All posts by Chelsea Sutton

To Not Hiding & Vulnerability Nuggets

by Chelsea Sutton

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

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

HERE’S YOUR DISTRACTION:

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

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

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

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

So like…I have to be me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at me. Not distracting you.

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

Damnit.

On Sea-Monkeys, Monologues + Producing Your Own Work

by Chelsea Sutton

I love a good monologue. My first full length play, 99 Impossible Things, was FULL of them. Too many, in fact. Far too many. I directed and produced that play in January and February of 2011, and at the time I was working at Garry Marshall’s theatre in the Valley. He read the play, and, in a few margin notes, reminded me that while monologues are great, don’t underestimate the power of a look or a gesture or silence to express everything a half page monologue can, almost always more succinctly, and sometimes in a way that words can never reach.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind when approaching each new play; though I never write a play without that ONE monologue. I have to have ONE somewhere. Maybe it’s a bad habit.

Harold and the Sea Monkey in 99 Impossible Things.

It’s now been 10 years since 99, the first thing I directed and produced and wrote in LA. The first thing that was unequivocally mine. There was nowhere for me to hide. Even though I had amazing collaborators, designers, and actors, there was no doubt that this THING you were seeing would be blamed on me.

Let’s be clear that it wasn’t a particularly good play. It was probably too long. It probably had too many characters and storylines. The monologues, as much as I still love them, were a bit on the nose. Playwright me NOW would rip it apart.

A sea monkey was a character. And it was about a group of people processing grief. 

The critics as a whole did not enjoy this play. And I got a lot of crap for being 25 and having the gall to both write AND direct a play while being a woman. I had to process the feeling of working very hard and putting my own money and all this time into something that could be so easily dismissed. But it was an exercise in gratitude. 

People were coming and watching and having thoughts about the play, after all. Writing things about it. Spending their time on it. It’s really the most a writer ever wants. I made a lot of people cry at the end of the play. Always my goal. I did have a lot of people personally tell me how much they connected to it, enjoyed it, were touched by it.  So while I didn’t get a critic’s choice in the LA Times, I got encouragement to keep going, and a lesson in the importance of and sticky art of criticism.

One of the best notes I got was from a professional psychologist, a family friend, who told me how truthful it was, to the process, to grieving specifically, and how could I already know those things?

My answer right now is that I think most of us already know these things in our bones. Some of us are forced to confront things sooner than some. And some spend their whole lives avoiding the silence that will make them have to face, well…anything uncomfortable.

In the play, the most uncomfortable character comes in the form of a Sea Monkey, who silently haunts the character of Harold, and whose silence and final lines of the play speak volumes more than many of the monologues. A Sea Monkey who represents something that was lost, something that will never return, no matter how much you want it.

This is a piece of a monologue from the play that feels most resonant right now to me: 

“There’s this spot on the wall in my kitchen – I have this awful olive green paisley wall paper from the ‘60s that was there when I moved in – and there’s this spot where the seam is, where they ran outta paper and patched it, and the design doesn’t quite match up, the little dots and twirls just end abruptly, sorta lost to the infinite void all of a sudden. That’s how things are usually – there’s no smooth exit, no gradient shading us out. So whenever I feel like I might explode, I sit on the counter and I stare at that spot in the kitchen, and I try forget.” – Harold, 99 Impossible Things

I feel like I’m living in that weird patched up wallpaper right now. And, unlike my character Harold, I’m trying not to forget.

To make sure I don’t forget, I decided to create and produce a play again on my own. Well, a kind of play. A play through the mail. A play made up of interactive fiction, audio drama, found objects, and phone calls. A “play” of disparate voices, alone, trying to find what is lost.

An image from Spite & Malice, the postal play.

I’m a little bit terrified of putting this into the world. It’s deeply personal, I’m processing things as I’m creating, and it’s a kind of thing I haven’t really created before. It doesn’t feel particularly safe. I can’t promise anything when it comes to the outcome.

