Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of reading the full-length play Mama Mama Can’t You See written by Stan Mayer and Cecilia Fairchild, speaking with Cecilia, and then seeing the rockin’, brave, and surreal production at Coin & Ghost directed by Zach Davidson on Veterans Day, which was opening weekend.
The promotional materials tell us that Mama Mama Can’t You See, “Isn’t a play about war. It is a play how to tell a war story.” For me, it’s about memory and how memory pushes and pulls within our being in a myriad of ways of complexity and authenticity.
The play is based on Stan Mayer’s life as a Marine during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early 2000s. There are eight characters in the play: four Marines who live within the realities and memories of that war, and four young women who embody another aspect of war. Cecilia pondered for a long time what to call these four characters—women who provided sex for a living during the Civil War, and have direct encounters with the Marines of 2005 Iraq.
For Cecilia, modern terminology didn’t fit the female characters she envisioned, who would tell this evocative and complicated part of the story. She discovered through her research that the etymology of whore is unblemished and meant “dear, loved, and desire” in distant times. And so she ran with her instincts and called these four characters whores, women who use their bodies to satisfy the needs and desires of the battle-weary, and to buy food for their mothers and their baby sisters.
During our conversation about the Whores, I inquired about the characters’ origin and their meaning within the context of Stan’s story. Cecilia talked about “sacred listening” and how she was “being pushed this way to tell the story this way.” I loved when she connected this push and pull to the act of sacred listening and how this enabled the characters to appear and unfold before her.
I knew then that she understood something about war and love, death and loss, and survivor’s guilt that most of us don’t. Perhaps I understood as well because I was born in an Army hospital during war and raised in the military, and have been working with veterans, active duty, and their families since 2010 to empower them tell their stories through the written word. I have learned through experience that listening is one of the most important and crucial aspects of this kind of work, which enabled me to understand Cecilia’s world and process as a playwright. To truly listen is not an easy task, but it is vital for the playwright to still and to listen because that is when and where the magic happens.
Each of us has a process when we write. For Cecilia, she says it is like “reading your own tea leaves as you’re writing.” What amazing and evocative tea leaves live inside her creative imagination! To her, “the theater is a place where we can dream” and where “anything can happen.” Mama Mama Can’t You See embodies a dream—or nightmare might be a more appropriate word—where anything can happen.
Cecilia also drew upon personal experience to breathe deeper layers and aspects into the characters and the play. She attended the ten-year anniversary of the pivotal and deadly firefight Stan experienced during his first tour in Iraq—the firefight that is the inspiration for the play. At the reunion in San Antonio, Cecilia listened to the war stories of those who survived and those who died on the battlefield. And she has carried what she heard ever since. Even though she didn’t experience the battle firsthand, she lives with the stories of the dead and the survivors, feeling the loss of life and innocence and knowing, “war is a cavern of death and near death.” Then she took my breath away when she said: “They died inside of me anyway, the men who died at war.” This is what sacred listening looks like in our mundane reality. This is what carrying the wounds of war that others experience looks like. This is what carrying the memories of those who experience the realities of war looks like… And for all of that, I honor and respect her deeply.
Towards the end of our dialogue, I said to Cecilia, “You’re the Civil War Whore.” She gently agreed. And I could hear the depth of how my knowing this—how my speaking those words out loud—resonated within her. In a way, what I experienced at that moment is sacred listening—how I could hear her heart and memories, her love and loss, within my heart and my memories.
I also asked her what she wanted me to experience, to feel as I would sit in the audience and watch the play unfold inside the theater. She responded, “[I’d like] for your body to open and molecules be rearranged somehow.“ She wanted the experience to be “almost like a spell”… “a series of words [that] would play across your body” (love this one!!) and for me and audiences to have a “thrilling out of body experience.”
What a wish list for a playwright!
Even though Cecilia wasn’t involved in this current production at Coin & Ghost, her heart and her story are ever present and alive on the stage. As I sat in the darkened theater during the performance, I felt myself come alive as the actors moved with primal energy and danced seductively. The dialogue played across my body, casting a spell on me and taking me places I dared to go. The bluesy rendition of the military cadence “Mama Mama Can’t You See” sung by one of the Whores as she walked to the Marine laying on the battlefield, haunts me—I can’t get it out of my mind and heart. And to be honest, I don’t want to.
Coin & Ghost’s “Mama Mama Can’t You See” runs through December 10th at Studio/Stage on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm(dark November 23 through November 26.) For tickets and information, visit coinandghost.org.
Across a cozy wood-colored kitchen set, Karen Malina White as Bernice Rose Johnson reckons with her on-stage daughter, named SHE Sojourner Freeman. “I’m sorry, I cannot protect you from the rain,” Bernice says. But it’s not Camille Ariana Spirlin, the actor playing SHE, who cries in response. Instead, it’s playwright Marlow Wyatt, sitting in the audience and wishing she brought tissues to her own show.
“It hit me different that night,” Marlow says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if I thought about my mother, or my mother’s mother, but it got me.”
Bernice and SHE are characters in Marlow’s play, SHE, now having its world premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company. In Marlow’s own words, the story is a coming-of-age American experience. We watch teenage SHE come into her own over a summer as she chases the opportunity to enroll at an expensive boarding school.
On a Zoom call with Marlow and director Andi Chapman, it’s clear that they are collaborators who are also friends, with deep respect for one another. I ask Andi what drew her to direct this play. “I loved the notion of a girl named SHE Sojourner Freeman,” she replies after a moment. “SHE is relevant for today, for yesterday, and for tomorrow. Her dreams weren’t to be denied, but she was always so respectful.”
Marlow and Andi both began their theatre careers as actors. This has impressed a deep appreciation for and emphasis on character on Marlow. The characters in SHE are made up of traits and personalities of people that Marlow has observed growing up, or just in daily life. “I am very much a voyeur,” she says. “I love people. I take the bus, I take the public transportation. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I’ve seen so many characters.”
“Los Angeles is a place where people get in their cars with their tinted windows and they turn on their music, but I’m the opposite. The world is outside of this little box on four wheels. Look at him. Look at this person. Look at them having this communication at lunch. I don’t think they really love each other, or is this a first date? You can see their body language and energy, and I like that. That fuels me.”
This attention to character has translated onto the page, and the stage, from how the characters speak to what they love to do. SHE, for example, speaks in verse when she gets nervous, or when traumatic things happen to her. The verse is unintentional in those moments, but very much intentional in pursuit of her dreams of being a poet.
Why did Marlow decide that SHE wanted to be a poet?
“She has something to say. One of the things I realized about girls in this society is that nobody wants to hear what we have to say,” she says. “Poetry, art, are ways for somebody to speak, and have people listen, without them saying ‘Oh, she’s a girl. I’m not gonna listen to what she has to say, I’m gonna dismiss her.'”
Later in the play, though, Marlow turns this idiosyncrasy against her. An illusive scene between SHE and a city slicker named Othalee unfolds entirely in verse, so naturally that the audience often doesn’t catch that it’s written that way. Othalee devastatingly draws her in. “It brings down the barrier, because she found somebody who likes words,” Marlow says. He talks the way that she talks. So that makes her stay a little longer than she needs to.”
Andi, on the other hand, moved from acting to directing because she found that she’s someone who sees a larger vision of the script. This vision goes beyond the art of acting to other disciplines—painting, music, and animation. To make sure everything and everyone is in the same world, she creates and shares a “palette” for the rest of the creative team, actors, and designers to work from. For SHE, the palette was a colorful mixed media painting of a young girl by the artist Leroy Campbell. Andi discovered him on Pinterest. “I love Pinterest,” she says.
The other elements of the design are all dynamic. SHE is set in the 70s, which Andi says opened the door for her and sound designer Jeff Gardner to get together and come up with a mixtape of period songs to soundtrack the play. She pushed projections designer Nicholas Santiago to animate his projections. “I don’t like flat pictures,” she says. “They have to be alive, so the audience can feel that experience. I asked him every time he showed a picture—move it.”
This energy attracts. At two separate performances, a white cabbage butterfly has flown in and stayed for a scene or two. Andi theorizes that its presence has to do with the set’s real garden outside town matriarch Miss Jane’s home. It’s a testament to her prowess as a director that someone asked her if the butterfly was part of the show. “No, how do you wrangle a butterfly?” she says.
Marlow jumps in. “‘Butterfly wrangler,’ that’s a great skill,” she quips. “’I can wrangle butterflies. Where do you want him to go, what scene?'”
A moment later, Marlow’s reflective again. “I feel like that’s good energy. I don’t know what it is, but I’m like, if the butterfly’s supposed to be there, then let him be a part of it,” she muses. “You know, he’s not Equity, so you don’t have to pay him anything.”
Andi starts laughing.
I ask Marlow if there were any challenging moments in writing SHE. No, she says, only that she wanted to make sure that the character of Lonnie, Bernice’s unreliable boyfriend and later husband, is perceived as human. “Men do what he does. People don’t treat people the way they should be treated,” she says. “He exists. He is a man who wants a family, children, a wife. How he goes about getting it is all wrong. But he’s not a bad guy. He clearly loves Bernice, but he doesn’t know how…some people don’t know how to love.”
