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Navigating “The Body’s Midnight”

by Brenda Varda

Welcome to the literary landscape of The Body’s Midnight by Tira Palmquist. This world premiere, a co-production of IAMA and Boston Court and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is a delicately interwoven script with surprising, beautiful and challenging moments.

I read the script before the play opened, talked with Tira and Jessica, and visited a rehearsal — all to discover how Tira’s playwriting and collaboration process influenced the production. As we know, creative generation is primarily an individual undertaking, but with this complex project, I wanted to hear and understand more about Tira’s sourcing of material and development.

The Body’s Midnight text presents dilemmas of family, aging, relationships, and health diagnosis fragility — all embedded in the geographic and cultural complexity of a cross-country exploration. Anne and David, a long-term couple and the core duo of the story, are on a trip from California to Minnesota to witness the birth of their first grandchild. There is an immediate indication of an underlying, yet unspoken, tension: even though their dialogue has all the markers of the fun tug-and-pull of a loving relationship, there are little pieces of concern and abnormality that let us know that is not their usual cross-country excursion.

And as the play moves through — no spoilers here! — there is a linking of grand geological sites, park rangers, family phone calls, and mythic characters, all addressing the themes of aging, choice, health and change. Exquisitely interwoven.

Tira and I have known each other for a ‘few’ years, and I have seen and read other produced Palmquist plays, including Two Degrees, Age of Bees & And Then They Fell. I immediately noted key similarities in this work — a balance of the personal, imaginary, poetic and factual in a way that keeps the mind moving while still hitting emotional truth.

After talking to Tira about this particular play, I was struck by how she allowed real events to establish the foundation and then layered other ‘realities’ and fiction to amplify the themes. Writers are often told, “Write what you know,” but even with that dictate, the unique aspects of a script often come from research, discoveries and creativity. This is a great example!

Playwright Tira Palmquist

So, my first question? What was the impetus for the play? There are a couple of answers…

Tira told me that she had a doctor’s visit and a diagnosis that started her thinking: not the same issue as Anne’s, but enough to shake the norm. That, coupled with the challenging notion of ‘aging,’ brought the possible character and plot into place.

“In 2018, as the play first came to me, I thought about this woman getting a diagnosis, and then making this journey and having a bucket list for this adventure: trying to memorialize things and hoping against hope to make them permanent,” she said.

A family component also provided context: a few years before the writing, Tira’s mother had a mysterious and complex health downturn.

“In her 70s, my mother started to exhibit symptoms of what was initially misdiagnosed as a more common dementia, but an MRI confirmed, later, that she had had several strokes (probably what are known as ‘silent strokes’) that caused significant damage to important structures of her brain. I’ve had some significant migraines in my life that have mimicked transient ischemic attacks (sometimes seen as precursors to major strokes). The idea that something like this could happen to me, could rob me of my ability to use and appreciate language, was, frankly, terrifying,” Tira continued.

So, yes, Anne does echo Tira’s life experience — and the play deals with these fears and trials — but along the way… well, Tira expands relationships and environments that further reveal Anne’s journey.

Sonal Shah and Keliher Walsh
Photo by Brian Hashimoto

Using her own experience of driving across the country, Tira fosters two particular aspects of travel to let Anne change. First, travel’s physical and mental impacts: “I am inspired by the way that travel (and longer drives) encourages a kind of patience and meditative attention to the world around you. Being willing to be surprised by the world rather than rushing through it,” she said.

With the travel disruptions, she allows her characters to veer off the planned path and dive into unusual locations that are surprising and allow for new realizations. There are deliberate jumps to locations that are not perfectly on the same highway; and there are jumps to memory locations that echo the past. This dance keeps the reader/audience in a mindset that discovers the roots of the relationships and story.

Her other use of travel is the specific locations: metaphorical representations that amplify Anne’s concerns and represent ideas about the planet’s fragility. Locations include the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, rest stops, and, of course, the Pando.

I admit, I did not know what the Pando was.

The Pando is a network of ash trees in Utah that are genetically the same tree, and what seems like individual trees are actually family branches sprouting from the giant lateral root of the parent. This is similar to the concept of character repetition and modification in the play.

“The inspiration for using the Pando in the play was actually a happy accident,” said Tira. “I started researching ‘disappearing places’ and mapping where these places would be along the route Anne and David would travel, and I just happened to stumble on information about this amazing place.”

Accidental finding. Well, maybe not “accidental.” As Tira described, it’s more the subconscious finding its way into a deep engagement with the core themes. 

Another key to Anne’s core journey is her husband David’s embrace and care. I was curious about the sense of familiarity, and I gathered that there might be similarities in Tira’s own relationship.

 “Well, the characters of Anne and David are drawn heavily from my husband and me — the kinds of conversations we have, the love language we’ve developed, the way I am his ‘monster’ and he is my ‘robot.’” (These are the quirky terms of endearment that they have for each other in the play.) “And while the catalyst for writing the play was a health scare I had, there’s not much else that is my particular story. The more that Anne, David and the other characters took shape, the more this play found its shape and purpose.”

Keliher Walsh and Jonathan Nichols-Navarro
Photo by Brian Hashimotoo

And the play does have a shape and purpose. For me, it felt like a challenge to understand, forgive, and maintain in the chaos of existence — but in a positive way.

Director Jessica Kubzansky described the journey as an “existential climb up a mountaintop,” which I agree with. It was lovely to see Jessica working during my brief visit to a rehearsal: the actors were just at the almost-memorized place, finding the details. Jessica was shaping the patterns and exceptions on the stage in ways to reinforce the “vast beauty” and the “crisis of connection” in the different environments. The actors — Keliher Walsh as Anne, Jonathan Nichols-Navarro as David, Sonal Shah as the daughter Katie and various other roles, and Ryan Garcia as son-in-law Wolf and also multiple roles — all were creating exceptional moments for the dance of dialogue, bringing all the voices together to remind the audience of the journey. 

Director Jessica Kubzansky

Since this is a playwrights’ blog, there are a few points to highlight about getting the play written, read, developed and produced that might be illuminating. Tira is great at generating, then submitting, and then developing relationships that build ground for her work. She is also persistent: she keeps on track through the many steps and processes that may be needed to get to the desired end state.

As mentioned, she got the impetus for the play in 2018 and then began the initial draft in 2019, working through pages and ideas. The second inspiration or deep dive was at the Tao House in northern California (one of Eugene O’Neill’s homes). At that writing residency, she found additional inspiration from O’Neill’s plays and “found ways to thread those in as homage to him and that beautiful place.”

Next, as in many writer’s journeys, there was an opportunity for a deeper development at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in June of 2021. Tira was the Guest Playwright, and she felt this was “a huge step forward in the play — figuring out more about how reality and surreality could work in the play, to find the ‘rules’ of the world, and discover how to make some of the wilder poetry of the play feel authentic and earned, and not merely decorative.”  

Also, the Boston Court was part of the process with their 2022 Playwright Group. That group gives an artist a year-long development process that provides the time to foster and deepen the world and characters of the play. This led to a public reading in April of 2023 at Boston Court’s New Play Festival – the first reading in front of a live audience! Jessica Kubzansky did a week of table work and rehearsal. Tira was especially grateful for her support, particularly Jessica’s fierce defense of how the play “plays with time and reality” and for providing support for expanding the poetry and magic of the play. As always, Jessica asked important questions about how The Body’s Midnight world operates and how that world operates on the characters. When I spoke with Jessica, she mentioned the rich challenges embedded in Anne and David’s relationship and how their realities intersect and collide, leading to emotional fruition.

And the reading? Tira said: “I really had no idea how the play would be received by an audience. I mean, Up until that point, I’d only experienced the play via Zoom readings and workshops… The reaction and responses really blew me away, and showed me, for the first time, that his was a play. A play that was important to other people, not just to me.” 

Ryan Garcia, Sonal Shah
Photo by Brian Hashimoto

It is now a year after the reading and it looks to be a full and beautiful production. The set design, bringing to mind the various natural locations, was just evolving when I saw the rehearsal. Now, I need to experience the full depth of The Body’s Midnight. Hope you do, too.

One more quote from Tira (and I’m sure writers can relate…):

“My writing process is, at best, chaotic. I have learned a couple things about myself: I can no longer just start writing with a kind of whim. I have to have the play sort of… gestate in my brain and in my body for a long time. I do a fair amount of very unorganized organizing work — as I said before, figuring out the beginning, middle, end, having a kind of shape or structure in mind — and then, when there’s a kind of critical mass of the play, I start to write. Usually, this first draft is pretty quick. I don’t honestly recall how long the first draft of The Body’s Midnight took, but I think it was a couple of months. Then there are moments of time and distance — returning to the play with new eyes, or with a new inspiration or realization. That recursive part of the process can take a few years.”

“The Body’s Midnight,” a co-production of IAMA Theatre Company and Boston Court Pasadena, opens April 27 and runs through May 26, 2024 at Boston Court. For tickets and information visit www.iamatheatre.com.

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Beatrice Casagrán and the Jam-Packed Femme Season at Ophelia’s Jump

by Carolina Pilar Xique

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

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

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

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

Beatrice Casagrán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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SHE World Premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company

A deep dive on making theatre with playwright Marlow Wyatt and director Andi Chapman

by Elana Luo

“SHE” playwright Marlow Wyatt

Across a cozy wood-colored kitchen set, Karen Malina White as Bernice Rose Johnson reckons with her on-stage daughter, named SHE Sojourner Freeman. “I’m sorry, I cannot protect you from the rain,” Bernice says. But it’s not Camille Ariana Spirlin, the actor playing SHE, who cries in response. Instead, it’s playwright Marlow Wyatt, sitting in the audience and wishing she brought tissues to her own show.

“It hit me different that night,” Marlow says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if I thought about my mother, or my mother’s mother, but it got me.”

Bernice and SHE are characters in Marlow’s play, SHE, now having its world premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company. In Marlow’s own words, the story is a coming-of-age American experience. We watch teenage SHE come into her own over a summer as she chases the opportunity to enroll at an expensive boarding school.

On a Zoom call with Marlow and director Andi Chapman, it’s clear that they are collaborators who are also friends, with deep respect for one another. I ask Andi what drew her to direct this play. “I loved the notion of a girl named SHE Sojourner Freeman,” she replies after a moment. “SHE is relevant for today, for yesterday, and for tomorrow. Her dreams weren’t to be denied, but she was always so respectful.”

Marlow and Andi both began their theatre careers as actors. This has impressed a deep appreciation for and emphasis on character on Marlow. The characters in SHE are made up of traits and personalities of people that Marlow has observed growing up, or just in daily life. “I am very much a voyeur,” she says. “I love people. I take the bus, I take the public transportation. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I’ve seen so many characters.”

“Los Angeles is a place where people get in their cars with their tinted windows and they turn on their music, but I’m the opposite. The world is outside of this little box on four wheels. Look at him. Look at this person. Look at them having this communication at lunch. I don’t think they really love each other, or is this a first date? You can see their body language and energy, and I like that. That fuels me.”

This attention to character has translated onto the page, and the stage, from how the characters speak to what they love to do. SHE, for example, speaks in verse when she gets nervous, or when traumatic things happen to her. The verse is unintentional in those moments, but very much intentional in pursuit of her dreams of being a poet. 

Camille Ariana Spirlin as SHE – Photo by Jeff Lorch

Why did Marlow decide that SHE wanted to be a poet?

“She has something to say. One of the things I realized about girls in this society is that nobody wants to hear what we have to say,” she says. “Poetry, art, are ways for somebody to speak, and have people listen, without them saying ‘Oh, she’s a girl. I’m not gonna listen to what she has to say, I’m gonna dismiss her.'”

Later in the play, though, Marlow turns this idiosyncrasy against her. An illusive scene between SHE and a city slicker named Othalee unfolds entirely in verse, so naturally that the audience often doesn’t catch that it’s written that way. Othalee devastatingly draws her in. “It brings down the barrier, because she found somebody who likes words,” Marlow says. He talks the way that she talks. So that makes her stay a little longer than she needs to.”

director Andi Chapman

Andi, on the other hand, moved from acting to directing because she found that she’s someone who sees a larger vision of the script. This vision goes beyond the art of acting to other disciplines—painting, music, and animation. To make sure everything and everyone is in the same world, she creates and shares a “palette” for the rest of the creative team, actors, and designers to work from. For SHE, the palette was a colorful mixed media painting of a young girl by the artist Leroy Campbell. Andi discovered him on Pinterest. “I love Pinterest,” she says.

The other elements of the design are all dynamic. SHE is set in the 70s, which Andi says opened the door for her and sound designer Jeff Gardner to get together and come up with a mixtape of period songs to soundtrack the play. She pushed projections designer Nicholas Santiago to animate his projections. “I don’t like flat pictures,” she says. “They have to be alive, so the audience can feel that experience. I asked him every time he showed a picture—move it.”

This energy attracts. At two separate performances, a white cabbage butterfly has flown in and stayed for a scene or two. Andi theorizes that its presence has to do with the set’s real garden outside town matriarch Miss Jane’s home. It’s a testament to her prowess as a director that someone asked her if the butterfly was part of the show. “No, how do you wrangle a butterfly?” she says. 

Marlow jumps in. “‘Butterfly wrangler,’ that’s a great skill,” she quips. “’I can wrangle butterflies. Where do you want him to go, what scene?'”

A moment later, Marlow’s reflective again. “I feel like that’s good energy. I don’t know what it is, but I’m like, if the butterfly’s supposed to be there, then let him be a part of it,” she muses. “You know, he’s not Equity, so you don’t have to pay him anything.”

Andi starts laughing.

Karen Malina White as Bernice and Jon Chaffin as Lonnie – photo by Jeff Lorch

I ask Marlow if there were any challenging moments in writing SHE. No, she says, only that she wanted to make sure that the character of Lonnie, Bernice’s unreliable boyfriend and later husband, is perceived as human. “Men do what he does. People don’t treat people the way they should be treated,” she says. “He exists. He is a man who wants a family, children, a wife. How he goes about getting it is all wrong. But he’s not a bad guy. He clearly loves Bernice, but he doesn’t know how…some people don’t know how to love.”

There is at least one certainty about Lonnie. Marlow’s first drafts of the play included a scene where Lonnie pushes Bernice. Marlow didn’t like it, because Lonnie is not a man who hits women. Moreover, she didn’t want any violence in the play. But she couldn’t figure out how to rewrite it. “The actors figured out a way to do it.” The staged version sees him catching himself before he touches Bernice at all, in a moment of self-discovery of his lowest point. They were able to preserve the integrity of the scene, and add some more depth to Lonnie’s character to boot.

How was the rehearsal process overall? Collaborative. “It was wonderful,” Andi says. “We had a fun, family atmosphere. I love to listen to music and dance during breaks, but then come back to work. And you know—just making sure that the actor feels seen, that the doors are open in terms of communication.”

Did she face any challenges? “No. I just really try to be prepared. I have a lot of run-throughs so the actors feel that the play is in them.”

Camille Ariana Spirlin and Gerard Joseph as Othalee – Photo by Jeff Lorch

Something Marlow emphasizes throughout our conversation is that SHE is the story of an American Experience, capital A capital E. The protagonist just happens to be Black. “It’s not having to do with a young African American girl. It has to do with all of our dreams as humans in the world,” Andi says.

Marlow calls SHE an “American play,” one that gets people to think of American theatre differently. She has a piece of advice for other playwrights of color.

“When you’re marketing your play, or whatever it is, if it’s truly an American play, set in America, don’t let them say ‘this is a Korean American play. This is an LGBTQ play.’ The world is divided enough as it is.”

In fact, Marlow specifically requested that the press for the show not include the words “Black” and “poverty.” She knew if people called it a “Black play,” non-Black people might think they wouldn’t relate to the play’s contents. “I think it does it a disservice. This play is to bring people together.”

At the end of the day, Marlow writes to entertain and inspire the audience regardless of their background. SHE was developed in The Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights’ Lab before it came to Antaeus’ Playwrights’ Lab, and the play has had several readings and countless rewrites. Andi calls Marlow “generous,” changing and adjusting the text as she collaborates with her and the actors. 

In other words, Marlow’s not trapped by ego, despite her culture-shifting ambitions. “It’s for the audience,” she says. “When you prepare a meal and have a dinner party, you want everybody to like it. You don’t want to say, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like this lamb. I like it.’ I’m not that person. I want you to leave with an experience.”

Camille Ariana Spirlin and Lorenz Arnell as Davey – Photo by Jeff Lorch

And members of the audience are indeed leaving with experiences. The subgroup Marlow is most happy about affecting—that is, making cry—is straight cisgender men. She tells me that she playfully ribbed a friend’s husband who came to see the show, asking if he cried. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I did. Davey [the character of SHE’s best friend] was in my childhood.'” Her voice turns serious. “I wasn’t expecting him to say that.”

Another audience member—an older gentleman—shared with Marlow that in his life, he had put his own dream to the side. He watched SHE, and told her afterwards, “‘I’m gonna pick it back up again and keep going.'”

“Come on,” Marlow says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”

“SHE” runs through November 20 at Antaeus Theatre Company on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and Mondays at 8pm, with additional performances Saturdays November 11 and 18 at 2pm. For tickets and information, visit  antaeus.org.

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Exploring and Celebrating an LA Community Through “Rise”

by Nakasha Norwood

My name is Nakasha Norwood. I’m the company manager at Company of Angels (CoA), as well as one of the producers for the production of Rise, currently running at CoA in Boyle Heights. Rise follows the journey of Emmeline, an African American woman born and bred in Boyle Heights. As the neighborhood evolves throughout the decades, we explore the ties that bind her to it and unravel the tragic mystery behind her unrelenting resolve to never leave.

I’ve had the pleasure of being part of this project from the very beginning. It all started over two years ago when CoA did a collaboration with Impro Theatre to perform an improv show that looked at Boyle Heights in the past, present and future. During the development phase of this show, we had a town hall with advisors from the Boyle Heights who were able to share with us what it was like living in Boyle Heights from the Black, Jewish, Asian and Latino perspectives. After the show, an idea was pitched to create a play that talks about the community of Black people that lived in Boyle Heights, since not many people knew of its existence. I fell in love with the idea of exploring this story, so I wrote a proposal and presented it to my CoA artistic directors. They were completely on board. Thus began the journey of Rise.

Playwright Kimba Henderson

 When we considered playwrights to commission for this, Kimba Henderson was someone we all thought would be a great match for the project. Kimba first wrote a short play with CoA for our online festival “What’s Goin’ On” in 2020. She then joined our company’s Playwrights Group and spent several months developing her play Red Harlem, which is based on true historical events. Her engrossing writing style, love of history and the passion that comes through her characters were exactly why we wanted her for this project. When we talked with her about the possibility of writing a play based on this little-known community in Boyle Heights, the glow on her face said it all.

It’s been a two-year development process of research, story circles, a Zoom reading, an in-person reading, talk backs, and re-writes, but we finally made it to the production run. I’m happy to have a chance to chat with Kimba about the success of the play and her process behind it.

Nakasha Norwood: First off, what a journey this has been! How does it feel to not only see your play come to life, but to hear all of the amazing praise and wonderful reviews it’s getting?

Kimba Henderson: I love theatre because it is such a collaborative artform.  Putting a compelling story on the page is just the beginning. Once it is in the hands of a director and actors and the rest of the creative team is when you really start to see what you have. It takes a village to make a good play, and that last step, of course, is to see how an audience responds. I have heard laughter, seen tears, and one of my favorite things to see as a playwright is when an engaged audience leans forward, physically, to make sure they are not missing a thing.

Some of the most encouraging praise has come from past and longtime residents of Boyle Heights who say the play has taken them back in time and sparked many great memories for them. I would say the biggest surprise when it comes to audience response is 20-something and grown ass men rolling up on me and excitedly telling me how much they enjoyed the love story at the heart of Rise. They are completely unashamed and that just makes me giggle and smile inside.

RaeAnne Carlsen, Bernadette Speakes , Doug Kaybak, Markhum Stansbury in “Rise” – Grettal Cortes Photography.jpg

Nakasha: Putting this play together took a lot of research. What was your personal process like for researching Boyle Heights and the Black community from there?

Kimba: I am a nerd with a history degree, so I loved the research process. For this project, I was so fortunate to have had a wealth of documentaries and written material to draw from. Touring Evergreen Cemetery, The Japanese American Museum, and just spending time in Boyle Heights were also extremely helpful. Most vital was having past African-American Boyle Heights residents share their life experiences during the story circles. These intimate gatherings breathed so much life into the play. So many personal stories allowed me – as a writer who has never lived in Boyle Heights – to not just connect to the neighborhood intellectually but emotionally, as well.

Nakasha: Is there a moment during the play that has hit you differently now that you’ve seen what you’ve written performed on stage?

Kimba: I can’t say there is a moment that has struck me differently, but I can definitely say that seeing this play up on its feet has struck me more deeply. I have found myself emotionally moved and often shedding tears during many of the scenes. I didn’t cry when I was writing the play. It isn’t as if I am caught off guard or I don’t know what is going to happen. My intense emotional response is a testament to the brilliant work of all the actors and Lui Sanchez’s direction.

Julianna Stephanie Ojeda, Sherrick O’Quinn, Bernadette Speakes – Grettel Cortes Photography

Nakasha: The character of Emmeline is at the center of your play. What made you decide to tell the story of her life in reverse?

Kimba: That choice is a whole long story in and of itself and was inspired by one of the lines in the play, “With progress there is always backlash.” When I first started writing Rise, I was angry about the intense pushback on reparations and affirmative action. People want to pretend that everything is fair and equal now and that the catastrophic legacy of slavery has somehow magically righted itself. There is a constant push by America’s dominant society to keep the status quo, and I wanted to show that by tracking something like housing discrimination. Within an early draft of the play, we learned that Proposition 14 on California’s 1964 ballot would allow people to refuse to rent, sell or lease to others based on race. It passed with 70% of the vote. Yet, as we go back in time, we’d see the 1963 Fair Housing Act, a 1948 landmark Supreme Court case won by Thurgood Marshall, and several other legal actions should have stopped something like Proposition 14 from ever having been on a ballot. Eventually I realized I was more focused on making a point than telling a great story.

As I moved forward, I still held on to the reverse structure. I knew it was a great way to uncover the mystery of Emmeline’s resolve to remain in Boyle Heights, as the key to it lies in the past.

Sherrick O’Quinn, Markhum Stansbury, Bernadette Speakes – Grettel Cortes Photography

With Emmeline’s journey, scenes highlighting her later years are at the beginning of the play, and we learn about significant life events that have taken place by then. In later scenes, we get to experience and dig deeper into how those events happened and the decisions that led to them. The reverse structure is conducive to intimate and transformative character moments for Emmeline and many of the play’s other characters, and the unfolding mystery surrounding her provides the propulsive momentum vital to compelling storytelling.

Nakasha: You mentioned in a previous interview that this play is your love letter to Boyle Heights. What is the main thing you’re hoping the audience, especially those that are area residents, are taking away from it?

Kimba: The characters in Rise are quite diverse in regards to race and age. I hope that audiences see themselves, at least pieces of themselves represented and also that they are invested in the stories of those characters that are not like them. For current and past residents, I hope they feel a particular pride in and are encouraged by the beauty they had a hand in creating within this unique neighborhood.

Overall, I pray that even in these divided times, audiences will be inspired to create communities where diverse peoples can support and celebrate one another and thrive together.

Markhum Stansbury, RaeAnne Carlson, Sherrick O’Quinn, Julianna Stephanie Ojeda, Doug Kabak – Grettel Cortes Photography.jpg

Rise” runs through November 5th at Company of Angels on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. For tickets and information, visit  companyofangels.com.

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A Conversation Takes Flight With Anna Ouyang Moench

by Elana Luo

Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North America is a widely-produced two-hander that checks in with a father and daughter pair named John and Caitlyn through the years when they go birding together. Centered around an activity that rewards patience, this play is quietly insightful and mirrorlike. I spoke with the playwright about it a couple days after a recent production opened at The Odyssey Theatre in West LA. Some snippets of our conversation follow.

Elana Luo: I wanted to start by asking you what inspired this play. Why did you decide to write it?

Anna Ouyang Moench: For a long time, I had been interested in writing about climate change. And I wasn’t quite sure how to do that in a way that felt right for the theater, or at least the kind of theater that I make. I think that I did not want it to feel like an issue play or an educational play. I wanted it to be rooted in emotional honesty and about human experience. There is such an emotional component to the experience of climate change on a human level, and I wanted to write a play that spoke to that.

Elana: What made you write about the relationship between a father and daughter in particular?

Anna Ouyang Moench

Anna: I think the way that the father-daughter relationship unfurls in the play is a parallel to the experience of climate change, because ultimately, the emotional experience of climate change is rather cerebral. There are emotions in it that can translate to human relationships like grief or anger or nostalgia or love. There are so many things that we feel about the world that we inhabit. At least on stage, I don’t really know how to write those feelings in terms of a scene between an environment and a person, but I do know how to write those emotions into a scene between two people.

Elana: Sometimes it feels like climate change is a generational issue, with the younger generation being more concerned than the older. So that was something really interesting to me—was it always John, the father, who was the character concerned with climate change?

Anna: Yes. There are certainly aspects of John’s character that are inspired by my own father,  or both my parents. There was a time when my parents were—and honestly still are—like, ‘Hey, you really need to get an electric car,’ and I’m in an expensive city, I’m trying to just save enough money for my kids to go to college and have the chance at retirement someday. I would love it if I could get solar panels and an electric car, but I just can’t do that right now. I still have to contend with the reality here.

So I think that’s sort of where the generational divide in the play emerged from, when you’re just starting out and trying to figure out a way to support yourself and have a life you enjoy. You don’t get to make those choices from an idealistic place all the time. And John is somebody who was always motivated by those ideals. But not everyone is that, and I have a great deal of empathy for both of the characters in the play. I think that a big part of playwriting is being able to kind of have that multifaceted view of an issue and see where different people are coming from.

Jacqueline Misaye and Arye Gross in the Odyssey Theatre production of “Birds of North America” – Photo by Jenny Graham

Elana: What were you trying to show through the longitudinal way the play is structured? We see these two characters through a lot of time, with each scene being a different year. Was that related to the theme of climate change?

Anna: I was trying to show the specific moments that these two people are alone together; I feel like, in families, there are actually very few of those moments, especially once you have moved out of your parents’ house. And so we are getting to see those times where, once every season, John and Caitlyn go out and do some birding. Then the goal is that you’re seeing their relationship evolving over the course of ten years. And birding is an activity where you spend quite a lot of time waiting. So you get to talking, you know, and I think that these are the times where they actually have the space and time to talk.

Elana: We really get to see their different perspectives.

Jacqueline Misaye and Arye GrossPhoto by Jenny Graham

Anna: Yeah, I mean, I see these characters as actually being very similar. And I’ve noticed this many times in the world. Often people have the most conflict with the parent that they’re more like, or a child that they’re more like. I think that you sometimes have higher standards for the child that reminds you of yourself or you’re less forgiving of them because you hold them to the same standard you hold yourself, which is often not very forgiving. I also think that’s true sometimes with people who are really opinionated or strong willed or kind of spiky, if their kid is also spiky like that. Or if they’re both really sensitive. Often those things go hand in hand.

Elana: As a director, I tend to look for action for the eye to be on when I direct. Was there a certain way you imagined John and Caitlyn’s conversations playing out, or was it just the two of them talking on the stage?

Anna: This is the type of play that is about the very small actions. I think that when there is a lot of in-and-out-of-doors or people running all over the place, that’s just a different type of play. I actually see this play as having a good deal of action. It’s just you have to zoom way in to see it. Small things become large when there’s not large things, right? And so I think this is a play that  goes down to, when do they lift up the binoculars to shield themselves from the other person seeing what they’re feeling? When do they look out at the birds, but it’s really not about the birds? It’s about this relationship and its micro textures. The action is moments of looking for connection or disconnection, of hiding or attacking. 

Arye Gross and Jacqueline MisayePhoto by Jenny Graham

Elana: What made you write this story for live theater? I know you also write for other formats Was there anything about this story that felt particularly theatrical?

Anna: At its core, the theater is about watching a conversation dialogue between characters and watching how these characters change and how these relationships change. So, to me, this always has felt like a play. Especially when there’s not, ‘and then this crazy thing happens to upset the whole world,’ you really have to root it in honesty. You have to know these characters, understand the relationship, and teach the audience who they are in an elegant way.

Plays are a place where we go to listen to the musicality of the dialogue, the rhythms, the ways that people use tactics in conversation. That’s something I go to theater for.

Birds of North America “runs through November 19th at The Odyssey Theatre on Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and select weekdays. For tickets and information, visit  odysseytheatre.com

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“Hungry Ghost” Completes “Her Vision, Her Voice” Season at Skylight

by Carolina Pilar Xique

“The writer’s job is to be brave enough to be nostalgic.”

I heard those words from an English professor once. At the time, they resonated with me as someone who is often referred to as a nostalgic person—always bringing up a story of the past, over and over again. I come from a family & community that shares and retells all kinds of stories every time we see each other, whether they’re laugh-out-loud funny or overwhelmingly heart-wrenching. Storytelling has always been a way for me and my community to record our histories and form connections when it feels like there are only differences.

That’s probably why I became a theater artist & playwright.

That being said, I recently had the thought, “I’m getting so tired of writing and talking about the pandemic.”

I guess it’s difficult to feel nostalgic about terrifying moments in the past, especially if it feels like they’re still happening. The uncertainty, anxiety, and grief of the last three years is still so fresh that the retelling of it can feel not only exhaustingly overdone, but terrifying to grapple with. For so many of us, the pandemic exposed some of the most vulnerable, heart-breaking, unlikeable parts of ourselves. It separated us from our communities—which are often our lifelines—and forced us to deal with momentous social & political shifts while in physical solitude. Who wants to remember all of that?

But yet, the idea of “returning to normalcy” in this current moment of endemic is insulting to the millions of humans who are not the same people they were before 2020, and all of us who have lost friends & family & community members.

So where is the middle ground? Is there a middle ground? When & how do we as artists become brave enough to remember?

These questions and the words of that English professor were swimming in my head when I talked with Lisa Sanaye Dring about her new play, Hungry Ghost, directed by Jessica Hanna and premiering at Skylight Theatre Company for the final installment of their “Her Voice, Her Vision” 40th Anniversary Season. A play that centers the lives of a couple getting ready to start a family, a hauntingly humorous hermit, and a secluded house in the woods, Hungry Ghost invites audiences to meditate on ideas of true freedom, isolation from community, and the hilarity of tragedy.

So as weary as I am of the pandemic, after my meeting with Lisa & Jess, I was reminded of the importance & inherent absurdity of processing, looking back on, and learning lessons from resiliency & loss.

Carolina Pilar Xique: Lisa—What inspired you to write this piece and how has it grown since its inception?

Lisa Sanaye Dring – photo by Stephanie Girard

Lisa Sanaye Dring: It’s very beautiful for me because I found out I got into the Humanitas Stage Raw Group led by Shem Bitterman and Steven Lee Morris in April, 2020. And we all know what was going on then. *laughs*

I was so heartened because at that moment I didn’t know if I was still going to make art, and it was a lifeline for me to be like, “Oh no, you will be writing in this time!”

But I didn’t know what I was going to write.

I was watching a video article in “The Atlantic,” a story about the North Pond Hermit, Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived in the forest for 27 years and survived by pilfering from vacation homes. He would come out in the summer and get little supplies, get oil, and then he’d hibernate in the winter and just camp out in his location. I was really moved by him because I was isolated from my community at that time, and I found it to be excruciating at moments. And he went to isolation and found solitude and freedom.

He did an interview with “GQ “and quoted Thomas Merton; he talked about how when one is without reflection, one can become truly free. I thought about that impulse—that one’s true self is only without one’s community. And I thought about how we as theatre people make meaning inside community. And then it sort of distilled into this play, which is about someone who is about to be in community in a huge way because of birth. She’s about to grow a family with a woman she loves and is facing her own feelings of isolation and alienation from community, and has to encounter those two poles—to be with people and to be alone. She’s forced into this decision via her pregnancy.

Carolina: Jessica—What has the rehearsal process been like and how have your thoughts about the play evolved since you had first read it?

Jessica Hanna – photo by Peter Konerko

Jessica Hanna: It’s been a super collaborative room. Lisa has been really participatory and open to the collaboration and the questions that come up for both myself and the actors. We’ve been really heavily working on this play for some months, but in June, we did a workshop and did some really hardcore work of talking about the play, Lisa writing new pages, and trying new things .

I would say that the idea of “theater being a great experiment” is really alive in this room. I keep talking to the cast that being in this place of, “I don’t know,” is a really fertile, exciting, creative space. And it’s also deeply uncomfortable and sometimes can cause anxiety. I feel very lucky because nobody in the room is dictating what anything has to be. So the richness of the possibility feels heightened in our room. And there’s also the reality of like, this is the baby’s first walk, right? So I hope there’s another evolution of this play that is learned from these moments.

Lisa: Shout out to Boston Court Playwrights Group—they have also workshopped the piece with me over the last year, in addition to the Humanist Stage Raw Group. In this time where it’s so hard to make a play and harder for producers to get stuff up, it’s been a huge boon to this piece to have so many amazing minds and hearts of the theater pay attention to it as it grows, including Jess’s, including Skylight.

