All posts by Laura

“The Bitch Pack & LAFPI Hollywood New Year Event: To Bring Focus to Women Writers”

by Laura Shamas

What happens when two groups who promote female entertainment writers in Los Angeles get together to start the New Year? On Saturday, January 12, 2013, 2 – 5 p.m. at Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, the Bitch Pack and the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative are co-sponsoring a networking mixer for women writers who work in film, television and stage. The event is free and open to all.

The Bitch Pack is a group of active female and male entertainment writers who have joined forces in order to foster more work that passes the Bechdel Test, and to ensure that diverse women’s voices are represented in television and film. Their goal: “Changing Women’s Representation on Screen, Starting with the Written Page.” They look for screenplays that pass the Bechdel Test, and feature these on “The Bitch List,” which stands for “Brilliant, Intriguing, Creative, Tenacious Heroines.”  One of their ongoing projects includes an Award they give at Shriekfest for a horror screenplay that passes the Bechdel Test.  Their mentors include: Carole Dean, Bob Engels, Ari Posner, Dan Vining, Terry George and Susan Cartsonis. They are also affiliated with Pop Change.

The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is comprised of female and male theatre writers working toward fair representation of women playwrights on stage. LA FPI projects include a 2011 study of women playwrights produced in the SoCal area, which concluded that only about 20% of plays produced locally are female-authored and “Tactical Reads,” a partnership with The Vagrancy to present readings of female-authored plays, directed by female directors. The next Tactical Reads presentation is January 27, 2013.

Screenwriter Thuc Nguyen, founder of The Bitch Pack, says that the newest 2013 “Bitch List” will be ready for distribution by January 12, so there will be a lot to discuss at the Samuel French/Hollywood event. “We need this event to bring to light the fact that this town/our industries still don’t pay enough attention to women’s dialogue and women’s representation on stage or film. Our afternoon will have writers mingling together and hopefully new connections to bring our goals and missions to fruition!”

Lynne Moses, a founding partner of Appleseed Entertainment who writes, directs and produces for the screen and stage, feels the event is a vital one. Moses, the Communication Director for LA FPI, explains: “Women’s historic exclusion from theatre deprived the world of female voices for centuries.  Now that women are free to write for the stage and screen, there’s a lot of catching up to do!  The January 12th Hollywood event is a great opportunity to highlight the extraordinary work of women on L.A.’s stages and screens.”

Playwright Jennie Webb, a co-Founder of LA FPI, and Editor of the group’s website, feels the synergy between the two groups is a natural fit. “One of the things that we told ourselves when we started LA FPI is  ‘Let’s not say no.’ We wanted to focus on the positive and the possibilities while staying true to our goals: helping put women’s voices onstage.  So when we heard a cry in the wilderness from the Bitch Pack, of course we jumped at the chance to help one another by joining forces whenever possible. Playwrights work in film and TV, and vice versa: screenwriters want to play in theaters. Hopefully, by corralling our energies, there’ll be more women working in both fields, and more collective energy feeding us all as we move forward. Here’s a big ‘YES’ to connecting like-minded women in the new year.”

A future collaboration between the Bitch Pack and LA FPI may include a 2013 livestreamed reading event to feature L.A. women writers who work on stage and screen. Other possibilities: Finding new collaborators, exploring new creative ventures…and finding innovative ways to change the representation of women on stage and screen, by encouraging more women’s voices in the mix.

Bitch Pack & LA FPI Hollywood Event: Saturday, January 12, 2:00 – 5:00 p.m., Samuel French Bookshop, 7623 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Free. Open to all. For more details about the event: info@lafpi.com

Guest Post: HIT AND MISS: MY OWN LITTLE STOCKHOLM SYNDROME by Mary Steelsmith

The Södra Teatern is theater complex in Stockholm, Sweden is located at the top of a steep cobblestoned street (“steep” as in the Santa Monica Pier ramp), overlooking waterways, carrying boats of all kinds. Six small theaters are spread up and down this scenic hill, connected by dozens of iron stairs. There, all nearly three hundred of us scampered or in my case, limped from readings to workshops, dashing back to the huge, old main theatre, and its red plush seats.

OKAY. I’M STOPPING RIGHT HERE.
It was my intention to fill this blog with keen and incisive impressions of the many workshops and keynote events I attended at the Women Playwrights International Conference, in Stockholm, Sweden last month. Seriously. I had my trusty steno pad, Bic AND Sharpie pens with me at all times. The one thing I forgot was how the Universe gets a hearty chuckle at all of my good intentions. As usual, the Universe had an agenda all its own.

The message: see what comes along, listen, take notes and tell these stories to as many people as possible.

