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The FPI Files: Women Writers Address the Cycle of Violence
by Desireé York
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble created their ongoing four-part Cycle of Violence Commission Series to examine the role violence plays in our world through stories addressing sex-trafficking, honor-killings, criminal justice reform and immigration. From a Journey Out article about the Series, Lower Depth Theatre was quoted as saying that “One of the greatest ways to encourage empathy and cultivate understanding is through the power of perspective.”
Providing these perspectives thus far in the Series are playwrights Tira Palmquist, T. Tara Turk-Haynes, and Diana Burbano. As the first commissioned writer, Tira Palmquist took a hard look at the violence of sex-trafficking in her play entitled Safe Harbor, which received a production at the end of 2019. T. Tara Turk-Haynes’ play The Muhammad Sisters Were Here was presented virtually in 2020 as the second commission of the Series, exploring the topic of honor killings. And most recently, Lower Depth Theatre announced Diana Burbano as the next writer of the Series, commissioned to address criminal justice and prison reform.
Lower Depth Theatre Artistic 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: 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: 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: 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!
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.
The FPI Files: “Anyone But Me” & “The Oxy Complex” at IAMA
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: 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: 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…
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!
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.
How to Measure Anti-Racism in Theater
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Puppets, Prose & Pandemics
In 2016, I had 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.
CoA asks “What’s Going On?”
Is it August already?
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.
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.
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.
“Ageless” in a #BraveNewWorld @ Santa Monica Rep
“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.
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
“Poor Clare” Finds a Home at Echo Theater
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?), a Carrie Bradshaw of 2020 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 in 2020.
LAFPI: What did you think when you read Poor Clare and what inspired you to direct it, Alana?
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 in 2020.
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…
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.
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?
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!”
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.
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.”
LAFPI: Which 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.
LAFPI: But it’s good to have the wheels turning!
Previews for Poor Clare at Echo Theater Company begin March 11th; the play opens March 14th and runs through April 20th. Ticket and information at echotheatercompany.com.
Kate McAll’s “Frankenstein” at LA Theatre Works Breathes Life Into Mary Shelley’s Timeless Words
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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: 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: 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.
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: 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: 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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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?
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.
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?
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@example.com, 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’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.
For tickets and more info about “Mama Metal,” visit iamatheatre.com
Wendy Graf’s “Exit Wounds”
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!
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.
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?
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?
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.
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: 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: 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.
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.
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: 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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: 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: 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: 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: 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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
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?
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.
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: 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?
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?
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
SOSE Solo Creation Festival Brings Women Artists Together
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!).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
New Numbers: 11 of 12
The Blank’s 2016 Young Playwrights Festival
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)
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.
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.
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!
DOESN’T THAT SOUND LOVELY?
by Gabrielle Poisson (Age 16), Boonton Township, NJ
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)
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: 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.
LAFPI: And now, Dylan! How did you react when you heard the numbers for this year — 11 of 12?
Dylan: I was certainly surprised to learn that I was the only male playwright, especially when the playwrights in last year’s YPF were a mostly even split of guys and girls. However, I am also very excited to see their plays, perhaps more so than if they were half male half female. I believe I grow more as a writer when I view the perspectives of writers of a different gender, background, racial identity, etc. from my own.
LAFPI: What is your play about, in 11 words or less?
Dylan: Discovering true connection by conquering the demons of a prickly past.
LAFPI: You had a play in last year’s festival?
Dylan: Yes! I was a finalist last year with The Exceptional Childhood Center. I’m so thrilled to be back in the YPF!
LAFPI: So how does it feel being this year’s “odd man out?”
Dylan: It’s incredibly humbling that the Blank Theater has chosen me. I feel honored and inspired to share my unique voice in the festival. I personally don’t see myself as an “odd man out” – we are all playwrights, after all. We all observe and find meaning in life, and we all are passionate about conveying that meaning through the stage. It is this shared passion of ours that unites us together regardless of the differences we may possess.
Charlotte Leavengood (Age 16), St. Petersburg, FL
Dylan Schifrin (Age 17), Sherman Oaks, CA
by Ariella Carmell (Age 19), Chicago, IL
Week 2 (June 9-12) : Cassandra Hsiao (SUPERMARKET OF LOST), Alexa Derman (ABOUT ART) & Sarah Steuer (BITING ELEPHANTS)
LAFPI: How did you find out about the Blank’s YPF?
Cassandra: I was introduced to the Blank YPF by my playwriting teacher Tira Palmquist from the Orange County School of the Arts Creative Writing Conservatory. In 9th grade, I was a semi-finalist for my play “Second Star.”
Sarah: I was taking an introductory playwriting course, where I wrote the first draft of this play. My friend, also in the class, submitted hers to a UCLA theater festival and got in, and I decided I wanted to do that, too! So, like the millennial I am, I just Googled something about how to submit a play for production, and, lo and behold, there was YPF!
LAFPI: What is your play about, in 11 words or less?
Cassandra: Three souls face the consequences of losing – and finding – something precious.
Alexa: Aaron tries to make art. Art gets in the way.
Sarah: One family’s emotional journey toward coping with a tragic loss.
LAFPI: Do you think being a female playwright affects the kind of plays you write?
Cassandra: Subconsciously I am sure that my identity as a female playwright seeps into my work and changes the lens; however, my goal as an artist remains the same – that the audience leaves changed. I do take into consideration the opportunity for women characters and other underrepresented groups to be heard through theater – I want to be intentional with whose stories I am telling.
Alexa: Absolutely. All of my favorite plays are by women, too, so I’ve come of age surrounded by plays about female adolescence. Almost every play I write is about young women in some way – every play except this one, in which I challenged myself to write a play about two men. Ironically enough, here we are!
Sarah: In a way. I think that female characters are easier for me to write than male characters are, only because I can relate so much more deeply to them. The unique complexity of, in particular, an adolescent or young adult female character is something with which I am fascinated, and my personal experiences as a young adult woman definitely play a major role in my writing.
LAFPI: What has surprised you most about the YPF process, working with your mentor, director, and actors?
Cassandra: It’s mind-blowing to think that the YPF cast and crew are living in a world I created for a couple of weeks. It is extremely gratifying and humbling to work with professionals who will bring your work to life. I’m so grateful to be part of the experience.
Alexa: I’m consistently surprised how much I learn from the process year after year, and that going through the same tradition still continues to help me grow and develop as an artist, each year in new ways.
