Fifty years from now, what will literature say about us? Will it be a balanced story?
I am hoping that the travailing in the spirit that I have been doing will break something up. I don’t have it in me to compromise on what stories want to come out of me. I am learning to not subconsciously self-edit.
This pandemic has changed me; I have an even lesser tolerance for inauthenticity in any way. It’s been a battle and a journey to learn where and how grief has touched my work – changing it forever; instead of trying to muzzle it, I’ve learned to embrace it. There is a sound to loss, an indelible mark, an imprint, a key, as it were, that opens one up to hidden jewels. Regaining the parts of myself so covered in stones, it took this pandemic to unearth them. I have literally found snippets of writing while going through a box under a box under a box. This snippet of writing is exactly what is needed in a play, “Sweet Lorraine’s Bag of Water,” that I’ve decided to revisit. I remembered writing it and it was on my mind. I was annoyed that it was lost to me, finding it by chance was delightful. I wrote it while attending a theater conference some years ago. It will be nice to get back to attending in-person conferences one day, they are a great source of inspiration. There is nothing like being around a large group of theater artists.
It is good to know that I am finding more balance in myself and looking forward to seeing the change it brings to my work…
Happy New Year, may it bring you joy and many opportunities to share your work.
For the second installment of my “Creatives Check-In” series, we welcome and hear from…
As relayed in the previous post, my goal with this series is to highlight how creative folks are reconciling with their creativity during this precarious time. In the spirit of creative camaraderie, I aim to highlight creatives from various fields as I strongly believe we fuel each other’s work. I am so thankful for their participation.
Featured Creatives – A Short Bio:
Valerie Gibbins is a textile and industrial designer from Oakland, CA. Her work straddles many disciplines, attempting to highlight the intersections of feminism, sustainability, art, function, and design thinking.
Christine Hamilton-Schmidt is a Los Angeles based playwright and screenwriter. Her work has been developed and produced at Skylight Theatre, Ammunition Theatre Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, The Blank Theatre, Team Awesome Robot, The Parsnip Ship, and more. Her full-length play, CHARLOTTE STAY CLOSE, had its world premiere production at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA in September 2019. She is the founder and co-program director of New West Playwrights, which was created to give voice to and foster the work of young playwrights in Los Angeles. More information at www.christinehamiltonschmidt.com
Amanda Harmon Koppe is an Actor, Writer, and LA native. Amanda’s passion lies in empowering others through her art, as well as coaching others to create their own work. She received her BFA in Performing Arts: Acting from AMDA College & Conservatory of the Performing Arts, has written a feminist-comedy feature film screenplay, as well as the short film Siri 2.0, depicting technology’s intrusiveness in our daily lives. She’s starred in a number of commercials and short films and when she’s not acting or writing, you can find her as a Production Manager, Teaching Artist or Yoga Instructor.
How have you been spending your time at home during the quarantine?
Valerie Gibbins (VG): There’s been a lot of eating, baking, cooking, staring into space, staring at screens, laundry, watering plants, having no clue what I’m doing, watching ’90s Disney movies, stressing, sewing, making masks, playing with fabric, and eating chocolate. There’s never enough chocolate in this house.
Christine Hamilton-Schmidt (CHS): I go to bed between 1:30 and 2:30am and wake up between 9:00 and 10:00am. I make big batches of cold brewed hibiscus tea and bake cakes. I bought a dry erase board, and I write a to-do list for my weekdays and feel really good every time I cross an item off the list. I write in notebooks in an attempt to spend less time in front of a screen. I talk to my cat a lot and call my mom every day.
Amanda Harmon Koppe (AHK): I am the kind of person that needs to stay busy and I’m still learning to forgive myself when I don’t finish everything on my to-do list. I started thinking about what I could do from home that would take my mind off of our current global crisis and would help others do the same. I ended up creating Arts & Crafts tutorials on Youtube for kids. I was surprised to put my acting, writing, filming, directing, and teaching skills into use by developing these holistic crafting lessons for children from my kitchen table.
Did the quarantine affect any of your creative projects or plans?
VG: I teach sewing classes, so those were all cancelled. Thankfully, I did not have any major plans this year since I was looking for full-time work anyway. That effort went down the tubes, obviously.
CHS: This is WILD, but my “career” has never been better. Quarantine has opened a magical door to working on other people’s projects and being encouraged by others to write. I have collaborators getting in touch with me and giving me deadlines in a way I never have. I feel really lucky, but also tired and worried about letting people down because some days I just can’t write.
AHK: In early March, I had been going on auditions, developing a few TV pilots, working on an ebook and outlining another feature film, but once our reality came to a screeching halt, it was much harder for me to focus on any of my creative endeavors. It was exhausting to even try working on projects I had once been passionate about. Everything I had been doing felt really small in comparison to an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and dread. It made me think of the John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
How, if at all, has this time affected your creativity?
VG: On one hand, I feel like an amorphous semi-sentient blob most of the time. But then on the other hand, this time has actually pushed me to sew more and look at growing that more as part of my work. It’s given me time to waffle and question, but also time to sit down and sew for hours on end. This is definitely not to say that quarantine = start a business! It’s more about clearing away the cobwebs in my case. Now is not the time to pressure or shame yourself into doing something you do not feel equipped to do.
CHS: I want to sit around all day. I feel very lucky when I have an urge to write, but most of my writing has been a result of deadlines and I am so grateful to my creative partners for that. I think reading books and scripts and watching film & tv is a way to be creative and so I’ve been indulging in art intake.
AHK: I stopped judging myself for not accomplishing what I had planned on doing and that helped my creativity return in waves. It’s difficult enough for me to keep track of what day it is, so instead of giving myself a usual incentive deadline, I keep all of my projects circulating in the ether of my mind. Almost everything in my apartment is organized (for my own sanity), but when it comes to my ideas and thoughts– my creativity can get messy. When an idea hits, I write it down on anything I have on hand. If you walked through my front door right now, you would see random post-its, paper towels, napkins and journals floating around everywhere. It feels great to get my thoughts on paper and I could tell you exactly what is written on each one. It’s almost as if I’ve designated different areas of my apartment with a certain idea and when I’m in that area, that project/idea is what circulates in my mind and word vomit comes out. It’s like going to an amusement park and choosing what ride you want to go on that will make you toss your cookies (but for fun).
