All posts by Ravenchild

Artificial Intelligence: Monster or Fairy Support?

by Cynthia Wands

A raw image (photograph) that I use for some of my digital artwork. I’ve taken cast away silverplate tea pots and added some twinkle, then I photograph the work, and use this image for a base in my photoshop images.

I’ve been following some of the stories of what AI (Artificial Intelligence) has become in the world of “creators”. Artwork, writing, architecture, design: AI is becoming a sought after tool to “enhance” creativity. And I’m also reminded of this issue as part of the actors strike – the AI generation of actors’ images to create new content without the actual participation of the actors themselves.

And some of the issues are profound, infuriating and bizarre.

There are schools and blogs and videos online on the use of AI to “enhance” story telling for screenwriters.

“Write and format better scripts faster. The AI script writer that helps you create compelling narratives — from ideation to final draft.”

And there is a myriad of articles on the value of “real writers” creating stories, rather than using algorithms.

But the most apparent visual representation of AI mechanisms I’ve seen is in the visual world ~ as a “digital artist”, I’ve seen the highjacking of my own artwork. My digital art images, which are available on a website, have been lifted and used in a myriad of unexpected ways. I’ve found my images for sale on other sites – and I’m powerless to control or stop the theft of these images. It’s changed the way I shared my artwork.

But I also belong to an online group that discusses AI Generate Images: mostly artists, some art directors, curators and the assorted grumpy scholar. Here is an insider comment, about the use and caliber of hiring “AI Prompters”: staff who attempt to create images by pulling images from social media through prompts to use existing found images.

Posting this on behalf of a member who would like to remain anonymous:

I’m an art director and supervisor for a large studio. The studio heads had the bright idea before I started to hire prompters. Several bros were brought onto the film project. I absolutely hated myself for not quitting on the spot but stuck with it because it’s mercenary out there. Have a family to feed etc. I decided to use this time wisely. Treat them as I would any artist I had hired. First round of pictures of a sweeping Ariel forest landscape comes through and it’s not bad. They submit a ton of work and one or two of the 40 are ok. Nearly on brief. So first round feedback goes through and I tell them about the perspective mistakes, colour changes I want, layers that any matte painting would be split into. Within a day I get 5 variants. Not changes to the ones I wanted but variations. Again. Benefit of the doubt I give them another round of feedback making it clear. Next day it’s worse. I sit there and patiently paint over, even explaining the steps I would take as a painter. They don’t do it, anomalies start appearing when I say I want to keep the exact image but with changes. They can’t. They simply don’t have the eye to see the basic mistakes so the Ai starts to over compensate. We get people starting to appear in the images. These are obviously holiday snaps.

“Remove the people”

“What would you like them changed to?”

“… grass. I just don’t want them there”

They can’t do it. The one that can actually use photoshop hasn’t developed the eye to see his mistakes, ends up getting angry at me for not understanding he can’t make specific changes. The girl whose background was a little photography has given me 40 progressively worse images with wilder mistakes every time. This is 4 days into the project.

I’m both pissed about the waste, but elated seeing ai fall at the first hurdle. It’s not even that the images are unusable, the people making them have no eye for what’s wrong, no thicker skin for constructive criticism and feedback, no basic artistic training in perspective and functionality in what they’re making.

Yes the hype is going to pump more money into this. They won’t go anywhere for a while. But this has been such a glowing perfect moment of watching the fundamental part fail in the face of the most simple tasks. All were fired and the company no longer accepts Ai prompters as applicants. Your training as an artist will always be the most important part of this process and it is invaluable. I hope this post gives you a boost in a dark time.

Anonymous Author on generating AI

An image that accompanied this online article:

The article and the image provoked me to think about the value and cost of the artist to create – the emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural cost. What we bring to the table. What we leave behind.

As a writer, and digital artist, who uses complicated software, and social media, and resources that are linked to the access of ideas and images and conversations (like this one), I’m very invested in the identity and core value of what an artist is. I’ll be watching the world’s imagery to see if AI is the immoral monster, or a seemingly magical assist to our creative life.

A finished image, using raw images, brewed around in Photoshop and Illustrator: Tiger Tea, by Cynthia Wands, 2022.


by Cynthia Wands

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

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

Grief doesn’t take kindly to holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater 59 in New York City

Failure is Important

by Cynthia Wands

Judi Dench as Titania in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, 1962

Judi Dench says that failure is important.

