Thanks for checking out the LAFPI “tag team” blog, below, handed off each week from one interesting female playwright to another.
Who are they? Click Here
Thanks for checking out the LAFPI “tag team” blog, below, handed off each week from one interesting female playwright to another.
Who are they? Click Here
By Cynthia Wands
The role of a Queen has changed in our world.
I recently watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. I spent hours watching the crowds of people along the funeral procession, the rituals of a Royal funeral, with everyone looking at a family in public mourning, and it wasn’t a story that was close to me. And yet somehow I didn’t turn off the tv. No, I watched vintage clips of the young Queen riding horses. Wearing Crown Jewels. And videos of her forlorn Corgis now missing their mistress. I was looking for something. I was looking for an image that would tell me that this icon – this woman – this story – was done.
I had grown up with this image of a Queen – she was someone who, to my mind, seemed rather suburban, inscrutable, reserved and irrevocably Royal. (Also – she owned six castles). In my early theatre days I learned from Sophocles and Shakespeare, that the Royals are a magic class. They have the power and the resources to set things in motion. At least until the end of the play. Nowadays the idea of royalty intermingles with Disney merchandising of fairy tales and elite real estate portfolios of the Royal British Family. This Queen had no real political power, although she had “personal prerogatives”; her role was distilled down to three essential rights: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. So it seems this Queen was a bit of an astrologer/weather consultant, and a national grandmother.
And yet, during the funeral broadcasts, more than one announcer referred to Queen Elizabeth as “the most powerful woman in the world”. Although it seems that her actual decision making were limited to bestowing knighthoods, approving Royal dress codes and lending out tiaras to her family for special events.
It was reported that this Queen had specific directions that were followed for her funeral (Code Name: Operation Unicorn. Really. Which sounds like something out of a bad James Bond movie.) But it seems her wishes and influence were supported in the days after her death. And for a woman with nominal political power, 37 million people in the UK watched her funeral. And worldwide, 4 billion people were reported to have watched her funeral. That is pretty powerful. I was one of the 4 billion in the audience. I was looking for an image that would stick to me, something that would give me a kind of bookend to this story.
I considered that – for those of us who create roles of women in power, women in history, women as Queens: the world had seen an icon pass on. Leaders as family figures. Family seen as Royalty. Mothers as Queen. It’s a curious template that we watch the roles played out in politics and history. More than ever, our world needs our women leaders, but do we need a Queen? The idea of a Queen?
I know my Irish ancestors might have some very spirited views on the role of a Queen. And my English family has complicated insights on this subject of Royalty and icons. I’m aware that I watch this turning of the page of history without having the idea of being a subject to the crown.
And still, after days of watching the gathering of the crowds, the ceremony of the funeral and the last bits of a life celebrated and mourned – I kept wanting to see something else. Something about the death of the Queen.
And then I found it.
© Image Provided by News18
The image that found me.
Yes I know. It’s not the image that I was looking for. There’s no women. And there’s Military uniforms. And no faces. No crowds. And the figures are swallowed up darkness. But I saw in this image, the kind of power that theatre can create. This spoke to me of the performances that playwrights and actors can bring about because they can create powerful rituals and awarenesses in their visual poetry.
A Queen is gone. Her influence has been felt.
Its time for new Queens and different influences and rituals. That sounds like the future.
Image: Mixed Media/Mosaic of images by Cynthia Wands
This is an image that came to me while I was writing this. Here’s to the future of new Queens and rituals.
What are you going to do with this piece of history now that you know it?
Do you remember sitting in history class? I do. I’m not certain if all artists feel this way, but I loved history class. There was something about the storytelling, the backtracking of tales and social movements that directly affected how the world operates today that felt almost like a responsibility to know, retell, and learn from as a human moving through on planet. Although I don’t consider myself a history buff by any means, there are those stories that stuck with me—some obscure and random, some retold again and again, sticking to the sides of my brain like Papier-mâché. I can tell you about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the Industrial era and how that event sparked momentous conversations about child labor laws; I can tell you about the Atlantic slave trade in detail, not because of history class, but because I would take my history homework to my sister, who told me all about how Columbus first stopped in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Cuba, where my father’s family was from. Because of yearslong lessons about the American Revolution (and the help of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton), I can explain in detail what led to the American Revolution, how the British forces lost, and the principles on which this country was “founded.”
Who is there to tell the stories of lost history? And when we learn that lost history of a nearly-forgotten peoples, what do we do with it?
This is the question Sylvia Cervantes Blush, director of Desert Stories for Lost Girls, wants the audience to leave with. In this world-premiere play by Lily Rushing, 18-year-old Carrie is thrown into a world of memories and stories of her ancestors as she learns the history of her people, the Genízaro, a tribeless tribe of Native American slaves who deserve to have their stories told.