Personally, do you feel that it’s necessary/important to keep creative during this time?
VG: This is an absolute given. In normal times, this would be part of a larger conversation on the importance of arts education. Not only is it important to those of us who choose a creative field for work, being creative nurtures the brain and can provide distraction and comfort. For me, just doing something as simple as looking at my fridge or pantry, sparks creative problem solving and switches my brain on. I think it’s so vital to put a creative filter on everything you do—and it just makes everything more fun.
CHS: No. No, no, no. Nothing is necessary other than staying safe. I think it’s important to take time to think about who you are when you aren’t working, what your values are, and how you can contribute. I think it’s important to reach out to people you love. Rest so you can be creative when you’re ready.
AHK: As crazy as my creative process does sound at the moment, if I didn’t have it, I honestly don’t know where I would be putting that frenetic energy. I’m a big advocate for the need to express yourself. I believe it is just as important to be seen and heard at this time of universal societal trauma as it is when dealing with an individual’s trauma. If you can take whatever you are feeling right now and translate that into a drawing or painting or monologue or video, you will find that it is not only healing, but it will connect you to others who feel the same way. No matter how isolated I may feel, I find solace when I remember that I am not alone in this experience.
What have you found most frustrating about this time, creatively or otherwise?
VG: Oh, well, I mean…the “governance” of this country is utterly enraging. Anger can definitely be a motivator, but it’s turned very obsessive during this time; I’ve had to step away from watching news clips and be very conscientious about the time I spend on the internet. Though, I’m very grateful to even have access to information and the internet (#netneutrality).
Otherwise, I miss hugging my friends and family. It’s very frustrating to not know if they’re sick or I’m sick or if we should be going to the grocery store, etc. Everything and everyone has been in limbo for nearly two months. It’s not a comfortable or natural state for most humans. I think in some ways I had an easier time than most adjusting to sheltering in place because I’m a homebody and because I’ve been in a precarious limbo state (job-wise and mentally/emotionally) for a while.
CHS: I miss my friends and my family. It frustrates me that I can’t hug them.
What is something that you’ve learned about yourself during this time?
VG: I am a pretty self-aware person in the first place, so there haven’t really been any new revelations. However, I have definitely started being actively more forgiving and kinder to myself. I would say there’s been a lot more affirmation than fresh learning, which is truthfully what I’ve been struggling with for years. So, I guess, thank you Madame Corona for holding myself accountable to years of therapy!
CHS: I’m a lazy Taurus. I will always find something to clean. I want to write a novel (I knew this as a joke before quarantine but now I know as a serious thing).
AHK: I learned to be creative with finding purpose in my life. I never thought I would be making Arts & Crafts videos, but here I am. When it felt like the world was ending, Amanda was crafting. I also learned that it’s ok to not be productive. My body and mind have needed more rest because I’ve been in a constant state of stress since I started self-quarantining. I always thought accomplishing long-term goals was a great achievement, but now I think accomplishing little tasks feels just as great. I had the courage to get up this morning and take out the trash with gloves and a mask– yay, gold star!
What is something/someone that has brought you joy during this time?
VG: Communication with friends and family has always been number one. The past few years, I’ve cultivated amazing friendships by having epic phone chats and this time has allowed that to blossom since no one has a schedule anymore. I’ve been fortunate that I have been able to see my sister and brother-in-law (we’re basically one “household”) and therefore play with their dog. They joke I only come over to see her, which is not entirely untrue.
CHS: I don’t play Animal Crossing, but I like to listen to my husband play because the music and the voices of the characters are incredibly soothing.
AHK: Every Friday night, I visit another era by lighting a pair of candles on my great-grandmother’s candleholders and watch them flicker. I am reminded of how grateful I am for the technology and medicine we have today and that this too shall pass.
Paula Cizmar is an award-winning multi-genre writer, associate professor of theatre practice in dramatic writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, CCTA/LA producer and my former professor. I LOVE HER!
Can you talk to me about Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA)?
Climate Change Theatre Action is a grassroots event that happens every two years and it always coincides with the UN’s International Conference on Climate Change, which this year is in Santiago, Chile.
Chantal Bilodeau, a native of Canada who was writing climate change plays, wrote a beautiful play called SILA and in the process of doing that, set up a kind of grassroots list of playwrights who were also writing climate change plays. In maintaining that list, she realized there were a lot of writers doing this work and that a climate change theater action would be a really good thing to do. And so, what she does every two years is commission 50 playwrights to write very short plays that are then made available to anyone who wants to do them, free of charge. The playwrights represent 20 different countries and their own different languages—some of the ones that aren’t in English have been translated and others aren’t. Anybody who wants to do a Climate Change Theatre Action can just sign up and do one. If you go on the website I think you’ll see that they are being performed in 20 different countries and almost all 50 states. People can do a major production and turn it into a fancy theater event or they can do readings in their classrooms. It’s very grassroots.
How did you become
In 2017, I got invited to go to Pomona College to talk about
one of my plays, THE CHISERA, which
is about climate change and I worked with Giovanni Ortega (CCTA/LA: AT THE INTERSECTION director, 2019) there. He also brought
on Chantal as a guest speaker so I connected with them. Then I went to an Earth
Matters On Stage conference, which is a conference of theater people who do
climate change work, and forged more of a relationship with Chantal.
I also did a Climate Change Theatre Action event with my
graduate seminar in eco-theater (2017). We just performed the plays in our
classroom and then we took them outside and performed them on campus.
This year, for the 2019 Climate Change Theater Action, Chantal asked me to be one of the playwrights that were commissioned to write a play, but I also decided that I wanted to do something that was a lot more elaborate, so I applied for a Visions & Voices grant and got the funding.
And what is that
elaborate undertaking? 😉
We’re doing a two-day climate change event. This coming
Friday’s event (HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE EVENT, 11/8 at 3pm) is on campus. I would love for
people to attend this first event because this one has the CCTA plays from
around the globe. Of the 50 plays that were commissioned, six of those are
The really cool thing is I put the word out to some of my
colleagues and asked if they thought there were any students who might want to
direct these and two wonderful young undergraduates, Elizabeth Schuetzle and
Jessica Doherty, stepped up and are directing three plays each. They’re also
working with their friend, music composer and fellow student Cyrus Leland,
whose created music for this student-driven event.