There is at least one certainty about Lonnie. Marlow’s first drafts of the play included a scene where Lonnie pushes Bernice. Marlow didn’t like it, because Lonnie is not a man who hits women. Moreover, she didn’t want any violence in the play. But she couldn’t figure out how to rewrite it. “The actors figured out a way to do it.” The staged version sees him catching himself before he touches Bernice at all, in a moment of self-discovery of his lowest point. They were able to preserve the integrity of the scene, and add some more depth to Lonnie’s character to boot.
How was the rehearsal process overall? Collaborative. “It was wonderful,” Andi says. “We had a fun, family atmosphere. I love to listen to music and dance during breaks, but then come back to work. And you know—just making sure that the actor feels seen, that the doors are open in terms of communication.”
Did she face any challenges? “No. I just really try to be prepared. I have a lot of run-throughs so the actors feel that the play is in them.”
Something Marlow emphasizes throughout our conversation is that SHE is the story of an American Experience, capital A capital E. The protagonist just happens to be Black. “It’s not having to do with a young African American girl. It has to do with all of our dreams as humans in the world,” Andi says.
Marlow calls SHE an “American play,” one that gets people to think of American theatre differently. She has a piece of advice for other playwrights of color.
“When you’re marketing your play, or whatever it is, if it’s truly an American play, set in America, don’t let them say ‘this is a Korean American play. This is an LGBTQ play.’ The world is divided enough as it is.”
In fact, Marlow specifically requested that the press for the show not include the words “Black” and “poverty.” She knew if people called it a “Black play,” non-Black people might think they wouldn’t relate to the play’s contents. “I think it does it a disservice. This play is to bring people together.”
At the end of the day, Marlow writes to entertain and inspire the audience regardless of their background. SHE was developed in The Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights’ Lab before it came to Antaeus’ Playwrights’ Lab, and the play has had several readings and countless rewrites. Andi calls Marlow “generous,” changing and adjusting the text as she collaborates with her and the actors.
In other words, Marlow’s not trapped by ego, despite her culture-shifting ambitions. “It’s for the audience,” she says. “When you prepare a meal and have a dinner party, you want everybody to like it. You don’t want to say, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like this lamb. I like it.’ I’m not that person. I want you to leave with an experience.”
And members of the audience are indeed leaving with experiences. The subgroup Marlow is most happy about affecting—that is, making cry—is straight cisgender men. She tells me that she playfully ribbed a friend’s husband who came to see the show, asking if he cried. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I did. Davey [the character of SHE’s best friend] was in my childhood.'” Her voice turns serious. “I wasn’t expecting him to say that.”
Another audience member—an older gentleman—shared with Marlow that in his life, he had put his own dream to the side. He watched SHE, and told her afterwards, “‘I’m gonna pick it back up again and keep going.'”
“Come on,” Marlow says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
“SHE” runs through November 20 at Antaeus Theatre Company on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and Mondays at 8pm, with additional performances Saturdays November 11 and 18 at 2pm. For tickets and information, visit antaeus.org.
My name is Nakasha Norwood. I’m the company manager at Company of Angels (CoA), as well as one of the producers for the production of Rise, currently running at CoA in Boyle Heights. Rise follows the journey of Emmeline, an African American woman born and bred in Boyle Heights. As the neighborhood evolves throughout the decades, we explore the ties that bind her to it and unravel the tragic mystery behind her unrelenting resolve to never leave.
I’ve had the pleasure of being part of this project from the very beginning. It all started over two years ago when CoA did a collaboration with Impro Theatre to perform an improv show that looked at Boyle Heights in the past, present and future. During the development phase of this show, we had a town hall with advisors from the Boyle Heights who were able to share with us what it was like living in Boyle Heights from the Black, Jewish, Asian and Latino perspectives. After the show, an idea was pitched to create a play that talks about the community of Black people that lived in Boyle Heights, since not many people knew of its existence. I fell in love with the idea of exploring this story, so I wrote a proposal and presented it to my CoA artistic directors. They were completely on board. Thus began the journey of Rise.
When we considered playwrights to commission for this, Kimba Henderson was someone we all thought would be a great match for the project. Kimba first wrote a short play with CoA for our online festival “What’s Goin’ On” in 2020. She then joined our company’s Playwrights Group and spent several months developing her play Red Harlem, which is based on true historical events. Her engrossing writing style, love of history and the passion that comes through her characters were exactly why we wanted her for this project. When we talked with her about the possibility of writing a play based on this little-known community in Boyle Heights, the glow on her face said it all.
It’s been a two-year development process of research, story circles, a Zoom reading, an in-person reading, talk backs, and re-writes, but we finally made it to the production run. I’m happy to have a chance to chat with Kimba about the success of the play and her process behind it.
Nakasha Norwood:First off, what a journey this has been! How does it feel to not only see your play come to life, but to hear all of the amazing praise and wonderful reviews it’s getting?
Kimba Henderson: I love theatre because it is such a collaborative artform. Putting a compelling story on the page is just the beginning. Once it is in the hands of a director and actors and the rest of the creative team is when you really start to see what you have. It takes a village to make a good play, and that last step, of course, is to see how an audience responds. I have heard laughter, seen tears, and one of my favorite things to see as a playwright is when an engaged audience leans forward, physically, to make sure they are not missing a thing.
Some of the most encouraging praise has come from past and longtime residents of Boyle Heights who say the play has taken them back in time and sparked many great memories for them. I would say the biggest surprise when it comes to audience response is 20-something and grown ass men rolling up on me and excitedly telling me how much they enjoyed the love story at the heart of Rise. They are completely unashamed and that just makes me giggle and smile inside.
Nakasha: Putting this play together took a lot of research. What was your personal process like for researching Boyle Heights and the Black community from there?
Kimba: I am a nerd with a history degree, so I loved the research process. For this project, I was so fortunate to have had a wealth of documentaries and written material to draw from. Touring Evergreen Cemetery, The Japanese American Museum, and just spending time in Boyle Heights were also extremely helpful. Most vital was having past African-American Boyle Heights residents share their life experiences during the story circles. These intimate gatherings breathed so much life into the play. So many personal stories allowed me – as a writer who has never lived in Boyle Heights – to not just connect to the neighborhood intellectually but emotionally, as well.
Nakasha:Is there a moment during the play that has hit you differently now that you’ve seen what you’ve written performed on stage?
Kimba: I can’t say there is a moment that has struck me differently, but I can definitely say that seeing this play up on its feet has struck me more deeply. I have found myself emotionally moved and often shedding tears during many of the scenes. I didn’t cry when I was writing the play. It isn’t as if I am caught off guard or I don’t know what is going to happen. My intense emotional response is a testament to the brilliant work of all the actors and Lui Sanchez’s direction.
Nakasha: The character of Emmeline is at the center of your play. What made you decide to tell the story of her life in reverse?
Kimba: That choice is a whole long story in and of itself and was inspired by one of the lines in the play, “With progress there is always backlash.” When I first started writing Rise, I was angry about the intense pushback on reparations and affirmative action. People want to pretend that everything is fair and equal now and that the catastrophic legacy of slavery has somehow magically righted itself. There is a constant push by America’s dominant society to keep the status quo, and I wanted to show that by tracking something like housing discrimination. Within an early draft of the play, we learned that Proposition 14 on California’s 1964 ballot would allow people to refuse to rent, sell or lease to others based on race. It passed with 70% of the vote. Yet, as we go back in time, we’d see the 1963 Fair Housing Act, a 1948 landmark Supreme Court case won by Thurgood Marshall, and several other legal actions should have stopped something like Proposition 14 from ever having been on a ballot. Eventually I realized I was more focused on making a point than telling a great story.
As I moved forward, I still held on to the reverse structure. I knew it was a great way to uncover the mystery of Emmeline’s resolve to remain in Boyle Heights, as the key to it lies in the past.
With Emmeline’s journey, scenes highlighting her later years are at the beginning of the play, and we learn about significant life events that have taken place by then. In later scenes, we get to experience and dig deeper into how those events happened and the decisions that led to them. The reverse structure is conducive to intimate and transformative character moments for Emmeline and many of the play’s other characters, and the unfolding mystery surrounding her provides the propulsive momentum vital to compelling storytelling.
Nakasha: You mentioned in a previous interview that this play is your love letter to Boyle Heights. What is the main thing you’re hoping the audience, especially those that are area residents, are taking away from it?
Kimba: The characters in Rise are quite diverse in regards to race and age. I hope that audiences see themselves, at least pieces of themselves represented and also that they are invested in the stories of those characters that are not like them. For current and past residents, I hope they feel a particular pride in and are encouraged by the beauty they had a hand in creating within this unique neighborhood.
Overall, I pray that even in these divided times, audiences will be inspired to create communities where diverse peoples can support and celebrate one another and thrive together.
“Rise” runs through November 5th at Company of Angels on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. For tickets and information, visit companyofangels.com
Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North Americais a widely-produced two-hander that checks in with a father and daughter pair named John and Caitlyn through the years when they go birding together. Centered around an activity that rewards patience, this play is quietly insightful and mirrorlike. I spoke with the playwright about it a couple days after a recent production opened at The Odyssey Theatre in West LA. Some snippets of our conversation follow.
Elana Luo: I wanted to start by asking you what inspired this play. Why did you decide to write it?