Sarah: I’ve actually been really surprised by how emotionally rewarding and profound rehearsals have been. I also love how seriously everyone takes every rehearsal; oftentimes, my mentor, director, and actors realize things about my script and my characters that I’ve never even considered myself. It’s a truly incredible process to be a part of.
LAFPI: 11 of 12. How does it feel being part of “The Young Girl’s Club?”
Cassandra: I couldn’t be happier. I’m thrilled that female playwrights are stepping forward to share their work, and being honored for that leap of faith. Hopefully this will inspire a new generation to share their voices.
Alexa: It feels amazing. In my two previous years as a participant, I was the only girl my week. In response to my plays, audience members have point-blank asked me if my plays – which dealt with abortion and assault, respectively – were autobiographical, as though a young woman’s art can only be a diary entry. I have carried the weight of being a female playwright on my back from California festivals to Nebraska conferences to New York City premieres. This year, it’s nice to be able to share that weight.
Sarah: The fact that YPF is a forum of inspiration for new writers and that so many winners this year were young women makes me so eager to see what is to come in the future of such a historically male-dominated field.
SUPERMARKET OF LOST
by Cassandra Hsiao (Age 16), Walnut, CA
by Alexa Derman (Age 19), Westfield, NJ
by Sarah Steer (Age 19), Memphis, TN
Week 1 (June 2-5) : Rachel Linton (VICTIMOLOGY) & Sarah Holland (MIND GAMES)
LAFPI: How did you find out about the Blank’s YPF?
Rachel: My sister Sarah’s friend Alexa had won the YPF before, and Sarah had gone to see her plays. This year around the time I was editing Victimology, Sarah mentioned that the YPF deadline was coming up, so I decided to enter. (Alexa, for the record, won for a third time this year with her play “About Art”.)
LAFPI: What is your play about, in 11 words or less?
Rachel: Two siblings confront their conflicting viewpoints at their father’s parole hearing.
Sarah: Human connection. What it means to truly see someone.
LAFPI: Do you think being a female playwright affects the kind of plays you write?
Rachel: I don’t think it affects the kind of plays I write; I’m not really drawn towards subjects that relate to the female-specific experience. I do feel like parts of my identity shape the subjects I write about: I have a close relationship with my sister, and so I tend to write and think about sibling relationships. On the other hand, I’m sure that being female has influenced my experience and perspective in some ways that come through in my writing.
Sarah: Definitely. As an actor as well as a playwright, I understand the need for meaty, multi-faceted female roles. For example, Olive in Mind Games is enchanting, manipulative, and toxic. I’m sure many young female actors would love to explore the depths of her character.
Rachel: I think, more than anything else, I get the sense that my writing and ideas are being taken seriously. Really, it’s the sense that everyone is as invested in the play’s success as I am–I never expected that, and it’s honestly the best feeling.
Sarah: I knew that everything was going to be professional, but I didn’t quite grasp what that meant until I began the YPF process. I’m truly amazed at everyone’s creativity, talent, and dedication to the project. It’s a pleasure to attend rehearsals, and I’ve learned so much from all of the cast and crew!
LAFPI: 11 of 12. How does it feel being part of “The Young Girl’s Club?”
Rachel: I feel really positive about that. I’ve been involved in a lot of activities that are very male-dominated. So I know how isolating it can be when there are very few females in a field, and it’s so great to see and be a part of that changing in the world of scriptwriting.
Sarah: It’s an honor, and I’m so thankful to have been given this opportunity. I hope that the number of female playwrights in this year’s festival is indicative of a more diverse future in theatre. After all, there are so many young voices that have yet to be heard.
By Rachel Linton (Age 18), Washington, DC
By Honor Levy (Age 18), Los Angeles, CA
By Sarah Holland (Age 18), Austin, TX
For more info & a 2016 YPF Schedule, visit ypf.theblank.com.
Changing the Course of Climate Change with Song
by Diane Lefer
When Sharon Abreu performs excerpts from The Climate Monologues on March 27th, the closing day of the LA Women’s Theatre Festival, her solo show with song will harmonize art and activism. Abreu channels the voices of a former coal miner from West Virginia, a teacher from Colorado, and a college sophomore in Montana, who’ve all taken up the challenge of educating their communities and demanding action on climate change.
Abreu now lives on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State, but the idea of turning her talents to advocate for the environment started back in 1992 with a pumpkin festival in New York’s Greenwich Village. That’s where she signed up for a half-price membership to an organization she’d never heard of before. Next thing she knew, Abreu had joined Pete Seeger on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, doing hard, hot work on the boat and teaching people who came on board about the fish and plankton, the chemistry of the water, and the history of the Hudson River. As she marveled at how the Hudson was brought back to life by people in communities all along its banks, Abreu began to write songs about a range of environmental issues and was invited to join Seeger in concert.
She later began to attend meetings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development where she met people from all over the world who would later be featured in The Climate Monologues, including Robert Athickal, a Jesuit who runs the Tarumitra ecology center in Patna, India; and Maria Gunnoe who showed up from the coal fields of Central Appalachia, trying (unsuccessfully) to get help from the US government delegation because their so-called representatives in West Virginia were not helping them stop the devastating effects of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Abreu went on to interview a dozen community activists – often using phone and Skype for most because, much as she would have loved to travel to meet in person, she wanted to minimize her carbon footprint–and expenses, as she had no outside funding.
After producing two climate change shows with student performers, she decided it was time to perform one herself. She remembered Pete Seeger. “He had a way of connecting with people,” she says. “He could talk with 1,000 people in an auditorium as if there were just 2 or 3 people sitting in his living room. And he could get them all spontaneously singing like a glorious choir.” How would she connect?
It came to her when she appeared in a production of The Vagina Monologues: she could boil her interviews down to 5-7 minutes each, put them together, add some original songs, and so The Climate Monologues was born. In her full 70-minute show she portrays, among others, a former rodeo cowgirl, an anti-nuclear activist and radio talk show host, and a woman from the Yupik tribe on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska who tells how traditional life there is threatened by melting ice and permafrost and coastal erosion from storm surges.
In choosing which monologues to include here in LA, she was relieved that the decision was taken out of her hands. “The Festival people chose which portions of the show they would most like to have me do in my 20-minute slot.”