Carolina: How has it been balancing the hilarity and the weight of these themes, in both the writing and the directing process?

Lisa: I just think things should be funny. I think all plays should be funny. And I think these actors are really sensational at giving us humor and joy. I was taught in theater school, “You can’t make them cry unless you make them laugh.” Straight drama is easier than laughter because you can’t really fake laughter. Like you can hear that difference of really making an audience crack up as opposed to the sort of chuckles that you hear that where they’re helping a comedy be pushed along. And there’s so much play in the room that creates a really beautiful space where people can unfurl with each other and genuinely be with each other. And I think all these layers of trust is also helped by [intimacy coordinator] Carly Bones. My job is just giving them enough material that they can play with to make it happen.

Ben Messmer, Tasha Ames, Jenny Soo – photo by by Grettel Cortes

Jessica: Yeah. You have to have the light to have the shadow, right? For talking about grief, sometimes the best thing to do is to talk about the ridiculousness of life or to have that present in order to actually really feel those things. I think we’ve got a nice balance going. I find it [the play] funny. These three players, they’re all hilarious in their own, very distinct ways. And to give them space to find their funny or to be their funny selves makes them more human. Even the fantastical, possibly mystical character still has got to be based in some kind of reality for us to understand him and to bond with him.

Lisa: I find that laughter, humor, and play are paradigm-shifting and paradigm-breaking. So I’m hoping there is also a deep cognitive experience that happens with the humor. I’m hoping that this play celebrates the wisdom of this. We were talking with one of our actors about how this one character is light because they’ve had to be—they’ve had to cultivate a levity because the world is just so bizarre for them. And I think that there’s a deep beauty in the resilience of humor.

Jessica: I just want to also say that Lisa is very funny, straight up. *laughs* But also, there’s something really gorgeous about Lisa’s work. There are times as an audience member where your breath is taken away by the beauty that’s being brought to life through words, and then all of a sudden it’ll be, like, some left turn. You can’t help but laugh out loud. It knocks you out because the broken expectations are so exciting. That kind of duality is one of the really exciting things about Lisa’s writing.

Carolina: Why this play today, right now?

Lisa: I mean, I just got to play my first lead in [director/playwright] Jen Chang’s play this year, and I’ve been acting for a while. And so to be an Asian American actor who’s been a character actor their whole life and to create a big role for Jenny Soo is an honor, because Jenny Soo’s such a tremendous performer.

Tasha Ames and Jenny Soo – photo by Grettel Cortes

But I think it’s tricky because I don’t really write from that place of, “What does the world need?” I try to metabolize the world in a sincere way, and then write what’s in my heart and then be mindful of it along the way. And thankfully, I don’t have to make the decision whether to produce it or not, or have to be a critic, you know what I mean? The world will tell me if the world needs it, if that makes sense. I think as an artist, one just needs to be really deep in themselves and to try to be honest and as alive as possible, and then make what’s in their heart responding to their moment right now.

Jessica: I think the play also speaks to this place of grief and that processing that we are all in. I talk about theater as being the art form where we can work on, or build the worlds we want to live in, or try things out, or see examples of what we want to push back against in terms of the world around us. And I think watching characters make hard choices that are right for themselves, seeing an Asian American woman make those choices for herself and question and be a human is really important right now. It always is. But I mean, in particular, I think it is now.

Hopefully we continue having more awareness and revelations as a society, but also white people—myself included—are paying attention in a different way. This idea of the Hungry Ghost, which is a cultural phenomenon in many cultures… this idea of something that comes from grief not being taken care of, or not being cared for, and that it comes back at you, or that it haunts you—at least that’s why I’m interpreting it—I think that’s very appropriate for right now. Because the question of, “Are we going to take care of ourselves and our grief in this period of change after massive, massive upheaval and death?” I think is a big question. Are we going to fertilize the ground with our knowledge, or are we going to just try to go on and not deal with what’s been happening around us? That’s a question I think about when working on this play.

Tasha Ames and Jenny Soo – photo by Grettel Cortes

Carolina: What has the process been like working with Skylight for their “Her Vision, Her Voice” theme for the 40th anniversary?

Lisa: It’s really great. I really loved working with Skylight. I mean, this is of course playwright-centric, but their notes have been really good. They’ve helped the piece grow, and I felt like they understood what the piece was and gave me a lot of space to figure it out. But I really resonate with a simpatico of artistic vision, in terms of what the possibility of the piece is and where we all think it’s going. I felt like they—Tyree [Marshall] and Gary [Grossman] and Armando [Huipe] and everybody there right now—intuited and grokked what the piece could be when they read it almost a year ago. I’ve been really grateful for that.

And then it also felt, artistically, like an appropriate birth in terms of like trusting the vision. Jess came in with a workshop model that I’d never done before that was really beautiful. Because Jess is the director, she had a vision for this, and I feel like that started us off on a really good fit of trust and respect. And I also wanna say Jess is a really seasoned producer herself, so I think she makes producer’s lives easy. *laughs*

Jess, what do you think?

Jessica: Uh, I don’t know. You’re gonna have to ask Gary about that later this week. *laughs*

But I wanna just echo what Lisa’s saying in terms of the support. There’s been a lot of striving to make dreams come true as much as possible, which has been really kind of extraordinary. They’ve been really, really great about trying to figure things out and give us as much as they can. I love the fact that they’re doing this season, that we’re part of this season. It’s really exciting that they will have brought three new plays to life in a year. And the fact that they’re all plays by women is the extra cherries on top. So yeah, I hope people are inspired by it and see it as something to that they could also do. I hope it’s something that catches on.

The final installment in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the World Premiere of “Hungry Ghost” by Lisa Sanaye Dring, directed by Jessica Hanna, runs at Skylight Theatre from August 26th to October 1st, 2023, with previews on August 19, 20, & 25. For tickets and information, visit  https://skylighttheatre.org/event/hungry-ghost/.

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A Solo Show Journey

We first met Kyla Garcia 2014 as a new “Fringe Femme” when she was gearing up for her Hollywood Fringe Festival show, “The Mermaid Who Learned How to Fly.” If you know Kyla you won’t be surprised that we were immediately smitten – her spirit and generosity envelop you – even before we saw her perform. (And she was amazing).

Of course we’ve kept in touch with her over the years, so were excited to check out the show she directed for this year’s Fringe: Samantha Bowling’s “This Was Never Supposed to Be a One Woman Show: A One Woman Show.” This extraordinary performance was such an unexpected gift. And we reached out to Kyla to talk a bit about her own solo journey and connecting with Samantha, as a collaborator.

Every solo show begins as a primal scream into the void.

by Kyla Garcia

At least, that’s how it started for me…

As artists, we so often have to answer to outside voices and opinions of folks who have no idea what the actual reality of being vulnerable onstage in this way truly means.

For years before I wrote my first solo show, I had agents and managers repeatedly tell me ‘Write a one-woman show! Casting directors and industry people need to see your range!’

I’ve never been able to create from that place, that surface place. So, for years I ignored them.

Until I shared a poem, a poem about the most shameful moment in my life, at a solo show workshop. And when the audience leaned in, I could hear a pin drop. And I thought, ‘oh no…this is the thing I have to write about. This is the thing I have to say.’

So, in 2013 I registered for the Hollywood Fringe with a show that was not even fully written yet. I had no ambitions with this show, my only goal was for ONE person in the audience to hear me and perhaps not make the same mistakes I had in life, perhaps not break their own heart and lose love in such a profound way. If I could get through to one person, putting myself in this vulnerable place and sharing my story, again and again, would be worth it.

I wrote my solo show because I had to; because I needed to say something and the person I wanted to say it to wasn’t there to hear it, so I spoke it out into the void for someone else’s heart to catch the message. It was one of the most terrifying and awe-inducing experiences of my life.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival provided the perfect womb; a loving, supportive, and nurturing environment for my idea to develop in. When it premiered in 2014, my show reached that one person and then some. Performing at the Fringe empowered me as a writer and gave me the courage as an artist to share my own stories; not just the words of others I’d been bringing to life for countless years before that.

I also met some of the most AMAZING humans in LA during that process (like Jennie and the badass women of the LAFPI) and I felt so grateful that I was now a part of this community of indie artists – who were also making art because they had to.

After I shared “The Mermaid Who Learned How to Fly,” I retreated.

The show had been received with so much love – awards, extensions, and most importantly, friendships I would cherish forever. But, I felt like a little crab hiding away in a shell as my art took me to other places and new adventures. I never forgot the courage this experience gave me and the love and support I felt from my community showing up for me the way they did during this time, and I kept showing up for them.

Now, almost 9 years later, I return to the Hollywood Fringe in a more powerful way than I could’ve ever imagined: behind the scenes.

In 2023, I made my directorial debut for one of the bravest stories I’ve ever witnessed: “This Was Never Supposed to be a One Woman Show: A One Woman Show,” written and performed by Samantha Bowling – an actor who everyone in this galaxy will know and remember once they see it.

Sam and I met in 2015, shortly after I had finished my last performance of “Mermaid” at United Solo in NYC. We had just become ensemble members at Native Voices at the Autry (Sam and I are both Indigenous, her people are the Cherokee and mine are the Taíno), so a mutual love of theatre and our Indigenous culture connected us.

She was always someone I admired from afar and wanted to get to know better. But, it wasn’t until a Facebook post in 2018, where Sam shared the tragic news of her best friend’s passing that I felt the strong urge to make a more conscious effort to see her. As someone who has navigated my own mental health journey for a while now, I know when people lose a loved one to suicide, there are very high statistics of the grief taking them too. Time and schedules and life had kept us from ever really having the chance to hang out, but I felt a fire light under me at that moment. I wanted Sam to know she wasn’t alone, and I meant it.

We went to a film festival together and talked in her car for hours. Sam jokingly confessed that I had always seemed so happy on the surface and she didn’t know if we’d get along outside of rehearsal. (She didn’t yet know about my own dark sense of humor.) I confessed that my happiness came from knowing my own dark night of the soul, a place I never wanted to go to again. And from that moment on, our friendship began.

Cut to a few years and a global pandemic later; the fear of Covid-19 had us all in lockdown – I was home in LA and Sam was in Boston living in theatre housing for a show she’d been cast in that ended up getting canceled. We talked on the phone weekly, and felt a deep responsibility to each other, especially to check in on the other’s mental health during the isolation of quarantine.

During that time, she had been working on a one-woman show that was originally supposed to be a comedy duo show performed by Sam and her best friend and creative partner Britt. They were writing it together to make fun of their mental illness and de-stigmatize all that comes with it, but when Britt lost her battle with bipolar disorder, Sam was left grieving her best friend and writing a show that was never meant to be performed alone.

Sam workshopped the show on Zoom for some of our Native Voices peers and I remember being BLOWN AWAY. She would run her ideas by me when we would catch up on the phone and I always felt honored to listen to her stories and process. When she came home to LA from Boston, I watched as she interviewed director after director, always thinking she’d found the right person only to realize she hadn’t.

Now, I am a professional director in the VO world… and I have directed some theatre, but I had never been part of a project of this magnitude; a project with this much personal significance. But at some point in early 2021, a tiny voice whispered that it was me, that I was meant to do this beside Sam, to be her champion. I sheepishly shared this with her afterward and rather than laughing in my face – she embraced me with utter JOY as if she too had wanted this all along, but didn’t want to impose if I didn’t have the time.

Kyla & Sam

We rehearsed in our apartments with only our dogs as our audience; and spent hours going over the script continuing to shape and dramaturg what was, in my eyes – already a masterpiece.

Two years later (after Sam had been diligently developing this piece for FIVE years on her own), we brought it to the Hollywood Fringe stage and I was reminded of my own experience with Mermaid.

Sam’s show was received with pure love and support. Audiences were moved to laughter and tears night after night and finally, she was doing what she had dreamt of for so long! She was sharing her story with the world. We originally presented this piece as a one-off outdoor workshop in a friend’s backyard and now Sam is a Jaxx Cultural Arts Envoy Nominee, Best Solo Performance of Fringe 2023 Nominee and Winner of the Encore Producer’s Award. She has come so far from that first Zoom workshop and it has truly been the privilege of a lifetime to be a microcosmic part of her galactic process.

Sam’s mind is brilliant, she is a nonuple threat: phenomenal singer/songwriter, skilled dancer/guitarist, part-historian/scientist, prolific writer/actress, and a hilarious comedienne. Her story is one that every person on this planet could learn from… it’s a story about survival and the daily triumphs we have over our brain. It’s a story about learning to protect and heal yourself and about how we keep going after the unspeakable impacts our lives. I offer every trigger warning to our audiences: mental illness, suicide, sexual assault… and yet, I am able to confidently say this show is still very much a comedy. Only a mind as magical as Sam’s could find humor in all she has lived through. Only a heart as brave as Sam’s could find the courage to step onto that stage night after night and live through it again in the hopes of getting through to one person who may be struggling right now.

Samantha Bowling rehearsing for the Hollywood Fringe Festival

No one is you and that is your power. For a solo show to truly move hearts and minds, you must tell the story that only you can tell, the one you may not want to share, but the one that is whispering quietly from the depths of your soul – that now is the time for you to tell it.

“Shame dies when our stories are told in safe spaces.” I saw this quote by Dr. James Rouse and it really stuck with me. It reminded me of my own journey and the journey I’ve been on beside Sam. Shame disappears when we tell our stories; when we do the work to heal from them before sharing them – when we keep healing as we voice them.

Sam’s story heals me every time I witness it. For so long, I was the only one witnessing it, but now it has been born into the world and I want everyone else to experience it too.

You have one last chance to see her shine at her Encore performance. I will be there with bells on, probably in the front row. Will you come with me?

The Encore performance of “This Was Never Supposed to Be a One-Woman Show: A One-Woman Show is Thursday, July 20th at 8pm at The Jaxx Theatre. For tickets and information, visit hollywoodfringe.org/projects/6625

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SheLA Arts Celebrates Summer at the Zephyr

by Carolina Pilar Xique

After months of winter rain that persisted through June Gloom, I’m ready to get out in the sun and see some theatre! Aren’t you?

This July 11-16 at The Zephyr Theatre, five budding theatrical works by up-and-coming playwrights will be showcased at the SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival, self-described as the premier festival for new, original, creative works by gender-marginalized playwrights and composers in Los Angeles.

I was able to speak with the wonderful playwrights and directors to give us a sneak peek into their vision, process, and hopes for these plays.

Carolina Pilar Xique (she/her): What compelled each of you to write your piece?

Maddie Nguyen (she/her, playwright of the moon play): I have a friend in college who is Native Hawaiian and was telling me about how Mark Zuckerberg wanted to buy land in Hawaii. My friend was really pissed off about that and told me about this dream he had where Hawaii colonized the Moon. Around that same time, my college friend group was graduating and I was having a hard time dealing with that emotionally – the loss of connection with people is something I’ve always struggled with in my life. I combined the two ideas of going to the moon and connected that with a metaphor of connection with other people, and no longer desiring that connection because it becomes too painful when it ends.

Margaret Owens (she/her, playwright, composer & director of RoseMarie – A Kennedy Life Interrupted): I was suffering from chronic fatigue from myalgic encephalomyelitis severely for about a year and a half, so I was in a wheelchair. I couldn’t do any of my normal daily tasks, so I was like, “What can I do to earn my right to live?” And I thought, “I can write a musical!” I put it out to the universe, and a very strong image came into my mind about the Kennedys, which I didn’t think was a good idea because everyone writes about the Kennedys. My husband mentioned that the family lobotomized this daughter, and I had never heard of that. I did a little research and learned that RoseMarie was the inspiration for the American Disability Act and all the Special Olympics. Since I was in my wheelchair at that time, I was becoming very, very grateful for the street curbs. You know who’s to thank for that? RoseMarie. I was trapped in my body and could do nothing else but write this.

Natalie Nicole Dressel (she/her, playwright of There is Evil in This House): What compelled me to write this piece was going to therapy in my thirties after coming out as transgender and losing touch with my mother, and talking about my experience growing up in a haunted house with my therapist. My therapist recontextualized my entire childhood experience, I had to go back and re-look at everything again. So it’s based on some real feelings I was going through. It was either write this play or keep bothering any halfway-friend Uber driver that I was meeting, because I had stuff to get off my chest.

Sarahjeen François (she/her, playwright & director of Sister, Braid My Hair): George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. All the unarmed deaths that were occurring at the hands of police officers. I was at home in the middle of COVID while all of that was stewing in my mind, and I was angry. But also I was yearning for a laughter and warmth that I wasn’t getting because I was so isolated from my family. I decided to create these sisters who thrive despite this political circumstance, and they have brought me so much comfort and joy. Just being in the presence of Black women is something special and I was craving that.

Nakisa Aschtiani (she/her, playwright of Bismillah, or In the Name of God): Years ago, I was having a conversation with my mom, and she had mentioned that a friend of the family said that if his son were gay, he would kill himself. It stuck with me and years later, I had to write about it because I couldn’t understand how you could say you love someone and say that simultaneously – the duality of that drove me nuts. I put that conversation in the play.

Carolina: What has been the process in bringing these pieces to life?

Sarah Bell (she/her, director of the moon play): What’s particularly wonderful about this piece is Maddie has put in this Vietnamese myth of “The Man on the Moon,” which includes a banyan tree on the moon, giving it an atmosphere. There’s also all this trash that’s in the play. Bringing it to life was actually quite easy because Maddie has created this perfect environment for me to kind of throw whatever I need in it. So it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been collecting trash from my house for my moon play trash pile.

Margaret: Well, the story was down in my mind, so then I wrote all the songs. I was looking for a book writer, because I didn’t know how to do that, and – long story, short – I ended up writing it myself. It was intimidating because I didn’t know how to write or talk like the 1930s & 1940s. My husband’s a professional writer and he took a stab at writing one scene just to give me an idea. Catching the verbiage of that broke it wide open for me. I started in December of 2011, and I finally had it all written in 2014. A producer I knew did staged readings to raise money to take it to Broadway – that didn’t happen, and then COVID. I started submitting it to places, and SheLA picked it. And it’s this play that led me back to college where I got my degree in playwriting.

Cast of RoseMarie – A Kennedy Life Interrupted (l to r): Chris Riley, Lilli Babb, Jared Allen Price, Amanda Quigley, Taylor Bass; photo by Wendy Babb

Dean Grasbard (he/him, director of There is Evil in This House): It’s a really emotional piece. We have a loving cast that take care of themselves and each other and are doing a really excellent job of finding the humor in it. The deeper we get into it, the more we’ve been able to have communal healing. This play shows us paths to forgiveness for ourselves and each other. I don’t think any of us expected to walk out of rehearsals and feeling this light and with this sense of relief, which is really powerful. The play is so much funnier and more painful than I think any of us even imagined. It’s a play begging to be seen; it really aches for community and does a good job of creating it.

Sarahjeen: It has been a journey and the journey continues! When I wrote this play, I started thinking about quintessentially Black works of art because they’re a source of comfort, and there’s this one piece that can be found in many Black households. It’s a generational braiding photo with about four Black women seated and are grooming each other. And I wondered, what is the conversation? What’s happening that we can’t see? What if this is the only place where they feel safe? That’s where I birthed the characters and this world. I decided to take a chance on this play. It’s rhythmic in nature and is accompanied by djembe music, and it’s not something I’ve ever experienced in theatre.

Ani Maderosian (she/her, director of Bismillah, or In the Name of God): The dream for every director is to see things finally come to life, in the flesh. I did a radio play version of this [play] about two years ago. At that time, we needed that rendition, and it was creatively fulfilling and wonderful, but I sat there and thought, “Oh, God, this would be so great if we could get this on stage with people who can connect with it on such a deep and personal level and bring it to the community.” So it’s exciting. My process includes blocking organically, so a lot of the creative work is on the actors in following their own instincts and bringing out their own truth. Being able to work with this unique set of talented actors and tell this story from their perspective is my joy.

Rehearsing Bismillah, or In the Name of God (l to r): Aneela Qureshi, Saalika Khan, Sameer Khan; photo by Ani Marderosian

Carolina: Is there anything the audience should know before seeing your piece?

Maddie: There’s heavy language. It’s not recommended for children.

Margaret: Maybe bring tissue. Trigger warnings would be that there’s simulated surgery and there is a little violence, domestic quarrels. The play does mention the timely usage of neurodivergent terms of the 1930s and 40s.

Natalie: There are pop culture references, but I think I do a good job of taking people by the hand so you don’t have to know them to know what it means to the main character. And it [the play] won’t be in order, but I promise I will reorient you as to what’s going on.

Sarahjeen: They should know that this is an invitation – they’re being invited to a space that is sacred for these sisters. And to be prepared to go on a journey with these bombastic sisters who take risks and live life.

Sister, Braid My Hair (l to r): Brittney McClendon, M. Bluette, Antonia LaChe, and Yesenia Ozuna; photo by SheATL Arts

Ani: I love this play so much because it encapsulates what we as artists do in this industry. I think we both agree that we have a civic duty to the public to tell stories and this story will educate, instill empathy, and the hope is that it will get people talking and create a little bit of change when they leave the theater.

Carolina: What would you like audiences to take away after the performances?

Sarah: Something I’ve been talking a lot about with Maddie & the cast is what qualifies or even quantifies a friendship? How do we define relationships that can feel fleeting or deep, lasting, and meaningful – is it the time that we’ve known someone or is it how deep our knowledge of them runs? I guess I want audiences to be more open to that definition.

Margaret: People may know of Teddy, and of Eunice, and they certainly know of Jack, but they don’t know all the work they did because of RoseMarie. We’re lucky that she came into this family that had so much power and money. By being in that family, she changed the world because rights for people with disabilities are better because of the Kennedys.

Dean: I want people to walk away with the feeling of complexity, and the acceptance around complexity. Because nobody is just good or bad. And I want people to walk away knowing they have options. There is no one way to deal with trauma or to reconcile with yourself or your family. That is something to exquisite that I so rarely see – the idea that there is no lesson other than figuring out what’s right for you and holding that complexity tenderly.

Rehearsing There is Evil in This House (l to r): Dana DeRuyck, HRH Marian Gonzalez, Kit Sheehan

Sarahjeen: I want them to feel the absolute joy amongst these Black women. Second, I want them to go home and do a little bit of research after seeing the play. And the last thing is I want them to make space for grace as it comes to the complexities of being a woman of color in America.

Nakisa: Fundamentally, we’re all the same. We have stories to tell. When we were casting, it was important for us to cast people of color – Middle Eastern actors. Even though we can take this story and put another family into it or imagine people that you know who are like these characters, we’re fundamentally the same and we come from the same stock. And we all have stories to tell.

Carolina: Is there any other play in the Festival you’re particularly excited to see?

Maddie: I really want to see Sister, Braid My Hair. Every time I see the title, it just strikes me. The description, portrait, and title feel very intimate so I think that’s the one I’m most excited for.

Sarah: I got to talk to most of the production members of There is Evil in This House. Talking to the dramaturg, I asked her what her favorite part is about that piece and she said how healing and transformative it is as a witness and as someone who is working on it. So I want to see that one for sure.

Margaret: I would love to see them all. I like the idea of Sister, Braid My Hair.

Natalie: I spent a great deal of time talking with Sarah [the director of the moon play], and I’m fascinated. It sounds like a fairytale book come to life and if that’s not a good time at the theatre, I don’t know what is.

Rehearsing the moon play (l to r): Kate Vu, Natasha Kong; photo by Sarah Liz Bell

Dean: I’m excited for Bismillah, or In the Name of God. I’m really glad we have representation of queer stories of color in this festival. I know Nakisa and I haven’t seen her work before so I’m really excited.

Sarahjeen: I’m really excited to see all of them, but Bismillah is snatching my soul with interest. But I really want to see them all, and I’m going to, so it’s going to be tasty.

Nakisa: One of my friends was saying that RoseMarie is absolutely phenomenal and will probably go very far.

Ani: The great thing about this festival is that it’s always vastly different stories, genre, and styles, so I’d like to see all of them!

For more tickets and information on the five plays – and playwrights – featured in the 2023 SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival July 11-16 at the Zephyr Theatre, visit shenycarts.org/she-la.

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No Place Like the Past, Present & Future

by Carolina Pilar Xique

No Place Like Gandersheim poster

On November 7th, 2020, I was at a Starbucks in Long Beach, on my way to my mom’s house, when I scrolled through Facebook and saw that Kamala Harris would become the next Vice President of the United States.

The only way I can describe that moment was that it was similar to the first time I saw snow at 20-years-old: shocking, like my brain was taking its sweet time processing something I’ve never seen before.

It wasn’t until 3 hours later, when I watched on my mom’s television our incoming Vice President, that my shock turned into tears down my cheeks, joined with a choked sigh. Because despite my issues with her previous stances & policies, and despite enduring another presidential election in which I felt I was choosing “the lesser of two evils,” a woman, who looked just like me, was going to be the Vice President of the United States.

That day, I believed I was fortunate enough to be witnessing a steppingstone that would change the world for the better.

But how much has really changed?

Since President Biden & Vice President Harris have taken office, the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, countless laws have gone into effect throughout the nation that restrict women’s access to healthcare, birth control and abortions, and today, states like Florida are banning books in children’s libraries with subjects related to “wokeness” (whatever that means), including important historical figures throughout history who do not fit the white, male, cisgender narrative.

Being a woman, these days can often feel like one step forward, 50-years-worth-of-steps back; a losing chess game.

But those special moments—moments like seeing Kamala Harris, our first Black-Indian female Vice President, on screen right before our eyes—these are the moments that inspire us to dream of a bigger and better world, moments that are meant to propel us into action. We have a responsibility to keep that momentum going, even when it feels like we’ve fallen behind.

That’s what Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a nun in 10th century Germany, invites the audience to consider in Elizabeth Dement’s No Place like Gandersheim.

In the second interview I’ve had the pleasure of doing with Skylight Theatre’s 40th season theatre-makers, I got to sit down with playwright Elizabeth Dement and director Randee Trabitz, to talk time traveling, Catholicism & the film industry, 10th century Germany and women’s rights.

Carolina Pilar Xique: I would love to hear more about the inspiration from this play and who the real “Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim” was. What elements of her life are embedded in this piece?

Elizabeth Dement

Elizabeth Demet: The play came out of my experience as a writer, because the play is about a female writer—the first female playwright, who was Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim.

Oftentimes, writers—women writers in particular—get notes that seem to take them farther away from what they initially intended to write, especially in Hollywood. And I was wondering, “How far back does this go?” So I started to look and I landed in 10th century Germany in this abbey with Hrotsvitha. I discovered she was a nun who wrote a sex comedy and I thought, “This is a woman I have to write about.” That’s where I started—in the abbey.

I will say that the play is not historically accurate—it is a comedy, a reimagining of Hrotsvitha’s life, or a life she might have had in a parallel universe. There are certain elements that are accurate: she did live in the abbey, she was a canonist, and she did adapt a play by Terrence, a Roman playwright, and it was a sex comedy. She adapted it to be more of a religious piece, and she was very close friends with the Abbess. They had an intensely loving friendship, and so that character is also in the play. At the time, Otto was the Holy Roman Emperor, his niece was the Mother Superior at Gandersheim, and his wife was Theophanu, who is a wonderful character in the play. I think that’s all the parts that are historically accurate—with everything else, I took a lot of liberties. I had to sort of infer what people’s personalities might have been and what their desires were. And there’s a little time travel in the play, so I don’t think that happened in the 10th century. But who knows?

Randee Trabitz: We’re not sure.

Elizabeth: I didn’t find any in my research.

Carolina: In reading about the production, we could feel your enthusiasm for staging the time travelling that happens in the play. What has that process been like?

Randee Trabitz

Randee: It’s quite a thing—apparently time travel isn’t as easy as I thought. (laughs) It’s been a challenge and it’s been kind of a delicious, creative one. Beth [Elizabeth] has this tendency to write elements into her plays which are like crack for directors. Like, “I don’t know how to do that, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” And time travel is definitely one of those things. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a few different elements. We’re working with our lead actress, Jamey Hood, who is playing Hrotsvitha and is an extraordinary performer, so capable of many things physically, emotionally, and temperamentally. We’re working with her, our videographer, Shannon Barondeau, and our sound designer, Alma Reyes-Thomas, as well as the rest of the cast who are kind of swirling around the elements to make it possible to happen since Jamey never leaves the stage. So she time travels and stays exactly where she was.

Carolina: There are a lot of parallels between Catholicism & the Theatre/Film Industry being male-controlled spaces. What has that exploration been like? Have there been any surprises in their similarities or differences?

Randee: Even though the play is under 90 minutes, it’s still structurally broken up into 3 acts and 3 places. And we keep discovering more ways that the play refers to itself and we’ve also put in some placeholders in one time period that then refer back to another. I love when there’s something planted early that then we can mine and it comes into fruition sometime later in the play. I think it’s delicious for close-watchers in the audience to start to put those pieces together. We’ve had two very different audiences so far—one that just laughed and laughed, and one that was just very quiet, paying attention, and piecing everything together, and it kind of works on both of those levels.

Shannon Holt and Jamey Hood – photo by Jenny Graham

Elizabeth: The other thing I’ve found in rehearsals is that the play talks about—without explicitly talking about—where these people stand in history at that moment; different eras of history. I find that really interesting and it goes in tandem with what Randee was talking about. Each act talks to the other acts: this is where we were, this is where we are, this is where we’re going; and this is how things changed, and this is how nothing has changed. So there have been lots of discoveries. I knew there was some of that when I wrote it but, of course, you get in the room, and you have these amazing actors and director, and they make all of these discoveries, and when you see it up on its feet, you can physically see the resonance of each time period.

Randee: This has been a long time coming. The play was set to go forward just as the pandemic began; the world has already shifted since then and the play has shifted in response to it, which I think is amazing. There’s a whole other dimension to it now. Ultimately, the way women are placed in the world and the way their voices are listened to is a story as old as time and it’s one that keeps spiraling. In the time-traveling, we’ve been talking a lot about spirals which seems appropriate.

Carolina: How has it changed since the pandemic?

Elizabeth: When I was writing this, Me Too was happening and it’s a component of the piece. And now, Me Too is still very important but it’s not as hot & present an issue as it was in 2017, when there was this cascade of awareness of what women have been going through since the beginning of time. When I wrote the play, that period in the script said, “Present Day” and now I have to put “2017″ or “2018.”

Lauren Gaw, Jamey Hood and Shannon Holt – photo by Jenny Graham

Randee: That’s the part I find really compelling: We’re looking at piece that is now in the past and we’re assuming that we’re post-Me Too but the reality is we’ve just lost interest in talking about it. Something else has supplanted it on the front page but all of those same issues of representation and women’s voices are still problematic. Like Black Lives Matter, we had this swell of interest, but nothing has been fixed. It’s not over, and we’re not progressing beyond that. That’s how the timing has been particularly profound to me.

Elizabeth: It reminds me of a documentary called, “This Changes Everything”—which if you haven’t seen, you should see. It’s fantastic. Basically, they talk a lot about these moments, particularly in movies like Thelma & Louise, where there was all this press saying, “Well this changes everything for women. Now, it’s going to be different.” And not that we haven’t made any progress over the last decades, but we haven’t yet had that moment that changed everything on a level that I think we all crave. In the play, the characters are in time periods where they think it’s that moment when everything is going to change or is changing, and the main character is very obsessed with making change in the world.

Lauren Gaw, Shannon Holt, Charrell Mack and Jamey Hood – photo by Jenny Graham

Carolina: What has it been like working on this uniquely feminist play with an all-female creative & production team?

Randee: I’ll just out myself and say I’ve never been in that kind of room with all women. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s a new experience on so many levels. There’s a lot of grace, a lot of listening, support, and nobody every raises their voice in anger. It’s not something we have to think about or deal with, which is kind of great. The thing about being my age is that I don’t want to be in this work unless I’m having a good time. And I am having a great time in the room. It’s very pleasant

Elizabeth: From the moment I wrote the play, I wanted this to be all-women, including, ideally, the entire creative team. I didn’t know if people would go along with that request but Skylight & Randee were great to make it happen. When we had our first readthrough… you walk in the room and you go, “Oh my God! It happened!” It’s ephemeral, it’s like alchemical. There’s a vibe in the room that’s just different, and it’s lovely. We have a blast and we make each other laugh. I said to someone else, “There’s never a line for the bathroom because we can use the men and ladies’ rooms in rehearsals.”

Charrell Mack and Jamey Hood – photo by Jenny Graham

Carolina: What do you want audiences to take away after they’ve seen this play?

Elizabeth: I’d love it if people walked away thinking about the play and about history and women and feminism. One of the key messages in the play is that we’ve the same problems for centuries: What’s going to happen in the future? Will there ever be a moment of severe change? I don’t want to say we’re in the exact same spot women were in the 10th century, but we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked to. And the other part of it is the really human part—there’s a huge discussion about mortality and legacy. What are you leaving behind? What is truly important to you? Those questions come up for the main character and I’m hoping people will be moved by how she responds to them.

Randee: For the longest time, I’ve been aiming at Beth’s reaction to the play when we first did the reading in her living room. We all laughed and laughed and laughed and I looked over at Beth and she was weeping. I want the audience to laugh and enjoy and fall in love with these characters and then, at the end, just burst into tears.

