Tag Archives: female playwrights

The FPI Files: I am a Narrative: Kacie Rogers on Her Solo Show, “I Sell Windows”

by Elana Luo

A couple years ago, Kacie Rogers was anonymously nominated for the Free The Arts Shay Fellowship, a paid opportunity to write and develop a solo piece. She seized the chance, and wrote a five minute submission piece. A few weeks later, she found out that she had gotten the fellowship. And thus—her solo show I Sell Windows was born.

I Sell Windows, co-produced by Outside In Theatre & Bottle Tree Theatre (Kacie is one of the company’s co-founders), is an autobiographical collection of stories and reflections written and performed by Kacie. The anecdotes work through an artist’s experience of frustration and guilt, and let us be privy to a journey of self-discovery through grief. 

After seeing a performance of I Sell Windows, I called Kacie to chat about the process of putting it together. As the show’s writer, producer and performer, Kacie and her personal collection of experiences are its driving force. Among other things, we talk about theater as therapy, the joys of working with great creative collaborators and writing about the things that scare you most.

Elana Luo: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about coming up with the idea for this show.

Kacie Rogers: What I was always interested in was writing all of the scariest things I could think of that I’ve never thought I could say in front of a roomful of people. Stories that were the most interesting, or formative for me in one way or another. So that was my approach. Because theater, in so many ways, has been such a home for me, and such a place where I have channeled a countless amount of emotions through characters. I just always wondered what it would be like to stand up there and do it as myself. I think it’s an act of bravery. I thought it would be very cathartic.

Kacie Rogers in “I Sell Windows” – photo by JJ Hawkins

But I was also terrified that people would hate me. And so I was like, well, I need a collaborator. If I’m going to write all these scary things, I need a collaborator who I can trust, and I will always know that she loves me enough. There’s nothing too scary for me to say in front of her.

Elana: Was that Jaquita Ta’le, the director? And she’s also a co-founder of your company, Bottle Tree Theatre?

Kacie: Yes. She would guide me to what was interesting to her and away from things that didn’t seem like they were serving the narrative. I remember for a long time she was like, we just have to find a container.

Elana: An umbrella of sorts.

Kacie: Yeah. One thing I did trust is that  all these stories are coming from one common place. That common place is me. Ultimately, all we are as human beings are walking stories. So at some point if I just write down all these stories, I’m going to find a narrative somewhere, linear or non-linear. I am a narrative. And so I just kind of allowed myself to to write whatever and then trust that we would find a container. 

Elana: And what did you find?

Kacie: It’s so interesting—the container ended up being window selling, yes, but ultimately, it’s the death of my grandfather. A common factor of a lot of the stories was the guilt and frustration I feel around being imperfect, and unforgiveness around missing my grandfather’s death because of my desire to serve my artistry rather than going to serve my family. That was a huge revelation for me.

Kacie Rogers in “I Sell Windows” – photo by JJ Hawkins

Elana: Once you had all these stories and their container, what was developing the piece like?

Kacie: It’s so deeply personal, every single part of it. It’s really hard. There’s a lot of self doubt that is all over this process, because it is me–performing me, writing me, about me. So it’s very, very vulnerable. And you constantly want to change things, because you’re like, maybe people aren’t responding to me, you know? Maybe I should “do me” differently. And that’s really hard.

Elana: Has there been anything that has helped you deal with that?

Kacie: I think I’m actively learning to deal with it. I have the best team around me. Like really top to bottom. Jaquita, Jessica [Hanna, Producing Artistic Director of Outside In Theatre] and Chelsea [Boyd, Co-Founder of Bottle Tree Theatre]; Arlo [Sanders], Paul [Hungerford] and Matthew [Pitner] from Outside In; my stage manager Arielle [Hightower] and my puppeteers [Brittaney Talbot and Perry Daniel]… all of those people are so affirming at every step of the way. They have been so selfless in all the ways that they are willing to throw themselves into the work because they believe in it so deeply. And if anything has helped me to quell those doubts, it’s been looking around me and being so humbled and so encouraged by the endless amounts of work and heaps of appreciation that they have gifted me with.

Elana: That’s beautiful.

Kacie: I’m so thankful. But outside of that, I think it’s really important to accept that your thing does not have to be for everybody. You can be fully you, and your thing can be fully your thing, and be amazing at being your thing, and still not be for somebody else. And that’s okay. I think that’s a big learning curve. So that’s the lesson I’m currently trying to speak into myself.