Among the Festival selections is one with topical resonance, given the recent action of the Supreme Court–”politicians in robes,” says Abreu. “Blocking implementation of the Clean Power Plan is, in a word, tragic. West Virginia’s political leaders, who are in the pocket of the coal industry, have kept working people in an economic stranglehold for decades.” And so she will share the story of Ed Wiley, a grandfather and former coal miner who explains that tech-savvy people are there in West Virginia, but technology jobs aren’t. Abreu says his story illustrates how the coal industry works to keep other kinds of jobs out in order to keep people virtually enslaved. “Then the people can’t do anything about their mountains being blown up and their water being poisoned.” (Maria Gunnoe’s coal country story won’t be performed but here’s a taste of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZGE43lQccc&feature=youtu.be)
Abreu is still adding new monologues and would love to connect with someone from one of the Small Island Developing States, like Tuvalu, Vanuatu or the Marshall Islands, already suffering from sea-level rise. At the same time, she wants to keep the runtime to about 70 minutes “because the show can be done without an intermission, and it leaves time after the performance for dialogue.”
She stresses that though there’s sadness in the stories she performs, there’s also heart and spirit and hope. “We need to celebrate our achievements every step of the way and also to grieve what has been lost in all the precious, squandered time that we could have been addressing the problem of climate change.”
At home on Orcas Island, Abreu and her life-and-creative partner Mike Hurwicz are active in the fight against the use of pesticides and other chemicals, protecting drinking water and marine life. A current campaign is the drive “to push back against numerous proposals by the fossil fuel industries to export millions of tons of coal and oil to Asia through our already heavily trafficked and narrow waterways.”
Through their nonprofit organization, Irthlingz, Abreu and Hurwicz blend entertainment with environmental education. As she explains, “good information about climate change bounced off of people’s psyches. We had to connect with people on a deeper level, on a heart level and a spiritual level. The music and the stories help us to do that.”
* * * *
The LA Women’s Theatre Festival kicks off with a gala on March 24th at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice 90291, followed by solo performances March 25-27th.
On the bill with Abreu on March 27th at 3:00 PM:
Debra De Liso in Beautiful, Terrifying Love. A personal, poetic, dangerously true–at times funny–story of a nightmarish childhood, Hollywood horror film career, and traumatic motherhood with her beautiful, talented and bi-polar daughter.
Rhonda Khan in Food. A rhythmic tale from New York of one woman’s addiction to food amidst societal pressures to be thin. Family, therapists, healers and gurus weigh in and diagnose her as she spits her truth about weight loss, gain, and healing.
For the complete schedule: http://www.lawtf.org
To hear excerpts from The Climate Monologues that won’t make it onto the Festival stage, and more songs (including sing-alongs), catch Abreu and Hurwicz with singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley in concert on March 23. Northridge Mobile Home Park Community Room, 19120 Nordhoff Street, Northridge. 5:00 PM for refreshments and mingling. Concert at 5:45. Admission by donation.
This article originally appreared in LA Progressive.
How To Save a Rhino in 10 Minutes!
by Nikki Harmon
Want to save an Elephant and a Rhino from extinction like the Passenger Pigeon? Or stop an Alligator and a Coral Reef from going the way of the Dodo Bird? And you’re not able to get to Uganda to save the Mountain gorillas, or ship out with Greenpeace to stop illegal whaling? There’s another way to help. Write a 10 minute play about an endangered species.
What?! You don’t know what species are endangered or even what the word Endangered means? Well, you’re not alone. You’d be surprised how many people get it mixed up with In Danger. “In danger” means a dog or cat in a kill-shelter. “Endangered” means threatened to extinction. Gone forever, kaput, fini, only to be found stiff and stuffed in a museum somewhere for kids to see on a field trip.
And what about the word Species? Lots of people think that an elephant is an elephant and a rhino is a rhino. But did you know there’re 2 species of elephants (both are endangered), 5 species of rhinos (3 are critically endangered), 9 species of giraffes (2 are endangered) and 3 species of zebras (1 is endangered). Endangered species are everywhere. Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, Fish, Flora & Fauna, and Invertebrates. Orchids in South Africa, crocodiles in Cuba, cactus in Arizona, and here in Los Angeles, the El Segundo Blue Butterfly.
So now you’re inspired. Now what? The Saving Endangered Species Int’l Playwriting Prize.
I started SES Prize after working with two wildlife conservancies, one in Kenya, with the Grevy’s zebra (that’s the one that’s endangered) relocating them back to Meru National Park where poachers had killed every single animal! There are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild today! And at a conservancy in Namibia, with the cheetah, where poachers and farmers are to blame for bringing the cat’s numbers down to fewer than 7,500.
Impassioned and determined I looked for a way to get people to do something about saving our endangered species. What I discovered was that half the people I talked to didn’t know what endangered species meant, and the other half didn’t care. I turned to CITES (Convention On The Trade of Endangered Species) in Switzerland, trying to figure out a way to educate people. Juliane Barras, at CITES, recommended that instead of “endangered species” I try saying “threatened to extinction.” And, at the suggestion of David Faux, at the Dramatists Guild, I added . . . “like the dodo.” And a light bulb seemed to go off in people. But it was still a distant concept for them. “After all,” as one woman told me, “there aren’t any here in America. They’re all in Africa.” This was obviously a bigger problem that I had first thought. Education. Education. Education. A word that Juliane said to me over and over again. So, how was I going to educate people? Theatre! What better way to get people to learn about and talk about something than theatre? I’d been in it over 50 years – stage managing, writing, casting, designing and even a little marketing. I knew this business.
So I gathered a bunch of friends, with different backgrounds from around the world, and formed SES Prize. The concept being that this is an international problem that needs an international solution. And we made it an international competition for that reason.
The next hurdle has been getting writers to do research. Too many playwrights fall back on Boy meets Girl Boy loses Girl (or variations thereof). Daddy died let’s read the will. My family’s crazy, let’s talk about it. Some writers send us ten pages and on page four one character says “Hey, how about what’s happening to the tigers?” And the other guy says, “Yeah, it’s really terrible.” And that’s it. Others have characters spouting research they got off Wikipedia instead of real dialogue. But some have written plays with passion, with humor, with an understanding of the species. And those plays jump off the page and come alive!
Now find a species you’re passionate about, check out our guidelines and enter the competition, for a staged reading for a benefit for The Jane Goodall Institute. It’s a great cause. It’s a way to put more knowledge in your writing quiver. It might even save a species. And if you’ve never written a ten minute play before, there’s a section on our website that’ll walk you through it. Give it try!