The play speaks to me very profoundly as a creative person and what it is to be an artist—to take it seriously and at what cost? I’m one of the few mothers in the room, and one of my assistants is a young mother of two. I know that it is of great cost to her and her children to be in rehearsal, and I certainly remember those days. It’s a different payment for women than men. That decision to pursue what you care about the most feels like a privilege. So the play definitely speaks to that strongly and loudly. Even with the one man in our room, Gary Grossman, we’ve had this conversation about what it means to still be making theatre at an age when you could have just retired and gone to the beach. That’s the part that makes me cry at the end.

The second play in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the World Premiere of “No Place Like Gandersheim” by Elizabeth Dement, directed by Randee Trabitz, runs at Skylight Theatre through June 25, 2023. For tickets and information, visit skylighttheatre.org/event/no-place-like-gandersheim/.

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Fight Choreographer Jen Albert on Women With Rage

by Elana Luo

Perhaps it’s been too long since LA theatre has seen a good bloody fight to the death on stage.

School of Night remedies that with “Battlesong of Boudica”, an “epic revenge tragedy” based on the real-life Iceni Warrior Chief Boudica’s uprising against the Roman empire in 61AD. Multi-hyphenate Jen Albert produces, fight choreographs, and stars as the queen herself. Onstage, Jen as Boudica slashes, stabs, and beheads her way through one epic battle after another. Offstage, we chatted a bit about her work as a fight choreographer, being a woman with rage, and stage fighting as catharsis.

Elana Luo: How did you get into fight choreography?

Jen Albert: I went to school in Chicago, I went to Columbia College [for acting]. One of the classes on offer was stage combat, and I immediately knew I wanted to take that . I loved it, and every semester I just kept taking more and more classes and weapons : ‘Now I’ve learned swords, okay, now I’ve learned quarterstaff, okay, now I’ve learned shield.’ I just kept going. 

Elana: Why did you want to take that class in the first place?

Jen: I think just as part of being an actor. You watch movies, you watch plays, you see all these actors doing these cool cool stunts and things, and you’re like, ‘I wanna do that.’ And I also think at that time I was an angry person, and I liked to hit things. I think the opportunity to hit things and create a cool fight sequence was just a way to get my rage out.

Elana: I feel like the stereotype is that men are the ones who are angry, or it’s mostly men who want to fight. Do you work with a lot of women who are also full of rage, or this fighting drive? 

Jen Albert – photo by Shandon Photography

Jen: Yeah. I don’t know that people see how much rage women actually have. I’m surrounded by women who have rage, for a multitude of reasons. It’s not over being less equal than other folks, it’s the violence. I’m certainly tired of being scared all the time or worried about my life because somebody’s just going to be angry and do something to me. Just in general, you know, we all have rage. The idea that women don’t have rage is silly. I know a lot of very, very, angry women.

Elana: Does the character of Boudica have any special significance to you?

Jen: There’s a scene in the beginning of the play where she’s sort of beating her daughter a little bit. When I read that, I was like, ooh, that’s a lot. And Chris [longtime collaborator Christopher William Johnson, Battlesong of Boudica writer and director] was like, ‘Well, I kind of wrote it to be a bit like your mother.’ And not that my mother was abusive, but she didn’t know any better. That’s how she disciplined. Back in the 80s and 90s, that was not weird, that was standard. And [in the play] it’s 61AD. There was no line about what’s abusive and what’s not. There’s no line about animal sacrifice. These are humans at the beginning of time, doing what they do with what they know how to do.

Elana: So that initial response of ‘oh, I don’t know about that,’ was that modern-day you thinking?

Jen: That was me being the actor going, ‘people are not going to like her.’ And on top of that, later in the play, she burns down entire towns of civilians. She’s not actually a nice person. And so I don’t think we really knew how people were going to receive that. 

Allegra Rodriguez Shivers and Jen Albert in “Battlesong of Boudica” – photo by Jessica Sherman

Elana: When you were playing her, did you feel unlikeable? Did you want people to root for her?

Jen: Honestly, after I read it and started playing it, I didn’t really think about it, nor did I care. I’m playing a human being going through whatever she’s going through, it doesn’t really matter what anybody thinks about it. And if they don’t like her, great! And I think it makes for more interesting drama if we’re [having] feelings about the character. Yes, she’s in the right, but also… not.

Elana: She’s complex!

Jen: I used to… I still get a little irritated when people are like, ‘You’re playing a strong female character.’ I don’t want to play a strong female character. I want to play a complex character. I don’t need her to be strong. Women are not always strong. We get to give in to our vices. We get to be bad. We get to be evil. You know, like, we’re not saints and I don’t want to play a saint. I want to play somebody who’s complicated. She’s not perfect. She’s so not. She gets bloodthirsty!

What do you see as the importance of showing violence on the stage?

I think in our normal lives we don’t normally get to react with violence. And so I think that [the] stage is sort of an outlet for that. I think theater in general is an outlet for feelings and emotions or thoughts, situations that we don’t normally get to have or be a part of. So I think that translates to stage combat as well. It’s just like watching an action movie. We all want to be able to do that or participate in that. It gets our adrenaline going, it gets us excited. 

It’s just like musical theater. When the emotions get to be too much, you sing. So when the emotions get to be too much, you are violent. And I always say that an actor has to have a reason to fight. So if it’s executed well, then it supports the emotional context of the show. It’s telling the story as it should be told.

What were your goals with choreographing the fights on this show?

Jen Albert as Boudica fights Jesse James Thomas as Camulos – photo by Jessica Sherman

Jen: My goal is always to tell the story. What is the story, what are we trying to say with it? Like with the fight with Camulos [one of Boudica’s many enemies, played by Jesse James Thomas], my goal was to build tension. What I really wanted out of that was for her to make him angry, because that’s her strategy. If he’s angry, he’s gonna be off balance. And Jesse and I talked about this, because we worked on this fight together. And he [as Camulos] plays up the anger of it. Then I [as Boudica] can calm down and go, ‘Okay, great. Now you’re now you’re going to do something stupid.’ So each fight has its own sort of story.

Go see Jen destroy the need to be well-liked, as well as a respectable chunk of the Roman Empire, in School of Night’s Battlesong of Boudica at The Hudson Backstage, running for one more weekend, April 28-30. Go Here for Tickets. For more information about School of Night and what the company is up to next, visit schoolofnight.org.

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Talking a “Blue” Streak With June Carryl

by Katherine Vondy

I first got to know June and her writing as we were working on new plays together as part of The Vagrancy’s 2020-2021 Writers’ Group (though she had been involved with several Vagrancy productions before joining the Writers’ Group). Reading her pages that year, I was continually struck by her ability to write dialogue that felt wholly grounded and natural while placing her characters in situations that allowed their words to transcend the scenes, thereby always speaking to larger issues and ideas. “Blue”—June’s engrossing two-hander currently playing at Rogue Machine’s Henry Murray Stage—is a perfect example of this skill. With an knack for stripping down the many layers of personal identity while exposing the underbelly of national identity, “Blue” is a unique theatrical production that gives audience members the experience of peering behind the closed doors of the LAPD—with a few revelations about human nature along the way. 

Kat Vondy: When we were writing plays together as part of The Vagrancy’s Writers’ Group, there was a very specific structure and schedule involved with the plays we developed there, with new pages due every two weeks over a period of seven months and a few workshops along the way. How does that compare to your writing process in general, and for Blue in particular? Do you tend to dash out a full draft over a weekend, spread the writing out over a longer period of time, or does it depend on the project? 

June Carryl: The structure at Echo Lab where I had the chance to write Blue was a meeting once a week with two moderators, the incredible Hannah Wolf and Brian Otano. There were nine of us and we shared a few pages from one play. We’d sign up and had six-to eight weeks to develop pages. My process is kinda all over the place, honestly, depending on the play. I’ve started working with a character biography (who the main players are, especially the protagonist, what they want versus what they need, what their wounds are) and then just fly by the seat of my pants. With Blue I knew the first scene right away and so had to go back to do the character outline. It evolved over time as I was pointed to the need for a deeper relationship between Parker and Sully by the two wonderful directors who shepherded the workshops and a reading down at Curtis Theater, Michael Matthews and Ryan Bergmann.

KV: In addition to being a playwright, you’re also an accomplished director and actor. How do your experiences in those areas inform your writing? 

June Carryl

JC: I’m always learning a little more about storytelling from doing the other two things. Character development and how language fits (or doesn’t) in an actor’s mouth, clarity of intention all come from acting while focusing action even if I’m not always clear about why consciously something is happening I get from directing. It’s really fun. I’m really always learning.

KV: In Rogue Machine’s production of Blue, the theatrical space is so intimate and immersive that it’s easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief and forget they’re watching a performance; the audience has the experience of being a fly on the wall of an actual interrogation. This sense is heightened because the play is one unbroken scene that plays out in real time. Did you always conceive of Blue in this way, or were there earlier iterations of the play that had scene breaks and dealt with the passage of time differently?

 JC: Credit Michael Matthews, my amazing director, with how that space came to be and Rogue Machine just ran with it. I’m so grateful he said yes. The play has never had scene breaks and was always conceived of as happening in a single scene in real time.

John Colella and Julanne Chidi Hill in Blue; photo by Jeff Lorch

KV: In some ways, Blue feels like a companion piece to the remount of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 that was just at the Mark Taper Forum. Both productions highlight the fact that police violence against people of color continues to plague our country: Twilight by recounting a piece of history from over thirty years ago, and Blue by telling a contemporary story that incorporates recent national events. The shows bring into focus a pattern of racism that has not changed in the decades between the 1992 LA Uprising and today.

 While thinking about Blue, I was struck by the way that the conversation between LaRhonda and Sully keeps circling back to the same concepts; both characters repeatedly return to certain topics in efforts to continually angle for different responses.

 To me, there’s a way in which the structure of Blue echoes the structure of our history: being stuck in a pattern that we can’t (or won’t) break free of. You also explored the theme of patterns in the play you wrote for The Vagrancy, N*gga B*tch. How do you think about patterns and repetition in a storytelling context? What do you think audiences can learn by examining patterns and repetition?

 JC: There’s this tick in American culture where we broach a place of change, a watershed moment, and rather than breaking through, we revert to nostalgia and a looking back, usually to the 50s. It’s incredibly annoying. Not that change doesn’t happen. It does, but we are constantly on repeat. The hope is that in the story the characters are initially locked in a repetition, look at the thing in question from one angle, then another, then still another and that the audience recognizes its own patterns and breaks that pattern because to repeat it once more is to remain in stasis, to fail. I never really thought out loud why I do it. It’s kind of an obsession.

KV: We were scheduled to have a Vagrancy Writers’ Group meeting on January 6, 2021—the day of the Capitol Insurrection—and I remember wondering whether it was even possible to access a creative frame of mind given what was happening in DC. The situation was leaving so many people distraught and stunned that it was difficult to focus on anything else. In Blue, the Capitol Insurrection comes to have a particular significance as we get deeper into the story; as such, it feels as if you were able to transform something that was initially a creative barrier into part of your creative work. Struggling to make art while grappling with the weight of disturbing world events is an issue that I think many creative people contend with. Do you have strategies that help you navigate this challenge?

Julanne Chidi Hill and John Colella; photo by Jeff Lorch 

 JC: Writing itself is my strategy. I journal every day now, have for a long while. It’s this info dump. Whatever obsession or gripe I’m grappling with I just download for three pages. It just really helps. And the great thing about writing plays is that you can break things down and look at them, at what you think, at what is and isn’t true, and you can decide what your reaction is; so you’re not just feeling helpless or enraged. You can engage. It’s really therapeutic.

KV: Do you have a specific audience member (or members) in mind when you write?

JC: I don’t quite know what that means. I kinda write to talk to anyone who’ll listen. One of the most gratifying things anyone has ever said to me is that I said something in the play that they were feeling and didn’t have the words for. That makes all the stress and self-judgment worth it. 

KV: Is there anyone (dead or alive, real or fictional) you’d like to share your work with who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to see or read it?

JC: I wish my mom were alive to see my work. I was supposed to be a lawyer and have tooootally gotten away from that and quite happily. She was always proud of me—I found out she wanted my brother, sister, and me to be happy whatever we chose to do with our lives. I was the quiet one. t would be amazing if she could see how I turned out.

 KV: What are you reading/watching right now? Any recommendations for books or shows (on film or stage) that we shouldn’t miss?

JC: I have The Amazing World of Gumball seasons 1 through 3 on repeat. It’s on Hulu. It’s a cartoon about a blue cat, his adopted brother, a goldfish, his sister who is a pink bunny like his dad and his mom who is also a blue cat. Before they decided to make him jaded in season four it was just this hilarious look at 7th graders—just in that in-between place of still being kids and having to contend with he world with kid logic. The first three seasons are incredible and hilarious.

I’m also reading Wilson Harris—slowly. He was a Guyanese author (I’m Guyanese on my mom’s side), utterly brilliant, totally over my head and absolutely worth it, I think, though half the time I literally no idea what he’s talking about. I’m also getting ready to read The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo.

KV: What are your hopes for the future of theater in LA? What would you like to hold onto, and what would you like to change?

JC: I really want theater to make good on the last two years of promising to share the stage with people of color. Workshops are great, genuinely great and a gift; but to see that gift translate into actual PRODUCTIONS rather than just throwing dollars at us and bailing when it comes to sustained support and full production is paramount. What I loved about getting to work with the Vagrancy is that dedication is there. The point is to put the plays up, to support getting the plays up elsewhere when y’all can’t do it yourselves. More theaters like Vagrancy. That’s my hope for the future of LA Theater.

June Carryl’s “Blue” is now playing through Sunday, May 14th at Rogue Machine’s Henry Murray Stage. Tickets are available here. The Vagrancy will present Blossoming 2023, featuring new works by LA playwrights Jennifer Bobiwash, Natalie Camuñas, Anna Fox, and Katherine Vondy, from May 19-23; check out The Vagrancy’s website next month for more info.

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Stand-Up Comedy, Hospital Bills & Sacrifice – “La Egoista” at Skylight Theatre

by Carolina Pilar Xique

I can’t be the first to admit that the pandemic has made me cynical.

Maybe it wasn’t the pandemic itself—it’s more apt to blame an (ironically) mandarin-tinted ex-federal leader of the United States for inciting violence primarily toward People of Color, regularly denying the existence and persistence of a deadly disease that paralyzed the entire world for 3 years, and dividing whole groups of people for political gain. But, truthfully, it was also the hours I spent endlessly scrolling through Karen videos on TikTok that did it. During this awful time of immense stress and lack of control, there was something comforting about silently scrutinizing people I didn’t know from the safety of my bedroom.

For the last 3 years, I was so focused on the differences of opinions I had with others that, in this reintegration into “normal life,” I’m remembering why it’s important to also consider what makes us the same, especially in such life-or-death circumstances as we all have been experiencing. Understandably, we had to learn to be defensive in the height of the pandemic to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Now, it’s time for compassion.

Erlina Ortiz invites the audience back to a standard of compassion in the West Coast premiere of La Egoista at Skylight Theatre Company. Her self-proclaimed “pandemic play” (although, not exactly in the way you might think) follows the rocky relationship of two sisters who are called to set aside their differences during a life-altering health crisis. For what is family, if not the people who you would sacrifice everything for?

I got to sit down on Zoom with Erlina Ortiz and director Daphnie Sicre to talk more in depth about the significance of this play, right here and now, in an endemic Los Angeles.

Carolina Pilar Xique for LAFPI: Tell me about the process. Erlina, how did you start this piece and how has it grown?

Erlina Ortiz: The piece actually started as a 10-minute play that was commissioned [by Live & In Color] during the pandemic: write a piece about two people in two separate spaces communicating in a virtual capacity—like on Zoom—so that two actors in different spaces could perform it. So that gave me the idea, “What would cause two people who want to be near each other, to be far away?” I had a lot of themes rolling around in my head about caregiving and having to define a new normal that we were all going through. Then a year later, that same company got funding to commission one full-length play and they reached out to me and asked if I was interested. I said I was if I can use the same characters as before and expand on it. So, I dove in with all the ingredients.

At this point I knew that I wanted one of the characters to be doing stand-up during the show and have her comedy be an aspect of the storytelling, so I was writing the jokes. From there, I submitted it to the LTC (Latinx Theatre Commons) Comedy Carnaval. (I was like, “Well, I have this play that I just finished a couple of months ago. I just had a reading of it and there’s stuff that still needs work but I know it’s strong—and it has a comedian in it!”) I submitted and most of the folks who have directed the piece so far connected with it because they were on the reading committee for LTC or they were involved in choosing the plays. After the [Comedy Carnaval] presentation in Denver, that’s when the productions came along.

Daphnie Sicre: We were like, “Ring Ring! Can we direct your show?” (laughs)

Chanel Castañeda and Lys Perez – Photo by Jenny Graham

Carolina: Daphnie, how has the rehearsal process been? Have your thoughts about the play evolved since you first read it?

Daphnie: I will say this: my thoughts haven’t evolved about the play. I still feel just as passionate and I love it just as much even though I’m exhausted and tired. (laughs) You don’t often get a play where you’ve had 28 rehearsals and you’re still laughing. That doesn’t often happen. And so to be this deep in rehearsals and still be laughing, to me, speaks volumes.

The process has been incredibly intense because there are a lot of factors involved in the production. Erlina is asking the actor who plays Josefina to not only just act, but to also be a puppeteer and a stand-up comic, and so the play needs a really strong actor who can do these three things.

Both actors had to learn puppeteering so we brought in a puppeteering consultant to sit in on rehearsals with them. We also brought in a consultant to work with Lyse [Perez, the actor playing Josefina] to learn how to be a stand-up comedian: what are the rules of stand-up, and what stand-up entails. In both sessions we had with the consultants, I learned so much. They taught in a way that was so enlightening for me as a director and for the actors as well. So, process-wise, I’ve definitely been learning and enjoying and laughing. And I can’t ask for more than that when you think about it, because I don’t always get to do that!

Carolina: Can both of you talk a little bit about this question: Why this play, today, here, right now?

Erlina: In the pandemic, everyone said that playwrights were going to come out with their pandemic plays. But everyone was like, “I don’t want to read a pandemic play. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll read a pandemic play, but while we’re still living in it, I don’t want to read about it.”

This is my pandemic play in the way that we were all faced with this new reality: our own mortality and healthcare, which is a big theme in the piece. So many of us were faced with the questions, “Who do I give my attention to? Where do my priorities lie now that this crisis has hit?” A lot of people had to drop everything because they were ill or because they had to take care of somebody who was ill during the pandemic. I think that that is the main thing we—across age, race, gender—can all relate to: ourselves or someone else dealing with a health issue and the questions, choices, and sacrifices that come up with dealing with that.

Also, it’s time to hear more of our stories as Latine folks, and not just stories that have to do with a very specific Latine issue—often centered around the trauma of border-crossing or things like that. These sisters are just Latina (laughs). They just are. They don’t have to explain it, they don’t have to talk about it. It informs every aspect of their lives, but it’s not the point of the play. It resonates with folks: the universality of the story but also the specific story of these two sisters.

Lys Perez and Chanel Castañeda – photo by Jenny Graham

Daphnie: Ditto, ditto, ditto. For me, first of all, is the importance of the healthcare issue. That’s the realism that you’re looking at in the play—it’s the dealing with this healthcare system, the waiting on the phone for an answer, the doctors not knowing what’s wrong with you, having to go through procedures, experiencing the shit you have to experience when you’re sick and ill, and not knowing if you’re going to get better, and the doctors not knowing if you’re going to get better, and thinking you’re going to get better and then getting worse—all while dealing with healthcare, pain & bills.

There’s a scene that really digs into that and the audience during previews nodded in agreement. You could tell that they’ve experienced that. It’s crazy but that’s the reality of the healthcare system in the United States. Having to make the choice of not going to the ER because it’s expensive, or the fact that you no longer have sick days because you’ve used sick days taking care of your family members and your work doesn’t allow for that. That’s the society we’re living in and that is key and essential to the story. But it’s also this beautiful story of sisterhood and these two Latina sisters, who are very different but the same. Their relationship isn’t easy, but it’s so real.

Erlina: I think that’s also maybe another thing that makes it of the moment, is that a lot of people right now are dealing with the realities of everything that happened post-2016 [presidential election]. A lot of families might have very different beliefs between different family members. There’s a lot of folks that have to dig into love, even in moments of disagreement. That’s what these sisters do for each other, too. Despite having completely different worldviews, they go back to the love they’ve had for each other since childhood and that’s what keeps them going. People need that right now to get us through this time.

Daphnie: When I read this play, I think about Generation Z & Millennials and how they are overcoming toxic families, generational trauma, and are really confronting it in a way that I haven’t seen in older generations. I believe that in a lot of Latine families we were raised—especially as women, as Latinas—to be the caregivers. There’s a sort of unwritten rule of assumption that we will take care of our own parents as they get older and put everything else in our lives on the wayside for our family. What most plays don’t talk about—but this play does—is what that does to caregivers.

This play is about two caregivers: Betsaida taking care of her mother, and Josefina now taking care of Betsaida. We need to talk about what it does to us, what we end up sacrificing, and how we put ourselves second for others. What does it mean to give up on a dream or goal that you’ve been working so hard to achieve? Anyone who has had to give up a dream that they’ve had for so long for someone else that they love is going to resonate with this play.

Chanel Castañeda and Lys Perez – photo by Jenny Graham

Carolina: Do you have a sister/someone like a sister in your life? What have they taught you?

Erlina: I grew up with brothers. I have some [younger] sisters, and—in talking about what you sacrifice and keep in your life—I’m actually raising my 13-year-old sister. While writing this play, I was signing guardianship paperwork for her, so that was prevalent in my head. From her I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be a parent and learned how to forgive my own preteen self for the things I’d do and the way I felt about myself. I’m seeing similarities between me and her, but I don’t worry about her at all because I was more of a mess.

I think that the relationship with my two brothers that I grew up with is actually more reflective of the relationship between Josefina & Betsaida. Josefina is a lot like my older brother: somebody who likes to push buttons, likes to annoy you, likes to instigate. My little brother has been sick his whole life and I’ve had a lot of guilt over the years. We were friends as kids, but then for many years as adults, we never hung out. When I was finally in my mid-twenties and he was in his early twenties, we hung out as adults for the first time. Now even when we don’t see each other or talk to each other after a while, we have this central, strong connection between us. It’s the same for my older brother, too.

Daphnie: I have an older brother and we are so incredibly different. We have different political ideologies that could not be more radically different. And my brother loves to instigate and fuck with me all the time. He takes so much joy in it. It drives me crazy. But because of him, I’m able to see the other side of how other people think politically, and it fascinates me. It’s the same thing for him—we look at each other and can’t understand how we can be so different. But I love him. I absolutely love him and everything about him, even his awful political ideologies. And I miss him.

There’s a powerful part in the play where Betsaida reminds Josefina, “You didn’t call me for 4 months.” And sometimes, it’s like that. That to me is the essence of family & siblinghood, and we see that in this play. We see two completely different people who love each other very much, would do anything for each other, and would sacrifice for each other even though they see the world so differently. I think it’s beautiful and honest because it exists in all our relationships.

The first play in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the West Coast Premiere of La Egoista by Erlina Ortiz, directed by Daphnie Sicre, runs at Skylight Theatre through April 9, 2023. ASL Interpreted performance on March 19. For tickets and information, visit skylighttheatre.org/event/la-egoista.

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Out There in a Familiar Plce – “Do You Feel Anger” at Circle X

by Elana Luo

Right from the first unsettling anecdote about a boyfriend who’s a serial killer, Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger grabs you by the throat. Or ear. The play itself hounds an empathy coach who is assigned to teach at a debt collection agency, where the two sole emotions that the male employees can name are hunger and “horn” (horniness). Meanwhile, the only woman at the agency scampers around furtively, terrified of her male colleagues. As the training ekes along, one might begin to wonder exactly how much compassion there is to go around, not only in the office. 

Tasha Ames, Casey Smith, Napoleon Tavale, Rich Liccardo and Paula Rebelo in “Do You Feel Anger”Photo by Jeff Lorch

The play upsets the typical office drama in favor of dollop after dollop of absurdism. As a director, I figured the key to putting together this piece would be to gather a cast and crew willing to go as far as Nelson-Greenberg’s extremes. Some people say 80-90% of directing is casting, and I imagine that this play was no exception.

Director Halena Kays
Photo by Joseph Richard Mazza

I spoke with Director Halena Kays, who confirmed that casting and collaboration were indeed key to putting the production together. Many of the characters are challenging and incredibly outré, demanding their actors to do and say outlandish things with nonchalance and whip-sharp comedic timing. The cast uniformly rises to the task, which I suspect is the result of dozens of rehearsals of exploring just how far one must push to meet a character (and at times in this play, caricature).

Kays saw the world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2018, and experiencing the play for the first time, she was impressed with Nelson-Greenberg’s bravery in writing about a difficult issue and managing to turn it into a comedy. Kays tells me that during rehearsals, the cast somehow managed to find humanity and complexity in the monstrous characters, creating a beautiful, deeply unfunny play that left the realm of comedy. So, they pulled back. But going so far may have helped them understand where those characters stood as antagonists, resulting in the ridiculous but dangerous performances of the final production.

Casey Smith, Paula Rebelo, Napoleon Tavale and Rich Liccardo
Photo by Jeff Lorch

This story is one that could work no where else other than the stage, as the audience leans forward and recoils as the stage crackles with danger and surprises. You know how every sentence will end…exactly none of the time. The seemingly simple office setting turns into a flaming, molding brawling ground—or breeding ground. Who knows the difference? Certainly not these debt collectors.

I laughed, nervously and delightedly, throughout, and positively cried at the end. Go see this if you have a beating heart. And when it’s through, perhaps you too will feel a little angered, or saddened, or entertained, or hungry. 

Do You Feel Anger” runs through February 25 at Circle X Theatre. For tickets and information, visit circlextheatre.org

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We Have Space – “Desert Stories for Lost Girls”

by Carolina Pilar Xique

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.

Director Sylvia Cervantes Blush
Photo by Jean Carlo Yunen Arostegui

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?

Playwright Lily Rushing (Genízaro)
Photo courtesy of Native Voices at the Autry

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.

The playwright’s family in 1950s New Mexico

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.

Characters in“Desert Stories for Lost Girls” were inspired by the playwright’s family
Her grandparents, pictured above in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

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.

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“The Great Jheri Curl Debate” Comes to Life at East West Players

By Alison Minami

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.

Ryun Yu as Mr. Kim and Julanne Chidi Hill as Veralynn. Photo by Steven Lam.

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.

Inda Craig-Galván

 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.

Scarlett Kim

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.

Go Here for More Info on “The Great Jheri Curl Debate,” playing at East West Players through October 9th.

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World Premiere of “Untitled Baby Play” at IAMA Theatre

By Alison Minami

Nina Braddock grew up with a tight-knit group of girlfriends dating back to kindergarten and managed to maintain this friend-group through the many different phases of adolescence and adulthood. But at a certain point, as we all know, friendships become challenging to negotiate as people grow in different ways. These transitional growing pains as we move into adulthood serve as the inspiration for her new play “Untitled Baby Play.” In it, Braddock explores how a group of women from childhood maintain their friendship and “invest in the way their lives have taken shape.”

Laila Ayad, Anna Rose Hopkins, Jenny Soo
Photo by Jeff Lorch

In the play, the women all join forces to throw their friend Libby a baby shower, but through their various text message and email chains, a lot of miscommunication and hilarity ensue. At the heart of the play is the theme of motherhood—deciding to become a mother, facing the challenges of fertility, anticipating birth, and the actual experience of being a mother. As the play’s title deliberately suggests, the women are struggling with their “evolving and unresolved” decisions around “the baby question.” They are each a work-in-progress, as is the unborn and unnamed child about to enter Libby’s, and by extension, their lives. While all the same age, each woman is at a different place in relation to motherhood, and this can be cause for judgment, pain, or just sheer ignorance. Braddock wanted to write a play about “women who love each other but also don’t understand each other.” Sisterhood is, after all, not always easy, though it is ultimately rewarding and, arguably, vital.

The Ensemble: Laila Ayad, Sarah Utterback, Sonal Shah, Courtney Sauls, Anna Rose Hopkins and Jenny Soo. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Technology and its many forms of communication is another interest of Braddock’s. She’s always been fascinated by the way “people are performing as they are writing their texts or emails.” It is true that there can often be a performative aspect of showmanship or joie de vivre in our digital voices that do not always reflect the reality of our lives including our feelings. For this reason, the play is as much an exploration of how we stay connected in today’s day and age and the limitations of these modes of communication as much as it is about the strengths (or weaknesses) of our friendships.

Also a television writer, Braddock enjoys writing in different forms as each offers its own set of constraints and possibilities. Writing this play allowed her to exercise a different kind of creative muscle and vision from writing for the screen. “Untitled Baby Play” had a professional reading at Clubbed Thumb in NY and continued development with IAMA theatre in Los Angeles, where it was set to premiere right before the pandemic. After a two-year delay, it is finally getting the World Premiere it deserves with IAMA Theatre. Directed by Katie Lindsay with associate director Melissa Coleman-Reed, it runs from May 26 through June 27 at the Atwater Village Theatre.

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Hero Theatre’s Revival of TEA

By Alison Minami

Velina Hasu Houston

This month Hero Theatre of Los Angeles will open its revival of Velina Hasu Houston’s TEA, one of the most widely produced Asian American plays worldwide since it first premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. TEA follows the experiences of five Japanese war brides, women who immigrated to the U.S. as the wives of American servicemen, in Junction City, Kansas. Four of the women gather for tea after the violent suicide of the fifth, whose ghost reverberates throughout the play with an anguished urgency.  

At the end of World War II, roughly 50,000 Japanese women came over to the United States. Houston, who was herself born and raised in Junction City and the daughter of a Japanese war bride and African American father, traveled around the state interviewing nearly fifty Japanese war brides to research the depth and diversity of experience within this community. Worried for her safety, her mother insisted on joining her on the trip—this was, of course, before the ubiquity of GPS and cell phones! The two were both surprised and moved by the vulnerability and openness of traditionally reserved Japanese women sharing their experiences. Many of the women they spoke to were living in isolation as the only women of color in the towns where they lived. Their stories of immigration, cultural clash, alienation, racism, mental health, and domestic abuse as well as resilience, love, sisterhood, and motherhood were distilled into the characters that make up this all-female, all-Asian cast. Houston’s aim was always to “represent these women more meaningfully and truthfully, so that people would see that they were human beings beyond their stereotypes.”

Hiroko Imai, Tomoko Karina, Hua Lee and Olivia Cordell
Photo by Jenny Graham

But the inspiration for the play, and really all of Houston’s work, has roots in her Japanese upbringing. Houston grew up listening to Japanese folklore from her mother. One of her early childhood memories was helping to serve tea to her mother’s Japanese friends when they came to visit her home. This job—replenishing cups of hot tea—allowed her to be the proverbial fly on the wall as she listened to their conversations of struggle and joy both in Japan and in coming to America. Houston says, “When you’re in an immigrant family, you just have a different perspective of U.S. society.” Children of immigrants are constantly observing America through two (or more) languages and cultures, often defending one over the other and constantly flitting back and forth or standing in the liminal space at their crossroads.

Over thirty years later after its first debut, TEA continues to carry universal and relatable themes that pull at the heartstrings and challenge society’s stereotypes around identity. Long before intersectionality was a widely coined term, Houston was writing about the convergence of race, ethnicity, language, nationality, and culture. As a mixed-race playwright, she has always naturally been drawn to the experiences of women who live between worlds. In the early days of her career, she was marginalized because her work defied categorization. She says, “I’ve spent my life never being Asian enough or never being Black enough.” When asked about the evolution of the play, Houston explains that while the themes have always remained the same, “the society listens differently” with a different consciousness that is reflective of our current cultural sensitivities and appreciations. Further, with every new production, TEA goes through the process of re-interpretation and re-imagination; from the acting, to direction, to set, and sound. Houston describes with delight “my experience of the play always changes” and that it is “forever alive and breathing.”

While the pandemic offered Houston the time and space to work creatively, she understands how badly theater institutions were impacted. She recognizes the need to be “sensitive as artists to help cultivate the industry back to health.” What better way to do so than to buy your tickets to TEA? Part of HERO theatre’s mission is to re-define the modern classics. Undoubtedly, Houston’s TEA has earned its place in the canon of American dramatic writing. Directed by Rebecca Wear, TEA will run at Inner-City Arts from April 21 to May 15.

For full cast and schedule visit: http://www.herotheatre.org/tea.html

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Two all Asian female ensembles tell the story of five Japanese immigrants in ‘Tea’ by Velina Hasu Houston
Photo by Elisa Bocanegra

“Poor Clare” Finds a Home at Echo Theater

by Carolina Xique

You’re driving to Los Angeles on the 101 North Freeway. For most tourists and incoming residents, this drive is the dream: seeing the famous buildings of the LA skyline, zipping under the 10 Freeway overpass, and seeing the light opening up to the concrete jungle of Downtown. With its often-sunny afternoons and the undeniable scent of affluence (or is it the smog?), an updated Carrie Bradshaw could happily look forward to a very West Coast version of Sex and the City.