After the performances, Chantal will speak about how to create your own climate change—or any kind—of social justice event because these things don’t require money, they just require commitment and time.
Awesome. I think
Chantal will be a great resource for anyone interested in creating social
Absolutely. And, I think this is something all playwrights,
and everybody, should step up and do at least once—create some kind of
grassroots action to make the world a better place. If you sit around and wait
for someone else to do it, they’re not going to. It’s important for us as
playwrights to not sit around and wait. I understand the impulse, because
playwrights like to be left alone. We like to be alone in our rooms, and we
tend to be passive but every once in a while we have to come out of the cave
and not be passive.
I’m in my cave now.
After this, I’m going into the cave.
Let me reel it back
in—What is the second event? 🙂
The Saturday (CLIMATE
CHANGE THEATRE ACTION LA: AT THE INTERSECTION, 11/9 at 2pm) event is all
Los Angeles playwrights and what that one addresses is not just climate change
around the globe but specific issues that affect Los Angeles directly. The
climate change issues in Los Angeles are very different from say the issues in
the Pacific Northwest or the issues in India or Costa Rica. I wanted to pay
attention to that because I think a lot of times people don’t think climate
change is an urban problem but its actually really important to urban areas and
its particularly important to neighborhoods of color and people who come from
low-income neighborhoods because they don’t have the political clout to fight.
I consulted with some people from the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences) about what the chief LA climate change issues were and they enumerated air quality, incompatible land-use, unfair distribution of water, the feast or famine problem of water in LA, and drilling , fracking and the storage of liquid natural gas. And added to that is our unique geography.
Definitely! With this
past week’s fires, I keep thinking about one of the pieces in particular.
Yes. It’s really interesting. Julie Taiwo Oni wrote a piece (ROOMIES) about the fires. Interestingly enough, when she turned that one in back in June I was glad someone took that (issue) on but didn’t think it was particularly relevant, and then last week happened. Suddenly, Julie’s is the most relevant of all of them. Not that they aren’t all relevant, they’re all interconnected.
Can you talk to me about the event’s subtitle, AT THE INTERSECTION?
One of my major issues is that people tend to think of climate change as a white middle class issue, and they also think of it as something that is distant in time. The fact of the matter is that environmental catastrophe affects low-income people more than it affects anyone else because they don’t have the means to buy their way out of it. It also affects people with very little political clout because they don’t have the means to influence their way out of it. I’m interested in intersectionality, hence, AT THE INTERSECTION, which is kind of a play on words. It’s not just that LA is a city of freeways, streets and lots of intersections, but I see this as “at the intersection” of art and science, and also at the intersection of many other cultural and identity movements. I think climate change is a feminist issue, I think it’s a racial issue… it’s definitely a status and economic issue. So that’s where the At the Intersection comes from.
It occurred to me that if I really wanted to see these works, I had to do it. I was probably the only person that was going to.
So, I know you
primarily as a playwright, but here you’re taking on the role of producer. How
did that come about?
Being a female playwright in America is kind of thankless. There are few opportunities. And being an older female playwright makes it even worse. And also the idea of trying to interest a theater in plays about important social justice issues or environmental justice—they honestly just don’t care. They may pay lip service to it, but we don’t see them producing these plays. It occurred to me that if I really wanted to see these works, I had to do it. I was probably the only person that was going to. I tried to interest other people in doing it and got no response, so I had to step in. I’ve produced with Visions and Voices before, on campus, but usually on a smaller scale. This one has been really challenging. Of course, Gio (Ortega), Simon Chau (production stage manager) and the people at the museum have been really helpful.
Yes. The Natural
History Museum! How did they get involved? Did you reach out to them?
I did. I thought “you know, we could do this on-campus”, but
then I thought, “Who else is doing this kind of work?” And what’s really
wonderful about the Natural History Museum is that they take the city of Los
Angeles and its diversity very seriously, and by diversity I don’t just mean in
terms of population but also the diversity of its interests and topics. So
climate change is one of the things that they actually have programs about. I
figured that if I could get them to partner with us, then we would have a
really interesting performance space.
And we do! We’ll be
at the Hall of Mammals.
Yes, it’s going to be in front of, you know, those dioramas
of the mountain goats… North American mammals.
*I do a happy dance on the inside and think about selfies with said mountain goats*
So yeah, I brought it to them, and lo and behold, they said yes. The really cool thing about this event is that it’s free to the public. That also means that if you make a reservation for the event, you get in free to the museum. You literally could spend the day at the museum and see all the really cool things that they’re doing there. They’re not just a museum of dinosaurs, they’re a museum of the natural history of Los Angeles, which is fascinating.
They’re actually trying to pay attention to what this city
really is and where it grew from. They also have a climate change program now
that they’re starting to develop. I’m very happy that we’re partnering with
How were the writers and production team selected?
A lot of the writers on this list were already writing about
climate change, so I didn’t have to go out of my way and try to find LA writers
that I was going to force into this topic. These are already people who are
concerned about this and are writing about it. It’s interesting to me that
there are a lot of women doing it. I also wanted to make sure that I had young
and old represented, and I wanted to hit the culture of Los Angeles, so we
have—Latinx writers, Asian American writers, black writers, white writers, and
mixed race writers. I’m trying to re-create the community of Los Angeles via
the playwright’s voices.
Gio (Ortega) has been interested in climate change—its one
of the topics that he takes on. He’s into social justice theater too. And
that’s really what this is, social justice theater. Gio is the director in town
that I know for whom this work matters. He’s traveled and done research on this
work, leads a program at Pomona College’s theater department that also does a
climate change theatre action in Pomona. He was a natural person to
I’ve worked with Simon Chau and Alex Rehberger (Production
and stage management) in the past. They’re both USC grads. And Howard Ho is our
go-to sound guy. That’s the team.
Talk to me about the
short, original works that have been created for this event. What can we
We have plays about children being affected by the toxic waste in their neighborhoods. Plays about gentrification. Plays about the Los Angeles River—the rehabilitation of it and the pollution in it. Plays about low-income people who have pumpjacks in their neighborhoods. Plays about trees and how LA needs to be more proactive about planting them because not only do they create shade, thereby lowering the temperature of the city, but they also help clean the air. We have plays about all of these topics, including incompatible land use, which you would think “How the hell would you write about that?”
