Tag Archives: female playwright

A Dream of a Play

Kitty Felde – January 20, 2011

Have you ever dreamed about writing a fabulous play?  Usually such dreams involve a Tony or a string of productions or actors like Alec Baldwin and Colin Firth fighting to play roles in your work. 

But do we ever dream about the actual WRITING of a play? 

I did.

Of course, I can’t remember most of it.  But even in my sleeping state, I knew that I’d forget 99% of the wonderful plot devices, character development, sparkling dialogue, etc, etc.  So I kept telling myself in my dream to remember one thing.  Just one thing.  And when I woke up, that one thing is all I remembered.  It boiled down to two words: vegetable juggling.  Which actually meant something to me and made its way into a scene I was writing.

It’s the only time I’ve ever had this experience.  How about you?  Have you found a way to tap into your subconscious?  Tips, please!

Act Two, Scene Four

Kitty Felde – January 19, 2011

One other thought about writing this ‘trick myself into writing something’ play.  I’ve decided to try some of the techniques I admire in other plays but never employ in my own. 

I rail against ‘kitchen sink dramas’ all the time and crave a real theatrical experience.  But how often do I write them myself?  Not often enough.

Since this children’s play I’m writing “doesn’t really matter” (that’s what I keep telling myself to stop putting pressure on myself to make it FABULOUS) I can experiment, get outside my comfort zone. 

So here are my rules:

Simplify.  I’m always writing large cast pieces with complicated plots.  For this piece, I’ve decided to simplify the play at its core: it’s the story of a relationship between a girl and her grandmother.  All other characters come and go. 

Well, that was the first thought.  Now a best friend has cropped up for the girl and he’s threatening to become a more fully realized character.  But okay.  Everybody ELSE comes and goes.

Dare to offend.  I’m fairly polite and probably overly politically correct in my personal and professional life.  Why be that way onstage?  I’m going to RISK offending people.  Writing characters that are not from my background or life experience and bring troublesome images on stage.  Yes, in a children’s play.  It will go over the heads of the kids and drive the parents crazy.  Which is the point.

Make stage magic.  My Skype playwriting pal Ellen Struve described a very bad production of “A Christmas Carol” that was saved by one thing: it snowed – not just onstage, but also IN the audience.  Magic happened somewhere in that theatre.  That’s what I want to try onstage.  Vegetables dance.  Pictures talk.  We’ll see how far I can pull this off.  But just giving yourself permission to try things is fun. 

No judgments until you get to the end of the first draft.  I’m making notes about this or that (didn’t I already write a similar scene?  Isn’t this scene inappropriate for the age range of the audience?), but I’m not trying to fix anything.  Yet.  The goal is to get to the end. 

 Have some fun.  So far, so good.

Act Two, Scene Three

Kitty Felde – January 18, 2011

I keep coming up with ways to trick myself into writing.

I have an act two problem with a play I’ve been struggling with for several years.  It’s the one about which my husband keeps saying, “why don’t you just let it go?”  But you know how it is.  It’s like the troubled kid you know you can see through the bad times so he’ll become an upstanding citizen when he’s done growing up.  So I know I’m committed to that play. 

But I’ve been stuck for months trying to finish act two.  And not writing a thing.

So I’ve decided to trick myself.

The very first play I ever wrote was a melodrama, “Shanghai Heart.”  As an actor, I had played a season in lovely Oceano, California with The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville Theatre, playing 12 year old ingénues (I had just graduated college!)  Some of the plays were classics, some newer knock offs. 

Melodramas rarely get the kind of serious dramaturg attention that other genres get.  Even musical comedy is taken more seriously.  So when the urge came for me to write my first play, I chose a melodrama.  I knew the style.  But more importantly, I told myself, if the play stunk, no one would know.  It was a melodrama, for heaven’s sake. 

This kind of ploy worked pretty well when I was freelancing as a journalist for several years.  The days that my story ideas were rejected, I told myself I wasn’t a journalist, I was really a playwright.  When my plays came back in that sad, beaten up envelope, I told myself I wasn’t really a playwright, I was a journalist.  Schizophrenic, but it worked for me.