I got to sit down with the Lily and Sylvia to get a taste of what we can expect to see in Desert Stories for Lost Girls before its debut.
Carolina Pilar Xique for LAFPI: Having the piece produced through Native Voices at the Autry is huge, especially because the company is the only Actor’s Equity theatre company in the country dedicated to developing Native works. What has the experience been like getting to produce this show with a company that’s committed to that mission? And how has their partnership with Latino Theater Company affected that experience?
Lily Rushing: Everything with them [Native Voices] is so Native-centered in an incredible way that, as a native playwright telling a native story, it’s such a relief, you know? You don’t have to educate anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, or feel like you’re entering weird, emotional territory because everyone in the room is like, “Good, got it. Let’s do the work.” It feels like a step forward.
Sylvia Cervantes Blush: I’m not Native. Soy Latina. And when they [Native Voices] reached out to me, I did an interview and some of my first questions and concerns were, “Am I the right person to help bring this story to life?” Because I don’t have that lived experience. The most in-tune person can still make some really poor choices or not know how to help the process, so that was at the forefront of my mind. But they were so incredibly inviting and immediately transparent. To know that this collaboration between Native Voices and Latino Theater Company was happening, it felt like a way to open audiences to the work that they are both doing, together and separately. Latino Theater Company are such a mighty engine of a small army of people that get stuff done and I’ve yet to hear a “no”—I’ve just seen solutions. We started rehearsals on the actual set, in the theater. Not only in the space, but with a built set. That’s not your typical experience. It speaks to the level of support Latino Theater Company has for this story and lifting up the work Native Voices is doing. This is the first time in 30+ years that the Native Voices is performing in a full theater space. They’ve made magic at their location [at the Autry Museum’s auditorium], but now, coming out of a pandemic, doing it in a theater and at a space like LATC, it’s really special. When the actors walked into rehearsals, it was like, “Wow. We have space.” And I get to be a part of that. It’s really special.
Lily: I think it’s so beautiful that getting that space and working in there comes from two brown companies helping each other out! That’s the icing on the cake—two brown theatre companies supporting each other and lifting each other up. We love to see it.
Sylvia: And it speaks to the uniqueness of this story—it evolves from the Southwest and our cultures in this story mix. It’s the perfect project for this marriage between these two companies to happen right now.
Carolina: You touched on the process of being in the room with Indigenous artists. What has it been like and what measures are being taken to care for their ancestral trauma while also displaying it on the stage?
Lily: Native Voices hires a trauma consultant to make sure we have that extra level of care if we need it which is really important. We had eyes from a lot of Indigenous people but also from Sylvia about where we need to have a little extra caution, a little extra care. That made me feel prepared before going into the process. One thing I love about working with Indigenous actors is the lack of need to educate. Because when you are in the room with artists who don’t have that heritage of being colonized or stolen, they might have questions or not understand something, and you feel like you have to defend it. Native Voices has set up this system of interacting with the storyteller or playwright so that actors can ask their questions, but I don’t have to answer or defend anything. So that takes care of both of our needs. In that way, it allows actors to interact with the emotion of trauma—the expression of it—rather than having to interact with the truth of it. When I got into the room with the actors, I felt like we were all protected.
Syliva: You get to just exist and understand that you are not all trauma—that you carry joy and other parts of you into the room, and that, as we explore the trauma in the play that the characters are exploring, even if there is a similarity, you have the permission to create space and just exist as a character. By being able to have a room of People of Color, and specifically with this play, having Native people telling a story about Native people, it allows us to really explore the complexities that are beyond and within the trauma, and find the joys in these character’s lives. When it’s performed, the audience experiences those complexities and can have a different lens from the ones that we hear on the news. They don’t have to explain anything, we just get to have the conversations about them.
Carolina: Sylvia, you said in a quote that, “The play challenges us to let go of a safe narrative.” Would you like to expand on that?
Sylvia: It’s so funny because when you catch me at different phases in the process, and I’ll have a different response. (* Laughs*) Because I grow with the process of it. I feel like what Lily has done is she’s combined different parts of the human brain on stage. We have memory, the existence of the present time, the existence of a disappearing memory—the grandmother is grappling with these phases of dementia, and at the same time, desperately trying to connect the memories to help her granddaughter understand her own legacy. There are fascinating moments in the play where multiple generations are on stage, or the same character in two different phases in their life are on stage and are conversing with each other. I’ve been leaning into that and challenging myself to not make the choices arbitrary in this illogical world, but there still must be something that allows an outsider without the history and breadth of knowledge that we have to experience and feel moved. That’s the journey we’re on now in the space. I think what Lily has offered us is the dangerous nature of the topic of this play. Things are unsettling and they should feel that way. It’s okay for an audience member to feel a little discombobulated at the end of the experience. We’re taking them on a ride.