Yes! But also, it
wasn’t t only a matter of how to approach these topic that I found challenging,
but the short format too. These pieces are each roughly 3-4 minutes long. So
even though I wrote a play, it also felt like I was writing narrative poetry.
That’s really wonderful. Almost everyone addressed them
poetically. And in fact, a couple of people have actually written spoken-word.
We have this really wonderful mix of plays that are scenes, and some that are
either wonderful comedic monologues or spoken-word kind of chats. It’s all
There’s also a micro
That just happens to be mine. I work with this wonderful
composer, Guang Yang—we have a full-length opera we’re working on—and I thought
“we like to work together”, so I asked
her if she wanted to do a piece for this and she said yes. We took on the
impossible topic of incompatible land-use. Ours is about a little girl whose
school is under a freeway—because we don’t have zoning to protect kids, schools
and playgrounds from being near a landfill or toxic waste or freeways. So the
little girl comes home from school and tells her mother that she learned
there’s a hole in the sky and her mother doesn’t want to hear about it. She
doesn’t want to hear the bad news. So the little girl spins a fanciful tale of
a Chinese goddess who’ll fix the hole in the sky, which helps the mother come
around. It’s really neat. It’s a very experimental opera. The full length opera
that Guang and I wrote has ten-singers, is orchestrated for an orchestra… but
this little short opera is just one instrument—a keyboard—and some percussion
sounds on a computer.
full-length opera is being done in Pittsburg next summer!)
Can you talk a little
about the theme guide created for this event?
My graduate students from my first year 574A (Dramatic Writing Across Media) class stepped up to create this. One of the media I’d pointed out to them is multiplatform media—creating theme guides and websites that have hyperlinks embedded in them so that people could go and see a video and get more resources. What they did was create theme guides for this entire event that has articles about environmental justice, the issues in LA, and organizations that you can support and join to help make change. It’s a really wonderful, colorful, beautifully printed guide that will be about 5-6 pages long and will include the program.
… I could keep doing it (CCTA/LA) but then I’m the one that keeps learning these things and its time for somebody else to step up and learn about not only how to do this but also about the issues.
Is CCTA/LA something
you’re hoping to continue to do every two years?
I would love for that to happen and I would love to be the
guide and the advisor, but I would let somebody step up and take over. I think
that’s one of the important things about being a playwright in America and that
is that you don’t sit around and wait. And I also feel as if I could keep doing
it but then I’m the one that keeps learning these things and its time for
somebody else to step up and learn about not only how to do this but also about
the issues. The best way to learn about them is to be directly involved.
excites you the most about the CCTA/LA:
At the Intersection event?
What excites me the most, and I hope this happens, is that
regular visitors to the museum, who are strolling through the galleries with
their kids, drop in and see something happening. My dream is that we see little
families seeing that there’s a theater event going on and that they stop and
take it in so that they are, as a family, not only introduced to theater, but
also introduced to the issues. I think its great that people are making
reservations, I love that, but I also would love for all the casual passerby’s
get drawn into it because I think it will be fun.
Last year I started working at Iowa State University, and kind of can’t believe how amazing my colleagues are. The theatre department has begun focusing on citizen artistry, which has anchored our season selection planning process in a much more socially aware methodology. I was thrilled when I came on board and found out that the department was committed to gender parity moving forward, and to celebrate that fact, they were going to do a whole season of works by female playwrights.
What was interesting, as we set about reading and researching plays, was just how few other organizations seemed to be making the same choice. We are fast approaching 2020, after all, and according to the Dramatists Guild’s most recent Count, we’re a far cry from that 50/50 gender parity goal set so long ago. (*Do you even remember where you were when the 50/50 in 2020 initiative was launched way back in 2010?)
Since we’re a university, we knew we had to serve our students first and foremost, but it also felt imperative that we begin to “Walk the Walk” of the citizen artist. Addressing gender parity for playwrights turned into just the start of our ambitious sea-change. We also decided to hire female guest artists as designers and directors, and to create a year-long symposium on gender parity.
The outreach to other departments on campus yielded a number of exciting partnerships – we aren’t the only field with a parity gap! – and this collaboration led to a very busy and thrilling season of work across many mediums and fields of study.
The result is our (very busy and very awesome) HERoic season! All it took to make it happen was a desire and willingness to DO THE WORK.
Now, we’re still in the middle of our first semester – two shows into our season, and four more productions to go—but the thrill of the work is contagious!
Something I’ve found very interesting during our process is that although gender parity onstage is a very important issue for us as artists and theatremakers, audiences aren’t nearly as concerned or aware of this gap. And why would they be? How many audiences are really that tuned in to the world of theatre to begin with? Aren’t most just kind of renting space with us for an evening or matinee and then going back to their normal routines?
So what we considered a very proactive and exciting selling point to our season—all works by female playwrights—has seemingly been less important to our audiences than we thought it would be.
Again and again, in discussions around gender parity and our season, we’ve heard audiences claim they don’t give a hoot who wrote the play. All they’re looking for is a “Good” story. Now, these are discussions have been held with theatre majors, minors, and non-theatre students alike – but I’d wager that the same holds true for most non-student audience members too. What people are looking for is TITLE recognition. Is the show a big enough deal to have pierced the non-theatre-maker’s bubble? Have they heard good things about the title from friends who “saw it on Broadway”? And have our theatremakers heard good things from reviews/fellow theatremakers who were involved a production of the show somewhere else?
In general, playwright names and gender identity haven’t been anywhere on their radar. Now, I don’t know about you, but as a playwright, I felt a little more than bummed that we’re so unimportant to audiences, lol. But again and again, this discussion point has led us to mine a number of follow-up questions with our students about who the Gatekeepers are who get to decide which plays make it “Big” and how do we decide what a “Good” story is.
And that’s a great discussion to have with students and non-students alike.
We’re going to keep the conversation going with audiences and students, and I’m sure we have a ton more to learn from this ambitious year, but I know one thing for sure: Nothing changes without first taking a leap. ISU Theatre is taking some big leaps, and it’s a very exciting place to work and create. I hope other universities and theatre companies take up the 50/50 challenge because it is totally doable, it does make a difference, and it’s important if we want to get more stories heard.
