The road to creating a new play is often fraught with challenges, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and, well, lots of drama – the offstage kind that none of us wants, but theater seems to attract.
So it’s very nice to chat with Debbie Bolsky and Katherine James, a playwright and director team who seem to have found just the right mix of work and play while mounting Debbie’s Ashes to Ashes with The Athena Cats, premiering at The Odyssey Theatre December 9-January 14.
LA FPI: Ashes to Ashes is, in itself, a wild ride of a play – we follow the characters as they travel from country to country. What was the starting point for this play?
Debbie Bolsky: I’ve always said that when I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled in specific spots, so I came up with the idea of writing a romantic comedy about two people who can’t stand each other having to sprinkle their best friends’ ashes around the world.
Katherine James: My favorite thing about the path the characters take is that it is not a logical sequence on a map. In other words, if a travel agent mapped this as your journey you would assume that they were off of their meds. Rather, each country that is visited traces the journey of the heart – the steps in a relationship that test true love.
Debbie:Ashes to Ashesis a wild ride, fun and zany, but it’s also touching at times. The characters are an ex-couple, and in the play they are forced into situations where they face their biggest fears and have to depend upon the person they can’t stand the most to get them through. But they are also on the journey of discovering things they didn’t realize about each other, things they didn’t know about their deceased friends and finally things they didn’t admit about themselves.
LA FPI: And tell us a bit about where the two of you have traveled, in terms of this collaboration.
Katherine: I had the great pleasure of starting this journey with Debbie in an amazing workshop [Theatricum Botanicum Seedlings’ Dramaturgy Workshop, run by LA FPI co-founder Jennie Webb]. So as we workshopped it and rehearsed it we worked very hard on the emotional journey of the play, how it built, and how each step was a step of growth and intensity.
Debbie: Our collaborative process was phenomenal. Katherine came up with the idea of workshopping it for a week this past summer with actors (two of whom are still in the play) and that’s when the development started going at hyper speed. The actors took ownership of the characters. Collaborating with Katherine and the actors – Lena Bouton, Kevin Young and Michael Uribes – has helped me write a richer play and probably become a better writer.
Katherine: Collaboration is the name of the game for me. Also, to work with a collaborator like Debbie who is so trusting of this process is rare and welcome.
Debbie: I love working with Katherine! But for me, the biggest and most pleasant surprise is how well we all worked together – we are a team.
LA FPI: And of course we love how femme-centric this all is. The Athena Cats is a collective of Southern California female playwrights and directors; for this play you’ve got a woman playwright, director, producers…
Debbie: And a lot of the crew are female as well. A great thing about this experience is that there is very little ego involved. All of us working on this have the same goal, to bring Ashes to Ashes to the stage in the best way possible.
Katherine: I think that one of the big differences between men and women in management and leadership is that men tend to work on tasks from a top-down pyramid. Women create things in a circle with everyone in the circle having his/her say and all contributions are honored. It is amazing what a circle of big creative brains can accomplish when nurtured and encouraged to give their best to a project.
Debbie: The Athena Cats has been around for about two years now and this is our second production; in 2016 we produced Laurel Wetzork’s Blueprint for Paradise. [Laurel and Debbie are co-founders of The Athena Cats, and active LA FPI Instigators!] We also had a New Works Festival earlier in the year showcasing works written and directed by women. There are a lot of talented female writers and directors out there who are not getting an equal shot at getting their works seen. The whole idea of the Athena Cats is to get more works written and /or directed by women onto Southern California stages.
Katherine: Without The Athena Cats, I never would have been given the opportunity to direct this amazing romp. I don’t think that without LA FPI that I would have ever met Laurel and Debbie. Thank you, LA FPI, for being a cornerstone of my creative life!
LA FPI: Thank you for being part of an incredible creative team, putting women to work! To continue the love fest, let’s include the audience: When people come to see Ashes to Ashes, what do you want to share with them… and have them take away?
Debbie: Even though Ashes to Ashes starts out with a death, it is really about love, friendship and peace. We live in incredibly stressful times right now and I think laughter is sorely needed.