But when I did 99, it was also new to me. I’d written it as a final project in college and my little theatre group and I put up our college production. That was scary, but it was a safe space. I could easily dismiss it as a thesis, as a work in progress. Producing it as a main stage show in 2011 seemed to be saying: hey all, come look, this is finished, come have thoughts.

And so, here I am again.

And yeah, there will be monologues.

Perhaps, though we need a reminder from the Great himself:

I had a reviewer friend come see 99 and wrote me an email comparing it to The Time of Your Life by Saroyan. I still have not read that play, but I offer this quote, to those who could use it. It is a cousin in sentiment to a the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver, which I read at my grandmother’s funeral on December 23, 2020:

In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches…Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret…In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.” ― The Time Of Your Life

I have no concluding thought for this. This monologue has already been long enough. There is, perhaps, no conclusion to draw from the moment we’re all in except to keep creating, keep living, keep doing and being the best you can.

This is the sad post.

by Chelsea Sutton

Yesterday I wrote a happy post. I warned you there’d be a sad post.

This is it.

As writers, we are trained to find patterns and story in our everyday tragedies and tribulations. We look for meaning. We look for bad guys and good guys. We look for connections, arcs, morals, lessons.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

Theatre artists will work long hours for little to no pay because we believe in what we do. Because we think we’re lucky. Because we have glorified the starving artist trope. Because we have to pay our dues, which we have interpreted to mean that we have to be okay with being treated like shit or underpaid or burnt out and so exhausted from working on other people’s visions that we have no time for our own.

There’s a whole thing going down about The Flea in New York right now, about their practices doing exactly what I described. I never worked with them, have no intimate knowledge of what happened. But this particular exchange hit me as truthful in a universal way:

I used to wonder if I should have moved to New York to be a playwright. At some point I blamed my choice for staying in Southern California as the reason I had no real playwriting career. Whatever the hell that means….I mean really. I don’t know. Do you? I used to think playwriting could be a career and now I’m not so sure.

I stayed here for many reasons. Not the least of which I was afraid, yes. But I also had a grandmother who I was very close with, already in her 80s by the time I graduated college. And a younger brother turning 7. I wanted to be a part of their lives. For her, it was the last decade of her life. I was already projecting into a future of grief, and I wanted to plan for that. I could be a granddaughter and sister across the country. But not in the way I wanted to. I figured I could still be a playwright here just as well and still be the person I wanted to be. So I stayed.

I used to wonder if I should have gone to NY to work at places like The Flea. But if I had made that choice, 13 years ago when I was leaving undergrad, I would still be here, in the middle of a pandemic, the whole industry shut down and scrambling, and sins surfacing because we no longer have anything to lose.

And I’d be alone in a little apartment in NY. Maybe with another production or two under my belt. Maybe. But just as broke and confused and wondering if I should have stayed in LA all those years ago.

And I’d be grieving my grandmother just the same.

Because she died yesterday.

It’s a long story that I don’t think anyone wants to read. But she and I both contracted COVID from her caregiver, who we had just hired to come in to my parents home, where my grandmother was now living, to help her exercise and eat and be well a few times a week. I’d met the caregiver that first day and spent a lot of time showing her around. She didn’t know she’d been exposed before coming to us.

So my grandmother and I both got sick. It has been a very long month.

Here is where the blessing of the writer species comes in. I look at the whole arc of the story, and I’m grateful I stayed close by. I was able to be close with her, help her where I could, and be next to her while she died at home yesterday afternoon. So many people do not get that small gift right now. To be able to say goodbye. To know you did something, even if it was not enough to conquer death. I’m glad I did not give up who I hoped I could be for the chance to work at The Flea.

Here’s the curse.

I’m angry. I’m angry at everyone refusing to wear masks, who take risks that are intentionally exposing others. For companies who do not, after 9 months in a pandemic, have even the minimal amount of education and systems to at least find proper protection.