 Except, when you exit in Arcadia, or drive down Glendale Boulevard, or pass through Echo Park, the same disturbing scene of tent cities overwhelms sidewalks and underpasses. In the safe confines of your car, you can’t help but notice how the homelessness crisis has become synonymous with the city itself. And it feels like there’s nothing any policeman or city official is doing to stop it. So you ask yourself, What can I do?

This is the same question Clare of Assisi asks herself in Echo Theater Company’s production of Poor Clare. We see her journey from being a well-known socialite, to asking a man named Francis about how she can change her ways to be of service to the poor. LAFPI sat down with director Alana Dietze (Dry Land and The Wolves at the Echo), and playwright Chiara Atik (Bump, Women and HBO’s “Girls”) to talk about the inspiration for Poor Clare and how it relates to living in Los Angeles, today.

LAFPI: What did you think when you read Poor Clare and what inspired you to direct it, Alana?

Alana Dietze

Alana Dietze: I thought it was extraordinarily funny; that was my very first impression of it. It made me cry, laughing. I was also profoundly moved by the ending, which I don’t want to say too much about. Echo always has a post-reading conversation about material, so as we were talking amongst ourselves, I found myself getting very passionate about it. So that was my first clue that maybe I wanted to direct it.

It’s an allegory for homelessness and wealth inequality in modern day using the framework of the lives of Clare of Assisi and Francis of Assisi and I thought it was such a smart way of looking at this huge problem that we have all over the world – but especially in Los Angeles – that keeps growing and feels so out of control. I thought this play profoundly captured a lot of the feelings that I’ve had about it: the anxieties, fears, shame, feeling like I want to help more, but not being able to help. I thought that was a really valuable thing to put onstage.

LAFPI: Why Los Angeles? Why now? Being that it’s set in Italy in medieval times, the story couldn’t be further away from LA, present day.

Chiara Atik: That’s funny. I was about to say that when I wrote the first draft and started sending it out, I included two pictures to set tone, and one is of, um…

Chiara Atik

Alana: Skid Row.

Chiara: Yeah. One is of Skid Row in Los Angeles, and the other is a Renaissance portrait. I live in New York and was living there at the time [of writing the piece], but I had been spending a lot of time out here and homelessness made a very big impression on me. More so than it does in New York because homelessness in New York is ingrained in the fabric of the city; it doesn’t feel like something new, it feels like something that’s always been there. You just go about your commute and you have to put on blinders, to a certain extent, to not have your heart break at every single moment of every day.

But I’ve come to LA periodically for years and I sort of started to notice it in a way that I hadn’t. I started reading up about this problem that seems to be growing bigger and bigger. It made an impression on me: to be on the freeway and to see every overpass and underpass be covered with tents. It’s that juxtaposition of being hermetically sealed in your car while driving past all of these tent cities. So I think, in that sense, LA’s current situation of how people are grappling with it gave me an inspiration in the play. Also, you get the sense that it’s a growing problem that the characters of the play are dealing with.

LAFPI: And that’s very LA.

Alana: Yes!

Chiara: Another thing that I think is interesting in terms of New York versus LA: in New York, because you’re always walking around or on the subway, the different populations and economic levels actually have to deal with each other and interact. You’re sitting on the subway and people come up to you and you have to make the decision,  “Okay, am I going to give a dollar or pretend not to see this person”; you can’t quite escape it. But in LA, because of the car culture, there’s an extra distance. It’s something that you see and clock, but don’t have to contend with person-to-person.

Alana: Also,  there’s the way that the city seems to be dealing with the problem. I mean, “dealing with the problem,” in quotes, because it doesn’t really seem like they are. I’m not a political expert, I don’t know everything about this issue, but I lived in Echo Park for a really long time, and that was an area specifically where, as the homelessness crisis grew, huge new tent cities would pop up. I would turn a corner and there would be a whole slew of tents that weren’t there the week before. And then a week later, they’d all be gone. It felt to me like the cops were coming through and just moving people along which does nothing to ultimately solve the problem or help anyone. I guess they think they’re helping the residents? But even then, people are just going to come back. There’s nowhere for anyone to go.

LAFPI: Moving people along as a solution –  it’s that class difference, right? They’re placing importance on people who are paying to stay there, instead of those who don’t live anywhere, and telling them to take their problems somewhere else.

Alana:  And the problem is, where would they go?

Jordan Hull, Kari Lee Cartwright and Martica De Cardenas – Photo by Cooper Bates

LAFPI:  Following up on that, Chiara, how did you come up with the concept for Poor Clare?

Chiara: I always knew the story of St. Clare. I found myself in recent years having so many conversations with people where we’d sort of bemoan the state of the world: “Isn’t horrible about the refugee crisis, isn’t it horrible about homelessness,” and this or that. But then I would go home, turn on the TV, and forget about these things. And the ability to worry and empathize but then go home and turn that off and forget about it is such a privilege. I was thinking about the fact that I feel bad about this stuff, but I’m not, like, quitting my job and quitting my life to go out and help.

The story of St. Clare, the real girl, who really did completely change her entire life, is such a radical story. It’s certainly not something that I’m capable of – that most people aren’t capable of – but I was interested in exploring the idea of somebody who really goes so far. And I’m not suggesting that as a solution or saying it’s what we should all be doing. I think that’s why Clare is a saint and most people aren’t. But it’s that journey of someone becoming so radicalized to do something, to take action in whatever way they can… I really underestimated how many people didn’t know of her.

Alana: I didn’t know who she was when I read the play. I knew that there was a St. Francis, but I didn’t really know anything about him.

LAFPI: So with this play, what do you hope that audiences learn about St. Clare of Assisi?

Chiara: That she existed. I think her story is cool and relatable. And what we know about her historically is interesting. She was 18, super rich, had a great life, and gave all of that up to take vows of poverty to try to do good in the world. I think that’s a crazy impressive story. That’s like a Kardashian doing that or something. And this is 800 years ago. A girl, definitely braver than I am right now, did that. I hope people will be interested in her story, her conviction, her action at such a young age. She was just a teenager. It’s like if Khloe was, like, “Alright, I’m giving all of this up!”

Jordan Hull and Ann Noble – Photo by Cooper Bates

LAFPI: I still feel like if Khloe did that, for the most part, people wouldn’t initially believe her. Compared to men, I think someone like a Kardashian might be treated differently.

Chiara: I think it’s hard for women, especially young women, to be taken seriously when they decide to do something intensely. If you watch the play, Francis raises his eyebrows, but there’s less at stake for him to go find a religious order. But for her – for a girl to do what he’s doing – the stakes are a lot higher.

LAFPI: Are there any other ways differences in sex and gender function specifically in the play? I noticed in the cast that there are 2 men and the rest are women.

Alana: That was something else that I really love about the play. I wouldn’t say that it’s primarily about gender, but like Chiara said, there are different stakes for Clare than Francis as she goes on this journey, and there are really interesting moments where Francis lets her know that things will be different for her. And those moments help drive her conviction to commit to her beliefs. She has to be more convicted than he is, because it’s harder for her to do what she does.

LAFPI: How much of the play is fact? How much is fiction?

Alana: This comes back to the earlier question of why Los Angeles. The language is all modern day, and it feels like the language of Angelenos. That’s part of what attracted me to it, because I thought, “Oh, these people talk like me.” So in that respect, it’s totally fictional. I don’t know how much really is fact?

Chiara: Definitely little bits from St. Francis’s life trajectory. We knew that Clare and St. Francis knew each other and she really was inspired by him to do this thing. But we, of course, have no idea what their conversations were like or the nature of their relationship, so all of that is fiction.

Jordan Hull and Michael Sturgis – Photo by Cooper Bates

LAFPI: What questions would you like audiences to be asking by the end of this play? Are there questions women should be asking?

Alana: It feels to me like it’s about highlighting and focusing in on this push-and-pull, this question about what do we do to help? Can we help? Is there such a thing as help? What do you do when you become aware of your own privilege? I feel this juxtaposition of a desire to be moral, to be good, to help other people, to do something worthwhile and meaningful… in contrast with the fact that what Clare does may or may not help anyone. But it’s the thing she must do. To me that’s what’s most interesting and relatable about the play. I hope that the play will help people think about that question for themselves and maybe make a choice.

Chiara: In terms of women specifically, Clare, throughout the play, drastically alters her appearance and goes from caring very much about how she looks to forsaking that along with her wealth and status. That’s something I admire in her character. I almost can’t imagine caring about something so much that I would be, like, “Fuck what I look like.”

LAFPI: And now we live in this world where everything is appearance-based, whether online or in-person. Doing what Clare did is like someone completely going off the radar. Which you don’t see a lot of anymore.

Chiara: Yeah, and I’m not saying that it’s necessary to do in the modern world. But on the other hand, you see her judged for what she looks like throughout the play. It’s interesting to see what it means to her to, like you said, go off the radar: “I’m not giving you this anymore. I’m not presenting like this anymore.”

LAFPIWhich leaves us with the question of whether anyone has a solution for the seemingly-uncontrollable homelessness crisis right now.

Chiara: The play definitely doesn’t.

LAFPIBut it’s good to have the wheels turning!

This interview was conducted in March, 2020 before Poor Clare’s original opening, with dates modified in this version.

“Poor Clare” at Echo Theater Company runs through November 29th. Ticket and information at echotheatercompany.com.

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Women Writers Address the Cycle of Violence

by Desireé York

Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble created their ongoing four-part Cycle of Violence Commission Series to examine the role violence plays in our world through stories addressing sex-trafficking, honor-killings, criminal justice reform and immigration.  From a Journey Out article about the Series, Lower Depth Theatre was quoted as saying that “One of the greatest ways to encourage empathy and cultivate understanding is through the power of perspective.” 

Providing these perspectives thus far in the Series are playwrights Tira Palmquist, T. Tara Turk-Haynes, and Diana Burbano.  As the first commissioned writer, Tira Palmquist took a hard look at the violence of sex-trafficking in her play entitled Safe Harbor, which received a production at the end of 2019.  T. Tara Turk-Haynes’ play The Muhammad Sisters Were Here was presented virtually in 2020 as the second commission of the Series, exploring the topic of honor killings.  And most recently, Lower Depth Theatre announced Diana Burbano as the next writer of the Series, commissioned to address criminal justice and prison reform.

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

Lower Depth Theatre Artistic Director Gregg T. Daniel shared that, “Over the years, our company has developed close relationships with many writers, actors, directors, designers, etc.  Naturally when we decided to create the Series we began looking at those writers we had a pre-existing relationship with.  But the most essential factor in commissioning a playwright is the consideration of the issue we’re attempting to create a play around.  Once we’ve identified the issue, we think of which playwright’s work might best amplify it.” 

And as it turned out, it was the work of three women that best amplified these critical issues.

As advocates for women+ and BIPOC artists, LAFPI couldn’t miss the opportunity to spotlight and learn more about this bold Series raising consciousness for social change, by talking to the women playwrights tackling these challenging topics.

LAFPI:  What compelled you to be part of this Series and why were you drawn to write about this specific issue?

Tira Palmquist

Tira Palmquist: I was asked by Jason Delane Lee and Yvonne Huff Lee (Lower Depth Artistic Associates), and the invitation alone was an important reason to get involved. It’s not just that they asked me, or not just that I was flattered (though I was); I was inspired by the way they described the Series, how they saw Lower Depth’s role as an organization drawing attention to important issues and bringing attention to problems that call out for our collective empathy and collective action. 

These were all incredibly important issues, but there was really only one issue that I thought I could be equipped to deal with, emotionally or artistically. At the time they approached me, I was teaching playwriting to high school students, and I had written plays featuring younger people and “at-risk” youth. It seemed that this was simply a good fit for me. 

T. Tara Turk-Haynes

T. Tara Turk-Haynes:  I love the artists at LDTE individually so coming together for this project was a no brainer for me. The opportunity to tackle such difficult world issues is a dream for a writer and they were so thoughtful about what was passionate for each of them. I had aways been reading about honor killings and really twisted around in my brain what kinds of things we, as global citizens, understand and connect to directly. I wanted to break down the idea of an issue that happens “over there” – over there is closer than we think. And these issues have different faces depending on the communities.

This was hard – this piece. It was something I took on that didn’t necessarily link to my direct background and I wanted to really honor those cultures represented in the piece. As a Black woman from Detroit (where there is a large Middle Eastern population) who became an adult in New York (which has a very large Muslim population with varied ethnic and sect backgrounds) I wanted those people I have come in contact with, those who I call family, to know that I see them and I will always work to amplify those voices not often heard.

Diana Burbano

Diana Burbano:  When Gregg T. Daniel asked me to be a part of this Series and explained what the commission was for, I felt very intrigued. But to be honest it also made me very nervous. I think [criminal justice and prison reform] is such an important and under discussed topic and I really wanted to tackle it, but I also want to be very, very aware and open to what it actually means when you’re talking about it. I think it’s a huge responsibility, especially right now in this moment in this country. I’m very honored to be asked to write this and I hope I can do it justice!

LAFPI:  What was your process like working on this commission with Lower Depth?  How much freedom did you feel you had?   And if you’ve ever been commissioned before, how did this differ?

Diana:  I have a few commissions, actually, that I’m working on at the moment. They’re all very different, I think what unites them is it they are all written with a certain component in mind and some of them give me more freedom than others. For example I’m writing a science play that is very specifically about COVID-19. And I have another one where the topic is Latinx in Marin County, and could be about ANYTHING. The WAY I write it is up to me, but I do have cast size constraints as well as scenic and technical.

It’s always daunting to write a play! And to be asked to write a piece for such powerful performers, yes, it’s a little bit terrifying! I want to honor the depth of the artist’s previous work. I’m coming into this company as a guest and I feel like I have to really get to know my hosts. On the other side, I’ve been given a topic, I’ve been given a lot of support, I have quite a lot of time, and I’ve already been put in touch with a musical composer and other people who can give me the information I need, so I feel very well taken care of.

T. Tara:  How much freedom did you feel you had? So much freedom! They were so gracious and patient – especially since this all happened for me PRIOR to the pandemic. I mean we started this project and then a global catastrophe happened. Their expectations in my opinion were minimal. I like transparency a lot and they were more than thoughtful about communicating the few they had. 

I was a Van Lier Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop many years ago and the major difference was probably that there were a group of four of us writers at NYTW that wrote new plays over the course of a year. And then 9/11 hit. I’m starting to notice a pattern of resiliency for myself. LOL.

Tira:  Working with the Lower Depth company (and their guest artists) was amazing. First, I had a remarkable amount of freedom to write the play I wanted to write. In fact, the only provision was that I wrote roles for their company. Early in the process, I suggested (and they agreed) that we have regular check-ins and readings of drafts.  Without those regular check-ins, I think I would have wallowed in the depths (heh, sorry) of the project without feeling like I had any useful conversation with the company. Their willingness to engage with that process freed me to, you know, have a process, which meant that we were all more invested in the final product, all on the same team, all working on the same play. 

I’ve worked on other commission projects, and the best projects all have this same kind of regular conversation.

LAFPI:  Did knowing that the play you’re commissioned to write was going to be part of a Series affect your approach to writing it? 

Diana:  Yes, you to start to think of your play as part of a family. And that somehow it needs to belong in the group. That doesn’t mean it has to be exactly like the other pieces but maybe I should be in conversation with them. I really want to delve into the other works and see if maybe I can add callbacks or commentary just as touches to acknowledge that.

Tira:  No, not really. The artistic leadership at Lower Depth never presented me with any expectations about how my play would be in conversation with the other plays in the Series, and so that was a remarkable weight off my shoulders!  

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

LAFPI: This question is for T. Tara. Being that your piece was to be presented virtually, what challenges did this present, if any?

T. Tara:  I think anything virtual or digital can be challenging. We haven’t fully explored the amount of energy performance and art requires to exert and then to have it go to a screen rather than a person is a new challenge. I think I can speak for most people who say that theatre is really great live and it is preferred. But we make due and we get creative and our informal reading was so great to hear all of the way through with an original song by Maritri, and all of the amazing talents poured into that new black box called Zoom.

LAFPI:  What message do you hope audiences will come away with from not only your play, but the Series as a whole? 

Tira:  I really hope that people will have their eyes opened by Safe Harbor. I’m sure there are a lot of people who have some knowledge (or maybe think they know a lot) about sex trafficking, but maybe this play will have them look at the world in a slightly different way. Maybe they’ll look at the lives of young girls differently, or maybe they’ll value these lives differently.  The whole Series is about expanding the audience’s empathy for difficult topics, and then expanding their ability to have difficult conversations. Solutions will follow, eventually, ideally – but those solutions won’t surface until more people are willing to discuss issues that are complex, thorny, distressing.

Diana:  I think I’m going to approach this a little abstract, a little mythological, with music. It’s such a serious topic and I feel like it needs to be tackled maybe as a modern myth. It’s just such a huge problem and I think I should be expansive in my thinking about it. As part of the Series I think it’s about keeping the conversation open, flowing and inspiring people to learn more and to get involved in reform efforts.

T. Tara:  Well I hope my play provides a perspective on understanding how closely connected we all are as a global group. Sometimes we bypass stories in the media because we have no connection to them we think – racism, honor killings, misogyny, homophobia, ageism…we have to get better about caring about things when they happen and not when they happen to us. To me the whole Series is about that. Awareness isn’t just about educating you but making you understand you are connected to things larger than your own understanding. You can get involved in so many ways and one important way is to care and seek to understand things outside of what you imagine your day to day to be.

For more information about the Cycle of Violence Series visit:  www.lower-depth.com/cycle-of-violence.

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“Anyone But Me” & “The Oxy Complex” at IAMA

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Sure, it’s been a year of isolation and Zoom overload, and we’re all pretty desperate to get back into a theater. What could possibly make us want to stay home and cozy up with our computers again? Two women: Sheila Carrasco and Anna LaMadrid. These amazing writer/performers have pieces – “Anyone But Me” and “The Oxy Complex” – presented in tandem by IAMA Theatre Company, filmed live at L.A.’s Pico Playhouse and now available for streaming on demand through April 25.

And if there was any way to demand audiences check them out, LAFPI would be leading the charge! Both shows are smart, surprising and so powerful in their ability to transport us – just the ticket, right now. Lucky us, we had the chance to chat with the writer/performers before their shows premiered.

LAFPI: First of all, so excited by this project and so glad to be able to support it! Can you both speak a bit about where and when your pieces started, and did that shift as you moved forward?

Sheila Carrasco
Photo by Dana Patrick

Sheila Carrasco: Margaux Susi, my friend and IAMA Theatre Company member [and Associate Artistic Director], approached me about working together on a solo show last fall. I had been meaning to make a one woman show for years, but I had never taken the leap, so this felt like the right opportunity. I do a lot of sketch comedy characters and so my first instinct was to do a bunch of characters, unrelated to each other and to my life. And then I thought, “Why is that? Why is my default to disappear behind costumes and wigs and voices?” So I started there, and began to build a show around the idea of self-identity, and characters that struggle a bit with this theme. And I ended up with a lot of characters that were way closer to me than I expected.

Anna LaMadrid: The seed for my solo show began in my second year of grad school at University of Washington. I wrote a short piece exploring the ways in which I felt our biology was not keeping up with how technology was disrupting the dating process with apps. (Women tend to jump into bed with men without really knowing them and you become attached to people that might not be the best fit.) At IAMA, [Co-Artistic Director] Stefanie Black was looking to pivot our season into a virtual solo show and I jokingly said I had written something for grad school and wanted to expand it but didn’t know how. She asked to see it and then encouraged me, so I started to shift the lens to look at what it means to go through withdrawal from touch and be isolated with just our thoughts.

LAFPI: Both of these pieces are so distinct and very different, but also share a common thread in that they explore women searching for self in a very complicated world. They really fit together beautifully. Did you two connect while creating them?

Sheila: We actually didn’t know much about each other’s pieces! I purposely didn’t want to read Anna’s play while working on mine so that I wasn’t making creative decisions in a subconscious effort just to be different. In this show, I play about nine different characters. From teenager to elderly, from privileged to working class. I tried to think about each one in a self-contained way while at the same time exploring a range of theatricality and ways of expressing myself and the topic.

Anna LaMadrid
Photo by Jackson Davis

Anna: I think Sheila is a brilliant performer and storyteller. And I will say that I think we maybe have both struggled to fit into this “Latina” box that the media creates. Having been told that we aren’t enough by the industry: Not quite indigenous enough to play the help but not white enough to pass. So identity has always been something that I have contended with. There are characters in my show that represent the struggle I feel as a bi-cultural Latina – the outdated models of how a woman should be according to my mother and me not feeling quite like I own this liberated American woman without feeling guilt.

LAFPI: We love that you are both paired with Latina directors. Had you worked with them before?

Sheila: I had known Margaux Susi for years but didn’t actually know she was Latina until this past year! When I found out, so much about how and why we connect as collaborators made sense. Margaux is half Cuban and I’m half Chilean, and our Latin family has influenced our lives and art in such a huge way. At the same time, we also benefit from white privilege and we had many meaningful discussions about our own accountability in that department. This past year demonstrated how Latinos are not a monolith, and the more we dive into the nuances of our identity and celebrate our diversity within our ethnicity and center and uplift BIPOC voices, the stronger we will all be.

 Anna: I worked with Michelle Bossy a year and half ago when she cast me in a play called There and Back (which we did in Mexico and at Company of Angels here in LA). Michelle and I are from two totally different cultures, but there is a shorthand and that’s nice. I don’t have to explain certain -isms that I had growing up. My culture is a backdrop that adds flavor to the story. However, at the end of the day we are telling a story that is universal for ALL people. How do we deal with our past trauma in order to find a sense of worth that will enable us to be in healthy relationships.

LAFPI: So, in the Covid of it all, what was it like actually performing in a THEATER! Okay. An empty theater. But how did you adjust to the hybrid nature of this?

Anna: We did NOT rehearse in the theater and that was really challenging at times. It was tough to fully just focus on inhabiting the character when something would freeze, or you couldn’t hear the cue, or your earbuds fell out in the middle of a line. It felt like a breath of fresh air to get into the theater to tech and just be the actor in the room. I missed that feeling so much.

Sheila: Rehearsing entirely over Zoom until tech week was so weird, but also really intimate and wonderful and I’ll cherish that rehearsal period forever. Once we got to the theater, it was so soooo wonderful to stretch my muscles again and get physical. But performing for an hour straight with no audience in a silent theater? That was not ideal. It took so much mental energy and stamina to stay in the moment and also be my own scene partner, and also imagine there were laughs to build upon…

Sheila Carrasco in “Anyone But Me”
Photo by Shay Yamashita/TAKE Creative

Anna: Since my piece is a dark comedy, sometimes it was tough to gauge if a joke was working. But I just had to let go of how the audience would experience this and just focus on the story. Because the crew also couldn’t laugh since we were taping. So it feels like you are in a void. And one of my characters is in a void. So you know… I just used it. 

Sheila: I am so grateful I got to make this show and had truly had a blast performing it, but let’s just say I cannot wait to perform this show live one day!

LAFPI: Can you talk a bit about the technical elements you were able to incorporate in a virtual production? 

Anna: I love tech. Which is why I opened my self-tape company, Put Me On Self-Tape, four years ago. Every actor should be comfortable know the business, the craft and the tech. That’s the NEW triple threat. [Check out thenewtriplethreat.com].

But when starting to write The Oxy Complex, I really wanted to take into consideration the amount of pressure put on the performer when we try to recreate the experience of theater over the screen. So Michelle and I leaned into the tech and created a visual language for how the piece would function. I wanted to make sure that visually we are using the frame to keep the audience engaged. I mean we are all so sick of seeing boxes of people. It definitely was an experiment and Michelle treated it like a film shoot. Which was nice. I hope it worked!

Anna LaMadrid in “The Oxy Complex”
Photo by Shay Yamashita/TAKE Creative

Sheila: Aside from Anyone But Me being filmed and available over streaming, I’m hoping it is closer to a theatrical experience than a filmic one. Margaux and I really tried to create that. We wanted it to be as close to pure theater as possible, because it is such a special and unique medium that so many people are missing right now.

So I performed the show as if it were a play, all the way through. There are closeups, however, which you don’t get in a play, so I’m super happy we got to punch in and see more nuance than you would in a theater! Also the show is designed from top to bottom with set design, sound, lighting, costume design… Our designers are all so awesome; we just went to town! We tried to create meaning with even the dumbest of props. (I mean that in a good way). And I hope that the audience enjoys all of the storytelling as much as they would in a theatre.

LAFPI: This production also stood out to us because so many women creatives are on board: both of you as writer/performers, as well as your directors and IAMA Co-Artistic Directors, plus a majority of the designers and crew. What was that like, being surrounded by so much femme energy?

Anna: The rehearsal process was just Michelle, Stage Manager Camella Cooper, Rose Swaddling Krol (Assistant SM) and me for so long and that was really nice. It represented a spectrum of women and when both Camella (who is Black) and Rose (who is white) could relate to something I was saying – or found it funny or heartbreaking – then I knew I was on a good path. It was truly universal. I felt really close to these women because even though the character that I play, Viviana, isn’t all me, it is based on some of my experiences and experiences of other women in my life. Things would get really personal when we dove deep into creating her histories and trauma. So it was nice to feel supported and have that solidarity in the (virtual) room. I felt really safe being vulnerable.

Sheila: Everyone on the team was a true collaborator and really inspiring to work with. What’s cool is that everyone on board related to the characters, regardless of gender. In terms of the rehearsal process, I really valued having a female director and female stage managers because of some of the subject matter we were diving into, but otherwise, every single person’s energy in that theater was incredible and kickass!

For Info and Tickets for “Anyone But Me,” written and performed by Sheila Carrasco and directed by Margaux Susi, and “The Oxy Complex,” written and performed by Anna LaMadrid and directed by Michelle Bossy, visit www.iamatheatre.com.  Both shows stream on demand  through April 25.

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

How to Measure Anti-Racism in Theater

by Carolina Xique

Last summer, the murder of George Floyd shook the world and started a long overdue conversation about the history of white supremacy in institutions, especially in the theater. More and more artists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are sharing their experiences of racism in the arts and calling on theatrical institutions to reform the way we write, direct, cast, work, teach, and perform theater—most notably, the collective “We See You, White American Theater” (weseeyouwat.com).

But what does that reform look like? What can theater institutions do to better represent BIPOC artists? How can theaters measure their level of anti-racism if, historically, theater has never been anti-racist?

One exemplary organization that is doing the work of providing tools for anti-racist self-reflection in theater companies and organizations is based in the LA area: the Joy-Jackson Initiative.

The Joy-Jackson Initiative (JJI) works to build systemic equity in the arts by providing organizations with the guidance necessary to formulate and implement changes to create the safest possible spaces for the BIPOC collaborators who enrich them. JJI is currently creating the Racial Equity Assessment for organizations to take and learn about how they can better represent and care for their BIPOC artists and collaborators. I (digitally) sat with the Initiative’s founder, Gabrielle Jackson, to learn more about what went into creating the Assessment and how the Assessment will be used to introduce a better, more equitable theater culture.

LAFPI: First, can you share briefly how you founded the Joy-Jackson Initiative?

Gabrielle Jackson: The Joy-Jackson Initiative was founded out of a deep sense of disappointment and urgency. Disappointment that, at a time where we were encouraging each other to help flatten the curve and save human life, so many of my friends and colleagues could remain unaware of the violent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. The urgency that followed was an understanding that immediate action was required to rectify the rampant white supremacy and willful ignorance that allowed for people in my community and in my industry to witness racial violence and do absolutely nothing.

I was going to do something. I was going to show people that this violence was happening in their own communities, in their own organizations. People had to know that it was so much deeper than a protest or a political movement. This was about real people and real life. 

LAFPI: The Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment is a huge undertaking, yet extremely necessary and relevant, especially after last summer’s call for anti-racist practices in the arts. You have said before that the assessment went under a rigorous review process. In a few words, what was the process like from concept to debut? What kind of collaborations were needed to make all of this happen?

Gabrielle: There’s an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. This assessment is the product of so many collaborations and incredible connections. Initially I was using my own personal experience to create the Assessment’s questions. I spoke with some friends after I developed the initial draft and they called in their friends and hooked me up with some really wonderful organizations who were interested in helping me continue to build the work. 

One such org was Black Theatre Girl Magic. With the help of BTGM’s incredible team, we were able to gather a group of incredible Black women from across the professional theater spectrum to review and advise on the initial assessment. We organized a 3-day summit where we story-circled and shared our professional experiences and gathered the information that would help me develop the first Beta Version of JJI’s Assessment.

We beta tested with a small group of theaters from across the country and gathered data and participant feedback.

In a little over two months we had developed and tested a great first draft of the Assessment.  We took this feedback and immediately went back to the drawing board.  I personally read every set of “requemands,” as I like to call them, put out by every collective, organization and student group I could find. These folks were all calling for change and had very incredible plans for progress. I distilled the information from these resources and turned these demands and action steps into questions for the assessment. Then JJI’s Managing Director Julie Oulette, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I know and someone who has really worked in this business from every angle, took the assessment and organized it and edited it so that it was digestible and made sense to people who were leading these orgs that we were addressing.

We then organized another peer and professional review of the assessment with industry vets and folks who really knew the business and the people who made it. We also invited students and entry level professionals who were just starting out and had some really excellent ideas and paths forward. We then hand selected our second beta cohort and conducted a second beta test of the assessment. As with the first Beta test period, we culminated in a data share and town hall where the leaders of participating organizations were invited to share their experience with the assessment. Now we are rounding the corner on our publicly accessible version of the assessment and will, again, be hand selecting a small cohort of organizations from across the country to participate in our first full rollout of the assessment and its accompanying facilitation program.  We could not have done any of this work at this pace without the power of collaboration. We’ve turned something that could very easily be a 10 year undertaking into something that has been vetted by industry professionals and is ready and effective in a very short period of time. 

Online Town Hall with Assessment Beta Testers

LAFPI: Companies will be able to take the assessment and, ideally, commit to implementing more anti-racist culture. What are the next steps after that?

Gabrielle: A huge part of all of the work we did in our last round of beta was holding office hours. Initially, Managing Director Julie and I were only there to answer technical questions. And that’s how it was for the first few days. Participants were in and out asking us questions and giving us great feedback. But about a week in, people were starting to be confronted with some pretty unsettling data. And the fact that these were numbers written out in black and white made it inescapable. There was a shift in the way office hours were happening. People were coming to visit, and vent, and seek community and validation and guidance.

This was no longer just a Q&A. We knew 2 things: the Assessment was working and more space needed to be held for these arts leaders to understand their data and create real solutions. So we went right to work on developing a facilitation program. I went to a leader in the field of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) and intimacy and begged up on her guidance and mentorship, I started taking classes and using the office hours as another study, taking every conversation home with me to decompose and explore. We also started developing practical tools, like glossaries and reflection sheets that would help folks find deeper meaning in the concepts they were encountering in the assessment. Now, I can proudly say that what comes after the work with JJI’s Assessment is a fully personalized period of reflection and facilitation guided by myself and other key members of JJI’s team. The work is so delicate and important and we are ready and eager to help unravel the stories behind the numbers and help organizations find new and bold paths forward.  

LAFPI: A huge issue that was raised this past summer was that there are theater companies that have reputations for disregarding and even allowing racist practices, as well as hiring artists who have historically exhibited severe racist behaviors. Are the results of the Assessment meant to solely inform a company about their culture and create a plan to solve it, or will the results also be used to inform outside artists?

Gabrielle: My ultimate goal with this work, once we have collected enough data, is to partner with data analysts and create a report on the macro data from the Assessment. The great thing about a study like this is that each individual theater remains anonymous. We only view the data in aggregate and are able to analyze the numbers on the whole. I think granting public access to the aggregate data – the way we do in our town halls and other online media – will really help to create transparency in our industry. I think once we have all the information and the numbers are clear, we can start getting honest and calling in organizations to make real change. The numbers of course will also help the individual organizations themselves as they will have exclusive access to their own micro data and will have a view of their personal numbers and information. This will help orgs to assess areas for improvement and create space for real and actionable change in their operations. 

LAFPI: What kind of questions can companies expect in the Assessment?

Gabrielle: We’ve tested the efficacy of this Assessment with almost every type of theater company. So we are asking questions about everything from above title billing for theaters who are Tony eligible to whether touring companies are vetting hotels and accommodations for a history of racist action. We’re asking about what Black and Indigenous texts are being used in curriculum, and whether or not there is specific language in an organization’s bylaws that outlines anti-racist policy.

There’s truly  something to be gained for every organization at every level. 

LAFPI: This Assessment, undoubtedly, is aimed to create lasting impact in theater arts culture. Once the Assessment is released and artists can start creating post-pandemic theater, what do you hope theater will look like for theater companies? For BIPOC artists?

Gabrielle: I hope theater companies will use this time to actually do the work of change in their orgs. In the span of 7 months, we’ve been able to accomplish so much. It’s honestly made me realize that there is nothing a well-teamed organization cannot do if they are truly dedicated to their cause. And that’s the thing, right? An organization has to be dedicated to the cause and not just the lip service around it. So, I hope that theaters will have really backed up all those solidarity statements with action and accountability and that they are safe for us to return to when we can.