Carolina: Lily, this play is almost autobiographical because you had a similar experience to the main character, Carrie. Can you walk us through what that was like for you?
Lily: We always knew that we had Indigenous heritage, but my dad has this joke where he calls us and his family, “mocos,” which in Spanish literally means boogers, but also means “Mexican Or Chicano Or Something.” It’s his way of saying that, in the time he grew up, we weren’t having conversations about identity or heritage that we’re having now. I talked to my cousin Larry; he wrote this beautiful story for us called “Stories from Ojo,” where he wrote his memories. He kept using this word, “Genízaros.” My mom dug up the Census and found that there were multiple documents that read, “Indian,” “White,” or “Genízaros,” that were part of our family history. The same people had different races and different ways of being categorized as the years went on. After they were baptized, this zealous priest somehow convinced whoever to write down that, because of their baptism, these Indian people were no longer Indian and were now white. I was in college when we found the story of Placida, who is a character in the play but also my real-life great-great grandmother—she was a Genízaro, which is a native slave in northern New Mexico—who was 13 or 11 years old when she bore my great-grandfather. She was removed from the settlement and would walk 20 miles every day to see her son in extremely rugged, mountainous territory. In the family legend, it was said that her feet were stained black. We knew immediately why we didn’t have a concrete answer [in terms of heritage]—because that is the goal of forcefully separating tribes, the goal of colonization. When you try to find the people in your community, you can’t find them; they’ve taken away all the answers from you. Something the play deals with is why the women in this family needed to know that history. They need it not only to keep them safe in a literal sense—when you know your history, you can be prepared for it—but also, women have a need to know our mothers, grandmothers, and family. For me, I needed that connection for myself. I feel like it made me understand so much more about where the legacies of confusion, shame, and Catholic guilt all stemmed from. I feel Placida’s story and carry her with me all the time. Her incredible resilience is the lesson I take with me everywhere.
Carolina: That’s amazing! That sounds like an enormous undertaking, both physically and emotionally, but I’m so happy you found them. The tagline of this play reads, “Do you believe your ancestors walk with you?” I wanted to pose the same question to you both.
Sylvia: That belief is something I’ve adopted in the last few years. My friend had a conversation with me one time. We were at the park, talking, and she was talking about how, sometimes, to convince herself to walk out that door, she’s adopted this way of closing her eyes and imagining that with each step she takes, her ancestors are walking with her. I’ve taken that to heart. I think about the people I know in my lifetime who have passed on—my sister, Tina, who passed away seven years ago. I carry her with me all the time. She’s always part of me and I have her as someone of strength that I can come back to, even if I’m not feeling strong in that moment, because I know that she’s the makeup of my grandmother—my mom’s mom, who also had a strong presence—and then my great-grandmother. Even my husband’s mom, who passed away a year or two after my sister did. It’s the carrying of all those generations with me when I walk into a room that allows me to lean on the strengths of who they were and use that to shape myself. I came from that stock of strong women, even the ones I didn’t get to meet. I feel a connection to them with this piece.
Lily: That reminds me of what we talked about in that first week of rehearsals, about spinning tops, that time isn’t a line or this flat thing. When we go about living our day, that’s one top spinning on the table. And those stories that live in us are another top spinning, too. All these events that my ancestors went through, like Placida, or even things that I’m going through, it helps me to think of them all sort of happening at the same time, on this same plane of existence. I feel like my relationship with my ancestors is active. When I live my day with courage, when I choose to thrive, I’m feeding them, just as their choices and sacrifices feed me. There are things being talked about now—ancestral healing, inner healing. I think the first step to do all of that is to look and open yourself up to looking at those stories, even if they’re really hard, and then you can start the process of walking with your ancestors. But first you have to look at them and see them for who they really are.
Carolina: What message or feeling do you hope audiences leave with after seeing the show?
Sylvia: I hope that this play can break open for someone the things that they think they know about the Southwest, and the inception of when the continent was being explored and then commandeered. I hope that this play will break open that curiosity and ask, “What are you going to do with that piece of history now that you know it? Are you going to put it in a book and put it on the shelf to collect dust? Or are you going to actively find a way to share that story?” That’s the space where we can heal—when you can name the history and acknowledge that it happened. It happened many moons ago, but our country was built on it. How do we fix the systems in place that continue to inflict violence on Black and brown bodies? I hope more than anything that people can recognize the responsibility that comes with witnessing this story unfold.