HOW WE LOOK TO OTHERS
One day, I missed a keynote speech when a young playwright from Serbia took me aside. It seemed so urgent to her — this woman with eyes downcast and in a quiet voice to speak of her country of origin. She feared that I and the other Americans attending would be mad at her for atrocities “put upon Muslims.” I doubted if she was old enough to have been alive during that terrible time. Still, here was this beautiful, young, talented person, taking the guilt of a whole country onto her little shoulders. Once she saw that she wasn’t about to automatically be condemned, we created a great conversation in our new international language – that of the female dramatist. My advice to her – put it all into your next play.

HOW WE LOOK TO OTHERS AND DON’T KNOW WHY
A few days later, I gave up my spot on a workshop waiting list in order to sit on a bench in the square outside the main theatre, doing an impromptu reading of my Eileen Heckart Award winning play, HAPPY AND GAY, with the wonderful Swedish actress, Ulla-Britt Norrman. She was a brilliant ‘Betty’ to my so-so ‘Veronica.’ I looked up from the script to see a small crowd had gathered around us. We even got a bit of applause. In retrospect, maybe I should have passed a hat. Afterwards, I had to explain why ‘Veronica’ was so worried about the ramifications of the first gay wedding in their church. Ulla wanted to know why there was much “gay fear” in America. The more I tried to explain gay rights in America, a realization crept into my consciousness. What’s the big deal about America’s gay rights? I have no clue.

A WALK IN THE STONE GARDEN/ROLLING HEAD SCARVES INTO TURBANS
My new friend, the beloved Lia Gladstone, made an unexpected appearance at the Columbus Hotell (yes, two “l’s), where I was staying. She had just gotten in from a long flight and needed a good walk and talk before the arrival of her charges, the young women who would perform their “Afghan Voices” presentation later in the week. Lia knew from the moment they arrived from Afghanistan, she would have to constantly be there for them, giving multiple interviews with the press and shepherd her charges to the various public events.

Since this might be her one rare, peaceful moment before the impending media storm, I suggested we take a stroll through the Katarina Churchyard, located behind the Columbus Hotell. We walked and sat on benches, listening to the church bells dutifully toll every fifteen minutes. As a family of rabbits, the graveyard’s unofficial grounds keepers, nibbled on the grave side flowers Lia and I quietly chatted about everything from our lives, writing and eventually to her work teaching drama to young girl orphans in Kabul. Lia moved me to tears as she described giving one little girl a head scarf to play with for an improv exercise. The child rolled the scarf up, making it into a turban, the symbol of masculine power in Afghanistan. Lia said she looked out over the rest of the class, watching all of the other little girls empower themselves by rolling up their head scarfs into turbans and wearing them.

CATCHING POLITICAL LIGHTNING
With my Steno pad, Bic and Sharpie in hand, I was bound and determined to take the iron stairs from the main theatre down to KGB West in order to find the director of “Isaac, I am,” my play to be presented the next day. Once again, the cosmic chuckle materialized into a downpour outside. About a hundred of us were caught in the lobby, awaiting the rain’s end when Van Badham, a fresh, fierce playwright from Australia, climbed up a couple of stairs and called for our attention. She announced the conviction of members from the Pussy Riot punk group, who had broken into a church and recorded a protest song about Putin in Russia.

Leaning on her cane (“I have a bum ankle,” she told me later), Van’s strong, clear voice delivered her message, electrifying the room. She announced an impromptu march from the theater to downtown Stockholm. The place went wild! With Van’s permission, I recorded her repeating the announcement on my little camera as she stood on the stage of the big red-plush-seated theatre. Lightning struck again! A few moments later, I sat with Van, as she gave a quiet, focused statement. She was illuminated only by a single window, which gradually brightened with the passing of the storm.

See below– these are short. Feel free to share these links.
Van’s announcement on stage:

Van’s quiet, focused statement:

I shared these links with Hettie Lynn Hurtes at KPCC/National Public Radio in Los Angeles. She passed them on to her colleagues.

MISSING THE GUERRILLA GIRLS FOR A DANCING AFGHAN VOICE
You gotta hand it to the organizers of the WPIC. Besides hosting 275 playwrights from dozens of countries, they fed us, provided those who had play presentations with excellent directors and actors, who gave our work respectful and often brilliant treatment. The cast in my Helford Prize winning “Isaac, I am” was so enthused, they honored me with requests for full copies of the play so they could find out how it ended.