Anna Ouyang Moench: For a long time, I had been interested in writing about climate change. And I wasn’t quite sure how to do that in a way that felt right for the theater, or at least the kind of theater that I make. I think that I did not want it to feel like an issue play or an educational play. I wanted it to be rooted in emotional honesty and about human experience. There is such an emotional component to the experience of climate change on a human level, and I wanted to write a play that spoke to that.
Elana: What made you write about the relationship between a father and daughter in particular?
Anna: I think the way that the father-daughter relationship unfurls in the play is a parallel to the experience of climate change, because ultimately, the emotional experience of climate change is rather cerebral. There are emotions in it that can translate to human relationships like grief or anger or nostalgia or love. There are so many things that we feel about the world that we inhabit. At least on stage, I don’t really know how to write those feelings in terms of a scene between an environment and a person, but I do know how to write those emotions into a scene between two people.
Elana: Sometimes it feels like climate change is a generational issue, with the younger generation being more concerned than the older. So that was something really interesting to me—was it always John, the father, who was the character concerned with climate change?
Anna: Yes. There are certainly aspects of John’s character that are inspired by my own father, or both my parents. There was a time when my parents were—and honestly still are—like, ‘Hey, you really need to get an electric car,’ and I’m in an expensive city, I’m trying to just save enough money for my kids to go to college and have the chance at retirement someday. I would love it if I could get solar panels and an electric car, but I just can’t do that right now. I still have to contend with the reality here.
So I think that’s sort of where the generational divide in the play emerged from, when you’re just starting out and trying to figure out a way to support yourself and have a life you enjoy. You don’t get to make those choices from an idealistic place all the time. And John is somebody who was always motivated by those ideals. But not everyone is that, and I have a great deal of empathy for both of the characters in the play. I think that a big part of playwriting is being able to kind of have that multifaceted view of an issue and see where different people are coming from.
Elana: What were you trying to show through the longitudinal way the play is structured? We see these two characters through a lot of time, with each scene being a different year. Was that related to the theme of climate change?
Anna: I was trying to show the specific moments that these two people are alone together; I feel like, in families, there are actually very few of those moments, especially once you have moved out of your parents’ house. And so we are getting to see those times where, once every season, John and Caitlyn go out and do some birding. Then the goal is that you’re seeing their relationship evolving over the course of ten years. And birding is an activity where you spend quite a lot of time waiting. So you get to talking, you know, and I think that these are the times where they actually have the space and time to talk.
Elana: We really get to see their different perspectives.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, I see these characters as actually being very similar. And I’ve noticed this many times in the world. Often people have the most conflict with the parent that they’re more like, or a child that they’re more like. I think that you sometimes have higher standards for the child that reminds you of yourself or you’re less forgiving of them because you hold them to the same standard you hold yourself, which is often not very forgiving. I also think that’s true sometimes with people who are really opinionated or strong willed or kind of spiky, if their kid is also spiky like that. Or if they’re both really sensitive. Often those things go hand in hand.
Elana: As a director, I tend to look for action for the eye to be on when I direct. Was there a certain way you imagined John and Caitlyn’s conversations playing out, or was it just the two of them talking on the stage?
Anna: This is the type of play that is about the very small actions. I think that when there is a lot of in-and-out-of-doors or people running all over the place, that’s just a different type of play. I actually see this play as having a good deal of action. It’s just you have to zoom way in to see it. Small things become large when there’s not large things, right? And so I think this is a play that goes down to, when do they lift up the binoculars to shield themselves from the other person seeing what they’re feeling? When do they look out at the birds, but it’s really not about the birds? It’s about this relationship and its micro textures. The action is moments of looking for connection or disconnection, of hiding or attacking.
Elana: What made you write this story for live theater? I know you also write for other formats. Was there anything about this story that felt particularly theatrical?
Anna: At its core, the theater is about watching a conversation dialogue between characters and watching how these characters change and how these relationships change. So, to me, this always has felt like a play. Especially when there’s not, ‘and then this crazy thing happens to upset the whole world,’ you really have to root it in honesty. You have to know these characters, understand the relationship, and teach the audience who they are in an elegant way.
Plays are a place where we go to listen to the musicality of the dialogue, the rhythms, the ways that people use tactics in conversation. That’s something I go to theater for.
“Birds of North America “runs through November 19th at The Odyssey Theatre on Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and select weekdays. For tickets and information, visit odysseytheatre.com
“The writer’s job is to be brave enough to be nostalgic.”
I heard those words from an English professor once. At the time, they resonated with me as someone who is often referred to as a nostalgic person—always bringing up a story of the past, over and over again. I come from a family & community that shares and retells all kinds of stories every time we see each other, whether they’re laugh-out-loud funny or overwhelmingly heart-wrenching. Storytelling has always been a way for me and my community to record our histories and form connections when it feels like there are only differences.
That’s probably why I became a theater artist & playwright.
That being said, I recently had the thought, “I’m getting so tired of writing and talking about the pandemic.”
I guess it’s difficult to feel nostalgic about terrifying moments in the past, especially if it feels like they’re still happening. The uncertainty, anxiety, and grief of the last three years is still so fresh that the retelling of it can feel not only exhaustingly overdone, but terrifying to grapple with. For so many of us, the pandemic exposed some of the most vulnerable, heart-breaking, unlikeable parts of ourselves. It separated us from our communities—which are often our lifelines—and forced us to deal with momentous social & political shifts while in physical solitude. Who wants to remember all of that?
But yet, the idea of “returning to normalcy” in this current moment of endemic is insulting to the millions of humans who are not the same people they were before 2020, and all of us who have lost friends & family & community members.
So where is the middle ground? Is there a middle ground? When & how do we as artists become brave enough to remember?
These questions and the words of that English professor were swimming in my head when I talked with Lisa Sanaye Dring about her new play, Hungry Ghost, directed by Jessica Hanna and premiering at Skylight Theatre Company for the final installment of their “Her Voice, Her Vision” 40th Anniversary Season. A play that centers the lives of a couple getting ready to start a family, a hauntingly humorous hermit, and a secluded house in the woods, Hungry Ghost invites audiences to meditate on ideas of true freedom, isolation from community, and the hilarity of tragedy.
So as weary as I am of the pandemic, after my meeting with Lisa & Jess, I was reminded of the importance & inherent absurdity of processing, looking back on, and learning lessons from resiliency & loss.
Carolina Pilar Xique: Lisa—What inspired you to write this piece and how has it grown since its inception?
Lisa Sanaye Dring: It’s very beautiful for me because I found out I got into the Humanitas Stage Raw Group led by Shem Bitterman and Steven Lee Morris in April, 2020. And we all know what was going on then. *laughs*
I was so heartened because at that moment I didn’t know if I was still going to make art, and it was a lifeline for me to be like, “Oh no, you will be writing in this time!”
But I didn’t know what I was going to write.
I was watching a video article in “The Atlantic,” a story about the North Pond Hermit, Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived in the forest for 27 years and survived by pilfering from vacation homes. He would come out in the summer and get little supplies, get oil, and then he’d hibernate in the winter and just camp out in his location. I was really moved by him because I was isolated from my community at that time, and I found it to be excruciating at moments. And he went to isolation and found solitude and freedom.
He did an interview with “GQ “and quoted Thomas Merton; he talked about how when one is without reflection, one can become truly free. I thought about that impulse—that one’s true self is only without one’s community. And I thought about how we as theatre people make meaning inside community. And then it sort of distilled into this play, which is about someone who is about to be in community in a huge way because of birth. She’s about to grow a family with a woman she loves and is facing her own feelings of isolation and alienation from community, and has to encounter those two poles—to be with people and to be alone. She’s forced into this decision via her pregnancy.
Carolina:Jessica—What has the rehearsal process been like and how have your thoughts about the play evolved since you had first read it?
Jessica Hanna: It’s been a super collaborative room. Lisa has been really participatory and open to the collaboration and the questions that come up for both myself and the actors. We’ve been really heavily working on this play for some months, but in June, we did a workshop and did some really hardcore work of talking about the play, Lisa writing new pages, and trying new things .
I would say that the idea of “theater being a great experiment” is really alive in this room. I keep talking to the cast that being in this place of, “I don’t know,” is a really fertile, exciting, creative space. And it’s also deeply uncomfortable and sometimes can cause anxiety. I feel very lucky because nobody in the room is dictating what anything has to be. So the richness of the possibility feels heightened in our room. And there’s also the reality of like, this is the baby’s first walk, right? So I hope there’s another evolution of this play that is learned from these moments.
Lisa: Shout out to Boston Court Playwrights Group—they have also workshopped the piece with me over the last year, in addition to the Humanist Stage Raw Group. In this time where it’s so hard to make a play and harder for producers to get stuff up, it’s been a huge boon to this piece to have so many amazing minds and hearts of the theater pay attention to it as it grows, including Jess’s, including Skylight.
Carolina: How has it been balancing the hilarity and the weight of these themes, in both the writing and the directing process?
Lisa: I just think things should be funny. I think all plays should be funny. And I think these actors are really sensational at giving us humor and joy. I was taught in theater school, “You can’t make them cry unless you make them laugh.” Straight drama is easier than laughter because you can’t really fake laughter. Like you can hear that difference of really making an audience crack up as opposed to the sort of chuckles that you hear that where they’re helping a comedy be pushed along. And there’s so much play in the room that creates a really beautiful space where people can unfurl with each other and genuinely be with each other. And I think all these layers of trust is also helped by [intimacy coordinator] Carly Bones. My job is just giving them enough material that they can play with to make it happen.