For BIPOC artists I wish us all the comfort, peace and stability that makes it easy to be choosy.  More than anything, I’ve learned that wherever one or two are gathered, even if it’s in a Zoom room, art can be created. So, we now have this smorgasbord of opportunity in front of us. One of the questions I’ve been pondering in my own creative work is, “What are we going to do with all this future?” I hope that BIPOC artists have the means and the support to seek healing from all the compound trauma stemming from this time in our history and a lifetime of intentional othering by forces of racism and white supremacy. I hope that BIPOC artists find it within themselves to create work that speaks to their souls and sparks joy for them. I hope that Black artists, Indigenous artists, and other artists of color can finally have the space to be truly, truly free.

LAFPI: When will the Assessment be available for companies to take?

Gabrielle: The Assessment will be available to a hand selected cohort in 2021 and is preparing for wide release in 2022. JJI is currently looking for its first cohort of Full Program participants. Anyone interested in taking part in JJI’s 2021 Rollout should contact us through our website at www.joyjackson.org/theassessment

Despite the grave uncertainty American Theater is facing amidst the pandemic and the plummeting economy, one great gift theatermakers have been given is the gift of reflecting on our own internalized racism and white supremacy. There’s no doubt that the Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment will be one of many programs paving the road toward true racial equity in American Theater, so that BIPOC artists may not merely survive, but thrive in an industry that so often uses their voices. It’s not about diversity and inclusion of BIPOC people—it’s about telling stories for us, by us, and with us in mind. And that starts today.

Read More About the Release of JJI’s Racial Equity Assessment Here

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Towne Street Theatre Explores Life As We Know It… Now

By Desireé York

Feeling alone, either literally as a result of this quarantine, or in dealing with the unforeseen challenges of life during a pandemic?  Towne Street Theatre, LA’s premiere African-American Theatre Company, will meet you wherever you are with their presentation of Corona and Other Maladies.  Experience the virtual performances of six short plays on Saturday, August 15th at 7PM and Sunday, August 16th at 4PM coming to you LIVE from the sets/homes of over a dozen entertainers attempting to navigate this bizarre time just like you!  This event includes 4 plays by women+ writers, all directed by Nancy Cheryll Davis, Towne Street Theatre’s Artistic Director.  I had the privilege of connecting with Nancy to learn more about this event.

LAFPI: What inspired this event and what makes it unique from other Zoom readings?

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Nancy Cheryll Davis

Nancy Cheryll Davis: We had just started our 10 minute Play Festival rehearsals when the pandemic hit, and it became clear that we were not going to be able to return to live theatre anytime soon. After doing our first Zoom event with our Spoken Word program, Sum Poetry, I realized how much people wanted to stay connected. I also realized how important it was for all of us, Company and Audience, to do so.  

In May I came up with the title, Corona & Other Maladies, and asked our writers if they had, or could come up with, some short plays about living through this moment.  We were originally going to do it in June, but after the deaths of Ahmad Aubrey, George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, I decided to postpone our programming and take a much needed pause to reflect on what was happening in our communities across the country.

We really worked on having some movement and semblance of the reality of each piece through the actors’ own home backgrounds.  We used a few virtual ones and rehearsed everything just like we would in real time. 

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“Zoombies” by Madeline Puccioni, with Justin Gurbersky, Daphne Jones and Colette Rosario

LAFPI: What did you find the most fun and the most challenging not only directing all six plays, but in this specific format?

Nancy: Towne Street is fortunate to have incredibly talented writers and actors. Each script was so good! The beauty of having a company is that I know the members so well and what they really shine in. It was fun to cast each piece knowing they would all bring their special skills to their roles.  Our production team is also incredibly talented and has fearlessly delved into this unknown world with me. We have all commented on the fact that although we are not doing live theatre, we are still able to practice our craft be it writing, acting, designing or directing, with this platform. 

Directing these plays was like playing in a sandbox for me. The biggest challenge of course is the bandwidth each actor has or doesn’t have, on any given day, and the lack of control over that issue.

LAFPI: How do you feel that these plays “meet” audiences wherever they are and what would you like them to take away from the experience?

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“Coming To You Live” by Laurie Allen, with Andrew Cudzilo and Samantha Clay

Nancy: The plays explore so many of the experiences that people are having now. They are beautifully written and acted and despite the title, rather lighthearted. 

I always think finding some joy and laughter in the midst of chaos is critical to the human spirit. I hope for the time they spend with us on either Saturday or Sunday, that they are able to relax for a little bit and just have a good time.  We are having an “After Party” following the performances, and I look forward to sharing some conversation and drinks with all!

For more information and to tune into the live Zoom event visit: tstcorona.eventbrite.com.  To learn more about the work of Town Street Theatre, visit www.townestreetla.org or follow on Facebook and Instagram.

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Puppets, Prose & Pandemics

By Chelsea Sutton

In 2016, I was a writer in the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship. It was a life changing experience for me. I had always been a fiction writer, but that Fellowship gave me tools and confidence to finally embrace that part of my career.

Of course I have this whole other “career” as a playwright too. And I have been wondering, since 2016, how I could find ways to merge the two worlds and help amplify the program and the writers involved.

So last fall I pitched an idea to Amanda Fletcher, the Emerging Voices Fellowship Manager, for a live reading night called Puppets & Prose – during which we could get puppets and puppeteers to read written work from EV alum. It would be the weirdest reading night ever, but we were both super excited about it.

And then a pandemic hit. And there would be no live in-person puppet shows for a while…

But then…why not do it online?

So in April, when all the world was shutting down, I poked and prodded at Emerging Voices writers to send me some 1-3 min written pieces. And I worked with Rogue Artists Ensemble and the LA Guild of Puppetry to put a call for puppeteers, performers and visual artists who might want to take a piece and interpret the work into a short video.

The response was overwhelming – so much so that each of the 17 written pieces I got had TWO artists assigned to it – resulting in 33 final micro films. It took me almost a week to figure out the pairings!

All the films still live on our website and YouTube channel – but I wanted to share with you a few pieces that ended up being very fem-tastic – the writers and artists identify as female artists, and the results are amazing…

Granted, all I ever wanted were a few weird puppets looking into the camera and reading poetry to me, so maybe I have a low bar. But I think you will enjoy.

No video is over 5 minutes – so enjoy. And if you like these, watch the rest on the Rogue Artists Ensemble website.

Written by Jessica Shoemaker
Designed & Performed by Jaime Lyn Beatty

Written by Sandra Ramirez
Designed & Performed by Audrey Densmore

Written by Claire Lin
Created & Performed by Rachael Caselli

Written by Michelle Meyers
Designed and performed by Amy Judd Lieberman

Written by Natalie Mislang Mann
Designed and performed by Sarah Kay Peters

Written and read by Libby Flores
Designed & Performed by Mariasole Piccininno

Written by Natalie Mislang Mann
Designed and performed by Sarah Kay Peters

Written by Marnie Goodfriend
Designed and performed by Gina Sandy

Written by Carolina Rivera
Designed and performed by Kelly McMahon

Written and read by Marytza Rubio
Designed by Lelia Woods

Written by Wendy Labinger
Designed & Performed by Gretchen Van Lente
Read by Serra Hirsch

Story by Chelsea Sutton
Co-Created by Cinthia Nava & Danielle Haufman

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CoA asks “What’s Going On?”

by Carolina Xique

Is it August already?

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2020 feels like the year that’s never going to end. You would think that during a worldwide pandemic, American people could put aside their differences, find compassion, and do a better job of taking care of each other. But, in just two short months after states began enforcing quarantine, the country proved that old habits die hard. In late May, George Floyd, a Black security guard in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was killed by police, and his murder was broadcast throughout social media the following morning in an eight-minute video.

However, George Floyd is not the first Black man to be killed by cops. Hell, he’s not even the first one to be killed by cops​ this year. ​Back in February, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in his neighborhood when he was shot and killed by three white men claiming, “a civilian arrest.” In April, Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT who was sleeping soundly with her partner in their apartment, was murdered in a flurry of bullets in an unannounced, mistaken drug raid. These three highly profiled murders of Black folks became the catalyst for the newly-revitalized, revolutionary Black Lives Matter movement that we are still experiencing today.

As the country trembles in fear with the reality of their own mortality amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, non-Black folks are now understanding concepts that Black folks everywhere have been screaming from the rooftops: that to be Black in America is to have grappled with your own mortality from that moment you realize your skin color is different. To be Black in America is to have to write social media posts that read, “If I’m ever arrested by cops, and I’m found dead in my jail cell, I would never kill myself. Don’t let them rule it as a suicide.” To be Black in America is not only to be one of the most vulnerable groups amidst a viral pandemic, but to also experience the social pandemic of police brutality.

These murders, paired with the continued protection of police officers against the consequences of police brutality, have coaxed people everywhere to protest, share historical injustices toward Black folks, post resources on social media, and facilitate difficult discussions with their own communities with a question that Black Americans have been asking for the last 400 years: ​When will enough be enough?

And now, since the government is still not listening, since the police have used violence against protesters and killed several more black citizens after George Floyd’s death, Los Angeles artists are taking the movement into their own hands.

This past weekend as well as tonight (August 1 & 8 at 8pm), Company of Angels premieres a virtual play festival titled ​What’s Going On?, inspired by the Marvin Gaye 1970s hit song. According to CoA’s website, “these 5-Minute Plays are set during the uprising in Los Angeles and the world that’s followed the murder of George Floyd by Police in Minneapolis, Minnesota… These plays address not just one aspect of what we’re going through, but rather speak to what happens when you add civil unrest to a pandemic, racism to a quarantine and a mask to social media?” The evenings include the work of 9 BIPOC women+ writers (playwrights & spoken word artists) and 10 female directors.

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Playwrights of “What’s Going On?” at CoA

To learn more about these plays and how they speak to the moment, I contacted company member/producers Xavi Moreno & Julianna Stephanie Ojeda.

LAFPI: ​What about the pieces you’re directing/starring in are you most excited for folks to see? What images/questions do you hope they leave with?

Xavi Moreno: ​I’ll be in the final play of the final night, The Stimulus Check by Israel Lopez Reyes. I’m always excited to do plays that the audience can relate to, where they can see themselves saying the words that are coming out of my mouth. So with this play I feel people can put themselves in the shoes of both the characters and connect with it, to take them back to the moment they received the check and what they spent it on instead of what they should’ve.

Julianna Stephanie Ojeda: I directed ​Kiss​ by Diana Burbano and performed in ​Diciest Timeline​ by Howard Ho directed by Joyce Liu-Countryman. I’m most excited for people to see the importance of human connection. In ​Kiss,​ we get to see that with Shae (Taylor Hawthorne) and Loren (Analisa Gutierrez). With ​Diciest Timeline​, we see it through Sarah and Steve’s (Victor Chi) relationship. Both plays have so much heart and I hope people leave feeling that love and connection.

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LAFPI: ​Why do you think it’s most important for folks to see this play festival right now, while we’re all dealing with information-overload and overwhelmed emotions?

Xavi: For more than 60 years we’ve had the privilege of sharing the wonder of storytelling together. We’ve persevered through the fire of 1988 that destroyed our theatre, the L.A. Riots, the 2008 recession, and gentrification forcing us to move from theatre to theatre. None of those events has stopped us like Covid-19 has. With What’s Going On?, with doing theatre online we get this opportunity to continue our commitment to support diverse L.A.-based artists and to tell stories from unique underrepresented voices. Plus we get to share it outside of the limits of our physical theatre space in the City of Angels. In our first performance last week, we had performers telling us how friends from college in the east coast watched it, family members who they haven’t seen them in years watching them perform for the first time. That was beautiful.

Julianna: Patricia Zamorano said it best in the live broadcast comments on Facebook, “Bam! It’s possible!” To me that means it IS possible to produce a show that is a true reflection of our city and what we are experiencing. We need that more than ever. That need was reflected in the comments and the feedback we received from the audience. They shared that they felt seen and that they recognized a bit of themselves in our first weekend. Hopefully, the second weekend will be the same!

Catch Xavi Moreno, Julianna Stephanie Ojeda and other talented Los Angeles artists in Company of Angel’s ​”What’s Going On? A Virtual Play Festival.” Streaming live Saturday, August 1 & August 8 at 8pm. For more information and to tune into the Livestreams, visit https://www.companyofangels.org/whatsgoingon​.

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“What’s Going On? A Virtual Play Festival” Company

“Ageless” in a #BraveNewWorld @ Santa Monica Rep

by Carolina Xique

“We’re living in unprecedented times…”

How many times have you heard that in the last two months?

Living in the thick of Los Angeles County, one can’t deny the effects that COVID-19 has had on the LA community, especially within the arts. Before the pandemic, theaters were getting ready to launch their 2020-2021 seasons, clean their venues for incoming Hollywood Fringe productions, and hold long-awaited annual galas, festivals, and workshops. Now? Companies are relying on Zoom and other streaming platforms to continue providing artistic content to the community, including readings, webinars, and even full-blown theatrical productions – some prerecorded, some live!

Because these times are unprecedented, because we’ve never had to bring theater into a virtual space, we’re left with the questions: What is theater now? Is it changing? And what does our future look like now that this has happened?

We (virtually) sat down with Tanya White, artistic director of Santa Monica Repertory Theater, to talk about SMRT’s upcoming 2nd Annual Playreading Festival; the eerie relevance of the Festival’s predetermined theme, #BraveNewWorld; and the reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by SMRT co-founder and resident director Sarah Gurfield. The Festival, held on May 16th via StreamYard, includes a Special Kick-off Conversation on May 14th, a playwriting workshop, and pre- and post-show discussions concerning Portman’s intriguing piece.

LAFPI: Tell us a little bit about Santa Monica Rep’s mission and why it’s important to you.

Tanya White: Our mission is using theater to tell stories and also engage our community in the process, both in the creation of work and also in the discussion with the artists & production. Whatever it is that we are doing, we always have a post-show discussion.

Tanya White

We’ll be actually talking about why that mission is important at our Kick-Off Conversation next Thursday, preceding our Festival . The panel is going to discuss what theater is and why it matters. I believe that theater is kind of an essential piece of a society that allows people to step out of their own experience and look at something from somebody else’s point of view.

Of course, you have the playwright’s point of view and the director’s perspective of the piece. But what you’re also seeing is walking, talking people who are experiencing things that you can mostly identify with, even if you are different than the character. We all experience the same kinds of feelings. But it’s communal in the fact that we’re all witnessing the same thing. It’s how it’s expressed, I think, that makes us unique.

LAFPI: This is Santa Monica Rep’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival, spotlighting women artists. What has it been like transitioning from providing the event in-person to providing it online?

Tanya: Before this, we really didn’t focus on recording a live theater event. If we did, usually it’s for archival purposes, not actually to rebroadcast or stream.  People are at different levels of comfortability with technology. So that that’s been challenging.

And one of the things we were challenged with before this pandemic was getting the word out about us. We’re a really small group of people, so our capacity is limited. Our audience has largely been people who have followed us for the 10 years we’ve been in existence, which has been great. But the exciting thing is that now we have more reach. The idea that somebody can be anywhere in the world and see this is really exciting. We can say, “You don’t have to be in Santa Monica to come see us!” So having suddenly having a virtual space is great for us.

LAFPI: The theme of #BraveNewWorld was decided well-before the global pandemic. What kind of new questions do you think have arisen that are going to be a larger part of these conversations because of what’s going on right now?

Tanya:  Right now, we’re having a shared experience. We’re in the same space and time together. I mean, this is not a recording. To engage at this level, we have to be present. And so maybe the question is, “what is space” versus “what is theater?” But that’s what we’re jumping off from. So what is theater? And does this count as theater?

A question that comes up for sure is “how can we help each other?” Not just on an individual level, but also how we talk about theaters. How do we support each other? How do wesupport arts and each other? I feel there’s gonna be a lot more collaboration, a lot more people working together, because there used to be the feeling that everybody’s competing for the same audience, and the idea that that’s a finite thing. Like, if somebody comes to see a play in Santa Monica Rep, they’re not going to go see something at LA Women’s Shakespeare. So I think it is the question of how open and loving people are to helping each other? How can we cross promote? How do we how do we help each other get what we need to keep doing this work?

Maybe people will start also looking again at who our audience is. Because people do target, right? We look at who we’re reaching out to. Or if we’re selling tickets, we get in front of people who can afford to buy them. But the other day a friend of mine was saying how they’ve been to every museum in the world because they can now, virtually. I mean, access becomes a whole a whole new thing.  So now somebody who doesn’t [ordinarily] go see a play has access to theater in this way. We have a Festival ticket where you can participate in a playwriting workshop and a panel with two playwrights, or you can just register for the reading, which is free. You know, we say a suggested donation, but it’s not a ticket price.

LAFPI: What in the programming for the Festival are you most excited for audiences to take part in?

Tanya: The reading of AGELESS. I think we’re using the technology really well (God willing, it works!). I’m really excited about the about how the play translates into a virtual experience, and how we’re using the technology to tell the story. So I’m excited for everybody to log in and be part of that.

And it’s a good play. The subject matter is great and interesting, but it’s a good story. Well-told.

LAFPI: That rolls in right into my next question – Why this play right now?

Tanya: Well, we put the call out to women playwrights to send us stories of dystopia or utopia. We got several plays that we were going to do and, originally, we were set for June. Then we had to pare down and look at taking it online. We decided to do it sooner, not knowing when the stay-at-home order would be lifted, and we picked AGELESS because it had more roles for company members. We always serve our company members first.

And the theme of aging seems to be not just relevant, but especially of interest to women, as well. We’re highlighting plays written and directed by women. And again, it’s a good play. And really that’s always what it comes down to. Also, will it get some discussion going? We like to pick things that we know people want to talk about.

LAFPI: Who should attend this Festival and why?

Tanya: Anybody who’s really interested in examining what our future could look like. Such a great time to do that, when we’re all in a place where we’re reflecting. We have to. We’re alone. And we’re all aging. So I think anybody could come in and find themselves in this play because it follows characters as they age and characters as they don’t physically age, which I think is kind of an LA thing, too. The whole idea of not aging is a big deal.

So, yeah, I really think anybody anybody could enjoy the play. Maybe not young children, but I would say anyone from maybe fifteen or sixteen. But particularly, young women should come,  because the play examines so many women. So who should see it? Everybody. Right? Except toddlers. No toddlers! Don’t bring your toddlers to your Zoom.

Santa Monica Repertory Theater’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival will start with a Special Kick-Off Conversation on May 14th, and officially begin May 16th at 11am. The Festival features a virtual staged reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Sarah Gurfield.  With a $25 Festival Pass, audiences can participate in the Kick-Off and all events. The reading alone is free with a suggested donation. For more information, visit santamonicarep.org/bravenewworld.html

Kate McAll’s “Frankenstein” at LA Theatre Works Breathes Life Into Mary Shelley’s Timeless Words

By Chelsea Sutton

Frankenstein is having a moment.

If you trace the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adaptations just in the last 100 years or so, it is easy to see that the classic story never quite went out of style. It is beyond trend. It is the origin story of our collective unconscious.

LA Theatre Works is bringing its own voice to the cannon this month with its upcoming radio drama production of Frankenstein, adapted by former BBC producer Kate McAll. The audio format allows McAll and LA Theatre Works to get back to the language of the book itself, and offer a version of the story that strips away the visual influences of television and film that have created the pop culture ideas of what we assume Frankenstein to be.

“I like to get to the heart of the original material,” says McAll about her approach to adapting work for the radio. “My adaptation uses Mary’s structure and language. If she saw it – or heard it – she would recognize it.”

McAll, like myself and like many people who consume pop culture, didn’t read the book until she dove into the work of the adaptation, and so her cultural touchstones were mainly based in the movies. When she began talks with LA Theatre Works to do this adaptation, she thought this might be a great opportunity to try something new – last year she adapted A Room With A View which had a lot of comedy in it and made people laugh. This was a moment to do something scary. But when she read it, she completely changed her mind about it.

“I found it to be about something else altogether,” says McAll. “My version of it was not going to be like the classic scary monster thing. Because that’s not what I found in the book.”

Kate McAll

What did she find in it? Not the same horror box in which we tend to place the Frankenstein of pop culture. “There are horror moments in it but they are not at all like the movies…The book is surprisingly poetic,” says McAll. “It is very powerfully about loss.  It is really about seeing Frankenstein descend into the deepest, most scary depression and obsession after the loss of his mother.”

That’s the heart of what the story is about for McAll. Grief. And that’s what keeps it so fresh and timeless. It’s this very personal story about grieving, about fighting against death, about abandonment (which grief often feels like), and how different characters deal with this process – for better or for worse.

McAll has been personally coping with grief over the last two years, “so it was quite strange to come to this and find that’s what Frankenstein is about. It’s got immense emotional maturity given that Mary was only 19 years old when she wrote it.”

Connecting the storytelling style in the book to the genre of radio drama has been the structural exploration of this adaptation. “I’ve just let the storytellers tell their stories….in its purest form. I haven’t imposed anything on it, ” says McAll.

The process of adapting Frankenstein and leaning into this kind of oral storytelling tradition reminded McAll of a memory she’d forgotten, a pure enchantment with storytelling before she was old enough to think about a career at the BBC – or any career at all: “It made me think of when I was little…there was a show on the radio called Listen with Mother…My mother was pregnant with my younger sister, so I must have been four. We’d lie down on the floor and I’d curl into her tummy, and we’d drift off together, listening. It was lovely to have that memory back.”

Based in the UK, McAll has come out to the US every year for the last 20 years. Perhaps fittingly for the theme of her current adaptation, the first project she pitched for production in the U.S., a possible adaptation of the book The Blood of Strangers, began with a phone call asking for advice with the actor Martin Jarvis on September 11…2001.  The news was only just breaking and she pointed out to Martin, who was in LA at the time and just waking up, that there seemed to be something happening in New York.

And so grief seems to follow us.

Frankenstein feels very relevant for the times we live in.  Many of us are dealing with a kind of political grief. It’s a state of shock,” says McAll. “Grief for how you believed the world was. And as you get older and the losses become more likely, this kind of story just makes you think about it all.”

 

 

Stacy Keach stars as the Creature in LA Theatre Works upcoming “Frankenstein” – Photo by Brian Cahn

McAll is a freelance producer, director and writer working mainly for BBC Radio 4, which produces new radio dramas daily. While radio dramas mostly died out in the U.S. with the introduction of television, that didn’t happen in the UK. “Radio stayed. It’s always been strong,” says McAll. “In radio, the most important thing is to keep people listening. There are a million ways they can stop and switch off. You might have 30 seconds when they’ll concentrate. You’ve really got to capture them from the start and hold onto them.”

McAll didn’t always know that her place was in radio drama. “I came from a very working class background where nobody was educated past the age of 16.  I remember one day at school, then I was about 9, the teacher said we were going to create a radio drama complete with sound effects – coconut shells for horses hooves and everything…I remember being very fired up at being introduced to this world of imagination. It was different from books. That stayed with me for a long time.”

McAll was the first to go to university in her family. “After I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or could be. I sort of reverted to being this child of a working class family. I couldn’t imagine having a profession.  I just didn’t have a template for it in my head.”

She started with a “very very boring job” working as a secretary for the head of engineering at the BBC, but realized Radio 4 was just across the car park. “I smoked at the time, and a lot of the radio producers smoked, so they were the first people I met – in the smoking area! It was as if a light went on. It was so thrilling and exciting,” says McAll. “I managed to find where I was meant to be, figured out how it worked, applied for jobs since I was already in the door, and worked my way up from secretary to a producer in just over a year.”

With her 30 year career in radio documentary and drama, McAll knows the importance of voice actors, and the LA Theatre Works production of Frankenstein is pulling no punches with Stacy Keach in the role of “The Creature” and Adhir Kalyan (Arrested Development) playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “If anybody can tell you a story, Stacy can,” says McAll. Radio acting takes an abundance of talent: “You’ve got to keep people absolutely enchanted with what you’re saying.”

Actors Mike McShane (Whose Line Is It Anyway), LA Theatre Works favorite Darren Richardson, Seamus Dever and Cerris Morgan-Moyer round out the cast;  LA Theatre Works associate artistic director Anna Lyse Erikson directs. “Actors who do comedy are really great at drama because they have the timing,” says McAll. “They know exactly how something should be. If you can do comedy, you can do anything.”

 

 

Cerris Morgan Moyer – Photo by Matt Petit

Watching live foley, amazing actors, and listening to a classic tale in an LA Theatre Works show is more than enough for a great evening at the theatre, but it is the heart of the story that will stay with anyone listening – the purity of how Mary Shelley describes and explores the idea of birth and death and our own grieving for both moments. “How the Creature describes what it was like for him to come into being is so beautiful and thoughtful,” says McAll. “And if you’re coming to this with the movies in your head, it is so unexpected.”

McAll writes in her introduction to the play how the original novel was birthed from the most primitive and important rituals of human experience – telling stories around a fire to ward off the darkness. “There have been many adaptations of this tale, and it’s a daunting task to present another, but what I have wanted to keep in mind is that this was originally a story told in a single voice, from a young girl’s imagination; that it was born of a waking dream, and recounted in a creaky old mansion, on a dark, cold, rainy, candle lit night.”

Frankenstein runs Friday February 28 – March 1, presented by LA Theatre Works at the James Bridges Theater UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive Los Angeles, CA 90095. Call 310-827-0889 or visit www.latw.org for information and reservations.

Antaeus Introduces LA to Two Brand New Classsics

Luisina Quarleri & Denise Blasor in “The Abuelas”; photo by Jenny Graham

As theater-makers, we gotta love those classics.  And in all honesty, it’s often the artists with a background in Shakespeare, Shaw, Hellman, etc. that bring that extra something to the table when working on any play. But as playwrights, how much do we love that Antaeus, a theater in town known for its kick-ass classical productions, is shifting gears and producing new plays that they’re putting out there as “future classics?” A lot!

Oh. And add to that that these two works are by LA female playwrights, nurtured by Antaeus’ in-house Playwrights Lab, and directed by women. YES!

So we couldn’t pass  up the chance to talk to Stephanie Allison Walker and Jennifer Maisel, friends and colleagues whose plays “The Abuelas” and “Eight Nights” are sharing the Antaeus stage. 

LAFPI: These new plays are a bit of a departure for Antaeus! How does it feel being the first new plays developed through the company’s Playwrights Lab chosen for production?

Stephanie Allison Walker: I keep pinching myself. I was at the very first meeting of the Antaeus Playwrights Lab back in 2013; it was to be a place to come together and exercise our craft. Back then it was made pretty clear that Antaeus wouldn’t produce plays that came out of Lab because that wasn’t their mission. But the idea of “future classics” struck a chord, I guess. To have a theater like Antaeus producing new work is such a win for playwrights. I love the trust it shows in lab. I love that I get to share this with my friend whose play I love so much. I’m so proud.

playwright Jennifer Maisel; photo by Christopher Bonwell

Jennifer Maisel: I’m so moved Antaeus chose our plays as their first to go on this adventure with. Of course, having a play produced by a theatre I’ve loved and respected for so long is just a playwright’s dream, but this is even more dreamy because Stephanie and I have been working on these plays somewhat in parallel, and have been supporting each other through their development processes as playwrights, peers and friends. She’s a playwright whose work I adore and it’s a thrill to journey this road together.

LAFPI: These plays were both developed by Antaeus, but where did each of your plays begin? What’s the journey to production been like for each of you? 

Jennifer:  After the last election I – like many other writers and an artists – felt blocked.  The world had changed so much, I felt an imperative to think differently about what I was going to write next. I had been thinking about how I had never seen a Chanukah play and I loved the idea of eight scenes over eight nights but had thought it would be eight nights spanning the same holiday and family.  But then I started to think about how spaces hold memory and family and are characters in and of themselves and thought that these nights of Chanukah should be over the span of a life.  I still didn’t know my way in, however.  Then in January of 2017 someone started tweeting the manifest of the St. Louis – each tweet talked about a person or a family who got sent back – who survived, who did not. I started digging deep in research and found that the articles about the “Jewish Refugee Problem” in the 30s seemed to be the same articles we were reading right now – only now it was the “Muslim Refugee Problem”.   It spurred me into thinking about the circles of history and also thinking about a question I had long had – about how people move on from such great trauma to live their lives and the great bravery and resilience it takes to do that.  The inauguration came towards the end of January, and the next day, the Muslim ban – and I started writing the play that day.

After writing the first draft of Eights Nights in the 2017 Playwrights Union challenge [to write a new play in the month of February], I brought in scenes of it to Lab. That feedback was invaluable. I had an in-house workshop at Playmakers in North Carolina and  I went to the Berkshire Playwrights Lab where I did a five day workshop of it.  [Director] Emily Chase and I did two more readings in LA with Antaeus  and one with Moving Arts and I also had workshops at Bay Street Theatre on Long Island in their Title Wave series and at the Gulf Shore New Play Festival, so I had the good fortune to work on the play with several different directors and casts and audiences and get different feedback on each one.

playwright Stephanie Allison Walker

Stephanie: I saw a reading of Eight Nights in the library at Antaeus  and sobbed through pretty much the whole thing. It’s such a beautiful work and so powerful and truly reached my soul. I’m incredibly honored to share this with Jennifer and her gorgeous play.

I wrote the first draft of The Abuelas in 2016 during the month of February as part of the Playwrights Union’s challenge. While writing it, I was bringing pages into Playwrights Lab to hear them out loud.  I was very fortunate that the Ashland New Plays Festival selected it last year and that Teatro Vista in Chicago had already agreed to produce it. So, my director from Chicago – Ricardo Gutierrez – came with me to Ashland and we had the opportunity to begin our collaboration in Ashland in advance of the World Premiere in Chicago in February at Victory Gardens, produced by Teatro Vista. I did a lot of rewriting during that process so once we started rehearsals at Antaeus in August, the play was pretty set. I mostly was focusing on cutting and fine-tuning for this production.

LAFPI: Each of your plays deals with pretty huge issues through a very personal lens. Can you talk a bit more about what’s at the heart of your play and what drew you to it?

Stephanie: In 2015, I wrote my play The Madres, a play set in 1978 in Buenos Aires during the military dictatorship. I was drawn to the subject matter because I grew up with an Argentine stepmom, have Argentine family and spent a lot of time during my childhood in Argentina. After college, I was living and working in Buenos Aires and I began to learn more about what happened during the dictatorship. Friends shared jaw-dropping stories with me that I had never before heard. One friend was doing a documentary on the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and I went with her to march with them one Thursday. When I came back to the States, I was shocked that no one here really knew about what happened in Argentina during that period. Over the years I would read and watch everything I could find about the Disappeared. It took me a long time, but I eventually found my way to write about it once I was a mother myself.

After the first reading of The Madres, I realized that I wasn’t done and that I would write The Abuelas. I set it 37 years later, because this is an ongoing story. It’s not in the past. It’s present and very real. So many years after the dictatorship, lives are still being torn apart. I was wanting to explore this very emotional and difficult question of identity and what happens when you find out you’ve been lied to your entire life? For every nieto (grandchild) discovered, it’s a different experience and process. Some absolutely do not want to know the truth about their identity. It takes some people many years to confront it. It’s a very difficult, complex, emotional and painful process. That’s what drew me to this story. These “children” (also referred to as the “living disappeared”) are now in their early forties. They have lived entire lives with one identity. And to discover now that their real parents were in fact disappeared… it’s unfathomable.

For anyone wanting to learn more about Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and their work to restore the identities of their missing grandchildren, here is their website: abuelas.org.ar.

Jennifer: I feel – on many levels – that Eight Nights  is the play that I’ve been researching my whole life.  I found as I was writing it that there were elements of history I knew, even though I couldn’t pinpoint how I knew them or where I first learned of them. So I wrote and then researched more to verify and fill out what I had written.

This play reflects my fascination with how we treat other humans who we perceive as being unlike ourselves in this (and other) countries –  the refugee, someone of a different religious belief or ethnicity, someone with a different upbringing or background.  How we need to embrace the unfamiliar rather than marginalize it or dismiss it and how our traumas may differ greatly and we must respect that,  but if we share them with each other, perhaps healing together could make all of us strengthen ourselves against hate.

I also want to say a few words about a specific project that’s been going on with Eight Nights. In the wake of the Tree of Life Shooting last year in Pittsburgh, where the shooter called out the temple’s position on supporting refugees, producer Rachel Leventhal came to me. [As a benefit for HAIS], “8 Nights of Eight Nights” is readings and panel discussions in eight different cities over the course of this year, including Denver, NY, DC, Stowe, Chicago, San Francisco, Davis and (upcoming) San Diego and Seattle.  Using my play for social change is hugely gratifying.  It’s been an amazing experience.

LAFPI: Your plays are very different in style and specific subject matter, but what similarities have you discovered?

Stephanie:  I love this question. I keep saying that yes, our plays are very different, but they are both about murderous dictatorships and the long, devastating and far-reaching repercussions. They speak to each other thematically, for sure. I don’t think there is any order one should see them. But, yes: See both! I think both Jennifer and I are telling these stories because we both feel that they are important so that the lessons are not forgotten. As they say in Argentina: Nunca Más.

Jennifer: The plays both deal with the legacy of inherited trauma and they do complement each other beautifully. It’s also an expression Jews have used about the Holocaust:  Never Again.

Stephanie: And of course, not only are both plays written and directed by women, both plays feature very strong roles for women. Complex women. From a strong female point of view. I love this. I celebrate this. And I’m grateful for this!