Yes. The organizers did a wonderful job. The only problem? There was too much ‘wonderful.’ It was physically impossible to see absolutely everything. On Saturday night, August 18, I had to choose between attending two performances in different venues at virtually the same time; Afghan Voices or the Gueerilla Girls. Hoping to catch up with the Guerrilla Girls back in the states, I chose to support Lia Gladstone and her Afghan performers.

We were mesmerized as one young woman made the stage her own with a self-choreographed hip-hop dance, while rapping her own lyrics. While I wish I could have translated her words, in the end it didn’t matter. What transcended any language issues was her joyous defiance and courage in the face of possible dire consequences back home. Her spirit moves me to this moment.

I’m writing from this from home with the Democratic Convention livestreaming on my laptop beside me. My poor steno pad is within reach, its Bic and Sharpie waiting patiently nearby. Before the WPIC, my biggest concerns were working to get productions and hoping for good reviews.

Spending one extraordinary week with these women playwrights and performers who, every single day put it all on the line while expressing their art has given me a greater appreciation of the freedom we have always known, must protect and encourage in others.

Guest Post: Thoughts on Smart Phones and Live Performance

Guest Blogger- Laura A. Shamas, LA FPI Co-Founder and National Outreach Agent

Last year in London, I saw a huge advertisement in the Underground: plain black type on a white background without any big graphics. I’ll paraphrase the content: “See this ad? Do you have any ideas about what should be written here? If so, we want to work with you. As more ads in public places become interactive with smart phones, we want to work with the idea innovators. Contact us at ——-.”

I have thought about that ad for over a year. I’m not a futurist or a tech whiz. But I am quite interested in how interactive ads in subways will affect the practice of theater.

Think there’s no connection?

Already, we have ongoing debates over the value of Tweet Seats in theatre: will they bring in more “young people”? Marketing departments certainly hope so. Some new theaters are building Tweet Seats into their venues.

Speaking for myself, in the past 5 years, I’ve been in many theaters (some at the Equity-waiver level, and some with very expensive ticket prices) only to have my viewing experience marred by the bright light of a cell phone in a row ahead of me. In a university theater in Texas, where one of my own shows was being produced, the tech crew told me that they heard every ping of texting in the theater on their headsets; it interfered with calling the cues. If you’ve seen War Horse, you know they inform you in the program that if you use your cell phone during the show, it will possibly cause harm to the performers. But when I saw it in New York at Lincoln Center, that didn’t stop someone in my row from using hers twice. Last weekend, I watched someone use his while on the front row of an L.A. Equity-waiver house of 50 seats. The bright green glow of his phone could be seen throughout the small venue. But he couldn’t seem to put it down; the ribald action on the stage immediately in front of him could not compete with his own dialogue with someone via text on his smart phone.

And that’s my point. The ping of instant gratification that one receives from texting, tweeting, or interacting with an advertisement: is it something that can be controlled? Or has our collective response to our smart phones already become “Pavlovian?” Is it the world of WALL-E already, with everyone glued to a screen? From what I’ve observed, cell phone usage in theaters is, increasingly, standard behavior. (I have definitely noticed this in movie theaters, too.) Is electronic addiction here to stay?

What do lighting designers, whose work is interrupted by the radiant glow of cell phones, think of Tweet Seats? Two lighting designers shared their thoughts with me via e-mail: Martha Mountain and Andrew F. Griffin.

Martha Mountain writes: “My knee jerk response to Tweet Seats is: oh no, it’s bad enough that people can’t turn the damn things off to watch the play as it is, don’t encourage them! But I would be prepared to accept Tweet Seats if they were BEHIND everyone else. And they have black scrim around them. The light from the smart phones is just distracting – it pulls my attention away from the stage and annoys me. I get Twitter (I think), I use it. But there is a time and a place – like the lobby and the bar afterwards.”

Andrew F. Griffin says: “I tend to agree with Martha on this. Before you get into the distraction factor of others in the audience there to watch the show, tweets capture a snapshot in time, but to capture that snapshot you need to stop paying attention to what’s happening in front of you. Tweet Seats encourage people not to pay attention to what’s happening in front of them on a level any deeper than what’s cool that I can write about in 140 characters or less every two minutes. As a result, the viewer’s experience is lessened and the impact of what is before them is diminished. Martha, of course, covered my feelings exactly when it comes to how we deal with the light and the distractions from the phones. I believe phones should be checked just like a jacket on the way into the theatre.”

As a playwright, I agree with Martha and Andrew. I want the audience to be caught up in a play completely– at every level, not involved with texting someone throughout or documenting the action of the play as it unfolds (an analytical function). We’re told by scientists that the human brain works in a hierarchical modality—meaning one function always takes precedence over another. You may think you can multi-task, but your brain is always putting one task in a primary position. That’s why you should never text and drive, for example. Don’t the theatre artists onstage, who create a show in front of you, deserve your full, undivided attention, too? To add a consumerist note to this: you are paying to see their work. Don’t you want your psyche to get the “full value” of the experience?