Jessica: Yeah. You have to have the light to have the shadow, right? For talking about grief, sometimes the best thing to do is to talk about the ridiculousness of life or to have that present in order to actually really feel those things. I think we’ve got a nice balance going. I find it [the play] funny. These three players, they’re all hilarious in their own, very distinct ways. And to give them space to find their funny or to be their funny selves makes them more human. Even the fantastical, possibly mystical character still has got to be based in some kind of reality for us to understand him and to bond with him.
Lisa: I find that laughter, humor, and play are paradigm-shifting and paradigm-breaking. So I’m hoping there is also a deep cognitive experience that happens with the humor. I’m hoping that this play celebrates the wisdom of this. We were talking with one of our actors about how this one character is light because they’ve had to be—they’ve had to cultivate a levity because the world is just so bizarre for them. And I think that there’s a deep beauty in the resilience of humor.
Jessica: I just want to also say that Lisa is very funny, straight up. *laughs* But also, there’s something really gorgeous about Lisa’s work. There are times as an audience member where your breath is taken away by the beauty that’s being brought to life through words, and then all of a sudden it’ll be, like, some left turn. You can’t help but laugh out loud. It knocks you out because the broken expectations are so exciting. That kind of duality is one of the really exciting things about Lisa’s writing.
Carolina: Why this play today, right now?
Lisa: I mean, I just got to play my first lead in [director/playwright] Jen Chang’s play this year, and I’ve been acting for a while. And so to be an Asian American actor who’s been a character actor their whole life and to create a big role for Jenny Soo is an honor, because Jenny Soo’s such a tremendous performer.
But I think it’s tricky because I don’t really write from that place of, “What does the world need?” I try to metabolize the world in a sincere way, and then write what’s in my heart and then be mindful of it along the way. And thankfully, I don’t have to make the decision whether to produce it or not, or have to be a critic, you know what I mean? The world will tell me if the world needs it, if that makes sense. I think as an artist, one just needs to be really deep in themselves and to try to be honest and as alive as possible, and then make what’s in their heart responding to their moment right now.
Jessica: I think the play also speaks to this place of grief and that processing that we are all in. I talk about theater as being the art form where we can work on, or build the worlds we want to live in, or try things out, or see examples of what we want to push back against in terms of the world around us. And I think watching characters make hard choices that are right for themselves, seeing an Asian American woman make those choices for herself and question and be a human is really important right now. It always is. But I mean, in particular, I think it is now.
Hopefully we continue having more awareness and revelations as a society, but also white people—myself included—are paying attention in a different way. This idea of the Hungry Ghost, which is a cultural phenomenon in many cultures… this idea of something that comes from grief not being taken care of, or not being cared for, and that it comes back at you, or that it haunts you—at least that’s why I’m interpreting it—I think that’s very appropriate for right now. Because the question of, “Are we going to take care of ourselves and our grief in this period of change after massive, massive upheaval and death?” I think is a big question. Are we going to fertilize the ground with our knowledge, or are we going to just try to go on and not deal with what’s been happening around us? That’s a question I think about when working on this play.
Carolina: What has the process been like working with Skylight for their “Her Vision, Her Voice” theme for the 40th anniversary?
Lisa: It’s really great. I really loved working with Skylight. I mean, this is of course playwright-centric, but their notes have been really good. They’ve helped the piece grow, and I felt like they understood what the piece was and gave me a lot of space to figure it out. But I really resonate with a simpatico of artistic vision, in terms of what the possibility of the piece is and where we all think it’s going. I felt like they—Tyree [Marshall] and Gary [Grossman] and Armando [Huipe] and everybody there right now—intuited and grokked what the piece could be when they read it almost a year ago. I’ve been really grateful for that.
And then it also felt, artistically, like an appropriate birth in terms of like trusting the vision. Jess came in with a workshop model that I’d never done before that was really beautiful. Because Jess is the director, she had a vision for this, and I feel like that started us off on a really good fit of trust and respect. And I also wanna say Jess is a really seasoned producer herself, so I think she makes producer’s lives easy. *laughs*
Jess, what do you think?
Jessica: Uh, I don’t know. You’re gonna have to ask Gary about that later this week. *laughs*
But I wanna just echo what Lisa’s saying in terms of the support. There’s been a lot of striving to make dreams come true as much as possible, which has been really kind of extraordinary. They’ve been really, really great about trying to figure things out and give us as much as they can. I love the fact that they’re doing this season, that we’re part of this season. It’s really exciting that they will have brought three new plays to life in a year. And the fact that they’re all plays by women is the extra cherries on top. So yeah, I hope people are inspired by it and see it as something to that they could also do. I hope it’s something that catches on.
The final installment in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the World Premiere of “Hungry Ghost” by Lisa Sanaye Dring, directed by Jessica Hanna, runs at Skylight Theatre from August 26th to October 1st, 2023, with previews on August 19, 20, & 25. For tickets and information, visit https://skylighttheatre.org/event/hungry-ghost/.
After months of winter rain that persisted through June Gloom, I’m ready to get out in the sun and see some theatre! Aren’t you?
This July 11-16 at The Zephyr Theatre, five budding theatrical works by up-and-coming playwrights will be showcased at the SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival, self-described as the premier festival for new, original, creative works by gender-marginalized playwrights and composers in Los Angeles.
I was able to speak with the wonderful playwrights and directors to give us a sneak peek into their vision, process, and hopes for these plays.
Carolina Pilar Xique (she/her): What compelled each of you to write your piece?
Maddie Nguyen (she/her, playwright of the moon play): I have a friend in college who is Native Hawaiian and was telling me about how Mark Zuckerberg wanted to buy land in Hawaii. My friend was really pissed off about that and told me about this dream he had where Hawaii colonized the Moon. Around that same time, my college friend group was graduating and I was having a hard time dealing with that emotionally – the loss of connection with people is something I’ve always struggled with in my life. I combined the two ideas of going to the moon and connected that with a metaphor of connection with other people, and no longer desiring that connection because it becomes too painful when it ends.
Margaret Owens (she/her, playwright, composer & director ofRoseMarie – A Kennedy Life Interrupted): I was suffering from chronic fatigue from myalgic encephalomyelitis severely for about a year and a half, so I was in a wheelchair. I couldn’t do any of my normal daily tasks, so I was like, “What can I do to earn my right to live?” And I thought, “I can write a musical!” I put it out to the universe, and a very strong image came into my mind about the Kennedys, which I didn’t think was a good idea because everyone writes about the Kennedys. My husband mentioned that the family lobotomized this daughter, and I had never heard of that. I did a little research and learned that RoseMarie was the inspiration for the American Disability Act and all the Special Olympics. Since I was in my wheelchair at that time, I was becoming very, very grateful for the street curbs. You know who’s to thank for that? RoseMarie. I was trapped in my body and could do nothing else but write this.
Natalie Nicole Dressel (she/her, playwright of There is Evil in This House): What compelled me to write this piece was going to therapy in my thirties after coming out as transgender and losing touch with my mother, and talking about my experience growing up in a haunted house with my therapist. My therapist recontextualized my entire childhood experience, I had to go back and re-look at everything again. So it’s based on some real feelings I was going through. It was either write this play or keep bothering any halfway-friend Uber driver that I was meeting, because I had stuff to get off my chest.
Sarahjeen François (she/her, playwright & director of Sister, Braid My Hair): George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. All the unarmed deaths that were occurring at the hands of police officers. I was at home in the middle of COVID while all of that was stewing in my mind, and I was angry. But also I was yearning for a laughter and warmth that I wasn’t getting because I was so isolated from my family. I decided to create these sisters who thrive despite this political circumstance, and they have brought me so much comfort and joy. Just being in the presence of Black women is something special and I was craving that.
Nakisa Aschtiani (she/her, playwright of Bismillah, or In the Name of God): Years ago, I was having a conversation with my mom, and she had mentioned that a friend of the family said that if his son were gay, he would kill himself. It stuck with me and years later, I had to write about it because I couldn’t understand how you could say you love someone and say that simultaneously – the duality of that drove me nuts. I put that conversation in the play.
Carolina: What has been the process in bringing these pieces to life?
Sarah Bell (she/her, director of the moon play): What’s particularly wonderful about this piece is Maddie has put in this Vietnamese myth of “The Man on the Moon,” which includes a banyan tree on the moon, giving it an atmosphere.There’s also all this trash that’s in the play. Bringing it to life was actually quite easy because Maddie has created this perfect environment for me to kind of throw whatever I need in it. So it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been collecting trash from my house for my moon play trash pile.
Margaret: Well, the story was down in my mind, so then I wrote all the songs. I was looking for a book writer, because I didn’t know how to do that, and – long story, short – I ended up writing it myself. It was intimidating because I didn’t know how to write or talk like the 1930s & 1940s. My husband’s a professional writer and he took a stab at writing one scene just to give me an idea. Catching the verbiage of that broke it wide open for me. I started in December of 2011, and I finally had it all written in 2014. A producer I knew did staged readings to raise money to take it to Broadway – that didn’t happen, and then COVID. I started submitting it to places, and SheLA picked it. And it’s this play that led me back to college where I got my degree in playwriting.