“If you’re only telling one story, it’s not a story, it’s propaganda.” – Michael Goeble, Assistant Teaching Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies, ISU
Let me fill you in on a little secret: I haven’t been writing lately.
I’m just not into it.
I could blame the new baby (who is a precious bundle of awesomeness) because, come on, he takes up a LOT of time and he wakes up at least once a night to demand I feed him with my body (being a human is weird). But blaming him would be kind of disingenuous because I have found plenty of time to create a number of dumb and ugly doodles that I share on Instagram, so obviously that’s time I could have been putting into my craft…
I could blame my teaching load, but that wouldn’t be fair either because—although time-consuming—being a college professor gives me way more time to be creative than my old freelancing and adjuncting life did, and I managed to get a LOT of writing done then.
I could blame the world…
Actually, that’s it.
Because, well, the world is kind of a hot flaming mess right now, isn’t it? And, well, if I’m honest, I’m just not sure words are capable of putting the fire out.
I love writing plays. I love telling stories. And I think I do it pretty well (let’s not talk about how much I suck at the whole “Getting my work in front of people” part though). Almost all of my works center on messy humans dealing with the complexities of being alive today, but—even if they were getting produced on stages around the world (Dear Universe, I wouldn’t mind it!)— would they DO anything to help the world?
I don’t know.
Maybe I’m having a bit of a mid-life crises about the purpose of theatre, and about the value of toiling away at scripts intended to land a production so that I can talk to people through characters and metaphor about things I think are important.
What would happen if I just talked to people instead?
A few weeks ago I did just that.
I went to a local library board meeting at the behest of a FB post notifying us that a republican group was planning on storming the meeting to demand the library stop hosting an All Ages Drag Show. I got so fired up about it that I wrote, essentially, a spoken word piece that I then read when my name was called to speak. The issue wasn’t even up for a vote that night – it’s a popular event that already happens! – but there were a number of us there that night whose aim was to prevent the speakers of intolerance from winning the mic.
It felt great.
Not only was I able to take speaking time away from indignant and ill-informed haters that night, but I felt a sense of community amongst the rest of the drag show supporters that was incredibly uplifting.
(I should clarify here, I have been to the All Ages Drag Show and found it to be very fun, but I am not a part of that community—just a fan. The community I felt in the board room was of the kind created by a group of people standing together against intolerance.)
And this feeling of community got me thinking: Does theatre create community? I mean, outside its walls… We say it does. Hell, there are theatres all over the country who call themselves community theatres. And I believe fervently that the theatrical community to be found within those walls is a wondrous, loving, crazy, and invaluable sort—but it’s a rare thing to see a theatre create community beyond the theatremakers/volunteers who make the “product” that those theatres “sell”.
Rather, it seems like most theatres have a primarily transactional relationship with their communities: More of a “We think you’ll like this show, so please buy a ticket! And while you’re here, maybe you want to buy a season pass/some theatre merch/a season program as well?” type of relationship. Theatres offer talk-backs and talk-forwards, and try to select seasons of work that will get more people to buy more tickets… but what are they doing to build community beyond the theatremaker kind?
And aren’t most audience members tjust here to see the show, have a glass of wine, and leave anyway? Maybe they’ll talk about the show with their friends, recommend it to their co-workers, but they sure do like to bristle at the neighbor who unwraps a cough-drop mid-show. They growl at the young couple who dares to bring their children along. They glare at the student who arrives late. They chastise the women who laugh too loud…
That’s not community.
And I really think, now more than ever, that we need to cultivate a greater sense of connection and community within AND without our theatrical structures.
But that’s a hard thing to do when you’re just a playwright.
Fortunately, I’m not “Just” a playwright…
I’ve been really fortunate to get hired at Iowa State University where we have dedicated our 2019-2020 season to work by female playwrights. Not only that, but we’ve hired female guest designers and directors, and we’ve created an entire symposium to look at/discuss gender equity. We’re also dedicated to gender parity in our season selection moving forward, and are participating in Jubilee next year. We’re doing the work, and we’re asking some big questions about theatre and citizen artistry along the way. I’ll talk about more about our work in my next post. But it’s an exciting place to be teaching, working, and building community.
I’ve also organized a series of initiatives through Protest Plays Project and Little Black Dress INK (I’m the crazy person behind both orgs) that address social issues. I’ll talk more about our latest project later this week. But both of these parts of my life allow me to do more than just scribble words… they help me connect and build community with other playwrights and theatremakers, and the kinds of work we are doing invites audiences to take action with us. It’s exciting.
There are more ways I’m working on taking action as an artist and a human, but I honestly don’t have enough time to write about all of it—what with the new baby and all 😉
But I encourage you to hang in there with me this week and
to think about how you can do more with your words, your voice, and your
actions, dear playwrights. I
promise I’ll ask some good questions for you to ponder.
And if you’re wondering, here’s the statement I wrote in support of the All Ages Drag Show at our very awesome library:
Fear is a powerful, and primitive, human emotion.
So is love.
Fear alerts us to the presence of danger. A safety mechanism, designed to keep us safe from peril. Fear helps us survive…
Love, a safety mechanism in itself, Gives us reasons to survive. And unlike fear, Love… Well, Love helps us to thrive.
Biochemical or Emotional, both fear and love ride our senses hard, confusing and elating us. Biochemical responses are universal. We all know
the feeling of a heart pounding, of sweat dripping, of stomachs dropping…
Is it fear?
Is it love…
How can the two look, feel, taste, so similar? Emotional responses are individual. So what you, and you, and you, and I fear, What you, and you, and you, and I love…
The pieces of this world that create our biochemical and emotional responses – Are rarely exactly the same. It is a universal truth that we are none of us guaranteed to agree. But we have built a society which allows for this difference, A democracy built on the notion that there is no ONE right way to BE. Because it is vital if any of us wishes to thrive, That we continue to allow individuals to be
A community that celebrates the individual is a community centered on love. A community that celebrates only one type of individual? The “Right” kind of individual? Well that’s not love. That’s not community. That is fear in action. That is fear in control. That is a community in crisis.