Katherine: The holiday season is a perfect time to laugh, sigh, fall in love all over again and go for a great ride. And in this dark time in our country’s history, where better to do this than in the theater?
The Athena Cats’ Ashes to Ashesby Debbie Bolsky, directed by Katherine James, opens as a visiting production at The Odyssey Theatre on December 9, 2017 and runs through January 14, 2018. For tickets and information visit www.AshesToAshesThePlay.com or call 323.960-.4443.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
The truest words I’ve heard all year have come from Patton Oswalt, quoting his late wife Michelle McNamara:
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
In his latest Stand-Up special for Netflix, Oswalt recounted that she hated the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” She would say, “It’s all chaos, it’s all random, and it’s horrifying. And if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”
Be kind. Be gentle. Be forgiving. I’ve been echoing these words to myself all year–both in regards to others and myself. Stay open. Stay vulnerable. Stay tender. I’ve been thinking about my clenched fists. The way they tighten both to keep things in, that maybe I should have let go of (like a dream being realized in a specific way), and the way they tense up in defense, when perhaps they should reach out to and for help and resolutions instead.
I came back to Missouri from LA not really by choice, and never planned to stay more than a year. Four years after coming here, I finally felt financially stable enough to start planning my return to the coast, or a coast anyway. I remembered my time in New York fondly and thought maybe I should go back there. So, I went and visited. And it didn’t feel right. So, I decided LA made the most sense. I made a lot of logical, sound arguments for it in my head, but some part of me was hesitant. I didn’t understand why. I worried that hesitation was just fear–fear of repeating my first 6 years and never progressing further. Fear of financially floundering again, of not being able to act as much as I have been here, of being away from my Mom. I didn’t want to be motivated by fear. So, I told myself: I’m moving back to LA in September. I started telling friends and family and my boss. I got boxes for packing.
Then, the possibility of making season two of my webseries Seek Help came up. I wanted to make it, and it seemed like we might be able to–so I decided to stay past September, and since I was staying past September, I auditioned for the play Good People and got cast. And since I was staying for those things, I had to renew my lease and they didn’t give me a 6 month option like I was hoping, it was 1 year or pay a lot more and do month to month. So I signed a 1 year lease. I told my boss and he said, “That’s got to be awful for you–having to defer the move 6 months longer than you wanted.” And I realized it wasn’t awful for me. It was easy.
I took some time after that to sit quietly alone with my thoughts and journal. And I had an epiphany. This was my epiphany: Acting is not EVERYTHING. I still feel blasphemous even saying that because I wouldn’t want anyone for one second to doubt how incredibly important it is to me or think that I’m saying that I’m giving up on my dreams of being a working actor. I’m not. However, life goes SO quickly. For 31 years (give or take a childhood), I’ve pursued whatever avenues I could to become a working actor on TV, Film and Theatre. I thought it would happen before I ever got to high school. It didn’t. I thought it would happen in my 20’s. It didn’t.
“It” being a regular on a TV show or consistently working on TV, Film and Theatre–the shows/films people all over the country know about and watch. Anything short of that…I never allowed to feel like “success.” I was grateful for every opportunity and job, but in my mind, I was still failing. And at 31, the thought of going back to LA and knocking on doors and getting all those “No’s” and “You’re great, but too tall”…even the thought of achieving my dream now as I always dreamed it…I just started questioning how fulfilling that would really be? I love the work, but the work is always the work no matter where you do it. I love working with people who are great at what they do and challenge me to be better. That would be great, no question. I would love to be respected and known (and paid!) as a full-time storytelling vessel. But I also know that sometimes you try and try and try and it never “works out” how you wanted or thought it would.
For a decade I’ve been saying that I want to get involved with CASA (court appointed special advocate–they speak for the child going through foster care in court) and fostering/adopting. I always said, you know, someday….when/if I am ever stable enough financially and in one place long enough. Everything hinged on achieving my acting dream in this one specific way–a way that most people never do, no matter how incredibly gifted they are or how diligent their hustle. Life is an expansive tapestry of experiences–and I’ve been zeroed in on just one thing for so long, never even considering the possibility that maybe if I un-clinch my fists just a little, I could hold some other things in my hands, in my life. I could make a little room and be a part of something bigger than myself.