Dean Grasbard (he/him, director of There is Evil in This House): It’s a really emotional piece. We have a loving cast that take care of themselves and each other and are doing a really excellent job of finding the humor in it. The deeper we get into it, the more we’ve been able to have communal healing. This play shows us paths to forgiveness for ourselves and each other. I don’t think any of us expected to walk out of rehearsals and feeling this light and with this sense of relief, which is really powerful. The play is so much funnier and more painful than I think any of us even imagined. It’s a play begging to be seen; it really aches for community and does a good job of creating it.
Sarahjeen: It has been a journey and the journey continues! When I wrote this play, I started thinking about quintessentially Black works of art because they’re a source of comfort, and there’s this one piece that can be found in many Black households. It’s a generational braiding photo with about four Black women seated and are grooming each other. And I wondered, what is the conversation? What’s happening that we can’t see? What if this is the only place where they feel safe? That’s where I birthed the characters and this world. I decided to take a chance on this play. It’s rhythmic in nature and is accompanied by djembe music, and it’s not something I’ve ever experienced in theatre.
Ani Maderosian (she/her, director of Bismillah, or In the Name of God): The dream for every director is to see things finally come to life, in the flesh. I did a radio play version of this [play] about two years ago. At that time, we needed that rendition, and it was creatively fulfilling and wonderful, but I sat there and thought, “Oh, God, this would be so great if we could get this on stage with people who can connect with it on such a deep and personal level and bring it to the community.” So it’s exciting. My process includes blocking organically, so a lot of the creative work is on the actors in following their own instincts and bringing out their own truth. Being able to work with this unique set of talented actors and tell this story from their perspective is my joy.
Carolina: Is there anything the audience should know before seeing your piece?
Maddie: There’s heavy language. It’s not recommended for children.
Margaret: Maybe bring tissue. Trigger warnings would be that there’s simulated surgery and there is a little violence, domestic quarrels. The play does mention the timely usage of neurodivergent terms of the 1930s and 40s.
Natalie: There are pop culture references, but I think I do a good job of taking people by the hand so you don’t have to know them to know what it means to the main character. And it [the play] won’t be in order, but I promise I will reorient you as to what’s going on.
Sarahjeen: They should know that this is an invitation – they’re being invited to a space that is sacred for these sisters. And to be prepared to go on a journey with these bombastic sisters who take risks and live life.
Ani: I love this play so much because it encapsulates what we as artists do in this industry. I think we both agree that we have a civic duty to the public to tell stories and this story will educate, instill empathy, and the hope is that it will get people talking and create a little bit of change when they leave the theater.
Carolina: What would you like audiences to take away after the performances?
Sarah: Something I’ve been talking a lot about with Maddie & the cast is what qualifies or even quantifies a friendship? How do we define relationships that can feel fleeting or deep, lasting, and meaningful – is it the time that we’ve known someone or is it how deep our knowledge of them runs? I guess I want audiences to be more open to that definition.
Margaret: People may know of Teddy, and of Eunice, and they certainly know of Jack, but they don’t know all the work they did because of RoseMarie. We’re lucky that she came into this family that had so much power and money. By being in that family, she changed the world because rights for people with disabilities are better because of the Kennedys.
Dean: I want people to walk away with the feeling of complexity, and the acceptance around complexity. Because nobody is just good or bad. And I want people to walk away knowing they have options. There is no one way to deal with trauma or to reconcile with yourself or your family. That is something to exquisite that I so rarely see – the idea that there is no lesson other than figuring out what’s right for you and holding that complexity tenderly.
Sarahjeen: I want them to feel the absolute joy amongst these Black women. Second, I want them to go home and do a little bit of research after seeing the play. And the last thing is I want them to make space for grace as it comes to the complexities of being a woman of color in America.
Nakisa: Fundamentally, we’re all the same. We have stories to tell. When we were casting, it was important for us to cast people of color – Middle Eastern actors. Even though we can take this story and put another family into it or imagine people that you know who are like these characters, we’re fundamentally the same and we come from the same stock. And we all have stories to tell.
Carolina: Is there any other play in the Festival you’re particularly excited to see?
Maddie: I really want to see Sister, Braid My Hair. Every time I see the title, it just strikes me. The description, portrait, and title feel very intimate so I think that’s the one I’m most excited for.
Sarah: I got to talk to most of the production members of There is Evil in This House. Talking to the dramaturg, I asked her what her favorite part is about that piece and she said how healing and transformative it is as a witness and as someone who is working on it. So I want to see that one for sure.
Margaret: I would love to see them all. I like the idea of Sister, Braid My Hair.
Natalie: I spent a great deal of time talking with Sarah [the director of the moon play], and I’m fascinated. It sounds like a fairytale book come to life and if that’s not a good time at the theatre, I don’t know what is.
Dean: I’m excited for Bismillah, or In the Name of God. I’m really glad we have representation of queer stories of color in this festival. I know Nakisa and I haven’t seen her work before so I’m really excited.
Sarahjeen: I’m really excited to see all of them, but Bismillah is snatching my soul with interest. But I really want to see them all, and I’m going to, so it’s going to be tasty.
Nakisa: One of my friends was saying that RoseMarie is absolutely phenomenal and will probably go very far.
Ani: The great thing about this festival is that it’s always vastly different stories, genre, and styles, so I’d like to see all of them!
For more tickets and information on the five plays – and playwrights – featured in the 2023 SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival July 11-16 at the Zephyr Theatre, visit shenycarts.org/she-la.
On November 7th, 2020, I was at a Starbucks in Long Beach, on my way to my mom’s house, when I scrolled through Facebook and saw that Kamala Harris would become the next Vice President of the United States.
The only way I can describe that moment was that it was similar to the first time I saw snow at 20-years-old: shocking, like my brain was taking its sweet time processing something I’ve never seen before.
It wasn’t until 3 hours later, when I watched on my mom’s television our incoming Vice President, that my shock turned into tears down my cheeks, joined with a choked sigh. Because despite my issues with her previous stances & policies, and despite enduring another presidential election in which I felt I was choosing “the lesser of two evils,” a woman, who looked just like me, was going to be the Vice President of the United States.
That day, I believed I was fortunate enough to be witnessing a steppingstone that would change the world for the better.
But how much has really changed?
Since President Biden & Vice President Harris have taken office, the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, countless laws have gone into effect throughout the nation that restrict women’s access to healthcare, birth control and abortions, and today, states like Florida are banning books in children’s libraries with subjects related to “wokeness” (whatever that means), including important historical figures throughout history who do not fit the white, male, cisgender narrative.
Being a woman, these days can often feel like one step forward, 50-years-worth-of-steps back; a losing chess game.
But those special moments—moments like seeing Kamala Harris, our first Black-Indian female Vice President, on screen right before our eyes—these are the moments that inspire us to dream of a bigger and better world, moments that are meant to propel us into action. We have a responsibility to keep that momentum going, even when it feels like we’ve fallen behind.
That’s what Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a nun in 10th century Germany, invites the audience to consider in Elizabeth Dement’s No Place like Gandersheim.
In the second interview I’ve had the pleasure of doing with Skylight Theatre’s 40th season theatre-makers, I got to sit down with playwright Elizabeth Dement and director Randee Trabitz, to talk time traveling, Catholicism & the film industry, 10th century Germany and women’s rights.
Carolina Pilar Xique: I would love to hear more about the inspiration from this play and who the real “Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim” was. What elements of her life are embedded in this piece?
Elizabeth Demet: The play came out of my experience as a writer, because the play is about a female writer—the first female playwright, who was Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim.
Oftentimes, writers—women writers in particular—get notes that seem to take them farther away from what they initially intended to write, especially in Hollywood. And I was wondering, “How far back does this go?” So I started to look and I landed in 10th century Germany in this abbey with Hrotsvitha. I discovered she was a nun who wrote a sex comedy and I thought, “This is a woman I have to write about.” That’s where I started—in the abbey.
I will say that the play is not historically accurate—it is a comedy, a reimagining of Hrotsvitha’s life, or a life she might have had in a parallel universe. There are certain elements that are accurate: she did live in the abbey, she was a canonist, and she did adapt a play by Terrence, a Roman playwright, and it was a sex comedy. She adapted it to be more of a religious piece, and she was very close friends with the Abbess. They had an intensely loving friendship, and so that character is also in the play. At the time, Otto was the Holy Roman Emperor, his niece was the Mother Superior at Gandersheim, and his wife was Theophanu, who is a wonderful character in the play. I think that’s all the parts that are historically accurate—with everything else, I took a lot of liberties. I had to sort of infer what people’s personalities might have been and what their desires were. And there’s a little time travel in the play, so I don’t think that happened in the 10th century. But who knows?
Randee Trabitz: We’re not sure.
Elizabeth: I didn’t find any in my research.
Carolina: In reading about the production, we could feel your enthusiasm for staging the time travelling that happens in the play. What has that process been like?