TRADE A PLAY TUESDAY
An ongoing feedback resource for playwrights
By Donna Hoke July 2, 2014
It has been six months since I launched TRADE A PLAY TUESDAY (TAPT); I almost can’t believe it’s been that long, but sure enough, the date on the original guidelines post is January 14. For those who don’t know, TAPT is a one-to-one, give-and-take feedback system for short plays and scenes; in short, you send me your plays and scenes, and I swap them out as they come in—easy! Since its inception, with few exceptions, TAPT has run every Tuesday and, to date, more than 250 plays have been traded. That’s pretty amazing. (If you want know more about TAPT or would like complete guidelines for participating, click here.)
Some weeks have been heavier than others—I probably trade an average of ten plays/scenes a week—but never has there been a week where nobody sent things to trade. And nearly every week, a new playwright pops in and is delighted by the process. That this is still going strong after six months and still attracting new participants means, I hope, that it’s in the ether. It’s a resource that people use when they need it, whether that’s every week or once every two months. And as long as there even one play coming in each Tuesday, TAPT will continue.
What’s even more amazing is the notes I get from playwrights who have participated, notes that say they’ve made reading relationships for full-length plays and ongoing friendships that started with a simple Tuesday trade. I had really hoped this would be a byproduct of the process, as we playwrights work in such isolation and sometimes knowing that you can get instant feedback or run a question by someone one-on-one can really help. I often join in myself and I feel as though I’ve built a go-to cadre of playwrights at all levels of experience and specialty.
I would like to share one note (and I have permission from the playwright to do so) that sums it up:
I’ve gotten cursory responses, not especially helpful or thoughtful. I’ve also gotten fairly helpful critiques which give me the nerve and impetus to go back to moribund plays, as well as ringing endorsements suggesting I should start submitting the scripts. It’s similar to the range of responses you might get in a writers’ workshop, but one match at a time. And it’s nice to connect with other playwrights you haven’t met.
To the first sentence, I say, of course, the process hasn’t been perfect as it’s developed. I have had to do a little bit of policing in asking a couple of regular participants to reevaluate their contributions and why they were coming back week after week, but I was heartened that both playwrights graciously said they completely understood and would bow out until they felt they were ready to commit to the process. There was no anger or kickback, because playwrights are a classy bunch. I have also begun to ask new participants to CC me on feedback the first time or two so that I can at least eyeball it for fairness, so if you’ve tried TAPT and were disappointed, maybe give it another try.
This playwright quoted above has come back more than once and, in doing so, reaped TAPT’s intended benefits. There is a risk in any new venture, and I realize that many people have reading groups already, or feel uneasy about sending a play to a stranger. But given the connections that are being made, and the low risk—just ten pages—I’d still say it’s worth a shot. Whether you agree or disagree, I only ask that if the occasion arises, please help spread the word. There are thousands of playwrights out there, and not everybody knows about TAPT yet. I would love it if they did.
I post every Tuesday (and sometimes on Monday nights) on the Official Playwrights of Facebook and I also Tweet several times on Tuesday (follow me @donnahoke) to remind everybody. If you see the Tweet, give it a retweet if you’re inclined as Twitter is so fleeting. And if you have a ten-minute play or a ten-minute scene and it’s Tuesday, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll always be welcome.
The Sacred Synergy of Pieces of Carra
By Carly Pandza
When Rachae Thomas approached me about the concept for her one woman show, I knew I wanted in. The theme of “what you resist, persists” is something that I instantly related to and knew audiences would, as well. She told me she had no script and had never written anything before. I had devised theatre in the past as part of an ensemble but never in the role of director with only one actor. This was an exciting risk that intrigued me; I was ready to leap and pray that the net would, indeed, appear.
By the time Rachae came to me she had already registered for the Hollywood Fringe Festival and put down a payment to reserve a performance space. The clock had already begun ticking and would continue to do so until we were to open in mid-June. We started at the beginning of May and went from a concept to creating the script to incorporating blocking and musical elements simultaneously as we developed the play. It was a nonconventional progression but nonetheless a fun one.
Harmonious collaboration for this show was essential and it blurred the lines of any process that I have ever experienced as an actor, writer or director. Rotating between all of these hats, I had to pop them on and off quite quickly. Whether it was observing the overall vision from a director’s birds-eye view, playing in the space with Rachae as a fellow actor or writing and revising in order to shape Rachae’s work as we created the story arc, it was always a creative whirlwind.
Devised theatre can also be referred to as a collaborative creation and Pieces Of Carra definitely embodied this. I realized at the beginning that I had to relinquish control. This might seem like a counterintuitive thing for a director to do. I learned that I could extensively prepare what we were going to work on in each session and immediately in turn throw it out once we got into the space and started to dive in. Rehearsal activities ranged from me interviewing Rachae, to character discovery and exploratory exercises for movement and gestures, to listening to the songs from the show to singing them and then talking about the memories that came up during the act. There was a lot of patience that needed to be practiced by both of us as we discovered the way the other worked. We also discovered our own techniques, as neither of us had ever done anything quite like this before. Once we understood our unique artistic styles, we learned how to cater to our collective needs in order to elevate the work and move forward.
The journey of this production has been magical. It has characterized the essence of what I think it truly means to be an artist: splashing around and swimming in uncharted waters rather than being focused only on the result of what it will look like once you get to shore. While the end destination has always been kept in mind, exploration is where this piece was born. The process of this play has been pure play and has reminded me what it means to play while creating art and why plays are in fact called plays.
It has been a joyful game of trial and error, of sharing and peeling back the layers of Rachae’s life until we unearthed the gems. It has been an honor. Most directors only dream of being granted this type of opportunity. The shared space to create freely has been a continuous rejuvenation and contribution to the evolution of my creative spirit.
PIECES OF CARRA, created by Rachae Thomas and Carly Pandza plays June 19 – 22 at the Stephanie Fury Studio Theatre as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Working With Women: SWAN Day Into Rituals
I am a director. I am female.
I work with playwrights. Some are female.
I also work with actors. Some of whom are female.
And I’m hoping to live long enough to see a time when that is no longer something to talk about.
I recently had the pleasure of working with the very talented Kathy Graf on her short play The Stiff, at a recent SWAN Day (Support Women Artist Now Day) event held at Samuel French Bookstore in Hollywood. Graf’s play is a juicy little piece centered on Sam, a woman dying of Parkinson’s and reflecting on her life and the people around her. Although the premise could make for a maudlin, syrupy slide in to stereotypes, Graf gives us a fierce, unapologetically flawed woman who, up till the very end, does things her way. The Quintessential Antihero ~ and a woman. Two things not often seen together on stage or screen. I loved assisting in bringing this very real story to life and look forward to collaborating with more women writers to produce effecting, exciting, challenging art.
