So you just pitched an idea and now you have to write a play…Ahhh what do you do next???
First, find a copy of your submission so you can remember what brilliant idea you sent in. Next, find your notebook, notecards, and/or Google doc and re-read your pitch. Take a moment for it all to come back to and start writing your 8 to 10 pages that you need for your first meeting.
But where do you start? Me, I knew where I wanted to begin so I would save that material for later. Right now I wanted to experiment with what I didn’t know. I had a wild thought and went down a rabbit hole of definitions and science-y talk trying to describe outer space for the stage. Is there sound in space? What kinds of gases are in the air? If there is sound, how is it detected? How quickly do you travel in space? How many light years = an earth year?
As I wrote for my decided on characters, I worried that I needed more. I was at a total of 3 actors. How many more would I need? How many rooms are we moving through? Should I have made an outline for this? I kept the dialogue going as I searched for the conflict. And I didn’t look back. It’s just 10 pages. No re-reading. I did peek once but was to make sure I had the correct character saying what needed to be said. I moved through the senses. What are we hearing when the incident occurs? Can we hear it? and if so, what is the instrument that is notifying us of this sound? I closed my eyes as I thought of being in space. How quiet is it? A quick search to read how NASA builds the shuttle. How does our spacecraft move through space? Are we floating? A few twists and turns later, we had our first encounter. 8 pages done.
The group of playwrights is small. So a quick hello and we dig in. As the other playwrights read my play with the roles I have assigned them, I am caught up in the technicalities of what I wrote. Too much! I understood it, but only because I had searched for it. Otherwise, it could have been said so much more simpler. After all the technical jargon I used, I opted to use the word “thingamagig” to explain a not yet invented…thingamagig, that tested the thingamabobs for the whatchamachlits. And because this was the first scene I was writing, it could be anything at this point. No one could see the rest of the story I already had laid out in my head, so their questions and wonders of scenes to come already had answers. But the tech stuff has to be paired down. My writing and re-writing are happening in my head. I am watching so many first episodes of every sci-fi tv show there is. How do they start? Why are people leaving earth? What does this world 1000 years from now look like? I was worried that my parallel to history 1000 years ago would be lost, but after watching the pilot for Frontier, where they are 50 000 years into the future and they are having the same problems we are today, I felt ok with my decisions.
I guess what I’m saying is that you just have to start. Start writing those 8-10 pages and see where they take you. Have somewhat of an outline, but you don’t have to stick with it. I mean, my characters were never going to make it, but now…well, spoilers, I can’t give the ending away.
You’ll just have to see it when it’s done.
I’m off to look at the stars for inspiration. Keep writing!
Wait until the last minute. Swim in a pool of guilt when you consider the months you were given.
Get on Yelp to find the perfect coffee shop. Consider the seating, the available outlets, the parking, and savory food items, which means, must have melted cheese. Remember: location, location, location.
Situate. Why are coffee shops getting rid of their outlets? Do they resent the writers? Sit next to someone who appears appropriately interesting (not too crazy, not too loud, but not too boring. Will they watch your laptop if you need to go to the bathroom? Of course not, you always say sure when people ask you, but you’d never leave your precious, half-written, non-backed-up scenes in the hands of others.)
Do a mental assessment of all those half-written scenes you wrote and decide to start over. New page, new document.
Let your eyes and ears roam the room. Listen to people: on their phones, in their meetings, deep inside their gossip.
Type up their words–dressed up in their inflection, their outrage, their excitement. Everything is copy, even this saying. (Norah Ephron’s grandmother?)
Ruminate over all the public plagiarism scandals. That girl from Harvard–name omitted here because she deserves re-invention; she was so young. The guy Oprah named to her book club. The ridiculous white woman who pretended to have a Black foster mother named “Big Mama”. You called that one right away after reading the NYT mixed review of her memoir. Chuckle at the memory of your perspicacity and your ensuing vindication.
Start to cast the play for the developmental reading, even though you’re not even sure which characters to keep and which to ax. Too many is better than not enough right? Send a flurry of emails, inform them that the reading will be cold. Keep the pressure down.
Crave a cigarette. Pretend to smoke one and hope no one is watching. Wonder why you didn’t do more drugs in your youth. Would your life have been better or over?
Fill out your ballot. Begrudgingly. Remind yourself to incorporate your cynicism into one character. Or two, why not?
Think again about your play–the one you’re actually trying to write. Make excuses–a lot of them. If you hadn’t taken on that second job that’s not even really worth the money. If you’d only started earlier. If you hadn’t gotten sick and slept through an entire week. If you’d researched better, this all might be so much easier.
Speaking of research…get on Youtube. Start with a relevant question. Like, what is the strategy of Voir Dire? Watch some lectures. Take notes until you feel bored.
Jump into a rabbit hole of court tv sentencing videos. Observe the faces of defendants as they hear their fate. Be disgusted by your voyeurism.