Jessica Hanna (Producer), Jaquita Ta’le (Director), Kacie Rogers, Chelsea Boyd (Producer), Brittaney Talbot (Puppet Designer_Performer), Perry Daniels (Puppet Performer), Arielle Hightower (Stage Manager) after “I Sell Windows” opening – photo by Mallury P

Elana: Moving along in the process, will you tell me a little about producing the show? How did it make it onstage at Outside In?

Kacie: In 2022, Jacquita found an opportunity with Greenway Court Theatre. They were looking to help produce a show, so she submitted I Sell Windows. We didn’t get that opportunity, but they gave us another opportunity to do a one-night-only performance as a part of their Jam Poetry Festival. So I did that last year.

And Jessica Hanna—she directed me in a play years ago and we just kept in touch because we’re both big theater gals. I knew Jess had taken several shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so I invited her to a coffee to pick her brain about what that process is like. It just so happened that the one-night-only presentation of I Sell Windows was within the next couple of weeks, so I invited her to see the show. She ended up coming, and I remember her walking out and being like, “let’s meet this week.” From there, she was like, “I’m starting a theater company. I want to produce your show. I want to give it a run and then I want to take it to Edinburgh!”

Elana: Wow.

Kacie: It was just like that. It was one of those dreamy meetings where everything you ever want to happen, happened.

Bottle Tree Theatre’s Chelsea Boyd, Kacie Rogers and Jaquita Ta’le – photo by JJ Hawkins

Elana: You’ve been lucky, but you’ve also been prepared.

Kacie: Chelsea Boyd always says, “All things will come together with ease and joy.” We just kind of keep doing the work, showing up and taking the opportunities that fall in front of us, and as we have it, truly all things have kind of come together with ease and joy. And I’m so thankful for that.

“I Sell Windows” plays through June 17th at Outside In Theatre’s ArtBox. Visit outsideintheatre.org/i-sell-windows for tickets and information.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

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The FPI Files: Navigating “The Body’s Midnight”

by Brenda Varda

Welcome to the literary landscape of The Body’s Midnight by Tira Palmquist. This world premiere, a co-production of IAMA and Boston Court and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is a delicately interwoven script with surprising, beautiful and challenging moments.

I read the script before the play opened, talked with Tira and Jessica, and visited a rehearsal — all to discover how Tira’s playwriting and collaboration process influenced the production. As we know, creative generation is primarily an individual undertaking, but with this complex project, I wanted to hear and understand more about Tira’s sourcing of material and development.

The Body’s Midnight text presents dilemmas of family, aging, relationships, and health diagnosis fragility — all embedded in the geographic and cultural complexity of a cross-country exploration. Anne and David, a long-term couple and the core duo of the story, are on a trip from California to Minnesota to witness the birth of their first grandchild. There is an immediate indication of an underlying, yet unspoken, tension: even though their dialogue has all the markers of the fun tug-and-pull of a loving relationship, there are little pieces of concern and abnormality that let us know that is not their usual cross-country excursion.

And as the play moves through — no spoilers here! — there is a linking of grand geological sites, park rangers, family phone calls, and mythic characters, all addressing the themes of aging, choice, health and change. Exquisitely interwoven.

Tira and I have known each other for a ‘few’ years, and I have seen and read other produced Palmquist plays, including Two Degrees, Age of Bees & And Then They Fell. I immediately noted key similarities in this work — a balance of the personal, imaginary, poetic and factual in a way that keeps the mind moving while still hitting emotional truth.

After talking to Tira about this particular play, I was struck by how she allowed real events to establish the foundation and then layered other ‘realities’ and fiction to amplify the themes. Writers are often told, “Write what you know,” but even with that dictate, the unique aspects of a script often come from research, discoveries and creativity. This is a great example!

Playwright Tira Palmquist

So, my first question? What was the impetus for the play? There are a couple of answers…

Tira told me that she had a doctor’s visit and a diagnosis that started her thinking: not the same issue as Anne’s, but enough to shake the norm. That, coupled with the challenging notion of ‘aging,’ brought the possible character and plot into place.

“In 2018, as the play first came to me, I thought about this woman getting a diagnosis, and then making this journey and having a bucket list for this adventure: trying to memorialize things and hoping against hope to make them permanent,” she said.

A family component also provided context: a few years before the writing, Tira’s mother had a mysterious and complex health downturn.

“In her 70s, my mother started to exhibit symptoms of what was initially misdiagnosed as a more common dementia, but an MRI confirmed, later, that she had had several strokes (probably what are known as ‘silent strokes’) that caused significant damage to important structures of her brain. I’ve had some significant migraines in my life that have mimicked transient ischemic attacks (sometimes seen as precursors to major strokes). The idea that something like this could happen to me, could rob me of my ability to use and appreciate language, was, frankly, terrifying,” Tira continued.