That’s one of the reasons SWAN Day was so exciting. Writing is very much a solitary practice, and directing can be just as isolating for different reasons, so having a day dedicated to female artists and their work let you remember that you were not alone.
The energy was electric. There was a full house of women AND men gathered together to support the women writers and directors. The scripts were witty, insightful, poignant and innovative. The actors, mainly drawn from The Vagrancy, were committed and talented. Overall, it was a great success.
However, as I was leaving the event, surrounded by all these powerful, dedicated women working the entry table, concessions, the script dissemination table, my heart sank a little as I noticed an older woman walk right past all of them, to get to the male friend I was standing with – she made sure to ask him where check-in was. Since he didn’t know, I pointed her in the right direction and my friend and I both chuckled sadly as we walked out to the street.
As I said, I hope for the day when being a female writer/director/artist is no longer something to talk about. For now, I just keep on working.
To see more of what I and the talented people of The Vagrancy are up to, come out to see their 24 hour play festival Rituals: A Bacchanalia this Saturday, April 12th. It’s writing, directing and acting on the fly in a 24hour wiz-bang of a show and celebration. You don’t want to miss this one! Just make sure you ask a woman for directions.
Join LAFPI’s partners at The Vagrancy for
RITUALS: A Bacchanalia!
WHERE: Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd
TICKETS: $20 in advance at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/632991
($25 at the door)
This year’s (female!) playwrights will include Nahal Navidar, Amy Tofte, Annette Lee & Megan Breen (nods also to Boni B. Alvarez, Jesse Shao & Tim Cummings).
The women directors staging the new works will be Sabina Ptasznik, Caitlin Hart, Kitty Lindsay, Laura Steinroeder, McKerrin Kelly & Randee Trabitz. (Plus, big-time supporter of all things LAFPI, the wonderful Doug Oliphant!)
Women on the Edge
by Dee Jae Cox
Women on the edge…. Of change…. Of growth…. Of insanity…. Of a breakthrough. I visualize women constantly on the precipice of change, just ready to make their mark and overcome the obstacles that prevent them from moving forward. I’ve read that women are much less likely to take risks than men are. We play it safe and take the long road towards success rather than just taking that leap of faith and free falling towards the bottom of the canyon with the hope that at some point before we hit bottom… we’ll sprout wings.
But when we do venture out and shake off the dust of our cubbyholes, we find that the light and the success of our work is so much more than we ever knew it could be. On November 15th Monique Carmona will offer a book signing of her incredible book of monologues, Women on the Edge, at Samuel French, in Hollywood. I met Monique at Samuel French at an LAFPI gathering. She read from Women on the Edge and I was mesmerized by her presentation and her creation of brilliant and unique characters. She reminded me of why I love theatre and why I so strongly believe that women have to support each other in getting our work on to the stage.
I founded The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project in order to provide sorely needed opportunities for women’s voices in Los Angeles theatre. While I listened to Monique read from her book of monologues, I remember thinking…. This is exactly why women need stages and audiences and most of all opportunities to take risks with their work and their voices. We need to shed the fear that keeps us in our safe little places, but allows no room for passion or growth. Monique Carmona, is an artist who takes that leap of faith, plummets from the edge towards the rock hard bottom of the creative canyon and finds her wings before hitting bottom. She dares to defy odds and pursue her passion. And that is exactly what we, as women, must put solid effort into doing. It’s not enough to allow the words to flow from our imagination onto the page. We have to then set the page on fire by ensuring that our stories are then produced and performed before audiences, as is the intent of theatre. We must firmly commit to the notion that the stage must burn with equity we seldom find and a feminine voice that is seldom heard.
Award-winning actress and writer Monique Carmona’s work grew from a desire to create more material for her to work on and grow with. Material that busted through worn out archetypes to ones that were flawed, alive and compelling.
On November 15th, 3:30 pm at the Samuel French Bookstore Monique will offer a book signing of her incredible book of monologues, Women on the Edge. She is in the process of getting her work from the page to the stage and providing another much needed venue for women’s stories to be told. Every time I see a woman like Monique, step out on that ledge and take that leap of faith with her work, my heart takes flight and I am inspired to take that free fall from the edge, secure in the knowledge that before I hit bottom, I’ll find my wings.
Dee Jae Cox is a Playwright, Director and Producer. She is the Co-Founder of The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for women in the Performing Arts. And she is the host of ‘California Woman 411’, (californiawoman411.com) a weekly radio show that showcases women who lead and inspire in the Arts, Business, Politics and discusses topics that are of interest and benefit to women. You can tune in every Saturday morning at 10 am on KPTR 1450 AM, Palm Springs. Or live stream it on your computer at www.kptr1450.com and listen in from anywhere.
Expect the Unexpected at LAFPI
by Lynne Moses
Who knew attending an LAFPI Gathering at Samuel French would lead directly to a production of one of my plays! But that’s exactly what happened.
I’ve been attending these gatherings because I meet great people and the readings of people’s one-page offerings are so damn entertaining. At one such gathering, a beautiful and delightful young woman showed up holding an attention grabbing little dog. Her name is Pauline Schantzer, and she read a page from her work-in-progress, a historical piece about a young woman determined to teach African-American girls, even at the cost of losing her white students.
Turned out Pauline enjoyed the one-page reading from my short play, “Can You Hear Me Now?” and thought it might make a good piece for her and some of her fellow actors at Playhouse West Repertory to play with. That idea soon mushroomed into a brainstorm to stage the show, and she set to work finding some other short plays to add to the program and make a production of it. Being a great Instigator, she posted a request for plays on the theme of “cell phones and miscommunication in the digital age” in the LAFPI eBlast, and before long she had additional plays to round out the program.
Using her Pauline voodoo magic, she soon had the Sherry Theatre arranged for a week-end run, directors for the plays and actors from Playhouse West cast. So now it’s in rehearsals!
Come see the short play program “Can You Hear Me Now?,” produced by Pauline Schantzer and featuring “Failure to Communicate,” written & directed by Instigator Allie Costa, “Can You Hear Me Now?,” written and directed by yours truly and “Aspiration/Dream,” written by Instigator Vanessa David and directed by Nathan Swain.
And come to the LAFPI Gatherings at Samuel French. You never know what will come of it. Next one is on November 9th from 1-4 pm.