Hearts beating Sweat dripping We are all
of us here tonight sharing biochemical reactions, though the reasons are
pounds because I do not want to be party to a community where you are not free
to be you, and I am not free to be I.
deciders of WHO can BE, use religion or politics to outline what is “CORRECT”
adrenaline surges because to hear how ferociously some are willing to condemn
others creates in me a palpable fear…
A fight or flight kind of fear…
That those who want to condemn are unwilling to open their hearts to the love in this room In this community In the hearts and souls of those who have been finding and building community through an All ages drag show. Really?
I will not fly from this issue. We will not fly from the community that has been built here.
Those of you who are in the room tonight Afraid of An all ages drag show: Have you become fear junkies?
So acclimated So indoctrinated By a party that uses fear to separate and alienate and attain power through division- Do you really think that diversity in your community means you can’t continue to be you? That by allowing others to celebrate their individuality You are somehow losing out?
Let me share
with you a secret…
You are not
But by trying to take this away? An event born of incredible love and joyfulness and inclusivity? You are the takers. Aiming to create absence in the hearts and lives of others.
I’ll share another secret with you: The adrenaline you feel in pursuit of punitive action- The adrenaline you feel while attacking that which is different from yourself Is NOTHING like the adrenaline of love.
The adrenaline of putting aside warring labels, —Democrat vs. Republican, this kind of Christian vs. that kind of whatever— In order to reclaim the I, the ME, and the US in this room? The adrenaline of deciding to be a community of love And to let go of fear… Of the hate that fear sows Of the intolerance that fear grows-
That is the biochemical emotional Response Of a healthy Thriving Community. And that is what we should all be working towards
When I was in France in September for an impromptu trip, I had about two days to spend in Paris. I’d never been there before, I didn’t speak the language, I had a lot of work I knew I’d be flying home to. I was happy and grateful but stressed.
But there was one thing that I felt drawn to, the thing that I couldn’t leave Paris without doing: visiting the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
It felt like a pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person. I probably couldn’t truly articulate what I believe. Energies, maybe. Ghosts. I don’t know. I’m not even a hard-core Oscar Wilde fan. But I needed to go there.
I didn’t bring the right shoes for the amount of walking I’d been doing all week. My feet and legs ached. I got turned around a dozen times just finding the entrance of the cemetery. Once inside, I wandered for a long time, searching for the exact location of the grave. Père Lachaise is well organized but its long winding paths can play tricks on you. I could feel every cobble stone under my shoes. It was cold and I was hungry and I felt like I’d never find him.
Obviously people make this trek all the time. I am not unique. Roses and gifts littered his grave. Lipstick marks covered the protective glass installed around the huge grave stone to combat graffiti from adoring fans. Tourists from England and Sweden and Germany paraded by in the half hour or so I spent there, sitting on the curb across the path from the grave. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t have a flower to offer. He probably hated that.
Instead, I sat there and asked him questions.
How did you do it? How did you have the confidence?
I thought about the tragic way his life was cut short. And felt silly for asking him anything, since anything I had experienced is nothing compared to his life. But still, I admitted to him, that while I don’t deserve it, I’d sure like this advice.
Can I do this? This writer thing?
I feel silly saying I did this. But it was a pilgrimage to connect to something deeper, some sort of literary history, to figure out if I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing, for wanting what I think I want.
I think it is important to find stillness and ask these questions. To a god, to a literary giant, to someone you’ve lost, to yourself. You’ll get an answer if you ask the question. It may not come in the form of words and a life plan, but in the form of a warmness, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, a sudden lightness in your breathe, in your step.
I made my way out of the cemetery, but it wasn’t easy. I was pretty convinced the ghosts wanted to try to keep me there, confusing me, sending me down more painful cobblestone paths to drain me. But then I found the opening.
I spent the rest of the night wandering more streets, eating cheese, reading, and drinking hot chocolate. And felt like myself. And at peace with that feeling.
We’re getting close to the new year. I’m watching friends and family achieve things, get married, have babies, buy houses. Lovely choices and happiness in so many forms. Seeing others’ choice can sometimes make you question your own. So make your own pilgrimage. Maybe not to Oscar Wilde’s grave (if you do, bring shoes that can deal with those cobblestones) but to a place with the energy that will help you focus and ask that question that’s burning in your mind.
I’m writing a gosh-dang play again for the first time in years and finally feel like I am almost legitimate enough to be blogging for the LAFPI! I’ve spent the last two years working on my webseries SEEK HELP, and making a life-changing decision. After completing the webseries, I was contemplating my next big creative project and I landed on this play I started working on back in 2011 or so before abandoning it for other projects.
I’ve had a one-act play performed on stage, and had readings of my full length plays both in public and private workshops, but never had a full length play of mine produced or published and I would love to go on that journey, if that journey will have me. The salivating, desirable thing about a play (done right), as opposed to a film or tv show or book, is:
The Immediacy: You get immediate feedback from the audience.
The Hostage Component: The audience is trapped, hidden away from the outside world and digital world’s distractions. They are forced to confront the situation presented in front of them and to enter into an imagined circumstance that demands their engagement.
The Visceral Exchange: The audience inevitably affects the performance and the performance affects the audience. This exchange of energy can offer a magical high.
The Unpredictable Originality: No matter how rehearsed a play, great performers are always still just reacting to what they are given in the moment and great performers are always still searching for new moments and deeper truths throughout the run. So, no matter how rehearsed, every night is a slightly different show. This is an art form that evolves.
In other words, a play is a living, breathing, growing entity. If you want to explore big ideas, ethical dilemmas, flaws in humanity or culture, expand a communities view on something, I can think of no better way than to build a play. As Chelsea wrote about in the post below, nearly all plays have messages, and the best ones, the ones that actually have the ability to open minds or change perspectives or prejudices, do so in a way that is so entertaining that you don’t even notice the medicine the playwright is slipping down your throat as you watch.
