Adrift

by Cynthia Wands

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

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

Grief doesn’t take kindly to holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater 59 in New York City

Setting, my favorite character

by Ayesha Siddiqui

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

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

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

Any Ideas?

Where do ideas come from?

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

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

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

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

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

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

Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash

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

So what are you thinking passionately about lately? 

Jennifer

The FPI Files: Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles

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

by Elana Luo

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

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

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

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

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

Paula Cizmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SZLA actors Claudia Elmore and Alejandra Villanueva rehearsing behind the scenes

Elana: How about the intersection between environmentalism and theatre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books I Loved in 2023 

by Leelee Jackson

Happy New Year! 

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

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

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

  1. Fat Ham by James Ijames 

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury 

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

  1. The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

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

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

A Four Lettered Feathered Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoken like a true pragmatist.

By Tiffany Antone

The Buckle Sisters

By Alison Minami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newsletters

by Kitty Felde

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

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

WHAT SHOULD I PUT IN A NEWSLETTER?

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

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

OTHER IDEAS

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

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

MY NEWSLETTERS

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

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

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

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

HOW OFTEN DO I SEND A NEWSLETTER?

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

HOW TO BUILD A MAILING LIST

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

MAILCHIMP, MAILERLITE, CONSTANT CONTACT, ETC.

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

STILL UNCERTAIN?

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

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

Kitty

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

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

To Patience

By Chelsea Sutton

In 2023, I wrote two full plays. Which, in theory, shouldn’t be HUGE for me. For about four years, 2014-2018, I wrote 2-3 full lengths a year. Some of them good (O’Neill finalists, etc.) some of them bad (let’s not talk about them). I never went to grad school for theatre, nor was it my undergrad focus. Like many of us, I just learned by MAKING SHIT. When I first moved to LA, I wrote monologues and one acts and did the weird, late-night bullshit in black box theatres, the kind where you cut your teeth to sharp points of theatrical nonsense, especially when you’re not tied to some fancy theatre school. While I wrote one full length a year in 2012 and 2013, I look at the massive uptick of WRITING from 2014-2018 as my real playwriting education.

But from 2019 to 2022, I couldn’t seem to write a play that made any sense. I truly thought I’d forgotten how to do this. I’d written my first one act as an 18 year old, my first full length in my senior year of college. And then suddenly, I just forget?

Maybe I never knew how to do this. Maybe I was a fraud.

A real picture of me as a real playwright.

Something happened to my brain in 2018 that fundamentally changed my playwriting process. I can’t pin point what, exactly. One big shift is that I was in grad school at the time for fiction writing – I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, and starting in 2016 I’d shifted some of my energy to developing that voice as well. I also shifted out of having a full time job – and haven’t gone back since.

I don’t know if those shifts had an affect. But suddenly I was approaching my plays from BIG IDEAS rather than from character or images, like my plays did during that four year education. From an adaptation of Frankenstein to a comedy about censorship to historical preservation through the lens of a dying mall – I felt like suddenly everything I’d taught myself didn’t apply anymore. These things were too big and massive – I couldn’t find my way through them to find the heart of the story. And the plays fell flat or remained confusingly chaotic or were left unfinished (I’ll blame the pandemic on that last one).

Something that felt like a huge part of my identity suddenly felt completely inaccessible.

But this year I wrote TWO plays. One I’m very proud of, one I’m very excited about because of its chaos. Whatever was rewiring in my brain between 2019 and now finally finished its work (until it has to rewire again – which, now that I know what it feels like, I’m sure will happen again). What was happening during that time, I think, is that I was synthesizing everything I’d learned from my MAKING SHIT education while combining it with my growing fiction skills and my arts leadership experiences that were putting many things into stark relief.

This was ANOTHER kind of education, I now realize. Having patience with myself. Having faith that “your process” is ever changing and growing and expanding, and that some plays you might need to WRITE in order to understand something, even if that play goes into a drawer or transforms into something else entirely. Two of my drawer plays will be transformed into novellas — the stage, I realize, is not the container they need. One play is transforming from a large immersive show into a two-person play. Another will be shedding it’s big ideas in favor of an entirely new subject that emerged from the writing and the characters.

It is hard to have patience with yourself, especially when it feels like everyone around you is shooting into the stratosphere, that they have their work figured out and have no doubts about their abilities or their rightful place in the industry. I spent most of the last two years convinced I no longer belonged, that theatre was lost to me.

I had deadlines and a strong need to prove something this year. But I had to also make patience a part of the practice. Maybe it was the thing missing all along.

Probably the only thing missing. For sure.

Just two weeks ago, I visited the South Dakota State University Department of Theatre for their second new works festival. Me and two other professional playwrights had readings of our plays, performed by the (awesome) students and directed by their (amazing) faculty. My play, THE DEAD WOMAN, was first written in (oh god) 2012, with readings and workshops in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2018, and during three of the four I did significant rewrites. Going into this reading, I was trying to approach it with patience – patience for my past, younger self, and patience for myself right now, who wanted to fix the play to perfection, to prove that it has earned the right to a production someday (hopefully). I did rewrite the ending and have some other trimming things to do – but what was so lovely about approaching the process with PATIENCE is that I could see my heart in the words – the heart of my 20-something self wrestling with big ideas and big feelings – and hear the response of the 20-somethings in the audience and in the cast.