Randee: It’s quite a thing—apparently time travel isn’t as easy as I thought. (laughs) It’s been a challenge and it’s been kind of a delicious, creative one. Beth [Elizabeth] has this tendency to write elements into her plays which are like crack for directors. Like, “I don’t know how to do that, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” And time travel is definitely one of those things. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a few different elements. We’re working with our lead actress, Jamey Hood, who is playing Hrotsvitha and is an extraordinary performer, so capable of many things physically, emotionally, and temperamentally. We’re working with her, our videographer, Shannon Barondeau, and our sound designer, Alma Reyes-Thomas, as well as the rest of the cast who are kind of swirling around the elements to make it possible to happen since Jamey never leaves the stage. So she time travels and stays exactly where she was.
Carolina: There are a lot of parallels between Catholicism & the Theatre/Film Industry being male-controlled spaces. What has that exploration been like? Have there been any surprises in their similarities or differences?
Randee: Even though the play is under 90 minutes, it’s still structurally broken up into 3 acts and 3 places. And we keep discovering more ways that the play refers to itself and we’ve also put in some placeholders in one time period that then refer back to another. I love when there’s something planted early that then we can mine and it comes into fruition sometime later in the play. I think it’s delicious for close-watchers in the audience to start to put those pieces together. We’ve had two very different audiences so far—one that just laughed and laughed, and one that was just very quiet, paying attention, and piecing everything together, and it kind of works on both of those levels.
Elizabeth: The other thing I’ve found in rehearsals is that the play talks about—without explicitly talking about—where these people stand in history at that moment; different eras of history. I find that really interesting and it goes in tandem with what Randee was talking about. Each act talks to the other acts: this is where we were, this is where we are, this is where we’re going; and this is how things changed, and this is how nothing has changed. So there have been lots of discoveries. I knew there was some of that when I wrote it but, of course, you get in the room, and you have these amazing actors and director, and they make all of these discoveries, and when you see it up on its feet, you can physically see the resonance of each time period.
Randee: This has been a long time coming. The play was set to go forward just as the pandemic began; the world has already shifted since then and the play has shifted in response to it, which I think is amazing. There’s a whole other dimension to it now. Ultimately, the way women are placed in the world and the way their voices are listened to is a story as old as time and it’s one that keeps spiraling. In the time-traveling, we’ve been talking a lot about spirals which seems appropriate.
Carolina: How has it changed since the pandemic?
Elizabeth: When I was writing this, Me Too was happening and it’s a component of the piece. And now, Me Too is still very important but it’s not as hot & present an issue as it was in 2017, when there was this cascade of awareness of what women have been going through since the beginning of time. When I wrote the play, that period in the script said, “Present Day” and now I have to put “2017″ or “2018.”
Randee: That’s the part I find really compelling: We’re looking at piece that is now in the past and we’re assuming that we’re post-Me Too but the reality is we’ve just lost interest in talking about it. Something else has supplanted it on the front page but all of those same issues of representation and women’s voices are still problematic. Like Black Lives Matter, we had this swell of interest, but nothing has been fixed. It’s not over, and we’re not progressing beyond that. That’s how the timing has been particularly profound to me.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of a documentary called, “This Changes Everything”—which if you haven’t seen, you should see. It’s fantastic. Basically, they talk a lot about these moments, particularly in movies like Thelma & Louise, where there was all this press saying, “Well this changes everything for women. Now, it’s going to be different.” And not that we haven’t made any progress over the last decades, but we haven’t yet had that moment that changed everything on a level that I think we all crave. In the play, the characters are in time periods where they think it’s that moment when everything is going to change or is changing, and the main character is very obsessed with making change in the world.
Carolina: What has it been like working on this uniquely feminist play with an all-female creative & production team?
Randee: I’ll just out myself and say I’ve never been in that kind of room with all women. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s a new experience on so many levels. There’s a lot of grace, a lot of listening, support, and nobody every raises their voice in anger. It’s not something we have to think about or deal with, which is kind of great. The thing about being my age is that I don’t want to be in this work unless I’m having a good time. And I am having a great time in the room. It’s very pleasant
Elizabeth: From the moment I wrote the play, I wanted this to be all-women, including, ideally, the entire creative team. I didn’t know if people would go along with that request but Skylight & Randee were great to make it happen. When we had our first readthrough… you walk in the room and you go, “Oh my God! It happened!” It’s ephemeral, it’s like alchemical. There’s a vibe in the room that’s just different, and it’s lovely. We have a blast and we make each other laugh. I said to someone else, “There’s never a line for the bathroom because we can use the men and ladies’ rooms in rehearsals.”
Carolina: What do you want audiences to take away after they’ve seen this play?
Elizabeth: I’d love it if people walked away thinking about the play and about history and women and feminism. One of the key messages in the play is that we’ve the same problems for centuries: What’s going to happen in the future? Will there ever be a moment of severe change? I don’t want to say we’re in the exact same spot women were in the 10th century, but we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked to. And the other part of it is the really human part—there’s a huge discussion about mortality and legacy. What are you leaving behind? What is truly important to you? Those questions come up for the main character and I’m hoping people will be moved by how she responds to them.
Randee: For the longest time, I’ve been aiming at Beth’s reaction to the play when we first did the reading in her living room. We all laughed and laughed and laughed and I looked over at Beth and she was weeping. I want the audience to laugh and enjoy and fall in love with these characters and then, at the end, just burst into tears.
The play speaks to me very profoundly as a creative person and what it is to be an artist—to take it seriously and at what cost? I’m one of the few mothers in the room, and one of my assistants is a young mother of two. I know that it is of great cost to her and her children to be in rehearsal, and I certainly remember those days. It’s a different payment for women than men. That decision to pursue what you care about the most feels like a privilege. So the play definitely speaks to that strongly and loudly. Even with the one man in our room, Gary Grossman, we’ve had this conversation about what it means to still be making theatre at an age when you could have just retired and gone to the beach. That’s the part that makes me cry at the end.
The second play in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the World Premiere of “No Place Like Gandersheim” by Elizabeth Dement, directed by Randee Trabitz, runs at Skylight Theatre through June 25, 2023. For tickets and information, visit skylighttheatre.org/event/no-place-like-gandersheim/.
Perhaps it’s been too long since LA theatre has seen a good bloody fight to the death on stage.
School of Night remedies that with “Battlesong of Boudica”, an “epic revenge tragedy” based on the real-life Iceni Warrior Chief Boudica’s uprising against the Roman empire in 61AD. Multi-hyphenate Jen Albert produces, fight choreographs, and stars as the queen herself. Onstage, Jen as Boudica slashes, stabs, and beheads her way through one epic battle after another. Offstage, we chatted a bit about her work as a fight choreographer, being a woman with rage, and stage fighting as catharsis.
Elana Luo: How did you get into fight choreography?
Jen Albert: I went to school in Chicago, I went to Columbia College [for acting]. One of the classes on offer was stage combat, and I immediately knew I wanted to take that . I loved it, and every semester I just kept taking more and more classes and weapons : ‘Now I’ve learned swords, okay, now I’ve learned quarterstaff, okay, now I’ve learned shield.’ I just kept going.
Elana: Why did you want to take that class in the first place?
Jen: I think just as part of being an actor. You watch movies, you watch plays, you see all these actors doing these cool cool stunts and things, and you’re like, ‘I wanna do that.’ And I also think at that time I was an angry person, and I liked to hit things. I think the opportunity to hit things and create a cool fight sequence was just a way to get my rage out.
Elana: I feel like the stereotype is that men are the ones who are angry, or it’s mostly men who want to fight. Do you work with a lot of women who are also full of rage, or this fighting drive?
Jen: Yeah. I don’t know that people see how much rage women actually have. I’m surrounded by women who have rage, for a multitude of reasons. It’s not over being less equal than other folks, it’s the violence. I’m certainly tired of being scared all the time or worried about my life because somebody’s just going to be angry and do something to me. Just in general, you know, we all have rage. The idea that women don’t have rage is silly. I know a lot of very, very, angry women.
Elana:Does the character of Boudica have any special significance to you?
Jen: There’s a scene in the beginning of the play where she’s sort of beating her daughter a little bit. When I read that, I was like, ooh, that’s a lot. And Chris [longtime collaborator Christopher William Johnson, Battlesong of Boudica writer and director] was like, ‘Well, I kind of wrote it to be a bit like your mother.’ And not that my mother was abusive, but she didn’t know any better. That’s how she disciplined. Back in the 80s and 90s, that was not weird, that was standard. And [in the play] it’s 61AD. There was no line about what’s abusive and what’s not. There’s no line about animal sacrifice. These are humans at the beginning of time, doing what they do with what they know how to do.
Elana: So that initial response of ‘oh, I don’t know about that,’ was that modern-day you thinking?
Jen: That was me being the actor going, ‘people are not going to like her.’ And on top of that, later in the play, she burns down entire towns of civilians. She’s not actually a nice person. And so I don’t think we really knew how people were going to receive that.
Elana: When you were playing her, did you feel unlikeable? Did you want people to root for her?
Jen: Honestly, after I read it and started playing it, I didn’t really think about it, nor did I care. I’m playing a human being going through whatever she’s going through, it doesn’t really matter what anybody thinks about it. And if they don’t like her, great! And I think it makes for more interesting drama if we’re [having] feelings about the character. Yes, she’s in the right, but also… not.
Elana: She’s complex!
Jen: I used to… I still get a little irritated when people are like, ‘You’re playing a strong female character.’ I don’t want to play a strong female character. I want to play a complex character. I don’t need her to be strong. Women are not always strong. We get to give in to our vices. We get to be bad. We get to be evil. You know, like, we’re not saints and I don’t want to play a saint. I want to play somebody who’s complicated. She’s not perfect. She’s so not. She gets bloodthirsty!