I’m angry at the idea that art can only be made on a little island on the east coast. I’m angry at everyone who has exploited others, including myself for buying into it and working in that system.

In my happy post, I wrote that the pandemic has shown how racist, selfish, lazy, entitled, self-driven rather than community driven we all are. And I stand by that. And I’m angry about it.

But, my default is to look for meaning and clarity in all this, to organize it into a story I can understand. But my anger does not work like that. I am going to spin my wheels on that search for years. I will never have an answer that feels like enough.

I think every grief is different. For each person, and each loss.

We’ve been grieving the loss of theatre for 9 months. It has looked different for everyone.

I’m still figuring out what my grief looks like right now. It has been almost 28 hours.

This is going to take a long time.

This is the happy post

by Chelsea Sutton

Coming Soon: Welcome to Meadowlark Falls – Christmas At Home

There will be a sad post. That will come next. Because it always does.

But this is the happy one.

There are things that make you hopeful. New government leadership. The blessing and land acknowledgement before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The Bath & Bodyworks candle sale. You know.

When it comes to theatre, I’m happy that many of us theatre-makers have been trying to innovate, trying to find ways to connect through the digital world, trying to make accessibility something that is baked into our new structures in the new chapter of theatre, whatever that turns out to be. As someone who has always been a cross-genre writer and interested in the expansion of universes, this has been an intellectually interesting time.

This has been one of the worst years in recent history, for sure. All the memes would agree with that.

In many ways, this year has showed us our worst selves. We are racist, selfish, lazy, entitled, self-driven rather than community driven. Right now, my state of mind wants to focus on these things. It really does. But I do have a bad habit of wanting to find the good in the shit. I think it is a survival mechanism. I want there to be meaning where there is none. And often, there is none.

This is the happy post. Just a reminder.

To focus on theatre here, I think most of us felt, in our cores, that the ways things were running were not good or sustainable or even what we wanted. And this moment, if it’s anything at all, is a time to experiment, to not lean on our old habits but try new ways of telling stories.

One way I’ve been starting to explore alternative ways of theatre is through postal plays. There is a national wave of postal plays coming up in the new year. Read all about it here in American Theatre Magazine. I’ll be writing and producing my own play for the wave. Postal plays use either in total or in part the US Postal service to tell their story. The universe of the play becomes a tangible object that arrives at your door. These plays can allow for multimedia inclusion, audience interaction, and immersion, all in the safety of the home.

For the Christmas season, Tin Can Telephone Productions (artist Lori Meeker) has created a postal play made for those of us who binge those holiday Hallmark Christmas movies. Last year, Lori started to create the universe of Meadowlark Falls, the small picturesque New England town where Christmas is exactly how you see it in the movies. It’s a little bit good-hearted spoof too, and working toward updating some of the dated qualities of Hallmark movies in general. We did an in-person workshop last Christmas of one story in the Meadowlark Falls universe, but this year the postal-play brings Christmas to your doorstep in Welcome to Meadowlark Falls – Christmas At Home.

I directed the workshop last year, and for Christmas At Home, I also took on the role of director, but really the creation and organization of all the story beats and elements have been a group effort between Lori, myself, our production manager Alexis Robles and video and audio editor Sara Haddadin. It has truly been a collaboration in many ways that “normal” theatre sometimes isn’t. We’re selling packages now through December 11. There are only a limited amount available, so I hope you check it out.

The Meadowlark Falls Town Council Meeting does not go as planned. Top Left to Right: Roman Dearborn (Amir Levi), Trish Blish (Keiana Richard), Douglass Patel (Anil Margsahayam). Middle Left to Right: Genevieve Snow (Taylor Ashbrook), Andy (Samantha Frontera), Noel (Nicholas McDonald). Bottom Left to Right: Jenny Snow (Carley Herlihy) and Whitney (Carene Rose Mekertichyan).