And by rediscovering my love of these characters through these students, I could also reach through time to love myself too. Something that evades me most days. The act of falling in love with yourself is not one of ego or self-obsession – but of grace and care and patience.

In 2024, I hope you will honor whatever part of the process you’re in. I hope you will give yourself patience. I hope you will fall in love with your own heart again.

The FPI Files: Sacred Listening to the Wounds of War

by Leilani Squire

Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of reading the full-length play Mama Mama Can’t You See written by Stan Mayer and Cecilia Fairchild, speaking with Cecilia, and then seeing the rockin’, brave, and surreal production at Coin & Ghost directed by Zach Davidson on Veterans Day, which was opening weekend.

The promotional materials tell us that Mama Mama Can’t You See, “Isn’t a play about war. It is a play how to tell a war story.” For me, it’s about memory and how memory pushes and pulls within our being in a myriad of ways of complexity and authenticity.

The play is based on Stan Mayer’s life as a Marine during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early 2000s. There are eight characters in the play: four Marines who live within the realities and memories of that war, and four young women who embody another aspect of war. Cecilia pondered for a long time what to call these four characters—women who provided sex for a living during the Civil War, and have direct encounters with the Marines of 2005 Iraq.

For Cecilia, modern terminology didn’t fit the female characters she envisioned, who would tell this evocative and complicated part of the story. She discovered through her research that the etymology of whore is unblemished and meant “dear, loved, and desire” in distant times. And so she ran with her instincts and called these four characters whores, women who use their bodies to satisfy the needs and desires of the battle-weary, and to buy food for their mothers and their baby sisters.

Kathleen Leary, Marguerite French, Carene Rose Mekertichyan, Hannah Trujillo as the Whores in Coin & Ghost’s “Mama Mama Can’t You See” – Photo by Meredith Adelaide

During our conversation about the Whores, I inquired about the characters’ origin and their meaning within the context of Stan’s story. Cecilia talked about “sacred listening” and how she was “being pushed this way to tell the story this way.” I loved when she connected this push and pull to the act of sacred listening and how this enabled the characters to appear and unfold before her.

Playwright Cecilia Fairchild

I knew then that she understood something about war and love, death and loss, and survivor’s guilt that most of us don’t. Perhaps I understood as well because I was born in an Army hospital during war and raised in the military, and have been working with veterans, active duty, and their families since 2010 to empower them tell their stories through the written word. I have learned through experience that listening is one of the most important and crucial aspects of this kind of work, which enabled me to understand Cecilia’s world and process as a playwright. To truly listen is not an easy task, but it is vital for the playwright to still and to listen because that is when and where the magic happens.

Each of us has a process when we write. For Cecilia, she says it is like “reading your own tea leaves as you’re writing.” What amazing and evocative tea leaves live inside her creative imagination! To her, “the theater is a place where we can dream” and where “anything can happen.” Mama Mama Can’t You See embodies a dream—or nightmare might be a more appropriate word—where anything can happen.

Cecilia also drew upon personal experience to breathe deeper layers and aspects into the characters and the play. She attended the ten-year anniversary of the pivotal and deadly firefight Stan experienced during his first tour in Iraq—the firefight that is the inspiration for the play. At the reunion in San Antonio, Cecilia listened to the war stories of those who survived and those who died on the battlefield. And she has carried what she heard ever since. Even though she didn’t experience the battle firsthand, she lives with the stories of the dead and the survivors, feeling the loss of life and innocence and knowing, “war is a cavern of death and near death.”  Then she took my breath away when she said: “They died inside of me anyway, the men who died at war.” This is what sacred listening looks like in our mundane reality. This is what carrying the wounds of war that others experience looks like. This is what carrying the memories of those who experience the realities of war looks like… And for all of that, I honor and respect her deeply.

“Mama Mama Can’t You See” Ensemble – Photo by Meredith Adelaide

Towards the end of our dialogue, I said to Cecilia, “You’re the Civil War Whore.” She gently agreed. And I could hear the depth of how my knowing this—how my speaking those words out loud—resonated within her. In a way, what I experienced at that moment is sacred listening—how I could hear her heart and memories, her love and loss, within my heart and my memories.

I also asked her what she wanted me to experience, to feel as I would sit in the audience and watch the play unfold inside the theater. She responded, “[I’d like] for your body to open and molecules be rearranged somehow.“ She wanted the experience to be “almost like a spell”… “a series of words [that] would play across your body” (love this one!!) and for me and audiences to have a “thrilling out of body experience.”

What a wish list for a playwright!

Stan Mayer and ensemble – Photo by Meredith Adelaide

Even though Cecilia wasn’t involved in this current production at Coin & Ghost, her heart and her story are ever present and alive on the stage. As I sat in the darkened theater during the performance, I felt myself come alive as the actors moved with primal energy and danced seductively. The dialogue played across my body, casting a spell on me and taking me places I dared to go. The bluesy rendition of the military cadence “Mama Mama Can’t You See” sung by one of the Whores as she walked to the Marine laying on the battlefield, haunts me—I can’t get it out of my mind and heart. And to be honest, I don’t want to.

Coin & Ghost’s “Mama Mama Can’t You See” runs through December 10th at Studio/Stage on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm (dark November 23 through November 26.) For tickets and information, visit  coinandghost.org.

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

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