“Eight Nights” actors Karen Malina White, Tessa Auberjonois & Arye Gross; photo by Jenny Graham

LAFPI:  Yes, we’re VERY pleased to see female directors on board. How have you worked collaboratively with your directors and other artists during this process?

Jennifer: Well, I’m insanely fortunate to not only be working with a female director (Emily Chase) and a female dramaturg (Paula Cizmar) but that they are two people who I have known a long time as friends, peers and collaborators.  It has made the process intimate and joyful (even in the painful writer moments of rewriting). Emily is bringing so much to the play with her director lens that I don’t even contemplate as a playwright; she’s added layers of complexity with how she directs the actors and what she envisions on the stage.  There’s a fullness that comes to the work because of her.  Paula is incisive and has an enormous gift for seeing ways to solve problems that come to light in a scene; it’s just wonderful to have another set of eyes focused solely on the text along mine but the fact that they’re Paula’s eyes is a beautiful thing for me.

Stephanie: This is my first time collaborating with director Andi Chapman. I was a huge fan of her direction on Nambi Kelley’s Native Son at Antaeus so when the Artistic Directors suggested they reach out to her, I was very excited. And even more so after meeting with her and hearing her vision for my play. Her eye for the theatrical is so brilliant. She brought all of her passion and artistry to this project and the results, in my opinion, are stunning. She assembled a powerhouse cast – including a couple of Antaean members and a three Argentine actors – who do such amazing work; it’s so complex and nuanced.

Andi also has an amazing design team who brought so much to the storytelling. I’m just sitting there like an idiot with a giant smile on my face when I watch the show. That’s not always the case. I just feel very happy with how everything has come together. Edward E. Haynes Jr. is our scenic designer and I’m a fan. Big, big fan. I literally cried when I saw his initial images of the set. I can’t wait to see what he creates for Eight Nights!

Jennifer: We’re just about to go into tech but I’m thrilled to see what the designers have been talking about.  Ed’s conception for the two sets is so brilliant.  I cannot wait to see it all put together.

Seamus Dever, Luisina Quarleri & Denise Blasor in “The Abuelas”; photo by Jenny Graham

LAPFI: And we can’t wait to congratulate Antaeus on supporting new work and producing your plays! Do you think this may be a direction the company will continue in?

 Stephanie: From my point of view, it does seem like Antaeus as a company is very excited about this new endeavor. I felt that excitement on opening night, especially.  I can’t get over it and you can’t make me. 😉

I can’t speak for the future of Antaeus, but what I can say is that I hope that The Abuelas and Eight Nights will be successful not only artistically, but also financially so that they feel emboldened to continue. There is SO MUCH EXCITING WORK coming out of the Playwrights Lab, I can only hope that some of that amazing work finds its way to the Antaeus stage in the future. They are doing another “Lab Results” Reading Festival this winter. So, keep a look-out for that.

Jennifer:  I think moving into the realm of new work is brave and I certainly hope Antaeus continues (of course, since I’m a creator of new work) – but also because I think it’s the way to expand the canon for future generations. How does a play ever become a classic? Someone has to be the first one to produce it.  And Antaeus is leaping into the fray.

“The Abuelas,” written by Stephanie Walker and directed by Andi Chapman, plays October 3 – November 25 and “Eight Nights,” written by Jennifer Maisel and directed by Emily Chase, plays October 31 – December 16 at Antaeus Theatre Company. For information and tickets visit at  antaeus.org.

Laughing and Crying Through Treya’s Last Dance

by Carolina Xique

Amongst dating, career, passions, failure and menstrual cycles, what woman can say her life is perfect all the time? It’s always more interesting and truthful to see women on film, stage and television having the same messy moments that we experience in real life. Shyam Bhatt took it upon herself to create a role for herself that’s this kind of woman in her first play, a solo show, “Treya’s Last Dance.”

“Treya’s Last Dance” premiered in Los Angeles at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, then traveled to New York and London. Now back in LA at  the Hudson Guild Theatre, opening September 18, the play explores LGBTQ+ issues, feminism, and discrimination as Treya navigates through her dating life, her passion for dance and her family’s struggles. We were glad to get the chance to talk to Shyam about her – and Treya’s –  journey before opening night. 

LAFPI:  I have to say, Shyam, that Treya’s Last Dance was a perfect blend of the humorous and tragic experiences that come with grief. How did this story come to you?

Shyam Bhatt: It’s totally fictional. Treya is a character who gets to be a little bit awful and awkward and prone to emotional outbursts in the worst, funniest and most heartbreaking ways. She gets to be a strong, full woman on stage. That was the sort of character I wanted to play and the character I wasn’t seeing written for people like me. And, in writing her, she just happened to have this event in her life that was pulling her through the play. That’s pretty much how it came about.

LAFPI: After reading the play, I’m most excited to see how the hilarity and the grief come together in your performance. Was it difficult to find a way to co-mingle the two in your writing process?

Shyam: I’ve always been one to try to see the humorous parts in life. These days, it’s so important to always maintain face in front of everyone, like you always have to have an amazing façade. And life will always get in the way of that. Life will always make sure that you have something spill on your white shirt before your interview or you’ll trip and rip your dress before you meet a date or something like that. I find that funny and great and part of the joy of being a human being: nothing is perfect.

So to co-mingle the grief and the humor wasn’t that difficult in the writing. What I’m finding now in the rehearsal process is that it’s much more difficult to move between those two as a performer fluidly, without creating a jarring effect. That’s an interesting thing that we’re finding now, my director and me.

Shyam Bhatt in “Treya’s Last Dance” – photo by Abs Parthasarathy

LAFPI: What has it been like working with Poonam Basu as director? 

Shyam: It’s been fantastic, really fantastic. I had worked with Tiffany Nichole Greene as director for the premiere of this play and it has changed quite a bit since then. Poonam is bringing a really new, fresh perspective to the whole thing.  She is an actress/director and she’s got a fantastic insight into both how it feels to perform and how it looks to the audience. She’s pulling out threads that weren’t obvious to me and making them really heightened on stage.  And she’s been really instrumental in the question you just asked, in how to bring together the grief and the humor.

LAFPI: Do you feel like she elevates your vision, to make it a great experience for you as a performer and make sense to the audience?

Shyam: Yeah, she’s got this bigger-picture perspective and she sees the play as a whole – making sure that we hit those beats, and refining it into a really nice theatrical production, in essence. It’s just very joyful to see the way that she shapes it. You’ll see, you’ll see when you come.

LAFPI: Has she changed your view of the piece? 

Shyam: She’s emphasizing things I would not have chosen to emphasize and that is creating a different mood than I had anticipated, one very beautiful in slightly different ways. But very good ways! It’s a very lovely process to be involved with Poonam because the way that she works is very involved and extremely supportive.

LAFPI:  One of the themes I felt was most prevalent in your play was societal pressure – not just affecting Treya’s love life, but also her brother’s sexuality. What made you decide to integrate the story of her brother’s passing with struggles in her dating life?

Shyam: Treya is a figurehead for all the stupid things that women go through.  The ridiculousness of dating highlights the dark, horrible thing that Treya is going through at home; and the stark, terrible tragedy at home highlights the utter frivolity and silliness that happens in dating. And the fun of dating, actually. The two can’t be without each other; you can’t have sadness without happiness and vice versa.

LAFPI: It makes the funny moments hilarious and the tragic moments heartbreaking.

Shyam: And that’s one thing that Poonam is being extremely helpful with. As I said, it’s difficult to move between those two. And it’s really difficult, I think, as an audience member to give yourself permission to laugh at bits that come straight after something horrible. What she’s doing is managing those parts and the performance so the two punch each other up.

LAFPI: This play comments on the cultural differences between immigrants and the children of immigrants, as well as repressed sexuality due to Indian cultural pressures. What about Indian culture makes diverse sexuality so taboo, and what perspective shifts does this play suggest?

Shyam: Treya is Indian and British, but I think it’s a universal issue that crosses cultures. When people immigrate and have children in new countries, there’s a weird generational difference in understanding each other between the parents and the children – they’ve grown up, in essence, in different cultures, separated not only by time, but by space and culture and everything else.

Within traditional Indian culture, sexuality is not talked about and diverse sexualities are simply not thought to exist. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that not talking about them or allowing them to exist makes things extremely difficult for everyone involved.

I also wanted to highlight the fact that it’s not everyone who’s like this; it’s a community feeling. My own personal suspicion is that it comes from fear. Change is scary and change in a new country is really scary because you want to keep your inner circle close around you and have everything be the same as how it was. And that’s human nature, I think. But we’re moving into new – hopefully more accepting – diverse world. So these things can, should and will change. I hope.

LAFPI: I noticed specifically that Treya’s parents were supportive, and recognized that I’m not used to having diverse sexuality presented onstage with supportive parents. I really commend you on that

Shyam: Thank you. It’s so lovely to see shows where you have supportive parents because they exist, right? You always get the parents vilified and I thought, “I have a really nice set of parents.” I wouldn’t want to write a play where I even hint that we don’t have a nice relationship.

A scene from “Treya’s Last Dance” – photo by Abs Parthasarathy

LAFPI:  We see Treya’s grief process through a series of memories and adventures that remind her of her brother’s passing. How do you think that grief process fits into the new age of online communication and dating, which can be a little more alienating?

Shyam: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know, but I will say that I feel very inspired by a play called The Nether by the American playwright Jennifer Haley. The play is set in the future and also in the Dark Net of the future. It questions what we become when the lines become blurrier between real life and simulated life.

I think in terms of grief and all human emotion, we are entering this superbly fascinating arena where we need to deal with these emotions by ourselves, and there’s also this open arena [online] where people can talk with each other and share those emotions. I find it interesting and a little but scary that, often, when you get people to talk about an emotion, the emotion may be heightened and become something else.

We’re already seeing that online [in discussion forums], you get people with a complaint and they build each other up until the complaint becomes huge. And yeah, a problem shared in a problem halved, and all of that, but also, maybe sometimes a problem shared is a problem squared.

LAFPI: I noticed when reading the script that there are many intentional pauses and breaks. For you, what makes these important to Treya’s character?

Shyam: That’s the other thing that was on my mind while I was writing: Both “Scrubs” and “Ally McBeal” have women who have these daydreams constantly, daydreams that just carry on while they’re living their lives. Everybody has daydreams, everyone just goes off in their own world when they’re trying to listen to something. And I wanted Treya to have that experience in some way.

As for the pauses, who has a completely wrinkle-free life? Everyone pauses, everyone is waiting, watching, wondering what’s going to happen next, not sure of the next step. We all have to take a breath sometimes. And that’s built in to show that Treya is a real, full-fledged human being who doesn’t always know – actually, pretty rarely knows – exactly what to say. And even then, often puts her foot in her mouth.

LAFPI: She seems a lot less polished than a lot of women are portrayed on screen or on stage.

Shyam: Yes, I wanted her to be the opposite of polished. She is supposed to be not perfect. Imperfect. And have quite a raw feeling to her.

LAFPI: So in an imperfect world, is is there anything you want the audience to know before they see Treya’s Last Dance?

Shyam: It’s been a really awesome journey writing this and performing this in a variety of places and they should come in with their minds open and enjoy themselves. Enjoy the play in the spirit with which it was written: one of joy.

“Treya’s Last Dance,” written and performed by Shyam Bhatt and directed by Poonam Basu, runs Wednesdays at 8 p.m., September 18 through October 23 at the  Hudson Guild Theatre For information and tickets visit at  www.onstage411.com or (323) 965-9996.

Femme Voices Speaking Up in the OC, Page to Stage

We love it:  Women making things happen. And we’re now adding the Curtis Theatre in the City of Brea and Project La Femme to our list of thumbs-up-theatermakers.

The two OC organizations are teaming up to produce the first Page to Stage Playwrights Festival… with an all female line-up. What’s even more exciting to us is that out of almost 400 submissions from playwrights across the country, the works of five local playwrights were chosen: Synida Fontes’ Butterfly in the Ashes,  Dagney Kerr’s Deanna and Paul, Emily Brauer Rogers’ The Paper Hangers, Kate Danley’s Bureaucrazy and Diana Burbano’s Gargoyles. So we couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to the writers about the Festival, and their plays.

LAFPI: How did you find out about and get involved with Page to Stage?

Synida Fontes: Through the LAFPI eBlast, of course!

Dagney Kerr: I saw the posting through the Playwrights Center and submitted my play. I didn’t know anyone.

Emily Brauer Rogers

Emily Brauer Rogers: I have worked with the founders of Project La Femme on other theater projects before and was excited when they announced this Festival. Page to Stage, Curtis Theatre and Project La Femme have been very welcoming and I’m always happy when there are more opportunities to celebrate female artists!

Kate Danley: Pure luck!  I was just doing a search for playwriting opportunities and stumbled across it.  It was like kismet or something!

Diana Burbano: I was familiar with Project La Femme and I submit to everything I’m qualified for, so it was very nice to get a hit in my own backyard.

LAFPI: Where in your play’s journey are you – and what role will this Festival play in that journey?

Synida: The very end, I hope this baby is almost legal drinking age!

Dagney Kerr

Dagney: My play has been chosen for a few readings: at AboutFace Theatre in Dublin, Ireland; The Cell Theatre, NYC;  and the Road Theatre Summer Playwrights Festival in LA.  It also just won the WordWave Festival in Lake Tahoe and will have a reading in September.  The only reading I’ve seen is at the Road.  It was lovely and a great opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t. This festival will be another opportunity with new actors, director and audience.

Emily: For The Paper Hangers, this is the first reading of the script, so I’m excited to develop it and then begin the process of where it might best fit for a production.

Kate: I wrote this play in 2017 and hosted a small reading on my own. It then proceeded to sit on a shelf for over a year. I submitted it over 117 times and no one would touch it. But suddenly in 2019, within the span of about three weeks, three different theaters asked if they could host a reading, and it was offered a World Premiere at Grande Prairie Live! in Grande Prairie, Canada.  This is the final reading before that premiere, so the script that comes out of this process will be the one that is presented to the world.

Diana: I JUST squeaked a second draft under the wire. It’s a very VERY new piece and I’m still not quite sue of the tone or style yet. I’m exploring a historical period that I’m very interested in and I want to honor the period, while distressing the constraints.

Synida Fontes

LAFPI: One of the great things about a festival environment is making connections, and finding (or re-connecting with) collaborators. Can you talk a bit about the artists who are working on your play?

Synida: I have met my director, Heather Enriquez, but I am mostly happy to stay out of it and let these artists be, and see what they create. I am hoping to watch a rehearsal with the dramaturg [William Mittler] present. But for me, it’s really Heather and the actors doing their thing while I sit tight and then show up on performance night, prepared to be amazed.

Dagney: I’ve been pretty hands off.  The director [Angela Cruz] was chosen by La Femme and the actors were chosen by my director.  She has worked with them many times in the past. All the staff at the Curtis and the other playwrights are lovely.

Emily: I’ve worked with my director, Katie Chidester, on several plays and love how she is able to visually interpret text onto the stage. The actors in my piece are all new collaborators, but they already have brought amazing ideas about the piece and their characters so I’m excited to see how the work will develop with their insight.

Kate: Rose London is my director, and she works frequently at the Long Beach Playhouse.  We met for the first time at the first organizational meeting and completely hit it off.  I think this is what makes this festival so special – this team has worked so hard to play matchmaker and connect the perfect teams.

Diana Burbano

Diana: I have a fantastic cast of Latinx actors, really brilliant people, directed by Rosa Lisbeth Navarrete. It’s my pleasure to write smart, fun, glamorous women for Latinas, who don’t often get seen that way. I think we have some BRILLIANT young actors coming out of the Latinx community (Boyle Heights, Santa Ana…) who, because they don’t conform to what is considered “normal standards,” don’t get to play roles with depth to them. I come at writing not from an academic world, but from the trenches of the acting community. I started writing for myself, but soon discovered that my passion, what I feel moved to do as a playwright, is writing for other Latinx women.

LAFPI:  You’re all female playwrights based in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. What’s your relationship with the OC theater community, and with one another?

Synida: This is my first OC-specific project as a playwright, although as an actor I just closed Water By The Spoonful in Long Beach.  I made the acquaintance of Diana Burbano when I performed her one-woman short play “Linda” (named for Lindas Ronstadt and Carter), directed by my good friend Kitty Lindsay, for LAFPI’s SWAN Day 2017. Unfortunately, no opportunities to connect in between.

Dagney:  It’s such an honor to have your play chosen and to meet other female playwrights. I didn’t know any of the other writers and  I knew nothing about the OC theater community before, so it’s been fun getting to know everyone – just like any other theatre community, we do it because we love it.

Emily: I have been active in the OC theater community since I first moved to California in 2002. Friends that worked at Hunger Artists Theatre Company welcomed me to join the company and I served as the managing director from 2006-2008. Through my work there, I’ve seen terrific shows at theaters across the County and love how many of them champion new plays. I know a few of the other writers by reputation, but am thrilled that I was able to meet them and find out more about their work. It’s great to connect with a community of other women who are telling important stories that need to be seen.

Kate Danley

Kate: I was a performer in a fantastic show called Blake… da Musical! in Garden Grove many years ago, but other than that, my work has all been in the Los Angeles area.  It is a thrill to finally get to work with the OC community!  It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted, but never achieved.  Everyone is completely new in my circle of friends, and I love that!  How exciting to have a festival bring so many unconnected people together and suddenly open the world up to us!

Diana:  Our initial meeting was a blast, and I loved being in the room with so many amazing creators. I think ours is the new wave. I want to hear these words, I feel like I’m finally able to breathe with characters, that I understand them better because they are written from something other than a male POV.

LAFPI: And last but not least, tell us about your play. In five words or less.

Synida: Mexicans, mental illness, surreal, hysterical.

Dagney: Poetic. Quirky. Romantic.

Emily: Freeing herself from society’s expectations.

Kate: Death, raisins, and funny ladies.

Diana: Love in the time of monsters.

The inaugural Page to Stage Playwrights Festival – three days of new plays by women, August 30 – September 1, 2019 – is directed by Heather Enriquez and produced by the Curtis Theatre in partnership with Project La Femme. For tix and info visit projectlafemme.com/page-to-stage

East West Players and Fountain Theatre Team Up for Jiehae Park’s “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo”

by Carolina Xique

It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.

With a cast that is almost entirely made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.

LAFPI: First, let us say that we’re thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles!

Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?

Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play! I was primarily a performer at the time.  There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.

Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers.  She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into.  Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.

Playwright Jiehae Park

LAFPI: What kind of research did you do when writing Hannah, Jiehae?

Jiehae: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play, but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.

LAFPI: A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

Jiehae: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.

Director Jennifer Chang

LAFPI: Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah?

Jennifer: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is almost entirely Korean and Korean American.  There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable.  It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea. I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration.  I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience.

Actors Monica Hong and Gavin Lee – Photo by Jenny Graham

LAFPI: Where does this piece fit in this new age of Asian/Asian American storytelling? How is it different?

Jiehae: I think it’s an exciting time for bold, uniquely Asian American storytelling that takes up its own space, written for audiences that include—though not exclusively—Asian Americans. Hannah is a play about the in-between-ness of a certain kind of Korean American immigrant identity, where the “homeland” can seem just as foreign as America. It’s written deliberately for a mixed audience—of Korean speakers and of non-Korean speakers—of all ethnicities. A lot of the work I’m excited about lately takes the old binaries and exposes them for what they always were—convenient fictions, with the far richer textures lying in between.

Jennifer:  I think the new age is a function of capitalism producers and production companies are recognizing that an underserved market exists and that if production companies and theaters want to keep making as much money as they have been while building and creating new audiences, the Asian and Asian American audience will have to feel represented in the storytelling.

LAFPI: Is there anything you’d like to share about the casting process?

Jennifer: Only to say that I was looking for actors who could really capture the essence of ‘Han’—which is defined as a certain melancholy that is specific to Korean culture and people. I don’t mean to say that people of other cultures can’t possess Han. A western analogy would be the sadness and longing found in Chekhov’s plays. At its core, the play is about a family and reflecting on what this family’s particular family story is and how inextricably linked it is to the culture upon whose bedrock the family’s roots lay. Everybody comes from some place and has a family story.

Actors Hahn Cho and Monica Hong – Photo by Jenny Graham

LAFPI: We’re looking forward to seeing both sides of the coin of this dynamic show: the funny and the tragic. Jennifer, how does this show find that balance and how do you design that into the show?

Jennifer:  It’s really about honoring the text and mining the emotional wells that exist because of the circumstances that the characters find themselves in. And hopefully the audience can recognize those moments and respond. Laughter and tears are universal and unconscious and bubble up because of a recognition. The company of actors and I are working on the text with an eye and ear on the specificity of the rhythm of the play and essentially choreographing to the music of that language.

LAFPI: East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?

Jiehae: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago… In the time since, I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was.  And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee [who is in the production’s cast]  that Howard Ho (Hannah‘s Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.

Jennifer: I think it’s really smart theatre-making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color.  A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.

LAFPI: And what do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

Jennifer: Garlic in their pockets.

“Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” opens August  17 at The Fountain Theatre, produced in association with East West Players. Visit www.FountainTheatre.com for reservations and more information.

She NYC Back in LA with Cool Summer Theater Festival

It’s no surprise to any of us in who work the LA Theater scene that the City of Angels is full of major talent – artists who work on and create for the stage, NOT just film and TV. But it’s always satisfying when artists from New York agree with us! Last year, the ladies behind She NYC Arts came to the West Coast to stage their first Summer Theater Festival here under the banner of She LA Arts.

It went so well that they’re back! The 2019  She LA Summer Theater Festival  features productions (not just readings!) of full-length plays by Nakisa Aschtiani, Karen Lukesh, Allie Wittner, Ali MacLean and Tiffani Dean, July 30-Aug 4 at the Zephyr Theatre. So we figured it was about time to have a little chat with the organization’s Artistic Director, Danielle DeMatteo.

LAFPI: Can you talk a bit about how She NYC Arts began? And are the Theater Festivals in NYC and now in LA your main focus?

Danielle DeMatteo

Danielle: She NYC  was founded back in 2015 after I had some experiences in the industry as a young, female composer/ rehearsal pianist that were, to say the least, difficult. When I spoke to other early- to mid-career women writers, composers, musicians, and music directors, I found that we all had really similar experiences. It was great to know I wasn’t alone, but was also infuriating. And that made us want to actually do something to fix it.

We found that as a writer starting out in NYC, you had two options to get your work up in full for an audience: self-produce and potentially empty your savings account doing it, or sell your work to a producer who you may or may not trust (and who were usually rich older men). My colleagues and I wanted to find a way to bridge this gap by giving women a way to self-produce and retain control and agency over their own work, without having to take the huge financial risk. So we built on the idea of a festival, where the writers can share the costs associated with producing, giving everyone subsidized and free resources to get their work fully produced. We do some smaller events throughout the year (short play staged readings, concerts of songs by women composers, etc.), but the Festivals in NYC and LA are our main projects.

LAFPI: And just what was it that brought She NYC Arts out to LA?

Danielle: Our second year in NYC, 3 of our 8 shows flew from California to participate. That made it pretty clear to us that there was a need for a program like this on the West Coast, too, and that there were a ton of talented writers in the Los Angeles area who we could invest in. Our first year in LA, 2 of those 3 writers actually became a core part of our producing team to get She LA up and running.

LAFPI: Was there a learning curve setting up camp on the West Coast?

Tech for “The Legend of Bonny Anne” by Chandler Patton, 2018 She LA Summer Theater Festival

Danielle: In NYC, almost everyone in the theater community has worked on [this kind of] festival at some point (often more than once). So everyone – from writers, to directors, to the actors – fully understands how to put up a show when you have very limited tech and load-in time. In LA, we found that the shows’ teams were not always used to that – and rightfully so, because it’s totally crazy! Because of that, we’ve created more wiggle room in our schedule in LA.

LAFPI: Most new play festivals in LA feature readings or workshops. But you wanted to do more?

Danielle: At She NYC and She LA, our mission is founded on supporting the writers, who are often the first to start work and the last to get paid. When we started in NYC, we had the same situation: There were lots of programs focused on providing staged readings, workshops, or concerts, but no programs that let specifically women writers see their work put up in full. As a writer myself, I know that’s a vital part of the writing process – to see how your scenes work next to each other when you have to do a set change in the middle, or to see how your music works when choreography is added to it.

Carol Weiss conducting her musical “The Door to America,” in rehearsal for the 2018 She LA Festival

We want to provide a platform for writers to be able to take that step in full productions – which we define simply as the cast being off-book – but we encourage our writers to do whatever level of production quality they feel will best help them where they’re at in their writing process. If that means you want to do your show black-box style with just a few chairs and blocks, great! If you feel you really need to see your show done in full period costumes with a 5-piece band, we support that, too.

LAFPI: Each year, you have an open submission call  for scripts. What has been your experience with the plays and artists who have participated in the She LA Festivals?

Danielle: We are so floored by the level of talent in LA. I won’t name names, but my two favorite shows that we’ve ever done on either coast were She LA shows. I think what’s also refreshing about LA is that our artists out here tend to have a lot of fun with their experience. In New York (again, because folks are really used to the festival lifestyle out there), it can sometimes feel like it’s all business. Which is very important! But in LA, our participants are more likely to have lots of fun WHILE doing their business. They’re also great at self-promotion and social media on the West Coast.

LAFPI: What kind of experience and support can female playwrights who participate in a She LA Festival look forward to? 

Danielle: Basically, [for a participation fee] She LA provides all of the technical/logistical things, so the writers can focus on the creative parts of bringing their show to life. The writers provide, and have full control over, their cast, creative team, set design, and costume design. She LA provides the theater space, all of the equipment that goes inside of it (from big things like lights and curtains, to small thinks like spike tape), insurance, and the staff to run their shows.

We provide an amazing Production Manager who runs all tech and performances, as well as her Associate; a Lighting Designer who programs the lights for every show (at the direction of the show’s creative team); front-of-house staff to manage all things that happen in the lobby, including ticketing and printing programs; and a marketing team that helps each creative team promote their own show, as well as making a video ad for each show which we pay to run on social media and other digital outlets. My favorite part of the program, too, is that we provide a Show Mentor to each production. This person is a She LA staff member who is there to guide the writers and their teams through the process, offer advice, help out whenever an extra pair of hands is needed, and make sure they’re prepared and ready to go for their tech and performances.

LAFPI: She LA (and She NYC!) Festivals seem look like they’re very much a team effort. How do you manage to keep a cohesive team together working on either end of the country? 

She LA 2018 Staff

Danielle: “Team effort” is almost an understatement! Pretty much everyone on our team works another day job in the entertainment industry, and we handle She NYC and She LA on the side. On the one hand, that means we’re all crazy busy, with an all-hands-on-deck mentality as we get close to Festival time. On the other hand, it means we all have active contacts in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry, so we can involve some great industry contacts in our program to get our writers’ work in front of them.

For Emily Rellis (the She LA Executive Producer) and I, it’s been a fun ride to build a team in LA. It can be challenging that Emily and I are not on the ground in LA, but they’ve been awesome with being available on the phone, and even FaceTiming us in to a walkthrough of the theater.

LAFPI: Now that the 2nd She LA Summer Theater Festival is around the corner, what are you most looking forward to?

Danielle: This year, I’m very excited that we have one show coming in from Philadelphia (Between the Colored Lines and Other Black Girl Tales, by playwright and poet Tiffani Dean). They actually were a part of the 2018 She NYC Festival, and now are flying out to LA for their West Coast premiere! That’s our first time doing a show on both coasts, and we can’t wait to see how it goes.

That being said, we’re so excited to see all of the shows! We’ve been reading the scripts on paper and talking to the writers via email for so long (we first read their scripts last November!), so finally getting to see them up on their feet is thrilling.

LAFPI: Anything else you want to talk about or share?

Danielle: Thanks to LAFPI for all that you do and all your support! We hope to see you all at The Zephyr Theater. And if anyone wants to get involved with She LA, we’d love to hear from you! Reach us at [email protected], and there’s more information about all of our programs at www.SheLAArts.org.

 The 2019 She LA Summer Theater Festival will present 5 new full-length plays by women writers and composers July 30-August 4. Tickets available at www.SheLAArts.org/she-la

“Mama Metal” is Ready to Make Some Noise Onstage

by Desireé York

Sigrid Gilmer

Sigrid Gilmer’s “Mama Metal” packs an emotional punch.  A testimonial to a life turned upside down, Sigrid takes us on a raw, unapologetic journey full of vulnerable heartbreak, stabbing humor and cold metal fury.   “Mama Metal,” presented by IAMA Theatre Company, runs May 23-June 23 at Atwater Village Theatre.  LAFPI was fortunate enough to speak with this hard rock writer before opening night.

LAFPI:  How did your partnership with IAMA ignite and can you share  this play’s development process?

Sigrid: I wrote “Mama Metal” in 2017, when I was a member of the Humanitas’ PlayLA Writer’s Group. About six of us would meet monthly for a year to write on a new play.  At the end of the process we were paired with a local theatre and I had the good fortune to team up with IAMA Theatre Company. Then I began my magnificent collaboration with director Deena Selenow and she staged a beautiful reading at Open Space Cafe on Fairfax. 

LAFPI:  Why did you choose to tell this intimately personal story now? 

Sigrid: Five years ago my step-father died suddenly and my mom was diagnosed with Lewy-Body Dementia/Parkinson’s. I went from being a struggling – albeit carefree – artist, to being my mother’s primary caregiver.  “Mama Metal” was written four years into that journey. The process of watching my mother decline, called anticipatory grief – thank you therapy – was disorienting. My emotions were constantly shifting – sadness, rage, confusion, guilt. Memories were assaultive and relentless. Everything was surreal, overwhelming and terribly funny. What makes you laugh will make you cry, right? That openness, when we laugh or cry feels like the same emotional neighborhood and I was living in that raw, emotionally naked terrane. I wrote the play to navigate, sort and understand that landscape.

LAFPI:  Why heavy metal?  How were you introduced to it and how does/did this style of music speak to you? 

Sigrid: I like metal for its naked aggression, rhythm and rage: that’s what I feel like on the inside. I think my attraction to metal started when I was about 7 or 8.  I had a babysitter who constantly played rock – Journey, ELO, Styx, the Eagles, The Stones, The Beatles, Queen, Kiss, etc.  From there it was just a slippery slope to Metallica, Sabbath, and Maiden.  I like any music that rages against the machine.  Metal also has a strong theatrical element; it is over the top, deeply orchestral and complicated.  Different melodies and rhythms running throughout them all coalescing into this magnificent tapestry of sound.

LAFPI:  What advice do you have for your fellow women playwrights, advocating for their voices to be heard onstage?

Sigrid: Write plays. Then write more. Send your work everywhere. Say yes to gigs. Get your plays up, by any means necessary. Self-produce. Find your artistic tribe. Write and write and write. Develop your own voice and view of the world until it screams. Until it is undeniable. Nurture your desires and idiosyncrasies. Create your own space. Write. Write. Write.

Cast members Chris Gardner, Jamie Wollrab, Lee Sherman, Courtney Sauls, Graham Sibley, Rodney To. Photo by Jeff Lorch

For tickets and more info about “Mama Metal,” visit iamatheatre.com

Wendy Graf’s “Exit Wounds”

Wendy Graf

 by Desireé York

Women writers aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions and neither is Wendy Graf in her play Exit Wounds, one of two recipients of the Moss & Kitty Carlisle Hart New Play Initiative Silver Medallion, playing through December 16 at GTC Burbank. So LAFPI decided to ask Wendy some questions of our own.

LAFPI: What inspired you to write this play from this perspective?

Wendy Graf:  I became interested in what happens to the families and love ones of evil people and/or people who commit evil acts. I started watching a number of documentaries like Hitler’s Children. Then there was, of course, another mass shooting and that story opportunity kind of clicked in my head. I wondered what if anything was the effect on the shooter’s loved ones and families and if that effect bled out to future generations. I also felt it was a vehicle for me to vent my anger and frustration and desperation about the ongoing lack of gun control in this country, even in the face of every day tragic massacres.

LAFPI: We love when women writers tackle current social issues from a woman’s perspective. How do you view gun violence as a feminist issue?

Wendy: I view gun violence as an EVERYONE issue. As a mother I suppose I view it through a feminist lens, for when I see all those children and families affected I do relate to it as a mother and as a writer, putting myself in their shoes. But please let’s not make it only a feminist issue. If we do that I’m afraid that, sadly, it will be diminished in the eyes of the gun lobby and supporters, for whom it is already so diminished and dismissed. Attention must be paid!

Dor Gvirtsman and Suanne Spoke  – Photo by Ed Krieger

LAFPI: How do you see the nature/nurture debate playing a role in your play?

Wendy: One of the things I was also interested in exploring in this play was the notion of viewing a family member through a lens of another family member. Is this legitimate, do they actually see these qualities in another family member or are they projecting these qualities onto them? In the case of Exit Wounds, does the father actually see the qualities of the troubled brother in his son or is he projecting in hopes of early identification? Does the past dictate the future? These are the questions I love exploring!

LAFPI: What message would you want victims of mass shootings to receive from this play?

Wendy: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry we could not do enough to stop this madness, but we will keep trying in every way possible.

LAFPI: The woman character of this play shares certain rules to live by which were passed down to her from her father. Do you think there are still universal rules which have molded the current culture of American society and what rules do you live by?