Maybe it’s my age, but I crave community these days…I want to build a family, a group of close friends and collaborators. I’ve long had more love to give than people in my life to give it to. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in my apartment, hogging resources I could be contributing. Forgive the length of this post–I just want you to understand that when I say that I am not moving back to LA, I am staying in Springfield, MO, that you know that it is not about fear or trepidation. It is not a giving up on my dreams–they are still very much in the forefront of my mind, still daily on my to-do’s–rather, this decision is one to expand my life in new ways that I hope positively contributes to my community, and enriches the work and stories I am able to tell.
My dream now looks a little like this: Buy a house, make it a home. Get involved as a volunteer advocate for Foster Kids and eventually foster to adopt. Continue to make my own projects and try to improve with each one–try to get my scripts sold or made and audition for projects (only the ones I really, deeply want). I hope to travel to the coasts semi-regularly. I hope for many more lunch dates with my Mom and many more collaborations with my friends and artists I look up to.
After I made this decision, I told no one…for weeks. I sat with it, waiting to see if I would change my mind again. But I pretty much knew it was the right decision when, the day after, as I was driving to a work event, I started crying…they were tears of a mixed bag of emotions: relief at no longer living a life solely in pursuit of “yes’s” that may or may not ever validate me in the way I always dreamed, sadness and acceptance of letting go of that expectation, and excitement for all the new dreams I could now dream. It’s a little corny, but for the first time in my life, I felt like a “full-grown woman.”
Life’s not working out how I thought it would…mostly, honestly, it’s been chaos. And in that chaos you have one choice that belongs to you alone and is totally in your control, and that’s how you respond to the chaos. You can project meaning onto it, you can let it disorient you, you can fight the chaos and try to control it, or you can adjust your perspective and your goals, and look for ways to grow with each new challenge and curve that gets thrown at you. You can loosen your fists and let life flow through you.
“It’s chaos. Be kind.”
This weekend my friend, Lisa Murphy, who plays my wife in Seek Help was saying how “it” was going to happen for me. And I said that it didn’t matter anymore whether or not “it” did…it didn’t matter because I was already doing “it.” I don’t need anyone’s permission to live my life how I want. I’m going to act, and write, and create my whole life and that’s more than enough. Let me tell you, finally being able to say that and know it and mean it feels amazing. And what’s perhaps most incredible, is that this gift was a gift I gave myself. It was “just” a perspective change, but one that took me a couple decades and a whole lot of failed attempts at controlling the chaos to realize was always there just waiting for me to see it, claim it, and be free.
WHY: One of the ten Fringe Scholarship winners (awarded to shows that expand and diversify the Fringe community), charismatic comic Sofie Khan grew up with a Mexican Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father in a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican Chicago neighborhood. Such a multi-culti stew makes for a deliciously funny and poignant solo show.
Sofie’s warm, relaxed, upbeat stage presence immediately invites the audience into her world. I love her positive motto: “If you judge a book by its cover, you miss out on the story.” And Sofie tells her story very well, relating the many instances where her “cover” has indeed been judged—by cashiers, TSA agents, White House staff (to name a few). Her story is both unique yet highly relatable as our country becomes even more of a melting pot and we’re all “mixed” in some way (mine is a strict Catholic mom and Atheist dad, which was difficult in its own way.)
Sofie reads our minds by answering such questions as: Does she identify more with her ‘Mexi’ side or her ‘Stani’ side? Has she been a victim of a hate crime? What holidays does she celebrate? All these questions and many more are answered along with her imparting sincere wisdom about all of us being part of the World Community, and wanting to create a “safe space and understanding for all…especially for LGBTQ and Muslim individuals”. (To that end, Sofie has partnered with the Naz & Matt Foundation which tackles “homophobia triggered by religion to help parents accept their children”. Brava.)