I think about this as I’m watching an interview with Judi Dench, as she and Brendan O’Hea talk about a new book that is being published in 2024: “Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent.” (Here’s the link to the book that they’re talking about:)

Watching this interview brings all kinds of reactions as I listen to the backstage history and anecdotes with these accomplished and articulate artists. (Although I admit to bursting out loud with laughter at the theatrics of creating a stage sneeze at the 19:50 mark.)

I love the esteem and recognition that this older actress has accrued – for me, personally as an artist of some advanced years, it’s gratifying to see her given her due.

A dear friend of mine graduated with her from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1957, and he didn’t recognize her talents at the time. He has since, in the last sixty years or so as he has worked as an actor and director, changed his mind about her artistry.

Some years ago, my brother-in-law acted with Judi Dench in a London production of “The Royal Family”, and I when I had the opportunity to go see them on stage together, I was wowed. I’d seen her in film and tv; but she is even better on stage. I can’t explain it – but she has a magic about her.

But to the point of “Failure is Important”: during this interview, Judi talks not only about the generosity of spirit in actors/theatre – and also how the rhythm of iambic pentameter is akin to the beating of your heart (I loved that), but especially she talked about failure. Mistakes. And how important they are to find the parts that work.

One another comment that resonated with me, was her counsel that actors are “servants to the story”. As a playwright, having been an actor, being a fan of women who write roles for all ages, I found her to be generous and wise in this interview.

So here it is. It’s 38 minutes long. It’s a chatty, illuminating, funny and intimate conversation. I hope you enjoy it.

Weird Barbie

by Cynthia Wands

Yes. Due to the $1 billion dollar market for the BARBIE movie, Mattel has decided to issue a “limited edition” of the Weird Barbie that was featured in the movie. You have until August 15 to pre-order your $50 Weird Barbie.

CNN  — 

Some might say Weird Barbies are made, not sold. Mattel, however, begs to differ.

The toy company behind the iconic Barbie brand has announced a signature doll modeled after Kate McKinnon’s character from Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster “Barbie.” In the movie, McKinnon’s character helps send Margot Robbie’s Barbie on her journey.

“Barbie” is produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, which is owned by CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.

The limited-edition toy features a hot pink outfit almost identical to the one McKinnon wears in the movie, complete with markings on her face and oddly cut and colored hair “to emulate a doll that’s been played with just a little too much,” Mattel said in the product description.

The doll is one of seven products in an expanded collection stemming from the billion-dollar hit movie, including various Barbie and Ken dolls modeling outfits they wore on-screen and a Hot Wheels corvette set.

“With the latest editions to the collection, we are offering even more ways for fans to immerse themselves in Barbie Land and celebrate the characters and stories they see on screen,” Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s executive vice president and chief brand officer, said in a statement. “Barbie continues to be the cultural event of the summer, and as we chart Mattel’s path forward, she will continue to serve as an icon of empowerment and inspiration for generations to come.”

Weird Barbie is available to pre-order on Mattel’s website for $50 until August 18 and is expected to be shipped by the end of May 2024.

By Eva Rothenberg, CNN
Published 8:34 PM EDT, Mon August 7, 2023

I haven’t been to a movie theatre in over three years, and this month, dear friends convinced me to go see it. It was a shock to the nervous system to encounter a movie theatre again. After being masked everywhere, and not being in an indoor event since 2019, the experience had a strange dream-like tone. It was a matinee, and it was packed, and I was a stranger in a strange land.

I read some commentary about/protesting the BARBIE movie – and I had no desire to see it. But my husband Eric had died in June, and I was stumbling through the fog of grief, and my friends were helping me ease out of the house. (I did not want to ease out of the house.) I was not a fan of the Barbie doll, although I do remember one Christmas where Santa gifted me a Barbie. I thought she was very inflexible and pointy. Also I lost her shoes right away. And she wasn’t much fun to play with, as her facial expression seemed inaccessible to me. The Weird Barbie character in the movie seemed fun, if somewhat contrived, as if one of my hippie girlfriends from the 1970s showed up at a fashion show.