Turn your attention to your ailments. Start searching up about that strange skin rash on your finger. The possibility of early onset tinnitus. The pain in your bunion when the weather turns cold.
Get sucked into the ads. Wonder why you’ve been so poor when there are so many ways to make money.
Consider what it would actually take to get a flat belly. Or how to get flawless skin. Why are there suddenly lines around your neck?
Think of metaphors too. Cliched ones, strange ones. You are lost out at sea with this damn play. You are in a perpetual permanent press cycle in the washing machine of your life.
Think of alliteration. How cool it is, how crisp it is, how syntactically delightful.
Think of repetition. And rhythm. It’s pertinent; it relates. This is a patchwork play. Things, people, characters, they must weave through like colored thread. But order matters. And what the fuck is the order?
Consider your concerns about the climate. Why did it take you this long? What are you doing about it? Admit, nothing. Is putting it in your play a small measure of penance?
Think of the parts of a story, especially the climax. What is the climax of your play? Must a play have a climax? Can it be a series of vignettes that don’t actually rise to any dramatic moment of peril?
Notice the temperature. You are cold. It’s a cold world. Everything is a metaphor for capitalism and its grip on us. It lives in our bones.
Notice the time. In minutes, hours, and days until your reading, and by the way, check your emails for actor responses.
Map out a schedule, number of pages per day and hour until your deadline. Revise and rewrite as needed, as every hour escapes you and you stare at page 15, the place where you are stuck.
Go home. Go to sleep. Pray that your dreams will inform you.
Wake up early and try to manifest with meditation. Picture yourself banging away at the keyboard. The words tumble out of you. They dance on the page.
Feel the mounting dread in the pit of your stomach. Think of its color, its texture. Consider if it is gassy or solid. Can you vomit it out? Would it be better expelled the other way?
Google contemporary playwrights. Google the awards they’ve won.
Eat a lot. Think about the concept of insatiability. Does it live in every worthwhile play? Is it evil, good, or neutral?
T-minus twenty four hours until the reading. Remind the actors, they will be reading cold. Apologize profusely. Promise they’ll have a script by lunchtime.
Turn off the wi-fi. Make more coffee.
Tell yourself: a bad decision is better than no decision at all.
Cut and paste. Cut and paste. Sew at the edges of words between the jaggedly cut fabrics you are willing into form. Think of the word interstitial.
Look up how to pull an all nighter. Roll your eyes at their dumb tips, but do stick your face in the freezer. Then sit again at the keyboard.
Set an alarm and take a nap in an uncomfortable position, so as not to oversleep.
Wake up. Train your eyes on the clock. Remember, this work is for you. Remember, you have something to say.
Write. Write a lot. Messily, desperately, with both focus and abandon. Focused abandon?
Invoke the Gods. Ask for a miracle.
Strive for passable and page count, forget perfection. Work toward a semblance of cohesion, create a lot of filler dialogue to be replaced later.
Grind. Your keyboard. Your teeth. The hours into minutes.
Eyes on the page count. Eyes on the clock. Eyes on the words, the sentences, the stage directions.
Think of the end, which will really be the beginning. Get to it. Complete the cycle, so that you can rinse and repeat.
Think of the actors…waiting. Think of their frustrations, their judgments. You’re already two hours past the promisedlunchtime hour. Re-frame your negative thinking. Think of their grace; think of their talent.
Freewrite a monologue on the fear of death. This is the heart of the character; this is the heart of the play. This is the existential question. Make your audience consider their mortality.
I was frustrated by Covid, joining legions of theatre-goers who still aren’t comfortable sitting that close to human beings in a crowded space. I was even more frustrated by the pre-Covid developmental process that discouraged actual performances live, on stage.
Instead, I’ve been writing books for kids. There’s something magical about holding something solid in your hands, proof that your writing actually exists after the curtain goes down. If it ever goes up.
I spent last week in an Amazon Ad class, trying to unlock the mysteries of Jeff Bezos’ marketing platform. I knew nothing, but dutifully created category ads, keyword ads, writing and rewriting a pitch line.
It was when I learned how to read the numbers, I discovered that an old play of mine was selling like crazy.
A Patch of Earth is my most-produced play, a courtroom drama about a Bosnian war criminal who confessed to killing “no more than 70” of the 1200 people shot in a cornfield near Srebrenica. I’d covered the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a reporter and was haunted by the story of Drazen Erdemovic long after his trial was over. So I combined courtroom testimony with fiction and put his story on the stage.
Since most of the characters are in their early 20’s, the play is particularly popular on high school and college campuses and I’d often get requests from teachers for a pdf of the play for a classroom discussion. I happily sent it, since I felt it was an important story for the next generation to learn about to prevent the next genocide.
But I was tired of emailing pdfs.
The play was included in an anthology from The University of Wisconsin Press, but at $30 a copy, with a title like The Theatre of Genocide: Four Plays about Mass Murder in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Armenia you can imagine the number of copies flying off the shelf.