Yet, when I attended the TCG National Conference in 2011, I heard a prediction that in the not-so-far-away future, we’re all going to be hardwired and part of a collective brain. When I first heard that, I thought: Ha! Not me! But I’m guilty, too; and if you use a smart phone, so are you (even if you’re just checking your e-mail). If I want “encyclopedic” confirmation on a subject these days, I’ll look up a fact on my smart phone in the moment—which, in concept, is somewhat similar to being plugged into a centralized electronic brain. And yes, I’m on Twitter, too.

Is smart phone usage truly “participatory,” a way to engage during a show? Or is it more narcissistic, a way to privilege one’s own thoughts/feelings over those in/of the show? These types of questions about theater, and the new interactive chips in ads/posters (which allow us to buy products instantly via smart phones), leave me wondering about the future of live performance in the years ahead, and how changes will affect our art, our minds and our psyches.

Got an opinion or prediction on this topic? Please comment below.

Mary Steelsmith Goes To Sweden

When: August 15 – 20, 2012
Where: Riksteatern, Stockholm, Sweden
What: The 9th Women Playwrights International Conference
Why:  From the WPIC website: “The conference will be an opportunity to meet and to create genuine, lasting contacts between women playwrights and other theatre professionals. The conference’s aim is to have a supporting impact on collaboration and to build bridges between people from different parts of the world.”
Who: Women playwrights from around the world, including LA FPI’s own Mary Steelsmith.
Mary’s play Isaac, I am will be featured at WPIC 2012 on Saturday afternoon, August 18, 2012.

Award-winning dramatist Mary Steelsmith and her highly-lauded play Isaac, I am will be featured at the upcoming 2012 Women Playwrights International Conference in Stockholm, Sweden.  It’s a six-day conference with international focus, filled with lectures, workshops, and most of all, performances of works by women. This year’s theme is “The Democratic Stage.” The WPI Conference moves around the world: it’s held every three years in a different city. In 2015, it will be held in Cape Town, South Africa. For more on Women Playwrights International, and to join, visit their website.

107 plays from around the world will be featured at WPIC 2012, and Mary is thrilled: “What an honor it is to have Isaac, I am chosen to be presented at this conference! The opportunity to meet with and learn from so many female dramatists from other countries and cultures is a rare and wonderful one. While it will be an expensive journey, the experience of this conference in beautiful Stockholm will be priceless.” Only fourteen women playwrights from the U.S. were selected to attend. (To see the complete list of selected plays and playwrights, click here.)

Steelsmith’s Isaac, I am is a story of love, life, death and AOL. A winner of the Helford Prize (and she’s only female playwright to win it), Steelsmith also lists productions of Isaac, I am at the Racounteur Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, and most recently, here in Los Angeles at the Women’s Theatre Organization at the University of Southern California.

Steelsmith has won other playwriting awards, including the Eileen Heckart Drama for Seniors Competition and the Hewlett-Packard Action Theatre Prize (Singapore).

Would you like to help Mary Steelsmith get to Sweden? On Saturday, July 14, 2012, 2 p.m., there’s a benefit performance of 5 short plays by Steelsmith  at Vidiots Video, 302 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA, 90402. She’s also selling copies of her work on Amazon.

For more info, go to marysteelsmith.com.

A Love Vaccine: Believers by Patricia Milton

One of my favorite writing subjects is myth and fairy tale adaptation. Robin Byrd, whose new play The Grass Widow’s Son is part of the DC Black Theatre Festival on 6/28/12, kindly blogged here about a talk that I gave on the topic at the Dramatists Guild National Conference last year.

Award-winning Bay Area playwright Patricia Milton has a new comedy opening in August in San Francisco titled Believers. It’s a fairy tale adaptation, and sounds fascinating—about a love vaccine. I interviewed Patricia via e-mail to learn more about her new show and her fairy tale adaptation process.

Q: Please tell us about your new play Believers. What’s it about?

Milton: In a remote pharmaceutical lab, brain researcher Rockwell Wise works to develop a love vaccine so he will never again suffer the pain of heartbreak. His ex-lover Grace Wright shows up to lead his drug development team, bringing her own agenda — her plan to create a love activator. Their maneuvers to achieve their own aims result in unexpected side effects.

Q: A love vaccine. What sparked the idea? How’d you come up with it?