Lily: I hope Californians learn about Genízaros—learn about who we were and are—because we are a tribeless tribe. We have found and made a tribe out of that horrible history. I hope they learn something new about the country’s history that they never knew before that inspires them to start their own journey of learning and unlearning, to challenge their own narrative about labor, ownership, land, and belonging. And I hope people leave the theater and go straight to calling their grandmother. (*Laughs*) Something any grandchild can do is acknowledge that it was a hard world out there for our ancestors, and was only made harder by these constant, oppressive systems. All we can do is continue telling these stories and thank each other.
“Desert Stories for Lost Girls” opens on Friday, Sept. 30 at the Los Angeles Theater Center and runs through October 16. For tickets and information, visit latinotheaterco.org.
When Inda Craig-Galván was a young child growing up on the Southside of Chicago in the early eighties, her mother, a trained beautician, started losing clientele with the rise of at-home hair kits. In need of steadier income, she took a job at a beauty care products store owned by a Korean immigrant. The owner, unable to pronounce her name, renamed her Julie, which had always felt wrong to Craig-Galván. But as she got older, she realized that in many ways the two had had a mutually beneficial arrangement—for example, her mother was able to bring her daughter to work and the owner was able to pay her in cash. This unlikely pairing of two people at the margins is the inspiration for Craig-Galván’s new play “The Great Jheri Curl Debate,” which is having its World Premiere at the East West Players of Los Angeles.
In the play, Veralynn takes a job at Mr. Kim’s beauty supply store. The scenario and setting may be seeded from real life, but the story that unfolds is fully Craig-Galvan’s imaginative exploration of two people of color who are both trying to survive while negotiating shared space. Craig-Galván wanted to write an intersectional play bringing two communities uncommonly represented together that wasn’t about war or marriage, but rather about “dealing with each other, finding common ground, misunderstanding each other, and overstepping each other.” As a Black woman and an Asian immigrant with a heavy accent, Veralynn and Mr. Kim must come face-to-face with the racial stereotypes and cultural barriers between them. In so doing, they take the difficult but brave steps to bridge their divide and acknowledge their humanity.
A hallmark of Craig-Galván’s playwriting is an element of magical realism, and this play does not disappoint. While Veralynn works at the store, the beauty poster advertisements come to life, haunting and prodding her as she tries to build connection with Mr. Kim.
In her own words, Craig-Galván is “obsessed with using storytelling in a super theatrical way,” in “exploring someone’s inner mind—their thoughts and their skewed vision of life.” The posters are a window for both Veralynn and Mr. Kim as we discover how much they’ve sacrificed in the way of their own artistry just to live in America. Thematic to the play is the question, as Craig-Galván posits, “How do we continue to find and make art where we are made to feel unwelcome?” It’s a fitting question for anyone trying to make meaning out of their creative lives whilst struggling with the economic pressures of American capitalism.
Bringing together all the elements of this play took considerable creative collaboration. Under the dramaturgy of Playwright Alice Tuan, the play was developed in the East West Players’ new play development Playwrights Group. Director Scarlett Kim, also the Associate Artistic Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, brought her background in theater and video and technology to the project, as well her own Korean immigrant perspective, which was integral to the fleshing out of Mr. Kim. Because of the extended developmental support, the play had the great fortune of actor input by lead actors Julanne Chidi Hill and Ryun Yu.
For Kim, the play was an ideal project where her many skills and sensibilities could converge. She describes the play as depicting “how two characters move beyond prescriptions of what society tells them”, and one that refuses to fall into a right-or-wrong, black-or-white binary or be told through a white male gaze. One of Kim’s driving values as an artist and director is what she describes as unclassifiable spaces, a “central framework for life and art.” In many ways, she says this play is “the story of unclassifiability in both content and form.” The integration of multimedia to carry out the fantastical elements of the play is magical and isn’t additive but rather illuminating to the characters’ inner lives.
Both Kim and Craig-Galván rave about this female-powered creative collaboration, with Kim calling it a “dreamy, joyful, generous” process and Craig-Galvan amazed at the visual interpretations of her own, as she quips, “ridiculous stage directions.” The show promises to be a truly theatrical event.
I have many started drafts and a variety of folders organized with research of links on sites I need to visit, but it wasn’t until I started working on someone else’s project that it started making sense to me.
My title is Cultural Dramaturg. What does that even mean? During the Pandemic, I took the opportunity to increase my education. In my further attempts to understand how to write a play, I participated in a dramaturgy class. A month of examining how a play comes together and questions to ask understand a play. Homework and discussions.