So, yes, Anne does echo Tira’s life experience — and the play deals with these fears and trials — but along the way… well, Tira expands relationships and environments that further reveal Anne’s journey.

Sonal Shah and Keliher Walsh
Photo by Brian Hashimoto

Using her own experience of driving across the country, Tira fosters two particular aspects of travel to let Anne change. First, travel’s physical and mental impacts: “I am inspired by the way that travel (and longer drives) encourages a kind of patience and meditative attention to the world around you. Being willing to be surprised by the world rather than rushing through it,” she said.

With the travel disruptions, she allows her characters to veer off the planned path and dive into unusual locations that are surprising and allow for new realizations. There are deliberate jumps to locations that are not perfectly on the same highway; and there are jumps to memory locations that echo the past. This dance keeps the reader/audience in a mindset that discovers the roots of the relationships and story.

Her other use of travel is the specific locations: metaphorical representations that amplify Anne’s concerns and represent ideas about the planet’s fragility. Locations include the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, rest stops, and, of course, the Pando.

I admit, I did not know what the Pando was.

The Pando is a network of ash trees in Utah that are genetically the same tree, and what seems like individual trees are actually family branches sprouting from the giant lateral root of the parent. This is similar to the concept of character repetition and modification in the play.

“The inspiration for using the Pando in the play was actually a happy accident,” said Tira. “I started researching ‘disappearing places’ and mapping where these places would be along the route Anne and David would travel, and I just happened to stumble on information about this amazing place.”

Accidental finding. Well, maybe not “accidental.” As Tira described, it’s more the subconscious finding its way into a deep engagement with the core themes. 

Another key to Anne’s core journey is her husband David’s embrace and care. I was curious about the sense of familiarity, and I gathered that there might be similarities in Tira’s own relationship.

 “Well, the characters of Anne and David are drawn heavily from my husband and me — the kinds of conversations we have, the love language we’ve developed, the way I am his ‘monster’ and he is my ‘robot.’” (These are the quirky terms of endearment that they have for each other in the play.) “And while the catalyst for writing the play was a health scare I had, there’s not much else that is my particular story. The more that Anne, David and the other characters took shape, the more this play found its shape and purpose.”

Keliher Walsh and Jonathan Nichols-Navarro
Photo by Brian Hashimotoo

And the play does have a shape and purpose. For me, it felt like a challenge to understand, forgive, and maintain in the chaos of existence — but in a positive way.

Director Jessica Kubzansky described the journey as an “existential climb up a mountaintop,” which I agree with. It was lovely to see Jessica working during my brief visit to a rehearsal: the actors were just at the almost-memorized place, finding the details. Jessica was shaping the patterns and exceptions on the stage in ways to reinforce the “vast beauty” and the “crisis of connection” in the different environments. The actors — Keliher Walsh as Anne, Jonathan Nichols-Navarro as David, Sonal Shah as the daughter Katie and various other roles, and Ryan Garcia as son-in-law Wolf and also multiple roles — all were creating exceptional moments for the dance of dialogue, bringing all the voices together to remind the audience of the journey. 

Director Jessica Kubzansky

Since this is a playwrights’ blog, there are a few points to highlight about getting the play written, read, developed and produced that might be illuminating. Tira is great at generating, then submitting, and then developing relationships that build ground for her work. She is also persistent: she keeps on track through the many steps and processes that may be needed to get to the desired end state.

As mentioned, she got the impetus for the play in 2018 and then began the initial draft in 2019, working through pages and ideas. The second inspiration or deep dive was at the Tao House in northern California (one of Eugene O’Neill’s homes). At that writing residency, she found additional inspiration from O’Neill’s plays and “found ways to thread those in as homage to him and that beautiful place.”

Next, as in many writer’s journeys, there was an opportunity for a deeper development at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in June of 2021. Tira was the Guest Playwright, and she felt this was “a huge step forward in the play — figuring out more about how reality and surreality could work in the play, to find the ‘rules’ of the world, and discover how to make some of the wilder poetry of the play feel authentic and earned, and not merely decorative.”  

Also, the Boston Court was part of the process with their 2022 Playwright Group. That group gives an artist a year-long development process that provides the time to foster and deepen the world and characters of the play. This led to a public reading in April of 2023 at Boston Court’s New Play Festival – the first reading in front of a live audience! Jessica Kubzansky did a week of table work and rehearsal. Tira was especially grateful for her support, particularly Jessica’s fierce defense of how the play “plays with time and reality” and for providing support for expanding the poetry and magic of the play. As always, Jessica asked important questions about how The Body’s Midnight world operates and how that world operates on the characters. When I spoke with Jessica, she mentioned the rich challenges embedded in Anne and David’s relationship and how their realities intersect and collide, leading to emotional fruition.