Nonetheless, I owned the rights, so I self-published A Patch of Earth on Amazon.
And then forgot about it. Until that Amazon Ad class.
Who knew? Even with a lousy cover, my acting edition of the play has been quietly, but steadily selling. The script contains information about performance rights. But because the play is historically accurate, the demand has mostly been from teachers and college professors who want to tackle the Bosnian war in their classroom curriculum.
So, may I suggest that you consider publishing your own plays? It’s not difficult.
You need to open a KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) account in Amazon.
I chose a 6” x 9” format in paperback. Amazon has free templates you can download for lots of sizes if you want something specific. Just cut and paste your play, and download as a pdf.
If you want an ebook version, you want to sign up at Reedsy and use their free Book Editor app. They provide easy instructions. Again, download your play.
For covers, there are lots of places you can find templates for ebooks and paperbacks. I paid less than $100 for an ebook cover for a novella recently, hiring one of the artists on Fivrr.
You’ll need to know how many pages your book is, including dedication, copyright information, cast list, etc. Amazon has a template for that, too.
You upload the lot to your KDP account, along with price, book description, etc. Then, just wait a day or two, and voila!
And then you can learn the not-so-wonderful world of Amazon ads…
Kitty Felde has written more than a dozen plays, including A Patch of Earth. The play won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition, and has been performed around the world. She co-founded Theatre of NOTE. Now, instead of writing about war crimes, she explains civics to kids in a series of mystery novels The Fina Mendoza Mysteries.
Donay AnnaMay is the daughter of Lynn French and Donald Cook. She is the youngest of three siblings (Cayde and Jessica) and was born May 15th, 1981, in Glendive, Montana, and raised in the high heat of Scottsdale, Arizona.
She may have been the youngest of three siblings, but she was most certainly the boss babe of the family.
I first met AnnaMay when we were fifteen years old, and from day one, it felt as though I had collided with a whole new universe. Immediately, I was aware I had come upon a girl who knew who she was. A girl who was a leader and loved unconditionally all those she came in contact with.
I remember AnnaMay driving me to Los Angeles so I could attend theatre school all those years ago. I remember we were young girls full of untainted dreams and new ideas. I remember we wrote a short play together for a class that AnnaMay was enrolled in. I remember AnnaMay’s smile. I remember the crisp sound of her voice. I remember her courageous fight to be free. I remember the way she would move through space. I remember how happy she was to become a mother. I remember how much I loved her.
It has been two weeks since I received the call that AnnaMay passed away. I can still feel my whole body begin to vibrate as time begins to stand still and slip away, time, a brutal reminder that life is not constant. Losing AnnaMay has been a hard, devasting loss, not only for me but for all of us that loved her dearly, a loss that will never heal with time.
| Donay was here
A best friend
vulnerable, gentle, patient, loving, reliable, and at her best, a truth-teller who would show up and out for anyone who ever needed support. Always there for people. To be friends / to have shared space with AnnaMay will always be a gift and an honor.
To love and be loved by her is a treasure that cannot be quantified. In many forms and mediums, her life will be remembered, honored, and held in high esteem with great respect.
this time / next time / not the right time / there’s enough time / more time / no time / the last time / in time / not enough time—please more time —pain becomes weight // weight, heavy, heavier // too heavy and even the strongest of us must find rest.
I know for sure that telling stories started with my childhood friends. As I enter a play development workshop for the next two weeks in New York, I’ll bring all that AnnaMay was as a bold and fearless spirit into the rehearsal space. I’ll honor her unconditional support and belief that she had in me. I’ll forever cherish her stubbornness and wild idea that anything is possible and that dreaming is healing.
In September, I had the odd experience of seeing a play of mine produced. It was odd because I, frankly, am not used to people wanting to produce my work! It was also odd because I was not in the rehearsal room for this and had minimal interaction with the actors and director outside of a super sweet Zoom chat and a few exchanges with questions about the text. Also it was in Ohio and I’ve never been to Ohio or know anyone really in Ohio so that is odd in itself.
The play was The Graveyard Shift, which I wrote in the playwrights group at Skylight Theatre where we did a workshop of it in their LabWorks festival. That was in 2015.
I’ve always felt really good about this play. We worked hard on that workshop to make sure it worked as well as it possibly could in that truncated experience. It is a very different piece from a lot of my other work – it’s a straight up comedy that becomes completely absurd, and while it might get dark it ultimately ends in hope. I have a soft spot for it. It was a finalist for the Reva Shiner Comedy Award too! But as many of us know, comedy is not generally in demand as far as new work development goes.
So walking into MADLab in Columbus, OH, I felt I was encountering not only a new company of artists I didn’t know, who had for some reason decided they believed in this play, but also another artist I thought I knew but hadn’t necessarily chatted with in quite some time: the playwright ME of 2015.