“Can You Hear Me Now?”: plays about miscommunication in the digital age
October 18, 19 & 20 at 8 pm; October 20 at 2 pm
The Sherry Theater
11052 Magnolia Blvd (between Lankershim & Vineland) in North Hollywood
“Loudest, Clearest, Sassiest and Smartest”:
Empowering Female Voices in WaveFest
by Chloe Huang
WaveFest, a six-week short play festival created by Santa Monica Rep, will surely keep the heat on stage as the summer ends. From September 7 to October 13 in Santa Monica at the Church in Ocean Park, eighteen productions will greet the world in three “waves” over six weekends with the theme “Go West.”
Jen Bloom, originally from the East Coast, is lead producer of WaveFest and co-founder of Santa Monica Rep. She talks about the establishment of the theme:
“I remember when I moved out here, people said to me, ‘You really have to fight to figure yourself out in California’… As a company, we were ready to do new work. So we all brainstormed as a hive, and came up with the idea of doing a short play festival about the West. The theme ‘Go West’ came to us, because we wanted to know more about where we lived and worked. What does ‘Southern California’ really mean?”
The plays in WaveFest will explore stories of the Westside and Southern California “through the lens of history, neighborhood, cultural group, class status, age, myths, and the entertainment industry.” The stories are full of life and surprises. Ann Marie Tullo, one of the producer/directors of the event, told us that she learned much about the place she lives.
“The stories that have come out of it are fantastic. I’m learning things about Santa Monica that I certainly never knew,” Tullo says. “We have two plays with conquistadors!”
What makes WaveFest different from other similar events is that amongst the eighteen pieces presented in this year’s WaveFest, more than 2/3 are works by female writers (including five LAFPI members).
“We were never actively trying to make that happen. It just did,” Bloom clarifies when asked to comment on the significant presence of female writers in this year’s WaveFest. Bloom asserts that she only focused on picking the “loudest, clearest, sassiest and smartest” plays for the festival, and the result happens to favor female voices.
“I only realized this as was I began to talk to Isabel Storey, who’s handling our publicity. She said ‘Oh, that’s a lot of women!’ and I said, ‘Oh, how funny!’” Bloom says and laughs.
When asked what drew her to women’s stories, Bloom says:
“I respond to complicated relationships. The plays we selected were the most interesting, fully layered pieces. Most of them just happen to be by women. And even a few that were written by men are centered around women characters.”
Moreover, Bloom explains that the suggestion of specific social/historical themes might also contribute to the fact that most plays selected are works from female writers.
“Women rose to the challenge of the theme in different ways; they took it and exploded into it,” Bloom says. “Many of the plays we turned down were too formulaic, the writers didn’t get inspired by the challenge or push against it. Of course this is a huge generalization, but too many male playwrights just ‘completed the form’.”
Women are making themselves heard not only as WaveFest writers, but also in other aspects of the event: more than half of the performers and staff are women. Directors are 50/50 female/male. Since male directors are more common in the theater, this is truly unusual.
As publicist of the event, Isabel Storey says:
“Men are definitely included and represented in the festival, but there is a strong female presence. The predominance of women writers leads to inclusion of a number of interesting women’s stories and characters – with stories about women young and old, rich and poor, Caucasian, Hispanic and Black – and issues of interest to women.”
The unintentional strong presence of female voices in the new short play festival makes a significant statement, suggesting the increasingly important part female voices play in the contemporary American theater.
Look out! The women are coming.
For more information on WaveFest, performed Saturday Sept. 7 – Sunday October 13, visit http://www.SantaMonicaRep.org.
WaveFest features plays by Tanya White, Ann-Giselle Spiegler, Isabella Russell-Ides, Lisa Kenner, Raegan Payne, Vasanti Saxena, Rachel Kann, Andrea Schell, Susan Bullington Katz, Lindsey Haley, Mary Steelsmith & Jennie Webb, and the work of directors Jen Bloom, Michelle Joyner, Joanna Syiek, Sara Israel & Ann Marie Tullo.
Marguerite Fair: Mother of Re-Invention
By Mary Steelsmith
One of the many things that delight me about our LAFPI meetings is, well, MEETING people at the meetings. Back in April, I found myself sitting next to Marguerite Fair. As we chatted, it occurred to me I was possibly in the presence of a true Renaissance Woman–novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker, director and playwright. And being a woman of age, she draws from vast life experiences to share her unique point of view with the world.
Since moving to Los Angeles from the East coast, Marguerite has embarked on a journey, which she says has resulted in thirteen screenplays (www.screenplaystosell.com) and five nonfiction books. Marguerite’s books may be purchased directly from her publication website: www.Fairebooks.com.
So far, she has written three plays: “Your Late Mother,” “Emotional Bondage” and “Goddess Intervention.” GI is a fable of four obsessive Goddesses who embark on a comical path to self-realization, via the Wayne Dyer code of being better than they used to be.
“Goddess Intervention,” which is also being directed and produced by Ms. Fair, stars Cal Bartlett, Jody Berger, Katsy Chappell, Audrey Mitchell, Cynthia Russell and Toni Tinkelman. It will have a special one-time performance Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 2:00 P.M. at SpiritWorks Center, 260 North Pass Avenue, in Burbank. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website: www.goddessintervention.com, directly from Marguerite Fair or at the door.
This one-time performance of “Goddess Intervention” is a fundraiser for Marguerite’s next project, a full production of “Your Late Mother,” a drama about a mother’s last day of life in which she gets her wish granted from God to reunite her fractured family before passing into the Afterlife. The message it delivers is that we should aspire to heal our lives while there is still time.”
Marguerite’s early passion for writing was inspired by novelist Margaret Mitchell. At age ten, “GONE WITH THE WIND was the first grown-up book I ever read. I loved it from cover to cover.” From that point on, she simply knew she would be a writer. “I loved writing little stories and letters. When my mom was sick and in the hospital, I used to write her letters that would make all the nurses cry. When my mother told me that, I knew that my writing could emotionally touch people, and that was it.”
A couple of years ago, Marguerite attended her first meeting of the LAFPI, and was greatly impressed by the supportive and creative environment. “It is comforting to be with other female playwrights to share information about upcoming shows and just enjoy the energy of talented and empowered women.” She advises younger women starting out to accept and own what they do as writers and understand that their voice is uniquely theirs and theirs alone. “Never compare your path or talent to other people; just move forward with your expressions and draw from personal experience for emotional tones in writing.”
Looking beyond next year’s production of “Your Late Mother,” ever the re-inventor, Marguerite smiles, “I am on an ongoing internal journey of connecting to, and being aware of, my ability to be conscious and spiritual in my thoughts. Self-awareness is my lifelong quest.” It will be fascinating to see what she comes up with next.