Not knowing where to begin, I started looking at examples I had received from other dramaturgs on other projects. I looked to these packets of what information was included and how it related to the play. Hmm. I still had too much information.
Since I was also supposed to be sharing cultural information, that made it easier. In Act 1 of the play, which at this point was 124 pages, culture was only ⅓ of it. I looked to the location of where the people came from to ground the main character and to understand the bits of language that was being included. I searched through tribal histories to see what part of the nation she came from. I narrowed down the language to where she was born since there were no records of her. Next up, structure of the story being told. Who was telling the story and why? The best question that the director asked to help cut pages was: Whose story was this? it’s all fine and good to want to include all the brilliant information, but if it wasn’t about our protagonist, it had to go.
I am still looking for my method to creating a play. These simple questions were also helping me sort through the mounds of research I continued to find. I’m also figuring out how much information is too much and when do you stop.
The playwright in this instance had found an abbreviated story and was using that as an outline, but after talking about the play and explaining their thought processes, more options kept popping up.
I’m not sure what this all means. We finished a week of reading and listening and answering to questions about the play. We have a debrief to go through, and I’m thinking about my next steps. But me, I’m still researching.
Keep asking questions!
This past March, I celebrated my 33rd birthday. After losing my mother in early January I thought a lot about mortality. How we live our lives and who we live them with became more urgent and precious to me. I wanted to do something I love with the people I love.
When I meet other Black people within my general age range I’m always asked what I studied in school and when I tell them I got my degree in playwriting, the conversion almost always goes as follow –
Them: Ohhh so you be doing plays like Tyler Perry?
Me: Yeah, just like Tyler Perry minus the budget. Do you like going to see plays?
Them: Not really. I mean I haven’t really seen any plays like that. I know this don’t count but, one time I was in a play at my church. But that don’t count. It was just at church thing that’s not really theater.
Me: That DO count!!! It IS theater!
Rather it’s a church, school or if they randomly saw a flash mob, I get all excited talking to someone about their live theater history. But I also get really annoyed right after. The association with theater being reserved and defined by Broadway musicals is deeply concerning. I spend a lot of time talking with homies and helping reshape/redefine what theater is by thinking broadly about who it’s for, where it’s located and how it’s presented. I’m grateful for Tyler Perry Madea plays because it serves as a solid foundation to build on. More often than not, we participate in a shared lived experience centering his theatrical work where they remember watching the bootleg Madea DVD’s at they cousin’s house just like I did with my cousins back then. And sitting with the whole family laughing, crying and saying who in the room be acting like each character in the play, just like we did. And then reciting it to each other the next day at school during lunch period. I explain to them that that’s the exact kind of impact theater has on people when it’s written with intention, centering marginalized people groups as the core audience.
Theater defined by what’s on Broadway limits the possibilities of art and culture. Because who really has access to that? It’s not cheap and it’s often not advertised in cities with larger populations of Black and brown folks. But Madea never made it to Broadway nor is the franchise ever considered theater in performing art spaces (during my 8 years studying theater in accademia, only once was his name ever brought up. It was in grad school. I brought it up) but his contribution to theater serves as a gateway to Black culture is prize winning in my opinion. But this isn’t about him. It’s about creating access to theater for everyone and what’s gained from the experience that is offered by the art form.
After getting a postcard in the mail to Shotgun Theater’s 2022/23 season, I just about fainted when I saw one of my favorite musicals would be featured, Passing Strange by Stew. The original live recording film was directed by Spike Lee and starred the playwright as the narrator (which is the one I saw that made me fall in love with the play). At first I thought I’d just invite two of my friends who really liked musicals. But that low key felt like gatekeeping. I don’t know if my friends would like a musical or not but the only way to find out was to extend an invitation. For most of my close friends their most current live theater experience has been one of my productions. And they come as a supportive friend and I love that. But my work also can’t single handedly define theater either. It’s a shared love. So my Aries ass jotted down the names of 22 people who I wanted to spend time with. I personally invited them to celebrate turning 33 with a live musical production. I wasn’t even scared or sad if everyone said no because I would have enjoyed it even if I went alone (something I do often). But people came out. It was lit.
And it does not have to be a big group. Inda Craig-Galván’s play A Hit Dog Will Holler had a run at Playwrights Arena. I purchased two tickets for the Black out night, not knowing at all who I’d invite. But I knew I wouldn’t be going alone. I reached out to my homegirl Sydney and she was so excited to go. She hadn’t been to any in person show since the pandemic erupted and that was hard for her as a performer. She also works diligently in policy change for LGBTQ people. This play is about an activist who has a chronic fear of leaving her home. Syd was the perfect person to see this show with, for she can fully understand the strain political work can have on a person’s mental health, especially when you are of the demographic you are advocating human rights for.