Of course, in my heart of hearts, I was going to write the BEST melodrama on planet earth.  And with a cast of ten (TEN!  What was I thinking?) I had a lot of characters to create and plots to keep straight.  But in the end, my tale of mistaken identity and love on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was a hit.

The Los Angeles Times said, “Felde knows the melodrama form and has created an admirably intricate plot involving lost children, double amnesia, filched land deeds, a displaced Mountie, vamps, chorines, an evil foreigner, revenge and love triumphant.”

 Drama-Logue raved, “clever, talented and resourceful Kitty Felde…we should be hearing more from this versatile young lady.”

 I went on to write ten other plays. 

 And then got stuck in act two hell.

 So back to my solution. 

 I decided to choose another genre that’s gotten short shrift: plays for young audiences. 

 I’m a Helen Hayes judge here in Washington (kind of like the Ovations or LA Drama Critics Circle awards) and because I’m on the New Plays committee, I see a lot of new kids shows.  And unfortunately, a lot of them are bad.  (I know because the kids I’ve borrowed as my theatre companions tell me that on the drive home.)

 So I decided to write a kids show, using the same rationale I used to write that very first play: if it was bad, who would know?

 Now, before anyone gets all hot and heavy, I know kids’ theatre should be the BEST we have to offer.  Otherwise, why would kids ever pay the big bucks to attend theatre as adults?  And I have seen some WONDERFUL theatre designed for kids that’s MUCH better than the dreck offered to adults.  In my heart of hearts, that’s the play I want to write.  But I won’t admit it to myself.  Not just yet.


Lessons from a rough production

For the second night of the production of my Bosnian war crimes play A PATCH OF EARTH, the whole kit and caboodle packed up and moved to the Noyes Museum, a charming art museum in the woods, near the seashore.

The stage was completely different. The museum is built on three levels, with all sorts of odd angles and such. The stage took over the bottom floor, crammed in among the sculptured pieces of art glass. But the compactness of the surroundings brought the audience right into the action, much more intimate than a proscenium stage.

Oh, there was one other new element to the show: a new actor was playing the lead Drazen Erdemovic tonight. On book. And he was terrific.

It wasn’t until after the show that I heard the whole story from the other actors in the show, all of them hungry to explain what happened. I learned the distracted actor of the night before who couldn’t remember any of his lines was no last minute substitution. He was the actor originally cast in the role. Apparently he never learned his lines. And then he disappeared a week before the show opened. Some speculated it was drugs, some suggested he spent those missing days in jail. But the director gave him another shot.

And the cast was furious. They said they felt particularly betrayed because they had poured heart and soul into telling the tale of a war criminal. And they wanted the author to be proud. After the performance the night before, they wanted me to know they could do better.

The morning of the second show, the director fired the lead actor. The assistant director stepped up to the plate, script in hand, and turned in an AMAZING performance. And the rest of the cast sparkled, thrilled to have the opportunity to create that world and make those characters truly come alive.

That amazing production at Richard Stocker College made me realize something important. It wasn’t about me. And “my” play. I remembered why I wanted to write A PATCH OF EARTH. Because a story I heard at the war crimes tribunal so haunted me, it wouldn’t leave me alone. And just using my skills as a radio journalist, I couldn’t get anyone else to care about this story and the questions his case raised. But I could do that through theatre. I wanted this story to affect and change people’s lives. To make them think about the nature and purpose of punishment. And to ask “what would I do if I were in his shoes?” I wanted the war in Yugoslavia to mean something to kids six thousand miles away.

I realized that the rehearsals, the extra curricular research these kids did on their own, the story itself, grabbed them and made them feel important and made them feel they were making a difference, were part of something important. This play changed their lives. And, judging from the audience Q&A, changed some lives out there as well. The play wasn’t about a Tony or an Ovation or a Helen Hayes award. It was about telling a story that changed lives. And in that sense, that particular production was an amazing success.


Watching a production of one of your plays is like revisiting your children.

You spend months, sometimes years, carefully helping a play to grow and mature. And then you set it free, submitting it here, there, and everywhere. If you’re lucky, the play has a production. Or two.