Though Sofie is “charismatic AF” (to quote the kids today), a compelling performance and a well-told tale is often not enough to make a solo show riveting. It must be theatrical as well. Otherwise, I could just listen to “The Moth” on the radio. I love seeing solo shows at the Fringe and how they run the gamut from basic stand-up to the use of multi-media, props, and other elements to amp up the show. Tightly directed by solo show dynamo Jessica Lynne Johnson, MexiStani! makes use of projections, audience participation, impersonations, and Sofie even performs a rap song. All of the elements add up to a theatrical and highly entertaining show. So entertaining that the serious themes slipped right by my brain and straight into my heart and had me thinking about them days later.
One final note: Sofie is offering a free 90- minute Fringe workshop with the right-to- the-point title: “Getting to Your Authentic Happy Self When You Feel Like Shit”. It’s at the Asylum Underground Theater, June 10 at am. Maybe I’ll see you there!
WHY:This one-woman show was adapted from the novel “Lolly Willowes; or the Loving Huntsman” by Sylvia Townsend Warner and was a sensation when it was first published in 1926. Its feminist message is just as relevant 91 years later.
Lisa Wyatt plays Laura “Aunt Lolly” Willowes, an aging English spinster who struggles to break free of her controlling family. Lisa is fascinating to watch as she slowly draws us into Lolly’s life: an endless round of taking care of others. There’s a clever dimension of the supernatural as Lolly “tunes in” to her family’s comments, demands and criticisms through a radio. It’s a little harder however, to “tune them out” as they constantly tell Lolly what she “should” be doing, where and how she should be living. I liked that the recorded voices emanated through an old “cathedral-style” radio (my grandmother had one just like it) which gives the voices a dose of spiritual gravitas.
And all Lolly wants is to be left alone! She wants to leave London and move to the small village of Great Mop (population 227), where she can have a small house “and a donkey!” She eventually moves to countryside but soon after, her nephew visits and decides to stay. While out walking, she meets Satan and strikes a pact. I loved Lolly’s observation that “all women are witches….and even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there.”
Lolly Willowes appealed for a “life of one’s own” three years before Virginia Woolf called for her own room. Kudos to Kate and Sal for finding this gem of a story and adapting into a poetic theater piece.
It’s been 9 months since I last blogged for LA FPI and the world feels like a drastically different place…a terrifyingly absurd place…the kind of place that I used to think only existed in dark, independent foreign films (a favorite to watch, though less favored to live in). Through all the political cacophony and “alternative facts,” one real, indisputable fact has emerged: Fear creates action like a motherf*cker. Advertisers, politicians, and religious zealots have harnessed this power for decades…but I’m not here to talk about any of that…I’m here to talk about creating.
It’s a story-line we’re all familiar with: A person has a near-death experience, survives and realizes what really matters to them. They quit their job, get out of that toxic relationship, sell the clutter, and live more simply in pursuit of their legacy. That may mean investing more time into your relationships with your family, or it could mean spending more time creating that masterpiece–or both! Or neither! Or something else entirely! Only your heart knows. The question is: If we all know the story, why aren’t we able to extrapolate the lesson of it without the near-death part?
Fear gets a negative connotation, some of which is justified, but fear is also adrenaline, it is motivation, and it can be the cold, hard hand of reality that slaps you across the face when you’ve tuned out on your life.
If you’re terrified of ending up as the person who always said, “I’m a _____,” or “I’m working on______,” or “I’m going to ________,” and then never became, never did, never got there…then you will do something. When the fear of not doing the thing becomes greater than the fear of trying and failing, you will do the thing. And when you do the thing, you’ll buck head-on with that fear of trying and failing like never before, and finally be forced to confront (ie. breakthrough) that fear. The good news is that the more times you breakthrough that fear, the further you’ll be able to go.
So, my advice? Be afraid, be very, very afraid. And do it anyway. Set yourself up to confront scary situations on the regular. Go take that stand-up routine you’ve got tucked in your pocket up on a stage in front of people and fill the space with your weird ass humor. Don’t just finish that book, put it out in the world–tell people, ask them to read it and tell you what they really think…then, send it to your idols–why not? Produce that play that you’re the most proud of but that no one has said, “yes” to yet. Start that business you’ve been dreaming about for 20 years.
In other words: LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING (because you are).