We had hella fun too. After the show was over we grabbed dinner and sat and talked in length about how relatable the play was and what we loved most about it. The conversation seamlessly transitioned into one about us and our own mental health. I’m always grateful to Inda’s work. It tends to have that effect on Black womxn. Her work and the work of others that write in a way where it clearly concerns Black people offers visibility to the full self and revelation. That’s the good theater is made of and everyone is entitled to that feeling. Not just those who have participated in Broadway.
I hope that you can all consider how to fold in (dare I say convert) people in your lives who may not know there’s a theater space for them to enjoy and be centered.
I first met Judy Soo Hoo in our graduate MFA program. She was one of the first students to share in our writers’ workshop, and even then, I thought her work was energetic, lively, and original. We were fiction writers together, so it was a funny coincidence when I moved to Los Angeles, decided to be an actress, and landed an understudy role in a play that she was commissioned to write for East West Players through their Theatre for Youth Program.
Little did I know, prior to our time in grad school, Judy had been writing plays for years. She started in a playwriting class in the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) and went on to produce shows with the Asian American Theatre Lodestone, Watts Theatre Project, and Company of Angels. She eventually went on to teach playwriting with the DHHWI. This past year, Judy has been a part of Center Theatre Group’s Writers’ Workshop, an all-female group (at least this season) run by playwright Luis Alfaro, an Associate Artistic Director at CTG and a professor of Dramatic Arts at USC. Judy values Alfaro’s emphasis on the creative process and his insistence that the roots of a play begin in our subconscious. Alfaro encourages the writers to “write from the body.” As Judy puts it “writing from the body allows the writer to tap into the emotion that is swimming in the play.”
Starting last summer, the group met bi-weekly to talk shop and share pages. This past Spring, they had a retreat at the Mark Taper to have their work read aloud by professional actors and to receive feedback to support the development process. This week, their plays will have professionally staged readings at the Kirk Douglas, as the culmination of their year-long playwriting communion.
Judy’s play “What Lies Behind” is about a Chinese American woman attempting to solve the disappearance of her sister by signing-up her dementia-afflicted father, who was the last person to have seen her, in a gene-editing study that may recall his memory. Judy very much wanted to explore the mystery genre “as a way to explore family relationships”. The play was inspired, in part, by Judy’s own mother’s experience with dementia in her final year. Judy acted as her mother’s primary caretaker and recalls a time when her mother did not recognize her at all, instead calling her by someone else’s name. This, of course, would be jarring for any adult child and prompted Judy to delve into the questions around what and “how we remember” our lost loved ones.
Another theme of the play—what is rising from Judy’s subconscious—is the wave of anti-Asian violence in America. Libby, the play’s protagonist, is also the host of “Yellow Peril”, a podcast that discusses anti-Asian violence. Libby’s growing concern with the spate of racially motivated violent crime promises to converge with the unravelling mystery of the missing sister.
The reading of “What Lies Behind”, directed by Jeff Liu, is this Friday, September 9 at 8pm. For tickets, please visit ticketing for this event at Center Theater Group.
The Company of Angels Theater (CoA) is gearing up for its New Works Festival, which will be held in-person at their Boyle Heights theater space from October 29 – November 13. The festival will include five full length plays and an evening of shorter pieces that were all developed through their playwrights’ group.
The CoA playwrights’ group, of which I have been a member for two seasons, has been running for nearly fifteen years. Artistic Director, Armando Molina, explains that the group was born out of a need to support Los Angeles based playwrights from underrepresented communities. He says “During a time when other large theater [institutions] were dissolving diversity initiatives, CoA picked up the slack to support a forum for diverse voices to experiment and develop” their work.
While playwrights are not mandated to set their plays in Los Angeles, Molina describes the spirit of CoA as committed to creating work that “reflects and responds to LA” whether it be literal or embodied in the notion of LA as a “phenomenon” or a “state of mind.” In the past, the group served as an incubator for CoA’s annual LA Short Play Festival (formerly LA Views), which was a fully produced evening of theater cast with company members.
The group meets bi-weekly to share new pages that are read aloud, and playwrights receive feedback from those who’ve lived with the work from the ground up and know its overall aims. Additionally, CoA offers further support by bringing in a professional dramaturg to work with writers and offer feedback on their pieces to ready them for the rehearsal process, and ultimately, a staged reading. Sonia Desai, Literary Associate at the Old Globe Theatre, served as this season’s dramaturg, and my conversations with her were so insightful and cracked open the possibilities for my play.