And the reading? Tira said: “I really had no idea how the play would be received by an audience. I mean, Up until that point, I’d only experienced the play via Zoom readings and workshops… The reaction and responses really blew me away, and showed me, for the first time, that his was a play. A play that was important to other people, not just to me.” 

Ryan Garcia, Sonal Shah
Photo by Brian Hashimoto

It is now a year after the reading and it looks to be a full and beautiful production. The set design, bringing to mind the various natural locations, was just evolving when I saw the rehearsal. Now, I need to experience the full depth of The Body’s Midnight. Hope you do, too.

One more quote from Tira (and I’m sure writers can relate…):

“My writing process is, at best, chaotic. I have learned a couple things about myself: I can no longer just start writing with a kind of whim. I have to have the play sort of… gestate in my brain and in my body for a long time. I do a fair amount of very unorganized organizing work — as I said before, figuring out the beginning, middle, end, having a kind of shape or structure in mind — and then, when there’s a kind of critical mass of the play, I start to write. Usually, this first draft is pretty quick. I don’t honestly recall how long the first draft of The Body’s Midnight took, but I think it was a couple of months. Then there are moments of time and distance — returning to the play with new eyes, or with a new inspiration or realization. That recursive part of the process can take a few years.”

“The Body’s Midnight,” a co-production of IAMA Theatre Company and Boston Court Pasadena, opens April 27 and runs through May 26, 2024 at Boston Court. For tickets and information visit www.iamatheatre.com.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

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The FPI Files: Beatrice Casagrán and the Jam-Packed Femme Season at Ophelia’s Jump

by Carolina Pilar Xique

Whoever is still saying that “Theatre is Dead” in 2024 needs to come have a serious talk with me – because theatre is and always has been alive and well, and the reason for such lives solely within the determination of theatre-makers like Beatrice Casagrán.

Producing Artistic Director of Ophelia’s Jump Productions (OJP), Beatrice Casagrán dives headfirst into 2024 with a whopping 7-show season that is “guaranteed to entertain with compelling stories and educate current and new generations of theatre lovers.” And I am certain 2024’s season will do just that – their theatrical programming range is outstanding, from musical, to historical, to traditional straight plays and reimagined classics. As a theatrical artist who is also living, working and producing in Los Angeles, I am deeply inspired by Beatrice’s commitment not only to the theatre, but to the people who make the theatre with Ophelia’s Jump possible.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to speak with Beatrice to talk about the upcoming production of Musical of Musicals, the wonders of adaptational storytelling, and the stellar lineup for OJP’s new season.

Carolina Xique: I’m sure top of mind for you is Musical of Musicals – it’s not only a massive undertaking because it’s a musical, but then it splits off into five different musicals. So I would love to hear about what that process has been like.

Beatrice Casagrán

Beatrice Casagrán: Before COVID, would do a small musical every two or three years because we have such a small space. During COVID, we lost one of the two theatres in the area that focused on just musicals. So I felt that to serve the community, we really needed to answer what they were asking for. So Musical of Musicals is our first offering this year. It’s also kind of tough because [while] musicals are super popular with patrons, they’re expensive – even a four-person musical like this one. But they also bring in new people who think that they don’t like plays. <laugh> When they come in and see the caliber of work that we do, we tend to see those people come back; they realize, “This is great!”

So that’s the reason that we chose Musical of Musicals for the opening show of the year. We tend to put up stuff that is newer and raises questions and we leave the mid-century musical style to others who do it very well. But this show pokes fun at that and lets everybody have a good time, so I’m really enjoying it.

It’s also a musical in which the book was written by a female [Joanne Bogart], so it met one of our criteria: that we mostly do works by women.

Carolina: Without giving away too much, what can audiences expect to see in Musical of Musicals?

Beatrice: It centers five little musicals all around the quintessential, back-to-silent-film early theatre plot of, “the landlord wants the rent and the ingenue cannot pay the rent.” <laugh> The same plot follows the five different little musicals in the style of five different masters in the field, so it’s the Rogers and Hammerstein team, Jerry Herman, Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Kander and Ebb. We have a great time just really embracing all the kind of archetypes and tropes of each one of those. It’s very clever the way it’s written. And it’s just funny. I think it’s been described as a valentine to theatre.