Milton: I read an article in the NY Times about the brain synapses involved in romantic love, and was intrigued by the article’s assertion that if a love vaccine were made, there is already a large market for it. I immediately wanted to write about this: I think it is funny and touching to follow a protagonist whose desperate, heartfelt goal is totally wrong for her or him. I wanted to adapt a fairy tale as a couple’s backstory. I also was eager to explore the notion of pharmaceutical side effects. Brain-altering drugs are a boon for many people, but when their side effects are ignored or concealed, there are tragic results. In a similar way, sometimes our own actions produce unintended consequences that hurt the ones we love.

Q: Sounds like so many people can relate to this play! When did you start it and what’s your development process been like?

Milton: I’ve been working on it for about two years. I developed it in several writers workshops, including at Playwrights Foundation and Central Works writing group. It has had three public readings: at Playwrights Center of San Francisco, Playwrights Revolution, Capital Stage Company, Sacramento, and Wily West Productions, San Francisco. From the last reading, Wily West decided to produce it. As a side note, the Playwrights Revolution reading was directly as a result of Twitter: Stephanie Gularte, artistic director of Capital Stage, read my tweet about the play and asked to read it.

Q: That’s great that social media helped you get a reading. Speaking of readings, what’s their value in terms of a play’s development?

Milton: I learned so much from each reading. Believers is a comedy, so sitting in the middle of the theatre, listening for the laughter, told me a lot about what was working in terms of what was funny. The play explores a complex mash-up of ideas, and has an intricate plot, so I asked a lot of questions in talk-backs to make sure audiences were following the action. There’s still some juicy ambiguity, but the action has become clearer with each rewrite.

Q: Believers is based on a fairy tale. Please tell us about your fairy tale adaptation process.

Milton: Fairy tales are fascinating to me: layered, deep, and speaking directly to the unconscious. Many of the fairy tales we know here in the U.S. have been “Disney-ized,” removing some of the darker elements.  In “The Frog King,” a princess promises to love the Frog King forever and ever if he will rescue her gold ball from a pond. When he delivers the ball, she refuses to keep her promise. Now, many of us know a version where the princess kisses the frog to change him into a prince. But in the fairy story I found, the princess changes him by throwing the frog against a wall!  To me, this version is not about physical violence. It depicts the power of love to completely, often fiercely and uncomfortably, shatter our psyche as it transforms us. I was challenged to figure out how Grace “throws Rocky against the wall” to bring him to his fully realized self. One other aspect of the play is that the frog is both a religious symbol (as in Egypt’s plague) and a fairy tale symbol. I was prompted to explore the apocalyptic side of the frog as well as its fairy tale side.

Q: Any thoughts on writing comedy you can share with us?

Milton: I want to put in a good word for romantic comedies. For centuries, all comedies were romantic comedies. Hollywood, with its frequent use of stale formulas and generic couples, has somewhat tarnished the rom-com. I’m doing my part to reclaim the genre for smart people. I’d like to also make a plug for Wily West: a fantastic production company, employing talented women artists like our director, Sara Staley, Lead Designer Quinn Whitaker, and Executive Producer Laylah Muran de Assereto, as well as many other talented actors and design professionals. Founded by Morgan Ludlow, Wily West Productions produces only local SF Bay Area playwrights.

Q) A female-driven production company? We certainly want to support that. Thanks, Patricia, for all the good information. Congratulations and we can’t wait to hear more about your show.

Wily West Productions presents the world premiere apocalyptic comedy, BELIEVERS, by Patricia Milton, directed by Sara Staley. August 2-25, 2012. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8 p.m. at StageWerx, 466 Valencia Street, between 15th and 16th Streets, San Francisco. For more information: www.wilywestproductions.com 

 

Heading West with Paula Cizmar

The new Tactical Reads venture, matching female playwrights with female directors, debuts Wednesday night, 6/27 (meet-up for networking/ideas at 7 p.m., reading at 8 p.m.). Award-winning playwright Paula Cizmar will launch the series, with her  play Strawberry, directed by Sabina Ptasznik, creator of this innovative reading series.

I’ve written about Paula Cizmar previously; there’s more about her life and extensive career on her website. Cizmar wrote a Guest Post for the LA FPI blog a few weeks ago about her May 2012 visit to Turkey, as one of  the authors of the internationally-acclaimed play Seven. I corresponded with Paula recently about her newest show.

Q: So you are the first playwright in the new Tactical Reads series with Strawberry. Congratulations! What’s this new play about?