True: You might “fail.” You might fall flat on your face in the most humiliating way. Maybe no one laughs when they’re supposed to…maybe everyone laughs when they’re not. You will cry and there will be sleepless nights. You might go bankrupt. Maybe you go for it with all you’ve got and come up short. Maybe you’ll be forced to realize that you’re not capable of doing what you’ve always wanted to…yet. You could perish mid-pursuit…but, more terrifyingly, you could die never having tried at all–never having spoken your thoughts–never having shared your he(art)–never knowing what could have been…and then, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
It’s not hyperbole to say these decisions are life and death. Your life and your death…it’s your legacy in your hands, your decisions plotting your path. It’s a lot of responsibility to admit that to yourself. While “success” is a personally defined moving target–much of which involves timing and luck that is out of your hands…your effort, your output, and your action…well, that’s all on you, kid. Life is so, so weird and no one knows half of what they seem to know…rather than try to make sense of it, embrace the absurdity. Rather than wait for someone else’s validation, proclaim it for yourself: you belong. You’re voice, experience and perspective are the rarest, most valuable assets you have.
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN! There’s just one catch: You have to try.
I promise you, if you let it, fear can be the biggest gift you give yourself (along with a hardy dose of kindness).
My Top 4 List of Scary Things From The Last 9 Months
1. True Confessions: Goldilocks & the Three Dildos
Back in September I had the opportunity (ie. volunteered) to get up on a mic in front of people and tell a true story from my life. True Confessions is a local storytelling event in the vein of The Moth and provided the perfect opportunity to scare myself shitless. It’s one thing going up in front of people under the illusion of character, costume and set, and another thing entirely to speak truthfully about truly embarrassing parts of your life that you think might be funny and poignant, but that could also just be quietly unacceptable to utter out-loud. I did it though (you can listen at the link above!) and the most surprising thing came from it…I was able to own my story in a way I never was before–always worried what others would think if I shared it…suddenly, that fear had no power over me anymore. I let go of shame and learned, by doing, how to be grateful for every odd, painful quirk of my story…for giving me such a great story to tell.
2. Art Hung on Gallery Walls
Art was always my Mom’s thing. She’s the professional artist. I was the artistic hippie who did all artistic things, but left the “serious” artistic pursuits in my Mom’s lane. I’ve always made art but rarely placed much value on it. It’s “my Mom’s thing.” As if my placing value on my work could in any way take anything away from my Mom–but I so clearly recall an incident in my childhood with a competitive friend when one of us crossed into the other’s artistic lanes and sparks flied. “Hey, that’s my thing!” To my Mom’s credit, she’s never been anything but supportive of my art. She’s even bought (ie. paid real dollar bills, yo) for my art (which is crazy to me–LOVE YOU, MOM). It’s completely my own neurosis. In the last two years, however, I’ve made more art than I have had space for and people started inquiring about buying, so I re-activated my Etsy shop and started reaching out to galleries to do shows. This makes me feel boarder-line legitimate artistically…and that means being vulnerable for my work to be judged through that lens as well…which is scary. In the last 9 months through to the next 9 months my work has shown at (for judgement and purchase) or will be shown at: BookMarx, Springfield Art Museum, Springfield Regional Arts Council, Tea Bar & Bites, and Arts & Letters.
3. LET’S TALK About My Poetry Book
I’ve been writing poetry as far back as I can remember, but like my art I never took it “seriously.” In the last few years, I have become more and more cognizant of the power of representation. The #BodyPositive movement, the #BlackGirlMagic movement, and #effyourbeautystandards among others are powerful because they provide much needed examples of strong, confident, successful, and beautiful that aren’t being shown as regularly in mainstream media and advertising. I’ve realized that my voice and perspective could add to the chorus of voices that have re-shaped my mind and my perspective on others and myself in monumental ways. And what if those people had never seen the value in their voices? My life, undoubtedly, would be vastly different today. This collection, LET’S TALK, has been in the works for the last 2 years and will be available on Amazon later this year through their self-publishing platform CreateSpace. It’s scary putting this book out there–it’s an expense–no, an investment. What if no one buys it? Or what if they do? What if they leave really awful reviews? But, more importantly, what if it helps? Anyone at all, even just a little…to feel less alone in life?