About Mary Steelsmith, Playwright
By Marguerite Fair
Attracting wonderful people is a special gift with which I am blessed. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Female Playwrights Initiative meeting at the Samuel French Bookstore down on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, CA. That’s where I had the delightful experience of meeting the lovely and talented Mary Steelsmith, an internationally, award-winning playwright. It was obvious that my first writing assignment for the Female Playwrights Initiative website would be about Mary, her unique story and amazing talent as a playwright.
In 2012, Mary was chosen to take her Helford prize-winning full length play, “Isaac, I am” to Stockholm, Sweden, where it was presented to an audience at the Women’s Playwrights International Conference. Mary noted that it was a rare and wonderful experience to have the opportunity to make new friends from Australia to Palestine and Afghanistan to Kenya. It is easy to understand why people want to keep in touch with Mary. She is kind and warm person who emanates a joyful and positive energy.
Mary’s talent for creating unique and spectacular ten minute plays is a true statement about the level of her talent. Mary’s plays have been seen at many venues, some of which are The Secret Theatre in New York; “DC Swan Day” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington DC; Goshen College Winter One Acts/Goshen College Theater; Western Michigan University Directors’ Festival of New Works and many other impressive stages.
When the question was asked “Is there a writer or other person whose work you admired or has inspired you?” Mary’s quick response was about her mother Cassie who was born in Watts, California in 1913. Five years later Cassie and her family took a horse-drawn wagon and homesteaded in Southern Idaho. During World War II, with her dad being an enlisted man, Mary’s mom supported the family as a reporter for the local newspaper and was paid by the word. Her articles about the latest Campfire Girls Social function – including the names of each girl, mother, what each brought for the potluck and the recipes – made the articles popular and well-received. By the time Mary’s dad returned from overseas, Cassie had paid for the house. Mary was born eleven years after the war ended and she naturally fell in love with writing and story-telling.
Mary became aware of her strong writing voice when she became angry about the ending of ” The Diary of Anne Frank.” As quoted by Mary regarding her reaction that kicked her into a creative writing mode: “We read the play in Junior High School English class and were supposed to write essays about it. Being 14, I found it unthinkable to find out that Anne didn’t get away. So, instead of writing an essay, I wrote a new ending to the play, where just as the Nazis are marching up the stairs, Anne and Peter find a secret, secret room and get away. I was given a lower grade for not following the teacher’s instructions.” The moral to Mary’s story is find your voice and write it your way.
I asked Mary how she became involved with the concept of writing ten minute plays. She stated that since her theatrical education consisted of watching the classics on TV, such as The Twilight Zone and the Loretta Young Show, she learned early-on that the economy of story and well-rounded characters were the two major ingredients to write complete and interesting short plays.
Mary admits to being painfully shy and that writing enables her to deal with it. When I asked what would she suggest to inspire younger women, she stated simply: “I would like to assure them that writing something – a story, poem, play, etc. – can save the writer as well as the reader. No matter how good or strange it is, keep writing. Writing saved me. It still does.”
Presently, Mary has two full-length plays that she is in the process of drafting. In addition, she is excited about her play “Seldom is Heard” that will be part of the Kauai Shorts 2013 Festival in Hawaii this August (2013).
Also, look for Mary’s new ten minute play: “Dancing With Sherpas” that will be part of the ALAP/Celebration Theatre reading festival on Saturday, June 15, 2013. Visit laplaywrights.org.
For more information on Mary’s awards, projects and events, please go to www.MarySteelsmith.com.
I just love Mary’s great sense of humor, so evident when asked her favorite quote: “All’s well that isn’t swollen.”
Thank you Mary Steelsmith, I am delighted to have met you!
“Tactical Reads” Begin June 27 at Atwater Crossing
What’s the point of another reading series?
No, really, I ask myself this question all the time, especially when I am listening to plays that are uninteresting, which will never be produced, under work lights, and there is no wine.
The idea for Tactical Reads came about because I was sitting around in apartment contemplating how I was going to get in touch with female playwrights who wrote plays that riveted me specifically. There are lots of wonderful plays out there by women, but how to find those that specifically spoke to who I am as a director versus the other brilliant female director sitting next to me? And so it dawned upon me that perhaps I could start a reading series not for the writer, but for the director, that would inadvertently benefit the writer as well.
This made me nervous because all of a sudden I felt self-serving, as if looking for material that interested me directorially was a sin that would be punished in some not-so-benign theater hell. But playwright Jennie Webb said this was “crack for writers,” to have directors actively searching for their work, and so I knew that I didn’t have to limit myself in starting a reading series that was more development and writer-based, but that I could really go for something a bit more product-oriented.
And so the child of Tactical Reads was birthed.
Why “tactical?” Because we are moving with purpose to find collaborations between female writers and directors that will actually go somewhere.
Tactical Reads will be held every other month, and it is my hope that by next summer we as an Artistic Committee can find one play that we are excited about working toward producing. The Artistic Committee, which is small now and growing, is composed of play readers who are also directors searching for the kind of material that interests them.
The Tactical Reads will be followed by a brief talkback moderated with specific questions as to the future of the play at hand, with emphasis on
a. whether the play is ready to be produced,
b. thoughts about the specific directorial interpretation and choices made in the reading,
c. what is the play’s audience?
d. what steps can be taken toward producing ends in the future?
Tactical Reads is excited to get its start at Atwater Crossing, the perfect place to grab a bite and a drink, then share new work at one of their performance spaces. Future reads will be held jointly with our LAFPI Gatherings. This means we’ll now will have a regular schedule and a live event to accompany all the networking, gossiping, and, well, wine.
The first Tactical Read will be Strawberry by Paula Cizmar on June 27th at 8 pm.
We’ll gather at 7 pm to play catch up, scheme and welcome new LAFPI Instigators.
See you there.
LA Theaters Come Together in a HeatWave
There’s plenty of dramatic conflict to be found in the earth’s rising temperatures.
And there’s plenty theater artists in LA can do about it, if we do it together.
At least that’s the way artist and award-winning designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz looks at it.
“Like a lot of my friends and colleagues, I’m personally very active in fighting for the environment,” she says. “And over the last few years I’ve seen more and visual artists connecting to the green movement, creating art and participating in Earth Day events. But nothing was happening in the theater community.”
Working with Rogue Machine Theatre, she reached out to LA theaters, theatermakers and playwrights, hoping they’d share her goals of
- generating new works focused on the environment
- promoting and facilitating green practices in theater operations and production
- connecting theater artists to environmental activists
The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is proud to be one of the first to make the commitment!