Cast of “Musical of Musicals” – photo by Sej Gangula

Carolina: I wanted to talk about the rest of the season. I’m kind of a Shakespeare-head myself. I was taking a peek at La Tempestad which was particularly interesting to me because I’m half-Mexican, half-Cuban.

Beatrice: Represent, girl! Yeah. I’m so excited. Yay. This is a project that I have thought about for years. This year we were able to get a couple of grants, and I had enough downtime that I was able to connect with other artists and make these friendships with more Latino artists and musicians.

 So I now have the wherewithal to do the collaboration that’s needed for that kind of project, and I am super excited. I’m working with a wonderful actor singer who is helping me with translations. And we are going to be doing all original adaptations and maybe some original music as well.

It just seems like The Tempest is perfect, right? There’s so much magical realism in across Latino cultures. But in Cuba… the Yoruba influence and Santeria is really going to be a good fit with The Tempest. We’ll be able to really delve into it and have a wonderful time sharing that part of our culture. I want to make sure that the team that we put together is fully diverse and has all the representation of the richness of what makes up our Cuban culture, and Caribbean Latino culture, and to pay respect and to pay attention to making sure that the story is told correctly.

“La Tempestad” will be part of OJP’s annual Midsummer Shakespeare Festival at the Sontag Greek Theatre, Pomona College

Carolina: It’s not an easy culture or history to explore, so I just want to convey thanks for bringing our stories to light. And some of the season’s stories – like La Tempestad or CJ, An Aspanglish Play by Mercedes Floresislas – are reimaginings of stories many of us already know. For these reimaginings, what seems to be the thread that brings them all together for you?

Beatrice: I’m a fan of history. My undergraduate degree is in political studies. So much of what’s going on in the world today is these hideously false, hurtful, dangerous narratives. I think theatre has an incredibly important role in reaching people who are being sucked into this, and telling stories that people might not otherwise have access to or think that they want to see. So taking these different stories and showing them through a female-centric, Latino focus is important to me. They’re universal stories.

I’m kind of old school in that way. I have always been drawn to stories that are about humanity. And a lot of us are losing the idea that human beings are human beings;  we’re not different in our basic yearnings and desires. CJ is a work that I’ve been trying to do for years. It is basically an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but it’s a human story, and I think it’s even more amazing to be able to tell it from this lens. I love Mexican culture, it has so enriched my life. The richness of the mythology is inspiring. We’re going to have a lot of instruments that are native to Mexican indigenous cultures to be able to make that connection.

Carolina: The ensemble of folks who are directing and writing these pieces is amazing. I would love to hear how you think their perspectives will influence these shows.

Beatrice: Sheila Malone, who is a company member and is directing [Lauren Gunderson’s] Revolutionists, is also a queer leader. She is one of the original members of Dykes on Bikes; she is an expert on lesbian bike culture and she’s a brilliant projection designer and lighting designer and has been a co-artistic director at her own theatre. She’s going to be super nuanced and and I love the energy that she brings to it. So it’s great for me to be able to produce and see another director bring their vision. I also love Lauren’s work!

Caitlin [Lopez, Beatrice’s daughter who is directing Knight of the Burning Pestle] and I founded the Shakespeare Festival in Claremont 10 years ago now. She is hugely into Shakespeare and and Elizabethan theatre, through a queer lens. She also has a very strong background in improvisation, so this version has a lot of audience participation. And we’re running it as a master class, the whole production. We are going to be casting about half the cast with local college students  who will be paired with mentor professional artists in their areas of interest, and they will be getting other ancillary classes, seminars, workshops and other opportunities.

Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos [playwright of Second Death of a Mad Wife] is amazing. We’ve done two of her plays; this one is really interesting, too. I’m staging it in a way that I think is gonna be really fun because it’s gonna be somewhat immersive. Twelve Ophelias by Caridad Svich [directed by Elina de Santos] is amazing, too. I reached out to her and she’s like, “Oh yeah, do the show!” <laugh> She intervened with her licensing to make sure we got [rights], which was great.

Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos’ “The Hall of Final Ruin” (OJP 2022 Season) – photo by Caitlin Lopez

Carolina: What excites you most about this season? And what has been the most challenging?

Beatrice: I feel like for the last four years we had to kind of hunker down and, in some ways, make decisions to do things that were not necessarily what I see as core mission. Because we just were struggling like everybody else. I actually, like a lot of other artists, had this existential crisis where I found myself asking, “Is art even important? Does anybody care anymore? People are dying. And what is it that art brings to this? Who cares?” But art is what kept me going. And we were able to program for free and I think we kept other people going. It’s part of mental health, it’s part of community wellbeing.