4. SEEK HELP & Seeking Funds
This was the biggest leap. This one was and is the scariest. No question. I wrote a web-series called Seek Help way back in 2012. It came out of me in a huge, easy burst of inspiration and I really loved it–which, if you write, you know how rarely that outcome occurs! I wanted to make it, but it required a specific set and a few other things that I didn’t have access to at the time. Every few years I would pull it out, re-read it and proclaim, “I want to make this!”
Then, this last year I was reading it with my friend Matt and it SPARKED. This was it. The time was now. We talked and decided to do a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to make it–and make it right. I was so scared to do a kickstarter…imagine asking for money for a project you really believe in and finding out just how many people find you or your he(art) project unworthy of giving to. But then I thought about all my friends who had had successful campaigns and how I had happily donated to many of them and I thought…okay, we can do this! People do this!
I made a plan, we made a video, we made a kickstarter, I researched, I submitted, I PR’d and I posted and posted and emailed…and then, I started to panic…like, dry-heaving, crying actual tears, out of my mind SCARED that because not enough people were responding that it meant that no one believed in me. I felt betrayed. I felt embarrassed for trying. I felt briefly like I was not worthwhile. Then, right in the middle of it, the election happened. To be clear, we were not on target for meeting our goal before the election happened, but once it happened, all progress slowed to a complete stop. Understandably people had bigger concerns–as did I.
In a weird sort of way, I found my perspective again. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started feeling so grateful for everyone who did support me when there are so many other very worthy causes to support. When we failed to make our goal, I wasn’t yet ready to relinquish defeat. When I thought about making it any way we could scrape it together, I felt excitement and peace. When I thought about giving up, I felt depressed and incapable. So, it was simple. I didn’t want to feel depressed and incapable…I wanted to feel excitement and peace. Amazingly, some of the people who’d donated wanted to keep their pledges and help us make it. So, we reconfigured, re-cast, and re-committed. There have been no less than 5 major set-backs (all SCARY) since that decision was made, but this week I finished the rough cut of the first full episode which we shot this past weekend and I haven’t been able to sleep un-medicated since. I’m so incredibly giddy with excitement. I go to bed late and wake up early and don’t feel cranky about it…and this is the thing, guys…
THIS IS THE WHOLE ENCHILADA…
The joy you get from doing the thing? When it’s your thing–whatever that may be–is more than enough to absorb the fear and the setbacks. You only live once (probably)–SO GO FOR IT! And don’t hesitate to reach out to me in the comments if you want an accountability partner, or someone to bounce ideas off of. I love being an accountability and encouragement partner–especially for other strong, creative women! <3
For the past few years, LA FPI has been very much into matchmaking: introducing female playwrights to female directors with an eye on future collaborations. So when East West Players (EWP) invited us to be their Community Partner for the West Coast Premiere of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, directed by Deena Selenow, we immediately said, “Hell yes!” And took the opportunity to ask this exciting creative team a few questions.
LA FPI: What brought the two of you together, initially?
Leah Nanako Winkler: Last summer, I was fortunate enough to work with Artists at Play (AAP), an amazing LA-based theatre company that did a developmental workshop of my play, Two Mile Hollow. They immediately suggested working with Deena because they were confident she’d nail the humor of the piece while maintaining the seriousness of the issues regarding race—and even more so, class—that lurks beneath the surface of the play. I didn’t think twice when they suggested her because: A) I trust everything AAP says since they’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met; and B) I’ve only heard great things about Deena. I’ve admired her from afar as a fellow mixed-race theater artist.
Deena Selenow: I knew some of the AAP folks from around town, so when they invited me to direct the reading I—of course—said yes. Then I read the script and fell in love. Leah’s writing is so blunt and funny and nuanced and moving. She shifts tone like an acrobat, and it’s so clear that she has fun while she writes. Leah, Julia Cho (AAP producer), and I had a great collaboration leading up to Two Mile Hollow.
LA FPI: Were you familiar with East West Players before this production?