The hard and frustrating work of playwriting is trying to turn those big ideas into genuinely good and captivating entertainment…usually while sitting alone in your apartment late at night. The fun and exciting part of playwriting is getting a group of people together to work on the play, to communally birth a piece of art in a collaborative form. The latter being the part that is currently motivating me through the former. I see pieces of the play in my head; I want to see it outside my head. I want to discuss this topic in depth with others. And there, really, I think is the root of why I write. I want to bring people together. I love structured hangs but hate unstructured parties. I want to have deep conversations, not small talk. I want to feel, think, be challenged and examine myself and others and the world. I want to know I am not alone, and I want to understand that which is different from me in a visceral way. I don’t think I am unique in that–I think many writers write because we want to bring people close to us, to invite them over, not just for a cocktail, but to go all the damn way down…down to the colon! I wanna see your shit–the stuff you’re proud of, the stuff you are ashamed of, I wanna see how you navigate big decisions and deal with life’s pain, I wanna feel your laughter, your joy, see how you love, understand a new slice of life better–I wanna experience it all and I want everyone else to experience it to, because I think that’s the most efficient way to build empathy and understanding, and thereby mend differences and cultivate a peaceful respect for each other.
I love theatre. Deeply. I respect it for the power it has and am captivated by it’s magic. I am excited for a more diverse theatre landscape. There are so many stories we haven’t told, haven’t experienced. We think we’ve seen it all sometimes, but there are so many points of view that have not yet been given the opportunity of a stage and an audience. I am excited for more plays by and about women, people of various ethnic backgrounds, from different countries and cultures, of different ages, of all different gender and sexual identities, of various experiences, to create new works set in and about our time. I think now more than ever we could collectively benefit from unplugging and coming together in a dark room to pass the baton and tell each other who we are and what it means.
Wish me luck (ie. motivation, stamina, intelligence, clarity, artistry, articulation, and courage) as I continue on my journey to prove I belong on the LAFPI roster–I mean, to finish this play and work to get it on it’s feet.
Buckle in, readers! This post’s soundtrack is LET’S GET RADICAL by Gogol Bordello.
*DISCLAIMER: There is a prominently placed F bomb at the start of this song.*
Did you know the LAFPI is almost 10 years old? Crazy, right? On the one hand, it feels like it’s been much longer than that, and on the other is the old adage “Where has the time gone?”
I’m sure there will be much room for discussing what has changed in the ten years since LAFPI started instigating its parity-focused programming, so I’m not going to try to do that here. BUT, I mention this upcoming anniversary as a precursor to the following question:
And I don’t just mean for the LAFPI, but for female playwrights and theatremakers everywhere. What are we doing/going to continue to do to make an impact not only for ourselves, but for each other?
This is a question I ask myself a lot—and I’m sure, if I were a more selfish writer, my own playwriting career would be a little more… distinguished. But I believe I have a responsibility as an artist to not only to make art that makes me happy/fulfilled, but to put my skills as an artist to work in support of a making this world better.
And yes, I know there are a lot of men out there doing great and important things, but this is the LAFPI, so I’m going to focus on the women. I’ve been hugely impressed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of theatremakers who have been joining our producing efforts through Protest Plays Project are women. I’m hardly alone in making this observation when it comes to some of the contemporary socially engaged theatre initiatives of late.
In Chantal Bilodeau’s article, “Why do Women Climate More Than Men?” she notes that the majority of theatremakers involved in supporting the theatrical work she organizes in climate change, are women. And theatremaker Claudia Alick recently noted in a roundtable discussion I participated in for HowlRound that the majority of organizers applying theatre and art to gun control issues were female.
Its obvious that female theatremakers are engaging in political and socially active theatre in impressive numbers, and no wonder: there are so many problems facing the world, and our nation, right now that it can feel hard to focus on anything else.
I’d love to hear what YOU are scheming up/working on/dreaming about taking action on. I’ll even start you off with my own #TheatreAction wish list!
A nation-wide outreach designed to teach people how to talk to one another again. Seriously, why isn’t this already a thing?! We have lost the ability to engage in political discussion without dissolving into partisan mud-slinging and it is tearing us apart! This project could create collaborative opportunities for theatre makers, psychologists, community organizers, and mediators to develop effective non-partisan programming.
An expanded engagement with plays written by playwrights working from a community perspective. Why aren’t theatres reading more works about their own communities alongside plays about communities in different parts of the nation? I’ve tried to make some progress on this front with my Heal the Divide/Heal the Divide on Campus projects, but I don’t own a theatre and I don’t have the ear of that many Artistic Directors. If we all made a concerted effort however…
I am currently trying to get theatres to put #TheatreActionVOTE! Plays into their theatres. These pieces are written to be performed pre-show (they’re only 1-3 minutes long!) and are non-partisan and available royalty free. It’s harder then you’d think it is to get a theatre to join this effort- even when the message is as non-controversial as “Please Vote!”
Why aren’t more theatres collaborating with local non-profits in their communities? There is such an incredible opportunity not only to increase their community outreach/effectivenss (aka, demonstrate their commitment to non-profit community-centered work) but also to just expand their audiences.
Bring theatre to the people! I wish I could do/see more theatre in unconventional spaces, whether that theatre is entertainment for entertainment’s sake or more efficaciously-minded, the people who need theatre most (and it’s power to teach empathy/compassion) are often the people who see it the least. Price and access are very real issues, and I love the many organizations who are taking strides to improve access. I think individual theatremakers have more agency to create theatre in The People’s Spaces than they thing. You can make theatre anywhere! If you believed that, where would you make theatre next?
So there are a few ideas from me. What are YOU working on? What do you wish you were working on? Let’s talk in the comments!
Hey, it’s me, Tiffany! The used-to-live-in-LA-but-now-I-live-in-Iowa playwright who launched Little Black Dress INK, had a baby, and then (because I wasn’t busy enough – duh) started Protest Plays Project too. I’m pretty much busy ALL THE TIME now, and it got me to thinking…
It’s all Jennie Webb’s fault.
She’s the one who invited me to the first LAFPI meeting all those years ago. The meeting where I got a taste of she-playwright POWER and decided I needed MORE! I knew I was moving to AZ, far away from my cherished playwright coven, but what the hell? If Jennie Webb (with Laura Shamas) could unite the female playwrights of Los Angeles, I could certainly found and operate a female playwright producing company in Arizona, right?!
And now we’re in our 7th year. We’ve just announced 2019’s Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Theme. I’ve been privileged to get to know a ton of amazing female playwrights from all around the country (along with some international playwrights as well!) It’s been a hell of a ride, and a TON of work, but it’s also been totally worth it.