Cizmar: Strawberry is about a young botanist, Anabel, who arrives in a remote section of the California growing fields to search for a plant that is believed to be extinct—at least that’s what she says.  But ultimately the play is about something else entirely—solving the mystery of her true identity, trying to connect with a birth mother she didn’t know she had, trying to connect with the land as a living entity, rather than as a scientific specimen.  And of course, it’s about love.

Q: What inspired you to write it?

Cizmar: Wind.  Ideas of extinction.  Agriculture.  Death.  Romantic notions. California. Typical! My inspirations come from a variety of places that float around and finally somehow land and form an idea.  This play followed the same odd path.  I was up near Soledad a while back, and got out of the car in a rural area—and the wind was unbelievable.  You could barely stand up in it. Unforgiving.  And then when I drive from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo County, where I live, it is impossible not to pass field after field of tomatoes, broccoli, and most of all, strawberries.  And these fields are often full of migrant workers, covered up in layers and layers of clothing to protect them from the sun, or the wind, or the pesticides, or the prickly plants.   I just read a statistic that strawberries have now passed marijuana as the number one money-maker crop in California.  It used to be marijuana, grapes, almonds—and now strawberries are at the top.   So the strawberry fields are ubiquitous, and you’d have to be driving with your eyes closed to not notice the pickers.  They’re bent over.  So I can’t help thinking about the people who harvest our food and the conditions they work under.  And then, I get nervous about global warming, about the future of the earth, and I know that in our own lifetime certain plant and animal species have disappeared from the planet.  Right now, biologists are trying to save the Gila trout, a small fish species that is being threatened by the wildfires in New Mexico.  I heard a researcher who was part of the rescue operation on NPR and he got choked up about this stuff—and so do I.  So listening to the news and crying in the car—that’s an inspiration.  And the West.  And heading West.  And then there’s the strawberry itself, red, heart-shaped.

Q: I love that you’re using the strawberry symbolically, too.  So when did you write it?

Cizmar: I started it last year [2011] and we did a cold reading of a very early—and quite different—draft of it at USC; Luis Alfaro put the reading together and after it was over he kept saying, ‘Somehow I keep going back to the notion of how carnal it is, how carnal the need of each character is, carnal, carnal, carnal.’ He repeated this word to me often enough that it finally made an impression! And I took a look at what he was talking about and realized that I had only touched on carnality—and should let it play out.  So that sparked a new approach to the play and took me on the road to the current version—which is entirely new, and this is a brand new draft of the new version.  So—it’s really never been seen by the public before and the reading will be the first testing ground.

Q: Do you think readings are valuable to a play’s development?

Cizmar: Just submitting a play for a reading sparks a certain amount of development—as the writer, you want the script to be coherent enough, enticing enough, you want it to show potential.  And then, the luxury of talking to the director about the play, just exchanging thoughts, comments, questions, sparks more development, and then the rehearsal process itself even more.  We playwrights work so often in isolation and there seem to be fewer readings to go around these days.   But ultimately, there’s only so much a playwright can do alone.  It could be a rationalization, it could be laziness—and I try not to fall into this trap and really try hard to get my plays to be as theatrical as possible on my own—but theatre is a collaborative medium, plays are to be performed, and playwrights need to be able to commune with other artists at a certain point in the writing.  A reading removes a play from where it’s lodged inside of the writer’s head and shoves it out into the world.  If you’re faithful and true, you listen to what’s going on in the rehearsal and reading process—and with any luck, the play grows a bit more.

Q: What do you think of the new Tactical Reads series, created by Sabina Ptasznik, and its mission to pair female directors with female playwrights?

Cizmar: Sabina not only has created a program where playwrights get to be in dialogue about a script with actors and a director in the rehearsal process, as you would in most readings, but also she has taken this program one step further: The pairing of female directors and playwrights. Simple, but brilliant. This is a very far-sighted approach; it’s about putting creative teams together, developing long-term relationships that can support imagination and process. We know that the big institutional theatres support specific playwrights—mostly male—through commissions and ongoing commitments to develop and produce their work. And of course with support, a writer’s work gets better—and is more likely to be produced.  So Tactical Reads is the no-budget grassroots version of that—creating artistic partnerships, facilitating communication, and ultimately, searching for opportunities.

Join us! Strawberry by Paula Cizmar, directed by Sabina Ptasznik, with Chuma Gault, Mariel Martinez, Meredith Wheeler. 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, Atwater Crossing, 3245 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Admission: Free.

AND there’s an LA FPI Meet-up before the reading, 7 p.m. We’ll meet at the ATX Kitchen near the wine bar.  Visit atwatercrossingkitchen.com for directions and to check out their cool menu. 