Leah: I’ve known about, admired, and wanted to work with EWP for quite some time. I’ve been immersed and singularly focused in the past decade doing plays in NYC, but it wasn’t until last year that my dream came true and Kentucky was fully produced Off-Broadway. I kind of thought—well, what now? What will happen to me when this is over? So imagine my surprise when EWP Artistic Director Snehal Desai called me to tell me Kentucky was going to be included in East West Players’ 51st Anniversary season. I feel so empowered as a Japanese American artist working with a diverse creative team. I definitely feel like I’ve won the lottery.
Deena: Snehal Desai and I met through the TCG SPARK Leadership Program, which is a branch of Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. At that time, he was the Artistic Associate and Literary Manager at EWP (he’s made quite a climb in a short amount of time!). SPARK is a cohort of ten, so we all became close very quickly. Snehal and I are the only two based in LA, so we see each other quite a bit. I think I had seen one show at EWP when I was in grad school, and now I see pretty much everything they do. EWP is a vital American theater, and Snehal is an incredible leader. I’ve loved getting to know Snehal in this creative capacity. Tim Dang has left EWP in good hands.
LA FPI:Leah–what was it about Deena that gave you confidence in her? And Deena–what was it about Leah’s play that spoke to you?
Leah: Deena and I both want the same thing: for the play to be the best it can be. With her, I know that nothing is about ego but for the greater good of the piece. Even in our disagreements or points of confusion, we’re both straightforward and come to a conclusion without any passive aggressive weirdness, which is huge as playwright/director relationships can get complicated in that way fast.
Deena: Leah’s work in general is so very honest and the characters speak their minds. She writes realities in which people don’t self-censor and say what they mean. It’s hilarious and uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. Particular to Kentucky is remembering that moment in your life when you realized you can never go home again. That home moves, and the idea of home changes as you grow up and evolve. Family is complicated, and Leah doesn’t shy away from that.
LA FPI:When did it hit you that you two were a good fit, collaborating on Kentucky?
Leah: I think we had an initial phone call that was supposed to be an hour that turned into four. Our personalities definitely vibe, which is an important foundation. But we both worked actively together on a new nine-person adaptation [the NY production had a cast of 16] and figured out the doubling schemes together. I really felt connected in those moments.
Deena: I love working with Leah. I love how vulnerable she lets herself be in her writing and in the rehearsal room, and it encourages me to let my walls down as well. We worked really closely during pre-production. We took our time, imagined different scenarios, and listened to each other. Leah trusts me, and I can feel it, which gives me confidence. She gives me room to experiment but also doesn’t hesitate to speak up and tell me when I’m off the mark, which I also appreciate.
LA FPI: Kentucky’s director for its Off-Broadway Premiere, Morgan Gould, was a woman, as well. What are your thoughts about what a woman director brings to a female playwright’s work?
Leah: While I know of and work with male directors that bust their ass on a daily basis and deserve every career success that they get, I know that female directors have to work twice as hard to be respected. As “emerging” playwrights, we’re sometimes told to “level up” to a director who’s more famous, and that’s often an older white dude. I think while this tactic is meant to “protect” the young playwright in many ways, it really screws over young female directors that often develop the script for years only to be fired when the show gets picked up.
Kentucky is a huge undertaking with multiple characters, 17 locations, three songs, and complex relationships that need to be dug into with precision, sympathy, and understanding. It takes a BEAST to direct this play. And both Morgan and Deena are BEASTS. It’s incredible and inspiring to watch strong women take total command of a room. They get shit done with the strength of ten thousand men.
Deena: Any time you work with someone who is “like” you in some way or another, there are certain nuances that don’t need discussion and are just inherently there. I work with a lot of women playwrights, but with men as well (albeit not as frequently). Differences are just as important as similarities. There are inequities in every inch of our society, so I work with people who share my core values, and we lift each other up.
LA FPI:As women artists, telling a woman’s story, how has your experience been with East West Players–a company that embraces diversity and is presenting a femme-centered season?