This is the first season in which I’m doing what I want as an artist, what I think is important as an artist and what is important as a social-justice-minded organization. I am putting women and gender-marginalized people at the center of things. I am fully invested in hiring young people from local community colleges who are emerging artists, most of whom are Latino and of varying genders, who don’t have opportunities and who are learning. It’s an insane season. It’s insane – it’s seven productions!

The challenges? During the push for AB5, I was one of the leaders in the theatre community in California who said, “We have to stop fighting AB5. We need people need to get paid. We need to ask the government and people in the state to understand that our work is worth something and to fund.” But that hasn’t really happened. It happened during COVID and now the funding is all drying up. And so we are running at a huge deficit for every single production.

I’m going under the only way that I know how right now, which is full steam ahead and working my butt off to try to get grants and to spread the word, to reach out to patrons and say, “We have to have the help if you want us to keep going!” So part of the reason we have a season like this is we have a small crew and part of my personal commitment is I want to keep these folks employed. I need to give them hours because they need to live. I’m making a huge effort to try and make sure that I consistently have a number of hours for folks so that they don’t have to make huge changes in their lives all the time to try and make ends meet.


Carmel Dean’s “Well-Behaved Women” (OJP 2023 Season) – photo by Ophelia’s Jump

Carolina: If you could pick a classic tale to retell from your own lens, whether it’s your own story or somebody else’s story, which would it be and why?

Beatrice: Well, that’s kind of what I’ve done with La Tempestad. I was born in Cuba, but my parents left when I was just a baby. “My Cubans,” as I call them, are dying off, right? My dad’s 86, my aunts, and my mom are already gone. And like you say, it’s the history of this island; this little nation is so replete with stories that are important. So that’s really what’s in my mind right now.

I’ve retold Hamlet and used portfolio and other original writings to highlight Ophelia’s arc, which is how our theatre got our name. I made Laertes a lesbian character who was a suffragist and kind of looked at the female arcs in that play, and the different outcomes. A young woman who’s basically had her agency stripped [away] by the female in power and all the males in her life and finally takes agency in her last act, which is to kill herself. And then juxtaposed that with Laertes who was off traveling because they were not living the traditional female role. I’m constantly looking at projects like this and will continue to do so, I hope, through my career, ’cause that’s what really gets me going. <laugh>. Yeah, Shakespeare retellings through feminist lenses is really something I love to do.

“Musical of Musicals” runs through February 18th. For more information about “Musical of Musicals,” “La Tempestad,” and the many, many more wonderful productions that Ophelia’s Jump will be producing this year, you can find more information at opheliasjump.org. For information on how you can support or make a donation, please visit opheliasjump.org/ways-to-support

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

The FPI Files: Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles

A Conversation with Co-Creator and Producer Paula Cizmar on a new Environmental Justice Multimedia Theatre Project.

by Elana Luo

Paula Cizmar is an acclaimed playwright and professor of playwriting at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. Most recently, she has been co-creator and producer of Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles (SZLA), a nonfiction collaborative environmental justice project about the damaging effects of industrial pollution on South Los Angeles communities.

The idea for SZLA took root in 2019, and had an online iteration that was presented in 2021. The project is now an expansive multimedia exhibit and experience at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. A house-like set built inside the museum features rooms filled with animation and video, news shows, interviews with members of the Los Angeles community, truck-ride simulations and of course live immersive theatre performances.

I spoke to Paula about a week before opening about putting it together, and her experience as a female playwright working in the intersection between environmentalism, feminism and theatre. 

Elana Luo: This is a huge undertaking, but let’s just start at the beginning. How did Sacrifice Zone come about?

Paula Cizmar: For the past ten years, I’ve been writing plays that take an environmental justice approach.

Paula Cizmar

[As a genre,] eco-theatre was a sub-category of theatre as a whole and it consisted of plays that were written by people who viewed the connection to the earth as important. A lot of the eco-plays were about endangered species—and, of course, the most photogenic of these is the polar bear.  I love polar bears;  I love all animals. 

But my problem with relying on photogenic poster animals is that it says to people:  Climate change is off in the distance, both in terms of location and in terms of time. 

The fact of the matter is that climate change is affecting us now. I realized that we in Los Angeles need to start looking at what’s going on. Our own citizens are being affected. So I started writing plays that looked at how we, and cities, are upset by environmental justice issues.