But – it was amazing to witness the pink girl power in the audience. There was loud cheers for this story about a doll that wants to be a human. And there was laughing and hooting and clapping in the audience, which was fun, but also perplexed me. I appreciated the cheeky performances, and even the young men sitting next to us were getting all worked up about Ken’s identity crisis. I think they might have enjoyed the movie more than I did.

It was a great experience to actually leave the house and take the risk to go see something. After living the life of a 24/7 caretaker for the last few years, I’d lost my link to live performances. (I may work up the nerve to so see some theatre in October – still working through some issues about this transition.) And it was great to see a successful movie directed by a woman, with a smattering of jibes about beauty, identity and patriarchy. (Although – it did remind me of eating cotton candy at the circus – that strange sensation of eating a sticky sugary hair-like confection in vibrant colors .)

What surprised me, and what I most appreciate, is that feeling of women in the audience, hearing a story that vibrates with them – even if it doesn’t vibrate with me – and the delight in hearing people laugh again.

A Conversation with an Artistic Director

by Cynthia Wands

(Unknown photographer)
But they captured the essence of my conversation today with Marilyn Langbehn.

(Unknown photographer)
But this captured the essence of my conversation today with Marilyn Langbehn.

This afternoon, I had a conversation with Marilyn Langbehn, a friend of some 40 years, who is the Artistic Director of the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, and was recently appointed as the General Manager of TheatreWorks in Palo Alto . She is directing CCCT’s current production of “To Master the Art”, which is running through May 21.

I wanted to find out more about her current production, “To Master the Art” which was originally commissioned by Timeline Theatre in Chicago and produced in 2010. The script was written by Chicago playwrights Doug Frew and William Brown and recalls the journey of the French chef, Julia Child with her husband Paul Child in Paris during the 1950’s. 

Here’s a description of the play:

“To Master the Art” – Living in Paris in 1948, newlywed Julia Child was left with time on her hands, so she decided to enroll in a cooking class at the prestigious culinary academy, Le Cordon Bleu. She fell in love with the city and its cuisine, and four years later published her seminal cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, which helped to bring gourmet French living into many American homes for the first time. With wit and humor and a whole lot of butter, To Master The Art tells Julia’s personal story, illuminating her journey from amateur cookbook author to international food icon.

This interview is from our conversation today (and is edited for clarity and brevity):

C: You’ve been such a champion for reading and producing new scripts, as I know from our collaboration together, but how did you find the script for “To Master the Art”?

M: Well, I went to the American Association of Community Theaters website, and happened on a chat that was amongst the regulars there and somebody in that cohort mentioned “To Master the Art”. And other people chimed in and said we just did that show, and audiences just loved it.

And that piqued my interest as I was struggling to come up with something of that type for our season. I found out through a little research that the show was commissioned by Time Line in Chicago. And so I reached out to my friend Jack, who was the Artistic Director at Theater of Western Springs, west of Chicago, and I asked him about the script.

And he said yes, I know the show, we’ve done it…and I can put you in touch with the playwrights, because the script is unpublished.  I said, please do. And so that started a three year long conversation because I announced (that my theatre would produce the script) and then I had to immediately pull it because of Covid. I had announced it for our 2021 season, as the holiday show…And so I kept going back to the playwrights and they were very understanding and patient. I had paid for the royalties and..we just kept hoping and waiting and finally we got a break in whatever this pandemic turned out to be…to produce it.

C:  Isn’t it interesting / finding a script that’s not published / that’s been produced before in other theaters…and it’s proved to be successful with that audiences, and it’s shown a good return for those theaters that produced it.

M: And that’s definitely been our experience…the audiences just feel good when they leave the theater. And it has a more serious vein then you might suspect, because the authors weave in the story of Paul Child’s run in with the State Department and CIA.

The thing that I love about this script, among many others, is it really allows us to see Paul as the champion of his wife’s career..without getting too maudlin about. There’s a scene in the play…where you see where Paul really lets Julia have it…and he just explodes. The tie in between the food that we love and the fact that food is an expression of love to the people in your world, is something that’s very clearly articulated in this script.

C: This ties right into my second question: what was it about this script that made you want to direct it?