Leah: I think “white girl” and “diversity” are often conflated, and I love that EWP is championing women of color. In addition, nobody is the “only one” here, and it’s a gift to be working with not only a cast, creative team, and crew that are diverse, but also producers, board members, and staff as well. I’ve never had that happen to me.
EWP lets us do our work while acting like it’s the most normal thing in the world. By doing that, they universalize our experiences. And you know what? Good. Because our stories ARE universal. We’ve been told that white is normal for so long, and it’s just not true. I love EWP because they acknowledge this naturally in their mission, but it’s still fun and it’s a safe space.
Deena: I’m thrilled that EWP chose to program a women-centered season. They really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to equity and inclusion. We all need to be allies to one another. EWP has a platform for visibility, and they are using it.
LA FPI: As theater artists, how important to you is forming ongoing relationships vs. finding the right person/project?
Leah: I’m still learning about this. I directed my own work for six years and just started working with other directors in the last four. I like working with a lot of different people just to test the waters, and get to know as many people as possible. I love collaborating and finding long term relationships with various people on projects that work for each partnership. Which for Deena and I, ended up being Kentucky.
Dena: Relationships are everything. Theater is a collaborative sport and finding your teammates is key. I’m so glad that Leah and I have found each other. I’m excited for our relationship to grow and to continue. I’ve been really lucky in my collaborations. The dynamic changes with each group of people and each project, and that’s part of the fun.
LA FPI: In seven words or less, what’s your advice to women artists about getting the most out of the collaborative process?
Leah: Communicate. Be assertive. Don’t forget the joy. (Or LADIES, DON’T BRING SNACKS OUT OF OBLIGATION.)
Deena: Listen. Trust your gut. Make a mess.
Kentucky plays through December 11, 2016 at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater.Click Here for information and to purchase tickets.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LA FPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
I started Green Light Productions in 2003 to create new opportunities for women in theatre. As of 2008, Green Light has exclusively produced plays written and directed by women.
This year, Green Light completed The Shubert Report to examine the 349 theatres that received $16.4 million in grants last year from the nation’s largest private funder of the performing arts. We found that only 26% of the plays being produced were written by women and that 125 of those 349 theatres weren’t producing ANY plays written by women. Foundations, especially those as large as The Shubert Foundation, play a huge role in sustaining American Theatre – most of which is classified as nonprofit. Imagine the impact it’d have if they required applicants to produce seasons that had 50% female writers and directors? Imagine the impact if just one major theatre a year decided to do a season of plays by women. Just that one step…
In 2005, I took that step. Heather Jones sent me her one-act play “Last Rites” about a life-long friendship between two women. It’s a beautiful play and I walked around with Heather’s script in my bag for month thinking about how it could be produced. I had the idea to create a festival of one-act plays all written and directed by women: GLO, Green Light One-Acts. And since the first GLO in, we’ve given world premieres to 15 one-act plays with productions in Philadelphia, New York and now Los Angeles.
In GLO 2014 we introduce to the world 4 new plays written by female playwrights based in Los Angeles – Allie Costa, Jennie Webb, Julianne Homokay and myself – with directors Liz Hinlein, Jen Bloom, Ricka Fisher and Katherine James. I have met the most incredible women just working on this first Green Light show here and I am so excited to plan our next steps here in LA.
Getting here wasn’t easy. While I’ve had the absolute pleasure to work with hundreds of women who support our mission, over the years I heard a surprising amount of negative feedback – much of it from women who felt that the theatre didn’t need companies like Green Light. A female journalist actually responded to one of my press releases with “Do we really need this?”
Yes, we do. And we need YOU!
I hope that by forming new collaborations, asking lots questions, challenging those who need to be challenged and producing work by women, Green Light will continue to have a valuable impact on artists and audiences. And I hope you’ll be part of it.
Mark Your Calendars: November 6-9, GLO 2014, 4 plays written and directed by LA women artists at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. www.greenlightproductions.org.
Be part of Green Light Productions first foray into the LA theater scene (after mixing it up in NY and Philly). Join the FB Invite here (LA FPI tix for only $10!). This femme-fest is Green Light Production’s annual event, but the company is looking for more women artists moving forward. If you’re interested in getting involved, contact [email protected].