Tamadhur Al-Aqeel and John Dubiel have served as co-leaders of the playwrights’ group for over a decade. They are both facilitators and participating playwrights who know the value of a supportive and intimate space to develop work. Al-Aqeel describes the group as having been “a wonderful place to land” after taking a long break from writing to raise her young children. After seeing her first CoA show, she was inspired to get back to writing, and the group reaffirmed that she could “still write.” This is a huge epiphany for writers who are burdened by the insecurity that often comes with having shut off their creative faucet for years; I can relate.
For myself, CoA has supported a writing practice and helped me to stay connected to a creative community. At the height of the pandemic, I knew that the isolation was either going to take me down or not. I chose the latter. The past few years have been the most creatively productive time for me as a writer. Formerly, I was primarily a fiction writer, an even more lonely endeavor than playwriting. For years, I would beat myself up and think “If you want to write, just write” or “If you’re not writing, you obviously don’t want it bad enough”—all the unproductive, self-flagellating words that block an artist’s creative mind. CoA helped to resuscitate my creative voice, and I learned that it wasn’t that I couldn’t write, I just needed better structure and support. Dubiel echoes this sense of community, saying that CoA provides “a lot of opportunity for creative people to come together.”
Coming together will finally happen in-person after two long years of virtual zooms and shows. CoA is reuniting with their New Works Festival, and I for one am looking forward to meeting the people who’ve supported my creative life in real life. Maybe I can give them a big hug too! This season’s playwrights include: Tamadhur Al-Aqeel, John Dubiel, Leah Zhang, MJ Kang, Emily Brauer Rogers, Matt Callahan, Danny Munoz and Alison Minami. For a full schedule of performance dates and times please visit the Company of Angels.
by Kitty Felde
I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of research. Dangerous, I know, because researching is a great excuse for not writing. But often you find unexpected treasures that can sometimes become an essential part of your play.
I’ve been using the vast newspaper records available online at the Library of Congress. Chronicling America, a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a free, searchable database of American newspapers from 1777 to 1963. If you’re writing about an era before or after that, the LOC has a secondary collection of newspapers from 1690 to today.
There’s a map where you can discover ethnic newspapers across the country. Who knew there was a German newspaper in San Diego and a Finnish one in Washington state? There were dozens of African-American newspapers from Butte, Montana to Miami, Florida.
I fumbled around at first, but found absolute gold in the digital pages of Chronicling America.
Currently, I’m working on a murder mystery set in the White House era of Theodore Roosevelt. The plot takes us all over the Washington, D.C. of 1902. I had so many questions.
How did police get around town. Did they ride horses? Drive motor cars? Bicycles? Who were they? A profile of “Well Known Men of the Metropolitan Police Force” in the Washington Times helped me create my policemen characters – including one who was active in the temperance movement.
What happened at an inquest of the era? The Evening Star had a full report of one particular proceeding. Though I admit I was distracted by the ad for furniture on the same page that featured a $22 “Polished Mahogany-Finished Toilet Table.” A what?
I needed a place for a body to be discovered. The Washington Times reported on a years-long battle to either fill in or fence the James Creek Canal. Little more than a sewer, neighbors labeled it a “death trap” where five bodies a month were pulled from the mud.
For one scene, I needed the name of a stationary store where my amateur detective could find a blank book to record her clues. I searched “stationary supplies” and found an advertisement at the top of the page in the Evening Star.
My favorite gem didn’t happen in Washington at all. The Washington Times, like papers and TV news today, reprint sensational or odd stories from around the world. This one involved a pair of guinea pigs at a temperance meeting in Paris, as written up in a newspaper in Liverpool. The experiment was designed to demonstrate the destructive power of alcohol. Guess which one got sick. One animal was given water, the other alcohol.
There were challenges. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to read everything. (Anything to avoid staring at a blank screen and actually have to write. But my lousy eyesight made it difficult to see an entire page on a 13” laptop. I wasn’t sure how to find what I needed. And when I found a juicy tidbit, what was the best way to keep track of it? Was saving links the best way to capture the information?
I am no research genius, but let me save you the learning curve and share my tips:
o Narrow down your search parameters. If your play is set in 1939, look for newspapers from that year. If it’s set in Pittsburgh, narrow your search to just papers from Pennsylvania.
o Try various search terms. If you get too many hits with “police,” try “detective.”
o You’ll soon discover which newspapers go with the sensational, which have the most advertisements. Ads are great to help you describe clothing of the era or which stores or restaurants were frequented by your characters.)
o If you’re using Microsoft Word, use the snipping tool. You can isolate the articles you want to keep, and save images for future reference or inspiration. And for those of us who are visually challenged, you can save it IN A LARGER SIZE.