This is a light-hearted holiday experiment, but I think this is only one of many ways in which theatre can continue to explore interacting with audiences in new ways, even if those old ways are as old as the post office. Sometimes it is not only about creating new tools, but finding new ways to use the old ones.

That’s what makes me hopeful. There are a lot of terrible things to throw out and rebuild. And there are a lot of old things can be repurposed, reframed, and reused.

It sometimes takes extra work. And extra energy. And sometimes you don’t have that in a pandemic. But we have to be fools sometimes. And hopeful.

The Ritual of Self-Destruction

by Chelsea Sutton

I’ve been having a hard time focusing my thoughts lately. When they do coalesce, they tend toward the negative. My ego has been battered and beaten in the wind. About a year and a half ago, I had a decent sense of who I was, what I wanted to do, and where I was going.

Now? I spend most days swirling in negative thoughts.

I’m very sure my friends are tired of asking how I am and what they get is a heavy sigh and a “Oh, I’m fine…” thick with the drama of someone who has just survived an island of dinosaurs.

And while negative thinking does not help one feel particularly motivated or empowered to write that next Great American Play that could not possibly be produced before 2025 at this point, positive thinking feels rather naive right now.

Look at the Goldblum and forget.

But it is not positive thinking I need. I’m realizing that before the pandemic – and actually months before that, in spring 2019 – I was doing okay because I had ritual and routine in my life.

I grew up Lutheran and did the Confirmation thing and the teaching Vacation Bible School thing and mostly hated it all, but continued to pray up until maybe my early 20s. Theater became my new church around that time – it was my ritual, my routine, the way I connected with myself. And now…?

Before the pandemic, I was struggling with finding some solid ground in this new chapter of life. But one thing I kept doing was driving to my grandmother’s house is Anaheim once a week and spending 12 hours shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. She needed the extra help, and I felt useful. Since the pandemic, she is living at my parents’ house (which was always the plan) and that routine fell away…

I didn’t stop praying because I stopped believing in God or the interconnectedness of the universe or ghosts or whatever. I’m skeptical, but I also just bought two Tarot decks and watched the whole of the new Ghost Hunters on Hulu. So, you do the math. But the ritual of praying stopped having meaning for me. Before the pandemic, going to a theater had started to wane in meaning too. Even the act of writing feels more like work than magic.

I’ve defined my life in terms of being “a writer.” My whole identity is wrapped in that. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when certain things don’t work out, when Theatre seems to have said “no thank you” to me in general, and when our industry is on a perpetual pause, AND the film industry, AND all of our terrible dirty laundry is being aired out, one has to wonder if defining oneself by THIS is such a good idea.

My routine these days is just my to do list. Endless check boxes that lead to nothing.

When all your meaning, ideas of success, and curiosity is wrapped up in things that are outside your control, where does that leave you?

We are in a period of self destruction. And rebuilding. On both macro and micro levels.

I have had these three tabs open for the last couple days in preparation of writing this blog.

Highest grossing movie this week was Jurassic Park. A movie nearly 30 years old. An indication that the Hollywood machine has halted….and that stories of self destruction are pretty damn relevant.

This week, Center Theater Group laid off half of its workforce.

The PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship, which was a life-changer for my career and, well, life, has been canceled for next year. It’s unclear if there will ever be the money and support to get it going again.

These are all twisted up together in my head. It has something to do with finding meaning and priorities and community. Something to do with a ritual of destruction. Something to do with the T-Rex in Jurassic Park actually being a hero and not the villain like we are led to believe.

Last time I was at my grandmother’s house, I found this photo (below). This, perhaps, more than anything else right now, feels like this moment to me. A world overexposed and erased. But enough of an airplane left to fly into the fog.

Life finds a way.

The FPI Files: Puppets, Prose & Pandemics

By Chelsea Sutton

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.