The things that we’ve just been talking about. The fact that there is a such a clear through line between food and love and community. And – hope. You know, you invest so much into the perfecting of something. That it’s very much like fishing. If you’ll go with me on this analogy…Scarlett, my wife, is the one that articulated this idea to me. That fishing is all about hope. Because you get out there on the water and you just hope that something strikes. But its really not about the fish, its about the experience. And that to me, is a lot about what is happening in this play. It starts with this idea..that I might be good at this. And grows from there, and develops into a real command of self that wasn’t present when Julia first landed there. Julia was certainly a strong woman..but she didn’t have an opportunity to really express that in a way that she found satisfying until she discovered this affinity for cooking.

C: And you actually took a cooking class in Paris earlier this year, at the Cordon Bleu, before you directed this play – did you find that the French cooking class helped inform choices with the script when you directed it?

M: It did. It certainly gave me cred, when I said in rehearsal, that they wouldn’t do it that way at the Cordon Bleu…and I happen to know that. You know me, Cynthia, I love the research piece. I could have been a great dramaturg if I hadn’t become a director…

The cooking class came about accidentally….Scarlett had never been in Paris, I had never been in Amsterdam, and as we were planning our trip to Europe.. I thought I would get my picture taken outside the Cordon Bleu School…and I went online…and sure enough…they offer a couple of classes, and I chose the Praline Choux class…And I had the best time. It was remarkable to be in that space…I learned that having sous chefs is the only way to cook…

C: And you have real cooking, real food, on stage for this play; was that also informed by your cooking class at the Cordon Bleu?

M: Some of it, yes…Part of it was informed by Cordon Bleu…and part of it was informed, oddly enough, by a production of Titus Andronicus that I had just seen at the Globe Theater in London, on this same trip. Because, I know, the production of Titus that I saw, did not have any gore…anything bad that happened to someone…happened to a candle. Candles were chopped with a cleaver, candles were broken in half, candle flames were snuffed out when someone died…but at one moment they put the candles in a blender and turned it on…and I thought: oh, they have a generator on that cart in order to power the blender…it informed me (for this play): how do we turn on the hot plate on stage…without setting the curtains on fire on stage…

C: Tell me about the character of Julia Child in this she discovering her calling with food in the script?

M: She has a moment at the end of the first act, where she realizes that she’s never taken anything very seriously. Except for her husband Paul, and the cat…Paul is known for being one of the most iconic supportive husbands…and he was also an artist.

C: Has everyone in your cast become a foodie?

M: Yes – some of them are coming to that, and some of them were were already there when I cast them…I found out later that one of our cast members was a well known CHILD CHIEF when he was some twelve years old…he knew an awful lot about eggs at the auditions…One of the things I asked the cast members was: what’s your favorite food? Now THAT was fascinating…some of them said mac and cheese…some were a mix of comfort food/historical/cultural foods….one cast member said that champagne is its own food group.

This is one of the loveliest companies I’ve ever worked with…I mean they are – they are mad about each other…the guy that’s plays the chef, he looked at his fellow castmates and asked: “Is it always like this? The way we get along?” And yes, there are the rare ones that come along…

C: What’s been the most challenging part of being an Artistic Director?

M: Oh. I would probably answer that question differently now: Before and After the Pandemic.

Before the Pandemic I think the most most challenging thing was living up to my own expectations about the work. I really pushed myself and the company to expand its notion what was possible on that stage…to expect more from us. We were getting there…

But now, since the pandemic, the question is reckoning on how to serve the community. Because people’s notion of what they’re comfortable spending their time doing – have changed…and a lot of audiences are returning more slowly and a lot of audiences are not coming back…the pandemic just accelerated that.

If you don’t have the luxury of the stalwart aging audience, who are you telling stories to, and what stories do they want to hear? And that should be the story all along…how do you balance robust story telling, meaningful work, and serving the community…

There was a big push, pre-pandemic, where a lot of theaters proudly announced a season of all women’s plays, or all female authors, all female whatever it was as a hook…and it was… ultimately self defeating, because once you’ve done that, how do you keep it up? Because the minute you don’t do it, you’ve fallen off…

C: What can you see happening in theater post Covid?

