out laughing in madness or glee.  It’s really a wonder to me how full life can be.

After many false starts I am still here.

I’m learning to surrender to the wonder of it all. 

As I drove home from my other job, navigating the streets and freeway traffic, I knew I had to write something. Maybe from fatigue or emptiness, I toyed with the idea of conveying silence.  Words can make a lot of noise. One word can be loud.

So let me try singing silence to you.

Just be still.

Just be.

After spending a week in the hospital as someone dear to me recovered from surgery I felt moments melting together. The thought of losing someone to their last breath condenses time. I don’t mind now that he doesn’t pick up after himself. I will miss it if I lose him.

Returning to Normal?

by Kitty Felde

As I write this, I’m flying back to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., my first airplane trip since February of 2020. I attended my first (and second) Major League Baseball game, ate out in a restaurant, toured a museum, even spent time in five classrooms. It was great, but it certainly didn’t feel normal. The mass transit system in D.C. was nearly empty. Downtown and Chinatown were ghost towns. Capitol Hill was bereft of 8th graders on school field trips. When will we truly get back to normal?

And what IS normal?

I talked to a lot of old friends this trip. One thing I noticed was how many people were re-evaluating where they are in this post-pandemic life. I had coffee with SO people who told me they were contemplating their next act: writing a memoir, quitting their soul-sucking job, finding a way to make a difference in the world. Perhaps the one thing the pandemic taught us was how short life can be, how none of us are guaranteed fourscore and ten, how it’s time to start tackling the items on our bucket list.

Another thing struck me as I spoke face-to-face with human beings again: when I asked how their pandemic year was, every one of them began by talking about how fortunate they were. They recounted their blessings. Even those who lost family members or jobs began the conversation by talking about the good things that came of Covid. And every one talked about a lesson from the pandemic or a routine they plan to keep once they return to “normal” – whether it’s online yoga classes or saying “no” to social occasions they really didn’t have to attend or carving out time with the people they truly love.

So what does the future hold for theatre? When will we feel comfortable to sit inside, in the dark, with strangers whose vaccination status is unknown?

Some theatres, like the Fountain, invested in outdoor furniture, built a stage next door to their brick and mortar building, embracing a new way to create theatre. Others are scheduling full indoor seasons beginning this fall. And then there’s zoom performances…

A good friend in Virginia runs a terrific theatre in Alexandria: MetroStage. Unfortunately, after decades of performing in an old lumber warehouse near the Potomac River, her theatrical home was about to disappear. A multi-story, high-end condo would replace the cabaret musicals and exciting new plays that had graced MetroStage.

Fortunately, the city mothers and fathers were trying to brand that end of Alexandria as an arts district. Part of the deal was that MetroStage would remain in the neighborhood, courtesy of a black box theatre they would build for her in the basement of one of the new buildings.

The downside was that she had to raise a lot of money to finish the raw space. And the theatre would have to shut down for more than a year.
Enter the pandemic when every theatre in the world shut down. Her timing was exquisite.

Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin can hardly wait for the opening of her new theatre space. And yet, she keeps thinking about the theatre from around the world that she saw online during the pandemic. Some of it awful, some of it magical. (I still smile when I think about a zoom production of The Railway Children from the York Theatre Royal that was absolutely magical. If not for the pandemic, I never would have seen it.)

Carolyn believes that our pandemic year has taught us that audiences outside of our immediate neighborhoods are hungry for theatre. The homebound elderly need theatrical inspiration. So do kids in schools too poor to afford a school bus to bring them to a performance. Despite that spanking new performance space, Carolyn says her pandemic lesson is that 21st century theatre must embrace 21st century technology, making theatre accessible to more than just in-person season subscribers. Theatre can truly be for everyone.

If Carolyn is correct, that presents a challenge for us as playwrights: we must create pieces that actually work better on the small screen. Not just talking heads in a zoom call, but theatrical pieces that jump off the screen. Twyla Tharp commissioned Misty Copeland and some of Twyla’s dance company to create unique work specifically for the small screen. It was amazing. Dancers in their tiny New York apartments or Inglewood garage bouncing off the walls, avoiding bookcases, seemingly flying on and offstage. It was like watching Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding. We have to think outside the box to create this kind of work for the theatre.

And even if we only want to create work to be performed live, onstage, we have to write cheap. In other words, even the “no more than six actors” rule that has reigned supreme over the past few decades is too big. Theatres have held on by their fingernails. Budgets are amazingly thin. Plays featuring two characters – or even one – are more likely to be produced in the next few years. And unfortunately for living playwrights, much of that work will be tried and true titles designed to lure back an audience. We’ll be competing with the famous dead white guys.

Our last challenge is to ask ourselves what an audience wants to see onstage in a post-pandemic world. If the 1920’s are a model, it’s likely to be comedies and lighter fare. I doubt there will be much interest in a pandemic play, but I could be wrong. Look at Angels in America and the AIDS crisis.