o Images are also helpful while you’re writing. I often drop an image into the manuscript if there’s a quote I want to use or a detail that’s perfect for the scene. (And then I delete the image.)
o DO keep track of your links. It will save going back and searching all over again. Note the source and date of the article, just in case you do have to go back and search.
o I’m sure your graduate school training will have given you a better way to organize your research. Me? I keep a simple Word or Google doc where I list topics I’ve researched. Sometimes I drop in a line or two, sometimes an image, but always a link. (At first, I kept a numbered “footnote” file at the bottom of the document, but since I’m not including my research in my notes, I gave up on that.)
o If you’re considering including images in your book, take note of the copyright and who owns it. You might want to start asking for permission now to use the material later, long before you’re done with the book. If the answer is “no,” that gives you time to find an alternate image.
Good luck! And happy reading.
Kitty Felde is an award-winning playwright currently working on her third book. Her Fina Mendoza Mysteries series of books are also available as a podcast. She is also Executive Producer of the Book Club for Kids podcast.
Because Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood” has been a safe haven for free thoughts. Because these days I function better with s’mores ice cream. Because I’m occupying a new and unknown space. Because I write physical plays. Because I could survive with a simple dress, vintage heels, and a collection of weathered hats. Because after nine years Theatre Roscius is a non-profit. Because finding financial support to create new work has been an enormous gift. Because I’m proud of the struggle. Because I’ve had to fight for every opportunity. Because without the graciousness of strangers I wouldn’t be where I am today….closer. Because this Sunday came with tight cuddles, moments of silence, uncontrollable tears, and deep laughter. Because there are no words to express imminent joy. Because actions matter. Because I continue to find truth in solitude. Because the past no longer casts a dark shadow. Because this has been one hell of a year. Because Theatre Roscius created five new works. Because community and tribe have two different meanings. Because I know love always heals. Because I know this all to be the truth.
One week ago I returned home from a six-week short fiction writing workshop in San Diego. For six whole weeks out of my life, I was basically a full time writer. Except for one or two day job things that trickled in, I mostly cut myself off from the real world, friends and family. While I’ve gone to one- or two-week workshops before, and even had a one-month residency once, I have never experienced what it is like to actually and truly have writing be the priority of my day, every day. That in fact it was expected of me to show up to the page, and it affected those around me if I didn’t.
I was in workshop for 20 hours a week, was close-reading up to 100,000 words a week of my peers’ writing, and writing a new short story a week – which would be read and talked about for a full hour not only by the 17 other writers but by the successful and highly acclaimed faculty (which changed from week to week). If I wasn’t doing any of those things, I was in craft lectures, business lectures, public readings, or one-on-ones with faculty. A friend and I also tried to find a few hours to work on our novels together.
Now, this model is not sustainable, of course, and I’m not even sure if there’s an equivalent that would work for playwriting. I realize this is a playwriting blog and not a short fiction blog…but one writer’s problems are all writer’s problems.
Because I’ve been home a week and have not written a word. My brain has be sputtering trying to understand why I need to be in meetings about fundraisers and marketing and grants and not writing a new ghost story. I’m back in a world in which no one cares if I write today or tomorrow or this week or this month. A world where I have to actively make rent. Half of me is back on my routine bullshit, the other half is asking – but…what about the writing?
What does prioritizing your writing even look like?
I wanted this blog to be a “here is a list of things I learned at my writers workshop” kind of thing but…I’ve only been home a week. And I just don’t know if I can articulate it exactly yet. Some of the lessons won’t sink in for a little while.
But I’ll tell you this.
In week two, I was basically told I was too weird in every sense of the word to really have a career. All of my arrogance and confidence was beaten out of me, and I was a bloody mess on the floor, feeling like I had wasted my life. I used that energy to write one of the stronger stories of mine at the workshop in a kind of fever dream for week 3 – refusing to stop writing for fear that I wouldn’t be able to pick it up again, that I had to see it through otherwise I’d talk myself out of even trying. I lived in that terror for the next three weeks. Worried that the things I was interested in exploring, experimenting and fucking around with were stupid and embarrassing.
If I was torn completely down in week two, then in week six I was built back up again. I wrote quite possibly the most vulnerable story I’ve ever written in a fit of rage (with myself, with the world, with how I’m perceived as a person, a woman, a woman-writer) and it was also a fusion of my fiction and playwriting life and voice. It was completely me.
And I walked away from week six not feeling like that weirdness is a weakness and an air I was putting on, but if focused well and layered with truth, it is my superpower.
So, if I had to offer a few loose words of wisdom, or just nuggets of a jumbled mind that may or may not be useful to you, this is what I’d write down:
Anyway, that’s more words than I’ve written in a week. I’m exhausted.