Taking Stock

(Guest Blogger This Week – Laura A. Shamas, LA FPI Co-Founder and National Outreach Agent)

The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, as a grassroots movement dedicated to the cause of achieving gender parity for women playwrights (and all female theatre artists), has been around for awhile now. Inspired by the advocacy efforts by women playwrights in New York, Jennie Webb and I had our first conversation about it in September 2009 over lunch at the Marmalade Café on Ventura Blvd. In November 2009, we put up a temporary website, begged Ella Martin to head a study of L.A. female playwrights’ activities in the first decade of the 21st century, and tried to figure out how to organize a community-wide outreach to the hundreds of female dramatists here (and those who love them)—not an easy feat when you consider SoCal’s 500 square miles.  But we knew lots of people here cared about this issue and wanted to do something about it. We had our first official meeting in March 2010 at Theatricum Botanicum during a major storm; it seems like a metaphor, looking back. Still, many talented women and men trekked to Topanga Canyon during the torrential rain, and spoke from the heart about how and why this cause—and theatre as an art form—matters.

That initial wet chilly meeting seems like ancient history now; so much good work has happened in the past 2+ years. There’s a long list of artist-volunteers who have contributed to the LA FPI mission. Some highlights include: the creation of this website by Jennie Webb, sponsored by Katherine James; the award-winning staff of playwright-bloggers (Tiffany Antone, Erica Bennett, Nancy Beverly, Robin Byrd, Kitty Felde, Diane Grant, Jen Huszcza, Sara Israel, Cindy Marie Jenkins, Analyn Revilla, and Cynthia Wands) who are featured daily in this space, expertly managed by editor Robin Byrd; Ella Martin’s historic 2011 study results; Alyson Mead’s podcasts with inspiring women playwrights; the Women at Work Onstage page (still the only weekly list of female-authored shows in L.A.), created/maintained by Laurel Moje Wetzork; the bi-monthly e-mail blasts that include member news and submission opportunities, curated by Erica Bennett, then Helen Hill (we’re now looking for communication help!); the support from Larry Dean Harris, who wrote about us for The Dramatist—and gave us a spotlight, featuring Janice Kennedy, at a 2010 regional Dramatists Guild meeting (followed by a panel slot for us at 2011 National DG Conference); the new venture with Tactical Reads launching this week, connecting women playwrights to female directors, originated/helmed by Sabina Ptasznik; the spread of our badges on the Web and in person (a branding scheme with an important meme); an annual look at LORT seasons and stats in SoCal as related to gender parity and playwriting; the enthusiastic LA FPI support for female artists in the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011 & 2012 (lead by Cindy Marie Jenkins, Jennie Webb, Jan O’Connor, Alyson Mead, Kat Primeau, and Jessica Abrams); sharing scenes via social media in order to increase accessibility and visibility; approaching theaters to ask how we can build relationships, fostered by Debbie Bolsky and Tami Tirgrath; meet-ups to see plays by women, coordinated by Task Force leader Diane Grant; online discussions, such as the fascinating one just hosted by Cindy Marie Jenkins with guests Etta Devine and Carolyn Sharp, about applying the Bechdel Test to the stage—a streamed broadcast that may (fingers crossed!) evolve into an ongoing monthly LA FPI/TV theatre conversation; etc. We have more people following us on Twitter, domestically and worldwide, than ever before. Lots of folks “Like” us on Facebook. And it’s all been created and executed by volunteers of professional theatre artists, for free!

Whew!

But has anything really changed? “Has LA FPI made any difference at all?” It’s a question I’m frequently asked and asking. When we compiled the SoCal LORT stats in May/June this year, for a while it looked as if there might be small gains of +1.5% or even +3.5%, in terms of female-authored shows for the 2012-2013 professional seasons. But then, in the end, it was pretty much the same as it ever was: still around 22% (or slightly less). Discouraging! “Is consciousness-raising effective anymore?” we wonder. Why doesn’t the excellent LA FPI blog have more commenters, at the very least?

In these moments, I have to remind myself: Statistics don’t tell the whole story—only part of it. Things have changed in this way: we are not sitting around and ignoring “the problem” any more. We were cautioned in the early days of LA FPI not to confuse “Activity” with “Progress.” Maybe not, but when you have this much ongoing work towards a goal (see above), there’s a shift of some sort—of attitude, of creativity, of focus, of opportunity, of spirit. It may take many more years before we achieve true gender parity for female theatre artists in the English-speaking theatre (or for women in the world at large). But we’re pretty sure that more Angelenos are aware of the issue and are working towards the goal of parity now. Solved? No. Better? Definitely.