M: I think a lot of… community theaters, are forced into the lowest common denominator type of programming, because no one is programing Spongebob The Musical because they think its high art, they’re programming it because it can sell tickets. And nothing against Spongebob, jukebox musicals, revivals of musicals about movies… but those kind of choices..the name recognition titles as a survival mechanism…I worry that those choices crowd out new work. And doesn’t leave room for new stories to come out. We get the rare one like Kimberly Akimbo (which I would love to see)…there are the rare new musicals coming out, but as far as new plays (are concerned), in this climate, its hard to make the case for new works at the community theater level. New plays are so much harder to sell, they’re so much more expensive to sell because of a lack of recognition. But on the other hand, the stuff that does have name recognition are usually works by dead white men, or really old white men…

C: I have to say, talking to you today about your current show, and finding out what it takes to find a play, that’s already been produced…but is unpublished…and has such a great connection with the audience, sounds just inspiring. There’s hope there.

M: It’s such fun to watch the audience as they leave the show, they basically don’t know what hit them…but they are grinning from ear to ear. And I keep hearing over and over again as they leave “You know, I’m really hungry.” Which I LOVE. Yeah. Give me more of that.

C: I think that’s a great place to end this interview, because all this talk about cooking, I think I’m kind of hungry –

M: I know I’m starving –

C. I’m going to go off and make myself a ham sandwich!

M: Alright!

C: Marilyn: thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and perspectives, so valuable. I’m just so inspired by the work you do, your investment in scripts and actors. You’re a marvel.

Faces of Substantial People

by Cynthia Wands

Youth is wasted on the young, a series by the artist Jonas Peterson

I didn’t get to know many elderly people as a child growing up in a family that moved frequently, and we had only rare visits with extended family. My father was in the military and we relocated according to his next assignment in the Air Force, which meant we lived in a bubble of other young, middle class, and rigidly insular, people.

My mother’s Irish parents were elderly, and affectionate in an offhand way – but they weren’t accessible to sharing anything intimate or challenging. Their accelerated aging seem like a horrific journey into dementia and neglect. As a child I remember thinking that I didn’t want to look like them. (They looked “old”.) My father’s parents were a Scottish/Presbyterian clan, vital and athletic and keen of mind: until they aged in their eighties. And then, stroke and illness eventually robbed them of their earlier beauty. My attachment to who they were, prevented me from finding more of the beautiful and poignant aspects of their aging.

I don’t see many older faces in the television and movies and theatre that are available to me. (I’m also sequestered at home, so that limits what I can access.) But I’m constantly flipping the channel of my television, looking for faces of interesting, evolved, older people. I have dear and heart close friends who are in their eighties and nineties and I’m so grateful to be able to witness our time together, in whatever age and shape we’re in now.

I recently discovered an artist, Jonas Peterson, who is creating a series of images called: Youth is wasted on the young. He uses a AI (Artificial Intelligence) program called Midjourney. Here’s what he has to say about this process:

The idea behind “Youth is wasted on the young” was to celebrate the so called old, a comment on ageism if you want. A positive quiet homage to people who’ve seen more than us, been there, done that and I wanted their confidence and pride to be seen. I used fashion to show off their personalities, their attitude and inner rebels shining through the facade of age. I’m a photographer and interested in both styling and fashion, but these aren’t photos and the clothes are not real. Instead I’ve used artificial intelligence to create the scenes, the people and what they’re wearing. I give specific direction using words only to a program, lenses, angles, camera choice, color theme, colors, styling, backgrounds, attitude and overall look and the AI goes to work, it sends back suggestions and more often than not it’s completely wrong, so I try other ways to describe what I’m after, change wording, move phrases around and try to get the AI to understand the mood. It’s frustrating mostly, the AI is still learning, but getting any collaborator to understand you can be difficult no matter if it’s a human or a machine. After a long stretch of trial and error I get closer to a style and look I want and after that it comes down to curation, picking the renders I believe go well together, I start making it a series. To me the process is similar to that of a film director’s, I direct the AI the same way they would talk to an actor or set designer, it’s a process, we try over and over again until we get it right. Should I get all the credit? God, no, the AI creates with my help and direction, it’s a collaboration between a real brain and an artificial one. I’ve been open with that and you don’t need to go back many posts to realize I’ve used AI for this. I answered comments, but no matter how many times I said it was created using AI through MidJourney, other people asked the exact same thing over and over again, so I simply stopped. I’m not here to debate the process, I’m a professional photographer, writer and artist myself, I understand the implications, how this will affect many creative fields in the future. I’m simply using a tool available to me to tell stories, the same way I’ve always told stories – to move people. To me that is the point of this, not how I did it. Dissecting something will almost always kill it. 