But I wanted to do MORE, remember? Especially since I was politically mortified with the results of the 2016 election. So I founded Protest Plays Project (PPP). My initial aim was to collect plays about social issues that theatre-activists could use for protest or fundraising* purposes. (*Specifically, fundraising for non-profits working for positive social change.)
Well, PPP has been busy. Super busy.
And I want to take the start of my blogging week to tell you how you can get involved, in case you’re that kind of theatremaker!
First, we’ve got our #TheatreActionVOTE! Initiative going on and all you have to do to get involved is commit to presenting Vote! plays or monologues in your pre-show.
You can write your own piece for this purpose, or select pieces from our Collection. The plays in our collection are:
1-3 minutes in length
Available royalty free
Written to be presented pre-show in whatever location works for your theatre
You can sign your theatre up to participate HERE. (It’s free, it’s easy, and we won’t spam you!)
We’re also collecting plays on Immigration. The AMAZING LA playwright, Diana Burbano along with the awesome playwright Ricardo Soltero-Brown, are curating the collection – and we’ll be encouraging theatres to present readings for fundraisers. You can find more info and send us your play, HERE.
Protest Plays continues to support #TheatreActionGunControl and if you want to put up a reading, we have links to a number of excellent collections on our website!
But does it ever feel like enough? Does political theatre work? Can we truly effect change with passionately written, socially conscious plays? I plan on examining these questions later this week, right here, on the LAFPI blog.
So stay tuned, stay connected, and if you see Jennie Webb – hug that wild woman for me!
I’ve escaped to the bedroom while a quartet of hardworking young men pack my lamps and my pictures and drag more than a dozen bins of fabric out into the hallway of my high rise. It’s moving day here in Washington. After nearly a decade, living within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol, my husband and I are finally returning to Los Angeles.
It seemed like a good time to look back at my D.C. years as a playwright.
No, Arena Stage did not invite me to participate in their Playwrights Arena playwriting group or commission me for one of their Power Plays. No, Studio Theatre didn’t fall in love with my work. Nor did Olney or Signature or Synetic. In many ways, I felt like I’d arrived in DC about ten years too late. Like the rest of D.C., the theatre scene is very much a relationship game. And those relationships had been formed long before I got here.
But I did find other opportunities. And so could you.
Several D.C. theatres give a nod to local playwrights by selecting new ten minute plays that thematically relate to their mainstage production. My short L.A. riots play got an airing at the Jewish themed Theater J. A development group The Inkwell offers rehearsal space at Wooley Mammoth, actors, a dramaturg, and a director to work on 20 minutes of a full length play. I met my favorite D.C. director Linda Lombardi through this experience. (She was directing one of the other plays.) Another group Theater Alliance hosts what it calls the Hothouse New Play Development Series. It offers a commission, a week of rehearsal, and terrific actors for a one-night staged reading of new full-length work. My full-length L.A. Riots play WESTERN & 96th got an airing there.
That same theatre teamed up with California’s National Center for New Plays at Stanford and Planet Earth Arts to commission playwrights for an evening of ten minute work about the Anacostia River watershed. The plays got a second performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. My new ten minute play KENILWORTH – the story of a woman who fought the government to preserve her water lily farm – was read at that festival. And then the story grew and grew into a full length.
Unlike Los Angeles, where big corporations moved out years ago and took their arts money with them, the D.C. government sets aside a huge amount per capita for arts grants. A grant from the D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission and Planet Earth Arts made it possible to produce a staged reading of what is now called QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES on Earth Day this spring. The cool part is that it was done in a National Park on the footprint of the house where the heroine lived most of her life, surrounded by the water lily ponds she loved.
The D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission also has an annual award for playwriting. I’ve come in second two times for D.C.’s Larry Neal Award. (First place comes with a nice check. Second place comes with a glass of wine and some cheese at the reception.)
Another commission came my way courtesy of the artistic director of one of the very fine children’s theatres here in D.C. The commission wasn’t for Adventure Theatre. It was to create a one-person show for an organization called Pickle Pea Walks to be performed every weekend on the grounds around the White House for all those tourists who didn’t get their security clearance. My play QUENTIN is about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt on the night before he reports for duty in World War I. He’s hoping to reunite with his pals from the years when he lived in the White House. They don’t show up, so instead he takes tourists down memory lane to help him say goodbye to D.C. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Quentin Roosevelt’s death (his plane shot down by German fliers in World War I) and rangers from Sagamore Hill (the Roosevelt home) are coming to D.C. to see the production this July.
D.C. is also home to the fabulous summer Capital Fringe Festival. As an audience member, I’ve seen an opera based on the War of 1812, a 45 minute version of “Moby Dick,” and more political plays than even Washington could imagine. My own entry was a production of ALICE: an evening with the tart-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Alice was famous for her bon mots (“If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.”) and lived most of her life here in Washington. The show played to sold-out houses and was named critic’s pick by The Washington Post.
There are also odd opportunities for playwrights in this town. I was once asked to write a play in 40 minutes based on an audience suggestion. The wonderful artistic director at MetroStage – the first person in D.C. to fall in love with anything I’ve written – invited me to take over her theatre on a Monday night for a public reading of my controversial play with a character in blackface THE LUCKIEST GIRL. I was challenged to write a one minute play for a festival at Roundhouse Theatre – one of dozens being performed for one night only. I knew I wanted mine to stand out, so I wrote a naked play METAL DETECTOR. It was great fun to see the sign warning of “brief nudity” in the box office window.
I also served four years as a judge for Washington’s version of the Tony’s – the Helen Hayes Awards. This meant free tickets to some of the best – and some of the worst – evenings of theatre in America. (I’ve learned to ask: “will blood be spilled on the audience?”)
Finding community has been the most difficult part of living in D.C. Everyone is busy, busy, busy. I was lucky enough to find a writing group – Playwrights Gymnasium – and a terrific crew of writers. Unfortunately, the group has been on haitus the past several years. We’re all too busy. And frankly, all that business has left me lonesome here in D.C.
So I’m coming home.
I’m nervous about rejoining the L.A. theatre community. It’s likely that many of the literary managers reading scripts today were still in high school when I was last living in Los Angeles. Most of the artistic directors I know have retired. Or died. It will be like starting all over again. Just like it was ten years ago when I moved to Washington. But Southern California is home for me. I’m looking forward to re-introducing myself.