Then, I was working on Warrior Bards, an Arts and Action Project at USC, and the Head of Arts in Action, William Warrener, knew I wrote a number of these plays; one day he said, ‘You really should do something for Arts in Action about climate change or sustainability.’  And I thought—hmm.  Why not? So I pitched a multimedia project to my friend and colleague, Michael Bodie. Our idea was to allow the community in Los Angeles to tell their own stories about the environmental issues that were affecting them. We started investigating the oil wells that are less than a mile away from us. We worked with community activists and professional actors to turn the testimony of the community into a script.

Elana: In addition to the script, there are a number of other elements including video, interactive elements, and simulations. How did you decide on the mediums of the project?

Paula: I thought a climate change piece—in order to attract an audience—would need something more than a script.  It would need some multimedia elements to engage an audience. As a filmmaker, [co-creator] Bodie has massive technological know-how and hands-on skills that I simply don’t have, plus he’s got storytelling sense—and maybe even more important, a sense of adventure.  We knew we had to do something different that would maybe not even fit into a traditional space. 

SZLA co-creator Michael Bodie with interactive designer Luke Quezada and set design assistant Zoya Naqvi (l to r)

When you go back to the history of theatre, you realize that theatre used to be performed around a campfire, and then theatre was performed on the streets. So in a way with Sacrifice Zone, we’re kind of taking theatre back to its roots. We were doing a big project that involved the community, and it would have many parts, so we needed to reach out to involve a lot of artists.  And we’re not doing it on a typical proscenium stage. We’re bringing theatre to the people. I’m staring at like, honestly, two hundred kids right now [outside the museum, where the Sacrifice Zone team is working on the installation], and they will be able to walk through this exhibit and see the stuff that we’ve created.

SZLA installation inside the Natural History Museum waiting for its final touches

I have learned throughout my career, as a woman—and then as an older woman—that basically no one is going to pay attention to me. I’ve learned that I have to do it myself. As a playwright, I never really wanted to produce, but I decided that it was necessary to step up and create opportunities. I jumped into being a theatre maker/producer, not solely a playwright, for things like Sacrifice Zone

Elana: From lighting designers to videographers to theatre actors, SZLA clearly has a huge team. How did you go about putting it together?

Paula: It was a question of, who do we think would be really good to work with, who can we afford, who needs the experience, and who is actually politically and socially interested in these issues and will work hard?

A lot of my work is about community service, and public service. I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be making any money in theatre. You can make a bare income, but you have to do other things. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that what I was doing was valuable. And so community service is just a part of my life in the arts, and I want to instill that in my students, too.

part of the SZLA team with Paula Cizmar (back, 2nd from l), director Fran de Leon (front l) and Michael Bodie (back r)

Elana: Did you get into environmentalism first, or theatre, or both at the same time?

Paula: I started off as a playwright interested in women’s rights. I wrote about violence towards women, domestic abuse, and human rights issues. And what became very, very clear to me is that climate change and environmental justice are human rights issues. So it was a natural outgrowth of interest. 

Elana: Do you see any other intersections, and I’m sure there are many, between feminism and environmentalism?

Paula: Absolutely. What feminism basically asks for is equal treatment, equal rights. And environmental justice asks for the same thing. An equal right to having clean air and water, to being able to live a healthy life, to have access to health care. So things are incredibly connected because this is all about stewardship of the earth. Not just stewardship of nature, but stewardship of human beings. 

SZLA actors Claudia Elmore and Alejandra Villanueva rehearsing behind the scenes

Elana: How about the intersection between environmentalism and theatre?

Paula: There have not really been very many plays that have been actually produced about the environment or about ecology. I find that interesting. I think that there’s a kind of diss to plays that people perceive as issue plays. I read plays about people, but they might be set against an environmental catastrophe of some kind. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an issue play. It’s a play about people. But what I’m trying to do is get my characters to address the world that we live in. 

Elana: So an issue play tries to convey a specific message or view. But you’re interested in telling a story about the issue, instead of the play just being the issue.

Paula: Exactly. Sacrifice Zone is a very issue-oriented play. In fact, it started from documentary roots, because originally we were just going to do it as documentary theatre, with some media enhancements. As we developed it, and as we started to get to know the people involved, we realized that we wanted to tell a bigger story. It’s very hard in a documentary to get people to say exactly what you want them to say, with proper dramatic build, a climax and a resolution.

So we created fictional characters based on things that our real life community activists said, and challenges and campaigns they’ve been involved in. We then created a fictional story so that our audience can get an emotional attachment to the people, care about the people, and then, we hope, care about the issue.

SZLA lead writers Eliza Kuperschmid (l) and Alessandra Viegas (r), with actor Xol Gonzalez (c)

Elana: What do you hope the audience will take away from the piece?