Wendy: I think there are definitely rules that have molded the current culture of America, but the trouble is we are not in sync anymore in America about what those rules are. We no longer agree what universal rules are molding us and which we are adhering to. It’s like my character in the play says “Guns are a Rorsharch test, Danny. Or like one of those drawings that you see one thing when you look at it one way and then you turn it, look at it from another angle, and you see something else.” Sadly I’m afraid we have come to a point in America where the “universal rules” are like that. We seem to be seeing different things completely. I feel like my universal rules are moral and based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, as we all are created equal, but the other side feels those are their universal truths, yet they see things completely differently. We have hit a very tragic time in America when we don’t all see our universal, fundamental truths as being the same.

Dor Gvirtsman and Suanne Spoke – Photo by Ed Krieger

LAFPI: What would you like audiences to take away from this play?

Wendy: I don’t presume to offer answers, only questions. I have no agenda for what I want the audience to take away, other than to see the truth of human behavior and something of their own humanity. To see something of themselves reflected in the characters and, without necessarily condoning or accepting them, to somehow understand their actions. I leave it up to the audience to answer the questions. I hope it will start conversations about why, and maybe if we can talk about why and try to understand, change will become possible. Maybe we can move toward seeing our fundamental, universal truths closer to being the same.

LAFPI: Is there anything else you would like to share with your fellow artists of LAFPI?

Wendy: Keep on writing. Keep on questioning. Keep on asking “what if”?

For more information and tickets to EXIT WOUNDS  visit www.hartnpi.org

 

Femmes Working It Onstage and Off: FOR THE LOVE OF at Theatre of NOTE

 by Desireé York

A production composed of bad-ass broads on and off the stage?  We are there!  LAFPI caught up with playwright Gina Femia and asked her about her play For The Love Of (or the roller derby play)receiving its  West Coast Premiere of at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood, directed by Rhonda Kohl with an all-female cast and design team.  Come join the brawl!

LAFPI: Did you set out to write a play with an all-woman cast?

Gina Femia:  Yes, I absolutely did!  My one regret was not being able to fit in a tenth woman to make it an even number which is why it’s so thrilling that Rhonda had the brilliant idea to add Refs as characters to bring the total up to 14!  I always knew that I wanted to write a play about a female roller derby team and, as it was a sports play, knew that it should have a larger than average cast.  It was important for me to have a cast of women because representation matters and we need more plays that have large casts for women which contain fun, meaty, deep roles for them to inhabit.

LAFPI: With such a diverse cast of characters, was it your intention to give as many women from different walks of life a voice?

Playwright Gina Femia

Gina: Feminism needs to be intersectional and I wanted to include as many voices as possible.  I also wanted the team to be an accurate representation of people who live in Brooklyn, from age to race to interests and class. I think every play should be as diverse as this one so we can continue to give as many women as possible opportunities to have their voices represented in theatre.

LAFPI: Does all this bad ass roller derby action come from personal experience?

Gina: I have never played roller derby; I am actually one of the most least athletic women on the planet!  But I am a huge fan of roller derby.  Within the first second of seeing my first game, I fell in love with everything about it.  The sport is jam-packed and action-filled, but one of the most exciting things about it is seeing powerful women being powerful.

LAFPI: How did you come up with the brilliant idea to portray the roller derby sequences using dance?

Crystal Diaz, Cassandra Blair, Alina Phelan (& company) in FOR THE LOVE OF. Photo by Darrett Sanders

Gina: My intention was never for actors to be on roller skates; it’s just too dangerous and I think would be ultimately distracting from the play.  But it was always important to me for physicality to be represented in some way.  The sport is a physical sport and I needed that to be part of the play. I wanted the dance to move the action forward, just like how action moves a derby bout forward.  We don’t often get the chance to see women be physical on stage and I’m thrilled this play gives us a chance to witness that

LAFPI: What inspired this play?

Gina: Aside from roller derby, I really wanted to write a love story about a person coming into herself.  I think it’s important that we don’t define ourselves by the relationships we are in; we shouldn’t stay with a person because we’re used to them.  If they’re keeping us from growing, or if we are keeping them from doing the same, then we should let them go.

LAFPI: What would you like audiences to take away with them from this play?

Gina: Roller derby is a fun sport and there’s a lot of fun to be had during the course of this play (and Rhonda has definitely made it a FUN production!).  But I also hope audiences take away some personal inspiration; we are all always fighting for something.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we follow the passions we have, but if it’s something that makes you happy – I think that’s a reason we should fight for it.

Gina Femia with FOR THE LOVE OF cast and crew Opening Night at NOTE

For more information and tickets to FOR THE LOVE OF (or, the roller derby play) visit theatreofnote.com

“Fiery Feminism” and Comedy Collaborate in DENIM DOVES

 by Desireé York

In our current political climate, we need theatre more than ever.  Theatre can reflect the challenges of our current reality or it can invite audiences to escape it.

Let’s hear from artists who seem to find a way to do both, like in Denim Doves by playwright Adrienne Dawes, directed by Rosie Glen-Lambert and produced by Sacred Fools, playing January 19 – February 17, 2018 at the Broadwater Mainstage.

LAFPI:  What inspired this piece?

Adrienne Dawes

Adrienne Dawes:  Denim Doves began as a devised piece with Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX.  We started building the play around the summer of 2013, around the time of the Wendy Davis filibuster.  It was a gross sort of spectator sport to watch Democratic senators try for nearly 13 hours to block a bill that would have implemented some of the most stringent abortion restrictions in the country.  My friends and I felt so incredibly angry… We poured all those feelings, all that “fiery feminist rage,” into creating a new piece.

We knew we couldn’t just scream at an audience for 75 minutes, so very early in the process, we played within comedic structures.  How could we sneak very serious conversations into very silly premises?  Dick jokes became the sort of “Trojan Horse” into talking about intersectional feminism, fluid identities and an oppressive government that considers female bodies as a commodity.  We drew inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Suzette Haden Elgin’s novel “Native Tongue” (specifically for her use of the feminist language Laadan), YouTube videos of hand bell choirs, and finger tutting choreography.

LAFPI:  Rosie, what attracted you to directing this play?

Rosie Glen-Lambert

Rosie Glen-Lambert:  I am always on the hunt to direct work that gives a voice to women, queer folk, non-binary folk, people of color and anyone who feels like their “type” isn’t typically represented in casting ads.

But beyond providing a platform to diverse performers, I have a particular attraction to plays that allow anyone besides white men to be “the funny one.”  I believe wholeheartedly in the power of comedy.  I think it’s a great way to unpack an issue that is challenging or to permeate a hard, un-listening exterior.

LAFPI: How does music play a role in this piece?

Adrienne: Denim Doves is more of a “play with music” than musical.  There are specific musical moments that scratch the surface and reveal the darker, more sinister aspects of this world.  Cyndi Williams is an amazing performer, playwright and lyricist who was part of the original devising team (she originated the role of First Wife).  Cyndi’s writing is incredibly rich and unique.  She brings a very serious, Southern Gothic quality that gives us a nice contrast to the lighter, bawdy stuff I bring. Erik Secrest composed the original score (and originated the role of First Son) that was performed by the original cast with church hand bells, the electric guitar and a drum kit that was hidden in plain sight onstage.

For the LA production, Sacred Fools collaborated with composer Ellen Warkentine to develop new music.  It was wild to hear those old songs in a completely different way.  I hope to find more opportunities to collaborate with female composers in the future.

Meg Cashel, Janellen Steininger and Teri Gamble in “Denim Doves” – Jessica Sherman Photography

LAFPI: We love supporting femme-centric projects. What has this experience been like, working with a female majority including writer, director, cast and crew?

Rosie:  An unbelievable privilege. Here’s the thing: I believe wholeheartedly that gender is a construct.  I believe that men can be soft and compassionate and women can be strong and authoritative.  I believe that anyone, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum, has the ability to behave in any manner they choose; that how you identify or what you were assigned at birth is not the determining factor in your behavior.

With that being said, many women and femmes are socialized in such a way where they are often allowed to be softer and more empathetic, where men tend to be socialized to disconnect from emotion and consider those qualities as weak.  This means that a rehearsal room that is full of women and femmes is often a room that is full of people who are willing to tap into emotion and create a space that is safe and welcoming.  A room where someone can say “actually I don’t think my body is capable of doing what you are describing” and rather than a room of people rolling their eyes and a caff’d up male director yelling “just do it,” the team is able to slow down, consider this person’s perspective, and enthusiastically find a solution.

I think that we as humans are all capable of working in this manner, and I believe that by allowing women and femmes to lead by example men are changing their perspective on what a theatrical process should look like.

Adrienne:  I was absent for much of the  rehearsal process (I’m currently living in Tulsa, OK for a writing residency) but I can say that the rehearsal rooms and processes where I felt I made the most sense have always been led by women+ and people of color.  Those are the rooms where I feel like I belong, where I feel like all my differences (all the many ways I am different) are seen as strengths.  It’s a huge relief to feel safe and like my voice can be heard without having to yell over another person.  In most rooms, it feels like a fight for survival, a fight to belong or to prove yourself.  I prefer a room where I feel like my voice is needed and valued.

LAFPI: Amidst today’s politics, what would you like audiences to take away with them?

Rosie:  The art that has come out of this past year reflects our national desire to unpack and discuss this past election, and our political climate.  This desire is constant, and yet it is exhausting.  People who are protected by privilege are able to, at times, disconnect from the insanity and say “I feel overwhelmed, I don’t want to be sad anymore.”  And while that is a natural inclination, not everyone is able to make the choice to tap out.  Those whose bodies are inherently politicized are never allowed a day off; they are never able to just not be black, or trans, or latinx, or a woman for the day.  I believe that this play in particular – which begins farcically, raucously, and which, full disclosure, is just plain riddled with dick jokes – has the potential to trick someone who would never seek out something as serious as the “Handmaid’s Tale” and make them reflect on their privilege and invigorate them to recommitting themselves to a more active dedication to social change.  I want people to get in their cars, drive home, kick off their shoes, and wonder if what they are doing is enough.

Adrienne:  I hope we can make audiences laugh.  I hope to give audiences some relief, some escape from the trash fire that is our current political climate.  I also hope that even inside this extremely absurd world, audiences recognize how harmful misogyny and strict gender-based rules/expectations are for everyone.  Everyone is hurt, everyone is affected.  We imagine a future rebellion that mirrors past resistance movements, one that is led by people of color and trans/queer/non-binary people.

Tyler Bremer, Meg Cashel, Lana Rae Jarvis, Teri Gamble and Jennie Kwan in “Denim Doves” – Jessica Sherman Photography

For more information and tickets to Denim Doves, visit:  http://www.sacredfools.org/mainstage/18/denimdoves/

The Very Merry Journey of Ashes to Ashes

The road to creating a new play is often fraught with challenges, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and, well, lots of drama – the offstage kind that none of us wants, but theater seems to attract.

So it’s very nice to chat with Debbie Bolsky and Katherine James, a playwright and director team who seem to have found just the right mix of work and play while mounting Debbie’s Ashes to Ashes with The Athena Cats, premiering at The Odyssey Theatre December 9-January 14.

LAFPI: Ashes to Ashes is, in itself, a wild ride of a play – we follow the characters as they travel from country to country. What was the starting point for this play?

Debbie Bolsky: I’ve always said that when I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled in specific spots, so I came up with the idea of writing a romantic comedy about two people who can’t stand each other having to sprinkle their best friends’ ashes around the world.

Katherine James: My favorite thing about the path the characters take is that it is not a logical sequence on a map. In other words, if a travel agent mapped this as your journey you would assume that they were off of their meds. Rather, each country that is visited traces the journey of the heart – the steps in a relationship that test true love.

Debbie Bolsky and Katherine James at rehearsal with actors Kevin Young and Lena Bouton

Debbie: Ashes to Ashes is a wild ride, fun and zany, but it’s also touching at times. The characters are an ex-couple, and in the play they are forced into situations where they face their biggest fears and have to depend upon the person they can’t stand the most to get them through.  But they are also on the journey of discovering things they didn’t realize about each other, things they didn’t know about their deceased friends and finally things they didn’t admit about themselves.

LAFPI: And tell us a bit about where the two of you have traveled, in terms of this collaboration.

Katherine: I had the great pleasure of starting this journey with Debbie in an amazing workshop [Theatricum Botanicum Seedlings’ Dramaturgy Workshop, run by LAFPI co-founder Jennie Webb]. So as we workshopped it and rehearsed it we worked very hard on the emotional journey of the play, how it built, and how each step was a step of growth and intensity.

Debbie: Our collaborative process was phenomenal.  Katherine came up with the idea of workshopping it for a week this past summer with actors (two of whom are still in the play) and that’s when the development started going at hyper speed.  The actors took ownership of the characters. Collaborating with Katherine and the actors – Lena Bouton, Kevin Young and Michael Uribes – has helped me write a richer play and probably become a better writer.

Lena Bouton, Michael Uribes, Kevin Young – Photo by Ed Krieger

Katherine: Collaboration is the name of the game for me. Also, to work with a collaborator like Debbie who is so trusting of this process is rare and welcome.

Debbie:  I love working with Katherine!  But for me, the biggest and most pleasant surprise is how well we all worked together – we are a team.

LAFPI: And of course we love how femme-centric this all is. The Athena Cats is a collective of Southern California female playwrights and directors; for this play you’ve got a woman playwright, director, producers…

Debbie: And a lot of the crew are female as well.  A great thing about this experience is that there is very little ego involved.  All of us working on this have the same goal, to bring Ashes to Ashes to the stage in the best way possible.

Katherine: I think that one of the big differences between men and women in management and leadership is that men tend to work on tasks from a top-down pyramid. Women create things in a circle with everyone in the circle having his/her say and all contributions are honored. It is amazing what a circle of big creative brains can accomplish when nurtured and encouraged to give their best to a project.

Debbie: The Athena Cats has been around for about two years now and this is our second production; in 2016 we produced Laurel Wetzork’s Blueprint for Paradise. [Laurel and Debbie are co-founders of The Athena Cats, and active LAFPI Instigators!] We also had a New Works Festival earlier in the year showcasing works written and directed by women. There are a lot of talented female writers and directors out there who are not getting an equal shot at getting their works seen.  The whole idea of the Athena Cats is to get more works written and /or directed by women onto Southern California stages.

Katherine: Without The Athena Cats, I never would have been given the opportunity to direct this amazing romp. I don’t think that without LAFPI that I would have ever met Laurel and Debbie. Thank  you, LAFPI, for being a cornerstone of my creative life!

 LAFPI: Thank you for being part of an incredible creative team, putting women to work! To continue the love fest, let’s include the audience: When people come to see Ashes to Ashes, what do you want to share with them… and have them take away?

Debbie: Even though Ashes to Ashes starts out with a death, it is really about love, friendship and peace.  We live in incredibly stressful times right now and I think laughter is sorely needed.

Katherine: The holiday season is a perfect time to laugh, sigh, fall in love all over again and go for a great ride. And in this dark time in our country’s history, where better to do this than in the theater?

Michael Uribes, Lena Bouton. Kevin Young – Photo by Ed Krieger

The Athena Cats’ Ashes to Ashes by Debbie Bolsky, directed by Katherine James, opens as a visiting production at The Odyssey Theatre on December 9, 2017 and runs through January 14, 2018. For tickets and information visit www.AshesToAshesThePlay.com or call 323.960-.4443.

Solo Queens Fest @ Bootleg

Three Queens visiting Northeast LA. A good reason to head to Bootleg Theater. (As if you needed one!)

Solo Queens Fest brings together three acclaimed solo shows playing in rep – Kristina Wong’s Wong Street Journal, Elizabeth Liang’s Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey and Valerie Hager’s Naked in Alaska: The Behind The Scenes True Story of Stripping in the Last Frontier – in addition to workshops for writers and performers.  With (what?!) free childcare during Sunday matinees.

Yep. This is the brainchild of producer Jessica Hanna, fantastic femme queen of all things Bootleg. Well, we couldn’t pass up the chance to chat with the newly appointed sovereigns before the (inaugural? fingers crossed) Fest is underway.

LAFPI: So! What are you ladies queen of?

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang: I’m individually the queen of 50% anxiety/50% grit; collectively we’re the queens of telling and supporting women’s unique stories with fierce honesty, vulnerability, and unpredictable humor, together at the Bootleg in the city of angels.

Valerie Hager: I am the queen of moving my body – it’s where I find my deepest flow.

Kristina Wong: This week I am the queen of cutting and pasting the link to my show all over the internet.  So much so that I’ve been banned by Facebook from posting in Facebook groups for the next week.  Marketing is hard yo.

Kristina Wong in THE WONG STREET JOURNAL

LAFPI: But we so love the Fest Hashtag: #QueenSaysWhat! What would you say your show is about, in 140 characters or less?

Kristina: A jaded Asian Am social media activist goes to Northern Uganda to volunteer with a microloan organization only to record a hit rap album.

Lisa: Alien Citizen: AEO is a funny and poignant one-woman show about growing up as a dual citizen of mixed heritage in six countries.

Valerie: Naked is a fearless look at the objects we make of ourselves to fit in and the buried truths we must face to have a chance at coming home.

LAFPI: Each of these shows has toured across the country and internationally. Where was the first public performance, in any incarnation?

Valerie: TheaterLab, NYC in late 2012. Interestingly, TheaterLab has a similar mission to Bootleg: to develop and present new and experimental work in theater, music, and visual arts.

Kristina: I showed this as a work in progress in Burlington, Vermont at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in January 2015. They were one of the four National Performance Network Creation Fund commissioners for this show.  I’ve cut a few scenes since then and the show definitely sits better in my body from touring it the last few years.  I’m still finding ways to make the material more relevant and more alive.

Lisa: I performed one 12-minute segment at the first annual “5,000 Women” Festival at Wesleyan University in 2011.

Valerie Hager in NAKED IN ALASKA

 LAFPI: And thematically, each of your shows covers a lot of territory. Can you talk about where your show begins? Or the journey we’ll take?

Valerie:  Naked In Alaska begins when I’m 15 and living in my childhood home in San Diego. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of social and emotional tools to work through issues I was experiencing at home and school, so the coping mechanisms I created—like becoming a bulimic, cutter, and meth addict—laid the psychological foundation for experiencing stripping as the most exciting and fulfilling adventure I could possibly imagine when I discovered it—it truly gave me the family feeling I had been longing for all my life.

Lisa: My show’s starting point is an Alien (Martian-style) on Earth, trying to answer supposedly simple questions: Who are you? Where are you from? What are you?

Kristina: I have yet to see Valerie and Elizabeth’s shows, but what all our shows definitely have in common is that we are women who traversed incredible distances as we find out who we are.  I would say there are two journeys in my show.  One is obvious journey is from my armchair in America to Northern Uganda.  The other is the journey from a fight-happy Twitter activist out to call out anybody who has ever been a colonial asshole, to reconciling that I myself am guilty of being a colonial asshole.

LAFPI: Tell us a bit about your workshops, which sound incredible.

Valerie: SOLOfire [Sat. 11/4 at 1 pm] is a workshop series I developed over many years that takes a movement-based approach to discovering and creating new work. I lead students through physical exercises that combine both group and partner work, as well as stretching, character discovery, and vocal release.  The whole mission of SOLOfire is to shake the bullshit off and get to the raw, unvarnished truth.

Elizabeth Liang in ALIEN CITIZEN

Lisa: I’ve been leading my Solo Show & Memoir [Sat 11/11 at 1 pm]  workshop for 4 years on college campuses (Princeton, DePaul, CSULA), at conferences, in private in L.A. and via Skype with participants all over the world. Anyone who grew up or is currently living between or among different worlds, as a bridge or an island or both (whatever that may mean to them), will get a lot from this workshop. But all are welcome! I hope that anyone who’s been yearning to tell their own story but has been afraid or unsure of how to begin will take this workshop.

Kristina:  I’ve been mostly teaching workshops in social justice settings or as a guest at a university. It’s been a while since I’ve taught for individuals interested in making their own work and I’m so excited. The last few years of making work for harsh critics (professional and otherwise) has really taught me how to build a thicker skin and just “do the damn thing.” My workshop is called “How to Be a Badass Bitch” [Sat 11/8 at 11 am] and I really want to get participants to approach hard topics without fear.

LAFPI:  Bootleg says it has “a fierce belief in the power​ ​of​ ​women​ ​in​ ​Art​ ​to​ ​create​ ​change​ ​in​ ​the world​.” How will you use your powers?

Kristina: There’s a great shift happening now with the harassers of Hollywood getting called out on their BS and women are speaking out about their harassment experiences with #MeToo. But theater has been one of the spaces where I first witnessed women call out their harassers and stand their own ground.  As we head full speed into some apocalyptic time, I want to hold the space for women to keep telling their stories.

Valerie: I will use my power to promote greater vulnerability within ourselves and with one another – to tell the truth out loud, all of it, and stand with an open heart and strong. This is also the power that naturally comes out in Naked In Alaska. I hope that when someone leaves the show, they feel a surge of that power within them, and they never look back. I call it the power of cracking open. It is where all hope lives.

Lisa: To create and connect via truthful storytelling on stage and page, building bridges between people, helping others to do the same, casting lifejackets to those who thought they were drifting alone (especially women)…and heal the world.

Solo Queens Fest plays from October 26 – November 19 at Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90057. For Festival Passes, Info & Tickets to Individual Shows and Workshops Visit www.bootlegtheater.org.

LA Broads – Doing More Than Just Talking

LAFPI is pleased to be partnering with our friends at Broads’ Word Ensemble for LA Broads, a reading festival of short plays by (go figure!) LA female playwrights, directed by women. We love Broads’ Word – a group of femmes who truly walk the walk – and are looking forward to hearing stories of “perseverance, recovery, and unconventional podcasts.” We also (of course!) wanted to find out more about the writers. So we handed it over to the Broads’ Word ladies to come up with questions, and put them to the six ladies with works in the festival: Nayna Agrawa (Slut), Tiffany Cascio (Popcast & About Your Mother),  Allie Costa (How I Knew Her), Aja Houston (Remembrance), Uma Incrocci (Roadside Alice) and Starina Johnson (Border Towns & All Kinds).

Broads Word Ensemble: What’s your experience been like, being a playwright (who happens to be a woman) in Los Angeles?

Nayna Agrawal

Nayna Agrawal: Humbling! Particularly as a chubby Asian gal with a mustache.

Tiffany Cascio: I have found the theatre scene in Los Angeles to be very welcoming. I moved here four years ago and was lucky to meet the wonderful and supportive playwrights and actors of LAFPI & PlayGround LA right away. This year I participated in Hollywood Fringe which opened my world up to even more fabulous theatre makers, including the Broads’ Word Ensemble team, so I definitely feel like I’m part of a community now. I’m incredibly inspired by them and feel very encouraged to keep writing!

Allie Costa: I’ve been a performer and a storyteller since day one. As a kid, if I wasn’t acting, singing, or dancing, I was writing, reading, or directing. The same can be said today. There’s nothing I love more than being on set or on stage. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career because there are multiple opportunities here for multi-hyphenates. I am grateful for those who have paved the way, and I try to pay it forward and hire other women every chance I get.

Aja Houston: I am blessed to be a part of a great cohort of talented, supportive grad students at USC. I love having the safe space to create fearlessly. Since being in Los Angeles, for a year now, I have had a play commissioned for a rehearsed reading at Playwright’s Arena and a short play, Floating on Credit,  published by The Dionysian Literary Magazine. I am still very aware that as a Black female playwright there is a lot of work to do and I am more than up to the task!

Uma Incrocci

Uma Incrocci: Although I’m an LA native, I’m new to playwriting in LA as my writing has only been produced in New York so far. I’m excited to be kicking off my Los Angeles experience with this reading!

Starina Johnson: I’ve somehow managed to surround myself with very thoughtful, supportive, and positive people in the world of Los Angeles playwrights. I think I’ve been very lucky in that regard.

Broads’ Word: In 6 words or less, what are your plays about?

Nayna: Post-abortion, practicing English to Wheel of Fortune

Tiffany: Love, loss and podcasting. And family secrets spilled.

Allie Costa

Allie: Strangers cross paths in a graveyard.

Aja: A couple’s rituals of grief.

Uma: First woman to drive across America

Starina: For Border Towns – Living. And for All Kinds – Being true to yourself.

 Broads’ Word: How did this topic come up for you and evolve into this play?

Nayna: Personal experience (sigh).

Tiffany: Popcast was my response to people labeling the dumped “crazy,” just because they can’t get over their exes.  And  family secrets and “choosing” your family is something I write about quite a bit; About Your Mother was me having fun with that.

Allie: The idea for this script came to me while I was watching the television show Rectify. There was a scene in which the main character visited a graveyard, and I thought, What if someone had been at the grave when he arrived? And the rest is history.

Aja Houston

Aja:  I wrote this play four years ago because I needed healing from the trauma of the killings of so many black boys like Trayvon Martin. I wanted to assert their humanity, their souls, their right to love, their right to live, and to be more than a body to be discarded like refuse.

Uma: At the Smithsonian, I noticed this small plaque about Alice Huyler Ramsey – the first woman to drive across the USA. There was this amazing photo of her and the other women who made the trip in 1909, in an open car on a dusty road in their dresses and flowered hats. I quickly became fascinated with her and her story.

Starina: Border Towns was a concept I’d had for awhile, but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. It was a short play notice that made me realize the best way to put the idea on the page.

Starina Johnson

The story the doctor tells at the end is 100% true; I actually said that to one of the resident doctor’s when my mother was dying and made him cry. I still feel really bad about that. I don’t think anyone likes making people cry, but I like to think that conversation with me gave him a different perspective on the concept of treating patients.

All Kinds actually started out as a short film that I thought would have more impact as a play. I like to think of terrible situations then try to figure out what could possibly make that situation worse. For me this is the worst case scenario for these characters.

Broads’ Word: Do you have any upcoming productions or news to share? And if LA theatermakers want to reach out about your plays, where would they find more information about you?

Nayna: I just had a reading (on October 8th) at the Bootleg Theater of Catcall, a full length play. For more, visit  Naynaagrawal.com.
Tiffany Cascio

Tiffany: No new productions yet, but hopefully soon. And please do reach out! I’m @tiffanycascio on Twitter and my website is tiffanycascio.com.

Allie: My plays Unfinished Business and Safe Distance were both selected for The Fear Festival, running October 20th through October 22nd at Roebuck Theater in New York City.  For more info, visit www.alliecosta.com, connect @allieacts  or find my plays here: newplayexchange.org/users/995/allie-costa

Aja: I have a developmental production at The Inkwell Theatre of my play Journey to Alice, in February 2018. My website is www.ajahouston.net.

Uma: I organize a monthly reading series of new plays and screenplays at For Actors By Actors, an acting school in Hollywood. We are always looking for new scripts to read and would love to hear from LA writers. My screenplay Kris & Noelle (a holiday movie about how Santa and Mrs. Claus first met) will be performed on December 10th. Visit umaincrocci.com.

Starina: My short play, Static, is featured in NEO Ensemble Theatre’s production Tales from the Scrypt, running October 6th-22nd at The Underground Theatre. Tickets and more information are available here: www.neoensembletheatre.org  And for more information about me, go to www.StarinaJohnson.com or www.ChickPeaProductions.com

Broads’ Word Ensemble’s Executive Director Tara Donovan produces LA Broads; the plays are directed by Elkin Antoniou, Lesley Asistio, June Carryl, Gloria Iseli, Rachel Manheimer & Rasika Mathur.  Performances are Saturday, October 14th at 8:00 pm and Sunday, October 15th at 2:00 pm at the Flight Theater at The Complex Stages in Hollywood. For tix and info visit www.BroadsWordEnsemble.com.

Breaking the Silence: The House on Mango Street adapted by Amy Ludwig

by Desireé York

Currently, Amy Ludwig’s adaptation of The House on Mango Street is considered a politically charged play.  Why should this coming of age story about Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina living in the city of Chicago, be the center of such controversy?  Because until recently, Tuscon Unified School District in Arizona had banned the book of the same name by Sandra Cisneros (on which the play is based) along with their Mexican American Studies program.

The voluntary program for K-12 began in 1998 as part of a desegregation lawsuit filed in 1974; studies proved that over the years it had begun to close the achievement gap for the student population whose majority is Latinx. However, in 2010 the state of Arizona passed S.B.2281 which “outlawed any courses that: (1) promote the overthrow of the United States government; (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” As a result, the Tuscon Unified school district shut down the program and banned books like Cisneros’ for fear of losing State funding.

Fast forward to August 22, 2017 when federal judge A. Wallace Tashima struck down this law stating, “The passage and enforcement of the law against the Mexican American Studies program were motivated by anti-Mexican-American attitudes.”

This verdict came after students of the school district and their parents filed a lawsuit against the Superintendent of the Tuscon Unified School District. The record also declared, “the decisions regarding the Mexican American Studies program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears.” These conclusions stand to reason why most educational institutions across the nation include Cisneros’ book as required reading: to prevent this unfounded fear from spreading.

Having originally adapted the play in 1993, LAFPI asked Amy Ludwig what inspired her to write this play and how it has impacted her as an artist. Ludwig responded, “I was the dramaturg for a theater company of women of color in Chicago that was looking for a play that would show off their strengths, and not finding much. I was also studying at Northwestern, which champions the adaptation of many kinds of writing for the stage. So I went to Women & Children First, the amazing feminist bookstore there, and started reading novels. Cisneros’ words just leapt off the page and demanded to be read aloud. I knew I’d found the right piece. It was my first adaptation, and gave me the confidence that I could be a writer myself. Directing it in Chicago and San Antonio put me in collaboration with amazing communities of artists. Seeing it continue to be performed, in East LA, at high schools, or in Spanish – it’s a marvelous and humbling journey.”

Estela Garcia and the company of The House on Mango Street at Greenway Court–photo by Michael Lamont

And in 2017, Ludwig hopes “that audiences will feel the extraordinary humanity of Cisneros’ characters, and realize that no one deserves to be ‘othered’ or called illegal. We’ve all been children. We all have dreams.”

Director Alexandra Meda – who is also the Artistic Director for Teatro Luna: America’s National Latinx + Women of Color Theatre Ensemble and Touring Company – commented in a recent press release that “the special kind of fear and hate that is directed at immigrant families, is a very personal touchstone for so many readers over the last 20 years…The isolation, violence, and limitations that surround the character of Esperanza feel all too familiar in the current state of affairs we find ourselves in today in the United States.”

The House on Mango Street reaches beyond the stage in Los Angeles and into Fairfax High School’s curriculum as part of the educational program GreenwayReads by presenter Greenway Arts Alliance, celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. Students will have the opportunity to read the novel, see the production and participate in other special events. The play’s powerful message travels next to Dallas, Laredo, and Iowa City. When asked about its future in Arizona, Ludwig shared, “there are no current plans for an Arizona production, but Arizona has a vibrant community of Latinx playwrights who are making exciting work about many issues.”

Elizabeth Nungaray as Esperanza–photo by Michael Lamont

Not only does the play have a politically charged message, but this production promotes gender equity with powerhouse women serving as author, adaptor, director and actors. Ludwig expressed that the response to this female-driven story has been “overwhelmingly positive. The House on Mango Street conveys a specific story in such a heartfelt way that everyone finds something to connect to.” With strong female representation and support such as this, voices like those of Esperanza will surely continue to break the silence.

To stand with Esperanza and the women of this project, please visit: http://www.greenwaycourttheatre.org/now-playing/ 

The House on Mango Street runs through October 28, 2017 at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless: Echo Persists in Giving Women a Voice

Damn them! Just when we’re looking the other way, yet another woman playwright is getting a premiere at The Echo Theater Company, now in residence at Atwater Village Theatre. Over the past three seasons, over 50% of The Echo’s productions have been written by women. And this time out, it’s five women at once.

Nevertheless, She Persisted is an evening of short plays by female writers that explore the treatment of women in today’s political climate.  Well. With a kick-ass title and logline like that, we thought it was about time we reach out to The Echo’s Artistic Artistic Director, Chris Fields, and playwright Mary Laws (whose Blueberry Toast premiered with the company last year, and has a piece in the evening) to see just what trouble this femme-friendly company is getting up to, now.

LAFPI: So… Which came first: the title or the plays?

 Chris Fields: The title. All the plays were commissioned expressly for this evening. The writers were simply told the title of the night. These are playwrights who we’ve worked with before in different ways and/or wanted to work with. Basically, “on our radar.” We were also aware of how different they are which we welcomed.

LAFPI: Five playwrights–Mary Laws, Charlotte Miller, Calamity West, Jacqueline Wright and Sharon Yablon. How did they each interpret the title?

Chris: We gave the playwrights the title of the evening and, of course, it was very provocative. We said that we weren’t asking for overtly political plays but to please let that phrase percolate. Subsequently, the plays are very diverse in subject, tone, and world, but do consistently reflect some aspect of today’s feminine experience. (You’ll see!)

LAFPI: Which direction did you go in writing your play, Mary?