HeatWave launches on Saturday, June 9th from 9:00am – 4:30pm with a participatory and community-building conference, hosted by Tree People. Open to the public, the day’s events include speakers, entertainment and break-out sessions encouraged to match playwrights and producers with LA-area environmental groups.
Future happenings include opportunities for playwrights and directors to be involved in the HeatWave Inagural Readings Series in January, 2103, and the HeatWave Earth Day Festival, Friday, April 19 – Sunday, April 21, 2013.
“In LA, we have a strong sense of community among theaters and artists,” Stephanie continues. “But with the pressing environmental issues facing us, I wanted to find a way to channel our energy and creativity in a way that makes us look outside of ourselves. By working together, we can have real impact within the community and beyond it.”
The first HeatWave Conference will take place Saturday, June 9th, 9:00am – 4:30 pm at TreePeople, 12601 Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Admission is $25, to cover the cost of refreshments and lunch. Reservations are required. Visit heatwavetheatre.org or call 323-405-7557 for more information.
A New Collaborative Start on March 25th
Where do the seeds of new projects come from?
“It’s kind of funny: this one was born from deceit,” says Ella Martin.
Ella’s an active theater artist who was LAFPI Study Director for last year’s examination of women playwrights on LA stages. She’s also Artistic Director of Theatre Mab Town Hall, and it was while she was doing a quick change of actor/playwright/director/producer hats while dishing with a few close colleagues that she hit upon the idea of a Collaborations Conversation: a panel of extraordinary women theater professionals coming together to share their experiences as collaborators, which would then create a springboard for new collaborative projects.
So, what’s deceitful about that?
The whole thing started as surprise party for a playwright pal; the ruse was that the birthday girl thought she was showing up for a panel focusing on collaborations.
“Well, she got very excited about this panel that wouldn’t exist,” Ella explains. “And as we kept taking about it at one point I said, ‘Wait: That really is a good idea! Should we see if we can really do it?’ So now we are!”
In making her plan a reality, Ella connected with WomenArts SWAN Day and reached out to artists she’s worked with in the past, including Theatricum Botanicum Artistic Director Ellen Geer; Dale Franzen, Founding Director of The Broad Stage; Cal Arts’ Marissa Chibas; Santa Monica Rep Co-Founder Jen Bloom; actress/director Susan Angelo; and frequent collaborators Mary F. Casey and Ann-Giselle Spiegler.
“All of these women come at collaboration from different directions,” Ella says. “But many of them have or have had a professional relationship. I wanted to emphasize the overlap; the fact that we are all connected. We sometimes work with people once or twice, or repeatedly over many years, but – especially as women – it’s often relationships that can carry you through in a very concrete way.”
Ella stresses that the Collaborations Conversation itself won’t be a dry panel discussion; there will be no complaining, whining, dumping or needlepoint.
“This is not stitch n’ bitch,” says Ella, smiling, but in a way that you know she’s serious. “I hope everyone enjoys sharing laughs and experiences; it’s important to me that everyone who comes takes an active part in the conversation, not just the women on the panel.”
“I also hope that people there meet new collaborators, that at least one new project gets off the ground because of this. No,” she qualifies. “More than one!”
It’s all gotta’ start somewhere.
Due to rain, the venue for the March 25 Collaborations Conversation is now the Topanga Christian Fellowship Church at 269 Old Topanga Cyn Rd (near Inn of the Seventh Ray). Event Info Here. For updates contact email@example.com or phone 805.750.9885
Pacific Resident Theater’s Triple Threat:
A Play Written, Chosen, and Directed by Women
For the second work of its 25th season, Pacific Resident Theatre produces The Indians are Coming to Dinner — a work written and directed by women. Does being female make PRT’s artistic director Marilyn Fox more receptive to women playwrights and directors?
When LAFPI’s Alison Hills talked to the show’s playwright, Jennifer Rowland, and director, Julia Fletcher, about their collaboration on The Indians are Coming to Dinner for our friends at LA STAGE Times, neither woman was sure. Fox knew Rowland’s work through her participation in PRT’s writing group. Fletcher, as PRT’s founding artistic director, was also familiar to Fox. The low number of female directors hired and playwrights produced by L.A. theaters puzzled both women. Fletcher found theater’s continued bias against women baffling. She cited the example of a woman director who consistently directed award-winning shows at her own North Hollywood theater for 30 years. Even with this excellent record, bigger theaters did not hire her. They both believed the bias was unconscious. To counter this bias, LAFPI will feature female directors, artistic directors, and playwrights on this FPI files page.
PRT Founder Fletcher Returns With Rowland’s Indians
Sandwiched between two beauty salons on Venice Boulevard, the three-stage Pacific Resident Theatre (PRT) complex does not look like the home of a critically acclaimed theater company celebrating its 25th season. No play title has yet appeared on the marquee when I arrive to interview the director and playwright of PRT’s upcoming show — the premiere of Jennifer Rowland’s comedy, The Indians are Coming to Dinner, directed by PRT’s founding artistic director Julia Fletcher. Frosted glass and white boards cover the store-front windows.
But once I’m inside, those first impressions change. Maroon, velvet curtains frame the entrance to a cozy room with three Victorian-styled, cushioned couches, an upright piano, and walls covered with photos from past shows.
Who Needs The Dramatists Guild?
WE DO! How fantastic to have such a terrific organization behind the LAFPI from its inception. The Dramatists Guild of America has invaluable resources for its members – playwrights, composers and lyricists – and a local Regional Rep who’s one of the most generous and accessible humans on the planet. (Yes, this in Hollywood.) Visit dramatistsguild.com, tell them the LAFPI sent you, and let the love fest continue.
The Fabulous Taste of Bitter Lemons
We’re huge fans of Enci, a Bitter Lemons author and one of the first artist/activists in the LA theater scene to proudly proclaim, “I’m with the FPI!”
She’s promoted the FPI and other mouth-puckering ventures on an edgy site which is “Bringing the Los Angeles Theatre Community closer together, “Whether It likes it or not.” For stage-centric musings and video interviews from the Bitter Lemons crew, visit bitter-lemons.com. You can also read about Enci’s adventures at illuminateLA.com
Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!
Thanks to WomenArts, LAFPI’s generous instigators, and donors Juliet Annerino, Paula Cizmar, Alexandria Dilks Pandola, Megan Dolan, Heather Dowling, Marian Evans, Diane Grant, Elizabeth Liang, Lisa A. Mammel, Laura Nargi, Laura Shamas, Joy Bingham Strimple & Anonymous
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