Youth is wasted on the young:

I found his images to be wonderfully fantastic. Having worked with “digital art” for the last few years, I know how flat the medium can seem. I love how these people seem to have their own style and a world that they inhabit. I love the colors and the fashion and the hair. What characters. What stories in these images. Here is some of the artwork that he has shared:

Here is where you can find more of his artwork, and some of his musings on body size, aegism, AI artwork and more. Seeing these images this week has really cheered me up – I hope they do the same for you.

Also, a more complete look at his work can be found on Instagram:

Tiger Tea

By Cynthia Wands

A Tarot Card: Tiger Tea for a script I’m writing about the Covid Years

I’ve been writing a script about the Covid Years. In blissful ignorance when I started writing it over a year ago, I thought we would have a time when we were done with Covid Years. And looking at the Los Angeles County numbers, and the consensus of friends who have recently traveled and returned home: the Covid Years are not done yet.

This Tarot Card speaks to me about vigilance and illusion, apprehension and prudence. All those things you carry around with you when you’re a caretaker for someone who won’t survive getting Covid. So far, in these years of compliance with vaccinations and masks and preventive measures: we haven’t had Covid in our house. But we are aware that we still live in this time of friends and loved ones getting really sick, and suffering because of this virus.

So I wanted to share something – tiger-like. Here’s a wonderful speech given by Steven Dietz. It spoke to me about the need for clear vision and motivation in the years ahead for playwrights. Here is part of it:

The following is a version of a speech playwright Steven Dietz delivered to the board of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in May, and, more recently, to the board and long-time supporters of ACT in Seattle.

The hardest conversation I have with avid and gifted MFA playwrights starts when I tell them that there is not a place in the field waiting for them. Despite many theatres’ commitment to new work, there is not really a sacrosanct “space being held” or “set aside” for the new play we did not expect. That space must be won. A new play must make a place for itself. It must contrive, coerce, crowbar its way into our theatrical consciousness. A new work will never get an invitation to join the canon; it will more than likely get the cold shoulder, since we already have plenty of plays, right? A new play must trespass in the field. It must insist on being present. We were not “waiting for” How I Learned to Drive, or Execution of Justice, or Anna in the Tropics, or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. They crashed the gate. And they are never going away.

The American theatre is not full. It is hungry. American audiences are not full. They are hungry. “Hungry for what?” you may wish to ask them. Oh, it is extraordinarily tempting to want to ask your audiences what they want!

Don’t do it. Really. In my opinion, it is not the job of our audience to articulate what is missing in the theatre. That is our job—yours and mine. Furthermore, I venture to say no audience member could have envisioned, much less could have articulated, the need for Until the FloodThe Whale4000 Miles, or Cambodian Rock Band. These plays insisted on being present. Who, really, could have called up their local theatre and requested a play in which a gay couple and a Mormon couple collide in Reagan’s America with the worlds of Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, Valium, AZT, the Kaddish, imaginary Antarctica, and an angel who crashes through the ceiling? Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was completely unimaginable…until it became fully indispensable. With the crucial support of our artists, leaders, boards, and audiences, these plays—and many others—created a prominent and lasting place for themselves in both our art form and our public consciousness.

Many things have gotten easier to generate over the last 40 years—especially as it relates to technology, data, communication. Not new plays. The process of making them remains expensive, inefficient, time-consuming, unpredictable, and often remarkably maddening. And yet, it remains our job—yours and mine—to champion this process; to advocate relentlessly for the new, to push forward the odd and the bold, the unexpected, untried, and unreasonable. History has shown us that it is the play we cannot yet imagine that will one day make itself necessary to us.

The complete article about Steven Dietz in American Theatre Magazine

The Future Without A Queen

By Cynthia Wands

The role of a Queen has changed in our world.

I recently watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. I spent hours watching the crowds of people along the funeral procession, the rituals of a Royal funeral, with everyone looking at a family in public mourning, and it wasn’t a story that was close to me. And yet somehow I didn’t turn off the tv. No, I watched vintage clips of the young Queen riding horses. Wearing Crown Jewels. And videos of her forlorn Corgis now missing their mistress. I was looking for something. I was looking for an image that would tell me that this icon – this woman – this story – was done.