Written by Jessica Shoemaker
Designed & Performed by Jaime Lyn Beatty

Written by Sandra Ramirez
Designed & Performed by Audrey Densmore

Written by Claire Lin
Created & Performed by Rachael Caselli

Written by Michelle Meyers
Designed and performed by Amy Judd Lieberman

Written and read by Amanda Fletcher
Designed and performed by Léonie Zikos

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

Written and read by Wendy Labinger
Art Direction and Sound Design by Lori Meeker

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

Written by Marnie Goodfriend
Designed and performed by Gina Sandy

Written by Carolina Rivera
Designed and performed by Kelly McMahon

Written and read by Marytza Rubio
Designed by Lelia Woods

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

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

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories. 

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Writer Responsibility 101

by Chelsea Sutton

Back in the olden days, when people gathered together in musty lecture halls to discuss the “literary” canon, I was a TA for a large literature class whose professor loved to include novels involving navel-gazing male protagonists. I was in charge of roughly a quarter of the 130 eager undergraduates, many of whom were aspiring writers themselves.

In my sections, I made it very clear that these students were under no obligation to LIKE any of these 10 books we were reading and that, in fact, I HATED some of them as well. Just because a professor is telling you it’s good does NOT mean you have to agree, I said. But agree or not, you better be able to tell me why you feel that way.

See, it’s my philosophy that you can learn just as much about writing from reading a book you hate as you can from reading one you love. Maybe even more so.

I had to teach Greg Jackson’s book of short stories Prodigals both times I covered this literature class. To spare you the details, most of the stories in the book are about terrible privileged people doing terrible privileged things. But of course, one could argue that most stories are about terrible people. In my house, we don’t say: hey, do you want to watch Avenue 5 tonight? We say: hey, do you want to watch Shitty People in Space tonight?

I do not enjoy Prodigals. Though there are a few sentences I wish I had written.

So Fall 2018 rolls around and we get to Prodigals week. One of my students does not like the book. Why, I asked. He doesn’t agree with the morality of the book – how the characters behaved and treated each other. Doesn’t writing about that behavior condone it? he asked. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the author to expose bad behavior or offer positive role models and morality?

I mean, what a fucking good question.

Let’s get real: no one really likes Aesop’s fables. Not all the time. We don’t want Breaking Bad to wrap up its series finale with: the moral of the story, kids, is don’t become a meth dealer in New Mexico!

But I’d argue that an author has an obligation to read the damn room, to have a larger understanding of the context in which the writing is presented and read, to understand that nothing exists in a vacuum, and to do their due diligence.

Don’t ask me how we got there, but we compared two television shows to explore this line of thinking: Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick) and one that was in development at the time – Confederate, supposedly going to be penned by the Game of Thrones guys, who, you know, never caused an issue (eye roll).

Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Allies lose WWII and Germany and Japan occupy the United States. Confederate is an alternate history in early development at HBO in which the South won the Civil War – so slavery was still a thing in its universe (this was going to be helmed by WHITE MEN, as a reminder.)

At first, the students didn’t see the difference. Two wars, two alternate histories, so what? I am not a history expert nor well-versed in either of these shows, I said. BUT…

Let’s look at the context and the general narratives surrounding both wars, I said. In this country we have oversimplified the WWII narrative to be about good vs. evil. Sure, you could quibble about this or that, but The Good Guys won. So we take that context with us when watching the show. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that the correct people won that war, except maybe Neo-Nazis and aluminum foil-wearing conspiracy theorists, but do you really want them on your side?

No thanks, they said.

Now the Civil War. That’s another thing. We seem to have an ongoing debate in this country surrounding what that war was about (slavery). Many people argue that it was about state’s rights (it was slavery). Many states in the South still have statues of Confederate war heroes (slave owners) and fly the Confederate flag (you know, about slavery).* There are still people in this country who are not convinced that slavery is a bad idea. WE DO NOT HAVE AN AGREED UPON NARRATIVE SURROUNDING RACISM IN THIS COUNTRY. And that carries with us as we watch the show. Would you agree?