Female theatre artists in New York continue to advocate for gender parity; the 2012 Lilly Awards held on June 4, 2012, at Playwrights Horizons, and the upcoming “We Are Theatre” protest on September 24, 2012, at the Cherry Lane Theater (organized by the Guerrilla Girls On Tour!, 50/50 by 2020, Occupy Broadway, and the Women’s Initiative members of the Dramatists Guild) are two timely examples.

Recent reports from the U.K. and Australia also mirror our struggles. Lyn Gardner, writing from London in The Guardian in February 2012, wonders if a universal blind submission policy is a possible remedy. A new report, “Women in Theatre,” released April 2012 by the Australian Council for the Arts, details the status of Australian women playwrights and female theatre artists. Those who authored the report found “no progress over the decade since 2001 and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership deteriorated over that time” (pps 4-5). It’s a thorough, well-crafted study, and on page 49, there’s a “cross-sectoral approach” that suggests three pathways towards improvement in the professional theatre arena:

1) Information
2) Accountability
3) Vigilance

These points really resonated with us because they align with so much of our LA FPI work thus far. And it’s reassuring to know that others in the arts, including the Australian Council, recognize that the problem of gender parity in theatre is a grave one and must be remedied.

Here’s our promise. We will continue to spread the word; we are taking stock. And of this you can be certain: we won’t give up.


What are your ideas about how to create equal opportunities for women playwrights and female theatre artists? Join us on Wednesday, June 27, 7 p.m., for our next LA FPI gathering to share ideas and network, followed by an 8 p.m. reading of Paula Cizmar’s new play Strawberry, directed by Sabina Ptasznik in the new Tactical Reads program
. And please share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

 

Guest Post: Women’s Work by Paula Cizmar

At dawn, only hours after I arrived in Istanbul, the muezzin at the mosque across the street from my hotel began chanting the call to prayer:  Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar, Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah… It was loud.  Loud beyond belief.  An ancient song amplified by modern technology and audible, I’m sure, all the way across the Bosphorus.

Out on the streets later, I was fascinated by the pace, the crowds, the lively culture.  And curious about how in one ten-foot space there could be women in miniskirts and women in full burkas—not just the hijab, but the burka that is all enveloping, all black, with just a tiny slitted opening for the eyes.

I was in Istanbul not just as a tourist, but also for work.  SEVEN (or YEDI in Turkish), the documentary play I wrote with six amazing women writers—Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Susan Yankowitz, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, and Anna Deavere Smith—had been selected for the 18th Istanbul International Theatre Festival, and the Swedish Consulate had invited us to attend.

Sweden and Turkey?  Could any two places seem more opposite?

Four of us made the journey—Carol, Susan, Ruth, and I.  When we arrived, we were instantly caught up in a swirl of activities related to the performance; the Swedish director and Turkish producer and their crews were all articulate, creative, committed, active artists who believe in the intersection of arts and politics.   SEVEN excited them; it tells stories about women who aren’t passive or victims.   It’s documentary theatre, told in the words of female activists who work to stop human rights abuses—including government corruption and violence against women.    The stories are real—and I think that’s why the play affects people so deeply.

When we had lunch with the Swedish Consul General, Torkel Stiernlof, the mystery of the Swedish/Turkish connection became clear.  He told us that Turkey wants to enter the EU, and that Sweden is performing its role as friend to Turkey to help out in this cause.  Though Turkey has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and is qualified for EU membership financially, Turkey’s human rights record is a whole other story.  Before the country is acceptable to the European Union, it’s going to have to address those issues, among them being violations of women’s rights—not just denial of basic freedoms, but also spousal murders and abuse at the hands of fundamentalist family members.   SEVEN/YEDI is helping in that goal, because the Swedes believe in using the arts and humanities to create awareness, start discussion, influence the culture.  Hence our presence at the theatre festival.  (Sigh…oh that we valued the arts more in the U.S., or at least, that non-artists recognized the value.  Oh that we wouldn’t have to constantly defend the importance of what we do, or feel as if it is an afterthought or trivial.)

Later, I was part of a panel composed of American, Swedish, and Turkish women talking about the value of telling women’s stories—because they don’t always get told with truth. What a thrill to be part of this interchange of ideas.  Smart, reasonable, calm, creative-thinking women talking about drama in the most modern and ancient sense of the word in a city where so many cultures, past and present, East and West, come together.   The play, too, in a venerable old theatre, with a full house, kept the buzz and the discussion going.

This is the dialogue we all crave as women in the theatre.   I’m happy that SEVEN has been a catalyst for so much hopeful discussion.  With any luck, it will open someone’s mind, set somebody free, even inspire new plays that will go again out into the world and make more ripples.

I am so proud that I am doing women’s work.