I’ve been very lucky with one of my plays, a courtroom drama called A PATCH OF EARTH. It tells the tale of a war criminal – from the point of view of the perpetrator. It’s a courtroom drama based on a trial I covered at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The play had staged readings from Key West to Carmel and finally premiered in Buffalo, where it won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition. But it’s taken on a life of its own among college students, with productions in Detroit, Pretoria, Costa Mesa, and Sussex. It was published in a collection from the University of Wisconsin Press called “The Theatre of Genocide: Four Plays About Mass Murder in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Armenia.” The most recent production was a couple of weeks ago at the Jersey shore at Richard Stockton College.

I always try to go see the show. The only production I missed was in South Africa and I’m still kicking myself. It’s gratifying to hear how an audience reacts to one of our “children.” This play in particular generates lively debates over the nature of justice and punishment and reconciliation.

But seeing one of our plays is a reminder about the collaborative nature of theatre. And like the good parents that we are to our plays, it’s also a lesson in letting go.

This most recent production at Richard Stocker College was beset by calamity. One of the lead actors was going through chemotherapy. He felt strong enough to rehearse. But during tech rehearsals, he realized he didn’t have the strength to go on. Another actor in the cast was drafted to play two roles.

But that disaster paled compared to the saga of the lead character Drazen Erdemovic. Opening night, the actor played the role with a Bluetooth device in his ear. The director was feeding him lines. Unfortunately, she was so loud, the audience could hear her feeding lines – and then hear the actor spouting something completely different.

I had heard that the original actor had to leave the play – domestic violence, jail, drugs – it was left unclear. So I felt a lot of empathy for the actor who stepped in.

And I felt philosophical.

Watching the play was like watching it for the first time. Lines I never even considered came forth from the mouths of my characters. It was an adventure.

But in that wild performance, I realized that the power of the play wasn’t in the individual words. It was in the story, the characters, their struggles, and their choices. That’s what captivated the audience. And the actors. And even the playwright.

In the talkback session after the play, the audience asked the same questions audiences of this play always ask: what would I do if I were in his situation? What’s a just punishment for a kid who confessed to killing “no more than 70” of the 1200 people shot at that farm outside Srebrenica? Why are his commanding officers still free and unindicted by the Tribunal?

I also witnessed the effect this story had on this troupe of actors. In their bios, they wrote of “the honor” of being part of this “important project” and “doing justice to the story.” What better tribute to the power of what it is we do for very little money and even less recognition?

But there’s more to the story. The next night, the entire production was moved from a college auditorium to a local art museum.

And the production would feature a brand new lead actor in the role of Drazen Erdemovic. That story tomorrow.

Act Two Hell, Part 2

I hate act two.

Act one is like planning a party, imagining the guests you’ll invite, the food, the decorations, your ensemble you’ll wear. Act two is picking up dirty napkins and loading the dishwasher. It’s no fun.

But I’ve promised my laundry list of tricks to survive act two hell.

1 – Step back. Ask yourself why the heck did you want to write this play in the first place? What did you want to say? Is that what you wrote in the first act? No? Then what did your act one actually say? Is that enough for you to finish? Or would you just as soon abandon it like the last three plays…

2 – Stop. Act two is the place all the seeds you planted in act one are supposed to pay off. The devil whispers that you’ve planted duds and you should pull them out and start over. Do not listen to this voice.

Go back and read act one. Note the gifts you’ve given yourself – the possibilities for payoff in act two, the unexplored qualities of character that sneak out in dialogue, all the clues you left behind for you to find.

3 – Next, ask yourself what you DO know about act two. Write those things down. It’s likely that you know one scene that needs to go in act two. Write that scene.

4 – Give yourself permission to write a really bad scene. The more lousy, the better. Of course, what happens is usually there’s something wonderful buried in that muck. And you can dig it out tomorrow and use it to start that new scene.

5 – Don’t throw anything out. Make a separate file for it. Or stick it at the end of your script. You’ll probably never need it or use it. But it’s nice to know it’s there. A writer’s security blanket.

And one last word of inspiration:

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the
unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
Abstract expressionist painter