I was terrified, to say the least. I was planning to watch all three shows that weekend, but what if I hated it? Not necessarily what the artists were doing, but what if I hated ME and the work I thought was important seven years ago? (HOW IS IT 7 YEARS??)
I was surprised that I still liked that play. I mean I had read it since 2015, I have started adapting it into a film, I FELT good about it, but its something else to see it come alive in other artists’ hands, see what people outside of your head do with what you put on the page.
Once I let go of the lonely tension in my body that came from walking into the unknown in a town where I knew no one, I learned a lot sitting in that theatre three days in a row. I had notes for my past writer self – trims, tighter jokes, moments where I could feel myself trying to PROVE I was a playwright with deep thoughts, of course. But I learned that 1) I have grown as a writer and a critic of my own work (there have been doubts), 2) I could see the shifts of comedic timing and tone over the three nights which could help me strengthen certain structures on the page, and 3) I don’t want to ever feel as if I have to PROVE I am a playwright again.
(Also I re-learned to NOT read reviews – the one review we got loved everything about the production except my writing, which I processed before seeing the second show by crying a little and then watching Hoarders on repeat.)
There was this time in my playwriting life when I felt like I had to continually prove I was a playwright, that I deserved to be in whatever room I was in (however insignificant). I felt watched and judged and there wasn’t a ton of room to not get things right (and I often didn’t get things right). I had about 7 years there when I was writing 2 new plays a year. I was trying to keep up with what felt like the industry demanded for creation, and for myself to keep growing with each play and prove over an over that I can do this.
I recently went back to the last play I wrote in my third year at the Skylight PlayLab in 2016. Again, one I had fond memories of, which felt like a play that was inching toward some “voice” that I was maybe developing then. But looking at it again, I felt this deep sickness in my stomach. More so than The Graveyard Shift, I felt like this play was trying to be ALL things: a comedy, a horror, and a “serious” play. Every page, every sentimental monologue felt like the playwright ME of 2016 saying “hey look world – do you see? See how I’m writing the shit out of this play!” I was trying so hard with it. I know people responded to it at the time when we had our reading. But when I read it now, all I see is a writer who feels like she’s maybe realizing what she wants to write, but doesn’t know how to do it in a way that feels serious enough or important enough for Theatre to care.
The year before that messy play I had created The Graveyard Shift and got it pretty close to production ready in a short period of time. But it was a comedy and folks were confused. It is the one play of mine that is unapologetically itself. But for whatever reason I felt I had to follow that up with something more serious, a play that really had to say something. And everything I had to say didn’t feel good enough.
After 2016, most of my energy went into writing immersive work, going to an MFA to work on my fiction, starting to direct again after taking a break in 2014, and learning audio and screenwriting. Plays have been hard to write over the last few years because I’m still in the mindset of proving something. Of needing every play to be all things to everyone.
So while I have notes for my 2015 ME, I feel like she had more notes to give to NOW ME. Twist!
“Remember when this was fun?” she said. “Remember how you channeled your feelings into these characters and it felt real and you fell in love with them?” she said. “Remember how by writing broken characters in the way that you are broken and then falling in love with them while you see them on stage is a kind of way of falling in love with yourself? And that maybe you haven’t felt love for yourself in a while?” she said.
Here’s the real thing I learned, though.
After the last show I saw, I got to talk a little more with the actors and director. And I heard different ways they each needed to do this play at this moment in time. This play reflected their lives and emotions and worries in ways that 2015 ME couldn’t have predicted – with thousands of miles and seven years between us. It’s not a perfect play and I will never be a perfect playwright or perhaps never even a good one – but at the very least this play right now offered a joy and a balm to the artists and maybe some of the audience too. And definitely for me. And maybe that’s enough. That’s all we’re trying to do in the end, right?
I didn’t think this is where I was going with this blog. I thought I’d just write a nice little recap of a production and talk about how Karma handed my ass to me by making me slip and fall on the condiments and crap that littered the floor by the end of the play as a kind of punishment from the stage management gods, or how I’d successfully both humiliated myself and gotten a bad review within 36 hours of being in Ohio…
But instead, I guess, I should just shut the fuck up and go write some broken characters to fall in love with.
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.
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.
What are you going to do with this piece of history now that you know it?
Do you remember sitting in history class? I do. I’m not certain if all artists feel this way, but I loved history class. There was something about the storytelling, the backtracking of tales and social movements that directly affected how the world operates today that felt almost like a responsibility to know, retell, and learn from as a human moving through on planet. Although I don’t consider myself a history buff by any means, there are those stories that stuck with me—some obscure and random, some retold again and again, sticking to the sides of my brain like Papier-mâché. I can tell you about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the Industrial era and how that event sparked momentous conversations about child labor laws; I can tell you about the Atlantic slave trade in detail, not because of history class, but because I would take my history homework to my sister, who told me all about how Columbus first stopped in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Cuba, where my father’s family was from. Because of yearslong lessons about the American Revolution (and the help of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton), I can explain in detail what led to the American Revolution, how the British forces lost, and the principles on which this country was “founded.”