I had grown up with this image of a Queen – she was someone who, to my mind, seemed rather suburban, inscrutable, reserved and irrevocably Royal. (Also – she owned six castles). In my early theatre days I learned from Sophocles and Shakespeare, that the Royals are a magic class. They have the power and the resources to set things in motion. At least until the end of the play. Nowadays the idea of royalty intermingles with Disney merchandising of fairy tales and elite real estate portfolios of the Royal British Family. This Queen had no real political power, although she had “personal prerogatives”; her role was distilled down to three essential rights: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. So it seems this Queen was a bit of an astrologer/weather consultant, and a national grandmother.

And yet, during the funeral broadcasts, more than one announcer referred to Queen Elizabeth as “the most powerful woman in the world”. Although it seems that her actual decision making were limited to bestowing knighthoods, approving Royal dress codes and lending out tiaras to her family for special events.

It was reported that this Queen had specific directions that were followed for her funeral (Code Name: Operation Unicorn. Really. Which sounds like something out of a bad James Bond movie.) But it seems her wishes and influence were supported in the days after her death. And for a woman with nominal political power, 37 million people in the UK watched her funeral. And worldwide, 4 billion people were reported to have watched her funeral. That is pretty powerful. I was one of the 4 billion in the audience. I was looking for an image that would stick to me, something that would give me a kind of bookend to this story.

I considered that – for those of us who create roles of women in power, women in history, women as Queens: the world had seen an icon pass on. Leaders as family figures. Family seen as Royalty. Mothers as Queen. It’s a curious template that we watch the roles played out in politics and history. More than ever, our world needs our women leaders, but do we need a Queen? The idea of a Queen?

I know my Irish ancestors might have some very spirited views on the role of a Queen. And my English family has complicated insights on this subject of Royalty and icons. I’m aware that I watch this turning of the page of history without having the idea of being a subject to the crown.

And still, after days of watching the gathering of the crowds, the ceremony of the funeral and the last bits of a life celebrated and mourned – I kept wanting to see something else. Something about the death of the Queen.

And then I found it.

© Image Provided by News18

The image that found me.

Yes I know. It’s not the image that I was looking for. There’s no women. And there’s Military uniforms. And no faces. No crowds. And the figures are swallowed up darkness. But I saw in this image, the kind of power that theatre can create. This spoke to me of the performances that playwrights and actors can bring about because they can create powerful rituals and awarenesses in their visual poetry.

A Queen is gone. Her influence has been felt.

Its time for new Queens and different influences and rituals. That sounds like the future.

Image: Mixed Media/Mosaic of images by Cynthia Wands

This is an image that came to me while I was writing this. Here’s to the future of new Queens and rituals.

Looking at labels…

by Cynthia Wands

Photography by David Parr for San Francisco Rep’s production of MACHINAL

Last night was a night of nostalgia and perplexed inquiry. It involves a bottle of wine. We had saved a bottle of wine to pair with some exotic menu, sometime in the future, when we can entertain and have dinners with friends again. But given Eric’s ongoing chemotherapy, we know we might not be able to do this any time soon. So we had roasted a chicken, and thought, oh heck, let’s break out the good stuff:

Le Cuvier Sangiovese

This was a gift from wine loving friends. We love this winery, (“small-production wines utilizing wild yeasts, dry-farmed fruit and neutral barrel aging”) and the winemaker (John Munch: “a plenipotentiary & elliptical pontificator”), and we were really excited to finally taste this wine. (The only online mentions we could find for it: “Strong notes of bold cherries and blueberries followed by oak and chocolate hints in a deep inky body that had mild length and minimal tannins.” Also: “Not available in retail stores.” Also: Not currently listed as available from the winery.) It’s not an especially beautiful label, and it doesn’t tell you a lot about the wine.

Here’s where it becomes like theatre.

If you go see a performance, and you’re familiar with the venue, or the director, or a cast member, or the playwright, you might read the program for the show with a lot of interest, because, you want to know more about the ingredients that went into this production.

And you can find out bits about them: where they studied, or who they’ve worked with, what shows have they done, is that a wig or is that their real hair.

And the program can label their identity for you: Oh, they’re from an Ivy League school, or they worked with that guerrilla  theatre. Look, they got produced over there. And that’s an interesting seasons coming up. So you make assumptions about who they are and what they’re like.

That’s the same sort of assumptions that can happen with a wine label. We knew the grape (Sangiovese – used in Chianti) and we knew the winery and the wine maker. But then, it can happen the label doesn’t tell you enough.