Paula: I want to tell stories about people. But in our contemporary world, particularly here in California, if we ignore the environmental component of people’s lives, then we’re ignoring something that’s extremely important. So do I want to say that as a documentarian, or do I want to find a way to dramatize that so that somebody can come in and say, ‘Wow, I really fell in love with that character and it was really painful for me when I saw what they were going through,’ and then we hope that translates into ‘I care about this now, and I want to do something about it.’

“Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles” opens January 13th, 2024, with performances through the 28th at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. Visit sacrifice-zone.com for more information. Reserve Free Tickets Here

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The FPI Files: Sacred Listening to the Wounds of War

by Leilani Squire

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.

Kathleen Leary, Marguerite French, Carene Rose Mekertichyan, Hannah Trujillo as the Whores in Coin & Ghost’s “Mama Mama Can’t You See” – Photo by Meredith Adelaide

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.

Playwright Cecilia Fairchild

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.

“Mama Mama Can’t You See” Ensemble – Photo by Meredith Adelaide

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!

Stan Mayer and ensemble – Photo by Meredith Adelaide

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.

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The FPI Files: SHE World Premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company

A deep dive on making theatre with playwright Marlow Wyatt and director Andi Chapman

by Elana Luo

“SHE” playwright Marlow Wyatt

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. 

Camille Ariana Spirlin as SHE – Photo by Jeff Lorch

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.”

director Andi Chapman

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.

Karen Malina White as Bernice and Jon Chaffin as Lonnie – photo by Jeff Lorch

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.”

Camille Ariana Spirlin and Gerard Joseph as Othalee – Photo by Jeff Lorch

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.”

Camille Ariana Spirlin and Lorenz Arnell as Davey – Photo by Jeff Lorch

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.

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The FPI Files: Exploring and Celebrating an LA Community Through RISE

by Nakasha Norwood

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.

Playwright Kimba Henderson

 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.

RaeAnne Carlsen, Bernadette Speakes , Doug Kaybak, Markhum Stansbury in “Rise” – Grettal Cortes Photography.jpg

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.

Julianna Stephanie Ojeda, Sherrick O’Quinn, Bernadette Speakes – Grettel Cortes Photography

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.

Sherrick O’Quinn, Markhum Stansbury, Bernadette Speakes – Grettel Cortes Photography

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.

Markhum Stansbury, RaeAnne Carlson, Sherrick O’Quinn, Julianna Stephanie Ojeda, Doug Kabak – Grettel Cortes Photography.jpg

Rise” runs through November 5th at Company of Angels on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. For tickets and information, visit  companyofangels.com

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The FPI Files: A Conversation Takes Flight With Anna Ouyang Moench

by Elana Luo

Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North America is 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 Ouyang Moench

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.

Jacqueline Misaye and Arye Gross in the Odyssey Theatre production of “Birds of North America” – Photo by Jenny Graham

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.

Jacqueline Misaye and Arye GrossPhoto by Jenny Graham

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. 

Arye Gross and Jacqueline MisayePhoto by Jenny Graham

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

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

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The FPI Files: “Hungry Ghost” Completes “Her Vision, Her Voice” Season at Skylight

by Carolina Pilar Xique

“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 – photo by Stephanie Girard

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 – photo by Peter Konerko

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.

Ben Messmer, Tasha Ames, Jenny Soo – photo by by Grettel Cortes

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.

Tasha Ames and Jenny Soo – photo by Grettel Cortes

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.

Tasha Ames and Jenny Soo – photo by Grettel Cortes

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/.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

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The FPI Files: SheLA Arts Celebrates Summer at the Zephyr

by Carolina Pilar Xique

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 of RoseMarie – 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.

Cast of RoseMarie – A Kennedy Life Interrupted (l to r): Chris Riley, Lilli Babb, Jared Allen Price, Amanda Quigley, Taylor Bass; photo by Wendy Babb

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.

Rehearsing Bismillah, or In the Name of God (l to r): Aneela Qureshi, Saalika Khan, Sameer Khan; photo by Ani Marderosian

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.

Sister, Braid My Hair (l to r): Brittney McClendon, M. Bluette, Antonia LaChe, and Yesenia Ozuna; photo by SheATL Arts

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.

Rehearsing There is Evil in This House (l to r): Dana DeRuyck, HRH Marian Gonzalez, Kit Sheehan

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.

Rehearsing the moon play (l to r): Kate Vu, Natasha Kong; photo by Sarah Liz Bell

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.

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at [email protected] & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

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