Who is there to tell the stories of lost history? And when we learn that lost history of a nearly-forgotten peoples, what do we do with it?
This is the question Sylvia Cervantes Blush, director of Desert Stories for Lost Girls, wants the audience to leave with. In this world-premiere play by Lily Rushing, 18-year-old Carrie is thrown into a world of memories and stories of her ancestors as she learns the history of her people, the Genízaro, a tribeless tribe of Native American slaves who deserve to have their stories told.
I got to sit down with the Lily and Sylvia to get a taste of what we can expect to see in Desert Stories for Lost Girls before its debut.
Carolina Pilar Xique for LAFPI: Having the piece produced through Native Voices at the Autry is huge, especially because the company is the only Actor’s Equity theatre company in the country dedicated to developing Native works. What has the experience been like getting to produce this show with a company that’s committed to that mission? And how has their partnership with Latino Theater Company affected that experience?
Lily Rushing: Everything with them [Native Voices] is so Native-centered in an incredible way that, as a native playwright telling a native story, it’s such a relief, you know? You don’t have to educate anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, or feel like you’re entering weird, emotional territory because everyone in the room is like, “Good, got it. Let’s do the work.” It feels like a step forward.
Sylvia Cervantes Blush: I’m not Native. Soy Latina. And when they [Native Voices] reached out to me, I did an interview and some of my first questions and concerns were, “Am I the right person to help bring this story to life?” Because I don’t have that lived experience. The most in-tune person can still make some really poor choices or not know how to help the process, so that was at the forefront of my mind. But they were so incredibly inviting and immediately transparent. To know that this collaboration between Native Voices and Latino Theater Company was happening, it felt like a way to open audiences to the work that they are both doing, together and separately. Latino Theater Company are such a mighty engine of a small army of people that get stuff done and I’ve yet to hear a “no”—I’ve just seen solutions. We started rehearsals on the actual set, in the theater. Not only in the space, but with a built set. That’s not your typical experience. It speaks to the level of support Latino Theater Company has for this story and lifting up the work Native Voices is doing. This is the first time in 30+ years that the Native Voices is performing in a full theater space. They’ve made magic at their location [at the Autry Museum’s auditorium], but now, coming out of a pandemic, doing it in a theater and at a space like LATC, it’s really special. When the actors walked into rehearsals, it was like, “Wow. We have space.” And I get to be a part of that. It’s really special.
Lily: I think it’s so beautiful that getting that space and working in there comes from two brown companies helping each other out! That’s the icing on the cake—two brown theatre companies supporting each other and lifting each other up. We love to see it.
Sylvia: And it speaks to the uniqueness of this story—it evolves from the Southwest and our cultures in this story mix. It’s the perfect project for this marriage between these two companies to happen right now.
Carolina: You touched on the process of being in the room with Indigenous artists. What has it been like and what measures are being taken to care for their ancestral trauma while also displaying it on the stage?
Lily: Native Voices hires a trauma consultant to make sure we have that extra level of care if we need it which is really important. We had eyes from a lot of Indigenous people but also from Sylvia about where we need to have a little extra caution, a little extra care. That made me feel prepared before going into the process. One thing I love about working with Indigenous actors is the lack of need to educate. Because when you are in the room with artists who don’t have that heritage of being colonized or stolen, they might have questions or not understand something, and you feel like you have to defend it. Native Voices has set up this system of interacting with the storyteller or playwright so that actors can ask their questions, but I don’t have to answer or defend anything. So that takes care of both of our needs. In that way, it allows actors to interact with the emotion of trauma—the expression of it—rather than having to interact with the truth of it. When I got into the room with the actors, I felt like we were all protected.
Syliva: You get to just exist and understand that you are not all trauma—that you carry joy and other parts of you into the room, and that, as we explore the trauma in the play that the characters are exploring, even if there is a similarity, you have the permission to create space and just exist as a character. By being able to have a room of People of Color, and specifically with this play, having Native people telling a story about Native people, it allows us to really explore the complexities that are beyond and within the trauma, and find the joys in these character’s lives. When it’s performed, the audience experiences those complexities and can have a different lens from the ones that we hear on the news. They don’t have to explain anything, we just get to have the conversations about them.
Carolina: Sylvia, you said in a quote that, “The play challenges us to let go of a safe narrative.” Would you like to expand on that?
Sylvia: It’s so funny because when you catch me at different phases in the process, and I’ll have a different response. (* Laughs*) Because I grow with the process of it. I feel like what Lily has done is she’s combined different parts of the human brain on stage. We have memory, the existence of the present time, the existence of a disappearing memory—the grandmother is grappling with these phases of dementia, and at the same time, desperately trying to connect the memories to help her granddaughter understand her own legacy. There are fascinating moments in the play where multiple generations are on stage, or the same character in two different phases in their life are on stage and are conversing with each other. I’ve been leaning into that and challenging myself to not make the choices arbitrary in this illogical world, but there still must be something that allows an outsider without the history and breadth of knowledge that we have to experience and feel moved. That’s the journey we’re on now in the space. I think what Lily has offered us is the dangerous nature of the topic of this play. Things are unsettling and they should feel that way. It’s okay for an audience member to feel a little discombobulated at the end of the experience. We’re taking them on a ride.