But I’m an optimist. I’m going to view these challenges as pandemic blessings for us as writers. They allow us to reassess our own work, our own goals, our own “next act” as we sit down at the keyboard and start writing something new.

I can hardly wait!

Kitty’s second book in The Fina Mendoza Mysteries series State of the Union will be published by Chesapeake Press August 13, 2021. A mysterious bird poops on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. Can our young detective find that bird before the Secret Service, the Capitol Police, and the rest of Washington and hear its secret message?

I cheer for both the Dodgers and the Nationals

The future MetroStage

Black Woman

They say she talks too loud

laughs too hard-

Unable to understand her polyrhythm way of speaking-they call her crazy.

She finds her strength lies not in the discovery of how much she can bear,

No ———-

It reveals itself in the hungry rise and labored tilt of her magnificent crown.

In her dreams she sees the stoic face of her great great great grandmother

In the dark, she hears their wild, rapid call and response chanting as they’re forced onto the auction block.

She finds her strength lies in the tilted arch of her back and the urgent —

fervent step of her walk.

Her superpowers revealing themselves each time she speaks-

her thunderous voice rumbling walls,

In silence ———

upon her face a thousand years reveal many women-

she inhales their quiet pains, absorbs their broken dreams, 

She dances in their  memory, celebrating time and distance

Remembering ——–

She does not fear the long goodbye

instead she embraces the unknown journey with serenity –

welcomes the ride with open arms

Activist Ethel Mae Matthews of Emmaus House
(photo via Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center]

To Not Hiding & Vulnerability Nuggets

by Chelsea Sutton

I don’t know about you, but I write fiction and plays because it allows me to hide.

I seldom write non-fiction (this blog not withstanding). When I do, it is usually couched in humor and non sequiturs and other distractions so that you won’t look at the big VULNERABILITY NUGGET dropped in the middle.

HERE’S YOUR DISTRACTION:

https://twitter.com/IcelandFoods/status/1315989798998413313?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1315989798998413313%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Ftimesofindia.indiatimes.com%2Flife-style%2Ffood-news%2Fbritish-company-launches-chicken-nugget-into-space-netizens-are-excited%2Farticleshow%2F78702801.cms

But during the pandemic, I started a little project with a couple friend. Yes. It’s a podcast. Because everyone has a podcast now. I’m so basic.

My new headshot. Super basic.
(Are you distracted still?)

The thing with the podcast is that it is NOT fiction. It’s three of us talking about our REAL opinions about subjects that affect us, and particularly women, and how we live as humans from day to day.

So like…I have to be me.

I struggled with this, and desperately wanted some FORMAT to help STRUCTURE MY CHARACTER or come up with a hook that allowed me to hide.

But I don’t get to hide much. Only really as far as I do research or drop little tidbits of knowledge I’ve collected somewhere, somehow.

Usually when I’m writing a play or a story, when I feel like I’m showing too much, I can have a ghost or monster or some other weird thing pop in. As a friend once said, if this is a Chelsea Sutton play, where are the dead people?

Though I think what I’ve really discovered is that the old Flannery O’Connor quote about not knowing what you think about a thing until you write it out….is definitely true for me. I didn’t know I had such strong opinions about certain things until I was tasked with being in a 45 minute discussion about it.

Anyway, I recommend sometimes being vulnerable. Launch that vulnerability nugget into space, my friend.

If you want to listen, the podcast is called THE NICE GIRLS. It’s on Spotify and Apple Podcasts and all that stuff.

Here’s a trailer from our episode 8 about FAILURE. Which I know a lot about.

Look at me. Not distracting you.

No. No no no don’t look at the VULNERABILITY NUGGET.

Damnit.

Terms of Use…

In the beginning I separated the art from the day-to-day

But the days began to run into each other

And there was less and less time for…art

No time for refreshing

Or indulging in the high of creating worlds or music

Then the sky fell

And the only thing that mattered other than digging myself out from under the rubble

Was the art that I had neglected again

All I wanted was to see violins fly and hear the sound of tuning instruments

Smell the notes in the air and rosin on the bow

To read over one more time

The terms of use…

Use at your leisure

Use for air

Use for food for the soul

Use for dream fodder

Use to fly…

just use…

I think I can crochet the holes shut on these wings

the wind is picking up

and this dirt is falling off in clumps; it’ll sure fall off when I hit the air

Got my D string restrung, bouncing off that G just right

Someone is talking…

They want to be put on the page…

“Catch ya when I get to the mountaintop”

The FPI Files: Women Writers Address the Cycle of Violence

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 Team (L to R), Veralyn Jones, Courtney Oliphant, Gregg T. Daniel, Yvonne Huff Lee & Jason Delane Lee

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

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

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

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!  

A scene from “Safe Harbor” by Tira Palmquist, directed by Anita Dashiell-Sparks

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.

Playwright Bios:

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 WorldTwo 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.