What do you see as the importance of showing violence on the stage?
I think in our normal lives we don’t normally get to react with violence. And so I think that [the] stage is sort of an outlet for that. I think theater in general is an outlet for feelings and emotions or thoughts, situations that we don’t normally get to have or be a part of. So I think that translates to stage combat as well. It’s just like watching an action movie. We all want to be able to do that or participate in that. It gets our adrenaline going, it gets us excited.
It’s just like musical theater. When the emotions get to be too much, you sing. So when the emotions get to be too much, you are violent. And I always say that an actor has to have a reason to fight. So if it’s executed well, then it supports the emotional context of the show. It’s telling the story as it should be told.
What were your goals with choreographing the fights on this show?
Jen: My goal is always to tell the story. What is the story, what are we trying to say with it? Like with the fight with Camulos [one of Boudica’s many enemies, played by Jesse James Thomas], my goal was to build tension. What I really wanted out of that was for her to make him angry, because that’s her strategy. If he’s angry, he’s gonna be off balance. And Jesse and I talked about this, because we worked on this fight together. And he [as Camulos] plays up the anger of it. Then I [as Boudica] can calm down and go, ‘Okay, great. Now you’re now you’re going to do something stupid.’ So each fight has its own sort of story.
Go see Jen destroy the need to be well-liked, as well as a respectable chunk of the Roman Empire, in School of Night’s Battlesong of Boudica at The Hudson Backstage, running for one more weekend, April 28-30. Click Here for Tickets. For more information about School of Night and what the company is up to next, visit schoolofnight.org.
I first got to know June and her writing as we were working on new plays together as part of The Vagrancy’s 2020-2021 Writers’ Group (though she had been involved with several Vagrancy productions before joining the Writers’ Group). Reading her pages that year, I was continually struck by her ability to write dialogue that felt wholly grounded and natural while placing her characters in situations that allowed their words to transcend the scenes, thereby always speaking to larger issues and ideas. “Blue”—June’s engrossing two-hander currently playing at Rogue Machine’s Henry Murray Stage—is a perfect example of this skill. With an knack for stripping down the many layers of personal identity while exposing the underbelly of national identity, “Blue” is a unique theatrical production that gives audience members the experience of peering behind the closed doors of the LAPD—with a few revelations about human nature along the way.
Kat Vondy: When we were writing plays together as part of The Vagrancy’s Writers’ Group, there was a very specific structure and schedule involved with the plays we developed there, with new pages due every two weeks over a period of seven months and a few workshops along the way. How does that compare to your writing process in general, and for Blue in particular? Do you tend to dash out a full draft over a weekend, spread the writing out over a longer period of time, or does it depend on the project?
June Carryl: The structure at Echo Lab where I had the chance to write Blue was a meeting once a week with two moderators, the incredible Hannah Wolf and Brian Otano. There were nine of us and we shared a few pages from one play. We’d sign up and had six-to eight weeks to develop pages. My process is kinda all over the place, honestly, depending on the play. I’ve started working with a character biography (who the main players are, especially the protagonist, what they want versus what they need, what their wounds are) and then just fly by the seat of my pants. With Blue I knew the first scene right away and so had to go back to do the character outline. It evolved over time as I was pointed to the need for a deeper relationship between Parker and Sully by the two wonderful directors who shepherded the workshops and a reading down at Curtis Theater, Michael Matthews and Ryan Bergmann.
KV: In addition to being a playwright, you’re also an accomplished director and actor. How do your experiences in those areas inform your writing?
JC: I’m always learning a little more about storytelling from doing the other two things. Character development and how language fits (or doesn’t) in an actor’s mouth, clarity of intention all come from acting while focusing action even if I’m not always clear about why consciously something is happening I get from directing. It’s really fun. I’m really always learning.
KV: In Rogue Machine’s production of Blue, the theatrical space is so intimate and immersive that it’s easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief and forget they’re watching a performance; the audience has the experience of being a fly on the wall of an actual interrogation. This sense is heightened because the play is one unbroken scene that plays out in real time. Did you always conceive of Blue in this way, or were there earlier iterations of the play that had scene breaks and dealt with the passage of time differently?
JC: Credit Michael Matthews, my amazing director, with how that space came to be and Rogue Machine just ran with it. I’m so grateful he said yes. The play has never had scene breaks and was always conceived of as happening in a single scene in real time.
KV: In some ways, Blue feels like a companion piece to the remount of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 that was just at the Mark Taper Forum. Both productions highlight the fact that police violence against people of color continues to plague our country: Twilight by recounting a piece of history from over thirty years ago, and Blue by telling a contemporary story that incorporates recent national events. The shows bring into focus a pattern of racism that has not changed in the decades between the 1992 LA Uprising and today.
While thinking about Blue, I was struck by the way that the conversation between LaRhonda and Sully keeps circling back to the same concepts; both characters repeatedly return to certain topics in efforts to continually angle for different responses.
To me, there’s a way in which the structure of Blue echoes the structure of our history: being stuck in a pattern that we can’t (or won’t) break free of. You also explored the theme of patterns in the play you wrote for The Vagrancy, N*gga B*tch. How do you think about patterns and repetition in a storytelling context? What do you think audiences can learn by examining patterns and repetition?
JC: There’s this tick in American culture where we broach a place of change, a watershed moment, and rather than breaking through, we revert to nostalgia and a looking back, usually to the 50s. It’s incredibly annoying. Not that change doesn’t happen. It does, but we are constantly on repeat. The hope is that in the story the characters are initially locked in a repetition, look at the thing in question from one angle, then another, then still another and that the audience recognizes its own patterns and breaks that pattern because to repeat it once more is to remain in stasis, to fail. I never really thought out loud why I do it. It’s kind of an obsession.
KV: We were scheduled to have a Vagrancy Writers’ Group meeting on January 6, 2021—the day of the Capitol Insurrection—and I remember wondering whether it was even possible to access a creative frame of mind given what was happening in DC. The situation was leaving so many people distraught and stunned that it was difficult to focus on anything else. In Blue, the Capitol Insurrection comes to have a particular significance as we get deeper into the story; as such, it feels as if you were able to transform something that was initially a creative barrier into part of your creative work. Struggling to make art while grappling with the weight of disturbing world events is an issue that I think many creative people contend with. Do you have strategies that help you navigate this challenge?
JC: Writing itself is my strategy. I journal every day now, have for a long while. It’s this info dump. Whatever obsession or gripe I’m grappling with I just download for three pages. It just really helps. And the great thing about writing plays is that you can break things down and look at them, at what you think, at what is and isn’t true, and you can decide what your reaction is; so you’re not just feeling helpless or enraged. You can engage. It’s really therapeutic.
KV: Do you have a specific audience member (or members) in mind when you write?
JC: I don’t quite know what that means. I kinda write to talk to anyone who’ll listen. One of the most gratifying things anyone has ever said to me is that I said something in the play that they were feeling and didn’t have the words for. That makes all the stress and self-judgment worth it.
KV: Is there anyone (dead or alive, real or fictional) you’d like to share your work with who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to see or read it?
JC: I wish my mom were alive to see my work. I was supposed to be a lawyer and have tooootally gotten away from that and quite happily. She was always proud of me—I found out she wanted my brother, sister, and me to be happy whatever we chose to do with our lives. I was the quiet one. t would be amazing if she could see how I turned out.
KV: What are you reading/watching right now? Any recommendations for books or shows (on film or stage) that we shouldn’t miss?
JC: I have The Amazing World of Gumball seasons 1 through 3 on repeat. It’s on Hulu. It’s a cartoon about a blue cat, his adopted brother, a goldfish, his sister who is a pink bunny like his dad and his mom who is also a blue cat. Before they decided to make him jaded in season four it was just this hilarious look at 7th graders—just in that in-between place of still being kids and having to contend with he world with kid logic. The first three seasons are incredible and hilarious.
I’m also reading Wilson Harris—slowly. He was a Guyanese author (I’m Guyanese on my mom’s side), utterly brilliant, totally over my head and absolutely worth it, I think, though half the time I literally no idea what he’s talking about. I’m also getting ready to read The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo.
KV: What are your hopes for the future of theater in LA? What would you like to hold onto, and what would you like to change?
JC: I really want theater to make good on the last two years of promising to share the stage with people of color. Workshops are great, genuinely great and a gift; but to see that gift translate into actual PRODUCTIONS rather than just throwing dollars at us and bailing when it comes to sustained support and full production is paramount. What I loved about getting to work with the Vagrancy is that dedication is there. The point is to put the plays up, to support getting the plays up elsewhere when y’all can’t do it yourselves. More theaters like Vagrancy. That’s my hope for the future of LA Theater.
June Carryl’s “Blue” is now playing through Sunday, May 14th at Rogue Machine’s Henry Murray Stage. Tickets are available here. The Vagrancy will present Blossoming 2023, featuring new works by LA playwrights Jennifer Bobiwash, Natalie Camuñas, Anna Fox, and Katherine Vondy, from May 19-23; check out The Vagrancy’s website next month for more info.
I can’t be the first to admit that the pandemic has made me cynical.