Carolina: Lily, this play is almost autobiographical because you had a similar experience to the main character, Carrie. Can you walk us through what that was like for you?
Lily: We always knew that we had Indigenous heritage, but my dad has this joke where he calls us and his family, “mocos,” which in Spanish literally means boogers, but also means “Mexican Or Chicano Or Something.” It’s his way of saying that, in the time he grew up, we weren’t having conversations about identity or heritage that we’re having now. I talked to my cousin Larry; he wrote this beautiful story for us called “Stories from Ojo,” where he wrote his memories. He kept using this word, “Genízaros.” My mom dug up the Census and found that there were multiple documents that read, “Indian,” “White,” or “Genízaros,” that were part of our family history. The same people had different races and different ways of being categorized as the years went on. After they were baptized, this zealous priest somehow convinced whoever to write down that, because of their baptism, these Indian people were no longer Indian and were now white. I was in college when we found the story of Placida, who is a character in the play but also my real-life great-great grandmother—she was a Genízaro, which is a native slave in northern New Mexico—who was 13 or 11 years old when she bore my great-grandfather. She was removed from the settlement and would walk 20 miles every day to see her son in extremely rugged, mountainous territory. In the family legend, it was said that her feet were stained black. We knew immediately why we didn’t have a concrete answer [in terms of heritage]—because that is the goal of forcefully separating tribes, the goal of colonization. When you try to find the people in your community, you can’t find them; they’ve taken away all the answers from you. Something the play deals with is why the women in this family needed to know that history. They need it not only to keep them safe in a literal sense—when you know your history, you can be prepared for it—but also, women have a need to know our mothers, grandmothers, and family. For me, I needed that connection for myself. I feel like it made me understand so much more about where the legacies of confusion, shame, and Catholic guilt all stemmed from. I feel Placida’s story and carry her with me all the time. Her incredible resilience is the lesson I take with me everywhere.
Carolina:That’s amazing! That sounds like an enormous undertaking, both physically and emotionally, but I’m so happy you found them. The tagline of this play reads, “Do you believe your ancestors walk with you?” I wanted to pose the same question to you both.
Sylvia: That belief is something I’ve adopted in the last few years. My friend had a conversation with me one time. We were at the park, talking, and she was talking about how, sometimes, to convince herself to walk out that door, she’s adopted this way of closing her eyes and imagining that with each step she takes, her ancestors are walking with her. I’ve taken that to heart. I think about the people I know in my lifetime who have passed on—my sister, Tina, who passed away seven years ago. I carry her with me all the time. She’s always part of me and I have her as someone of strength that I can come back to, even if I’m not feeling strong in that moment, because I know that she’s the makeup of my grandmother—my mom’s mom, who also had a strong presence—and then my great-grandmother. Even my husband’s mom, who passed away a year or two after my sister did. It’s the carrying of all those generations with me when I walk into a room that allows me to lean on the strengths of who they were and use that to shape myself. I came from that stock of strong women, even the ones I didn’t get to meet. I feel a connection to them with this piece.
Lily: That reminds me of what we talked about in that first week of rehearsals, about spinning tops, that time isn’t a line or this flat thing. When we go about living our day, that’s one top spinning on the table. And those stories that live in us are another top spinning, too. All these events that my ancestors went through, like Placida, or even things that I’m going through, it helps me to think of them all sort of happening at the same time, on this same plane of existence. I feel like my relationship with my ancestors is active. When I live my day with courage, when I choose to thrive, I’m feeding them, just as their choices and sacrifices feed me. There are things being talked about now—ancestral healing, inner healing. I think the first step to do all of that is to look and open yourself up to looking at those stories, even if they’re really hard, and then you can start the process of walking with your ancestors. But first you have to look at them and see them for who they really are.
Carolina: What message or feeling do you hope audiences leave with after seeing the show?
Sylvia: I hope that this play can break open for someone the things that they think they know about the Southwest, and the inception of when the continent was being explored and then commandeered. I hope that this play will break open that curiosity and ask, “What are you going to do with that piece of history now that you know it? Are you going to put it in a book and put it on the shelf to collect dust? Or are you going to actively find a way to share that story?” That’s the space where we can heal—when you can name the history and acknowledge that it happened. It happened many moons ago, but our country was built on it. How do we fix the systems in place that continue to inflict violence on Black and brown bodies? I hope more than anything that people can recognize the responsibility that comes with witnessing this story unfold.