Oh shit, yeah, they said.

So back to morality and responsibility. You’re writing a show like Confederate. If you’re going to write a good story, then you’re going to have fleshed out characters, right? That means the slaves and the slave owners will have nuances and good qualities and tragic flaws and we will FEEL for them. And they will exist in a complicated world. And maybe there will be an Emmy-contending monologue in act 4 of the pilot that offers a damn good argument for slavery.

Sounding worrisome? Or at the very least…delicate? In need of a deft hand?

What is the danger of offering up an empathetic slave owner in a society in which we still have not achieved true equity, have not done the work required to actually deal with these sins in a way that uplifts, creates anti-racist policies, and gathers the country into a narrative we agree on?

Especially if that story is offered to us by people who cannot and DO NOT CARE TO understand racism in the way that the Black actors, Black crew members, and Black viewers would understand it. We’ve all seen Game of Thrones. What do YOU think would happen?

Light bulbs flipped on all over the room. These kids had so much to say.

I might be wrong and obtuse about all of this, I said. And please, question me. Question me, question your own thoughts and biases too. Maybe Confederate could be done really well. But look at who is telling the story and why. Who is invited into the room and who is not.

You cannot control how everyone is going to read your writing. It’s simply not possible. But I believe that our responsibility as writers is to first ask ourselves the hard questions about our characters, our narratives, and the larger world in which they will be interacting.

It’s our job to ask the hard questions even when we don’t know the answers. ESPECIALLY when we don’t know the answers. And to confront our own biases and blindness. To show shitty people doing terrible things and sometimes even BE shitty people doing terrible things, but to learn from those stories, to let the stories maybe, somehow, help us build a world that is better than this one.

But that still doesn’t make Prodigals any good.

P.S. Here are my favorite books from that class (both written by Black authors.) Read them. I’m available for discussion at my office hours posted in the syllabus.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Also, Lindsey Ellis’ video essay about Mel Brooks and the Ethics of Satire is required watching.

*Fucking hooray to all the statues and confederate flags being burned and removed.

But does it matter?

by Chelsea Sutton

It’s the usual setup for a scene (these days): two friends are on a Skype hangout on a Saturday morning. One friend proposes to the other this question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?

It’s a question that I think about a lot, especially when it comes to things. The stuff we collect, pin up on our bulletin boards, pack into scrapbooks. I’ve spent that last year systematically going through my grandmother’s stuff and (with her) deciding what should stay and what should go. All these things that were once so important being packed away, sold for pennies, sent to the dump.

I just spent this Pandemic Sunday cleaning through my desk, reorganizing my space for increased at-home work, and doing a similar exercise. My apartment has a grandma feel to it – there are lots of things around (though I like to think that I have arranged them in more of an “artistic” way than a “ohmygodtheclutteryouhoarder” way). I tend to hold onto notes and photos, gather small items or images from my travels, buy books I have no time to read. I like having things around me that remind me of beautiful times, of people I love, of the person I hope I’m becoming. And I often think of the day I die – someone coming into my space and seeing the same things and seeing mostly junk, wondering why I would hold on to these things. I imagine all of these precious items being thrown into the dump.

My current bulletin board after a purge.

And certainly the meaning of some things change. I just tossed away some letters from grad school that already gave me what I needed (but the emotion attached to them a year ago – can you imagine!) My grandmother and I threw out a lot of things she gathered on her travels (who knew porcelain plates used to be the BIG thing in souvenirs?) And now, those things are just in the way, signifying nothing.

What’s that Macbeth quote?
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

But I often hold onto things because I don’t trust my memory. I want to be reminded – I need my memory backed up to a hard drive of sorts. Journals can do this, I suppose, but even as a writer I started to feel how little a simple journal could hold.

And in some way, the work we do as writers is reaching for that – the holding on to some Beauty or Truth or Whatever and preserving it and preserving ourselves in some way too. We all want to create something that matters.