Because this was such an INCREDIBLE wine – (like an incredible performance) and we wanted to know more. What year was it made? (not on the label). What vineyard did it come from? Is it a blend of vintages? Are there other vintages to compare it to? And can we find another bottle of this? (The answer is no.)

The label didn’t tell us any of that. Sometimes wineries will squeeze in all kinds of information on their labels about who they are and what they do and when they did it. But this winery is different. On the back of the bottle, we could read: “DIRECT QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS TO THE WINEMAKER. [email protected]


(John Munch, the winemaker, has a blog about his adventures in winemaking. You can find it here:

An online search of this wine and more comments about it was not fruitful (forgive the pun). It would have been more satisfying to drive up to the Le Cuvier winery and get a chance to talk to John about this wine and his approach to the grape. (Here’s one of his wonderful blog pieces about his approach:

But back to my comment about – here’s where it becomes like theatre. I’ve been to some incredible theatre, with a one page program, maybe it’s not very beautiful, listing the company (or not) and the production details (or not). And then there are the times when I’ve been able to go out with the cast/crew after a show, and you get a chance to talk about the performance, and the rehearsal, and the audience. That’s when you can really find out – how did this come about? Where did it come from?

A postcard for MACHINAL, directed by Michelle Truffaut at San Francisco Rep.
When I posed for this picture I had no idea of what the image would look like.

Years ago I performed in MACHINAL at San Francisco Rep, and the visual/performance aspects of this show were wildly imaginative, incorporating neon lights, staccato staging/blocking and original music. This production postcard was the best “label” that could illustrate that show. Looking at it now reminds me not only how difficult it was to do this version of the script, but how unique and brave it was.

Last night, searching for more information on a bottle of wine, I found another reminder of how we need to see beyond a label, and how it can spark an inquiry into the unknown.

When things break…

by Cynthia Wands

Yes. You can snap a handle off a sink faucet.

Lately I’ve been breaking things.

I dropped a favorite water glass and it smashed to bits. I also had a hummingbird feeder fall apart when I was trying to feed the charm of hummingbirds that vacation on our deck. And then I snapped the handle off the bathroom sink. Literally I snapped it off with my bare hands.

That was a surprise – I didn’t know I had that much raw strength in my hands. Or that I had that kind of ongoing angst that I can break things apart with such ease.

Actually it’s an old sink. An old faucet. I don’t really have that much strength. Or so I tell myself.

But I have a Yankee kind of “don’t throw it out it can be fixed” mentality. And I have a far fetched idea of Kintsugi, based on images I’ve seen online.

(Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.)

Ribbons of gold hold this bowl together. It’s beautiful.

See. I can’t do this. My attempts at repairing things in my life, in my mind, in my garage, don’t look anything like this. Instead, I have a lot of broken pieces of things, that I think I can fix, and they are waiting for that idea to actually happen. So I hate breaking things.

I think sometimes that’s why I’m anxious about rewrites to my scripts, and attempts at “fixing” my artwork. I don’t have this “embracing flaws” practice. It’s more a dodge ball game of what can I hide that I don’t like, or I’m uncertain about.

Recently, my 34 year old Kitchen Aid mixer died.

I loved this thing.

This was given to me as a gift when a friend saw me struggling to make twelve cakes for a big party. He couldn’t stand watching me do battle with a tiny hand mixer to put together all the cakes and buttercream. I’ve treasured this machine for 34 years and, for some reason, I thought it would outlive me.

But recently I was baking some sample cakes for a friend’s upcoming wedding (small cakes) and it broke. The engine died. Attempts to have it repaired were not successful, and I was having a meltdown about this. My husband, bless him, ordered me a replacement, (even though I was struggling with the purchase price and the money issue, he went ahead and did it anyway.) Bless him.

So, broken things. I’m about to jump into rewrites for a script that has wrestled me into a corner. I’ll see if I can find those ribbons of gold to patch things together.

And here’s the new Kitchen Aid mixer. It’s different than my beloved workhorse mixer. The bowl is different, the power of the motor is different. But I’m adjusting to the idea that I can have new things.

The new mixer is the color of “Ink Blue”.

And the plumber is coming on Friday to replace the faucet. Another new thing in the house. I’ll try not to snap the handle off on this one.