Lily: I hope Californians learn about Genízaros—learn about who we were and are—because we are a tribeless tribe. We have found and made a tribe out of that horrible history. I hope they learn something new about the country’s history that they never knew before that inspires them to start their own journey of learning and unlearning, to challenge their own narrative about labor, ownership, land, and belonging. And I hope people leave the theater and go straight to calling their grandmother. (*Laughs*) Something any grandchild can do is acknowledge that it was a hard world out there for our ancestors, and was only made harder by these constant, oppressive systems. All we can do is continue telling these stories and thank each other.
“Desert Stories for Lost Girls” opens on Friday, Sept. 30 at the Los Angeles Theater Center and runs through October 16. For tickets and information, visit latinotheaterco.org.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
When Inda Craig-Galván was a young child growing up on the Southside of Chicago in the early eighties, her mother, a trained beautician, started losing clientele with the rise of at-home hair kits. In need of steadier income, she took a job at a beauty care products store owned by a Korean immigrant. The owner, unable to pronounce her name, renamed her Julie, which had always felt wrong to Craig-Galván. But as she got older, she realized that in many ways the two had had a mutually beneficial arrangement—for example, her mother was able to bring her daughter to work and the owner was able to pay her in cash. This unlikely pairing of two people at the margins is the inspiration for Craig-Galván’s new play “The Great Jheri Curl Debate,” which is having its World Premiere at the East West Players of Los Angeles.
In the play, Veralynn takes a job at Mr. Kim’s beauty supply store. The scenario and setting may be seeded from real life, but the story that unfolds is fully Craig-Galvan’s imaginative exploration of two people of color who are both trying to survive while negotiating shared space. Craig-Galván wanted to write an intersectional play bringing two communities uncommonly represented together that wasn’t about war or marriage, but rather about “dealing with each other, finding common ground, misunderstanding each other, and overstepping each other.” As a Black woman and an Asian immigrant with a heavy accent, Veralynn and Mr. Kim must come face-to-face with the racial stereotypes and cultural barriers between them. In so doing, they take the difficult but brave steps to bridge their divide and acknowledge their humanity.
A hallmark of Craig-Galván’s playwriting is an element of magical realism, and this play does not disappoint. While Veralynn works at the store, the beauty poster advertisements come to life, haunting and prodding her as she tries to build connection with Mr. Kim.
In her own words, Craig-Galván is “obsessed with using storytelling in a super theatrical way,” in “exploring someone’s inner mind—their thoughts and their skewed vision of life.” The posters are a window for both Veralynn and Mr. Kim as we discover how much they’ve sacrificed in the way of their own artistry just to live in America. Thematic to the play is the question, as Craig-Galván posits, “How do we continue to find and make art where we are made to feel unwelcome?” It’s a fitting question for anyone trying to make meaning out of their creative lives whilst struggling with the economic pressures of American capitalism.
Bringing together all the elements of this play took considerable creative collaboration. Under the dramaturgy of Playwright Alice Tuan, the play was developed in the East West Players’ new play development Playwrights Group. Director Scarlett Kim, also the Associate Artistic Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, brought her background in theater and video and technology to the project, as well her own Korean immigrant perspective, which was integral to the fleshing out of Mr. Kim. Because of the extended developmental support, the play had the great fortune of actor input by lead actors Julanne Chidi Hill and Ryun Yu.
For Kim, the play was an ideal project where her many skills and sensibilities could converge. She describes the play as depicting “how two characters move beyond prescriptions of what society tells them”, and one that refuses to fall into a right-or-wrong, black-or-white binary or be told through a white male gaze. One of Kim’s driving values as an artist and director is what she describes as unclassifiable spaces, a “central framework for life and art.” In many ways, she says this play is “the story of unclassifiability in both content and form.” The integration of multimedia to carry out the fantastical elements of the play is magical and isn’t additive but rather illuminating to the characters’ inner lives.
Both Kim and Craig-Galván rave about this female-powered creative collaboration, with Kim calling it a “dreamy, joyful, generous” process and Craig-Galvan amazed at the visual interpretations of her own, as she quips, “ridiculous stage directions.” The show promises to be a truly theatrical event.
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.
I have many started drafts and a variety of folders organized with research of links on sites I need to visit, but it wasn’t until I started working on someone else’s project that it started making sense to me.
My title is Cultural Dramaturg. What does that even mean? During the Pandemic, I took the opportunity to increase my education. In my further attempts to understand how to write a play, I participated in a dramaturgy class. A month of examining how a play comes together and questions to ask understand a play. Homework and discussions.
Not knowing where to begin, I started looking at examples I had received from other dramaturgs on other projects. I looked to these packets of what information was included and how it related to the play. Hmm. I still had too much information.