But it is debilitating and useless for that to be the goal. It is too big, too nonspecific to be helpful.

So, back to the scene on Skype. Back to the question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?

If the moment we’re in now tells us anything it’s that our choices have ripple effects. How we choose to conduct our lives affects others. Our world has taught us to be so focused on individual success, to place us in constant competition, we forget that we do, ultimately, matter to each other.

Are we all going to be Superman and single-handedly save New York? No. And why would you want that? Sounds exhausting. I’d much rather be the Guardians of the Galaxy, fighting alongside friends, for better or worse.

Saw these guys in San Francisco before the pandemic.
Sometimes its not worth being preserved forever.

So does any of it matter? Yes and no.

Yes because the work we do, what we put out into the world – you don’t know who its going to change, affect, transform, inspire, scare, motivate.

No because each individual thing is just part of your longer story. When we read or watch stories and fall in love with characters – remember that we tend to not judge characters so much on their failures, but on what they choose to do in the collective whole.

It is all equally meaningless and meaningful, beautiful and two feet away from the dump.

But I think that’s why it is all meaningful. Because it can all be taken away so quickly and become so meaningless.

That’s why I hold onto that rock I found on the beach on the Isle of Mann, or those plastic pearls my grandmother used to wear all the time, or the Valentine my mom wrote me just a month ago.

So go make something meaningless.

Year Without A Spring

by Chelsea Sutton

1816 was a miserable year. Known as the Year Without A Summer, global temperatures decreased thanks to a large volcanic eruption, leading to failed crops and famine, and…wait for it…disease.

It was also the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.

Many of us have heard the story. A group of friends, shut in from the cold, locked away from much of civilization, haunted by their own individual fears and worries and distractions, challenge each other to a ghost story contest.

Here is what Mary writes about that challenge, which eventually led to a nightmare that eventually led to Frankenstein:

I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. 

We have officially entered our own Year Without A Spring with the COVID-19 pandemic. The sun may shine, rain may fall, the mayor of LA is THIS CLOSE to mandating hikes. The shelves may be empty but food is being delivered. It is not the desperate darkening of the Earth in the same way as 1816 – but 1816 and 2020 are kindred spirits. People are still dying. People are isolated. People are not supported by the systems we swore were solid weeks before.

There is a general chaos, a general undercurrent vibration of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes on Facebook.

There is also a lot of hope and community support. Artists coming together. Creating things. Certainly I’ve seen the story of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Ugh. As if we weren’t under enough pressure already.

And then of course here I am offering up Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during another deadly year. But I don’t offer up this story as an example of unending production. I don’t want to say, “Hey, this is our chance! Write that Great American Rona Play/Novel!” Just because we are locked in our homes does not mean what we produce must be a novel that transcends 200 years of literary history.

Instead, reread that quote from her introduction. Invention comes out of chaos. It comes out of the moment of change, of wonder, of fear. All you may accomplish right now is a lot of walking around in silence, a lot of nightmares. But that, too, is creation.

I went to a writing residency in 2017 in the month between leaving my day job and going off to grad school. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn off the world. I was in a tailspin of work and change and uncertainty. And I was at a beautiful place where I was supposed to be writing. I did, a little. But my writing to-do list was barely touched. Instead I went on walks, hikes, cried into oysters, had nightmares. I felt lonely. I was alone.

When I talked to others who had been in similar situations, I heard many a story of writers going to residencies and writing little to nothing – only taking the time to sit and breathe and try to remember what it was that was interesting or terrifying or beautiful to them….the thing that led them to writing in the first place.

So I think that’s all we can ask now. Wander around your gothic mansion/studio apartment and indulge in a little ghost story challenge. Gather around the fire and let the nightmares play and dance and then burn out. If something lingers on, maybe you got something.

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

By Chelsea Sutton

Frankenstein is having a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

Kate McAll

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so grief seems to follow us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerris Morgan Moyer – Photo by Matt Petit

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

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

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

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

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