Maybe it wasn’t the pandemic itself—it’s more apt to blame an (ironically) mandarin-tinted ex-federal leader of the United States for inciting violence primarily toward People of Color, regularly denying the existence and persistence of a deadly disease that paralyzed the entire world for 3 years, and dividing whole groups of people for political gain. But, truthfully, it was also the hours I spent endlessly scrolling through Karen videos on TikTok that did it. During this awful time of immense stress and lack of control, there was something comforting about silently scrutinizing people I didn’t know from the safety of my bedroom.
For the last 3 years, I was so focused on the differences of opinions I had with others that, in this reintegration into “normal life,” I’m remembering why it’s important to also consider what makes us the same, especially in such life-or-death circumstances as we all have been experiencing. Understandably, we had to learn to be defensive in the height of the pandemic to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Now, it’s time for compassion.
Erlina Ortiz invites the audience back to a standard of compassion in the West Coast premiere of La Egoista at Skylight Theatre Company. Her self-proclaimed “pandemic play” (although, not exactly in the way you might think) follows the rocky relationship of two sisters who are called to set aside their differences during a life-altering health crisis. For what is family, if not the people who you would sacrifice everything for?
I got to sit down on Zoom with Erlina Ortiz and director Daphnie Sicre to talk more in depth about the significance of this play, right here and now, in an endemic Los Angeles.
Carolina Pilar Xique for LAFPI: Tell me about the process. Erlina, how did you start this piece and how has it grown?
Erlina Ortiz: The piece actually started as a 10-minute play that was commissioned [by Live & In Color] during the pandemic: write a piece about two people in two separate spaces communicating in a virtual capacity—like on Zoom—so that two actors in different spaces could perform it. So that gave me the idea, “What would cause two people who want to be near each other, to be far away?” I had a lot of themes rolling around in my head about caregiving and having to define a new normal that we were all going through. Then a year later, that same company got funding to commission one full-length play and they reached out to me and asked if I was interested. I said I was if I can use the same characters as before and expand on it. So, I dove in with all the ingredients.
At this point I knew that I wanted one of the characters to be doing stand-up during the show and have her comedy be an aspect of the storytelling, so I was writing the jokes. From there, I submitted it to the LTC (Latinx Theatre Commons) Comedy Carnaval. (I was like, “Well, I have this play that I just finished a couple of months ago. I just had a reading of it and there’s stuff that still needs work but I know it’s strong—and it has a comedian in it!”) I submitted and most of the folks who have directed the piece so far connected with it because they were on the reading committee for LTC or they were involved in choosing the plays. After the [Comedy Carnaval] presentation in Denver, that’s when the productions came along.
Daphnie Sicre: We were like, “Ring Ring! Can we direct your show?” (laughs)
Carolina:Daphnie, how has the rehearsal process been? Have your thoughts about the play evolved since you first read it?
Daphnie: I will say this: my thoughts haven’t evolved about the play. I still feel just as passionate and I love it just as much even though I’m exhausted and tired. (laughs) You don’t often get a play where you’ve had 28 rehearsals and you’re still laughing. That doesn’t often happen. And so to be this deep in rehearsals and still be laughing, to me, speaks volumes.
The process has been incredibly intense because there are a lot of factors involved in the production. Erlina is asking the actor who plays Josefina to not only just act, but to also be a puppeteer and a stand-up comic, and so the play needs a really strong actor who can do these three things.
Both actors had to learn puppeteering so we brought in a puppeteering consultant to sit in on rehearsals with them. We also brought in a consultant to work with Lyse [Perez, the actor playing Josefina] to learn how to be a stand-up comedian: what are the rules of stand-up, and what stand-up entails. In both sessions we had with the consultants, I learned so much. They taught in a way that was so enlightening for me as a director and for the actors as well. So, process-wise, I’ve definitely been learning and enjoying and laughing. And I can’t ask for more than that when you think about it, because I don’t always get to do that!
Carolina: Can both of you talk a little bit about this question: Why this play, today, here, right now?
Erlina: In the pandemic, everyone said that playwrights were going to come out with their pandemic plays. But everyone was like, “I don’t want to read a pandemic play. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll read a pandemic play, but while we’re still living in it, I don’t want to read about it.”
This is my pandemic play in the way that we were all faced with this new reality: our own mortality and healthcare, which is a big theme in the piece. So many of us were faced with the questions, “Who do I give my attention to? Where do my priorities lie now that this crisis has hit?” A lot of people had to drop everything because they were ill or because they had to take care of somebody who was ill during the pandemic. I think that that is the main thing we—across age, race, gender—can all relate to: ourselves or someone else dealing with a health issue and the questions, choices, and sacrifices that come up with dealing with that.
Also, it’s time to hear more of our stories as Latine folks, and not just stories that have to do with a very specific Latine issue—often centered around the trauma of border-crossing or things like that. These sisters are just Latina (laughs). They just are. They don’t have to explain it, they don’t have to talk about it. It informs every aspect of their lives, but it’s not the point of the play. It resonates with folks: the universality of the story but also the specific story of these two sisters.
Daphnie: Ditto, ditto, ditto. For me, first of all, is the importance of the healthcare issue. That’s the realism that you’re looking at in the play—it’s the dealing with this healthcare system, the waiting on the phone for an answer, the doctors not knowing what’s wrong with you, having to go through procedures, experiencing the shit you have to experience when you’re sick and ill, and not knowing if you’re going to get better, and the doctors not knowing if you’re going to get better, and thinking you’re going to get better and then getting worse—all while dealing with healthcare, pain & bills.
There’s a scene that really digs into that and the audience during previews nodded in agreement. You could tell that they’ve experienced that. It’s crazy but that’s the reality of the healthcare system in the United States. Having to make the choice of not going to the ER because it’s expensive, or the fact that you no longer have sick days because you’ve used sick days taking care of your family members and your work doesn’t allow for that. That’s the society we’re living in and that is key and essential to the story. But it’s also this beautiful story of sisterhood and these two Latina sisters, who are very different but the same. Their relationship isn’t easy, but it’s so real.
Erlina: I think that’s also maybe another thing that makes it of the moment, is that a lot of people right now are dealing with the realities of everything that happened post-2016 [presidential election]. A lot of families might have very different beliefs between different family members. There’s a lot of folks that have to dig into love, even in moments of disagreement. That’s what these sisters do for each other, too. Despite having completely different worldviews, they go back to the love they’ve had for each other since childhood and that’s what keeps them going. People need that right now to get us through this time.
Daphnie: When I read this play, I think about Generation Z & Millennials and how they are overcoming toxic families, generational trauma, and are really confronting it in a way that I haven’t seen in older generations. I believe that in a lot of Latine families we were raised—especially as women, as Latinas—to be the caregivers. There’s a sort of unwritten rule of assumption that we will take care of our own parents as they get older and put everything else in our lives on the wayside for our family. What most plays don’t talk about—but this play does—is what that does to caregivers.
This play is about two caregivers: Betsaida taking care of her mother, and Josefina now taking care of Betsaida. We need to talk about what it does to us, what we end up sacrificing, and how we put ourselves second for others. What does it mean to give up on a dream or goal that you’ve been working so hard to achieve? Anyone who has had to give up a dream that they’ve had for so long for someone else that they love is going to resonate with this play.
Carolina: Do you have a sister/someone like a sister in your life? What have they taught you?
Erlina: I grew up with brothers. I have some [younger] sisters, and—in talking about what you sacrifice and keep in your life—I’m actually raising my 13-year-old sister. While writing this play, I was signing guardianship paperwork for her, so that was prevalent in my head. From her I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be a parent and learned how to forgive my own preteen self for the things I’d do and the way I felt about myself. I’m seeing similarities between me and her, but I don’t worry about her at all because I was more of a mess.
I think that the relationship with my two brothers that I grew up with is actually more reflective of the relationship between Josefina & Betsaida. Josefina is a lot like my older brother: somebody who likes to push buttons, likes to annoy you, likes to instigate. My little brother has been sick his whole life and I’ve had a lot of guilt over the years. We were friends as kids, but then for many years as adults, we never hung out. When I was finally in my mid-twenties and he was in his early twenties, we hung out as adults for the first time. Now even when we don’t see each other or talk to each other after a while, we have this central, strong connection between us. It’s the same for my older brother, too.
Daphnie: I have an older brother and we are so incredibly different. We have different political ideologies that could not be more radically different. And my brother loves to instigate and fuck with me all the time. He takes so much joy in it. It drives me crazy. But because of him, I’m able to see the other side of how other people think politically, and it fascinates me. It’s the same thing for him—we look at each other and can’t understand how we can be so different. But I love him. I absolutely love him and everything about him, even his awful political ideologies. And I miss him.
There’s a powerful part in the play where Betsaida reminds Josefina, “You didn’t call me for 4 months.” And sometimes, it’s like that. That to me is the essence of family & siblinghood, and we see that in this play. We see two completely different people who love each other very much, would do anything for each other, and would sacrifice for each other even though they see the world so differently. I think it’s beautiful and honest because it exists in all our relationships.
The first play in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the West Coast Premiere of La Egoista by Erlina Ortiz, directed by Daphnie Sicre, runs at Skylight Theatre through April 9, 2023. ASL Interpreted performance on March 19. For tickets and information, visit skylighttheatre.org/event/la-egoista.