Since I was also supposed to be sharing cultural information, that made it easier. In Act 1 of the play, which at this point was 124 pages, culture was only ⅓ of it. I looked to the location of where the people came from to ground the main character and to understand the bits of language that was being included. I searched through tribal histories to see what part of the nation she came from. I narrowed down the language to where she was born since there were no records of her. Next up, structure of the story being told. Who was telling the story and why? The best question that the director asked to help cut pages was: Whose story was this? it’s all fine and good to want to include all the brilliant information, but if it wasn’t about our protagonist, it had to go.
I am still looking for my method to creating a play. These simple questions were also helping me sort through the mounds of research I continued to find. I’m also figuring out how much information is too much and when do you stop.
The playwright in this instance had found an abbreviated story and was using that as an outline, but after talking about the play and explaining their thought processes, more options kept popping up.
I’m not sure what this all means. We finished a week of reading and listening and answering to questions about the play. We have a debrief to go through, and I’m thinking about my next steps. But me, I’m still researching.
This past March, I celebrated my 33rd birthday. After losing my mother in early January I thought a lot about mortality. How we live our lives and who we live them with became more urgent and precious to me. I wanted to do something I love with the people I love.
When I meet other Black people within my general age range I’m always asked what I studied in school and when I tell them I got my degree in playwriting, the conversion almost always goes as follow –
Them: Ohhh so you be doing plays like Tyler Perry?
Me: Yeah, just like Tyler Perry minus the budget. Do you like going to see plays?
Them: Not really. I mean I haven’t really seen any plays like that. I know this don’t count but, one time I was in a play at my church. But that don’t count. It was just at church thing that’s not really theater.
Me: That DO count!!! It IS theater!
Rather it’s a church, school or if they randomly saw a flash mob, I get all excited talking to someone about their live theater history. But I also get really annoyed right after. The association with theater being reserved and defined by Broadway musicals is deeply concerning. I spend a lot of time talking with homies and helping reshape/redefine what theater is by thinking broadly about who it’s for, where it’s located and how it’s presented. I’m grateful for Tyler Perry Madea plays because it serves as a solid foundation to build on. More often than not, we participate in a shared lived experience centering his theatrical work where they remember watching the bootleg Madea DVD’s at they cousin’s house just like I did with my cousins back then. And sitting with the whole family laughing, crying and saying who in the room be acting like each character in the play, just like we did. And then reciting it to each other the next day at school during lunch period. I explain to them that that’s the exact kind of impact theater has on people when it’s written with intention, centering marginalized people groups as the core audience.
Theater defined by what’s on Broadway limits the possibilities of art and culture. Because who really has access to that? It’s not cheap and it’s often not advertised in cities with larger populations of Black and brown folks. But Madea never made it to Broadway nor is the franchise ever considered theater in performing art spaces (during my 8 years studying theater in accademia, only once was his name ever brought up. It was in grad school. I brought it up) but his contribution to theater serves as a gateway to Black culture is prize winning in my opinion. But this isn’t about him. It’s about creating access to theater for everyone and what’s gained from the experience that is offered by the art form.
After getting a postcard in the mail to Shotgun Theater’s 2022/23 season, I just about fainted when I saw one of my favorite musicals would be featured, Passing Strange by Stew. The original live recording film was directed by Spike Lee and starred the playwright as the narrator (which is the one I saw that made me fall in love with the play). At first I thought I’d just invite two of my friends who really liked musicals. But that low key felt like gatekeeping. I don’t know if my friends would like a musical or not but the only way to find out was to extend an invitation. For most of my close friends their most current live theater experience has been one of my productions. And they come as a supportive friend and I love that. But my work also can’t single handedly define theater either. It’s a shared love. So my Aries ass jotted down the names of 22 people who I wanted to spend time with. I personally invited them to celebrate turning 33 with a live musical production. I wasn’t even scared or sad if everyone said no because I would have enjoyed it even if I went alone (something I do often). But people came out. It was lit.
And it does not have to be a big group. Inda Craig-Galván’s play A Hit Dog Will Holler had a run at Playwrights Arena. I purchased two tickets for the Black out night, not knowing at all who I’d invite. But I knew I wouldn’t be going alone. I reached out to my homegirl Sydney and she was so excited to go. She hadn’t been to any in person show since the pandemic erupted and that was hard for her as a performer. She also works diligently in policy change for LGBTQ people. This play is about an activist who has a chronic fear of leaving her home. Syd was the perfect person to see this show with, for she can fully understand the strain political work can have on a person’s mental health, especially when you are of the demographic you are advocating human rights for.
We had hella fun too. After the show was over we grabbed dinner and sat and talked in length about how relatable the play was and what we loved most about it. The conversation seamlessly transitioned into one about us and our own mental health. I’m always grateful to Inda’s work. It tends to have that effect on Black womxn. Her work and the work of others that write in a way where it clearly concerns Black people offers visibility to the full self and revelation. That’s the good theater is made of and everyone is entitled to that feeling. Not just those who have participated in Broadway.
I hope that you can all consider how to fold in (dare I say convert) people in your lives who may not know there’s a theater space for them to enjoy and be centered.