Playwright Mary Laws

Mary Laws: I am a thirty-one year old woman, and this is the first time in my life that I have seen our country so divided.  I think if we can agree on one thing, we can agree that a lot of people are afraid: of the current administration, of the safety and security of our country, and of the dissolution of our basic human rights.  As a woman, the latter is particularly troubling.  When organizations like Planned Parenthood are attacked, our reproductive rights are threatened, and The President of the United States makes openly sexist and degrading comments about our female bodies, it’s hard not to ask yourself: who is looking out for me?  It’s a scary time, and I wrote my play, yajū, as a response to these fears.

LAFPI: Not only are the plays written by women, but four of the five have female directors. Mary and Sharon are directing their own plays, but how were the other directors chosen?

Echo Theater Company Artistic Director Chris Fields

Chris: I engaged the directors from the company I thought would best serve the plays, basically.  [Associate Artistic Director] Tara Karsian directs Charlotte’s play and Ahmed Best, Calamity’s. Teagan Rose had expressed a desire to direct and I thought this program, the play, etc. was the ideal opportunity for her to get started, and Jacquie is wonderful to work with.

Mary: I’ve long wanted to direct my own plays, but in the past when I’ve asked for this opportunity at other theaters or events, I’ve been given a simple and easy no.  The reasons have always varied, but none of them ever seemed valid to me.  When I told Chris of this desire, he was quick to invite me to direct my own play, once again demonstrating that The Echo is the kind of theater that takes risks on new artists and affords equal opportunity to those who seek it.

LAFPI:  How has it been–a room full of women, working together?

Mary: I love working with women.  I want to work with women until I die.  Women are wickedly smart and unapologetically brave and infinitely strong.  Women can do anything.

Chris: Sharon and Jacquie are old colleagues and collaborators, artists I see as very special to the Los Angeles theater community. Mary became part of our “family” last year–Sarah Ruhl sent her to us. Calamity lives in Chicago and is an old friend of Jesse Cannady, our new Producing Director, and we’ve been reading her stuff this year. Charlotte came to us a number of years ago through our connections at the Labyrinth in New York and we’ve been waiting to work with her. And she just moved out to LA.

LAFPI: We love that The Echo seems to have quite the open door policy when it comes to women playwrights! How are you fitting in, Mary?

Mary: The Echo has kept me in the business of writing new plays (which is no small feat in the land of film and television).  Not only are they excited to tell my dark and twisted stories, but they’ve done much to support the work of other incredible female writers: Sheila Callaghan, Bekah Brunstetter, Ruby Spiegel, Jessica Goldberg, and Sarah Ruhl, to name just a few.  Even more, the majority of the theater’s leadership is comprised of women, from the mainstage directors and producers to the literary manager, Alana Dietze, to the inimitable Jen Chambers who runs the Playwright’s Lab.  The Echo is not only “female friendly” but female driven… which is smart, because if you ask me, today’s most thoughtful and provocative theatermakers are women.

LAFPI: Okay, Chris. Are you afraid of getting a rep for staging, god forbid, “women’s plays?” 

Chris: Any institution or person who ghetto-izes plays by women is dumb. I revere and cherish talent, no matter who or how it comes.

Nevertheless, She Persisted —An evening of five world-premiere short plays by female writers that explore the treatment of women in today’s political climate, plays from August 24 – September 4.
yajū, written and directed by Mary Laws
Sherry and Vince, written by Charlotte Miller, directed by Tara Karsian
At Dawn, written by Calamity West, directed by Ahmed Best
Violet, written by Jacqueline Wright, directed by Teagan Rose
Do You See, written and directed  by Sharon Yablon

For information and tickets, visit www.echotheatercompany.com.

Women’s Stories at EST/LA, One Act at a Time

Is it just us, or has Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles been getting their femme on, lately? Including last year’s hit production of member playwright Karen Rizzo’s “Mutual Philanthropy,” Ann Talman’s “Woody’s Order!” earlier this year, and works presented through the company’s development programs, we’ve heard a lot of female voices coming from EST/LA’s space at Atwater Village. Now the 2017 One Act Festival is currently playing, with 50% of the works written by women. Time to chat with one of EST/LA’s Co-Artistic Directors, actor/producer Liz Ross, and Carole Real, playwright and former Co-Artistic Director.

Liz Ross

LAFPI: Needless to say, we’re big fans of gender parity. How did the plays for this Fest come to you?

Liz Ross:  All the submissions came from playwrights associated with our company either through the Playwrights Unit, NeWest Playwrights (which is our writers group for playwrights under the age of 30), and writer company members.

Our membership and writing groups are all pretty equally male and female voices.  I think we are around 50/50, to be honest. And we’re particularly proud this year that each play has been developed here through our programs such as Sunday Best, our monthly reading series;  Winterfest, our annual members project series; LAFest, our Los Angeles voices festival; Launchpad, a staged reading series; and True Story, our monthly storytelling evening.

LAFPI: Do you see differences in the stories women playwrights are telling, vs. male playwrights? Or differences in how they’re telling them?

Carole Real

Carole Real: I have all kinds of theories, but they are just theories and it’s never wise to paint with a broad brush. For instance, in my observation, the play with the twist ending tends to be written by a male playwright. But I bet our readers could come up more than one example of a twist ending play that was written by a female playwright.

One thing I think is objectively true is that women playwrights tend to have more female characters and more female protagonists in their plays than male playwrights. In addition, the female characters women write tend to have their own goals and aren’t just in the play to “help” other (male) characters or serve as plot points. And I think women playwrights tend to write female-female interactions that women audience members experience as truthful and moving.

Liz:  I’m finding that things seem to be shifting.  I think in the past women wrote more of the relationship stories, but now there seems to be a shift in this generationally.  Many of the younger playwrights are crossing those gender norms and exploring more plays about identity issues from both male and female voices.

And then there’s a play like “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff” by Carole Real [included in Program B of the Festival].  This play explores how our global economy can unknowingly make us complicit in the abuse of factory workers over even a small purchase, like toys with our favorite cartoon characters on them.

LAFPI: So let’s talk about the Festival selections, starting with your play, Carole. Why are you telling this story?

Stella Kim and Sharon Freedman in Carole Real’s “The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff,” directed by Chuma Gault. Photo by Youthana Yuos.

Carole:  I became aware that foreign factories routinely break labor laws and violate safety codes of the countries where they are located — their own country’s laws — during the recession when I worked in a temp job for a large entertainment conglomerate. The job entailed reading foreign factory audits eight hours a day, five days a week. It was profoundly depressing and I became convinced that if people understood how these factories operate, they would feel differently about the global economy and understand that by turning a blind eye, we are complicit in the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It later dawned on me that I could dramatize the subject by creating a theatrical world where a factory auditor in China could “talk” to the temp worker in the US.

I absolutely love that the play has mostly women characters and that they attempt to work together to protect the most vulnerable of them! I know that in China, many factories are staffed mostly with teenaged girls, because they are hardworking and obedient, so factory safety and fair labor laws there is really and truly a women’s issue, and this is probably true in many other countries as well.

And I would be remiss not to give director Chuma Gault huge credit for the artistic success of this production. Chuma really saw the play as being about how women are penalized by being strong and smart in the office environment. This wasn’t something I was focussed on — that just seemed like “how it is” — but he picked up on that and made sure it was part of the story. Thank you, Chuma!

Liz: All three plays in Program B explore questions of conscience — from “Provenance” by Ian Patrick Williams to “Writing to Mrs. Otts” by Tom Stringer to Carole’s play, each play in this program asks us to consider what we’re willing to speak up about or against.

Program A had 5 plays that all explored relationships.  They ranged from Karen Rizzo’s “Darkest Place” which explored loss and crisis to Deborah Pearl’s short piece “Can You Hear Me Now” about miscommunication in the cell phone era.  Mary Portser’s “So Lovely Here on Earth” was a sweet piece about a woman trying to volunteer for a Mars Mission when her interviewer realizes that she’s just trying to escape her own misery here on Earth by “committing suicide by space.” Each of these plays, while being very different from each other and taking entirely different approaches, had a similar thread exploring our desperate need to be understood. I do think that women writers tend to invest in the search for understanding each other. Women write characters who watch and observe each other.

Program C has 4 wonderful pieces starting with “Things That Matter” a musical by Elin Hampton and Gerald Sternbach, “How Do I Get Get to Carnegie Hall” by Nick Ullett and directed by his wife Jenny O’Hara.  Then “My Jesus Year” a heartfelt piece by Tony Foster, and finishing with Katherine Cortez’ “Between Friends” which is about a many years old friendship between two older women who discover that they still harbor secrets from each other after all these years. Katherine is just coming off of a successful Fringe production of her play, “In The Valley of the Shadow” with Rogue Machine.  It’s a powerful piece that she developed with the Playwrights Unit and we had a reading in Winterfest.

LAFPI:  So it’s not just us! Seems like there are a lot of powerful women artists working as part of EST/LA?

Carole: Yes! And I’d like to thank Liz Ross for the work she’s currently doing as one of the three Artistic Directors, and the work she has done in the past for EST/LA as an actress, producer and creative director. I’d also like to give a shout out to the other strong women who have made our company run, including Jenny O’Hara, Board President, Gates McFadden, Laura Salvato, Risa Bramon Garcia and Deb Stricklin (all former Artistic Directors), Heather Robinson who currently heads the Members Committee and all the other women who make EST/LA go. Without them, we’re nothing!

Liz: We have increased the diversity of voices within our membership and playwrights groups and this past year and actually have a very long history of producing women playwrights. Right now, we have so many projects in development that we can’t possibly produce them all so our focus is to serve their process; we’ve become a major incubator of plays, so to speak. We’re very conscious of including women’s voices equally to men’s and we do have a wonderfully strong and vocal community of women within our organization so I expect we will continue that way for a long time to come.

EST/LA’s 2017 One Act Festival continues through July 16 at the Atwater Village Theatre complex. For more information visit www.estlosangeles.org or call (818) 839-1197. Reserve tickets at brownpapertickets.com.

Female Playwrights in Space

When we heard that LA’s Fierce Backbone, home of some amazing women playwrights, was collaborating with the femme-friendly Drive Theatre on a new production, our ears perked up. And after learning the project was Amy Tofte’s murder mystery on a mission to Mars, WOMEN OF 4G, we felt we had to find out a bit more about what went on behind the scenes before this collaboration blasted off.

LAFPI: Love that a female writer is venturing into what’s often thought of as a male territory – space, the final frontier. What draws you to science fiction?

Playwright Amy Tofte

AMY TOFTE: I’ve always been into Star Wars and read tons of sci-fi. Even my plays/stories that aren’t sci-fi usually have an element of the fantastical or the famous “what if” being asked. I think I’m drawn to it because classic sci-fi is often related to allegory and challenging ideology. I’ve read somewhere that all sci-fi examines religion. I’d go further and say it questions what we know now by offering up an alternative of what could be. I was also raised and educated on truly magical theater experiences and I’m inspired to create moments that will be fun for an audience to experience together. I love seeing the impossible staged when I go to the theater.

LAFPI: Tell us a bit about the role the Bechdel Test played in the creation of this work, which has all an female cast.  

AMY: I think The Bechdel Test is important to all story telling and I think every writer should think about it. Novels, films, plays…it doesn’t matter. It’s important because I think we are brain-damaged as a society. All of us. It’s not just a divide that puts men on one side and women on the other. When you don’t have a society that represents true equality, the dominant (which is currently white male) becomes the default. It’s a real problem in stories and scripts. You’ll see a character described as “African-American” or “Chinese”…but then everyone else is given personality traits because the default is white.

Janlyn Williams, Jane Kim – Heidi Marie Photography

I give a lot of feedback on scripts and you still see really good writers who are very much about empowering women but their story somehow doesn’t give their female characters all the things a “default character” might get: the women in the stories will be denied making decisions and choices, denied making mistakes and having moments to learn, driving the action. I say we’re brain-damaged because that’s ingrained in us as children. I’m not saying anything new here. That’s why diversity is important in story-telling. If we don’t see women playing super heroes or leaders in our stories, we don’t expect them in our lives.

I’m also pissed off. I’m pissed off about the election. I’m tired of knowing that women are over 50% of the population and we still write less than a third of all produced plays and have so few reps in congress or as CEO’s of major corporations. It’s ridiculous we’re still even talking in these terms. But the best thing I know to do with that anger is to write a play with all women. And make them all complicated, interesting characters who get to kick a little ass when they feel like it.

LAFPI: Let’s talk about Fierce Backbone, a development lab that seems to be very supportive of women’s voices onstage. 

AMY:  Fierce has been the single most important artistic home I’ve ever had. The focus is on development and we produce when we have the resources and a script we want to produce. We’re now in our 10th year! Fierce has consistently boasted over 50% female playwrights in our Writers Unit. So it’s easy to also say the majority of our productions, workshop productions and readings have featured female playwrights. We’re very proud of that. I also have so much respect and gratitude for our actors. They are an incredible resource.

LAFPI: How did Fierce Backbone connect with Drive Theatre for this project?

AMY: Drive has been a friend of Fierce for a few years now. We’ve supported each other’s work and they did a workshop production late last year of one of our other writer’s plays (Defenders by Cailin Harrison). We’ve also shared development ideas and were always looking for projects that make sense to partner on.

I shared the first draft of 4G with Doug and Kat [Drive Theatre Artistic Director Doug Oliphant and Kat Reinbold, Curatorial Producer] in late 2015 and they got involved in the development process.  That was really energizing as we had a lot of new voices joining the conversation. Like any playwright getting produced, I feel very, very lucky! And I’m particularly lucky to see this through with people who have given so much to help the script grow.

[NOTE: This is Drive Theatre’s is a longtime friend of LAFPI and WOMEN OF 4G is its seventh straight production by a female playwright!]

LAFPI: What was it like in rehearsals, with such a femme presence… and and a male director?

AMY: OMG. It’s so amazing. And so noticeable. It also felt like the cast bonded immediately. It was like a room full of passionate, unruly schoolgirls one minute and then intense intellectual conversations about life and being a woman in this post-election world. It reminded me so much of all the great female friendships I’ve had over the years, where you can bond so quickly.

During our table work we all shared stories prompted by events in the play…times we were afraid, things we have to do as women that men don’t have to think about. It was also great having Doug there as our director because he was like a reality check that men are clueless about certain things in the lives of women. It made me realize that the making of this particular play could be just as important as the story and performance. I think we’re all taking away something special. These women feel like sisters to me, like we’ve all been through something together.

WOMEN OF 4G opened May 19, and plays through June 17 at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood. For more info visit the production’s Facebook Event  or http://www.drivetheatre.org/women-of-4g.html 

Jane Kim, Janlyn Williams, Samantha Barrios, Lily Rains, Cady Zuckerman, Jully Lee – Heidi Marie Photography.

On Collaboration: Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler & Director Deena Selenow

For the past few years, LAFPI has been very much into matchmaking: introducing female playwrights to female directors with an eye on future collaborations. So when East West Players (EWP) invited us to be their Community Partner for the West Coast Premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, directed by Deena Selenow, we immediately said, “Hell yes!” And took the opportunity to ask this exciting creative team a few questions.

LAFPI: What brought the two of you together, initially?

leah-nanako-winkler
Leah Nanako Winkler

Leah Nanako Winkler: Last summer, I was fortunate enough to work with Artists at Play (AAP), an amazing LA-based theatre company that did a developmental workshop of my play, Two Mile Hollow. They immediately suggested working with Deena because they were confident she’d nail the humor of the piece while maintaining the seriousness of the issues regarding race—and even more so, class—that lurks beneath the surface of the play. I didn’t think twice when they suggested her because: A) I trust everything AAP says since they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met; and B) I’ve only heard great things about Deena. I’ve admired her from afar as a fellow mixed-race theater artist.

Deena Selenow:  I knew some of the AAP folks from around town, so when they invited me to direct the reading I—of course—said yes. Then I read the script and fell in love. Leah’s writing is so blunt and funny and nuanced and moving. She shifts tone like an acrobat, and it’s so clear that she has fun while she writes. Leah, Julia Cho (AAP producer), and I had a great collaboration leading up to Two Mile Hollow.

LAFPI: Were you familiar with East West Players before this production?

Leah: I’ve known about, admired, and wanted to work with EWP for quite some time. I’ve been immersed and singularly focused in the past decade doing plays in NYC, but it wasn’t until last year that my dream came true and Kentucky was fully produced Off-Broadway. I kind of thought—well, what now? What will happen to me when this is over? So imagine my surprise when EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai called me to tell me Kentucky was going to be included in East West Players’ 51st Anniversary season. I feel so empowered as a Japanese American artist working with a diverse creative team. I definitely feel like I’ve won the lottery.

dselenow_photo
Deena Selenow, photo by Vincent Richards.

Deena: Snehal Desai and I met through the TCG SPARK Leadership Program, which is a branch of Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. At that time, he was the Artistic Associate and Literary Manager at EWP (he’s made quite a climb in a short amount of time!). SPARK is a cohort of ten, so we all became close very quickly. Snehal and I are the only two based in LA, so we see each other quite a bit. I think I had seen one show at EWP when I was in grad school, and now I see pretty much everything they do. EWP is a vital American theater, and Snehal is an incredible leader. I’ve loved getting to know Snehal in this creative capacity. Tim Dang has left EWP in good hands.

LAFPI: Leah–what was it about Deena that gave you confidence in her? And Deena–what was it about Leah’s play that spoke to you? 

Leah: Deena and I both want the same thing: for the play to be the best it can be. With her, I know that nothing is about ego but for the greater good of the piece. Even in our disagreements or points of confusion, we’re both straightforward and come to a conclusion without any passive aggressive weirdness, which is huge as playwright/director relationships can get complicated in that way fast.

Deena: Leah’s work in general is so very honest and the characters speak their minds. She writes realities in which people don’t self-censor and say what they mean. It’s hilarious and uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. Particular to Kentucky is remembering that moment in your life when you realized you can never go home again. That home moves, and the idea of home changes as you grow up and evolve. Family is complicated, and Leah doesn’t shy away from that.

LAFPI: When did it hit you that you two were a good fit, collaborating on Kentucky?

Leah: I think we had an initial phone call that was supposed to be an hour that turned into four. Our personalities definitely vibe, which is an important foundation. But we both worked actively together on a new nine-person adaptation [the NY production had a cast of 16] and figured out the doubling schemes together. I really felt connected in those moments.

Deena: I love working with Leah. I love how vulnerable she lets herself be in her writing and in the rehearsal room, and it encourages me to let my walls down as well. We worked really closely during pre-production. We took our time, imagined different scenarios, and listened to each other. Leah trusts me, and I can feel it, which gives me confidence. She gives me room to experiment but also doesn’t hesitate to speak up and tell me when I’m off the mark, which I also appreciate.

LAFPI: Kentucky’s director for its Off-Broadway Premiere, Morgan Gould, was a woman, as well. What are your thoughts about what a woman director brings to a female playwright’s work?

Leah: While I know of and work with male directors that bust their ass on a daily basis and deserve every career success that they get, I know that female directors have to work twice as hard to be respected. As “emerging” playwrights, we’re sometimes told to “level up” to a director who’s more famous, and that’s often an older white dude. I think while this tactic is meant to “protect” the young playwright in many ways, it really screws over young female directors that often develop the script for years only to be fired when the show gets picked up.

Kentucky is a huge undertaking with multiple characters, 17 locations, three songs, and complex relationships that need to be dug into with precision, sympathy, and understanding. It takes a BEAST to direct this play. And both Morgan and Deena are BEASTS. It’s incredible and inspiring to watch strong women take total command of a room. They get shit done with the strength of ten thousand men.

Deena: Any time you work with someone who is “like” you in some way or another, there are certain nuances that don’t need discussion and are just inherently there. I work with a lot of women playwrights, but with men as well (albeit not as frequently). Differences are just as important as similarities. There are inequities in every inch of our society, so I work with people who share my core values, and we lift each other up.

ewp-kentucky-1
(L-R) Jacqueline Misaye as Sophie and Jessica Jade Andres as Hiro in East West Players’ West Coast premiere of Kentucky by Leah Nanako Winkler. Photo by Michael Lamont.

LAFPI: As women artists, telling a woman’s story, how has your experience been with East West Players–a company that embraces diversity and is presenting a femme-centered season?

Leah: I think “white girl” and “diversity” are often conflated, and I love that EWP is championing women of color. In addition, nobody is the “only one” here, and it’s a gift to be working with not only a cast, creative team, and crew that are diverse, but also producers, board members, and staff as well. I’ve never had that happen to me.

EWP lets us do our work while acting like it’s the most normal thing in the world. By doing that, they universalize our experiences. And you know what? Good. Because our stories ARE universal. We’ve been told that white is normal for so long, and it’s just not true. I love EWP because they acknowledge this naturally in their mission, but it’s still fun and it’s a safe space.

Deena: I’m thrilled that EWP chose to program a women-centered season. They really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to equity and inclusion. We all need to be allies to one another. EWP has a platform for visibility, and they are using it.

LAFPI: As theater artists, how important to you is forming ongoing relationships vs. finding the right person/project?

Leah: I’m still learning about this. I directed my own work for six years and just started working with other directors in the last four. I like working with a lot of different people just to test the waters, and get to know as many people as possible. I love collaborating and finding long term relationships with various people on projects that work for each partnership. Which for Deena and I, ended up being Kentucky.

Dena: Relationships are everything. Theater is a collaborative sport and finding your teammates is key. I’m so glad that Leah and I have found each other. I’m excited for our relationship to grow and to continue. I’ve been really lucky in my collaborations. The dynamic changes with each group of people and each project, and that’s part of the fun.

LAFPI: In seven words or less, what’s your advice to women artists about getting the most out of the collaborative process?

Leah: Communicate. Be assertive. Don’t forget the joy. (Or LADIES, DON’T BRING SNACKS OUT OF OBLIGATION.)

Deena: Listen. Trust your gut. Make a mess.

Kentucky plays through December 11, 2016 at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater.Go Here for information and to purchase tickets.

SOSE Solo Creation Festival Brings Women Artists Together

SOSE CCF

If you’ve been hanging around the LA theater scene and feeling a burst of cozy femme energy lately, it might very well be coming from Son of Semele.

Yep. SOSE has been on LAFPI’s radar for awhile now. For the last five years, well over 50% of the company’s productions have been written by women. Add to that their annual Company and Solo Creation Festivals, and we’re seeing a whole lot of women artists at work at their tiny space on Beverly Boulevard.

The 2016 Solo Creation Festival runs from July 14-31, so we decided to chat with SOSE company member and Festival Manager Ashley Steed (who is, herself, a femme force to be reckoned with!).

witches
by Kate Motzenbacker & Sal Nicolazzo

LAFPI: How long has the Solo Creation Festival been around?

Ashley: This is the third year of the Solo Creation Festival (SCF) and I’ve been producing it since day one. The Company Creation Festival (CCF) began back in 2010 as a way to incubate new, ensemble-based work that was bold and innovative. In the first years, we had solo artists apply and it didn’t feel like that was the right avenue for solo work. That’s when SOSE Artistic Director Matthew McCray asked me to produce the SCF. The first year the application was completely open, with very little requirements. Since then, we’ve fine-tuned the application specifically looking for shorter pieces and with either brand new works or works in progress.

by Svitlana Zavialova

LAFPI: This year’s SCF features 9 works, 5 written by women, 5 directed by women and 6 performed by women. How does that stack up against the first two years?

Ashley: Although I don’t specifically seek out to have any sort of quota for women, I am very mindful of the types of voices we’re giving a platform to. My main focus is having a wide range of voices, experiences and styles of performance. Last year we only had 3 written (and performed) by women, however we also had more artists of color. The first year we had 6 out of 9 written (and performed) by women.

stat
by Jasmine Di Angelo

The thing I love most about this festival is that no two shows are ever alike. Each week is programed with 3 very different pieces that somehow manage to complement each other – we try to make it so that you’re experiencing a range of styles and content. The artists also have a chance to build connections and friendships and many go on to support each others’ work. We’ve had a number of participants go on to other fringe circuits or get produced by other theatre companies – which is exactly why our festivals exist.

LAFPI: How did the women writers involved this year come to you?

by Kelsey Rose Siepser
by Kelsey Rose Siepser

Ashley: Everyone selected this year are first time applicants, most of whom heard about us through company members, past participants, and through social media. I’m also delighted to say that all of the participants created work specifically for our festival, which means solo artists are coming to us with the sole intention of presenting new work. Something that I’ve noticed about the pieces from our women this year is that they are unabashedly from the female perspective. They show women as strong, yet sensitive; as curious, broken, yearning, and brave. In other words, they each showcase the vast array of what “womanhood” means and how we can use our voices and bodies and imaginations to tell stories.

by Brenda Varda
by Brenda Varda

LAFPI: Insofar as supporting different artists and stories, is gender parity and diversity something SOSE is working toward, intentionally?

Ashley: I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious choice for gender parity, although we do talk about it as a company – our main focus is producing work that speaks to us and there are a number of women out there writing exciting, nuanced, and juicy material – the kinds of things we like to sink our teeth in to. We have a lot of women in the company (including Literary Manager Barbara Kallir) who are very active in terms of leadership and opinions so I think that’s probably an unconscious force leading the company.

Ashley Steed
SOSE’s Ashley Steed

For me, personally, it’s more a question of diversity – does the stage reflect this wonderfully diverse city (which automatically include gender parity. After all, we are half the population!).

Featuring works by women playwrights Kate Motzenbacker & Sal Nicolazzo, Svitlana Zavialova, Jasmine Di Angelo, Kelsey Rose Siepser and Brenda Varda, SOSE’s Solo Creation Festival runs July 14-31 at Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Boulevard (@ Hoover) in Silverlake. Performances are Thursday-Saturday @ 8PM; Sunday @ 5PM. For more info, visit www.sonofsemele.org

Go Here for the Full Schedule

 

New Numbers: 11 of 12

The Blank’s 2016 Young Playwrights Festival

YPF24_Square_v02 copy

Now in its 24th year, The Blank Theatre’s Nationwide Young Playwrights Festival – a 4-week celebration of playwrights 9-19 – gets a lot of attention for lots of reasons. At LAFPI, we’re always proud to crow about 50% or more female playwrights being on the bill. But this year, YPF has raised the bar: 11 of 12 playwrights are young women! We thought we should meet some of these playwrights, throw some questions at them each week. We’re definitely liking the answers we’re hearing.

Week 4 (June 23-26) : Gabrielle Poisson (DOESN’T THAT SOUND LOVELY?) & Lani Kording (OVEREXPOSURE)

Gabrielle Possin Color
Gabrielle Poisson

LAFPI: How did you find out about the Blank’s YPF?

Gabrielle: I won the New Jersey Young Playwright’s Contest last summer, and had my play produced by the Writer’s Theatre of New Jersey. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, so in the fall I went online and researched. I found out about this festival, submitted a play with fingers crossed, and have been pinching myself ever since because it’s just so unbelievable to me that this is my life right now.

Lani: It was something I had known about for a while but never entered because I didn’t think any of my plays were good enough but then a year later my teacher Tira Palmquist encouraged me to enter. I wish I had been involved before because this has been such a wonderful experience.
 

LAFPI: What is your play about, in 11 words or less?

Gabrielle: Adrianna doesn’t want to be a mother. Leaving isn’t so simple.

Lani: An epic popcorn battle of mass proportions.

LAFPI: Do you think being a female playwright affects the kind of plays you write?

Gabrielle: No two people can write the same play because no two people see the world through the same eyes. Being a girl is a part of who I am so of course there are going to be themes about gender in my work, but I do not allow my gender to limit me. People always tell me that I write pretty dark stuff for “a tiny little girl.” My goal is to tell stories. I don’t see myself as a female playwright, just a playwright like any other.

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Lani Kording

Lani: Yes? I think? My plays tend to be focused around women. I tend to write from the female perspective, if that makes sense. I attended the AWP Conference recently (more on that later) and went to a panel about gender parity in the theatre and one of the panelists mentioned how many female playwrights write in a different style than the traditional play, and that tends to be the case for my plays, especially my longer ones. So, yes? I think being a female playwright affects the kind of plays I write, in more ways than one.

LAFPI: What has surprised you most about the YPF process, working with your mentor, director, and actors?

Gabrielle: It’s so exciting for me how professional everything is. The fact that we’re teenagers has no bearing on how legitimately our work is taken. Watching the actors work their ways into their characters, seeing the director study my script and add her own artistic vision, receiving such wonderful and extensive feedback and support from a mentor, it becomes clear that producing my play is not a courtesy to me as some kid who wrote a half-decent play but the type of dedication that I’d receive in the real world.

Lani: What’s surprised me the most is how right it feels. Like, being in the rehearsal room with my director and actors, it feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. What’s also surprising is how much I’ve learned, not only about writing but directing and production. My director Laura Stribling is an amazing director; my mentor Adam Lapidus let me sit in on a read through for Bunk’d, the TV show he’s an executive producer for. I’m planning on pursuing both playwriting and television writing, so both of these experiences have been completely and absolutely incredible.

LAFPI: 11 of 12. How does it feel being part of “The Young Girl’s Club?”

Gabrielle: I think it’s so great. Knowing that there is a severe imbalance in terms of gender representation in playwriting, I love that this festival is providing a whole host of new, female voices. The idea that we’re going to face difficulties sharing out stories on the professional level just because we’re women is heartbreaking for me. I’m so so honored to be a finalist this year along with some other really accomplished and inspiring women. I think with this honor is also the responsibility to continue fighting for our voices to be heard as we transition to pursuing a professional career in playwriting in the future.

Lani: I love that they’re calling it The Young Girl’s Club, and I absolutely love being a part of it.

On a side note, I’m am ridiculously excited that the LA Female Playwrights Initiative is doing this because at the gender parity in theatre panel at AWP, they were some of the main panelists and I was extremely inspired by what they had to say. After that panel I was hoping that maybe one day in the distant future one of my plays would be featured on that website and that distant future is not so distant at all and I’m on cloud nine.

LAFPI: And we’re thrilled to be able to support you and your play, Lani! Congratulations and we can’t wait to see what’s next for ALL of you amazing, femme forces!

Go Here for Tickets to The Blank’s YPF Week 4:

DOESN’T THAT SOUND LOVELY?
by Gabrielle Poisson (Age 16), Boonton Township, NJ
OVEREXPOSURE
by Lani Kording (Age 18), Costa Mesa, CA
STICK AND POKE
by Johanna Stone (Age 17), Altadena, CA

 

Week 3 (June 16-19) : Charlotte Leavengood (LAZY BOY) & Ariella Carmell (LOVELY MADNESS )… and Dylan Schifrin (GWENDOLYN)

Charlotte Levengood Color
Charlotte Leavengood

LAFPI: How did you find out about the Blank’s YPF?

Charlotte: My father is my playwriting teacher at my high school. He has had past students win this competition, and he had me start entering it, too. I’m very glad he did. I hope to stay involved even after I age out of the competition.

Ariella: In 2014, I attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, where I met Zoe Cheng, who had won that year, and I was just so impressed that she had gotten a play produced so young. I won last year, and it was definitely one of the best times in both my writing life and just my life in general.


LAFPI: What is your play about, in 11 words or less?

Charlotte: Two boys facing life’s harsh reality and their true selves.

Ariella: Student confronts professor about their past relationship: neither can confront themselves.

LAFPI: Do you think being a female playwright affects the kind of plays you write?

Charlotte: Not in the least bit. The only way it plays into my writing is that people get surprised when they realize that the one who wrote that dark piece is a blonde girl from Florida. I feel like sometimes society has this expectation for girls to stay bubbly and light. However, I’ve been raised to believe that the word girl doesn’t define us, we define the word girl.

Ariella Carmell Color
Ariella Carmell

Ariella: Absolutely. I firmly believe that the female experience has been historically underrepresented, misconstrued, or simply dismissed, and this is why I feel no qualms about writing more women characters than men. There’s such a lack of empathy when it comes to women’s stories, and so much of “Nobody would want to read or watch that,” which is heartbreaking because there’s so much nuance in just existing day-to-day as a woman in any society.

LAFPI: What has surprised you most about the YPF process, working with your mentor, director, and actors?

Charlotte: Everyone was so unbelievably kind and supportive. It’s a part of theatre and writing that I have always admired. Everyone is respectively collaborating, and we are all learning so much for each other. As a writer, I usually just sit alone in my bedroom and write. When I got here, it was a totally different story.

Ariella: I’ve matured enormously as a writer throughout this entire process. My mentor Beth Bigler pushed me to revise, revise, revise, from bolstering the characters to tightening every line. The most exciting (and surreal) part, though, is sitting in rehearsals, hearing my director and actors discuss my play as though it were written by Chekhov or Tennessee Williams. I’m becoming the writer I’ve always wanted to be, all thanks to YPF.

LAFPI: 11 of 12. How does it feel being part of “The Young Girl’s Club?”

Charlotte: It feels great. I feel so inspired when I read the bios of my fellow winners because they are such incredible women, and I am so honored to be associated with them. I hope to stay in contact with them because I know that each and everyone of these girls, and, of course, our fellow young man, are going great places. I mean, they’re already doing amazing things. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by hard-working and creative minds.

Ariella: It’s thrilling! To be honest, most of the young writers I know are girls, and I’ve always wondered why that isn’t reflected as much in the “professional” writing world. I am constantly inspired by the young women creating around me, who all have such unique slants on wildly diverse topics.

Dylan Schifrin Color
Dylan Schifrin

LAFPI: And now, Dylan! How did you react when you heard the numbers for this year — 11 of 12?